Aztec, A History, Part Four

History Of The Conquest Of Mexico, The Aztecs (part four)

Book: Book I: Introduction. Preliminary View Of The Aztec Civilization.

Author: Prescott, William H.

Chapter V: Aztec Agriculture, Part II.

But the occupation peculiarly respected was that of the merchant. It

formed so important and singular a feature of their social economy as to

merit a much more particular notice than it has received from historians.

The Aztec merchant was a sort of itinerant trader, who made his journeys to

the remotest borders of Anahuac, and to the countries beyond, carrying with

him merchandise of rich stuffs, jewellery, slaves, and other valuable

commodities. The slaves were obtained at the great market of Azcapozalco,

not many leagues from the capital, where fairs were regularly held for the

sale of these unfortunate beings. They were brought thither by their

masters, dressed in their gayest apparel, and instructed to sing, dance, and

display their little stock of personal accomplishments, so as to recommend

themselves to the purchaser. Slave-dealing was an honourable calling among

the Aztecs. ^3

[Footnote 3: Sahagun, Hist. de Nueva-Espana, lib. 9, 4, 10-14.]

With this rich freight the merchant visited the different provinces,

always bearing some present of value from his own sovereign to their chiefs,

and usually receiving others in return, with a permission to trade. Should

this be denied him, or should he meet with indignity or violence, he had the

means of resistance in his power. He performed his journeys with a number of

companions of his own rank, and a large body of inferior attendants who were

employed to transport the goods. Fifty or sixty pounds were the usual load

for a man. The whole caravan went armed, and so well provided against sudden

hostilities that they could make good their defence, if necessary, till

reinforced from home. In one instance, a body of these militant traders

stood a siege of four years in the town of Ayotlan, which they finally took

from the enemy. ^4 Their own government, however, was always prompt to embark

in a war on this ground, finding it a very convenient pretext for extending

the Mexican empire. It was not unusual to allow the merchants to raise

levies themselves, which were placed under their command. It was, moreover,

very common for the prince to employ the merchants as a sort of spies, to

furnish him information of the state of the countries through which they

passed, and the dispositions of the inhabitants towards himself. ^1

[Footnote 4: Ibid., lib. 9, cap. 2.]

[Footnote 1: Sahagun, Hist. de Nueva-Espana, lib. 9, cap. 2, 4. - In the

Mendoza Codex is a painting representing the execution of a cacique and his

family, with the destruction of his city, for maltreating the persons of

some Aztec merchants. Antiq. of Mexico, vol. i. Pl. 67.]

Thus their sphere of action was much enlarged beyond that of a humble

trader, and they acquired a high consideration in the body politic. They

were allowed to assume insignia and devices of their own. Some of their

number composed what is called by the Spanish writers a council of finance;

at least, this was the case in Tezcuco. ^2 They were much consulted by the

monarch, who had some of them constantly near his person, addressing them by

the title of "uncle," which may remind one of that of primo, or "cousin," by

which a grandee of Spain is saluted by his sovereign. They were allowed to

have their own courts, in which civil and criminal cases, not excepting a

capital, were determined; so that they formed an independent community, as it

were, of themselves. And, as their various traffic supplied them with

abundant stores of wealth, they enjoyed many of the most essential advantages

of an hereditary aristocracy. ^3

[Footnote 2: Torquemada, Monarch. Ind., lib. 2, cap. 41. - Ixtlilxochitl

gives a curious story of one of the royal family of Tezcuco, who offered,

with two other merchants, otros mercaderes, to visit the court of a hostile

cacique and bring him dead or alive to the capital. They availed themselves

of a drunken revel, at which they were to have been sacrificed, to effect

their object. Hist. Chich., MS., cap. 62.]

[Footnote 3: Sahagun, Hist. de Nueva-Espana, lib. 9, cap. 2, 5. - The ninth

book is taken up with an account of the merchants, their pilgrimages, the

religious rites on their departure, and the sumptuous way of living on their

return. The whole presents a very remarkable picture, showing they enjoyed a

consideration, among the half-civilized nations of Anahuac, to which there is

no parallel, unless it be that possessed by the merchant-princes of an

Italian republic, or the princely merchants of our own.]

That trade should prove the path to eminent political preferment in a

nation but partially civilized, where the names of soldier and priest are

usually the only titles to respect, is certainly an anomaly in history. It

forms some contrast to the standard of the more polished monarchies of the

Old World, in which rank is supposed to be less dishonoured by a life of idle

ease or frivolous pleasure than by those active pursuits which promote

equally the prosperity of the state and of the individual. If civilization

corrects many prejudices, it must be allowed that it creates others.

