Friday, June 21, 2013


When writing novels I like to be accurate. I think it’s important, nothing spoils a story more for me than someone presenting “facts” that are not facts, that are obviously wrong. As an example, in the prologue of The Fire Within, there is a discussion of Hurricane Agnes, of how and when it began. If anyone cares to look up that information, they’d find it quite accurate (except, perhaps, for the fictional direct cause). In Crystal Spiders, similarly, in the prologue a boy is looking at the pre-dawn sky on the West Coast in 1969. The description of what was visible then and where it was was carefully researched, as was the release date of a popular song the boy remembers hearing recently. Any of these facts can be checked if anyone wants to, and other matters in the books—things that can be checked—have been researched as well.

This won’t be so when it comes to the myths and legends associated with the Mesoamerican gods, not in all cases. Just as an example, the novels present several relationships among the gods. For example, Xochiquetzal (the goddess of love and flowers) is married to Xipe Totec (the flayed god of the springtime), who is presented as an alter ego of Centeotl (the corn god) and whose mother is Tlazolteotl (goddess of the moon and of lust). Mixcoatl (the hunter god) and Chimalma (shield hand)—who is an avatar of Chalchihuitlicue (the goddess of terrestrial waters)—are the biological parents of Quetzalcoatl (the plumed serpent), although his birth mother is Coatlicue (serpent skirts). Coatlicue is also the birth mother of Xochiquetzal, who is therefore Quetzalcoatl’s sister.

The alert and inquisitive reader might look up Xochiquetzal on the internet. There many statements can easily be found that are not at all in agreement with the above paragraph. The Wikipedia entry, for example, does say that she was married to Centeotl, at least at one time. But it also names her as the mother, with Mixcoatl, of Quetzalcoatl. The very authoritative site Mexicolore names her as the mother of Centeotl, whereas Wikipedia states that Tlazolteotl was the mother of Centeotl.

This is not a technical paper, and so I won’t (for the moment, anyhow) add in footnotes and give a long list of references. Instead, I’ll just note that all of these have a source somewhere in the academic literature. What we know of the mythology concerning the Mesoamerican gods—the Teotl—is derived from two sources. One, the native informants of the earlier chroniclers, like Bernardino de Sahagún and Diego Durán, and two, interpretations of the surviving statues and the few codices, the mostly pictographic books written by Pre-colonial and Colonial era natives. It’s important to keep these sources in mind, since they really are the best we have, the closest thing to the original thinking of the people.

But they don’t always agree with each other, and in some cases don’t even agree with themselves. It must be remembered that the informants Sahagún and Durán were using were by and large not priests, astronomers, political leaders, or other learned men, most of them were dead from disease or war or had fled. To Sahagún’s credit he used students from the Colegio de Santa Cruz in Tlatelolco (the first European school of higher learning the Americas) and elders in local villages who were said to be knowledgeable. But imagine a future scenario where alien invaders conquer the earth, and in the war just about all the scientists and historians have been killed. Trying to record history, these aliens interview the same sorts of people—local students in a school founded by and operated by the conquerors, small-town mayors, and so on—to get a picture of what earth was like before the conquest. If a dozen or so such people try to give a detailed account of the Christian religion and of the events described in the bible (presuming no bibles are available for translation), the aliens are going to get a fair variety of stories. A few are well-known and will be fairly consistent, but by no means all.

The second source, the artwork and codices, can be even more suspect. Some of the events and ideas depicted in these are reasonably self-evident, but many more are utterly obscure. Almost all the “facts” we have from these represent someone’s interpretation of the drawings, and different authorities may have entirely different interpretations. An excellent example of this is to be found in the shifting interpretation of the deity shown in the murals found in the Tepantitla compound at Teotihuacan. These depict a watery paradise where people are playing and dancing, a paradise presided over by a large figure from whose hands water pours. This was long deemed to represent the paradise Tlalocan, the central figure being Tlaloc, the rain god. The figure is fanged and has eye-rings (resembling glasses) which are typical features of later depictions of Tlaloc, and the Aztecs had a specific belief that those who died from water, like drowning victims, went to a happy afterlife in Tlalocan. But in 1974 Peter Furst suggested that this figure might represent a goddess instead, because it is attended by two female figures and there are spiders (thought to be a feminine symbol, as in the Navajo concept of the “Spider Grandmother”) in the tree behind it. This idea was taken up by noted authority Esther Pasztory and since then has rapidly gained acceptance (become politically correct?). How and why this deity changed her gender on the way to Aztec times is not explained. Perhaps obviously I don’t agree, it seems to me the figure is quite definitely Tlaloc.

