Monday, August 1, 2011

Native American Myths, Sacred Numbers



THE SACRED NUMBER, ITS ORIGIN AND APPLICATIONS.
The number Four sacred in all American religions, and the key to their symbolism.—Derived from the Cardinal Points.—Appears constantly in government, arts, rites, and myths.—The Cardinal Points identified with the Four Winds, who in myths are the four ancestors of the human race, and the four celestial rivers watering the terrestrial Paradise.—Associations grouped around each Cardinal Point.—From the number four was derived the symbolic value of the number Forty, and the Sign of the Cross.
EVERY one familiar with the ancient religions of the world must have noticed the mystic power they attach to certain numbers, and how these numbers became the measures and formative quantities, as it were, of traditions and ceremonies, and had a symbolical meaning nowise connected with their arithmetical value. For instance, in many eastern religions, that of the Jews among the rest, seven was the most sacred number, and after it, four and three. The most cursory reader must have observed in how many connections the seven is used in the Hebrew Scriptures, occurring, in all, something over three hundred and sixty times, it is said. Why these numbers were chosen rather than others has not been clearly explained. Their sacred character dates beyond the earliest history, and must have been coeval with the first expressions of the religious sentiment. Only one of them, the FOUR, has any prominence in] the religions of the red race, but this is so marked and so universal, that at a very early period in my studies, I felt convinced that if the reason for its adoption could be discovered, much of the apparent confusion which reigns among them would be dispelled.
Such a reason must take its rise from some essential relation of man to nature, everywhere prominent, everywhere the same. It is found in the adoration of the cardinal points.
The red man, as I have said, was a hunter; he was ever wandering through pathless forests, coursing over boundless prairies. It seems to the white race not a faculty, but an instinct that guides him so unerringly. He is never at a loss. Says a writer who has deeply studied his character: “The Indian ever has the points of the compass present to his mind, and expresses himself accordingly in words, although it shall be of matters in his own house.”67-1
The assumption of precisely four cardinal points is not of chance; it is recognized in every language; it is rendered essential by the anatomical structure of the body; it is derived from the immutable laws of the universe. Whether we gaze at the sunset or the sunrise, or whether at night we look for guidance to the only star of the twinkling thousands that is constant to its place, the anterior and posterior planes of our bodies, our right hands and our left coincide with the parallels and meridians. Very early in his history did man take note of these four points, and recognizing in them his guides through the night and] the wilderness, call them his gods. Long afterwards, when centuries of slow progress had taught him other secrets of nature—when he had discerned in the motions of the sun, the elements of matter, and the radicals of arithmetic a repetition of this number—they were to him further warrants of its sacredness. He adopted it as a regulating quantity in his institutions and his arts; he repeated it in its multiples and compounds; he imagined for it novel applications; he constantly magnified its mystic meaning; and finally, in his philosophical reveries, he called it the key to the secrets of the universe, “the source of ever-flowing nature.”68-1
In primitive geography the figure of the earth is a square plain; in the legend of the Quiché’s it is “shaped as a square, divided into four parts, marked with lines, measured with cords, and suspended from the heavens by a cord to its four corners and its four sides.” The earliest divisions of territory were in conformity to this view. Thus it was with ancient Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, and China;68-3 and] in the new world, the states of Peru, Araucania, the Muyscas, the Quichés, and Tlascala were tetrarchies divided in accordance with, and in the first two instances named after, the cardinal points. So their chief cities—Cuzco, Quito, Tezcuco, Mexico, Cholula—were quartered by streets running north, south, east, and west. It was a necessary result of such a division that the chief officers of the government were four in number, that the inhabitants of town and country, that the whole social organization acquired a quadruplicate form. The official title of the Incas was “Lord of the four quarters of the earth,” and the venerable formality in taking possession of land, both in their domain and that of the Aztecs, was to throw a stone, to shoot an arrow, or to hurl a firebrand to each of the cardinal points. They carried out the idea in their architecture, building their palaces in squares with doors opening, their tombs with their angles pointing, their great causeways running in these directions. These architectural principles repeat themselves all over the continent; they recur in the sacred structures of Yucatan, in the ancient cemetery of Teo-tihuacan near Mexico, where the tombs are arranged along avenues corresponding exactly to the parallels and meridians of the central tumuli of the sun and moon; and however ignorant] we are about the mound builders of the Mississippi valley, we know that they constructed their earthworks with a constant regard to the quarters of the compass.