We shall be able to form a better idea of the actual refinement of the

natives by penetrating into their domestic life and observing the intercourse

between the sexes. We have, fortunately, the means of doing this. We shall

there find the ferocious Aztec frequently displaying all the sensibility of a

cultivated nature; consoling his friends under affliction, or congratulating

them on their good fortune, as on occasion of a marriage, or of the birth or

the baptism of a child, when he was punctilious in his visits, bringing

presents of costly dresses and ornaments, or the more simple offering of

flowers, equally indicative of his sympathy. The visits at these times,

though regulated with all the precision of Oriental courtesy, were

accompanied by expressions of the most cordial and affectionate regard. ^1

[Footnote 1: Sahagun, Hist. de Nueva-Espana, lib. 6, cap. 23-37. - Camargo,

Hist. de Tlascala, MS. - These complimentary attentions were paid at stated

seasons, even during pregnancy. The details are given with abundant gravity

and minuteness by Sahagun, who descends to particulars which his Mexican

editor, Bustamante, has excluded, as somewhat too unreserved for the public

eye. If they were more so than some of the editor's own notes, they must

have been very communicative indeed.]

The discipline of children, especially at the public schools, as stated

in a previous chapter, was exceedingly severe. ^2 But after she had come to

a mature age the Aztec maiden was treated by her parents with a tenderness

from which all reserve seemed banished. In the counsels to a daughter about

to enter into life, they conjured her to preserve simplicity in her manners

and conversation, uniform neatness in her attire, with strict attention to

personal cleanliness. They inculcated modesty, as the great ornament of a

woman, and implicit reverence for her husband; softening their admonitions by

such endearing epithets as showed the fulness of a parent's love. ^3

[Footnote 2: Zurita, Rapport, pp. 112-134. - The Third Part of the Col. de

Mendoza (Antiq. of Mexico, vol. i.) exhibits the various ingenious

punishments devised for the refractory child. The flowery path of knowledge

was well strewed with thorns for the Mexican tyro.]

[Footnote 3: Zurita, Rapport, pp. 151-160. - Sahagun has given us the

admonitions of both father and mother to the Aztec maiden on her coming to

years of discretion. What can be more tender than the beginning of the

mother's exhortation? "Hija mia muy amada, muy querida palomita: ya has oido

y notado las palabras que tu senor padre te ha dicho; ellas son palabras

preciosas. v que raramente se dicen ni se oyen, las quales han procedido de

las entranas y corazon en que estaban atesoradas; y tu muy amado padre bien

sabe que eres su hija, engendrada de el, eres su sangre y su carne, y sabe

Dios nuestro senor que es asi; aunque eres muger, e imagen de tu padre ?que

mas te puedo decir, hija mia, de lo que ya esta dicho?" (Hist. de Nueva-

Espana, lib. 6, cap. 19.) The reader will find this interesting document,

which enjoins so much of what is deemed most essential among civilized

nations, translated entire in the Appendix, Part 2, No. 1.]

Polygamy was permitted among the Mexicans, though chiefly confined,

probably, to the wealthiest classes. ^4 And the obligations of the married

vow, which was made with all the formality of a religious ceremony, were

fully recognized, and impressed on both parties. The women are described by

the Spaniards as pretty, unlike their unfortunate descendants of the present

day, though with the same serious and rather melancholy cast of countenance.

Their long black hair, covered, in some parts of the country, by a veil made

of the fine web of the pita, might generally be seen wreathed with flowers,

or, among the richer people, with strings of precious stones, and pearls from

the Gulf of California. They appear to have been treated with much

consideration by their husbands, and passed their time in indolent

tranquility, or in such feminine occupations as spinning, embroidery, and the

like, while their maidens beguiled the hours by the rehearsal of traditionary

tales and ballads. ^5

[Footnote 4: Yet we find the remarkable declaration, in the counsels of a

father to his son, that, for the multiplication of the species, God ordained

one man only for one woman. "Nota, hijo mio, lo que te digo, mira que el

mundo ya tiene este estilo de engendrar y multiplicar, y para esta generacion

y multiplicacion, ordeno Dios que una muger usase de un varon, y un varon de

una muger." Sahagun, Hist. de Nueva-Espana, lib. 6, cap. 21.]

[Footnote 5: Ibid., lib. 6, cap. 21-23; lib. 8, cap. 23. - Rel. d'un gentil'

huomo, ap. Ramusio, tom. iii, fol. 305 - Carta del Lie Zuazo, MS.]

