Young Folk's History of Mexico - Frederick Ober

The Ancient Mexicans

[1000 B.C.] Perhaps the principal reason why so many have sought to find a birthplace for this race in a foreign country is because their own traditions are so obscure. Yet great historians tell us that they are no more so than those of many nations of the Old World. They do not extend back so far, that is all. Their earliest traditions reach only to about one thousand years before the coming of Christ. And where the exact line of division occurs between tradition  and history  it is difficult to determine. But we may say pretty positively that their annals may be accepted as history  so far back as the sixth century.

[SIXTH CENTURY, A.D.] Though the ancient history of Mexico commences with the annals of the Toltecs, it is believed the country was inhabited by a wild people before this race came into prominence. There were the Olmecs and Xicalancas, the Otomies and Tepanecs—we are speaking now of the Mexican valley. Then, also, if we may believe the traditions, there were giants in those days. But we may find that the history of every people begins with fables and traditions regarding giants, and a great flood that may have occurred before or after the arrival of the giants upon the earth. We shall see, later on, that all these different tribes living in Mexico preserved traditions of a flood, or deluge, that covered their portion of the world, and destroyed the inhabitants of their country. Now, these giants may have been fabled monsters, but the early Indians believed that they lived here in Mexico. They were good-natured men, but very lazy, and when the strangers arrived among them from the south they enslaved them. Tired at last of the disgusting habits of the giants, the Indians turned upon them and slew them, first having put them to sleep by drugging their wine. Thus Mexico was freed from these worthless giants; but another monster was to stride over the land for many hundred years and make its fair valleys to be desolate more than once, this was the demon war.

The Toltecs

[596-1050.] Our first certain knowledge is of the race known as the Toltecs,—Toltecas, artificers, or architects,—who were really quite civilized when they first appeared in the pages of history. They understood and practised agriculture and many arts. Being driven from a country in which they had been long settled, by invading savages, they commenced a journey southward, halting at intervals long enough to plant corn and cotton and gather the crops.

[596.] Their annals tell us that they began their migration in the year "1 Tecpatl," or 596 of our Christian era. The country they left, supposed to be in the north, they called Huehue Tlapaltan, or the old Tlapaltan.

Here again enters speculation, upon the location of that country of the Toltecs. No one knows certainly where it was, but everything points to its having been in the north.

If you are acquainted with the early history of the United States, you will remember that the oldest remains of civilization there are those of the Mound Builders. You will recall the descriptions given of the great earthworks lying in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys; works so vast that it must have taken many generations to complete them, and erected so long ago that not even the faintest tradition remains to tell who built them.

Mound builders


They were a very civilized race, these Mound Builders, very different from the savages who surrounded them, or who have since swept over the country they once occupied.

They extended their sway, we know, as far north as Lake Superior, because old shafts have been discovered in the copper mines there, and detached masses of copper ore, with the wedges and chisels they used at their work. This was but an outpost of theirs, for their great works were in the south. Everything seemed to indicate, also, that they came from the south. Besides axes, adzes, lance-heads, knives, etc., found in these mounds, explorers have also unearthed pottery of elegant design, ornaments of silver, bone and mica, and of shell from the Gulf of Mexico. But there have been found there implements of obsidian, a volcanic product once used by the ancient Mexicans for spear-heads, arrow-heads, and knives. This shows that this people had connection with Mexico, if they had not originally come from there, since this volcanic glass, obsidian, "is found in its natural state nowhere nearer the Mississippi valley than the Mexican mountains of Cerro Gordo."

There are evidences, likewise, that they possessed the art of spinning and weaving, which was unknown to the Indians of the north, but practised years ago by those of the south—of the West Indies and Mexico. Now, it would seem that these great Mound Builders, when they were driven from this country, took a southerly direction, and at last arrived in Mexico. It is much pleasanter to think this than that they were crushed out of existence entirely; and there is a great deal to prove that this was actually the case, and that they were identical with those Toltecs who came down into Mexico twelve hundred and fifty years ago. In doing this, in performing this migration southward, they were, it is said, only returning to their old homes, from which their ancestors had strayed, it may be, in the first years of the world's history.