Nothing can be more natural than to take into consideration the regions of the heavens in the construction of buildings; I presume that at any time no one plans an edifice of pretensions without doing so. Yet this is one of those apparently trifling transactions which in their origin and applications have exerted a controlling influence on the history of the human race.
When we reflect how indissolubly the mind of the primitive man is welded to his superstitions, it were incredible that his social life and his architecture could thus be as it were in subjection to one idea, and his rites and myths escape its sway. As one might expect, it reappears in these latter more vividly than anywhere else. If there is one formula more frequently mentioned by travellers than another as an indispensable preliminary to all serious business, it is that of smoking, and the prescribed and traditional rule was that the first puff should be to the sky, and then one to each of the corners of the earth, or the cardinal points.70-1 These were the spirits who made and governed the earth, and under whatever difference of guise the uncultivated fancy portrayed them, they were the leading figures in the tales and ceremonies of nearly every tribe of the red[71] race. These were the divine powers summoned by the Chipeway magicians when initiating neophytes into the mysteries of the meda craft. They were asked to a lodge of four poles, to four stones that lay before its fire, there to remain four days, and attend four feasts. At every step of the proceeding this number or its multiples were repeated.71-1 With their neighbors the Dakotas the number was also distinctly sacred; it was intimately inwoven in all their tales concerning the wakan power and the spirits of the air, and their religious rites. The artist Catlin has given a vivid description of the great annual festival of the Mandans, a Dakota tribe, and brings forward with emphasis the ceaseless reiteration of this number from first to last.71-2 He did not detect its origin in the veneration of the cardinal points, but the information that has since been furnished of the myths of this stock leaves no doubt that such was the case.71-3
Proximity of place had no part in this similarity of rite. In the grand commemorative festival of the Creeks called the Busk, which wiped out the memory of all crimes but murder, which reconciled the proscribed criminal to his nation and atoned for his guilt, when the new fire was kindled and the green corn served up, every dance, every invocation, every ceremony, was shaped and ruled by the application of the[72] number four and its multiples in every imaginable relation. So it was at that solemn probation which the youth must undergo to prove himself worthy of the dignities of manhood and to ascertain his guardian spirit; here again his fasts, his seclusions, his trials, were all laid down in fourfoldarrangement.72-1
Not alone among these barbarous tribes were the cardinal points thus the foundation of the most solemn mysteries of religion. An excellent authority relates that the Aztecs of Micla, in Guatemala, celebrated their chief festival four times a year, and that four priests solemnized its rites. They commenced by invoking and offering incense to the sky and the four cardinal points; they conducted the human victim four times around the temple, then tore out his heart, and catching the blood in four vases scattered it in the samedirections.72-2 So also the Peruvians had four principal festivals annually, and at every new moon one of four days’ duration. In fact the repetition of the number in all their religious ceremonies is so prominent that it has been a subject of comment by historians. They have attributed it to the knowledge of the solstices and equinoxes, but assuredly it is of more ancient date than this. The same explanation has been offered for its recurrence among the Nahuas of Mexico, whose whole lives[73] were subjected to its operation. At birth the mother was held unclean for four days, a fire was kindled and kept burning for a like length of time, at the baptism of the child an arrow was shot to each of the cardinal points. Their prayers were offered four times a day, the greatest festivals were every fourth year, and their offerings of blood were to the four points of the compass. At death food was placed on the grave, as among the Eskimos, Creeks, and Algonkins, for four days (for all these nations supposed that the journey to the land of souls was accomplished in that time), and mourning for the dead was for four months or four years.73-1
It were fatiguing and unnecessary to extend the catalogue much further. Yet it is not nearly exhausted. From tribes of both continents and all stages of culture, the Muyscas of Columbia and the Natchez of Louisiana, the Quichés of Guatemala and the Caribs of the Orinoko, instance after instance might be marshalled to illustrate how universally a sacred character was attached to this number, and how uniformly it is traceable to a veneration of the cardinal points. It is sufficient that it be displayed in some of its more unusual applications.
us saith the Lord God, come forth from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” (Ezek. xxxvii. 9.)
