regard to sacred plants and animals, our only intent here will be to attempt
to sketch a speedy description of certain sacred plants and animals that
are invested with a symbolic character, and that therefore are highly meaningful.
To begin, let us observe that everything in a traditional or archaic society
is sacred or magical, but that certain vegetable and animal symbols have,
in these societies, a burden of meaning that distinguishes them as specific
energies, differentiated from others. It is not in vain that these plants
and beasts are invariably and unanimously associated with determinate deities,
which they represent. It will be of interest to us, then, to identify the
value that these symbols of nature held for the Precolumbian mentality,
and their extremely close relationship with cosmogony.
Just so, we shall be interested in presenting a sketchy illustration concerning certain American plants and animals, which permitted (not only through their material utility, but also through their intrinsic mythic and symbolical values) the creation and conservation of the Indo-American cultures, many of which are still alive, even physically, owing to the legacy of worship of these deities.
This conception is certainly valid for the whole of Precolumbian America, and the only variation lies in which particular animals or plants serve as a vehicle for those cosmic energies (celestial, terrestrial, or of the underworld). A given animal can be replaced by some other, just as such and such a ritual drink can be the product of this plant or that. After all, distinct botanical and zoological species correspond to different geography and different climates and altitudes, although it must be pointed out that the essential meaning of the symbols, rites, and myths always remains identical, despite their occasional presentation in multiple, even seemingly dissimilar, fashion.
Throughout all of Precolumbian America, however, certain constant elements do attach to particular botanical and zoological species. For one thing, we have the symbols, rites, and myths that relate to the cultivation of maize, which was a god, as we know, for the indigenous mentality. (Let us recall as well that, for the Mayas, the human being of the present, the man of today, has been made of maize.) Then again, we have three animals-symbols appearing in the Old World, as well, and usually combined in a single complex-the eagle, the serpent, and the jaguar or tiger. We shall refer to these constants below. Tobacco is another sacred, ritual plant, used in all of the American cultures.
Many other examples of the sacrality of flora and fauna appear throughout the bibliography of Precolumbian studies. Nor is this reverence on the part of the aborigines in any way owing to an animistic interpretation, or exclusively to a superstitious fear, and still less to a servile devotion to that which has given them material sustenance. Rather it was aroused by a respect to the sacrality of nature as a direct expression of the act of creation, an act in which they themselves were sharers.
Traditional civilizations and primitive peoples had quite a different image of what we understand today by the word, "nature." It is not a matter of the deification, in modern terms, of nature-a "naturalism," or an "animism" that would be its logical consequence. The Precolumbian peoples, like all traditional ones, see in the world and in nature an image of God, a perennial irruption of the infinite into the finite. In the work of creation, they behold a constant theophany.
Archaic man does not feel alone or isolated in nature. Nor does he pretend to be its proprietor. Animals, plants, and even stones, like rivers, lakes, and rain, constitute part of his being. It is the same with the sky, with its varied forms, and the natural times and cycles of life, death and resurrection exemplified by the seasons of the years and the movements of the stars: life itself as a perennial ritual and an interrelation or intersection of constant energies, horizontal and vertical, spatial and temporal. Thus, the whole world is a code that can be understood and read, in the configurations of the sky as well as in the symbols that are the plants and animals.
Doubtless the most patent vegetable symbol is that of the tree (or of the plant in general), as representation of the cosmic energies. Its leaves and branches, trunk, and roots constitute, respectively, its aerial, terrestrial, and subterranean levels, strikingly comparable to heaven, earth, and underworld, as we have already indicated. At the same time, the plant, or the tree, is an axial, vertical symbol, capable of connecting these different levels or worlds among themselves, and accordingly, a means of communication, a vehicle, between heaven and earth.
But it is not the plant alone that is a clear, content-laden sign. Agriculture is such a sign, as well: the cultivation of plants, and the processual stages in their sowing, maturation, and fructification, which also form a complex of symbols, or sequences linked to the idea of life/death/resurrection that is present in all agrarian myths and rites.
