Like it or no, the vision that we have of a thing or theme has a particular focus. It is dyed in a color with which our viewpoint, the angle of our vision, is particularly compatible. This is particularly true in the intellectual order. Our baggage of ideas, preconceptions, tastes, attractions, and phobias, with which our thought and even our very feelings, are conditioned, are limited first and foremost by the circumstances of space and time in which it has fallen to us to exist. These circumstances, learned as reality, mark and frame the position we take before things, whether it be a matter of the deepest beliefs or merely of superficial habits.
For the most part, this limitation passes unobserved, and we unconsciously identify with it in an aprioristic fashion. It is given in cultural terms by the dominion of determinate parameters relative to our historical time and our geographical space. Regarding the former, let us observe that our conventions, or the ideas of our era, will determine our vision. As to the latter, we see that the presuppositions of "modern civilization" are clearly Western, and have come to invade the whole planet. This double circumstance is noticeable especially in our understanding of the pre-Hispanic traditions, which have been discovered precisely at the moment when the West had just made a breach with its own tradition. That tradition had endured to the beginnings of the Italian Renaissance, and lingered on into the seventeenth century (perpetuating itself, indeed, in an "occult" fashion, down to our own day). From there on, the reality of symbol is transformed into allegory-later to lose all of its meaning-and a series of facts and circumstances is unleashed which will lead to a breach with the universal principles from which no authentic civilization had prescinded. Now these principles will be forgotten, and regarded as relics, opposed by a solid progress that can tolerate them in no way.
This has issued in misunderstanding upon misunderstanding, mistake upon mistake, in our own times, which have faithfully inherited the legacy of a series of erroneous philosophical presuppositions. While these presuppositions have their antecedent with the Greeks themselves, they culminate in the Renaissance and its logical consequences: Cartesian rationalism, the industrial revolution, production as an end in itself, consumerism, and technical dehumanization.
It will not be our purpose to treat the decadence of the West here. We only wish to understand in depth certain conceptions peculiar to scholars of the American phenomenon, conceptions intimately related with their time and culture. While proper to recent centuries, these notions tend to be attributed to the universal human being of all times and all spaces. That is, the tendency is to deny the living forms of utterly vast earlier cultures, burdening them with characteristics proper to the modern West, which, in all messianism, invests itself with the status of governor and redeemer of savagery and backwardness. The West, we see, is owner-manager of a supposed official or scientific truth that makes us-as persons integrated into modern culture-somehow superior, so that we must sometimes charitably forgive ancient civilizations their deficiencies, as well as praise certain virtues of theirs in order to demonstrate that, after all, their members were not absolutely stupid, or ill-intentioned savages. Otherwise the attitude is one of wholesale repudiation.
Granted, this is not the case with the great number of those who, with intense love, patience, and complete dedication have occupied themselves with the arduous, beautiful, and exhausting task of their investigation. Still, this does not militate against the fact that they approach the themes of their specialty with their cultural baggage, that of their time. And it must be further stated that, if these paraphernalia were to be composed of philosophical ideas that were mistaken even in classical antiquity, they will certainly mark scholars' viewpoint just as erroneously today, despite their merits, and the many useful or empirical rewards they may have yielded, or generously bequeathed to us.
Padre Joseph de Acosta is scandalized, from a frankly religious standpoint, that the natives had no specific name for the Supreme Being and Maker, even though they knew such a Being. (They named that Being by way of various intermediate deities.) ". . . Whence one sees how slender and weak a knowledge of God they have: they are not even able to name Him." But then, paradoxically, he emphasizes how impressive the temples and rites, and "religiousness," of the folk are. And particularly, referring to their cosmogony, he observes, sagaciously: "It appears that they have drawn the dogma from the ideas of Plato." Actually, there is nothing strange about not naming the deity directly, and traditional doctrine regards the Supreme Identity as unnamable precisely by virtue of its supracosmic essence, which is subject to no determination and hence to no name. That essence is expressed only by way of its attributes-that is, through the divine names, a procedure obviously intimately related to the Platonic archetypes, not to mention Islamic Sufism and Jewish cabala, which flourished in the same historical space, contemporaneously with the Precolumbian civilizations.1
On the other hand, the natives subjugated by the Inca empire used the word huaca for the presence of the sacred and the magical-telluric in any of its multiple forms or manifestations (rocks, mountains, rivers, stars, celestial and terrestrial phenomena, crossroads, cults of the dead, and so on), which, of course, were present everywhere in a sacralized world-and sacralized mental space.2 It is ignorance of traditional symbolical thought-ignorance of how antiquity conceived and experienced symbol-to deduce from this fact, via a simple exterior reading (nearly always subject, besides, to current fashion), that the natives were polytheists, idolaters, animists, or naturalists. No, the natives simply reverenced the countless states of a Universal Being-the deity, the Holy-manifested in everything around them as hierophanies.