In the same spirit the priests of the Eskimos prayed to Sillam Innua, the Owner of the Winds, as the highest existence; the abode of the dead they called Sillam Aipane, the House of the Winds; and in their incantations, when they would summon a new soul to the sick, or order back to its home some troublesome spirit, their invocations were ever addressed to the winds from the cardinal points—to Pauna the East and Sauna the West, to Kauna the South and Auna the North.76-1
As the rain-bringers, as the life-givers, it were no far-fetched metaphor to call them the fathers of our race. Hardly a nation on the continent but seems to have had some vague tradition of an origin from four brothers, to have at some time been led by four leaders or princes, or in some manner to have connected the appearance and action of four important personages with its earliest traditional history. Sometimes the myth defines clearly these fabled characters as the spirits of the winds, sometimes it clothes them in uncouth, grotesque metaphors, sometimes again it so[77] weaves them into actual history that we are at a loss where to draw the line that divides fiction from truth.
I shall attempt to follow step by step the growth of this myth from its simplest expression, where the transparent drapery makes no pretence to conceal its true meaning, through the ever more elaborate narratives, the more strongly marked personifications of more cultivated nations, until it assumes the outlines of, and has palmed itself upon the world as actual history.
This simplest form is that which alone appears among the Algonkins and Dakotas. They both traced their lives back to four ancestors, personages concerned in various ways with the first things of time, not rightly distinguished as men or gods, but very positively identified with the four winds. Whether from one or all of these the world was peopled, whether by process of generation or some other more obscure way, the old people had not said, or saying, had not agreed.77-1
It is a shade more complex when we come to the Creeks. They told of four men who came from the four corners of the earth, who brought them the sacred fire, and pointed out the seven sacred plants. They were called the Hi-you-yul-gee. Having rendered them this service, the kindly visitors disappeared in a cloud, returning whence they came. When another and more ancient legend informs us that the Creeks were at first divided into four clans, and alleged a descent from four female ancestors, it[78] will hardly be venturing too far to recognize in these four ancestors the four friendly patrons from the cardinal points.78-1
The ancient inhabitants of Haiti, when first discovered by the Spaniards, had a similar genealogical story, which Peter Martyr relates with various excuses for its silliness and exclamations at its absurdity. Perhaps the fault lay less in its lack of meaning than in his want of insight. It was to the effect that men lived in caves, and were destroyed by the parching rays of the sun, and were destitute of means to prolong their race, until they caught and subjected to their use four women who were swift of foot and slippery as eels. These were the mothers of the race of men. Or again, it was said that a certain king had a huge gourd which contained all the waters of the earth; four brothers, who coming into the world at one birth had cost their mother her life, ventured to the gourd to fish, picked it up, but frightened by the old king’s approach, dropped it on the ground, broke it into fragments, and scattered the waters over the earth, forming the seas, lakes, and rivers, as they now are. These brothers in time became the fathers of a nation, and to them they traced their lineage.78-2 With the previous examples[79] before our eyes, it asks no vivid fancy to see in these quaternions once more the four winds, the bringers of rain, so swift and so slippery.
The Navajos are a rude tribe north of Mexico. Yet even they have an allegory to the effect that when the first man came up from the ground under the figure of the moth-worm, the four spirits of the cardinal points were already there, and hailed him with the exclamation, “Lo, he is of our race.”79-1 It is a poor and feeble effort to tell the same old story.
The Haitians were probably relatives of the Mayas of Yucatan. Certainly the latter shared their ancestral legends, for in an ancient manuscript found by Mr. Stephens during his travels, it appears they looked back to four parents or leaders called the Tutul Xiu. But, indeed, this was a trait of all the civilized nations of Central America and Mexico. An author who would be very unwilling to admit any mythical interpretation of the coincidence, has adverted to it in tones of astonishment: “In all the Aztec and Toltec histories there are four characters who constantly reappear; either as priests or envoys of the gods, or of hidden and disguised majesty; or as guides and chieftains of tribes during their migrations; or as kings and rulers of monarchies after their foundation; and even to the time of the conquest, there are always four princes who compose the supreme government, whether in Guatemala, or in Mexico.”79-2 This fourfold division points not to a common history, but to a common nature. The ancient heroes[80] and demigods, who, four in number, figure in all these antique traditions, were not men of flesh and blood, but the invisible currents of air who brought the fertilizing showers.
