Ask For Blessings, Wake Up Early and Don’t Travel too Far: Welcome to the New Year

There are three little messages that we pass along to each other in my family. One, spend a little time to pray around midnight to be grateful for the year that has passed and ask for blessings for the coming year. Two, if possible, despite perhaps the long night of partying, get up early in the first day of the New Year to watch the sunrise. Lastly, don’t travel long distance so near the major holidays. If one does need to travel, try to travel one or two weeks before 25 December at the latest and ideally wait for one or two weeks after the holidays to return. These are all ancient advice.

Nowruz is not only an ancient holiday that is still celebrated globally, it has the distinction of being one of the longest continually celebrated holiday in the world. Although there even records of it being celebrated in 550 BCE by Cyrus the Great, versions of the same celebration were also known to be observed 2,000 years earlier in the Kingdom of Aratta. 

Nowruz is traditionally observed on the day of the vernal equinox, when the coming of spring also heralds the new year. The first five days of the ancient Nowruz celebration were very public, then followed by a more reverent observance. On the thirteenth day of the festival, people would throw wheat grass into rivers and canals to throw away bad luck and misfortune.

File:Passing lion, brick panel from the Procession Way which ran from the Marduk temple to the Ishtar Gate and the Akitu Temple. Glazed terracotta, reign of Nebuchadrezzar II (605 BC–562 BC), Babylon (Iraq).Louvre Museum (12251455183).jpg

Passing lion, brick panel from the Procession Way which ran from the Marduk temple to the Ishtar Gate and the Akitu Temple. Glazed terracotta, reign of Nebuchadrezzar II (605 BC–562 BC), Babylon 

In Babylonia, the festival of Akitu honored Marduk and marked the beginning of the growing season. For the general population, the beginning of the festival meant a week of holidays and celebrations. The king would begin the festival by going to the temple of Nabu, where the priests presented him with a royal scepter reminding him of his responsibility. He then travelled to the city of Borsippa, where he spent the night participating in religious ceremonies in this city’s temple such as the re-enactment of their creation myths to remind him of his past and the past of his people. When the king returned to Babylonia, he would go to a temple and stripped off his weapons and royal regalia to approach his god with humility befit someone given their rule by a supreme deity.


Ebony label depicting the pharaoh Den, found in his tomb in Abydos, circa 3000 BC. Top register depicts the king running in his Heb Sed festival as well as seated on a throne. Lower register depicts the destruction of enemy strongholds and the taking of captives. EA 32650.
Hieroglyphs: The Sed festival area is framed on the right with a large Renpet hieroglyph.

The hieroglyph for the Egyptian word renpet (“year”)  is a woman wearing a palm shoot, symbolizing time, over her head. She was often referred to as the Mistress of Eternity. She also personified fertility, youth and spring. The New Year, Wepet Renpet (“the opening of the year”), was based on the annual flooding of the Nile River, an earthly cycle which also coincided with a heavenly cycle. Therefore, the New Year was marked with community feasting and a mix of hope and fear. To the ancient Egyptians, every year was potentially their last, because they didn’t know how the flood would impact them. The annual flood left behind rich deposits of silt, which fertilized crops to feed the entire country. Just the right amount of flooding assured a fruitful harvest – too little means famine, too much means destruction.

The festival for the annual flood celebrated the death and rebirth of Osiris and, by extension, the rejuvenation and rebirth of the land and the people. The legend behind this celebration was that the god Set and his accomplices murdered Osiris by drowning him in the river and dismembered him – scattering his limbs up and down the valley. Osiris’ death brought about the annual floods that brought life to the valley. It was then believed that Osiris arose from the dead, but needed the constant supplication of his devoted followers to strengthen his return. The priests mourned his death, prayed for his return and, at the moment of his resurrection, celebrated with dancing, singing, and feasting. Traditionally, young boys chosen for their exceptional beauty were thrown into the Nile to drown, just as Osiris had drowned, as a sacrifice for the benefit of the living. Those who drowned in the Nile were then considered to have become gods, especially if the water responded the following year with a flood.

Solemn rituals related to the death of Osiris were observed as well as singing and dancing to celebrate his rebirth. The call-and-response poem known as The Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys was recited at the beginning to call Osiris to his feast.  

The lamentation is when the two goddess-sisters call the soul of Osiris to rejoin the living. The dual entreaties of the two sisters echoed each other in their attempts to symbolically revive Osiris. The best-preserved version of this work comes from the Berlin Papyrus dating to the Ptolemaic Dynasty (323 – 30 BCE) although the work itself is much older.