[Illustration] from History of Mexico by Frederick Ober

[700.] Well, the Toltecs came into Mexico; suddenly appearing from the darkness that had enveloped their past, and settled finally at Tollantzingo, in the year 70o, where, twenty years later, they founded the city of Tollan, or Tula. It is said by some that Tula already existed, under the name of Man-he-mi, and was merely rebuilt and renamed by the Toltecs. Be this as it may, the ruins of this capital city of the Toltecs now remain on the northern edge of the Mexican valley, to point out to the visitor the site of an ancient empire. The writer of this history has seen them—a scattered line of earthen-walled houses and temples, occupying a ridge of hills overlooking a lovely valley. On the face of a cliff is sculptured one of their heroes, and in the market-place of the present town of Tula may be seen sculptured pillars and great stones, taken from the ancient city of Tollantzingo. The Toltec monarchy commenced in the year 607 of the Christian era, and lasted till about the year 1000, each monarch reigning fifty-two years; or if he died before this period was completed, his successor was not appointed until its completion.

They were more given to the arts of peace than those of war, and their civilization was, perhaps, of a higher grade than that of any Indian nation that has succeeded them. They invented, or reformed, that wonderful calendar system which was used by all the people of the valley, and which required great knowledge of astronomy in its construction.

In about the year 660 they assembled all their wise men, prophets and astrologers, and painted a famous book, which they called Teoamoxtli, or Divine Book. In this sacred book was represented the origin of the Indians and (according to Spanish writers) the confusion of tongues at the building of the tower of Babel, the eclipse of the sun that occurred at the death of Christ, as well as prophecies concerning the future of the empire.

[Illustration] from History of Mexico by Frederick Ober


[1000.] Eight sovereigns had reigned in Tula before the empire began to weaken. It was during the reign of the emperor Topiltzin, some time in the tenth century, that this happened. And it is said to have come about by means of the love of the king for strong drink, and for a woman he had no right to love. The legend runs somewhat in this wise: One of the Toltec nobles (who had such a long name that it would be difficult for us even to pronounce it) had a lovely daughter called Xochitl. One day this noble succeeded in preparing a delicious kind of a drink—supposed to be the pulque, made from the maguey plant, and now so much drank in Mexico. Charmed with his success, he sent some as a present to his sovereign by the hand of the beautiful Xochitl—pronounced Hocheetl, and signifying the flower of Tollan. The emperor was so delighted with the pulque  that he ordered a large supply, and he was so enamored of Xochitl that he kept her a prisoner in his palace for many years and would not let her return to her people. Things came to such a pass after a while that his subjects began to murmur and many rose in rebellion.

[A. D. 1050.] And so it happened that, what with civil wars, famine and pestilence, there was but little of the great Toltec empire left by the middle of the eleventh century, and it perished from the earth. The famished and plague-stricken people scattered over a wide expanse of territory to the southward, leaving their capital city because they thought it accursed of their gods. But it was only as a nation that the Toltecs disappeared, for many of them continued to live in the country, and exerted an important influence upon the tribes that afterward invaded the valley of Anahuac. It is with a feeling of deep regret that we see this cultured race swept into oblivion, and the land they occupied once more given over to savages.

[Illustration] from History of Mexico by Frederick Ober


Ruins in Anahuac

There are many ruined structures in the valley of Mexico that are attributed to the Toltecs, and were either built by them or by the people who preceded them, the Olmecs, or the Totonacs.

The oldest of these ruins, apparently—older even than those of Tula, or Tollan—are those of Teotihuacan,—the "City of the Gods," situated in the valley of Anahuac, about twenty-five miles from the present city of Mexico. There are two great pyramids here, called the "Pyramid of the Moon" and the "Pyramid of the Sun;" and, besides these, there are long rows, some miles in length, of mounds and smaller pyramids. The pyramid of the moon measures 426 feet long on one side at the base, by 511 feet on another, and is 137 feet high. There is a gallery leading in to a deep well in the centre of the pyramid which is thought to contain treasure.