They corresponded to the four gods Bacab, who in the Yucatecan mythology were supposed to stand one at each corner of the world, supporting, like gigantic caryatides, the overhanging firmament. When at the general deluge all other gods and men were swallowed by the waters they alone escaped to people it anew. These four, known by the names of Kan, Muluc, Ix, and Cauac, represented respectively the east, north, west, and south, and as in Oriental symbolism, so here each quarter of the compass was distinguished by a color, the east by yellow, the south by red, the west by black, and the north by white. The names of these mysterious personages, employed somewhat as we do the Dominical letters, adjusted the calendar of the Mayas, and by their propitious or portentous combinations was arranged their system of judicial astrology. They were the gods of rain, and under the title Chac, the Red Ones, were the chief ministers of the highest power. As such they were represented in the religious ceremonies by four old men, constant attendants on the high priest in his official functions.80-1 In this most civilized branch of[81] the red race, as everywhere else, we thus find four mythological characters prominent beyond all others, giving a peculiar physiognomy to the national legends, arts, and sciences, and in them once more we recognize by signs infallible, personifications of the four cardinal points and the four winds.
They rarely lose altogether their true character. The Quiché legends tell us that the four men who were first created by the Heart of Heaven, Hurakan, the Air in Motion, were infinitely keen of eye and swift of foot, that “they measured and saw all that exists at the four corners and the four angles of the sky and the earth;” that they did not fulfil the design of their maker “to bring forth and produce when the season of harvest was near,” until he blew into their eyes a cloud, “until their faces were obscured as when one breathes on a mirror.” Then he gave them as wives the four mothers of our species, whose names were Falling Water, Beautiful Water, Water of Serpents, and Water of Birds.81-1 Truly he who can see aught but a transparent myth in this recital, is a realist that would astonish Euhemerus himself.
There is in these Aztec legends a quaternion besides this of the first men, one that bears marks of a profound contemplation on the course of nature, one[82] that answers to the former as the heavenly phase of the earthly conception. It is seen in the four personages, or perhaps we should say modes of action, that make up the one Supreme Cause of All, Hurakan, the breath, the wind, the Divine Spirit. They are He who creates, He who gives Form, He who gives Life, and He who reproduces.82-1 This acute and extraordinary analysis of the origin and laws of organic life, clothed under the ancient belief in the action of the winds, reveals a depth of thought for which we were hardly prepared, and is perhaps the single instance of anything like metaphysics among the red race. It is clearly visible in the earlier portions of the legends of the Quichés, and is the more surely of native origin as it has been quite lost on both their translators.
