July 7, 2012

The Mexican Pyramids Facts Part 3

Understandably this surprising discovery has led some archaeologists to suspect that all Amerindian pyramids might contain tombs; but the evidence for this is, so far, not very strong. No other tombs have as yet been found although tunnels have been driven through quite a number of the Mexican pyramids. The object of these particular excavations was not a search for tombs but an investigation of the internal structure of these monuments. Unlike their Egyptian counterparts many of the Mexican pyramids are composite buildings which have increased in size through successive accretions. Excavations have shown that the great pyramid of Tenayuca, for instance, passed through no less than six consecutive building phases, each being superimposed on the previous one. The universality of this practice also extended to the Maya buildings of Yucatan, and the pyramid of Kukulcan at Chichen Itza envelops an earlier one which was slightly smaller, with its temple just below the present sanctum. It is now accessible through an archaeological tunnel driven along the surface of the older structure, which has revealed the previous sanctum, containing the stone carving of a jaguar, painted red with large green spots of jade. The most famous instance of these accretions is in the ‘Citadel’ of Teotihuacan, where excavation of the central pyramid, a remarkably plain building, brought to light the highly ornate facade of an earlier phase. This is the famous temple of Quetzal- coatl, with beautifully carved panels embellished by the protruding heads of the plumed serpent and the water god Tlaloc.

Mexican Pyramids
Often, as in the case of the temple of Quetzalcoatl, the underlying structure was partly demolished, and this leads to an explanation of the successive building changes at one and the same edifice. The object was not so much the enlargement of the structure as the alteration of its aspect. The peoples of Central America believed their world to be one of cyclic changes. They used a very complex calendar which featured, in addition to a year of 365 days, a period of 260 days which was made up of 13 ‘months’, each of twenty days. It is not known how these two counts came about, and while one was certainly geared to the motion of the sun, the other seems to have been connected with the planet Venus and its year of 584 days. Here we cannot go into the somewhat intricate relation of these two counts, except to say that it led to a repetition of the same day-name in the same position of the cycle every 52 years. This period, and even more so the longer count of 104 years, were regarded as highly important spans of time after which a renewal of the world took place. The end of each period and the beginning of the next was believed to be of momentous significance and the approach of this moment a time of great danger. During the last five ‘unlucky’ days people fasted and destroyed their household belongings; on the final night children were kept awake to prevent them from turning into mice in their sleep.

Even more victims than usual were sacrificed while the Aztecs extinguished all fires throughout the land, awaiting the change of the era with dark foreboding. In the fateful night the priests ascended a mountain, on the top of which they determined by astronomical observations the moment of midnight. As soon as it had passed without the world’s coming to an end, they kindled with a firedrill the first flame of the new epoch, suitably in the chest of a freshly sacrificed victim. Torches were lit from it and runners took the fire to every part of the country.
These important turning points in the fate of their world were celebrated by replacing old things with new ones, and therefore the temples, too, had to be renewed. Whether rebuilding took place everywhere at 52-year intervals is not certain but it has been suggested that the successive phases of the pyramid at Tenayuca occurred in the years 1299, 1351, 1403, 1455 and 1507 AD. It has already been mentioned that cycles of 104 years were even more important; one has reason to believe that still longer periods were celebrated, which were significant enough to replace the customary style of architecture with an entirely new one.
The concept of cyclic changes not only governed the life of the Aztec nation, but was also the basis of their mythical beliefs. In the past, they thought, there had been four worlds or ‘suns’, after the first of which men were eaten by jaguars, the second was destroyed by hurricanes, the third by fire, and the fourth by floods. Their own world was to be ended by earthquakes and its sun had continually to be fed with human blood to stave off this impending disaster. Thus, human sacrifice was forever needed to maintain the world. We are not certain as to the number slain annually when the Spaniards arrived in Mexico but some authorities have estimated it as high as 50,000 or more.

It seems inconceivable that year in year out these enormous numbers should have gone to a violent death without a popular revolt against this carnage. The reason for this extraordinary phenomenon was religious and based on the Aztec idea of life after death. Beyond this life was Mictlan, a cold cheerless place in the underworld. However, there also was a heaven, the abode of the gods to which some of the dead could be elevated, those who had fallen in battle or died on the sacrificial stone. Women, too, would go to heaven if they had died in childbirth, giving up their life to bear a future warrior. The parading of the victim up the steps of the pyramid was for him the prelude to a glorious and everlasting life which he entered when his heart was offered up to the sun. The sun was waiting for his blood. How strong the victim himself felt about his sublime destiny was shown by an instance that occurred during the Conquest. Every year a beautiful young prisoner was chosen to represent the god Tezcatlipoca. Throughout the year he was feasted like the god and during the last months four lovely girls became his companions. At the day of sacrifice he would bid them farewell, breaking one by one the flutes which he had played as he ascended the stairs of the pyramid. The current candidate remonstrated when Cortes forbade his sacrifice and thus cheated the youth out of the apotheosis awaiting him.
The cult of blood and suffering was not confined to the instance of death. Self-torture and ceremonial bloodletting was a common form of penitence and of asking favours from the gods. For the 156 priests it was a duty : the Spaniards described their frayed earlobes and the stench which emanated from their long hair, matted with blood. Some of the most devout ones would pass a string with maguey thorns through their tongues. The Axtecs were a martial race and, as in other heroic societies, sadism and masochism went hand in hand with homosexuality. Diaz describes the first Aztec pyramid which the Spaniards encountered : ‘There were clay idols made of pottery with faces of demons or women and other evil figures that showed Indians committing acts of sodomy with each other.’ In his speeches Cortes admonished the Aztecs again and again to ‘Give up their sacrifices, the eating of the flesh of their relations and the practice of sodomy’. In fact, the Spaniards, when picking up a prostitute, were often disgusted and horrified to find a man in women’s clothes.

In size the Aztec and Maya pyramids can be compared with the later Egyptian ones but they are far inferior to the huge monuments of the Egyptian Pyramid Age proper. However, there exist two immense pyramids only 50 km. from Mexico City, the ancient Tenochtitlan. When in the twelfth century the Aztecs entered the Valley of Mexico as an insignificant and despised tribe, these large pyramids were more than a thousand years old and even their origin was forgotten. Completely overgrown, they resembled natural hills rather than buildings and the real character of the site was only revealed by a broad ancient avenue, 4 km. long, which was as much overgrown as the hillocks flanking it. The Aztecs took these to be tombs and therefore called the avenue the ‘Street of the Dead’. The two large pyramids they regarded as being sacred to the sun and the moon on the basis of a current legend but without any historical justification. The site itself they called Teotihuacan, ‘The Place where Men became Gods’, and this is the name it bears today because we do not know what the original inhabitants called it. Neither do we know what they called themselves, where they came from and what language they spoke.


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