About 2700 feet from the pyramid of the moon is that of the sun, larger than the former, being about 735 feet square at the base and 203 feet high. It was called by the ancients, Tonatiuh Itzacual, or "house of the sun." Both pyramids are built in terraces and have broad platforms at their summits, upon one of which was borne a statue of the sun and upon the other that of the moon, both covered with gold and glistening in the sun so that worshipers coming to this valley could see them many miles away. It is thought that the Spanish soldiers stripped off the golden coverings of the idols, and the statues themselves have long since disappeared; though there are yet some large carved blocks of stone to be found at the base of one of the pyramids.

It is said that this was the site of a great city, a holy place, where the priests of the people resided. The most perplexing and peculiar feature of these ruins is the broad avenue, lined on either side with mounds, two hundred and fifty feet wide, called in the native traditions, Micaotli, or "path of the dead." Many traditions refer to this place as a holy city, and not only the dwelling-place of the gods and priests, but that to which the kings of the different people came to be crowned. One historian relates what is said to have happened here once, towards the destruction of the Toltec empire. "The gods were very angry with the Toltecs, and to avert their wrath, a meeting of all the wise men, priests and nobles, was called at Teotihuacan, where the gods from most ancient times had been wont to hear the prayers of men.

Pyramids of Teotihucan


"In the midst of the feasts and sacrifices an enormous demon with long bony arms and fingers, appeared dancing in the court where the people were assembled. Whirling through the crowd in every direction he seized upon the Toltecs that came in his way and dashed them at his feet. He appeared a second time, and the people perished by hundreds in his clutches. At his next appearance the demon assumed the form of a white and beautiful child, sitting on a rock and gazing at the holy city from a neighboring hill-top. As the people rushed in crowds to examine this strange creation, it was discovered that the child's head was a mass of corruption, the stench from which smote with death all who approached it. Finally the devil, or the god, appeared again and warned the Toltecs that their fate was sealed as a nation, and that they could only escape destruction by flight."

The visitor to this city of the gods to-day will find, scattered all over the surface of the pyramids and mounds, along the road of the dead and in the adjacent fields, numerous heads of clay, or terra cotta. They are grotesque in feature and singular in design. It is not known what use was made of them, why they were made in such quantities, nor why only heads are found, instead of entire figures having a body as well. It is thought by some that these idols were given by the priests, or holy men, to the crowds of worshipers who used to resort to this city of sanctuaries in these early times.

Whether those pyramids are Toltec, Olmec, or Totonac, it is very certain that they were built by a people who inhabited Anahuac long before the Aztecs arrived in it.

Quetzalcoatl, God of the Air

Before passing on to the people that succeeded the Toltecs in the valley of Mexico, let us glance at another pyramid of the past, belonging to this epoch, and at a great hero mentioned in Toltec traditions. We have seen that Tula was their capital and that there they lived in peace for many years. It was some time during their residence there that Quetzalcoatl, the "Feathered Serpent," appeared amongst them. He was a beneficent deity, who seemed to have taken the shape of a man in order to improve the condition of the people of earth. His name is constructed from two words, Quetzal, a bird of beautiful plumage found in the forests of southern Mexico, and Coatl, a serpent, also found there—Quetzalcoatl, the "Plumed Serpent." The traditions, or legends, paint him as a tall, white man with a large beard, in complexion and general appearance very different from the Indians, among whom he lived, in Tula, as "God of the Air."

Everything prospered exceedingly during his stay, and the people wanted for nothing. He created large and beautiful palaces of silver, precious stones, and even of feathers. In his time corn grew so strong that a single ear was a load for a man, gourds were as long as a man's body, pumpkins were a fathom in circumference, while cotton grew on its stalks of all colors, red, yellow, scarlet, blue, and green. He taught the people all their wonderful arts: how to cut the precious green stone, the chalchiuite, and the casting of metals. He also had an incredible number of beautiful and sweet-singing birds, the like of which has not been seen in the country since his time.