Go where we will, the same story meets us. The empire of the Incas was attributed in the sacred chants of the Amautas, the priests assigned to take charge of the records, to four brothers and their wives. These mythical civilizers are said to have emerged from a cave called Pacari tampu, which may mean “the House of Subsistence,” reminding us of the four heroes who in Aztec legend set forth to people the world from Tonacatepec, the mountain of our[83] subsistence; or again it may mean—for like many of these mythical names it seems to have been designedly chosen to bear a double construction—the Lodgings of the Dawn, recalling another Aztec legend which points for the birthplace of the race to Tula in the distant orient. The cave itself suggests to the classical reader that of Eolus, or may be paralleled with that in which the Iroquois fabled the winds were imprisoned by theirlord.83-1 These brothers were of no common kin. Their voices could shake the earth and their hands heap up mountains. Like the thunder god, they stood on the hills and hurled their sling-stones to the four corners of the earth. When one was overpowered he fled upward to the heaven or was turned into stone, and it was by their aid and counsel that the savages who possessed the land renounced their barbarous habits and commenced to till the soil. There can be no doubt but that this in turn is but another transformation of the Protean myth we have so long pursued.83-2
There are traces of the same legend among many other tribes of the continent, but the trustworthy reports we have of them are too scanty to permit analysis. Enough that they are mentioned in a note, for it is every way likely that could we resolve their meaning they too would carry us back to the four winds.83-3
[84]Let no one suppose, however, that this was the only myth of the origin of man. Far from it. It was but one of many, for, as I shall hereafter attempt to show, the laws that governed the formations of such myths not only allowed but enjoined great divergence of form. Equally far was it from being the only image which the inventive fancy hit upon to express the action of the winds as the rain bringers. They too were many, but may all be included in a twofold division, either as the winds were supposed to flow in from the corners of the earth or outward from its central point. Thus they are spoken of under such[85] figures as four tortoises at the angles of the earthly plane who vomit forth the rains,85-1 or four gigantic caryatides who sustain the heavens and blow the winds from their capacious lungs,85-2 or more frequently as four rivers flowing from the broken calabash on high, as the Haitians, draining the waters of the primitive world,85-3 as four animals who bring from heaven the maize,85-4 as four messengers whom the god of air sends forth, or under a coarser trope as the spittle he ejects toward the cardinal points which is straightway transformed into wild rice, tobacco, and maize.85-5
Constantly from the palace of the lord of the world, seated on the high hill of heaven, blow four winds, pour four streams, refreshing and fecundating the earth. Therefore, in the myths of ancient Iran there is mention of a celestial fountain, Arduisur, the virgin daughter of Ormuzd, whence four all nourishing rivers roll their waves toward the cardinal points; therefore the Thibetans believe that on the sacred mountain Himavata grows the tree of life Zampu, from whose foot once more flow the waters of life in four streams to the four quarters of the world; and therefore it is that the same tale is told by the Chinese of the mountain Kouantun, by the Brahmins of Mount Meru, and by the Parsees of Mount Albors in the Caucasus.85-6 Each nation called[86] their sacred mountain “the navel of the earth;” for not only was it the supposed centre of the habitable world, but through it, as the fœtus through the umbilical cord, the earth drew her increase. Beyond all other spots were they accounted fertile, scenes of joyous plaisance, of repose, and eternal youth; there rippled the waters of health, there blossomed the tree of life; they were fit trysting spots of gods and men. Hence came the tales of the terrestrial paradise, the rose garden of Feridun, the Eden gardens of the world. The name shows the origin, for paradise (in Sanscrit, para desa) means literally high land. There, in the unanimous opinion of the Orient, dwelt once in unalloyed delight the first of men; thence driven by untoward fate, no more anywhere could they find the path thither. Some thought that in the north among the fortunate Hyperboreans, others that in the mountains of the moon where dwelt the long lived Ethiopians, and others again that in the furthest east, underneath the dawn, was situate the seat of pristine happiness; but many were of opinion that somewhere in the western sea, beyond the pillars of Hercules and the waters of the Outer Ocean, lay the garden of the Hesperides, the Islands of the Blessed, the earthly Elysion.
It is not without design that I recall this early dream of the religious fancy. When Christopher Columbus, fired by the hope of discovering this terrestrial paradise, broke the enchantment of the cloudy sea and found a new world, it was but to light[87] upon the same race of men, deluding themselves with the same hope of earthly joys, the same fiction of a long lost garden of their youth. They told him that still to the west, amid the mountains of Paria, was a spot whence flowed mighty streams over all lands, and which in sooth was the spot he sought;87-1 and when that baseless fabric had vanished, there still remained the fabled island of Boiuca, or Bimini, hundreds of leagues north of Hispaniola, whose glebe was watered by a fountain of such noble virtue as to restore youth and vigor to the worn out and the aged.87-2 This was no fiction of the natives to rid themselves of burdensome guests. Long before the white man approached their shores, families had started from Cuba, Yucatan, and Honduras in search of these renovating waters, and not returning, were supposed by their kindred to have been detained by the delights of that enchanted land, and to be revelling in its seductive joys, forgetful of former ties.87-3
Perhaps it was but another rendering of the same belief that pointed to the impenetrable forests of the Orinoko, the ancient homes of the Caribs and Arowacks, and there located the famous realm of El Dorado with its imperial capital Manoa, abounding[88] in precious metals and all manner of gems, peopled by a happy race, and governed by an equitable ruler.
