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DEMONS OF DARKNESS
Let us now consider the role of darkness in the myths of the Great Comet.
Throughout Mesoamerica, the arrival of the cosmic night was a pervasive subject of ritual re-enactment, from macrocosm to microcosm; the darkness into which the world sank symbolically at the end of the 52-year cycle was the same darkness remembered with each setting of the sun, as every household recalled the dangers of the greater darkness in primeval times.
But the doomsday fears of Mesoamerican peoples do not just reflect the ancient experience of a darkened world. At the root of these fears is a memory of the "chaos-hordes" let loose, the great cometary cloud which overtook the world in the mother of all catastrophes. Numerous ritual celebrations represented this swarming cometary debris by crowds of warriors and other participants adding through their dress and gestures the elements of commotion, disarray, darkness, and mock combat--these frenzied crowds being as much a part of the ritual occasion as the officiating priests or sacrificial victims. The panoply of images involved here will provide countless details about an event far more terrifying than historians have dared imagine.
The crucial principle is the connection between ritual symbols and remembered events: the local rites commemorated death and disaster on a COSMIC scale. Thus, all of the components of the "darkness" theme are significant--throngs of people shouting in confusion or running about; the feathered ornaments; paper streamers waving in the wind; a pervasive fear that their children will be turned into mice; the fear that monsters with disheveled hair (a global cometary motif) will rise out of the darkness to devour them. Indeed, such themes constitute a tapestry of ancient cometary myths and symbols. And the repeated fears and gestures are not fixed to a single rite or to just one symbolic occasion, but to every level at which the darkness theme occurs.
Symbolically, for example, every setting of the sun contained an aspect of the former disaster. When dusk arrived it came as a reminder of the cosmic night--the twilight of the gods. Natives of pre-Columbian Mexico retired to their own dwellings and covered themselves. At night the chaos-demons were out, and children could be turned into mice (a mythical form of the swarming celestial debris with cometary tails, the "children" of the comet- goddess). And while the people slept, it was the priest astronomer's duty to monitor the heavens at dusk, midnight and dawn, to "divine the course of events." In the shadow of the remembered catastrophe, every form of darkness contained a seed of uncertainty and terror.
Then, in the morning, the obligatory sweeping of patios and walkways occurred--symbolically, the sweeping away of the night. Not just the darkness, but the gathered dust and clutter filled a special role in Mesoamerican daily life and ritual, as symbols of the great dust-cloud which overtook the world in ancestral times. So in the sweeping rites, we see the dust as an analog of this cloud--the chaos hordes--together with the symbolism of the female head of the house as "sweeper," a role defined by the mother goddess Toci herself, whose "broom" is a prominent feature in the commemorative rites (see discussion of Toci and sweeping rites in discussion to follow; also later discussion of the "broom" as universal comet glyph; in the form of a "broom," "flail," "fan," or "whisk," the Great Comet itself "scatters" the chaos-cloud.)
No doubt such symbolism at the daily, microcosmic level was diluted over time and progressively gave way to the growing complexities of culture and practical necessity, but the residue of an ancient and unrecognized experience was still there at the time of the Conquest.
Of course, the recollection of the cosmic night appears in more dramatic forms when an UNUSUAL occurrence of darkness breaks the normal pattern. Consider Sahagun's description of the people's response to an eclipse--
Then there were a tumult and disorder. All were disquieted, unnerved, frightened. Then there was weeping. The common folk raised a cup, lifting their voices, making a great din, calling out, shrieking. There was shouting everywhere. People of light complexion were slain [as sacrifices]; captives were killed. All offered their blood, they drew straws through the lobes of their ears, which had been pierced. And in all the temples there was the singing of fitting chants, there was an uproar, there were war cries. It was thus said: "If the eclipse of the sun is complete, it will be dark forever! The demons of darkness will come down, they will eat men!"
In these fleeting moments of the eclipse, the people relived the unforgettable night, repeating the great din of the world-ending catastrophe and venting their fears of the devouring chaos hordes. Were these fears, in origin, different from the (tempered) fear of dusk, or different from the terror aroused by the conclusion of the 52-year cycle (noted in our previous submission)? An examination of the different contexts will show that the entire complex of "darkness" fears always recalls the same comet-like cloud descending upon the world.
It should not surprise us, therefore, that the very same fear is seen in relation to the eclipse of the moon.
When the moon was eclipsed, his face grew dark and sooty, blackness and darkness spread. When this came to pass, women with child feared evil; they thought it portentous; they were terrified [lest], perchance, their [unborn] children might be changed into mice; each of their children might turn into a mouse.
Such fears are rooted in myths and memories the modern world has failed to comprehend. There is an ARCHETYPE of cosmic "darkness," with deeper and broader meaning than could be extracted from any single commemorative occasion. Alone, the symbols can only point ambiguously backwards to unrecognized trauma. But in combination, the symbols will provide a rich profile of the world-ending catastrophe, accessible to any researcher willing to break free from a methodology that sees only fragments and asks the fragments to explain themselves in isolation from the whole.
Of course, the planet Venus would seem an unlikely source of sky-darkening clouds (or of sky-clearing "sweeping," for that matter). And yet the remarkable Mesoamerican association of Venus with the eclipse and darkness has been documented by the vigorous research of Ev Cochrane. "Like most ancient peoples, the Maya considered eclipses of the sun to be a time of dire peril," Cochrane writes. "It was commonly believed, in fact, that the world might end during a solar eclipse. In the eclipse tables contained within the Dresden Codex, an eclipse is symbolized by the figure of a dragon descending from the glyph of the sun."
On the relationship of the "eclipse"-dragon to Venus, Cochrane gives us the verdict of the eminent Mayan scholar, Sir Eric Thompson:
The head of the monster is hidden by a large glyph of the planet Venus. One is instantly reminded of the Aztec belief that during eclipses the monsters called Tzitzimime or Tzontemoc (head down) plunged earthwards from the sky. These monsters include Tlauizcalpanteculti, the god of Venus as morning star. It is therefore highly probable that the picture represents a Tzitzimitl plunging head down toward earth during the darkness of an eclipse. A glyph immediately above the picture appears to confirm this identification, for it shows the glyph of Venus with a prefix which is a picture of a person placed upside down.
A remote star could darken the entire sky? Here we see, in a clear profile, the dilemma for conventional study. Under the standard approach to this subject, the images are far too incredible to have any foundation in natural experience. Hence, they must be entirely fanciful. And hence, any attempt to see natural experience in these hieroglyphs must be preposterous.
That is the fundamental circular reasoning on which the modern understanding of myth and symbol has been constructed. As a result, the patterns suggesting deeper levels of coherence are not even noticed. What is unthinkable is of no interest. So we do not realize that the fear of darkness is not just the fear of being unable to see clearly. As concretely expressed in myths and rites, it speaks for a collective memory; and even the lesser expressions of this fear are but shadows cast by a far greater terror, when the whole sky became the theater for the twilight of the gods.