And so it behooves us to single out some mistaken ideas-or preconceptions-in certain attitudes determined by the intellectual currents in vogue in a given period. We do not intend to draw up a list of them, or exhaustive classification, which would seem to us to be without utility, and inadequate to our purposes here. But we can indeed briefly refer to some of the more common errors (to which we shall return in the course of this book). Nearly all of these are sprung, as we have already stated, from the positivistic science of the past century, that science being the legatee of rationalism and evolutionism with its sequels: progressivistic ideas which have no support today (that is, even the more recent empirical "science" has abandoned them), but which continue to flourish and prosper as factors of social power, brandished by certain personages with their characteristic arrogance.3
We have already indicated that it is wrong to consider Precolumbian societies as polytheistic, animistic, naturalistic, or, especially, idolatrous. In the first case, to regard them in this mistaken fashion is something our culture does with all of the traditions and religions that see the energy of the deity to be incarnate in numerous forms, in various gods, or better, numina, principal or secondary, descending or ascending, which manifest attributes of the Universal Being. Among the ancients and the moderns this is the case with the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Nordics, Celtics, Chaldeans, Mazdaists, Hindus, Buddhists, Far Easterners, and so forth. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, an analogous function is performed by archangels, angels, and divine beings: these are intermediaries-symbols or messengers-of the Supreme Identity.
For the second case, the conventional thinking is that the peoples we saddle with the name of "animist"-generally, "primitive" peoples-must have been victims of the terror inspired in them by the cosmos, to which they rendered tribute and entreaty, regarding it as animate. Reverence for life, and fear of or respect for the sacred, are confused with an ignorance capable of conceiving evil or benign spirits as independent entities, endowed with a life of their own, all but materialized, in which these peoples are supposed to have believed literally and which they obeyed blindly. This is possible only for the mentality of our contemporaries-those who build their arguments from films about cowboys and Indians, and cannibals and explorers.
The third error is akin to the second-as each is akin to all. The "naturalistic" vision, of which the world's best exponent may be J. G. Frazer, a good writer, consists in the reduction of all myths, symbols, and rites of the primitives and antiquity to mere acknowledgments of natural or astronomical phenomena, to which magical categories were assigned, when they are only scientifically verifiable facts, and perfectly normal. Many of the scholars who have followed this line have the enormous merit of having seen the relationship between certain beliefs, usages, and customs with celestial and terrestrial events, cycles of the stars and generation, and so on. But they err in limiting Americans' understanding to a simple observation of events, and consequent stupefaction and astonishment in the face of these events, which is thought to lead them to the adoration of these forces in themselves. On the contrary, those energies are but manifestations of invisible principles, which they express and of which they are merely the symbol. The Precolumbian civilizations were only crediting the supernatural, which, as everyone knows, is that which is found beyond the natural, however much it may be expressed in the symbolical sacrality of nature.
Finally, to call traditional Americans idolatrous supposes that what they see in the physical image of a god is simply that which is directly represented there. It may be that this did occur in some case or at some moment, just as it did in Judaism and Christianity. But the generalized hypothesis seems rather to have been based on the zeal of Catholic priests who saw only idols or demonic forms in everything that was not the Jesus of the European Inquisition.
Another error seems to us to be the concept that the Precolumbian languages did not thrive-meaning that they did not reach a stage of phonetic writing.4 Quite the contrary of what is usually thought, the ideographic and hieroglyphic representations are immeasurably richer than the phonetic ones-for the peoples who experience them concretely and really, not for ourselves who do not understand them-and more subtle, along with being simple and available to immediate understanding. They promote countless associative mental operations, and broaden the intellectual capabilities of the individuals and societies that manage these codes. At the same time, their evocative power and the plurality of their images facilitate continual syntheses, and broaden the universality of consciousness. Ideographic and hieroglyphic representations designate various levels, or volumetric spaces, in which they are able to combine different readings and concepts among themselves. Chinese writing is partly ideographic even today, and that civilization's refinement of thought is well known.
Actually, all writing has been ideographic in its origin, and has been corrupted-like all cultural forms-into their phonetic, then alphabetical, simplification. This simplification crystallizes and particularizes a concept, by limiting and fixing it-and separates it from the whole-besides depriving it of its creative, generative power. The attitude in question goes hand in hand with societies' cyclical changes, and the passage from an intuitive, synthetic, and analogical mentality-which apprehends directly-to that of reason, and the multiplicity of analysis and logic, which are indirect.
The city at its apogee, civilization (the great classic cultures as we admire today, or that, as rigid modules that proclaim their own impending collapse and disappearance), are the best examples of this last assertion. Such also is philosophy, which must be seen as a decadent expression, inasmuch as it implies in itself an activity: love for wisdom, which must be stimulated when Knowledge is lost. The models or molds implanted by our cultural period are as rigid as the walls, fortifications, and stone constructions of the city, which are transferred to the thinking of its inhabitants, who thus become the unconscious protagonists of that solidification.
