Fragments of Tales and the Bonemeal of Humankind Two excerpts from Feathered Serpent Dark Heart Of Sky Myths of Mexico
By David Bowles
Five hundred years ago, Mexico was quite different. The Triple Alliance of Anahuac—what we now call the Aztec Empire—dominated an area that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific coast. Arrayed all around them were dozens of other nations: the Maya, the Purepecha, Zapotecs, Yaqui, Huichol, Huastec, and Tarahumara, among many others. All of these peoples had different languages, gods, and traditions. Over the centuries, though, migration, trade and conflict had spread certain common cultural traits widely. Twenty million people lived in this land when the Spanish arrived in 1519. But the conquistadores were not interested in the cultural richness of Mexico. In their single-minded hunger for glory and gold, in their zealous drive to see the “Indians” kneel to the Christian god, the Spanish swept across the landscape with their steel swords, their guns, their armored horses. They also brought with them diseases that devastated the indigenous population. It was genocide. Seventy-five years later, only one million people remained. Most of these survivors converted to Catholicism. Many blended with the Spanish colonists who came to occupy lands emptied by conquest. That fusion of races and ethnicities is called mestizaje. In time, a caste system was created to carefully separate this new hybrid population into special groups. Spaniards—both those born in Spain, peninsulares, and those born in Mexico, criollos—had the greatest rights and privileges. Below them others were ranked by how much Spanish blood ran through their veins: castizos (75%, with 25% indigenous), moriscos (75%, with 25% black), mestizos (50%, with 50% indigenous), mulattoes (50%, with 50% black). Pure indigenous and black individuals were at the very bottom of this social hierarchy. As a result of this caste system, the sort of life a person had was essentially determined by the number of Spanish ancestors they laid claim to. Light skin and eyes, European features—such attributes brought advancement and opportunity. As a result, those who were products of mestizaje often turned away from their own native heritage and sought to be more like the Spanish conquerors, even oppressing people with less Spanish blood than they had. Even after the caste system broke down and Mexico won its independence from Spain, traces of this old prejudice stubbornly survived. A fledgling Mexican identity was arising, however. The late 19th century saw a renewed interest in the pre- Colombian glories of the nation. But much had been lost. The few traditions that survived were diluted and fractured. And so they have remained, even down to my own generation. By the time my grandfather Manuel Garza was born, his family’s indigenous past had been wiped away. They were Spanish-speaking Mexicans, then Mexican- American Texans, heirs to traditions from across the sea. Ranches and cattle were the lifeblood of their community in northern Mexico and deep South Texas. Their norteño music and weekly mass were also European, if flavored with native spice. One of the worst insults was indio. Everyone swore their ancestors were pure Spanish. Even though the stories my grandparents, aunts and uncles told me when I was child were thick with local lore—strange boogeymen and wailing women—no trace remained of the old gods, the ancient priests, the vaunted heroes of Mexico’s pre- Colombian past. In school, I was taught—like my father—the myths of the Norse, the Egyptians, the Romans, and especially the Greeks. I devoured the Odyssey, hungry for those Bronze-Age sensibilities, that interweaving of human and divine. On my own I read other great epics of Western mythology: the Iliad, the Aeneid. I widened my net, plunged into India and its Ramayana, sought out the Sunjata of West Africa. But it wasn’t until I took a world literature class in college that I read a single Aztec or Maya myth. Amazing. I had attended schools just miles from the Mexican border, but not one of my teachers had spoken of Quetzalcoatl or Itzamna, of Cihuacoatl or Ixchel. My family also knew nothing of these Mesocamerican gods. Something important had been kept from me and other Mexican-American students. At first I was shocked and a bit angry. Yet who could I blame for five centuries of syncretism and erasure? Rather than lash out in response to the loss I felt, I began to scour the local libraries for every book I could find about pre-Colombian Mexican myths. In the end, I realized, it was my responsibility—knowing of this lack on my part—to reconnect with that forgotten past. That duty to the history of one’s people has never been better expressed than in one of the few remaining poems of the Maya, from the colonial-era manuscript Songs of Dzitbalché:
It’s vital we never lose count Of how many long generations Have passed since the faraway age When here in this land lived Great and powerful men Who lifted the walls of those cities— The ancient, awesome ruins, Pyramids rising like hills. We try to determine their meaning Here in our humbler towns, A meaning that matters today, One we draw from the signs Those men of the Golden Age-- Men of this land, our forefathers— Urged us to seek in the sky.
Consecrated to this task, We turn our faces upward As darkness slowly falls From zenith to horizon And fills the sky with stars In which we scry our fate.
