The Myths of the New World: A Treatise on the Symbolism and Mythology of the Red Race of America

By DANIEL G. BRINTON, A. M., M. D., Member of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, etc. New York : Leypoldt and Holt.
THE thoughtful general reader, for whom, rather than the antiquary, Dr. Brinton professes to have written his book, must be pleased with the sensiblencss which is one of its prominent characteristics. In the treatment of the myths of the New World there was occasion for so great critical dryness, and so much uncritical and credulous sentimentality, that we confess ourselves rather surprised than otherwise to find them handled entertainingly, and discussed with sympathy and candor, and in a tone at once moderate and confident. The field of inquiry extends over the whole hemisphere, but it has been so conscientiously and carefully wrought, that there is little confusion in the presentation of results; all extraneous growths have been weeded out, and the Red Race’s idea of the supernatural is given as distinctly and fully as it can be evolved from the vague and varying traditions and records of the past. Of course, an end is made of many popular illusions concerning the religion of the aborigines, and there is sad havoc of authorities : the Great Spirit turns out an effort of the native imagination to conceive of the white man’s God, and Mr. Schoolcraft is mentioned as a man of “ deficient education and narrow prejudices, pompous in style and inaccurate in statement,” and his famous work as a “ monument of American extravagance and superficiality,” while Hiawatha appears a recent and “wholly spurious myth.” These great landmarks in Indian symbolism being overthrown, the general reader drifts helplessly upon the course of their fables, and quite at Dr. Brinton’s mercy.
A very large part of their supernaturalism is the reverberation of the misunderstood sermons of missionaries; but when this is rejected the indigenous mythology still makes a respectable figure. Much of what remains is very beautiful, and some of it very significant; but as it was usually distinct from ideas and systems of morality, it may be doubted whether the burden of his own proof is not against the proposition that Dr. Brinton seeks to establish, and whether any of its qualities did much to elevate the red race ; though there is no question that its cruel and revolting forms of worship tended to degrade them. For the most part the weak ethical instincts of humanity seem to have been powerless before superstitions pointing to a future in which the place of the soul was fixed, not by its good or bad acts, but by the nature of the body’s last sickness, and teaching gods who ruled in fear, and knew neither right nor wrong, but only offerings and selfsacrifice in their worshipper; and even where the Indians, as in Peru and Mexico, had a civic life better than their creed, their creed still stained their civilization with horrible crimes and infamies, or prepared it to fall at the first blow from without.
According to Dr. Brinton, there never was a race so universally and so cunningly priest - ridden as our aborigines. These savages who had so vague and intangible a theology that it has often been doubted whether they believed at all in a future state, had a very complex supernaturalism, and a priesthood skilled far beyond our revivalists in appealing to the imagination and emotions. But in establishing this fact Dr. Brinton is very far from assenting to the doubt which chiefly renders it remarkable. On the contrary, he asserts in the most decided terms the belief of all the American tribes in a hereafter, and denies that it was really wanting even in those poor Pend d’Oreilles to whom the Catholic missionaries could convey an idea of the soul only by describing it as “ a gut that never rotted,” while other Oregon tribes, who attribute a spirit to every member of the body, the Algonkins and Iroquois, who give each man two souls, and those Dakotas who give him four, afford our author almost a riotous abundance of proof for his argument. Indeed, unless we are to hold as utterly meaningless the burial customs of all the tribes, and as wholly false all the accounts of Peruvian and Mexican ceremonies pertaining to the dead and dying, we must grant Dr. Brinton’s claim on behalf of the existence of an aboriginal hereafter, with its paradise in the sun, and its curious subdivisions into heavens and hells appropriate to the complaint or act by which the soul was separated from the body,
A very interesting part of this book is that in which the author treats of the origin of the world and of man as he finds the idea in the uncorrupted myths of the aborigines. The native imagination never grasped the notion of creation. Matter, for them, always existed; but there was a fabulous period when a flood of waters hid everything, and when the dry land began to emerge. Back of this period they could not go ; yet they had no trouble in supposing an end of matter, and they had no clearer belief than that of the destruction of the world, of a last day, and of a resurrection of the dead. All their myths teach more or less directly that man was not growth from lower animal life or from vegetable life, but “ a direct product from the great creative power.”
