I. MEXICO.--Every feature in the religion of the New World, discovered by Cortez and Pizarro, indicates an origin common to the superstitions of Egypt and Asia. The same solar worship, the same pyramidal monuments, and the same concomitant OPHIOLATREIA distinguish them all.
From Acosta 1 we learn, that "the temple of Vitziliputzli was built of great stones in fashion of snakes tied one to another, and the circuit was called 'the circuit of snakes,'" because the walls of the enclosure were covered with the figures of snakes 2. This god, Vitziliputzli, "held in his right hand a staff cut in the form of a serpent; and the four corners of the ark, in which he was seated, terminated each with
a carved representation of the head of a serpent 1."
Vitziliputzli was an azure figure, from whose sides projected the heads of two serpents: his right hand leaned upon a staff shaped like a serpent 2.
The Mexican century was represented by a circle, having the sun in the centre, surrounded by the symbols of the years. The circumference was A SERPENT twisted into four knots at the cardinal points 3.
The Mexican month was divided into twenty days; the serpent and dragon symbolized two of them. In Mexico there was also a temple dedicated to "the god of the air;" and the door of it was formed so as to resemble a serpent's mouth 4.
The Mexicans, however, were not contented with the symbolical worship of the sacred serpent. Like many other nations of the Ophite
family, they kept live serpents as household gods in their private dwellings. An intelligent traveller 1, to whom the literary republic is much indebted for his observations on the Mexican idolatry, informs, us, that "the rattle-snake was an object of veneration and worship among them:" and that "representations of this reptile, and others of its species, are very commonly met with among the remains of their ancient idolatry." "The finest that is known to exist is to be seen in a deserted part of the cloister of the Dominican convent, opposite to the palace of the inquisition. It is coiled up in an irritated, erect position, with the jaws extended, and in the act of gorging an elegantly dressed female, who appears in the mouth of this enormous reptile, crushed and lacerated."
A cast of this terrific idol was brought over to England by Mr. Bullock, and fully corroborates the reiterated assertions of the Spaniards who first invaded Mexico, that the people of that country worshipped an idol in the form of a serpent. Bernal Dias del Castillo, who accompanied Cortez, was introduced by Montezuma
into the interior of the principal temple, the description of which he gives in the following manner:--"When we had ascended to the summit of the temple, we observed on the platform, as we passed, the large stones whereon were placed the victims who were to be sacrificed. Here was a great figure which represented a DRAGON, and much blood spilt. . . . . Cortez then addressed Montezuma, and requested that he would do him the favour to show us his gods. Montezuma having first consulted the priests, led us into a tower where was a kind of saloon. Here were two altars, highly adorned with richly-wrought timbers on the roof; and over the altars, gigantic figures, representing fat men. The one on the right hand was Huitzilopochtli, their war god, with a great face and terrible eyes. This figure was entirely covered with gold and jewels, and his body bound with golden serpents. Before the idol was a pan of incense, with three hearts of human victims, which were burning, mixed with copal. . . . . . On the left was the other great figure, with a face like a bear. . . . . . He was the god of the infernal regions . . . . . his body was covered with figures representing devils with tails of
serpents . . . . . . . In this place they had a drum of most enormous size, the head of which was made of the skins of large serpents . . . . . . . At a little distance from this temple stood a tower . . . . . . at the door stood frightful idols . . . . . like serpents and devils; and before them were tables and knives for sacrifice."
For this extract I am indebted to a work of Mr. Bullock, which, under the unassuming form of a descriptive pamphlet, contains much that is instructive, both in references and original remarks. He tells us, that from the great serpent, above mentioned, smaller ones were modelled in stone, and probably kept by the Mexicans as Penates. One of these he brought over to England. Such miniature copies of their gods were frequently taken in Egypt, and the custom prevails in other places--the Burmese universally follow it.
Mr. Bullock brought over also from Mexico a cast of an idol, which he calls "the goddess of war," and thus describes it:--
"This monstrous idol is, with its pedestal, twelve feet high, and four feet wide . . . . . . Its form is partly human, and the rest composed of rattle-snakes and the tiger. The head, enormously
wide, seems that of two rattle-snakes united; the fangs hanging out of the mouth, on which the still palpitating hearts of the unfortunate victims were rubbed as an act of the most acceptable oblation. The body is that of a deformed human frame, and the place of arms supplied by the heads of rattle-snakes, placed on square plinths, and united by fringed ornaments. Round the waist is a girdle, which was originally covered with gold; and beneath this, reaching nearly to the ground, and partly covering its deformed cloven feet, a drapery entirely composed of wreathed rattle-snakes, which the natives call 'a garment of serpents.' . . . Between the feet, descending from the body, another wreathed serpent rests his head upon the ground."
We learn from Acosta 1, that the Mexicans sacrificed human victims to the god Virachoca; and that the head of the unhappy creature about to be sacrificed was held back in a wooden collar wrought in form of a snake."