The women partook equally with the men of social festivities and

entertainments. These were often conducted on a large scale, both as

regards the number of guests and the costliness of the preparations.

Numerous attendants, of both sexes, waited at the banquet. The halls were

scented with perfumes, and the courts strewed with odoriferous herbs and

flowers, which were distributed in profusion among the guests, as they

arrived. Cotton napkins and ewers of water were placed before them, as they

took their seats at the board; for the venerable ceremony of ablution ^1

before and after eating was punctiliously observed by the Aztecs. ^2 Tobacco

was then offered to the company, in pipes, mixed up with aromatic substances,

or in the form of cigars, inserted in tubes of tortoise-shell or silver.

They compressed the nostrils with the fingers, while they inhaled the smoke,

which they frequently swallowed. Whether the women, who sat apart from the

men at table, were allowed the indulgence of the fragrant weed, as in the

most polished circles of modern Mexico, is not told us. It is a curious fact

that the Aztecs also took the dried leaf in the pulverized form of snuff. ^3

[Footnote 1: As old as the heroic age of Greece, at least. We may fancy

ourselves at the table of Penelope, where water in golden ewers was poured

into silver basins for the accommodation of her guests, before beginning the


The feast affords many other points of analogy to the Aztec, inferring a

similar stage of civilization in the two nations. One may be surprised,

however, to find a greater profusion of the precious metals in the barren isle

of Ithaca than in Mexico. But the poet's fancy was a richer mine than


[Footnote 2: Sahagun, Hist. de Nueva-Espana, lib. 6, cap. 22. - Amidst

some excellent advice of a parent to his son, on his general deportment, we

find the latter punctiliously enjoined not to take his seat at the board till

he has washed his face and hands, and not to leave it till he has repeated

the same thing, and cleansed his teeth. The directions are given with a

precision worthy of an Asiatic. "Al principio de la comida labarte has las

manos y la boca, y donde te juntares con otros a comer, no te sientes luego;

mas antes tomaras el agua y la jicara para que se laben los otros, y echarles

has agua a los manos, y despues de esto, cojeras lo que se ha caido por el

suelo y barreras el lugar de la comida, y tambien despues de comer lavaras te

las manos y la boca, y limpiaras los dientes." Ibid., loc. cit.]

[Footnote 3: Rel. d'un gentil' huomo, ap. Ramusio, tom. iii. fol. 306. -

Sahagun, Hist. de Nueva-Espana, lib. 4, cap. 37. - Torquemada, Monarch.

Ind., lib. 13, cap. 23. - Clavigero, Stor. del Messico, tom. ii. p. 227. -

The Aztecs used to smoke after dinner, to prepare for the siesta, in which

they indulged themselves as regularly as an old Castilian. - Tobacco, in

Mexican yetl, is derived from a Haytian word, tabaco. The natives of

Hispaniola, being the first with whom the Spaniards had much intercourse,

have supplied Europe with the names of several important plants. - Tobacco,

in some form or other, was used by almost all the tribes of the American

continent, from the North-west Coast to Patagonia. (See McCulloh,

Researches, pp. 91-94.) Its manifold virtues, both social and medicinal, are

profusely panegyrized by Hernandez, in his Hist. Plantarum, lib. 2, cap.


The table was well provided with substantial meats, especially game;

among which the most conspicuous was the turkey, erroneously supposed, as its

name imports, to have come originally from the East. ^4 These more solid

dishes were flanked by others of vegetables and fruits, of every delicious

variety found on the North American continent. The different viands were

prepared in various ways, with delicate sauces and seasoning, of which the

Mexicans were very fond. Their palate was still further regaled by

confections and pastry, for which their maize-flour and sugar supplied ample

materials. One other dish, of a disgusting nature, was sometimes added to

the feast, especially when the celebration partook of a religious character.

On such occasions a slave was sacrificed, and his flesh, elaborately dressed,

formed one of the chief ornaments of the banquet. Cannibalism, in the guise

of an Epicurean science, becomes even the more revolting. ^1

[Footnote 4: This noble bird was introduced into Europe from Mexico. The

Spaniards called it gallopavo, from its resemblance to the peacock. See Rel.

d'un gentil' huomo, ap. Ramusio (tom. iii. fol. 306); also Oviedo (Rel.