Another ancient Egyptian interpretation is that the New Year’s Day itself was also regarded as the birthday of the god Ra-Horakhety. The belief was that, on New Year’s day the sun was reborn and grew increasingly frail over the year’s final few months. This is another reason why the end of the year was considered dangerous. At the end of the year, the sun god was weak and vulnerable to attack from his enemies. If he were to be defeated, the New Year might never arrive.

Therefore, it was a time of great relief when the sun rose on New Year’s day, because the end of the world had been averted. People would then make offerings to Ra-Horakhety at sunrise, pour black ink into the Nile for the goddess Nut and the god Nun as a sign of gratitude, then cleansed themselves by bathing in the Nile. Afterwards, they wore their best clothes and went off to riotous banquets to celebrate their opportunity to see another year.

Another belief is to do with the fact that the Egyptian civil calendar consisted of 360 days, with five “extra” days added to the end. These five extra days were regarded as a dangerous, transitional time, when the goddess Sekhmet controlled twelve demonic murderers who travelled the earth shooting arrows from their mouths and cause plague wherever they went. To protect themselves, the ancient Egyptians performed rituals and wore charms around their necks to pacify Sekhmet, ensuring her protection instead of her wrath. This is similar to the Aztec calendar where the passing of the old year and the coming of the new were two very different sets of days. The last five days of the year were called nemontemi, and they were considered very dangerous days where dark spirits wander the land. People mostly stayed indoors, kept to themselves, and kept quiet to avoid attracting the attention of these spirits.

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Sons of the Wolf: The Birth of Romulus and Remus, Founders of Rome

The twins Romulus and Remus were borne by Ilia, daughter of king Numitor, and the war-god Mars. They were condemned by King Amulius, the ruler of Alba, to be cast into the river. The king’s servants took the children and carried them from Alba as far as the Tiber on the Palatine Hill. However, when they tried to descend the hill to the river to carry out the command, they found that the river had risen and they were unable to reach its bed. They therefore thrust the tub which the children slept into the shallow water at the shore.

Wolf, Romulus And Remus, Sculpture, She-Wolf, Statue

The tub floated for a while before the water promptly receded. The tub then knocked against a stone and the screaming infants were thrown into the river mud. They were heard by a she-wolf. She  came and gave her teats to the boys to nurse them and, as they were drinking, she licked them clean with her tongue. A woodpecker flew above them to guard the children and bring them food. These were Mars’ doing as the wolf and the woodpecker are animals consecrated to him

La Louve (she-wolf) at the Grand Palace, Brussels, Belgium - Stierch.jpg

These odd happenings were seen by one of the royal herdsmen who was driving his pigs back to the pasture. Startled, he summoned his friends. They all made a loud noise to scare the wolf away, but the wolf was not afraid. Calmly ignoring the herdsmen, she disappeared into the wilderness of the forest. Meanwhile the men picked up the boys and carried them to the chief swineherd of the king, Faustulus, as they believed that the gods did not wish the children to die. But Faustulus’ wife had just given birth to a dead child and was full of sorrow. Faustulus gave her the twins to nurse and the couple raised the children. They named them them Romulus and Remus.

Evidently, the twin never forgotten the wolf. After Rome had been founded, king Romulus built himself a house not far from the place where his tub had stood. The gully in which the she-wolf had disappeared was renamed as the Lupercal (the Wolf’s Gully). The image of the she-wolf with the twins was subsequently erected at this spot and the she-wolf herself, the Lupa, was worshipped by the Romans as a divinity.

This saga later on underwent manifold transmutations, mutilations, additions, and interpretations. It is best known in the form transmitted by Livy, where we learn something about the fate of the twins: 

File:'Mars and the Vestal Virgin', oil on canvas painting by Jacques Blanchard, ca. 1630, Art Gallery of New South Wales.jpg

‘Mars and the Vestal Virgin’, oil on canvas painting by Jacques Blanchard, ca. 1630

King Proca bequeaths the royal dignity to his firstborn son, Numitor. But his younger brother, Amulius, pushes him from the throne, and becomes king himself. So that no scion from Numitor’s family may arise, as the avenger, he kills the male descendants of his brother. Rhea Silvia, the daughter, he elects as a vestal, and thus deprives her of the hope of progeny, through perpetual virginity as enjoined upon her under the semblance of a most honorable distinction. But the vestal maiden was overcome by violence, and having brought forth twins, she named Mars as the father of her illegitimate offspring, be it from conviction, or because a god appeared more creditable to her as the perpetrator of the crime. The narrative of the exposure in the Tiber goes on to relate that the floating tub, in which the boys had been exposed, was left on dry land by the receding waters, and that a thirsty wolf, attracted from the neighboring mountains by the children’s cries, offered them her teats. The boys are said to have been found by the chief royal herder, supposedly named Faustulus, who took them to the homestead of his wife, Larentia, where they were raised. Some believe that Larentia was called Lupa (“she-wolf”) by the herders because she offered her body, and that this was the origin of the wonderful saga.

