About Gem Stones and the Aztecs of Mexico and Central America

hisory of the talismanic value of precious gem stones, especially turquoise, to the indigenous people of Mexico and Central America and in the art and religious practices of the Aztec people

In the native languages of Mexico and Central America the name chalchihuitl most frequently designates jadeite, but it appears sometimes to have been applied to other stones of a green or greenish-blue color, such as the so-called amazon-stone from the region of the Amazon River, and even occasionally to the turquoise. Thus the talismanic value of the chalchihuitl seems to have depended rather upon its hue and its rarity, than upon its mineralogical character; indeed, among primitive peoples, stones of the same, or closely similar color, although of different composition, often bore the same name, and were conceived to have the same virtues whether talismanic or therapeutic. Writing of the rich gifts sent by Montezuma to Cortes upon the latter's arrival at San Juan de Ulua (1519), Bernal Diaz de Castillo mentions "four chalchiuites, a kind of green stone of great value, and much esteemed by them [the Indians], more highly, indeed, than we esteem the emerald. They are of a green color." And he proceeds to state that each one of these stones was said to be worth a great weight of gold.

The statue of the earth-goddess Couatlicue, found in the village of Cozcatlan, Mexico, and now preserved in the National Museum of Mexico, shows, inserted in the cheek, a disk of jadeite. Green seems thus to have been the color sacred to this goddess, which may remind us of the attribution of the green emerald to Venus. Indeed, green as the color of foliage and plants must naturally have suggested itself as eminently appropriate for an earth-goddess, just as its significance as a symbol of life and generation connected it with the Goddess of Love.

The story of the emeralds brought from the New World by Hernan Cortes must have been quite familiar to sixteenth century writers, for we find Brantome applying some details of this story to "a beautiful and incomparable pearl" said to have been brought from Mexico by Cortes on his return to Spain. This he later allowed to slip from his fingers into the sea while showing it to a friend on board the ship that was bearing him toward Algiers; it was lost in the sea, and in the words of Brantome "vanished from the sight of mankind, unworthy to possess such a miracle of nature." The loss of this pearl is looked upon by the French writer as a punishment for the "inscription" Cortes had caused to be placed upon it: Inter natos mulierum non surrexit major; this refers to John the Baptist and was, as we have seen, engraved upon one of the famous emeralds of Cortes. Brantome believes that its application to a simple product of nature was sacrilegious and the cause of the object's loss; he also sees in this loss an omen of the death of the Emperor Charles which occurred shortly afterward, and he draws attention to the fact that the "Africans" called their kings "precious stones."

The Aztec art-workers of the period immediately antedating the Spanish Conquest had attained a high order of skill in the difficult work of inlaying carefully cut and shaped bits of precious material so as to produce some form or design of symbolic or religious meaning. In judging the artistic merit of such work, we must always remember that the Aztec inlayers were only provided with rude and primitive tools and implements for the execution of their task, and extraordinary patience and application must have been necessary to complete some of the objects that have been preserved for us. This art seems only to have been cultivated in ancient Mexico and Central America, and perhaps Peru also; of the Mexican work some twenty-five examples have been saved. The Spaniards, shortly after their first landing, were given an opportunity to judge of the quality of this Aztec inlaying, for among the gifts sent by Montezuma to Cortes, were five such objects, a mask with incrustations of turquoise, so disposed as to figure two intertwined serpents; a crozier, also with turquoise mosaic and ending in a serpent's head; a pair of large ear-rings of serpentine form decorated with the chalchihuitl stone (perhaps nephrite or jadeite); a mitre of ocelot skin, surmounted by a large chalchihuitl, and also decorated with turquoise mosaic, and a staff of office with similar inlays. A serpent-mask answering to the description of one of Montezuma's gifts is now in the British Museum and is in a fairly good state of preservation, although unfortunately the two serpent-heads have been lost. Evidently this mask was used in connection with the worship of Quetzalcoatl, the serpent-god, an incarnation of which deity the poor Aztecs at first believed Cortes to be.