Dr. Brinton examines at length into the nature of those myths by virtue of which the cardinal points of the compass and the number four became sacred to the aborigines, and by which the Cross became the symbol of the east, west, north, and south, as widely and universally employed as the knowledge of these points.
“ The Catholic missionaries found it was no new object of adoration to the red race, and were in doubt whether to ascribe the fact to the pious labors of Saint Thomas or the sacrilegious subtlety of Satan. It was the central object in the great temple of Cozumel, and is still preserved on the basreliefs of the ruined city of Palenque. From time immemorial it had received the prayers and sacrifices of the Aztecs and Toltecs, and was suspended as an august emblem from the walls of temples in Popoyan and Cundinamarca. In the Mexican tongue it bore the significant and worthy name ‘ Tree of our Life,’ or ‘Tree of our Flesh’ (Tonacaquahuitl). It represented the god of rains and of health, and this was everywhere its simple meaning. ‘ Those of Yucatan,’ say the chroniclers, ‘prayed to the cross as the god of rains when they needed water.’ The Aztec goddess of rains bore one in her hand, and at the feast celebrated to her honor in the early spring victims were nailed to a cross and shot with arrows. Quetzalcoatl, god of the winds, bore as his sign of office ‘ a mace like the cross of a bishop ’; his robe was covered with them strown like flowers, and its adoration was throughout connected with his worship. When the Muyscas would sacrifice to the goddess of waters, they extended cords across the tranquil depths of some lake, thus forming a gigantic cross, and at their point of intersection threw in their offerings of gold, emeralds, and precious oils. The arms of the cross were designed to point to the cardinal points and represent the four winds, the rain-bringers. To confirm this explanation, let us have recourse to the simpler ceremonies of the less cultivated tribes, and see the transparent meaning of the symbol as they employed it.
“ When the rain-maker of the Lenni Lenape would exert his power, he retired to some secluded spot and drew upon the earth the figure of a cross, (its arms toward the cardinal points ?) placed upon it a piece of tobacco, a gourd, a bit of some red stuff, and commenced to cry aloud to the spirits of the rains. The Creeks at the festival of the Busk celebrated, as we have seen, to the four winds, and, according to their legends instituted by them, commenced with making the new fire. The manner of this was ‘ to place four logs in the centre of the square, end to end, forming a cross, the outer ends pointing to the cardinal points; in the centre of the cross the new fire is made.’
“ As the emblem of the winds who dispense the fertilizing showers it is emphatically the tree of our life, our subsistence, and our health. It never had any other meaning in America, and if, as has been said, the tombs of the Mexicans were cruciform, it was perhaps with reference to a resurrection and a future life as portrayed under this symbol, indicating that the buried body would rise by the action of the four spirits of the world, as the buried seed takes on a new existence when watered by the vernal showers. It frequently recurs in the ancient Egyptian writings, where it is interpreted life; doubtless, could we trace the hieroglyph to its source, it would likewise prove to be derived from the four winds.”
Throughout Dr. Brinton’s work there is a prevalent synthetic effort, by which the varying forms of the aboriginal myths are brought to one expression, and the ruder traditions are made to approach their interpretation through the perfected symbolism of the civilized Mexicans and Peruvians. Here, as nearly everywhere else, the author has most readers in his power; but we have a conviction that he does not abuse his power. In any case, the result is in many respects absolutely satisfactory. Something is evoked from chaos, that commends itself both to the reason and the fancy, and makes Dr. Brinton’s book a very entertaining one ; and that doubt, scarcely more merciful than atheism, whether man might not somewhere be destitute of belief in God and his own immortality, is removed, so far as concerns the Americans. Their supernaturalism included both ideas, and from it all our author evolves his opinion that the supreme deity of the red race was a not less pure and spiritual essence than Light. Their God, however, destroyed them, for always connected with belief in him was their faith in that immemorable tradition which taught that out of his home, the east, should come a white race to conquer and possess their land, and to which Dr. Brinton is not alone, nor too daring, in attributing the collapse of powers and civilizations like those of Peru and Mexico before a handful of Spanish adventurers.