Grown to manhood, the youths Romulus and Remus protect the herds against the attacks of wild animals and robbers. One day Remus is taken prisoner by the robbers, who accuse him of having stolen Numitor’s flocks. But Numitor, to whom he is surrendered for punishment, was touched by his tender age, and when he learned of the twin brothers, he suspected that they might be his exposed grandsons. While he was anxiously pondering the resemblance with the features of his daughter, and the boy’s age as corresponding to the time of the exposure, Faustulus arrived with Romulus, and a conspiracy was hatched when the descent of the boys had been learned from the herders. The youths armed themselves for vengeance, while Numitor took up weapons to defend his claim to the throne he had usurped. After Amulius had been assassinated, Numitor was reinstituted as the ruler, and the youths resolved to found a city in the region where they had been exposed and brought up. A furious dispute arose upon the question of which brother was to be the ruler of the newly erected city, for neither twin was favored by the right of primogeniture, and the outcome of the bird oracle was equally doubtful. The saga relates that Remus jumped over the new wall, to deride his twin, and Romulus became so much enraged that he slew his brother. Romulus then usurped the sole mastery, and the city was named Rome after him.

File:La lupa con Romolo e Remo di Domenico Parodi e Francesco Biggi (detail).png

Destiny Repeats: The Knight of the Swan and the Son of the Grain

The widely distributed group of sagas that have been woven around the mythical Knight of the Swan (the old French Chevalier au cigne) can be traced back to very ancient Celtic traditions. The following is the story of Lohengrin, the Knight of the Swan, as transmitted by the medieval German epic and briefly retold by the Grimm brothers under the title “Lohengrin in Brabant.” 

August von Heckel Lohengrin.jpg

Lohengrin (1886)

The Duke of Brabant and Limburg died, without leaving other heirs than a young daughter, Elsa. On his deathbed, he recommended her to one of his retainers, Friedrich von Telramund. Friedrich, the intrepid warrior, became emboldened to demand the young duchess’ hand in marriage as well as her lands under the false claim that she had promised to marry him. Of course, Elsa refused to do so. Not taking no for an answer, Friedrich then used his connections to complain to Emperor Henry the Fowler (876 – 936). The Emperor decreed that Elsa must defend herself against Friedrich through some proxy hero, in a so-called divine judgment, in which God would accord the victory to the innocent and defeat to the guilty. As no knight was willing to act for her, the young duchess prayed ardently to God to save her.

As Elsa prayed, the sound of the bell was heard far away in distant Montsalvatsch, in the Council of the Grail, showing that there was someone in urgent need of help. The Grail therefore decided to send Lohengrin, the son of Parsifal, as a rescuer. Just as Lohengrin was about to place his foot in the stirrup, a swan came floating down the water drawing a skiff behind him. As soon as Lohengrin set eyes on the swan, he exclaimed, “Take the steed back to the manger; I shall follow this bird wherever he may lead me.” Lohengrin did not take any food with him in the skiff. After they had been afloat five days, the swan dipped his bill in the water, caught a fish, ate one half of it, and gave the other half to Lohengrin to eat.

Meanwhile, Elsa had summoned her chieftains and retainers to a meeting in Antwerp. Precisely on the day of the assembly, a swan was sighted swimming upstream drawing a skiff behind him, in which Lohengrin lay asleep on his shield. The swan came to land at the shore and Lohengrin was joyfully welcomed. Right after he landed, the swan swam away again. Lohengrin heard of the wrong which had been done to the duchess and consented to become her champion.

Elsa then summoned all her subjects and relatives. A place was prepared in Mainz for Lohengrin and Friedrich to fight in the emperor’s presence. The hero of the Grail defeated Friedrich, who confessed having lied to the duchess and was executed. Elsa and Lohengrin became lovers and, within time, marry. However, Lohergin secretly insisted upon Elsa avoiding all questions about his ancestry, or he had come from, otherwise he would have to leave her instantaneously and she would never see him again.