Sumaria, cap. 38), the earliest naturalist who gives an account of the bird,

which he saw soon after the Conquest, in the West Indies, whither it had been

brought, as he says, from New Spain. The Europeans, however, soon lost sight

of its origin, and the name "turkey" intimated the popular belief of its

Eastern origin. Several eminent writers have maintained its Asiatic or

African descent; but they could not impose on the sagacious and

better-instructed Buffon. (See Histoire naturelle, art. Dindon.) The

Spaniards saw immense numbers of turkeys in the domesticated state, on their

arrival in Mexico, where they were more common than any other poultry. They

were found wild, not only in New Spain, but all along the continent, in the

less frequented places, from the North-western territory of the United States

to Panama. The wild turkey is larger, more beautiful, and every way an

incomparably finer bird than the tame. Franklin, with some point, as well as

pleasantry, insists on its preference to the bald eagle as the national

emblem. (See his Works, vol. x. p. 63, in Spark's excellent edition.)

Interesting notices of the history and habits of the wild turkey may be found

in the Ornithology both of Buonaparte and of that enthusiastic lover of

nature, Audubon, vox Meleagris, Gallopavo.]

[Footnote 1: Sahagun, Hist. de Nueva-Espana, lib. 4, cap. 37; lib. 8, cap.

13; lib. 9, cap. 10-14. - Torquemada, Monarch. Ind., lib. 13, cap. 23. - Rel.

d'un gentil' huomo, ap. Ramusio, tom. ii. fol. 306. - Father Sahagun has gone

into many particulars of the Aztec cuisine, and the mode of preparing sundry

savoury messes, making, all together, no despicable contribution to the noble

science of gastronomy.]

The meats were kept warm by chafing-dishes. The table was ornamented

with vases of silver, and sometimes gold, of delicate workmanship. The

drinking-cups and spoons were of the same costly materials, and likewise of

tortoise-shell. The favourite beverage was the chocolatl, flavoured with

vanilla and different spices. They had a way of preparing the froth of it,

so as to make it almost solid enough to be eaten, and took it cold. ^2 The

fermented juice of the maguey, with a mixture of sweets and acids, supplied,

also, various agreeable drinks, of different degrees of strength, and formed

the chief beverage of the elder part of the company. ^3

[Footnote 2: The froth, delicately flavoured with spices and some other

ingredients, was taken cold by itself. It had the consistency almost of a

solid; and the "Anonymous Conqueror" is very careful to inculcate the

importance of "opening the mouth wide, in order to facilitate deglutition,

that the foam may dissolve gradually, and descend imperceptibly, as it were,

into the stomach." It was so nutritious that a single cup of it was enough

to sustain a man through the longest day's march. (Fol. 300.) The old

soldier discusses the beverage con amore.]

[Footnote 3: Sahagun, Hist. de Nueva-Espana, lib. 4, cap. 37; lib. 8,

cap. 13. - Torquemada, Monarch. Ind., lib. 13, cap. 23. - Rel. d'un gentil'

huomo, ap. Ramusio, tom. iii. fol. 306.]

As soon as they had finished their repast, the young people rose from

the table, to close the festivities of the day with dancing. They danced

gracefully, to the sound of various instruments, accompanying their movements

with chants of a pleasing though somewhat plaintive character. ^4 The older

guests continued at table, sipping pulque, and gossiping about other times,

till the virtues of the exhilarating beverage put them in good humour with

their own. Intoxication was not rare in this part of the company, and, what

is singular, was excused in them, though severely punished in the younger.

The entertainment was concluded by a liberal distribution of rich dresses and

ornaments among the guests, when they withdrew, after midnight, "some

commending the feast, and others condemning the bad taste or extravagance of

their host; in the same manner," says an old Spanish writer, "as with us." ^5

Human nature is, indeed, much the same all the world over.

[Footnote 4: Herrera, Hist. general, dec. 2, lib. 7, cap. 8. - Torquemada,

Monarch. Ind., lib. 14, cap. 11. - The Mexican nobles entertained minstrels

in their houses, who composed ballads suited to the times, or the

achievements of their lord, which they chanted, to the accompaniment of

instruments, at the festivals and dances. Indeed, there was more or less

dancing at most of the festivals, and it was performed in the courtyards of

the houses, or in the open squares of the city. (Ibid., ubi supra.) The

principal men had, also, buffoons and jugglers in their service, who amused

them and astonished the Spaniards by their feats of dexterity and strength

(Acosta, lib. 6, cap. 23; also Clavigero (Stor. del Messico, tom. ii. pp.

179-186), who has designed several representations of their exploits, truly

surprising.) It is natural that a people of limited refinement should find

their enjoyment in material rather than intellectual pleasures, and,

consequently, should excel in them. The Asiatic nations, as the Hindoos and

Chinese, for example, surpass the more polished Europeans in displays of

agility and legerdemain.]