In this sense, the maize plant occupies a central position. Sunken in the marrow of the American cultures, it performs an essential function in the complex Precolumbian world. That is, it bears evident witness to the constantly repeated cyclic action and interaction of the cosmogonic forces-the falling and rising energies concentrated in the grain of maize and developing in the plant and its fruit, the ear of maize.
In other words, we might speak of a conjunction of principles or elements. Water is obviously expressed by the rains, as is air by the wind. Fire offers its heat, that the seed may germinate in the womb of the earth. This constant rotation and conjunction of opposites is always present in a traditional or archaic conception. Thus, the world as a whole, as well as every corner of it, is found to be animated by invisible spirits, which express themselves by way of visible symbols and phenomena. This being the case, the nourishment obtained from the plant is also sacred, and thus a sublime nourishing food, to the point of being a font of life for man. A plant, or Tree of Life, which gives everything continuously and asks nothing in return, is truly a gift of the gods to human beings, who draw their existence from this divine sustenance. One communes with the divinity when one eats maize, and the preparation of the various foods that were prepared from it was effected, in ancient days-and in some places, still today-in ritual fashion, parallel to the stages of its sowing and harvesting.1
All of life, for the indigenous mentality, is a continuous rite, a "show," whose protagonists include the sun, the moon, and their retinue of planets, which, in their constant movement, produce day and night and the seasons of the year, and have a direct influence on vegetation (and on its harvesting, when the culture in question is agrarian). They are symbols of the contemplation of the energies of male/female, active/passive, and heaven/earth, which leads to fertilization, taken on by the intermediate and atmospheric gods: thunder, lightning, and thunderbolt. Rites, myths, and symbols, then, are emulations of this dance performed by the descending and ascending gods, whose expression on the plane of earth is the spatial unfurling of that which is being manifested. Nature's perpetual demonstrations of fertility and generation are a source of constant astonishment for traditional Indians, who reverence in them the presence of that sacrality in whose familiarity, in one way or another, they live submerged. However, each of these plants signifies a magical, specific energy, and from that standpoint performs a function different from those of the others-is used for different purposes, carries its own message-and is an integral part of the life of man.
In the indigenous mentality, there is no precise boundary between the individual and nature (or between the natural and the supernatural). The reason for this is the above-cited interrelationship and interdependence of all things (including gods and man), the acknowledgment of whose evident reality is a common trait of all traditional peoples and individuals. Traditional men place no emphasis on the individuality of their conceptions or persons. Rather they focus on the universality of the complex of which they are a constitutive part, and live in perpetual astonishment at the becoming of things, as well as in their certitude of the transcendence of a Great Spirit manifested by the totality of a nature that is the image and expression of the supernatural.
As for the animal symbol, let us observe that it is used in all known traditional cultures and civilizations, dead or alive. In the West itself, the Zodiac is composed of various animal signs, just as are the Mesoamerican calendars.2 In Christianity, Jesus' assimilation to the fish, the lamb, the pelican, and so on, is commonplace. (At the other extreme, certain animals are taboo, in the strictest sense of the word, and consequently the ingestion of their flesh is prohibited. An example of this would be the hog, for the Jewish and Islamic traditions.)
Nor is the idea foreign to the native traditions that
we are part of a gigantic animal that embraces the totality of things,
such as Itzam-Na, god of Mayan cosmogonical mythology, as we have already
indicated. This image occurs in other American cultures, as well. Furthermore,
animals represent an energy called 'master' or lord of the animals.
This interrelationship among earthly animals, those of the underworld, and the celestial beasts is clear in the American traditions, and stands forth as normal and established. This is due to the fact that, for the Precolumbian traditions, the gods of heaven and those of the underworld are the same, only inverted, and descend and ascend by an identical vertical axis. The Hindus thought the same: the asura are but "fallen" devas. The Judaic, Christian, and Islamic angelologies express themselves in the same terms.