For a time, the couple lived in peace and happiness. Lohengrin was a wise and mighty ruler of his land. He also served his emperor well in his expeditions. However, one day when he was throwing the javelin, Lohengrin knocked the Duke of Cleve from his horse, so that the latter broke an arm. The Duchess of Cleve spoke out amongst the women angrily, “Lohengrin may be brave enough, but what a pity that he is not noble as no one knows whence he has come floating to this land.” These words pierced Elsa’s heart. At night, Elsa wept. Her husband asked her, “What is the matter, Elsa?” She answered, “The Duchess of Cleve has caused me sore pain.” Lohengrin could guess what happened, but he was silent and did not ask any more questions. On the second night, the same thing happened again. On the third night, Elsa could no longer control herself, and she asked, “Lord, do not chide me! I wish to know, for our children’s sake, where you were born, for my heart tells me that you are of high rank.” When the sun rose, Lohengrin made a public declaration about where he had come from, that Parsifal was his father and God had sent him from the Grail. He then asked for his children, kissed them and told them to take good care of his horn and sword which he would leave behind. To his wife, he left a little ring which his mother had given him. Then his friend the swan came. Lohengrin crossed the water, back to the service of the Grail. Elsa sank down in a faint.She wept and mourned the rest of her life for her beloved husband who never came back to her. Remembering Lohengrin’s service to the empire, the empress resolved to keep his son (also named Lohengrin) for his father’s sake, and to bring him up as her own child.

The fate of the younger Lohengrin was similar to his father. The infant Lohengrin floated in a vessel upon the sea and was carried ashore by a swan. After his father left, the empress adopted him as her son. He grew up to become a hero. Having married a noble maiden of the land, he forbade her to ask about his origin. When the command was broken, the younger Lohengrin also revealed his miraculous descent and divine mission, after which the swan carried him back in his skiff to the Grail.

File:Beowulf face to face with fire-breathing Dragon.jpg

Beowulf face to face with fire-breathing Dragon

The characteristic features of the Lohengrin saga–the disappearance of the divine hero in the same mysterious fashion in which he has arrived; the transference of mythical motifs from the life of the older hero to a younger one bearing the same name are likewise embodied in the Anglo-Lombard saga of Sceaf, who reappears in the Prelude to the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, the oldest Teutonic epic. Here, he is called Scyld the Scefung (“son of Sceaf”). The older legend says that he received his name because as a very young boy he was cast ashore, as a stranger, asleep in a boat on a sheaf of grain (Anglo-Saxon: sceaf) . The waves of the sea carried him to the coast of the country he was destined to defend. The inhabitants welcomed his arrival as a miracle, raised him, and later on made him their king, considering him a divine emissary. His story also repeated itself in his son, also called Scyld. His body was exposed, as he had ordered before his death, surrounded by kingly splendor, upon a ship without a crew, which is sent out into the sea. Thus he vanished in the same mysterious manner in which his father arrived ashore, this trait being accounted for, in analogy with the Lohengrin saga, by the mythical identity of father and son.

Wheat Field, Wheat, Cereals, Grain, Cornfield, Sunset

Sargon, Karna and Ion: Hidden Sons of Virgin Mothers

Sargon of Akkad.jpg

Bronze head of a king of the Old Akkadian dynasty, most likely representing either Naram-Sin or Sargon of Akkad. 

Probably the oldest transmitted hero myth we know is from the period of the foundation of Babylonia (circa 2800 BC). It concerns the birth history of its founder, Sargon of Akkad.  He was best known for his conquests of the Sumerian city-states in the 24th to 23rd centuries BC. The Sumerian king list makes him the cup-bearer to king Ur- Zababa of Kish. Sargon appears as a legendary figure in Neo-Assyrian literature of the 8th to 7th centuries BC. Tablets with fragments of a Sargon Birth Legend were found in the Library of Ashurbanipal.

The story is translated as follows:

“Sargon, the mighty king, King of Agade, am I.

My mother was a vestal, my father I knew not, while my father’s brother dwelt in the mountains.

In my city Azuripani, which is situated on the bank of the Euphrates,

my mother, the vestal, bore me. In a hidden place she brought me forth.

She laid me in a vessel made of reeds, closed my door with pitch,

and dropped me down into the river, which did not drown me.

The river carried me to Akki, the water carrier.

Akki the water carrier lifted me up in the kindness of his heart,

Akki the water carrier raised me as his own son,

Akki the water carrier made of me his gardener.

In my work as a gardener I was beloved by Ishtar, I became the king,

and for forty-five years I held kingly sway.”

A rather similar story to the Sargon legend is also shown in certain features of the ancient Hindu epic Mahabharata in its account of the birth of the hero Karna. Karna’s story goes roughly like this:

A Yadava dynasty king named Surasena had a beautiful young virgin daughter named Pritha (later Kunti). As tradition had it, a rishi – Vedic scholar and seer – named Durvasa visited the king for a lengthy stay, who housed him as his palace guest. The king asked Pritha to personally ensure that the sage Durvasa’s stay was comfortable. Princess Pritha did her best, and Durvasa was delighted with his stay and her diligent services. Before leaving, Durvasa thanked her and gave her the Siddha mantra telling her that if she ever wants, she can use that mantra to call any god she desires as her lover.