Surpassing this mask in a certain strange and weird interest, and equalling it in artistic workmanship, is another most remarkable Aztec ceremonial mask, also in the British Museum Collection. The foundation of this is the front part of a human skull, and its outer surface has been covered with an incrustation of turquoise and jet mosaic in five alternate bands, the upper, middle and lower ones being of jet, while the two intermediate ones are of shaped pieces of turquoise; part of the nose has been removed and the space covered over by tablets of pink shell; protruding eyeballs are figured by convex disks of polished iron pyrites with a bordering of white shell; a number of the teeth have been broken out. Straps attached at the temples rendered it possible to bind this mask to the face of an idol, or for a priest of high rank to wear it on solemn ceremonial occasions.

Some three hundred yards or more from the great temple pyramid at Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico, at the termination of the Sacred Way traversed in times of tribulation, of pestilence or famine, by processions of priests conveying sacrifices to be offered to the offended divinities, was the Sacred Well. Into this the priests would throw the ornaments and trinkets dedicated to the gods as peace-offerings. But such inanimate objects were regarded as insufficient, and even animal sacrifices were deemed to be inadequate, and hence it often happened that prisoners of war and fair maidens were cast into the deep, still waters of the Sacred Well.

Many fragments of the carved stone ornaments have been recovered from the depths of this Sacred Well, and even in their present imperfect state, they testify to a considerable development of the lapidarian art among the ancient Mayas, and a high degree of artistic skill in the fashioning of such objects of adornment. Undoubtedly those used in this way as sacred offerings were considered to be amulets and therefore to be the more acceptable in the sight of the gods.

That lapis lazuli was as much favored for religious use by the aborigines of the New World as it was in ancient Egypt and in other parts of the Old World, is shown by the recent discovery of twenty-eight carefully formed cylindrical beads of lapis lazuli among some very ancient deposits in the island of La Plata, Ecuador. From the general character of these deposits it is evident that they did not belong to permanent dwellers on the island, and there is every reason to believe that they were left by visitors from the mainland, who came to the island for the performance of certain sacred rites and ceremonies.

The ancient Mexicans held the turquoise in high esteem, and that Los Cerrillos and other mines in Arizona and New Mexico were extensively worked prior to the discovery of America is proved by fragments of Aztec pottery-vases; by drinking, eating, and cooking utensils; by stone hammers, wedges, mauls, and idols which have been discovered in the debris found in many different localities.

While Major Hyde was exploring this neighborhood in 1880, he was visited by several Pueblo Indians from San Domingo, who stated that the turquoise he was taking from the old mine was sacred, and must not go into the hands of those whose Saviour was not a Montezuma, and these Indians offered, at the same time, to purchase all that might come from the mine in the future.

About ten miles from Tempe, Arizona, in ruins designated as Los Muertos, there was found enclosed in asbestos, in a decorated Zuni jar, a sea-shell coated with black pitch, in which were incrusted turquoise and garnets, in the form of a toad, the sacred emblem of the Zuni. Incrusted clam shells, representing toads, may be seen in the Brunswick Collection, the Christie Collection in the British Museum, and in the Pitorini Museum, Rome.

At the annual Fiesta which is attended by the San Felipe, the Navajo, the Isleta, the Acoma, the Jicorrilla, Apache and other Indians at the Pueblo of Santo Domingo, a place situated about three miles west by south of Wallace Station on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, a carved wooden image of the saint, about four feet in height, and said to date from the time of the conquest in 1692, is carried in procession through the principal streets to a small tent made of the finest Navajo blankets, where it is placed on an improvised altar. Here various offerings are made. Among them strings of turquoise beads, both round and flat, of the choicest color, are suspended from the ears of the figure, and from a string which encircles its neck. On the centre of the breast is one of the curious turquoise-encrusted marine clam-shells similar to the one found by Lieutenant F. H. Cushing in the excavations near Tempe, Arizona. The writer saw a fine example of this ornamental object suspended from the neck of the Virgin of Santo Domingo, at the Annual Fiesta, August 4, 1890. With the exception of a black band of obsidian running across the centre, the entire exterior of the shell is covered with a sort of miniature pavement of little squares of turquoise which are cemented to it with a black shellac-like substance obtained from "the grease-wood" plant common in New Mexico.

