The Myths of Mexico and Peru (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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The Myths of Mexico and Peru conjures images of far-off places in warm and humid countries, invokes names of unimaginable power, and chronicles times of bloody conquest and deeds much larger than life. Lewis Spence embeds the Latin-American mythology in history and recasts it in description informed by the lore of living peoples and by the most knowledgeable scholars of the time.
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The Myths of Mexico and Peru conjures images of far-off places in warm and humid countries, invokes names of unimaginable power, and chronicles times of bloody conquest and deeds much larger than life. Lewis Spence embeds the Latin-American mythology in history and recasts it in description informed by the lore of living peoples and by the most knowledgeable scholars of the time.
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On a cold and dreary day a century ago, right next to Portsmouth Street in London, England, the first few attractively bound copies of a new book on Mexican and Peruvian mythology by Lewis Spence rolled off the printing presses of the George G. Harrap & Company Ltd. publishing house. This was a book that would thrill readers for many years to come, conjuring images of far-off places in warm and humid countries, invoking names of unimaginable power, chronicling times of bloody conquest and deeds much larger than life. This was a book written to be read, reread, and pondered. This was a book--is a book--to acquaint us with, and even to help us understand, other worlds and other times. It is far more than just the mythology of early Latin American civilizations. The Myths of Mexico and Peru embeds their mythology in history and recasts the history in description informed by the lore of living peoples and based on written materials provided by the most knowledgeable scholars of the time, whose foundation of scholarship has seen surprisingly little restructuring through the passage of these many years.

Lewis Spence came into this world as James Lewis Thomas Chalmers Spence in Forfarshire, Scotland, in November 1874 and lived productively for eighty years. He was educated at Scotland's Edinburgh University, receiving initial training in dentistry, which he never utilized. Instead Spence settled early upon a career in journalism, beginning as an editor of The Scotsman in 1899, the same year he married his beloved Helen Bruce, who remained a source of inspiration for his romantic poetry. He also worked during his journalist years as an editor for The Edinburgh Magazine and then for The British Weekly, until finally in 1909 he decided to become a freelance author and researcher in the subjects of folklore and the archaeology of ancient Central America. His career and scholarly proclivities led him subsequently to pursue more and deeper interests in folklore and in the occult, resulting in the publication of numerous books on these topics. By the time of his death in early March 1955 this prolific, entertaining, and scholarly author had written and published more than forty books, mostly on folklore and the occult. Several of these have been revised or reprinted a number of times.

Though his early specialization and interest was in Latin American mythology and folklore, Spence also published on the mythology and legends of Native America (1914), ancient Egypt (1915), and ancient Assyria and Babylonia (1916). Closer to home were his books on hero tales and legends of the Rhineland (1915), on legends and romances of Brittany (1917), and on legends and romances of Spain (1920). Between 1910 and 1927 he also found time to write and have published five books of his own poetry. It is safe to say that in addition to his journalistic talents, Spence was a romantic, as plainly evidenced in his poetry, in his interest in the mythologies of peoples as larger than life cultural productions, and in his fascination with the occult, a rubric that for him and many others included the mysterious lands of Atlantis and Lemuria with all their romantic allure.

Spence had a knack for library research and a gift of memory that allowed him to record particulars of name and action in mythic narratives while continuing to embellish them as he discovered more information, and to then augment the narratives with details on their significance for the societies in which they had been originally produced. His greatest talent was in weaving together the various strands of story and cultural context in a way that would bring the myths to life for the reader. It was precisely this concern for the cultural context that led to his becoming a fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, which published the prestigious quarterly Man, a name recently changed to the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

Spence's concern with mythology and folklore, not as traditional lore to be manipulated for political ends, as was common during the nineteenth century, but rather as myths, legends, tales, customs, superstitions, and other forms of traditional lore to be recounted faithfully and explained through integration into wider historical and cultural contexts of the societies that produced them, was indeed anthropological, if romantically motivated, and stimulated the interest of others in Scottish folklore. Almost paradoxically, through his own work and interests in descriptive folklore, Spence cultivated a thoroughly nationalistic interest in his own Scotland, and founded the Scottish National Movement in the latter half of the 1920s, which ultimately developed into today's left of center Scottish National Party, a political party that to this day favors Scottish independence.

An interest in the occult having been kindled early in his career, Spence began his exploration of the genre with An Encyclopedia of Occultism (1920), which today retains its reputation for thoroughness and its important position among encyclopedic treatments of the subject. The next year saw his treatment of Cornelius Agrippa, Occult Philosopher (1921). Three books on Atlantis followed (1924, 1925, 1926), and then a book on the Pacific's Atlantean counterpart, Lemuria (1932), clinching his reputation as a world authority on Atlantis. The rise of Nazism and the coming Second World War stimulated him to focus on current events but from an occult perspective, as in The Occult Causes of the Present War (1940) and Will Europe Follow Atlantis? (1942). In 1943 he published The Occult Sciences in Atlantis, followed by numerous other books on mythology, mysticism, magic, and the occult.