Actually, the same is more or less true of most of the ancient mythologies everywhere in the world. Those familiar with Greek myth will know that Cronus, at the behest of his mother Gaia, castrated his father Uranus, and that, having heard a prophecy that he’d be overthrown by one of his own children, swallowed them as soon as they were born. Familiar also is the story of how Cronus’ wife Rhea substituted a stone for Zeus, and how Zeus forced his father to regurgitate Poseidon, Hades, Demeter, and the rest, and then overthrew him. But the matter isn’t even close to that simple; if one looks up “Cronus” in Wikipedia, one will find a dozen or more variants of this story, written by different authors. The same is true of most of the Greek myths. The Norse myths are more consistent, but that’s primarily because the major sourcework for them is a single treatise, the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson of Iceland. To take another example: if one looks up the goddess Tlazolteotl on Wikipedia, the text—referencing French anthropologist Jacques Soustelle—refers to Tlazolteotl as the goddess of “lechery and unlawful love.” It further states that, “in Aztec belief,” Tlazolteotl was said to inspire “vicious” desires, and was thought to cause disease, that she would “afflict people with disease if they indulged themselves in forbidden love,” and that she was “thought to cause disease, especially sexually transmitted disease.” It is also stated (apparently still citing Soustelle) that she was also known by the epithet Tlazolmiquiztli (“the death caused by lust”), presumably death by sexually transmitted disease.

Tlazolteotl appears in The Fire Within, is obliquely referred in The Cloud Serpents, and will return in Crystal Spiders, and it will already be obvious for readers of The Fire Within that Tlazolteotl is not viewed in anything like this manner. It is true that the word tlazolli in Nahuatl means “dirt, filth, garbage” which renders the meaning of her name as something like “filth goddess.” This is in reference to her ability to take “sins” into herself and neutralize them, an aspect which is stressed in The Fire Within. She is also both a lunar and an earth goddess, a goddess of purification, of childbirth, and, quite directly, the goddess of lust. Her abilities as a sorceress—she was said to be the patron of “witches,” and, notably, she cast the spell that imprisoned the Tzitzimeme (monsters)—are also stressed in Crystal Spiders.

The people we refer to as the “Aztecs”—the Mexica—were indeed somewhat sexually repressed and considered certain kinds of sex as “sinful” (at least they told the Spanish priests that). It seems that sometimes this gets extended to all Mesoamerican societies, and this is not the case; the various peoples of the Americas differed quite a bit in these matters. On the North American plains, the Cheyenne and Arapaho were very close to prudes; the Pawnee and Arikara, on the other hand, were practically libertines. The same is true of the Mexica and their neighbors to the east, the Huaxtecs (a Maya offshoot), who were well-known for rarely wearing any clothing and who apparently commonly indulged in drunken orgies. The significance of this is that it is commonly stated that Tlazolteotl, as worshipped by the Aztecs, is an import from the Huaxtecs, who most certainly would not have viewed her in such a negative light. There also is the further question of the prevalence of any sexually transmitted disease in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans. The origin of syphilis is still a hotly-contested topic among academics, but the fact that no mention of anything that can be identified as this disease is to be found in any of the “medical books” we have from Native Americans suggests to me that it did not exist in the New World, in the form of a sexually transmitted disease at least, prior to contact.

Beyond that, a whole different meaning of the idea of a “lust death” will already be obvious to the reader of Kaleidoscope Eyes

Carrying Soustelle’s opinions—quoted by the Wikipedia article as fact—back to their sources suggests another scenario altogether. Soustelle credits these ideas to Bernardino de Sahagún’s Florentine Codex and to Hernando Ruiz de la Alacron’s 1629 book called Treatise on the Heathen Superstitions That Today Live Among the Indians Native to This New Spain. In these works, no reference to “venereal disease” is to be found. Sahagún does say that there was a belief that “disease” may follow illicit sexual relations—particularly for the transgressor’s family—and lists these as “melancholy” (which we now call depression) and “consumption” (in this age, not necessarily only tuberculosis, but rather any disease that causes a person to “waste away”). It appears that Soustelle has added “venereal disease” in as a “logical” corollary, without any actual reference to it in the source works.

It does illustrate the problems inherent in using secondary sources.

In closing, I suppose I should also note that the ethnographers can feel free to record any number of different and contradictory forms of a myth, but as a novelist using that myth as the basis of my story, I have to pick one, make it make some kind of sense, and stick with it.

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