Pritha became curious and wondered if the mantra would really work. Therefore, on one beautiful morning, as the golden sun rose, to explore, she called the sun god Surya. He came with a golden glow, dressed up in jewelry and breastplate. Surya impregnates her. Karna is thus the child of the princess and the Surya. After their consummation, the god Surya grants her the wish that after Karna’s birth she will regain her virginity.

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 statue of Karna fighting Ghatothkacha taken in Bali, Indonesia

Pritha hid her pregnancy. Later, the adaptation of the myth by A. Holtzmann, verse 1458 reads: “Then my nurse and I made a large basket of rushes, placed a lid thereon, and lined it with wax; into this basket I laid the boy and carried him down to the river Acva.” Floating on the waves, the basket reaches the river Ganges and travels as far as the city of Campa. “There was passing along the bank of the river, the charioteer, the noble friend of Dhritarashtra, and with him was Radha, his beautiful and pious spouse. She was wrapt in deep sorrow, because no son had been given to her. On the river she saw the basket, which the waves carried close to her on the shore; she showed it to Azirath, who went and drew it forth from the waves.” The couple then raised the boy as their own son. 

Later, Karna went to school in Hastinapura. He studied martial arts under the sages Drona, Kripa and Parashurama. However, he was often subjected to ridicule by his peers for being the son of a poor family. The boy Karna came to be known for his solitary habits, hard work, pious yoga before dawn every day, compassion and eager generosity to help anyone in need.

Kunti went on to marry King Pandu, who was forced to refrain from conjugal intercourse as he was cursed to die in the arms of his spouse. As her husband could not give her children, Kunti bore three sons again through divine conception. Years later, at a tournament, Karna appears to measure his strength against Arjuna, the third son of Kunti. Arjuna scoffingly refused to fight the charioteer’s son. In order to make him a worthy opponent, one of those present anoints Karna as king. Kunti later  recognized Karna as her son by the divine mark on his body and revealed to him the secret of his birth.

File:Arjuna Karna final battle, Kurukshetra war, 12th-century Mahabharata relief, Hoysalesvara temple Halebidu.jpg

Arjuna Karna final battle, Kurukshetra war, 12th-century Mahabharata relief, Hoysalesvara temple Halebidu

A striking resemblance to the entire structure of the Karna legend is presented by the birth history of Ion, the ancestor of the Ionians. Apollo, in the grotto of the rock of the Athenian Acropolis, procreated a son with the virgin Creusa, the daughter of Erechtheus. In this grotto the boy was also born. Creusa left the child behind in a woven basket in the hope that Apollo would not leave his son to die. At Apollo’s request, Hermes carried the boy that same night to Delphi, where the priestess finds him on the threshold of the temple in the morning. She raised the boy as her own and, when he has grown into a youth, made him a servant of the temple. Erechtheus later gave his daughter Creusa in marriage to Xuthus. As their marriage produced no child, the couple went to the Delphian oracle, praying to be blessed with a child. Apolo revealed to Xuthus that the first boy to meet him on leaving the sanctuary was his son. Xuthus hastened outside and met the youth, whom he joyfully greeted as his own son, giving him the name Ion, which means “walker.” However, Creusa refused to accept the youth as her son. She tried to poison him, but her attempt failed and the infuriated people turned against her. Ion was about to attack her, but Apollo, who did not wish his son to kill his own mother, enlightened the mind of the priestess so that she understood the connection. The priestess took the basked in which Ion was born to Creusa. Creusa recognized him as her son and revealed to him the secret of his birth.

File:DSC04511 Istanbul - Museo archeol. - Apollo citaredo, sec. II dC - da Mileto - Foto G. Dall'Orto 28-5-2006.jpg

Statue of Apollo kitharoidos (“who plays the kithara”) 2nd century AD

The Man of the Sun: The Story of Quetzalcoatl

“[Men] lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all devils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace.” – Hesiod.

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“Allegory of Summer”, by Jerzy Szymonowicz (c. 1660 – 1711)

In Greek mythology, Astraea was the goddess of innocence. She was the  daughter of the Titans Astraeus, god of dusk, and Eos, goddess of dawn. Her name meant “star-maiden” and she was on the earth alongside humans during the Golden Age of Man. When the Iron Age dawned, bringing along misery and wickedness, Astraea sadly abandoned the earth and went to the skies where she transformed into the constellation virgo. When Astraea returns to Earth one day, she will once again bring the utopia that was during the Golden Age, bringing an end to human suffering.

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Quetzalcoatl, as depicted in the Codex Magliabechiano (16th century).

