The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 01, No. 7, May, 1858 by Various


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LANGUAGE is found to be itself the best record of a nation's origin,
development, and relation to other races. Each vocabulary and grammar
of a dead nation is a Nineveh, rich in pictures, inscriptions, and
historical records, uncovering to the patient investigator not merely
the external life and actions of the people, but their deepest internal
life, and their connection with other peoples and times. The little
defaced word, the cast-away root, the antique construction, picked up
by the student among the vestiges of a language, may be a relic fresher
from the past and older than a stone from the Pyramids, or the sculpture
of the Assyrian temple.

In American history, this work of investigation till recently had not
been thoroughly entered upon. Within the last quarter of a century,
Kingsborough and Gallatin and Prescott and Davis and Squier and

ethnologist and a careful investigator,--M. BRASSEUR DE BOURBOURG,--has,
in a history recently published, done the best service to this cause. It

Centrale." (Paris, 1857.) M. de Bourbourg spent many years in Central
America, studying the face of the country and the languages of the
Indian tribes, and investigating the ancient picture-writing and the
remains of the wonderful ruins of that region. Probably no stranger has
ever enjoyed better opportunities of reading the ancient manuscripts and
studying the dialects of the Central American races. With these helps he
has prepared a groundwork for the history of the early civilized peoples
of our American continent,--a history, it should be remembered, ending
where Prescott's begins,--reaching back, possibly, as far as the
earliest invasions of the Huns, and one of whose fixed dates is at the
time of the Antonines. He has ventured to lift, at length, the veil from
our mysterious and confused American antiquity. It is an especial merit
of M. de Bourbourg, in this stage of the investigation, that he has
attempted to do no more. He has collected and collated facts, but
has sought to give us very few theories. The stable philosophical
conclusions he leaves for later research, when time shall have been
afforded for fuller comparison.

There is an incredible fascination to many minds in these investigations
into the traditions and beliefs of antiquity. We feel in their presence
that they are the oldest things; the most ancient books, or buildings,
or sculptures are modern by their side. They represent the childish
instincts of the human mind,--its _gropings_ after Truth,--its dim
ideals and shadowings forth of what it hopes will be. They are the
earliest answers of man to the great questions, WHENCE and WHITHER?

* * * * *

The most ancient people of Central America, according to M. de
Bourbourg,--a people referred to in all the oldest traditions, but of
whom everything except the memory has passed away,--are the Quinames.
Their rule extended over Mexico and Guatemala, and there is reason to
suppose that they attained to a considerable height of civilization. The
only accounts of their origin are the oral traditions repeated to the
Spaniards by the Indians of Yucatan,--traditions relating that the
fathers of this great nation came from the East, and that God had
delivered them from the pursuit of their enemies and had opened to
them a way over the sea. Other traditions reveal to us the Quinames as
delivered up to the most unnatural vices of ancient society. Whether
the Cyclopean ruins scattered over the continent,--vast masses of
stone placed one upon another without cement, which existed before the
splendid cities whose ruins are yet seen in Central America,--whether
these are the work of this race, or of one still older, is entirely

The most ancient language of Central America, the ground on which all
the succeeding languages have been planted, is the Maya. Even the Indian
languages of to-day are only combinations of their own idioms with this
ancient tongue. Its daughter, the Tzendale, transmits many of the oldest
and most interesting religious beliefs of the Indian tribes.

All the traditions, whether in the Quiche, the Mexican, or the Tzendale,
unite in one somewhat remarkable belief,--in the reverent mention of an
ancient Deliverer or Benefactor; a personage so enveloped in the halo
of religious sentiment and the mist of remote antiquity, that it is
difficult to distinguish his real form. With the Tzendale his name is
Votan;[A] among the many other names in other languages, Quetzalcohuatl
is the one most distinctive. Sometimes he appears as a wise and
dignified legislator, arrived suddenly among an ignorant people from an
unknown country, to instruct them in agriculture, the arts, and even in
religion. He bears suffering in their behalf, patiently labors for them,
and, when at length he has done his work, departs alone from amid the
weeping crowd to the country of his birth. Sometimes he is the mediator
between Deity and men; then again, a personification of the Divine
wisdom and glory; and still again, the noble features seem to be
transmuted in the confused tradition into the countenance of Divinity.
Whether this mysterious person is only the American embodiment of
the Hope of all Nations, or whether he was truly a wise and noble
legislator, driven by some accident to these shores from a foreign
country, and afterwards glorified by the gratitude of his people,
is uncertain, though our author inclines naturally to the latter
supposition. The expression of the Tzendale tradition, "Votan is
the first man whom God sent to divide and distribute these lands of
America," (Vol. I. p. 42,) indicates that he found the continent
inhabited, and either originated the distribution of property or became
a conqueror of the country. The evidence of tradition would clearly
prove that at the arrival of Votan the great proportion of the
inhabitants, from the Isthmus of Panama to the territories of
California, were in a savage condition. The builders of the Cyclopean
ruins were the only exception.

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