In regarding Central America and Mexico as a single cultural area, I accept the authority of Eduard Seler, who, grouping Guatemala, Yucatan, and the area that includes Mexico City together, writes:
The unity of this entire region of ancient civilization is most clearly expressed by the calendar, which these people considered the basis and alpha and omega of all high and occult knowledge. 23
According to this view, the Mayan, the Toltec, and the Aztec are varieties of a single culture.
The most dramatic rendering of the mythology belonging to this culture is in a book written in Guatemala, in a Mayan language, some time in the seventeenth century. This is the "Popul Vuh." The Spanish version of the native text was translated into French by the Abbé Brasseur de Bourbourg, and our main knowledge of this curious and exciting book is derived from this translation. Two stories in this collection are from the "Popul Vuh"--the story of the Creation, and the story of the adventures of the Twin Heroes. A little material has also been taken from an English version of parts of another native book--the "Annals" of the Cakchiquel Indians. The rest of the stories are Aztec; they belong to the people whose capital was where Mexico City now stands. The political and material power that this people had attained to is revealed in the impression that their great city, Tenochtitlan, made on the chronicler of the Spanish Conquest, Bernal Diaz:
We counted amongst us soldiers who had traversed different parts of the world: Constantinople, Italy, Rome; they said that they had seen nowhere a place so well aligned, so vast, ordered with such art, and covered with so many people.
Of the Aztec stories, the most appealing is the one that tells of Quetzalcoatl, his beneficence and his banishment from Tollan. Scholars maintain that Quetzalcoatl was a Toltec divinity, or that he was the last of the Toltec kings, and bore the name of their principal divinity. His story then symbolizes the fall of the mild and enlightened Toltec civilization before the onslaught of the war-like Aztec tribes. Another interpretation is given by Mr. Lewis Spence:
From April or May to the beginning of October the trade-wind blows from the east coast over the Plateau of Anahuac, bringing with it abundance of rain, and accelerating vegetable growth, thus actually "sweeping the ways for the rain-gods." Its advance is comparatively slow, the rains beginning three or four weeks earlier in Vera Cruz than in Puebla and Mexico. At the beginning of October, however, it is invariably modified by the local monsoon, which interrupts it over wide areas, or in certain districts invades it in violent cyclonic storms, dissipating its energies and altering its course. Quetzalcoatl represents the gentle trade-wind, which ushers in the growth-making rains. His reign of peace, plenty, and fertility over, he comes into opposition with Tezcatlipoca, who represents the monsoon and who chases his rival "from city to city," ravening at him like a tiger, says Mendieta, and at last hustling
him out of the country. That Tezcatlipoca is also a god of wind is certain, as is proved by one of his names, Yoalli Ehecatl, "Wind of Night," and that he is the monsoon or hurricane is proved beyond all doubt by the circumstance that he is said to have rushed along the highways at night at extraordinary speed, and that Hurakan, his Quiche name, is still employed for the very wind he represented, and has become a generic name for a tempestuous wind in practically all European languages, which have without question adopted it from the American word. 24
As we look upon the powerful sculptures of the ancient Mexicans and their compact drawings we get the impression of a strangely earthbound civilization: it was as if all of the figures were rooted; in some of the drawings hands are in movement, but it is like the movement of branches of trees, and we can never think of the faces as being lifted to the skies. In their mythology we have the impression of thought which can never become abstract. This literalness leaves theirs the most terrible of the religions connected with any of the great civilizations. Always they wanted rain, and they strove to give example to the rainmaking deities by pouring out human blood. They sacrificed thousands of human victims every year; every Aztec ceremony culminated in human sacrifice. Something, however, can be said for this religion:
Students of religious phenomena not infrequently show distaste for the deeper consideration of the Mexican faith, not only because of the difficulties which beset the fuller study of this interesting phase of human belief in the eternal verities, but also, perhaps, because of the "diabolic" reputation which it has achieved, and the grisly horrors to which it is thought those who examine it must perforce accustom themselves. It is certainly not the most obviously prepossessing of the world's religions. Yet if due allowance be made for the earnestness of its priests and people in the strict observance of a system the hereditary burden of which no one man or generation could hope to remove, and the religion of the Azteca be viewed in a liberal and tolerant spirit, those who are sufficiently painstaking in their scrutiny of it will in time find themselves richly rewarded. Not only does it abound in valuable evidences for the enrichment of the study of religious science and tradition, but by degrees its astonishing beauty of colour and wealth of symbolic variety will appeal to the student with all the enchantment of discovery. The echoes of the sacred drum of serpent-skin reverberating from the lofty pyramid of Uitzilopochtli, and passing above the mysterious city of Tenochtitlan with all the majesty of Olympian thunder, will seem not less eloquent of the soul of a vanished faith
than do the memories of the choral chants of Hellas. And if the recollection of the picturesque but terrible rites of this gifted, imaginative, and not undistinguished people harrows the feelings, does it not arouse in us that fatal consciousness of man's helplessness before the gods, which primitive religion invariably professes and which reason almost seems to uphold? 25
xxiv:23 Unity of Mexican and Central American Civilization: Report to Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 28.
xxvi:24 Lewis Spence: The Gods of Mexico.
xxvii:25 Lewis Spence: The Gods of Mexico.