Peter Martyr 2 also mentions a large serpent-idol at Campeachy, made of stones and bitumen, in the act of devouring a marble lion. An
engraving of this idol is given in Ogilby's America, p. 77. When first seen by the Spaniards it was warm with the blood of human victims.
But of all the works which may be consulted upon this subject, that of M. Aglio, on "Mexican Antiquities," is most deserving of notice. It contains fac-similes of nearly all the Azteck paintings known to be in Europe, together with lithographic representations of sculptures, and other monuments of this interesting people. These paintings and sculptures abound with evidences of Mexican Ophiolatreia, and prove that there was scarcely a Mexican deity who was not symbolized by a serpent or a dragon. Many deities appear holding serpents in their hands; and small figures of priests are represented with a snake over each head. This reminds us, forcibly, of the priests of the Egyptian Isis, who are described in sculpture, with the sacred asp upon the head, and a cone in the left hand. And to confirm the original mutual connexion of all the serpent-worshippers throughout the world--the Mexican paintings, as well as the Egyptian and Persian hieroglyphics, describe THE OPHITE HIEROGRAM of the intertwined
serpents, in almost all its variations 1. A very remarkable one occurs in M. Allard's collection of sculptures; in which the dragons, forming it, have each a man's head in his mouth! The gods of Mexico are frequently pictured fighting with serpents and dragons; and gods, and sometimes men, are represented in conversation with the same loathsome creatures. There is scarcely, indeed, a feature in the mystery of Ophiolatreia, which may not be recognised in the Mexican superstitions.
We perceive, therefore, that in the kingdom of Mexico the serpent was sacred, and emblematic of more gods than one: an observation which may be extended to almost every other nation which adored the symbolical serpent. This is a remarkable and valuable fact; and it discovers in Ophiolatreia another feature of its aboriginal character. For it proves the serpent to have been a symbol of intrinsic divinity, and not a mere representative of peculiar properties which belong to some gods, and not to others.
The serpent also entered into the religion of
the Mexicans as a charm. Whenever a person was ill, a priest was immediately sent for, "who, having perfumed the patient, and shaved off his hair, hung snake's bones about his neck 1."
In Couliacan, Nunnez de Gusman found, in the year 1531, the houses filled with "thousands of serpents mingled together." And we are told that "the inhabitants showed great reverence to these serpents because, as they said, the devil often appeared to them in that form 2."
II. PERU.--The Peruvians are charged with the same superstition of serpent-worship as the Mexicans. "They worshipped," says Vossius, "the goddess Isis, and were accustomed to represent her with two serpents at her side 3."
Whether this image represented Isis, or some other deity, it is certain that actual as well as symbolical Ophiolatreia prevailed in Peru. For, "in the temple of Pachamana, near Lima, tradition states that the devil did speak visibly, and gave answer by his oracles; and that sometimes they did see a spotted snake 4."
Of this kind was the "nachash" of the
[paragraph continues] Hebrews, and the "purple-backed snake" of the Greeks, both used in divination. The tradition of Pachamana forcibly reminds us of the story of the Æsculapian serpent of Epidaurus, who on important occasions glided from his sanctuary, and showed himself to his votaries.
In the province of Topira in Peru, the Spaniards saw a temple, in front of which was a moat containing a vast image of "a serpent of divers metals, with his tayle in his mouth. A man was sacrificed before it every year 1."
In another part of the work, from which the above information is derived, we read that "the Peruvians worshipped snakes, and kept them pictured in their temples and houses 2."
The worship of the serpent in Peru was eventually superseded by the Solar Superstition of the Incas. Having suppressed it in their own country they carried on a war of proselytism in the neighbouring states. Tupac Yupanqui, the eleventh Inca, conquered the Chacapuyans, and killed their deity--a snake." This province lay eastward of Cassamarca. He next overcame the Huacrachuca, who also "worshipped snakes and
kept them always pictured in their houses and temples 1."
The people of Manta who were conquered by Huayna Capac, among other things "worshipped serpents of prodigious bigness 2."
"Blas Valeras, an author, who in loose papers wrote of the Indies, describes those who live in Antis as more brutal than the beasts themselves; for they have neither God, nor law, nor virtue, nor have they any idols or worship, unless sometimes when the Devil presents himself in the form of a serpent or other animal, they then worship and adore him 3."
From these incidental notices, scattered up and down among the writings of the Spaniards, who rather accidentally alluded to, than designedly investigated the religion of the New World, we find that the worship of the sacred serpent had its votaries in almost every place where man had a domicile.
With these cursory notices, we must take leave of Spanish America--more in astonishment that so much information, valuable to
literature and Christian theology, has escaped the barbarism of the church of Rome, than in disappointment that so little of authentic history has been preserved for our instruction.