[Footnote 5: "Y de esta manera pasaban gran rato de la noche, y se despedian,

e iban a sus casas, unos alabando la fiesta, y otros murmurando de las

demasias y excesos, cosa mui ordinaria en los que a semejantes actos se

juntan." Torquemada, Monarch. Ind., lib. 13, cap. 23. - Sahagun, Hist. de

Nueva-Espana, lib. 9, cap. 10-14]

In this remarkable picture of manners, which I have copied faithfully

from the records of earliest date after the Conquest, we find no resemblance

to the other races of North American Indians. Some resemblance we may trace

to the general style of Asiatic pomp and luxury. But in Asia, woman, far

from being admitted to unreserved intercourse with the other sex, is too

often jealously immured within the walls of the harem. European

civilization, which accords to this loveliest portion of creation her proper

rank in the social scale, is still more removed from some of the brutish

usages of the Aztecs. That such usages should have existed with the degree

of refinement they showed in other things is almost inconceivable. It can

only be explained as the result of religious superstition; superstition which

clouds the moral perception, and perverts even the natural senses, till man,

civilized man, is reconciled to the very things which are most revolting to

humanity. Habits and opinions founded on religion must not be taken as

conclusive evidence of the actual refinement of a people.

The Aztec character was perfectly original and unique. It was made up

of incongruities apparently irreconcilable. It blended into one the marked

peculiarities of different nations, not only of the same phase of

civilization, but as far removed from each other as the extremes of barbarism

and refinement. It may find a fitting parallel in their own wonderful

climate, capable of producing, on a few square leagues of surface, the

boundless variety of vegetable forms which belong to the frozen regions of

the North, the temperate zone of Europe, and the burning skies of Arabia and


One of the works repeatedly consulted and referred to in this

Introduction is Boturini's Idea de una nueva Historia general de la America

Septentrional. The singular persecutions sustained by its author, even more

than the merits of his book, have associated his name inseparably with the

literary history of Mexico. The Chevalier Lorenzo Boturini Benaduci was a

Milanese by birth, of an ancient family, and possessed of much learning.

From Madrid, where he was residing, he passed over to New Spain, in 1735, on

some business of the Countess of Santibanez, a lineal descendant of

Montezuma. While employed on this, he visited the celebrated shrine of Our

Lady of Guadaloupe, and, being a person of devout and enthusiastic temper,

was filled with the desire of collecting testimony to establish the

marvellous fact of her apparition. In the course of his excursions, made

with this view, he fell in with many relics of Aztec antiquity, and conceived

- what to a Protestant, at least, would seem much more rational - the idea of

gathering together all the memorials he could meet with of the primitive

civilization of the land.

In pursuit of this double object, he penetrated into the remotest parts

of the country, living much with the natives, passing his nights sometimes in

their huts, sometimes in caves and the depths of the lonely forests.

Frequently months would elapse without his being able to add anything to his

collection; for the Indians had suffered too much not to be very shy of

Europeans. His long intercourse with them, however, gave him ample

opportunity to learn their language and popular traditions, and, in the end,

to amass a large stock of materials, consisting of hieroglyphical charts on

cotton, skins, and the fibre of the maguey; besides a considerable body of

Indian manuscripts, written after the Conquest. To all these must be added

the precious documents for placing beyond controversy the miraculous

apparition of the Virgin. With this treasure he returned, after a pilgrimage

of eight years, to the capital.

His zeal, in the meanwhile, had induced him to procure from Rome a bull

authorizing coronation of the sacred image at Guadaloupe. The bull, however,

though sanctioned by the Audience of New Spain, had never been approved by

the Council of the Indies. In consequence of this informality, Boturini was

arrested in the midst of his proceedings, his papers were taken from him,

and, as he declined to give an inventory of them, he was thrown into prison,

and confined in the same apartment with two criminals! Not long afterward he

was sent to Spain. He there presented a memorial to the Council of the

Indies, setting forth his manifold grievances, and soliciting redress. At

the same time, he drew up his "Idea," above noticed, in which he displayed

the catalogue of his museum in New Spain, declaring, with affecting

earnestness, that "he would not exchange these treasures for all the gold and

silver, diamonds and pearls, in the New World."