For the Aztecs, the goddess Xochiquetzal, incarnation of love, vegetation, flowers, and fertility, dwelt in the ninth heaven, the Tamoanchan or mythic paradise. She was the spouse or feminine counterpart of Tlaloc, god of the waters. She descended as rain to the depths of the earth, to the decomposition and transformation characterizing the land of the dead, the subterranean world ruled by Tezcatlipoca, who ravishes her, thereupon to release her and restore her to her heavenly dwelling.
She is an ascending-and-descending goddess, then, upon whom it also devolves to function as manager of the fertilization of the earth by the waters, and as ruler of the constantly recurring life cycles as symbolized by the regeneration of nature, present, as well, in all of the agrarian rites.4
This relationship between sky and earth, earth and sky, is established through the intermediary of the air, the rain, and other atmospheric deities, and of the storms (thunder, thunderbolt, lightning) directly linked to them. It should be pointed out that the wind is the transformer and emissary of vegetative resurrection. But this in no way exhausts the meaning of the deities that correspond to the wind. The air also transports sound, as well as the pollen and seeds of plants. But above all else, the wind is the symbol of spirit, the breath of life, and even of the word. In this last sense, we should recall the verbum as the creative, generative vehicle appearing in so many universal traditions as well as in various Ancient American ones, especially in view of the fact that this verbum is nothing other than the Greek logos. At all events, perennially the wind as manager of the earth's fertility intervenes in the act of creation, preceding the rains that are its consequence.5
Among the sacred Indoamerican animals, birds must come in for particular emphasis, given their mythic and ritual content. Indeed, representations of symbolical birds, and especially the use of their feathers, not only in headdress, but also in other manifestations of cultural life, are to be found across the entire surface of the continent. We know the importance of eagle feathers among the natives of North America and Mexico, and of the feathers of the exotic, beautiful tropical birds of Central America, the Caribbean, and the Amazon region. The presence and importance of the feather is well-known in the South of the Continent, and is customarily associated with beauty, along with fearlessness in battle, and ideas of flight-or imaginative or sublime thoughts-as is clear in the example of the arrow. Here we must observe that this weapon is not seen solely as an artifact produced for the hunt or for battle-activities that are sacred for a traditional, archaic people-but is also regarded as an intermediary symbol, or messenger, between earth and heaven, a function expressly attributed to birds in general, and by extension to all feathers, such as those that stabilize the flight of arrows. For the Precolumbian mentality, the latter have the capacity to fertilize the earth, whence the raindrops fostered by the wind are assimilated, physically and metaphysically, as among other peoples, to the celestial semen.
"Before there was sky or earth; when the world was hidden; when there was no sky or earth; the precious three-pointed jade, maize, sprang up from grace. . . . Then occurred the birth of the first precious stone, the jade of grace, maize. . . . There was its hair: his divinity arrived when he was born..." (Chilam Balam of Chumayel).
Maize is a conjunction of rain and fire, or ascending and descending energies that, in attaining their equilibrium, produce the plant and its fruit: life and nourishment. Thus-like the cactus, or the tree in general, as we have seen-maize is a symbol of the verticality of the axis that joins earth and heaven. Thus it is identified with man, as well, inasmuch as the latter is a sign of this mediation: man arises as a result of the conjunctio oppositorum of two cosmic energies he bears within himself.
This vision, and the Indian's consequent domestication of the plant, which he cultivates by developing in it a series of potentialities that have already been implicit in its being, is a sign of the mutual participation obtaining between man and nature. This complementation is acquired by means of conscious intelligence and effort, properties of the human being, who is thus differentiated from the other species, and who plays the role of intermediary in creation.
True, in the case concerning us-the passage from a community of hunter-gatherers to that of pre-agriculture, and from this to agriculture (the cultivation of the ager, the field)-this function can be successfully established in the vast areas pertaining to a variety of peoples only over a period of many years, entailing a series of difficult trials and labors. The quantity of knowledge, relations, and hardships that must conjoin in order to render this possible is enormous. And yet, when the goal is attained, it is so unbelievable and marvelous that it acquires a sacred or divine category, both in itself and, secondarily, by virtue of its use and applications. Ultimately, all of this is based on the fact that, in all of the American myths that center on it, maize appears as having been bestowed on human beings by the gods, which is tantamount to saying that it was revealed to them in some night of their mythical time; this maintained the life of these men, receivers and generators of maize (it was they who physically planted it and cultivated it, although their inspiration was divine).