English America being in a state of extreme rudeness when the first settlers occupied it; and these settlers being either illiterate themselves, or engrossed by a religion so exclusively severe as to despise or abhor inquiry into any other; we have little or no account of the superstitions of the native Indians upon which we can rely. I have seen, indeed, a book, printed about that period, purporting to be an account of the religion of the Virginians, in which these people are represented as worshipping graven images; and, among the rest, that of a serpent upon a pillar. But the whole work is written in a manner so extravagantly credulous, that I did not care to preserve even the memory of its title-page. Besides, the rude state of the arts among these Indians could not have permitted them to arrive at such a perfection in sculpture as is there represented. The book is to be found in Sion College library.
A more respectable authority, however, occurs in Purchas's Pilgrims, who, by the incidental
mention of a trivial circumstance, would induce us to infer, that the worship of the serpent was not altogether unknown even in these inhospitable wilds. The chief priest among the Virginians was observed to wear on his head a sacerdotal ornament of "snake skins tied together by the tails 1."
Now this circumstance, though apparently trivial, is not to be overlooked; for it brings to recollection an Egyptian custom which certainly prevailed among the votaries of the sacred serpent. The priests of Isis were, in particular, notified by the figure of an asp upon their bonnets; and we sometimes see a priest represented in sculpture with a small serpent upon his bare head. Again, serpents in the hair were a necessary part of the ornaments of a bacchanal. A similar ornament is observed on the heads of the priests in M. Aglio's Mexican antiquities; and the Mexicans were certainly serpent-worshippers. Is it not, therefore, possible, that the head-dress of the chief priest, among the wild Virginians, may have had a similar respect to the god of his adoration, or to the symbol of that deity?
The accompanying plate, which represents an Indian of the country N. W. of Louisiana, exhibits a priest of the Solar-Ophite religion. The Sun and Serpent tattooed upon his breast, and pictured upon the instrument in his hand are curious illustrations of ancient customs. The former especially remind us of the "stigmata 1" alluded to by Job, and St. Paul, which were borne on the body of the priests of all the old religions; and are still used to distinguish the Brahminical sects.
There is also an obscure Canadian tradition which seems to have belonged to the superstition of the Serpent. Whenever it thundered the natives believed "that the Devil was endeavouring to vomit a horrible serpent, and by straining to evacuate the same, rent the clouds and caused thunder 2."
Among the islands of the Southern Ocean we can hardly expect to find any traces of this idolatry. It is curious, however, to observe that in New Zealand there is a tradition that the serpent once spoke with a human voice 3.
These islanders also believed, that in the interior
Click to enlarge
An Indian inhabiting the Country Nth West of Louisiana in 1741
of the island is an enormous Lizard, animated by an Evil Spirit, who preys upon the human race. The Lizard worship prevails also in Africa, and is kindred to that of the serpent.
The inhabitants of the Tonga islands also believe that "the primitive gods sometimes come into the bodies of lizards, porpoises, and sea snakes--and hence these animals are much respected 1."
There is a remarkable passage in Tasman's voyage to the South Seas; which, if it does not actually prove the original Ophiolatreia of these islanders, yet tends to corroborate the hypothesis. Speaking of Rotterdam island he says, that "the inhabitants know nothing about religion or divine worship; they have no idols, relics, or priests, but they have nevertheless superstitions: for I saw a man take up a water snake which was near his boat, and put it respectfully on his head, and then, again into the water."
I will not insist that this, and the preceding facts are irrefragable proofs of original Ophiolatreia:--but I cannot help thinking it possible that such may be the case. The Polynesians are apparently derived from Malaya, and the
[paragraph continues] Ophite superstition was once very prevalent in all the neighbouring countries of Asia. But beyond this possibility I would not press the argument. Valeat quantum valet.
293:1 Ch. xiii. London, 1604.
294:1 Faber, P. I. v. 455, citing Purchas's Pilgrims.
294:2 Gottfrid. Hist. Antipod. part i. p. 31, apud Gronovium.
294:3 Clavigero, vol. i. p. 296.
294:4 Faber, P. I. ii. 285, citing Purchas.--It is a curious coincidence of ideas, that in Ephesians ii. 2, the DEVIL is styled "the prince of the power of the AIR."
295:1 Mr. Bullock.
298:2 De Orbe Novo, 291.
300:1 Aglio, vol. iii. Borgian Collection, plates 36, 38, &c.--Vol. iv. pl. 13. Sculpture in the Collection of M. Latour Allard, Paris.
301:1 Ogilby, p. 277.
301:2 Ibid. 286.
301:3 Voss. de Idol. l. iii. c. 13.
301:4 Acosta, c. 5.
302:1 Purchas, part iv. p. 1560.
302:2 Ibid. p. 1478.
303:1 Harris's Collec. of Voyages, i. 784.
303:2 Garcilasso de la Vega, book ix. c. 8.
303:3 Ibid. book i. c. 4.
305:1 Purchas, part 4, p. 1701.
306:1 See the remarks on the Thauma, chap. ii.
306:2 Ogilby, p. 132.
306:3 Christian Observer, 1810, p. 724.
307:1 Dillon's Discovery of La Perouse, ii. p. 12.