George G. Harrap was eager to publish The Myths of Mexico and Peru, having seen an earlier and much shorter precursor to that volume that Spence had written (1907) as well as his creditable retelling of the story of the sacred book of the K'iche' Maya of Guatemala, called The Popol Vuh (1908), in addition to at least two other books of his (1910, 1912). The House of Harrap had a preference in its early years for publishing educational books that tried hard not to look like textbooks, and that were also attractively printed. They succeeded well with The Myths of Mexico and Peru, with sixty illustrations including two in color, five text drawings, and three very informative full-page maps. Its 367 pages of text were cloth bound with gilt edges; altogether a very attractive package to take home and read aloud to the rest of the family in 1913. The Myths of Mexico and Peru was so well received by an eager public in those early years of the twentieth century that it had to be reprinted several times. Now, nearly a century after its birth, it receives new life, and today it is still exciting, still educational, and still a marvelous read. This was not Lewis Spence's first book, but it was the longest that he had produced at that time. It remains a fascinating compilation of mythology, legends, folktales, and other oral narratives derived from ancient traditions that originated and flourished in two of the most remarkable, advanced, and mysterious regions of the Americas. It remains today an outstanding and surprisingly readable introduction to the mythology and history of these places.

Spence had prepared for writing this book by reading and digesting the then available chronicles of those who had witnessed at first hand the conquests of Mexico and Peru, and who had written down what they had seen and what they had learned from the people and events around them. He became fully acquainted with the writings of the most reliable historians, antiquarians, and archaeologists of his time, along with the works of such indefatigable gentleman explorer-adventurers as Carl Lumholtz (1903), who visited the Tarahumara and Huicholes of northern Mexico; Frederick Starr (1899), who journeyed through much of indigenous southern Mexico; and E. George Squier (1877), who had accumulated a wealth of experience traveling in the Peruvian land of the Inca. His preparation also included penning a translation first of the K'iche' creation narrative and then a retelling of the story of the civilization of Mexico from a historical and archaeological perspective, deliberately omitting traditional sources.

But it was the traditional sources, primarily gleaned by Spaniards from native informants shortly after the conquest, that provided the richest trove of indigenous myths and other lore, pertaining quite naturally to the early sixteenth-century Aztec and Maya civilizations in what is now Mexico and Guatemala, and to the sixteenth-century Inca Empire spanning what is today Peru and Ecuador. The work of the archaeologists dealing with earlier native cultures and of more recent explorer adventurers who chronicled the cultures of later native peoples, provided the context for Spence's retold myths.

Through surrogates the Spanish crown conquered much of the New World, including Mexico and Peru. When Cortez in what is now Mexico City took the emperor Montezuma hostage in 1519, he became in effect the Aztec emperor himself, thus gaining control over much of central and southern Mexico. Expeditions of conquest soon subjugated the native population to the north and the great Maya civilization to the southeast, including Guatemala. It was not long until Spanish clerics and conquerors were recording the stories of the grand civilizations that they had conquered. Spence went directly to these sources for much of his information, including Bernal Díaz, who had fought side by side with Cortez and who later in life wrote down what he remembered of his unforgettable adventures; and Bernardino de Sahagun, a missionary whose careful recording of native lore was so well done that he is sometimes called the first anthropologist in the New World; and Diego de Landa, a Franciscan friar who burned many native books of the Maya, called codices, while recording for posterity an "alphabet" of Maya glyphs along with much other useful information about the Maya as he defended himself in Spain against charges of his mistreating these same Maya.

In 1532 by a rare coincidence, Francisco Pizarro, assisted by his half-brother Gonzalo, replaced through conquest the Inca half-brothers Atahuallpa and Huascar who were governing the Inca Empire in what is now Peru and Ecuador and who were battling each other when the Spaniards arrived. Shortly thereafter, a Spanish conquistador named Pedro de Cieza de Leon began collecting information about the life and lore of the Incas. His chronicles became a major source for Lewis Spence on Peruvian mythology, along with the writings of Garcilaso de la Vega, son of a Spanish conquistador and an Inca princess, as well as a book manuscript of Juan de Betanzos, a conquistador who married an Inca princess named Angelina Yupanqui and who spoke the Inca language. Spence could not have known when he made good use of eighteen chapters of Betanzos' manuscript for his The Myths of Mexico and Peru that sixty-four more of its chapters would be discovered in the 1980s.

It is in The Myths of Mexico and Peru that the reader will find captivating stories about the origins of things, the deeds of beings, and the actions making up legendary history and mythic prehistory. It is here that Spence has brought to life on the written page such Aztec deities as Quetzalcoatl ("feathered serpent"), explaining how this god could be symbolically related to serpents and at the same time a bringer of maize to the people, and recounting how on occasion children were sacrificed to the rain god Tlaloc, or relating how and why Tezcatlipoca ("smoking mirror") represented for the Aztecs a rough equivalent to the Greek god Zeus. The Aztecs were latecomers to the Valley of Mexico who, within two hundred years of their having seen an eagle holding a snake and sitting on a cactus plant on an island in the huge lake in the valley of Mexico, had extended their dominion to the status of empire, exacting tribute from much of central and southern Mexico. Narratives recorded from the Aztecs included the five eras of creation and destruction, the deities that presided over them and the beings that lived on earth during each, as well as the means by which each of the first four was destroyed. The fourth era ended with a great flood, an event that has found its way into the lore of many peoples in Mexico and Guatemala. We are living in the fifth era right now. In the fifth, following the creation of the earth by Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca when they split a reptilian monster down the middle, putting the bottom half up to make the sky and the top half down to make the earth's surface, it was left up to the deity Quetzalcoatl to create humans from bones brought back from the land of the dead, and then later to discover the source of maize with which to feed them. According to the Aztecs this era will end when humans are destroyed by monsters from the skies.