We prescind, in all of this, from what is furthered by the culture of the field itself (an ordering of the chaos of the earth). That is, we pass over the generative projections of that cultivation, or what it creates that is new in human life and its cultural and social manifestations, which necessarily translates into historical terms.
In a magico-religious conception such as the indigenous, where life is constantly current, and where the beings who share it are always involved in the present, there are elements and gods that change their meaning over the course of daily, or annual, time. All of this of course has to do with the cycles of vegetation (which reflect these processes), and with the agrarian rites and myths (which represent that change in symbolic manner). Thus, the rising sun is distinguished from the noonday and the setting sun. The same occurs with the various quarters of the moon in its cycle, and with the rain waters, which were considered good or evil, harmful or helpful, according to the month of the year, the day of the month, and the hour of the day at which the moon's influences were produced, discharging the rains. This is also the case with the energy of the wind, which at times is expressed in storms or tornados, and at other times as pleasant breezes.
For the natives, time, like space, is alive, and the various forms and manifestations of nature, which they distinguish and know perfectly well, are multiple phenomena that recur in perpetuity. Precisely for them, knowing is united to this kind of experience of the sacrality of nature (and to those manifested through these), which the indigenous mentality constantly interrelates. It is logical that this broad and complex a system, in which the various components alternate almost ad infinitum, should constitute a refined instrument of perception. In any case, this enormous heap of data, or rather, of experiences (which may differ from one another by a mere degree), and their daily ritual application, would necessarily provide American Indians with an abundance of images and subtleties of every kind (as have been unanimously appreciated in every native language).
Of course, this is not what happens with. or what interests, the inhabitants of our large cities, addicted as they are to simplification, television, and the work of massive agricultural production. Native thought is qualitative, and not quantitative like that of the society in which we live. From this viewpoint, it is precisely maize that is the ideal symbol of the qualification of nature by means of the human being's active, direct participation. We should like to point out, however, that the cultivation of this plant did not arise in terms of quantitative production. This possibility does not occur to a mentality of the archaic type. Quality can engender quantity, but quantity, by definition, is limiting and relative.
As we see, then, maize is a central reality in the life and symbolism of the Precolumbian cultures. In the three surviving Mayan codices, the God of maize-the God of agriculture-appears ninety-eight times, according to Morley, who asserts: "He is always represented as a youth, and in some instances with an ear of maize as his headdress." Here we should like to emphasize this representation of the everlasting youth of maize, in the sense that it never dies. What is signified is the immortality of generation. In the Nahuatl creation myths, it is Quetzalcoatl who reveals to human beings the secret, and gives them maize, after having created them. The Aztecs called this deity of maize "Centeotl," and held their ritual festivals in his honor. In like fashion, divination (in the etymological sense of the word) was practiced in ancient America using grains of maize as intermediaries, just as they were used as a means of counting in the case of certain ritual calculations. Similarly, in South America fermented maize produced a sacred drink: chicha. It is also interesting to observe how maize is planted. Each grain must be inserted into a hole that has been opened for it, then the hole must be closed. Maize is not planted by broadcast, as other grains are. The Antilleans regarded their coa, the instrument with which they opened the earth in order to insert a grain of maize, as an equivalent of the human phallus, and frequently related it to the symbol of the serpent. Likewise to be observed is the similarity between maize grains and human teeth-to put it another way, between the eaten and the eater-which definitively corroborates, for an analogical mentality, the nature of maize as the aliment par excellence, connected to man by an evident kinship.
Thus, the myths, rites, and symbols related to agriculture in general-in this case, to maize in particular-form an image of the steps in the initiatory process (preparation of the candidate; descent to the lower world; trials, death, and subsequent resurrection; growth and fructification). The reason is that both processes share in the same cosmic creation, the identical universal model, valid for all generation, which these processes likewise symbolize.