In Aztec mythology, Quetzalcoatl was regarded as “The Father of the Toltecs,” and, legend says, was the seventh and youngest son of the Toltec Abraham, Iztacmixcohuatl. Quetzalcoatl became the ruler of Tollan and, by his enlightened sway and his encouragement of the liberal arts, did much to further the advancement of his people.

Quetzalcoatl’s reign had lasted for a long enough period for the cultivated arts to develop to a satisfactory level when his country was visited by Tezcatlipoca. Tezcatlipoca gave him a draught of pulque, which intoxicated him. The doom pronounced upon him was banishment, and he was compelled to leave Anahuac.

As a new age dawned Astraea left earth, taking away the last remaining innocence known to mankind, leaving behind only emptiness. Quetzalcoatl’s exile brought about more peculiar changes upon the country. He threw away his treasures, burned his palaces, transformed the cacao-trees into mosquitoes, and banished all the birds from Tollan. His people, nonplussed at these unexpected happenings, begged him to return, but he refused. He proceeded to Tabasco, the fabled land of Tlapallan and, leaving on a raft made of serpents, floated away to the east. In the native pinturas it is noticeable that the solar disc and semidisc are almost invariably found in connection with the feathered serpent as the symbolical attributes of Quetzalcoal. The Hopi people of Mexico symbolise the sun as a serpent, tail in mouth.

A slightly different version of this myth is perhaps closer to Astraea’s story. It says that, in sadness, Quetzalcoatl threw himself upon a funeral pyre. His spirit rose  upward and were changed into birds of brilliant plumage. His heart also soared into the sky, and became the morning star. As Quetzalcoatl died when the star became visible, the ancient Mexicans gave him the title “Lord of the Dawn.” When he died he was invisible for four days, and for eight days he wandered in the underworld, after which time the morning star appeared and he achieved resurrection. He then ascended his throne as a god.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Quetzalcoatl is that which regards Quetzalcoatl as a god of the air. He is connected with the cardinal points, and wears the insignia of the cross which symbolises them. He has a protruding, trumpet-like mouth, for the wind-god blows. His figure suggests whirls and circles. His temples were built in circular form.

American archaeologist and ethnologist Daniel Garrison Brinton (1837 – 1899) perceived in Quetzalcoatl a similar dual nature. “He is both lord of the eastern light and of the winds,” he writes (Myths of the New World) “Like all the dawn heroes, he too was represented as of white complexion, clothed in long, white robes, and, as many of the Aztec gods, with a full and flowing beard. . . . He had been overcome by Tezcatloca, the wind or spirit of night, who had descended from heaven by a spider’s web, and presented his rival with a draught supposed to confer immortality, but in fact producing an intolerable longing for home. For the wind and the light both depart when the gloaming draws near, or when the clouds spread their dark and shadowy webs along the mountains, and pour the vivifying rain upon the fields.”

An explanation of the origin of Quetzalcoatl is that which would regard him as the Man of the Sun, who has quitted his abode for a season for the purpose of teaching mankind arts which represent the first steps in civilisation. He fulfilled his mission and was displaced by new, invading, deities. Quetzalcoatl was represented as a traveller with staff in hand and, under his rule, the fruits of the earth flourished more abundantly than at any subsequent period.

Several tribes tributary to the Aztecs were in the habit of imploring Quetzalcoatl in prayer to return and free them from the intolerable bondage of the conqueror. Notable among them were the Totonacs, who passionately believed that the sun, their father, would send a god who would free them from the Aztec yoke. On the coming of the Spaniards the European conquerors were hailed as the servants of Quetzalcoatl, thus in the eyes of the natives fulfilling the tradition that he would return.

The titles bestowed upon Quetzalcoatl by the Nahua show that in his solar significance he was god of the vault of the heavens, as well as merely son of the sun. He was alluded to as Ehecatl (“The Air”), Yolcuat (“The Rattlesnake”), Tohil (“The Rumbler”), Nanihehecatl (“Lord of the Four Winds”) and Tlauizcalpantecutli (“Lord of the Light of the Dawn”). The whole heavenly vault was his, together with all its phenomena.

Dance for Tlaloc: The Rain God and His People

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Carved basalt mask of Tlaloc (the rain god), Mixtec people, Oaxaca, Mexico, c. 10th-12th century

In a country such as Mexico, where the success or failure of the crops depends entirely upon the rainfall, Tlaloc, the Rain God, was a deity of high importance. He made his home in the mountains which surround the valley of Mexico, as these were the source of the local rainfall, and his popularity is vouched for by the fact that sculptured representations of him occur more often than those of any other of the Mexican deities.