It has been suggested that the types of ornamentation used by the aborigines of Central America may become fashionable at the time of the opening of the Panama Canal. In jewelry the crayfish model, as shown in a gold-plated ornament discovered in the Chiriqui district of Panama, offers a striking and peculiar form which might win favor; a curious frog pattern could also be used. If the local usage in ancient times is to be considered, the emerald and other green stones would be given the preference for decoration, as stones of this color were the most in favor among the primitive inhabitants of Central America because it symbolized the verdure of field and forest, and hence youth and vigor. When set in gold these stones gained in symbolic value, for gold, having the color of the sun, was regarded as typical of force, courage, and vitality.

The mystic lake of Guatavita, high up on the Andean plateau of Colombia, South America, was the chief holy place of the native Indians of this locality hundreds of years ago, at a time when gold and emeralds were plentiful among them, luxuries unknown to their impoverished descendants of our day. Legend had taught them to regard this lake as the abiding place of a powerful divinity or demon, whose good will must be secured at any price if dire disease were to be held aloof from the people. Four other sacred lakes on the plateau, Guasca, Siecha, Teusaca, and Ubaque, shared in a lesser degree with the principal one in the attribution of mysterious power. As early as 1534 word was brought to Sebastian de Belalcazar, founder of Quito, that in the course of the religious ceremonies held by the Indians at the Lake of Guatavita, they were wont to cast into its waters immense quantities of gold dust, emeralds and other precious stones. It was also related that at these semi-annual festivals the Caciques and the principal chiefs, bearing valuable gifts of gold-dust and emeralds, were paddled out in canoes (or on rafts) to the exact middle of the lake, this point being determined by the intersection of two ropes stretching from four temples erected at four equidistant points on its banks. Arrived at this spot the offerings were cast into the lake, and the Cacique of Guatavita, whose naked body had been coated with an adhesive clay, over which gold-dust was sprinkled in profusion, sprang into the water, and after washing off the gold-dust, swam to the shore. This resplendent living golden figure strongly appealed to the Spaniards' imagination, and the name they bestowed upon the Cacique, El Dorado ("The Golden," or "Gilded"), is used to our day as a designation of a region or a spot exceptionally rich in gold. At the moment the "Golden Cacique" made his plunge into the lake, the assembled people scattered along its banks turned their backs toward the water, shouted loudly, and threw their propitiatory offerings over their shoulders into the lake.

Attempts have often been made to secure the treasures by drawing off the waters of the lake, but only with very partial success so far. The first serious effort is said to have been made by Antonio de Sepulveda, a merchant of Santa Fe, in United States of Colombia, who obtained a Spanish concession. In or about 1823 we have record of another unsuccessful venture on the part of Jose Ignacio Paris, in an account of Colombia written in 1824 by Captain Charles Stuart Cochrane, of the Royal Navy, who aided Paris in his efforts. The report that at the time of the Spanish Conquest, the Cacique of Guatavita caused gold-dust constituting the burdens of fifty men to be cast into the lake, greatly contributed to the zeal of the treasure-seekers in the vicinity. One of the early attempts at least resulted in the recovery of so much treasure that the Government's 3 per cent. share is said to have amounted to $170,000.

In none of these essays, however, was the lake really and effectually drained off, and that of Paris in 1823 or 1824 failed in the same way, because of inadequate capital. He had succeeded in persuading sixteen shareholders to club together, each one contributing $500 to a common fund, but after not only this $8,000, but $12,000 more supplied by himself had been expended, there still remained 33 feet of water in the lake.

Recently an English company has recognized that the treasure must be sought at or even beneath the true bottom, as this existed at the time of the Spanish Conquest, and thus at levels considerably lower than those of the bottom at the present time. The project is, after 30 feet of the present bottom has been removed, to set up a steam shovel and sink down 40 or 50 feet in search of the gold-dust, golden ornaments and emeralds believed to exist here.


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