The Aztec priests never chanted more regretful dirges than when they sang of Tulan, the cradle of their race, where once it dwelt in peaceful indolent happiness, whose groves were filled with birds of sweet voices and gay plumage, whose generous soil brought forth spontaneously maize, cocoa, aromatic gums, and fragrant flowers. “Land of riches and plenty, where the gourds grow an arm’s length across, where an ear of corn is a load for a stout man, and its stalks are as high as trees; land where the cotton ripens of its own accord of all rich tints; land abounding with limpid emeralds, turquoises, gold, and silver.”88-1 This land was also called Tlalocan, from Tlaloc, the god of rain, who there had his dwelling place, and Tlapallan, the land of colors, or the red land, for the hues of the sky at sunrise floated over it. Its inhabitants were surnamed children of the air, or of Quetzalcoatl, and from its centre rose the holy mountain Tonacatepec, the mountain of our life or subsistence. Its supposed location was in the east, whence in that country blow the winds that bring mild rains, says Sahagun, and that missionary was himself asked, as coming from the east, whether his home was in Tlapallan; more definitely by some it was situated among the lofty peaks on the frontiers of Guatemala, and all the great rivers that water the earth were supposed to have their sources there.88-2 But here, as elsewhere, its site was not determined.[89] “There is a Tulan,” says an ancient authority, “where the sun rises, and there is another in the land of shades, and another where the sun reposes, and thence came we; and still another where the sun reposes, and there dwells God.”89-1
The myth of the Quichés but changes the name of this pleasant land. With them it was Pan-paxil-pa-cayala, where the waters divide in falling, or between the waters parcelled out and mucky. This was “an excellent land, full of pleasant things, where was store of white corn and yellow corn, where one could not count the fruits, nor estimate the quantity of honey and food.” Over it ruled the lord of the air,[90] and from it the four sacred animals carried the corn to make the flesh of men.90-1
Once again, in the legends of the Mixtecas, we hear the old story repeated of the garden where the first two brothers dwelt. It lay between a meadow and that lofty peak which supports the heavens and the palaces of the gods. “Many trees were there, such as yield flowers and roses, very luscious fruits, divers herbs, and aromatic spices.” The names of the brothers were the Wind of Nine Serpents and the Wind of Nine Caverns. The first was as an eagle, and flew aloft over the waters that poured around their enchanted garden; the second was as a serpent with wings, who proceeded with such velocity that he pierced rocks and walls. They were too swift to be seen by the sharpest eye, and were one near as they passed, he was only aware of a whisper and a rustling like that of the wind in the leaves.90-2
Wherever, in short, the lust of gold lured the early adventurers, they were told of some nation a little further on, some wealthy and prosperous land, abundant and fertile, satisfying the desire of the heart. It was sometimes deceit, and it was sometimes the credited fiction of the earthly paradise, that in all ages has with a promise of perfect joy consoled the aching heart of man.
It is instructive to study the associations that naturally group themselves around each of the cardinal points, and watch how these are mirrored on the surface of language, and have directed the current of[91] thought. Jacob Grimm has performed this task with fidelity and beauty as regards the Aryan race, but the means are wanting to apply his searching method to the indigenous tongues of America. Enough if in general terms their mythological value be determined.
When the day begins, man wakes from his slumbers, faces the rising sun, and prays. The east is before him; by it he learns all other directions; it is to him what the north is to the needle; with reference to it he assigns in his mind the position of the three other cardinal points.91-1 There is the starting place of the celestial fires, the home of the sun, the womb of the morning. It represents in space the beginning of things in time, and as the bright and glorious creatures of the sky come forth thence, man conceits that his ancestors also in remote ages wandered from the orient; there in the opinion of many in both the old and new world was the cradle of the race; there in Aztec legend was the fabled land of Tlapallan, and the wind from the east was called the wind of Paradise, Tlalocavitl.