After some delay, the Council gave an award in his favour; acquitting

him of any intentional violation of the law, and pronouncing a high encomium

on his deserts. His papers, however, were not restored. But his Majesty was

graciously pleased to appoint him Historiographer-General of the Indies, with

a salary of one thousand dollars per annum. The stipend was too small to

allow him to return to Mexico. He remained in Madrid, and completed there

the first volume of a "General History of North America," in 1749. Not long

after this event, and before the publication of the work, he died. The same

injustice was continued to his heirs; and, notwithstanding repeated

applications in their behalf, they were neither put in possession of their

unfortunate kinsman's collection, nor received a remuneration for it. What

was worse, - as far as the public was concerned, - the collection itself was

deposited in apartments of the vice-regal palace at Mexico, so damp that they

gradually fell to pieces, and the few remaining were still further diminished

by the pilfering of the curious. When Baron Humboldt visited Mexico, not

one-eighth of this inestimable treasure was in existence!

I have been thus particular in the account of the unfortunate Boturini,

as affording, on the whole, the most remarkable example of the serious

obstacles and persecutions which literary enterprise, directed in the path of

the national antiquities, has, from some cause or other, been exposed to in

New Spain.

Boturini's manuscript volume was never printed, and probably never will

be, if indeed it is in existence. This will scarcely prove a great detriment

to science or to his own reputation. He was a man of a zealous temper,

strongly inclined to the marvellous, with little of that acuteness requisite

for penetrating the tangled mazes of antiquity, or of the philosophic spirit

fitted for calmly weighing its doubts and difficulties. His "Idea" affords a

sample of his peculiar mind. With abundant learning, ill assorted and ill

digested, it is a jumble of fact and puerile fiction, interesting details,

crazy dreams, and fantastic theories. But it is hardly fair to judge by the

strict rules of criticism a work which, put together hastily, as a catalogue

of literary treasures, was designed by the author rather to show what might

be done, than that he could do it himself. It is rare that talents for

action and contemplation are united in the same individual, Boturini was

eminently qualified, by his enthusiasm and perseverance, for collecting the

materials necessary to illustrate the antiquities of the country. It

requires a more highly gifted mind to avail itself of them.

imates no doubt of its Aztec origin. (Vues des Cordilleres,

pp. 266, 267.) M. Le Noir even reads in it an exposition of Mexican

Mythology, with occasional analogies to that of Egypt and of Hindostan.

(Antiquites Mexicaines, tom. ii., Introd.) The fantastic forms of

hieroglyphic symbols may afford analogies for almost anything.]

[Footnote 3: The history of this Codex, engraved entire in the third volume

of the "Antiquities of Mexico," goes no further back than 1739, when it was

purchased at Vienna for the Dresden Library. It is made of the American

agave. The figures painted on it bear little resemblance, either in feature

or form, to the Mexican. They are surmounted by a sort of head-gear, which

looks something like a modern peruke. On the chin of one we may notice a

beard, a sign often used after the Conquest to denote a European. Many of

the persons are sitting cross-legged. The profiles of the faces, and the

whole contour of the limbs, are sketched with a spirit and freedom very

unlike the hard, angular outlines of the Aztecs. The characters, also, are

delicately traced, generally in an irregular but circular form, and are very

minute. They are arranged, like the Egyptian, both horizontally and

perpendicularly, mostly in the former manner, and, from the prevalent

direction of the profiles, would seem to have been read from right to left.

Whether phonetic or ideographic, they are of that compact and purely

conventional sort which belongs to a well-digested system for the

communication of thought. One cannot but regret that no trace should exist

of the quarter whence this MS. was obtained; perhaps some part of Central

America, from the region of the mysterious races who built the monuments of

Mitla and Palenque; though, in truth, there seems scarcely more resemblance

in the symbols to the Palenque bas-reliefs than to the Aztec paintings.

Note: Mr. Stephens, who, like Humboldt, considered the Dresden Codex a

Mexican manuscript, compared the characters of it with those on the altar of

Copan, and drew the conclusion that the inhabitants of that place and of

Palenque must have spoken the same language as the Aztecs. Prescott's opinion

has, however, been confirmed by later critics, who have shown that the

hieroglyphics of the Dresden Codex are quite different from those at Copan and

Palenque, while the Mexican writing bears not the least resemblance to either.

See Orozco v Berra, Geografia de las Lenguas de Mexico, p 101. - Ed.]