Let us recall once more that, for the Precolumbian cultures, life is magical, and is expressed by the sacrality of nature. Magic is attention to and comprehension of generation, the study of the growth of a plant or of the animal movements of the sky. And above all, it is the correspondence of these vital cycles, and their complementation, that produces the universal harmony. We moderns are accustomed to think of the creator as a mystery-and perhaps some of us think of the mystery of the uncreated-but we sometimes forget the perfect mystery of creation, of the creature ever alive. Maize may be one of the most evident incarnations of the energy producing that mystery, and was taken as an astonishing prototype of generation. This very fact evinces the degree of knowledge inherent in the workings of American agriculture.
By way of conclusion, let us note that the nomadic peoples and gatherers, along their way, become assimilated to time and to the spatial projection of time. Their symbolism is animal-while that of the sedentary is vegetal, although the latter retain the animals signs as well. This is owing to the different types of existence maintained by the two groups, and therefore to the way in which they experience the world, which is present in their manner of expressing the cosmogony. Likewise, the arts that predominate among the sedentary are the visual arts, whose setting is spatial, as is so clear in the necessary practice of architecture and the construction of the city. The arts of time are more closely bound up with movement, and are expressed musically, as is shown by shepherds and their pipes. The vegetal symbols refer rather to agricultural activity, and therefore to a spatial setting. By contrast, the animals move freely about in space, and their constant activity is a symbol of movement-which is simply the spatial projection of time, according to René Guénon-hence their clear connection with the calendars.6 This differentiation has its importance in a reading of the animal and vegetal symbols, and must be kept in mind as well for an understanding of the archaic, traditional mentality and the values attributed to beasts and plants in its cosmogonies. Here, we have only sought to cite a few examples of the extremely rich Precolumbian Tradition, some five centuries after the discovery of America.
|1||As for other plants of a fundamentally sacred nature-such as tobacco, mentioned above-the hallucinogenic species (peyótl, mushrooms, ayahuasca, coca, datura, etc.), and certain fermented drinks derived from vegetable substances and ingested in ritual, traditional fashion (pulque, chicha, etc.), constitute a group apart, and are to be differentiated from other species, whether alimentary or medicinal, although the entire vegetable world shares in the sacrality of nature.|
|2||Humboldt has already compared the Mesoamerican calendars, including that of the Muisca Indians of Colombia, with those of various other traditions (Tibetan, Tartarian, Egyptian, Chaldean, and Greek), finding in them identical concepts in concerning cosmogonies and their spatio-temporal and magico-religious views. True, these calendars take on different zoological forms, and even use different astronomical computations as the basis of their calculations, but they coincide and correspond in general conception.|
|3||Just so, any combination of the beasts just named, as well as others, and the incorporation of the human being into these zoological fusions (so dear to the Greeks and Romans, and present in the cultures of all peoples, from the so-called high civilizations to certain "primitive" tribes of today) are samples of this attitude.|
|4||An example of this heaven-to-earth, earth-to-heaven, repetitive cycle-that is, the perpetual relationship between the falling and rising gods-can be observed in the bird and fish motifs employed in the ceramics and weaving of the coastal Peruvian cultures, many of these forms including a metamorphosis of birds into fish or vice versa. In this specific case, the interdependence of the life of birds and fish is clear, since the latter live on the guano of the former, while the former maintain themselves through the ingestion of the fish.|
|5||We wonder why Ehecatl or Hurakan would be only deities of the wind, in the naturalistic, and merely physical or phenomenological sense of the word, when at the same time we know of a very large number of manifestations and functions of these numina. For the Hebrews, the word ruach (the "spirit," the latter word being from the Latin spiritus), can be translated literally as "wind"; and this divine energy or attribute is found in all creation, as a principle from which derive neshamah and nefesh: respectively, breath and the soul of life. The Mayan term ik can be translated as "spirit," "life," "breath," and also "wind."|
|6||Etymologically, "zodiac" means "wheel of life." There are other versions, however, that attribute its derivation to zoon, "animal." The two explanations are not mutually exclusive.|