In The Myths of Mexico and Peru one can also read about the Maya rain deity Chac, whose name derives from the word for "lightning" and whose tapir-nosed visage is seen on Maya temples, and thus put into archaeological context. Then there is the tale of the "hero twins" of the K'iche' Maya in which twin brothers who were born from the womb of a virgin daughter of a lord of the Underworld are summoned to play the Maya ballgame with the evil Underworld lords. The odds are stacked against them, but despite a temporary beheading they pass all the trials required of them, end up jumping to their deaths in a pit of fire, and then being resurrected in order to becoming the sun and the moon.

And again, it is in this same book that Spence has artfully woven together history and myth in Peru, incorporating such powerful Inca deity names as Pachakamak (the god of the earth), Pachamama (the earth mother), and Kontiki ("thunder vessel") into an exposition that weds archaeology with oral tradition, and links activities of the gods with lives of the people. One interesting tale has a trickster spirit, Coniraya, changing himself into a beautiful bird and dropping fruit from the tree in which he was perched, to be picked up and eaten by a beautiful virgin who then conceives a child. This virgin birth, reminiscent of the Mayan one in which the virgin mother of the "hero twins" conceives by receiving spittle into her hand from a skull posing as a fruit in a tree, is also similar to a more recent Huastec Mayan story in which a bird spits into a virgin's hands to make her conceive. The Peruvian llama's role in divination is alluded to in the myth of the man who was told by his llama that in five days the sea would rise to flood the earth. The man and his llama scaled a high mountain, bringing food for five days. Five days after the flood the water receded, leaving only the one person alive, and it is from him that all people descended.

Although it is true that the passage of time has rendered some of Spence's exposition inaccurate or dated, such is to be expected with the passage of nearly 100 years. We know now, for example, that the Maya did in fact know of the true arch, though they almost never used it. Despite Spence's skepticism about our ever knowing what was said in the glyphic script of the ancient Maya, today much of it has been deciphered, even if it has not yet been fully interpreted. Today we know too that deep down in the heart of Palenque's Temple of the Inscriptions in Chiapas, Mexico, was entombed a supremely powerful ruler named Pakal (literally "shield") about whom Spence had no inkling. The temple was well known in 1913, but the tomb within was not discovered by archaeologists until 1952, and its inscriptions not read until the last quarter of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, this book has survived the test of time quite well, and it still constitutes a remarkably complete, and highly readable, even exciting, introduction to the most important folklore and prehistory of Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru.

Certainly an intellectual of his time, Lewis Spence was, however, not an original scholar; nor was he engaged directly in the academic disciplines despite his considerable perspicacity in picking through the work of others while pursuing his preferred profession. He was instead a highly skilled re-teller of narratives, from the mythic to the historic, who, in addition to his wide variety of interests, had also a remarkable ability to place the stories in context, and even to liven the presentation with intelligent opinions that were often those of scholars and sometimes uniquely his own. The mythology books he produced had little influence on the academic fields of archaeology, history, ethnohistory, or folklore with which his work was concerned; nor is there any evidence that he influenced the later scholars who peopled these fields, other than perhaps to have inspired a few of them with the romantic call of mystery, intrigue, and mythology of foreign lands. This is as true of his The Myths of Mexico and Peru as of any of his works on the mythologies of the world. Rarely is his name to be found in the citations of academic tomes on Mexican or Peruvian archaeology or folklore. Rarely is he referred to as an authority on any of the subjects into which he delved so deeply, and about which he knew so much.

To focus on his lack of academic influence or on the dated nature of his literary productions would be to miss the point, however. His particular impact on subsequent generations was in having produced and popularized narratives that would probably otherwise have remained in the dusty archives of academic interests and ivory towers, in making available to large numbers of people some of the most interesting information that they might access about other peoples of the world, and in having inspired a significant number of them to pursue in more depth the topics on which he wrote, from the occult to the various mythologies to be found in distant corners of the world. Unlike a number of contemporary popularizers of scholarly ideas and academic information, Spence kept up with the work of the best scholars of his day, scholars whose work is still cited today as foundational; and while he was able to inject the material with color and clarity of description, he remained far more faithful to the essential than most.

Brian Stross is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who teaches anthropology and specializes in the languages and cultures of indigenous peoples of Latin America, and especially Mexico and Guatemala. His publications include Mayan language narratives as well as descriptive studies of language, epigraphy, iconography, and culture.
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