Some few of these maps have interpretations annexed to them, which were

obtained from the natives after the Conquest. ^4 The greater part are without

any, and cannot now be unriddled. Had the Mexicans made free use of a

phonetic alphabet, it might have been originally easy, by mastering the

comparatively few signs employed in this kind of communication, to have got a

permanent key to the whole. ^1 A brief inscription has furnished a clue to

the vast labyrinth of Egyptian hieroglyphics. But the Aztec characters,

representing individuals, or, at most, species, require to be made out

separately; a hopeless task, for which little aid is to be expected from the

vague and general tenor of the few interpretations now existing. There was,

as already mentioned, until late in the last century, a professor in the

University of Mexico, especially devoted to the study of the national

picture-writing. But, as this was with a view to legal proceedings, his

information, probably, was limited to deciphering titles. In less than a

hundred years after the Conquest, the knowledge of the hieroglyphics had so

far declined that a diligent Tezcucan writer complains he could find in the

country only two persons, both very aged, at all competent to interpret

them. ^2

[Footnote 4: There are three of these: the Mendoza Codez; the

Telleriano-Remensis, - formerly the property of Archbishop Tellier, - in the

Royal Library of Paris; and the Vatican MS., No. 3738. The interpretation of

the last bears evident marks of its recent origin; probably as late as the

close of the sixteenth or the beginning of the seventeenth century, when the

ancient hieroglyphics were read with the eye of faith rather than of reason.

Whoever was the commentator (comp. Vues des Cordilleres, pp. 203, 204; and

Antiq. of Mexico, vol. vi. pp. 155, 222), he has given such an exposition as

shows the old Aztecs to have been as orthodox Christians as any subjects of

the Pope.]

[Footnote 1: The total number of Egyptian hieroglyphics discovered by

Champollion amounts to 864; and of these 130 only are phonetic,

notwithstanding that this kind of character is used far more frequently than

both the others. Precis, p. 263; - also Spineto, Lectures, Lect. 3.]

[Footnote 2: Ixtlilxochitl, Hist. Chich., MS., Dedic. - Boturini, who

travelled through every part of the country in the middle of the last

century, could not meet with an individual who could afford him the least

clue to the Aztec hieroglyphics. So completely had every vestige of their

ancient language been swept away from the memory of the natives. (Idea, p.

116.) If we are to believe Bustamante, however, a complete key to the whole

system is, at this moment, somewhere in Spain. It was carried home, at the

time of the process against Father Mier, in 1795. The name of the Mexican

Champollion who discovered it is Borunda. Gama, Descripcion, tom. ii. p. 33,


It is not probable, therefore, that the art of reading these

picture-writings will ever be recovered; a circumstance certainly to be

regretted. Not that the records of a semi-civilized people would be likely

to contain any new truth or discovery important to human comfort or progress;

but they could scarcely fail to throw some additional light on the previous

history of the nation, and that of the more polished people who before

occupied the country. This would be still more probable, if any literary

relics of their Toltec predecessors were preserved; and, if report be true,

an important compilation from this source was extant at the time of the

invasion, and may have perhaps contributed to swell the holocaust of

Zumarraga. ^3 It is no great stretch of fancy to suppose that such records

might reveal the successive links in the mighty chain of migration of the

primitive races, and, by carrying us back to the seat of their possessions in

the Old World, have solved the mystery which has so long perplexed the

learned, in regard to the settlement and civilization of the New. ^4

[Footnote 3: Teoamoxtli, "the divine book," as it was called. According to

Ixtlilxochitl, it was composed by a Tezcucan doctor, named Huematzin, towards

the close of the seventeenth century. (Relaciones, MS.) It gave an account

of the migrations of his nation from Asia, of the various stations on their

journey, of their social and religious institutions, their science, arts,

etc., etc., a good deal too much for one book. Ignotum pro mirifico. It has

never been seen by a European. A copy is said to have been in possession

of the Tezcucan chroniclers on the taking of their capital. (Bustamante,

Cronica Mexicana (Mexico, 1822), carta 3.) Lord Kingsborough, who can scent

out a Hebrew root be it buried never so deep, has discovered that the

Teoamoxtli was the Pentateuch. Thus, teo means "divine," amotl, "paper" or

"book," and moxtli "appears to be Moses;" - "Divine Book of Moses"! Antiq.

of Mexico, vol. vi. p. 204, nota.

Note: It must have been seen by many Europeans, if we accept either the

statement of the Baron de Waldeck, in 1838 (Voyage pittoresque et

archeologique dans la Province d'Yucatan), that it was then in his possession,

or the theories of Brasseur de Bourbourg, who identifies it with the Dresden

Codex and certain other hieroglyphical manuscripts, and who believes himself

to have found the key to it, and consequently to the origin of the Mexican

history and civilization, in one of the documents in Boturini's collection, to

which he has given the name of the Codex Chimalpopoca. Quatre Lettres sur le

Mexique (Paris, 1868). - Ed.]

[Footnote 4: Such a supposition would require a "stretch of fancy" greater

than any which the mind of the mere historical inquirer is capable of taking.