But all this prosperity was to come to an end. There came amongst the people an evil-minded god called Tezcatlipoca, who wished to drive Quetzalcoatl from the country. So he appeared to him in the form of an old man, and told him that it was the will of the gods that he should be taken to Tlapalla. After drinking a beverage the old man offered him, the Plumed Serpent felt so strongly inclined to go that he set out at once, accompanied by many of his subjects. Near a city yet pointed out in the valley of Mexico, that of Quauhtitlan, he felled a tree with stones, which remained fixed in the trunk; and near Halnepantla he laid his hand on a stone and left an impression which the Mexicans showed the Spaniards after the conquest. Finally, on his way to the coast, he passed through the valley of Cholula, where the inhabitants detained him and made him ruler over their city.

He did not approve of the sacrifice of human beings, which some of the tribes performed in their worship, but he was a mild and benevolent being, and ordered that they offer to the gods only flowers and fruits.

After twenty years, he continued his journey, though the sorrowing Cholulans would have detained him longer. Taking with him four noble and virtuous youths, he set out for the province of Coatzcoalcos, on the Gulf of Mexico. Here he dismissed his attendants and launched upon the waters of the gulf alone, while they returned and ruled over Cholula for many years. It is said that Quetzalcoatl appeared upon the coast of Yucatan, where he was worshiped under the name of Kukulcan; and his image may be seen to-day, cut in the wall of one of the vast ruined edifices of Yucatan.

He promised his followers of Tula and of Cholula that he would some time return, and bring back to them the prosperity that had attended his coming. For everything changed when he left, and even the sweet-singing birds he sent before him to that mysterious kingdom in the east, the land of Tlapallan.

Now, this is but a tale of the priests, a legend of those early Mexicans, yet their descendants firmly believed in it, and looked for the promised return of the Feathered Serpent for hundreds of years. We shall find, farther on in this history, that the Aztecs believed in his coming and at first took the cruel Spaniards to be messengers from the mild and beneficent Quetzalcoatl. They thought they were messengers of life, these fierce and blood-thirsty demons of death!

The Pyramid of Cholula

Even at the arrival of the Spaniards, the city of Cholula was considered holy place, the residence of the priests. Its inhabitants raised here an immense mound in honor of Quetzalcoatl, with a temple on its summit dedicated to his worship. It was more than a mound, it was a pyramid, the largest in America, with a broader base even than any of those of Egypt. It covers a surface of more than forty acres, is 1440 feet square at its base, and rises to a height of nearly two hundred feet. Though some ignorant writers have called this Pyramid of Cholula merely a natural hill, it has been proven to be wholly artificial. It is constructed of adobe, or sun-baked bricks, and is built in terraces with a broad platform at the top about two hundred feet square. It is said that the bricks used in its construction came from Tlamanalco, several leagues distant, and were passed from hand to hand, along a long line of men. This statement, however, may well be questioned. But that it is built of bricks, any one who has seen it can testify. The writer of this history has himself examined it, and wondered at the evidence here shown of past labor, skill and patience. He has climbed its terraced sides and has looked over the plain that once held the city of the priests, across the fertile fields to the great volcanoes that reach the clouds with their crests of snow.

Pyramid of Cholula


When Quetzalcoatl was alive—when, indeed—he issued his orders to the inhabitants of Tula by means of a crier, who ascended a mountain near by, called the "hill of shouting," and proclaimed the high priest's orders. The hill was so high, or the crier could shout so loud, that his voice could be heard for one hundred leagues around. It was very convenient for Quetzalcoatl to have such a crier as that, in those old days before the invention of telephones and railroads.

It is possible that he took this same great shouter with him to Cholula, and that he sent his marvelous voice far and wide over the valley, even to the crests of the surrounding mountains. We have diverged from our description of the different tribes, or nations, that invaded Anahuac, in order to describe these pyramids, these monuments of those most ancient of Mexican people, because they were the work, probably, of their hands.

We will now take leave of the Toltecs and glance at the next tribe that occupied the valley.