From this direction came, according to the almost unanimous opinion of the Indian tribes, those hero gods who taught them arts and religion, thither they returned, and from thence they would again appear to resume their ancient sway. As the dawn brings light, and with light is associated in every human mind the ideas of knowledge, safety, protection, majesty, divinity, as it dispels the spectres of night, as it[92] defines the cardinal points, and brings forth the sun and the day, it occupied the primitive mind to an extent that can hardly be magnified beyond the truth. It is in fact the central figure in most natural religions.
The west, as the grave of the heavenly luminaries, or rather as their goal and place of repose, brings with it thoughts of sleep, of death, of tranquillity, of rest from labor. When the evening of his days was come, when his course was run, and man had sunk from sight, he was supposed to follow the sun and find some spot of repose for his tired soul in the distant west. There, with general consent, the tribes north of the Gulf of Mexico supposed the happy hunting grounds; there, taught by the same analogy, the ancient Aryans placed the Nerriti, the exodus, the land of the dead. “The old notion among us,” said on one occasion a distinguished chief of the Creek nation, “is that when we die, the spirit goes the way the sun goes, to the west, and there joins its family and friends who went before it.”92-1
In the northern hemisphere the shadows fall to the north, thence blow cold and furious winds, thence come the snow and early thunder. Perhaps all its primitive inhabitants, of whatever race, thought it the seat of the mighty gods.92-2 A floe of ice in the Arctic Sea was the home of the guardian spirit of the Algonkins;92-3 on a mountain near the north star the Dakotas thought Heyoka dwelt who rules the seasons; and the realm of Mictla, the Aztec god of death, lay where the shadows pointed. From that cheerless[93] abode his sceptre reached over all creatures, even the gods themselves, for sooner or later all must fall before him. The great spirit of the dead, said the Ottawas, lives in the dark north,93-1 and there, in the opinion of the Monquis of California, resided their chief god, Gumongo.93-2
Unfortunately the makers of vocabularies have rarely included the words north, south, east, and west, in their lists, and the methods of expressing these ideas adopted by the Indians can only be partially discovered. The east and west were usually called from the rising and setting of the sun as in our words orient and occident, but occasionally from traditional notions. The Mayas named the west the greater, the east the lesser debarkation; believing that while their culture hero Zamna came from the east with a few attendants, the mass of the population arrived from the opposite direction.93-3 The Aztecs spoke of the east as “the direction of Tlalocan,” the terrestrial paradise. But for north and south there were no such natural appellations, and consequently the greatest diversity is exhibited in the plans adopted to express them. The north in the Caddo tongue is “the place of cold,” in Dakota “the situation of the pines,” in Creek “the abode of the (north) star,” in Algonkin “the home of the soul,” in Aztec “the direction of Mictla” the realm of death, in Quiché and Quichua, “to the right hand;”93-4 while for[94] the south we find such terms as in Dakota “the downward direction,” in Algonkin “the place of warmth,” in Quiché “to the left hand,” while among the Eskimos, who look in this direction for the sun, its name implies “before one,” just as does the Hebrew word kedem, which, however, this more southern tribe applied to the east.
We can trace the sacredness of the number four in other curious and unlooked-for developments. Multiplied into the number of the fingers—the arithmetic of every child and ignorant man—or by adding together the first four members of its arithmetical series (4 + 8 + 12 + 16), it gives the number forty. This was taken as a limit to the sacred dances of some Indian tribes, and by others as the highest number of chants to be employed in exorcising diseases. Consequently it came to be fixed as a limit in exercises of preparation or purification. The females of the Orinoko tribes fasted forty days before marriage, and those of the upper Mississippi were held unclean the same length of time after childbirth; such was the term of the Prince of Tezcuco’s fast when he wished an heir to his throne, and such the number of days the Mandans supposed it required to wash clean the world at thedeluge.94-1
[95]No one is ignorant how widely this belief was prevalent in the old world, nor how the quadrigesimal is still a sacred term with some denominations of Christianity. But a more striking parallelism awaits us. The symbol that beyond all others has fascinated the human mind, THE CROSS, finds here its source and meaning. Scholars have pointed out its sacredness in many natural religions, and have reverently accepted it as a mystery, or offered scores of conflicting and often debasing interpretations. It is but another symbol of the four cardinal points, the four winds of heaven. This will luminously appear by a study of its use and meaning in America.