To admit the probability of the Asiatic origin of the American races, and of

the indefinite antiquity of the Mexican civilization, is something very

different from believing that this civilization, already developed in the

degree required for the existence and preservation of its own records during

so long a period and so great a migration, can have been transplanted from the

one continent to the other. It would be easier to accept the theory, now

generally abandoned, that the original settlers owed their civilization to a

body of colonists from Phoenicia. In view of so hazardous a conjecture, it is

difficult to understand why Buschmann has taken exception to the "sharp

criticism" to which Prescott has subjected the sources of Mexican history, and

his "low estimate of their value and credibility." - Ed.]

Besides the hieroglyphical maps, the traditions of the country were

embodied in the songs and hymns, which, as already mentioned, were carefully

taught in the public schools. These were various, embracing the mythic

legends of a heroic age, the warlike achievements of their own, or the softer

tales of love and pleasure. ^1 Many of them were composed by scholars and

persons of rank, and are cited as affording the most authentic record of

events. ^2 The Mexican dialect was rich and expressive, though inferior to

the Tezcucan, the most polished of the idioms of Anahuac. None of the Aztec

compositions have survived, but we can form some estimate of the general

state of poetic culture from the odes which have come down to us from the

royal house of Tezcuco. ^3 Sahagun has furnished us with translations of

their more elaborate prose, consisting of prayers and public discourses,

which give a favourable idea of their eloquence, and show that they paid much

attention to rhetorical effect. They are said to have had, also, something

like theatrical exhibitions, of a pantomimic sort, in which the faces of the

performers were covered with masks, and the figures of birds or animals were

frequently represented; an imitation to which they may have been led by the

familiar delineation of such objects in their hieroglyphics. ^4 In all this

we see the dawning of a literary culture, surpassed, however, by their

attainments in the severer walks of mathematical science.

[Footnote 1: Boturini, Idea, pp. 90-97. - Clavigero, Stor. del Messico, tom.

ii. pp. 174-178.]

[Footnote 2: "Los cantos con que las observaban Autores muy graves en su modo

de ciencia y facultad, pues fueron los mismos Reyes, y de la gerte mas ilustre

y entendida, que siempre observaron y adquirieron la verdad, y esta con tanta

razon, quanta pudieron tener los mas graves y fidedignos Autores."

Ixtlilxochitl, Hist. Chich., MS., Prologo.]

[Footnote 3: See chap. 6 of this Introduction.]

[Footnote 4: See some account of these mummeries in Acosta (lib. 5, cap.

30), - also Clavigero (Stor. del Messico, ubi supra). Stone models of masks

are sometimes found among the Indian ruins, and engravings of them are both

in Lord Kingsborough's work and in the Antiquites Mexicaines.]

They devised a system of notation in their arithmetic sufficiently

simple. The first twenty numbers were expressed by a corresponding number of

dots. The first five had specific names; after which they were represented

by combining the fifth with one of the four preceding; as five and one for

six, five and two for seven, and so on. Ten and fifteen had each a separate

name, which was also combined with the first four, to express a higher

quantity. These four, therefore, were the radical characters of their oral

arithmetic, in the same manner as they were of the written with the ancient

Romans; a more simple arrangement, probably, than any existing among

Europeans. ^5 Twenty was expressed by a separate hieroglyphic, - a flag.

Larger sums were reckoned by twenties, and, in writing, by repeating the

number of flags. The square of twenty, four hundred, had a separate sign,

that of a plume, and so had the cube of twenty, or eight thousand, which was

denoted by a purse, or sack. This was the whole arithmetical apparatus of

the Mexicans, by the combination of which they were enabled to indicate any

quantity. For greater expedition, they used to denote fractions of the

larger sums by drawing only a part of the object. Thus, half of three-fourths

of a plume, or of a purse, represented that proportion of their respective

sums, and so on. ^1 With all this, the machinery will appear very awkward to

us, who perform our operations with so much ease by means of the Arabic or,

rather, Indian ciphers. It is not much more awkward, however, than the

system pursued by the great mathematicians of antiquity, unacquainted with

the brilliant invention, which has given a new aspect to mathematical

science, of determining the value, in a great measure, by the relative

position of the figures.

[Footnote 5: Gama, Descripcion, Parte 2, Apend. 2. - Gama, in comparing the

language of Mexican notation with the decimal system of the Europeans and the

ingenious binary system of Leibnitz, confounds oral with written arithmetic.]

[Footnote 1: Gama, ubi supra. - This learned Mexican has given a very

satisfactory treatise on the arithmetic of the Aztecs, in his second part.]

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