Tlaloc is interesting. He is similar to such deities as the Hurakan of the Kiche of Guatemala, the Pillan of the aborigines of Chile, and Con, the thunder-god of the Collao of Peru. The small difference between Tlaloc and these other gods is that his thunderous powers are not so apparent as his rain-making abilities.

Tlaloc is generally represented in a semi-recumbent attitude. His upper body were raised upon the elbows, and his knees were half drawn up, probably to represent the mountainous character of the country where the rain came from. He was married to Chalchihuitlicue (Emerald Lady), who bore him a numerous children, the Tlalocs (Clouds). Many of the figures which represented him were carved from jade, to typify the colour of water, and in some of these he was shown holding a a serpent of gold to typify the lightning, for water-gods are often closely identified with the thunder, which hangs over the hills and accompanies heavy rains.

Tlaloc manifested himself in three forms, as the lightning-flash, the thunderbolt, and the thunder. Although his image faced the east, where he was supposed to have originated, he was worshipped as inhabiting the four cardinal points and every mountain-top. The colours of the four points of the compass, yellow, green, red, and blue, where the rain-bearing winds come from, entered into the composition of his costume, which was further crossed with streaks of silver, typifying the mountain torrents. A vase containing every description of grain was usually placed in front of his idol, an offering of the growth that, hopefully, he could make more fertile.

Tlaloc lived in a watered paradise called Tlalocan (The Country of Tlaloc), a place of abundance where those who had been drowned or struck by lightning or had died from dropsical diseases enjoyed eternal bliss. The common people who did not die such deaths went to the dark abode of Mictlan, the all-devouring and gloomy Lord of Death.

In manuscripts, Tlaloc is usually portrayed as having a dark complexion, a large round eye, a row of tusks. Over his lips was an angular blue stripe curved downward and rolled up at the ends. The later character is supposed to have been evolved originally from the coils of two snakes, their mouths with long fangs in the upper jaw meeting in the middle of the upper lip. The snake, besides being symbolised by lightning in many American mythologies, is also symbolical of water, which is well typified in its sinuous movements.

The Nahua believed that the constant production of food and rain induced senility in those deities who were providing them. In trying to stave this off, the people offer the gods a period of rest and recuperation. Once in eight years a festival called the Atamalqualiztli (Fast of Porridge-balls and Water) was held, during which every one in the Nahua community returned for the time being to living primitively. Dressed in costumes representing all forms of animal and bird life, and mimicking the sounds made by the various creatures they typified, the people danced round the teocalli of Tlaloc to entertain him after his labours in producing the fertilising rains of the past eight years. A lake was filled with water-snakes and frogs, into which the people plunged, catching the reptiles in their mouths and devouring them alive. The only grain food which could be eaten during this season of rest was thin water-porridge of maize.

Should one of the more prosperous peasants or yeomen felt that a rainfall was necessary for the growth of his crops, or should he fear a drought, he sought out one of the professional makers of dough or paste idols to mould one of Tlaloc. He would then make offerings of maize-porridge and pulque to this image. Throughout the night the farmer and his neighbours danced, shrieking and howling round the figure for the purpose of rousing Tlaloc from his slumbers. Next day was spent in rest after the exertions of the previous night.

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Huitzilopochli: the Birth of a War God

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Aztec Warriors (Eagle Warrior at the left and Jaguar Warrior at the right) brandishing a macuahuitl (a wooden club with sharp obsidian blades). (Florentine Codex)

In the Aztec pantheon, Huitzilopochtli occupied a place similar to that of Mars in the Roman. In ancient Roman religon, Mars was the god of war and a guardian of agriculture – a rather strange combination, but characteristic of early Rome. Second in importance only to Jupiter, Mars was the most prominent of the military gods in the religion of the Roman army. Although origin of Huitzilopochtli is obscure, the myth relating to it is distinctly original in character.

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Statue of Coatlicue displayed in National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City. By Luidger – Luidger, CC BY-SA 3.0

Under the shadow of the mountain of Coatepec, near the Toltec city of Tollan, there dwelt a pious widow called Coatlicue (“skirt of snakes”). She had four hundred sons and a daughter called Coyolxauhqui (“”Painted with Bells”). Every day, she went to a small hill with the intention of offering up prayers to the gods in a penitent spirit of piety. One day, while she was occupied in her devotions, a small ball of brilliantly coloured feathers fell upon her from above. Pleased by the bright variety of its hues, Coatlicue placed it in her breast, intending to offer it up to the sun-god. Some time afterwards she discovered that she was pregnant with another child. Hearing this, her sons rained abuse upon her, incited by their sister Coyolxauhqui.