Just so, it has been said that the natives did not have, and still do not have, "personality." This criticism is a curious one. A form of being is condemned that, as it is not usual, is judged a deficiency in the other. Peoples who believe that their exile is earth, their abode accidental, and their destiny and origin heaven, to which they are to return, find it difficult to regard themselves as "personalized" individuals in the sense of the modern ideal, which, for that matter, is the antithesis of any traditional teaching.5
Laurette Sejourné, one of the most influential and lucid scholars of the Precolumbian, criticizes another important researcher-Eduard Seller-for holding a view too proper to his time and situation. But she falls into the same error in her Pensamiento y Religión en el México Antiguo ("Thought and Religion in Ancient Mexico"). There, despite correctly connecting the theogony and cosmogony-and ways of social and individual life-of the pre-Cortesians to their initiation (a universal practice in traditional societies), errs in attributing to the latter a simple religious, devout, or ascetical character, thus reducing it almost to a pious formalism. Indeed, on the one hand her book declares, with perfect accuracy, that Teotihuacan was the city of the gods, which, "far from implying any crass polytheistic beliefs, evokes the concept of human divinity," and that it "was none other but the place where the serpent learned miraculously to fly-that is, where the individual attained the category of celestial being by interior elevation." But then her assertion is evacuated when she associates interior elevation with religious ideas in which the "mystical" and the "moral" are compared to the initiatory process of knowledge. This is partial, and mistaken, just as it is to continue thinking that magic is an antecedent stage to the religious conception, and that both are equivalent to the process of metaphysical realization, or initiation.
As to the judgment that the natives had no history, which is an attempt to point to an element of backwardness in these societies, or a defect, we shall only recall the maxim, "Happy peoples have no history." And the reason that they have none is that their thinking, their culture, has no purchase on, does not emphasize, the successive, the fragmented, and the individualized-save in the indication of certain cyclical events manifested in their genealogies and mythical events. Instead it seizes upon, underscores, the simultaneous, and thus experiences an indefinite present, which is always new since it is constantly regenerated.6 The current historical vision bestows on historical time an hourly, linear chronology, and claims to endow it with an objective reality, which is such only in the subjective mind of our contemporaries. To have a concept of "history," or "philosophy," or "literature" is not, contrary to the prevailing notion, a social advance, or a superior cultural stage. On the contrary, it is the clearest index of an inconvertible degradation. This is what has happened with classical antiquity, and now the West has been winning over the East, so that today even the East has finally found itself hitched to the deafening collapse of modern society.
Now, if these evaluations, which we have just repulsed, have been made from a standpoint determined by space and time (and by the ideas and conceptions that flow together in space and time), then our focus, as well, might be expected to be subject to these cultural caprices and fashions. But we do not believe this to be the case. We have taken our standpoint in the perspective of the Philosophia Perennis-that is, from a permanent thought not subject to fluctuations, as it is archetypal and Traditional. This permanent, invariable thought is expressed in unanimous fashion through symbols and cultural structures within every society. This is precisely the object of the study of Symbology, inasmuch as this science considers the cosmos and man in their totality, and ultimately takes all manifestations, especially cultural manifestations, as symbolic.
At the same time, as symbol is the bridge between the known and the unknown, so Knowledge furthered by Symbology bears on the invisible, or unknown, level, through the intermediary of the symbol, which represents the invisible, or unknown, on the level of the visible, or known. We shall not make bold to say that this viewpoint, which we maintain, extends as far as the esoteric, since this word seems today to indicate something, as it were, outside of reality. Another reason why we shall not use the term is the discredit into which it has fallen owing to its being understood as "secret for secret's sake"-that is, as synonymous with mystification. But were we to see, in this word, what it actually expresses-its contraposition with the exoteric as two modalities of one and the same thing, the two sides of a tapestry, the exoteric being the brilliant and descriptive side, and the esoteric that of the dark weft and warp-or, in other terminologies, the external and the internal, or existence and essence-were we to understand this word in its authentic meaning, then, we could thereupon agree that symbology, in taking symbol as the object of its study, will gradually approach the unknown under the guidance of the known.
1 The Guarani worshiped a God called Tupá, meaning, "Who are you?"
2 The Iroquois, and other North American Indians, denominated this presence, "Orenda." It was also incarnated in Manitu, the Great Spirit, called by the Sioux "Wakan-Tanka"-Wakan being the generic word in their language for all of the sacred, that is, for anything (object, phenomenon, or being) having the power to transmit the energy of the divine, especially nature as the image or vestige of the supernatural. Let us observe that the terms, Wakan and huaca are practically identical in meaning. One of the paradoxes of Precolumbian reality is that certain languages of tribes of the North American plains are of the same family as Quechuan, even though they are separated by thousands of miles and an infinitude of other languages.
3 Although the origin of modern Science was magical; just to mention Bacon, Newton, Boyle, Kepler, and so on, as well as Paracelso and all successors for generations, who later saw the inversion of their principals due to cyclical reasons.
4 We have a clear example in the introduction to the Códice Borbónico (Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 1981), p. xiii, by Francisco del Paso y Troncoso, in his commentary on that codex.
5 "Do we speak something true here, Lifegiver?
We but dream, we but rouse ourselves from sleep.
It is but as a dream. . . .
No one speaks here any truth. . . ."
[Cantares Mexicanos, vol. 5 v. Spanish trans. Miguel León Portilla].
6 It is not that they failed to concern themselves with (historical) facts, but that, for them, those facts were charged with other meanings-broader, in their multidimensionality, than those registered by a simple historiography.