The Catholic missionaries found it was no new object of adoration to the red race, and were in doubt whether to ascribe the fact to the pious labors of Saint Thomas or the sacrilegious subtlety of Satan. It was the central object in the great temple of Cozumel, and is still preserved on the bas-reliefs of the ruined city of Palenque. From time immemorial it had received the prayers and sacrifices of the Aztecs and Toltecs, and was suspended as an august emblem from the walls of temples in Popoyan and Cundinamarca. In the Mexican tongue it bore the significant and worthy name “Tree of Our Life,” or “Tree of our Flesh” (Tonacaquahuitl). It represented the god of rains and of health, and this was everywhere its simple meaning. “Those of Yucatan,” say the chroniclers, “prayed to the cross as the god of rains when they needed water.” The Aztec goddess of rains bore one in her hand, and at the feast celebrated to her honor in the early spring victims were nailed to a cross and shot with arrows. Quetzalcoatl, god of[96] the winds, bore as his sign of office “a mace like the cross of a bishop;” his robe was covered with them strown like flowers, and its adoration was throughout connected with his worship.96-1 When the Muyscas would sacrifice to the goddess of waters they extended cords across the tranquil depths of some lake, thus forming a gigantic cross, and at their point of intersection threw in their offerings of gold, emeralds, and precious oils.96-2 The arms of the cross were designed to point to the cardinal points and represent the four winds, the rain bringers. To confirm this explanation, let us have recourse to the simpler ceremonies of the less cultivated tribes, and see the transparent meaning of the symbol as they employed it.
When the rain maker of the Lenni Lenape would exert his power, he retired to some secluded spot and drew upon the earth the figure of a cross (its arms toward the cardinal points?), placed upon it a piece of tobacco, a gourd, a bit of some red stuff, and commenced to cry aloud to the spirits of the rains.96-3 The Creeks at the festival of the Busk, celebrated, as we have seen, to the four winds, and according to their legends instituted by them, commenced with making[97] the new fire. The manner of this was “to place four logs in the centre of the square, end to end, forming a cross, the outer ends pointing to the cardinal points; in the centre of the cross the new fire is made.”97-1
As the emblem of the winds who dispense the fertilizing showers it is emphatically the tree of our life, our subsistence, and our health. It never had any other meaning in America, and if, as has been said,97-2 the tombs of the Mexicans were cruciform, it was perhaps with reference to a resurrection and a future life as portrayed under this symbol, indicating that the buried body would rise by the action of the four spirits of the world, as the buried seed takes on a new existence when watered by the vernal showers. It frequently recurs in the ancient Egyptian writings, where it is interpreted life; doubtless, could we trace the hieroglyph to its source, it would likewise prove to be derived from the four winds.
While thus recognizing the natural origin of this consecrated symbol, while discovering that it is based on the sacredness of numbers, and this in turn on[98] the structure and necessary relations of the human body, thus disowning the meaningless mysticism that Joseph de Maistre and his disciples have advocated, let us on the other hand be equally on our guard against accepting the material facts which underlie these beliefs as their deepest foundation and their exhaustive explanation. That were but withered fruit for our labors, and it might well be asked, where is here the divine idea said to be dimly prefigured in mythology? The universal belief in the sacredness of numbers is an instinctive faith in an immortal truth; it is a direct perception of the soul, akin to that which recognizes a God. The laws of chemical combination, of the various modes of motion, of all organic growth, show that simple numerical relations govern all the properties and are inherent to the very constitution of matter; more marvellous still, the most recent and severe inductions of physicists show that precisely those two numbers on whose symbolical value much of the edifice of ancient mythology was erected, the four and the three, regulate the molecular distribution of matter and preside over the symmetrical development of organic forms. This asks no faith, but only knowledge; it is science, not revelation. In view of such facts is it presumptuous to predict that experiment itself will prove the truth of Kepler’s beautiful saying: “The universe is a harmonious whole, the soul of which is God; numbers, figures, the stars, all nature, indeed, are in unison with the mysteries of religion”?


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