Coatlicue went about in fear and anxiety, but the spirit of her unborn infant came and spoke to her and gave her words of encouragement, soothing her troubled heart. Her sons, however, were resolved to wipe out what they considered an insult to their race by the death of their mother. They put on their war-gears, and arranged their hair after the manner of warriors going to battle. But one of their number, Quauitlicac, relented, and confessed his brothers’ plan to the still unborn Huitzilopochtli. Huitzilopochtli replied to him: “O brother, hearken attentively to what I have to say to you. I know what is about to happen.” With the intention of slaying their mother, the four hundred sons went in search of her. At their head marched their sister, Coyolxauhqui. They were armed to the teeth and carried bundles of darts with which they intended to kill Coatlicue.

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Huitzilopochtli, from the recto of the folio 5 of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis (16th century).

Quauitlicac climbed the mountain to tell Huitzilopochtli that his brothers were approaching to kill their mother.

“Mark well where they are,” replied the infant god. “To what place have they advanced?”

“To Tzompantitlan,” responded Quauitlicac.

Later on Huitzilopochtli asked: “Where may they be now?”

“At Coaxalco”, was the reply.

Once more Huitzilopochtli asked to what point his enemies had advanced.

“They are now at Petlac,” Quauitlicac replied.

After a little while Quauitlicac informed Huitzilopochtli that the Centzonuitznaua were at hand under the leadership of Coyolxauhqui. At the moment of the enemy’s arrival, Huitzilopochtli was born, flourishing a shield and a blue spear. He was painted, his head was surmounted by a panache, and his left leg was covered with feathers. He shattered Coyolxauhqui with a flash of serpentine lightning, and then chase Centzonuitznaua, whom he pursued four times round the mountain. Many perished in the waters of the adjoining lake, to which they had rushed in their despair. All were slain save a few who escaped to a place called Uitzlampa, where they surrendered to Huitzilopochtli and gave up their arms.

The name Huitzilopochtli means “Humming-bird to the left” as he wore the feathers of the humming-bird, or colibri, on his left leg. From this it has been inferred that he was a humming-bird totem. However, the explanation of Huitzilopochtli’s origin is a little deeper than this. Among the American tribes, especially those of the northern continent, the serpent is regarded with the deepest veneration as the symbol of wisdom and magic. From these sources come success in war. The serpent also typifies the lightning, the symbol of the divine spear and warlike might. Fragments of serpents are regarded as powerful war-physic among many tribes. Atatarho, a mythical wizard-king of the Iroquois, for example, was clothed with living serpents as with a robe, and his myth throws light on one of the names of Huitzilopochtli’s mother, Coatlantona (“Robe of Serpents”). Huitzilopochtli’s image was surrounded by serpents, and rested on serpent-shaped supporters. His sceptre was a single snake, and his great drum was of serpent-skin.

In many mythologies the serpent is closely associated with the bird. Thus the name of the god Quetzalcoatl is translatable as “Feathered Serpent”. Huitzilopochtli is undoubtedly one of these. We may regard him as a god the primary conception of whom arose from the idea of the serpent, the symbol of warlike wisdom and might, the symbol of the warrior’s dart or spear, and the humming-bird, the harbinger of summer, type of the season when the snake or lightning god has power over the crops.

Huitzilopochtli was usually represented as wearing a waving panache or plume of hummingbirds’ feathers on his head. His face and limbs were striped with bars of blue, and in his right hand he carried four spears. His left hand bore his shield, on the surface of which were displayed five tufts of down. The shield was made with reeds, covered with eagle’s down. The spear he brandished was also tipped with tufts of down instead of flint. These weapons were placed in the hands of those who as captives engaged in the sacrificial fight because Hultzilopochtli symbolised the warrior’s death on the gladiatorial stone of combat.

Huitzilopochtli was more than just a war-god. As the serpent-god of lightning he had a connection with summer, the season of lightning, and therefore had dominion to some extent over the crops and fruits of the earth. The Algonquian people of North America believed that the rattlesnake could raise ruinous storms or grant favourable breezes. They see it also as the symbol of life, because the serpent has a phallic significance due of its similarity to the symbol of fertility. With some American tribes also, notably the Pueblo people of Arizona, the serpent has a solar significance, and with its tail in its mouth symbolises the annual round of the sun.

The Nahua believed that Huitzilopochtli could grant them fair weather for their crops, and they placed an image of Tlaloc, the rain-god, near him, so that, if necessary, the war-god could compel the rainmaker to exert his powers or to abstain from the creation of floods. We must, in considering the nature of this deity, bear well in mind the connection in the Nahua consciousness between the pantheon, war, and the food-supply. If war was not waged annually the gods must go without flesh food and perish, and if the gods succumbed the crops would fail, and famine would destroy the race. So it was small wonder that Huitzilopochtli was one of the chief gods of Mexico.

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