I found quite a lot of meaning in those scattered myths. They helped me through some very dark moments in my life. In time I became a school teacher, then a university professor. Though no standards required it, I did my best to share the heritage I had rediscovered with my students. My passion for our lost past drove me even further: I began to study Mayan and Nahuatl, wanting to decipher the original indigenous texts myself without the filter of a translator’s voice. The difficulty was that so much had been destroyed. The Conquest not only decimated the native population of Mexico. It also eviscerated their literature, their history. Conquering soldiers and zealous priests had burned many of the indigenous manuscripts, and converted native minds shrugged off the lore of millennia. Though some Spaniards and mestizos sought to preserve what they could of the venerable old words, setting down songs and sayings using the foreign alphabet, the damage had been done. Today, we cannot just pick up the indigenous equivalent of the Odyssey and read it—beyond the Popol Vuh, a Quiché Maya text from Guatemala, no such work has survived in Mesoamerica. What we have are stories and fragments of stories, preserved piecemeal across multiple codices and colonial histories or passed down word-of-mouth for centuries in remote communities. As a result, the work of a chronicler or teacher is made very difficult: we have no cohesive narrative of Mexico’s mythic identity, no mythological history to rival other classical epics. As I pondered the dilemma, I saw a need for an exciting fusion of the different stories, one that could make Mesoamerican mythology come alive for a Western audience the way William Buck’s abridged take on the Ramayana did for Hindu epics, one that employs engaging, accessible, yet timeless language, much like Robert Fagles’ translations of the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid. So I set out to write the book you hold in your hands. Of course, I am hardly the first to retell these tales. The collections I found as a college freshman in different border libraries existed because of wonderful scholars and authors who gathered together written and orally transmitted myths and legends. What makes the present volume different is that—instead of telling the tales separately, discretely—I craft a single chronological narrative. Drawing from a variety of sources (especially Nahuatl and Maya texts such as the Popol Vuh, Cantares Mexicanos, the Codex Chimalpopoca, Primeros Memoriales and the Florentine Codex), this fresh take blurs the line between the legendary and the historical. My intent has been to stitch together myths and legends, organizing the tales so that they trace the mythic past of Mesoamerica from the creation of the world to the arrival of the Spanish. As a Mexican-American author and translator, I see myself as one of many transmitters of tradition down the generations. My renditions treat these stories with respect and intimacy, as though they depict actual events. Because of the state of the existing lore, however, I have used several different techniques to create English- language versions. A few of the pieces are simply translated with some editorial adjustments to fit the larger narrative. Others are looser adaptations of myths and legends with some partial translation. Many are straight-up retellings, often of orally transmitted stories. Quite a few of the myths are themselves syntheses of multiple sources, interwoven into a coherent narrative that I have quilted into the chronological sequence of the book itself. For the most part, I have synthesized several texts together from a single cultural tradition. A few times, however, I have blended Maya and Aztec cosmovisions wherever their overlap suggested an older Mesoamerican mythology from which both may have drawn. In such instances, I am not trying to erase the distinctiveness of the two very different cultures, but to reflect the hybrid mestizaje that has long been a characteristic of the Mexican identity. I have provided notes on my sources and a comprehensive bibliography. My hope is that readers will become intrigued or excited by the mythological history I have woven and feel compelled to dive into the original texts as I once did, seeking to find some part of myself reflected in those ancient, enduring words. David Bowles August 22, 2016
Armando Rendón. Feathered Serpent Head From Teotihuacan.2018. Photograph. Exhibit at de Young Museum, San Francisco
The Creation of Human Beings
The Fourth Age had come to an end. The gods, saddened at the destruction of the earth, gathered in Teotihuacan. “The sea-ringed world emerges. The heavens have been restored. But who will sing us songs? Who will worship us? Who will keep the cosmic wheels turning?” Feathered Serpent turned to the Divine Mother. “We must once more strive to make human beings. Let this new attempt combine all the strengths of the previous.” “To do so,” she told him, “we will need the bones of those who have died.” Hurricane smiled. “Brother, if you want them, you will have to descend to the Land of the Dead and petition the king and queen of that fell demesne.” “So be it,” Feathered Serpent declared, departing. He came to the river at the edge of the Underworld, which the dead can only cross on the back of a hound. Twinning himself so that his nahualli stood before him, he addressed that hairless spirit dog: “Xolotl, double of my heart, bear me across broad Apanohuayan so that on its farther shore I may seek the bones of the dead.” “Gladly, my plumed master. Seize the folds of flesh upon my back, and I will swim you to your destination.” And so all dogs buried with their owners for this purpose are called xoloitzcuintle to honor the nahualli of Feathered Serpent. With Xolotl’s aid, the creator god easily navigated the next eight obstacles and stood before the King and Queen of Death in their eldritch, windowless palace at the heart of the Underworld. “What brings you to our realm now, after so many years, O Feathered Serpent?” asked the king, his eyes like pinpricks of fire in the black orbs of his skull, framed by his owl-plume headdress. The god’s tilma and breechcloth were spattered with blood, and round his neck he wore a chain of human eyeballs. “I am come to take the precious bones that you have guarded with such diligence.” “And what will you do with them, Lord Creator?” asked the queen. “The gods in Tamoanchan need humans to ease their sadness. With these remains, I will fashion a new race of men and women to praise and honor us. They will be mortal, so their bones will return to your hands, as will the bones of their children and their children’s children, for as long as this Fifth Age shall last.” “Very well,” replied the king. “First, however, as a sign of honor, take this my conch and travel four times round my realm, sounding an exultant call as you go.” Feathered Serpent agreed, but as he prepared to sound the shell trumpet, he realized the conch had no hole for blowing. Summoning worms, he had them burrow in at the apex of the spire and smooth its hollow interior. Then he had bees and hornets fly inside, adding their distinctive buzz to the air he sent rushing through the whorls of the conch. The resulting call could be heard in every corner of the Underworld, even in the very throne room of Lord and Lady Death. After his fourth circuit of the Land of the Dead, Feathered Serpent made his way back to its center and stood once more before the sovereigns of that realm. “Very well, take the bones,” growled the King of Death. Once Feathered Serpent had departed the palace to collect the bones, however, the skeletal god called together his council, the lords of that frightful realm. “Go after that plumed snake, my vassals, and tell him that I have changed my mind. He must leave at once without the bones.” The ghastly messengers caught up to the creator god and repeated their sovereign’s command. Feathered Serpent reluctantly agreed. “I will leave then. Tell your king and queen.” The lords of the netherworld watched him fly off, heading out of the Land of the Dead by the eastern route the sun once took to emerge at dawn each day. They themselves traveled back to the eerie castle to inform their masters. But they were deceived. When Feathered Serpent had heard in his heart the command of the King of Death, he had told Xolotl: “I must take these bones, forever. I need you to change shapes with me. Having assumed my form, you will agree to the king’s wishes. Once you and the messengers have gone, I will steal the remains and flee.” So it was that he emerged from a place of hiding in the form of his nahualli, gathered the bones of men and women, wrapped them in a bundle, then rushed like the wind to avoid detection. The god of death became aware of the ruse, however, and he called again to his council: “Lords, Feathered Serpent is at this very moment stealing the precious bones! Use all haste to cut him off before he emerges in the sea-ringed world: dig a pit into which he will fall and be trapped!” Using hidden routes known only to the rulers of the Realm of Fright, the dread lords raced ahead of the Feathered Serpent and fashioned a vast and cunningly disguised pit. The creator god, startled by a covey of quail that swirled about him on the king’s command, tumbled into the trap, smashing the bones into smaller bits. Shooing away the birds, which had begun pecking and nibbling at the fragments, Feathered Serpent gathered up the remains and assumed once more his true form. “Ah, Xolotl, how was I so easily deceived? Not one of them is whole.” The twin of his heart answered from within. “All is as it must be. The bones have been shattered, but they will have to suffice.” Feathered Serpent seized the bundled bones in his canine jaws and ascended to Tamoanchan. He placed the bones in the Protector’s hands, crying out: “Divine Mother, the bones are broken! What can we do?” The Divine Mother smiled. “All must be broken before it is made whole. We will now grind the remains into powder, my sister and I. Then all of us must do the proper penance to moisten the bone flour so it can be kneaded and shaped.” When the Divine Mother and the Protector had used metate and mano to pulverize the bones, Feathered Serpent pierced his flesh and bled into the flour. Then each of the gods in turn did the same. The resulting dough was shaped into men and women who were brought to life by the spirits wending their way down from Omeyocan, sent by our grandparents to inhabit the sturdy new forms. Feathered Serpent bowed his head as the humans opened their eyes. “Thus is our hope born. We did penance to deserve their existence. Now they will do penance to preserve ours.”
David Bowles, has taught English and education courses at the University of Texas since 1997. A product of an ethnically diverse family with Latino roots in the Río Grande Valley of south Texas, his focus is on the study of indigenous philosophy, mythology, and legend through primary sources. He is the award-winning author of several books, including Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry (2013); Shattering and Bricolage (2014); Border Lore: Folktales and Legends of South Texas(2015); and The Smoking Mirror (2015). His translations have appeared in various venues, including Somos en escrito. He may be contacted at:email@example.com or www.davidbowles.us.Feathered Serpent is available from Cinco Puntos Press,www.cincopuntos.com.
Comment from: Rosa MIzerskiMarch 25, 2018 at 11:00 AM Beautiful English rendition of "The Creation of Human Beings." The themes of the underworld, "Prometheus," and dogs as companions in epic journeys resonate with those of the Eurasia, even though it had been at least 10,000 years since the human migration from the old world. Nothing is truly destroyed. It is remembered once again in the imagination. --Rosa Martha Villarreal