This is my final paper for my Myth and Ritual class.
Please read, and let me know what you think.
It's due at 4:30 PM.
Off to do the nasty deeds of spell-check, formatting, and double-spacing.
When the Spaniards appeared in the east, light skinned and riding horses, with armour and weapons the like of which had never been seen in Mexico until then, the Aztecs were lost. Unable to find a solution to this radical change in their view of the world, introduced to new problems that needed to be solved, and suddenly thrust into a potentially dangerous situation, Moctezuma, then king in Tenochtitlan, was forced to respond. He could not respond in a manner that was familiar to him, though, for he had never encountered any situation like this before. His response, therefore, was dictated in a manner that was strange and perhaps frightening to him, for it was not through experience or rational thought that his solution came, but from a very different source: the myths of Quetzalcoatl, an archetypal king whose rule had been perfect until his fall, and who had promised to return.
On Mother's Day in 2004, a young woman flagged down a van carrying 12 people from Tucson to the Phoenix airport. Sitting next to her as she cried on the phone with her mother, discussing her abrupt and self-imposed exodus to the other side of the country, I felt the urge to speak with her, to try to help out of I could. As she hung up her phone and continued to sob quietly, I suddenly found that I had no idea what I could say to such a girl. If I said something, I was sure it would be wrong, because I had never run from home, nor had I ever encountered a runaway before. I looked at her from the corner of my eye, going over her and thinking about the right things to say. Suddenly, looking at her makeup box and thinking about her frantic waving for the van, the words, "She's a long way from the wast Nashville grand ballroom gown," sprang to mind. I had found a way to communicate with her, and it had come, strangly, in the form of Jimmy Buffett lyrics.
The two situations sound vastly different. One comes from a situation over five hundred years old, and the other is no more than a month. One holds a definite mythical context, and the other is a series of song lyrics I first heard two years ago. It's hard to consider the two incidents similar on any level, much less as being resolved the same way. The interesting thing is that we're suddenly given an opportunity to see how myth might work, if indeed these two applications are similar. We will start looking at these myths first by explaining each one, the effect they had on the mythologized person, and how the outcome seemed to follow or be shaped by the myth. Along the way, we shall consider how to best explain how the myths are used by each person, and what such explainations might mean.
The Aztec king, Moctezuma, is not where we need to start in order to fully understand the way he used the myth of Quetzalcoatl; we need to go back to the mythical foundation of the Aztec empire, which might be called the "New Tollan". Through a series of events, the Aztecs managed to tie their history back to the mythical city and lineage that was Tollan, including a direct tie to the last king of Tollan, Quetzalcoatl. This tie was nothing new; it had been done many times before in many cities, and was a sort of rite of passage for each new power in Mesoamerica. The difference came in the insistance that Quetzalcoatl would return and would receive the kingship again from the Aztecs, a fatalistic worldview that would eventually lead to their downfall.
Quetzalcoatl ruled Tollan well, and Tollan is thus described as a beautiful city where things are always good. After a time, however, Quetzalcoatl falls from grace in a series of events described by Carrasco:
(a) an antagonist appears--a sorcerer usually identified with Tezcatlipoca--who organizes a small movement against Quetzalcoatl (b) partially around the issue of human sacrifice, and (c) through a series of tricks and magical deceptions, (d)he gets the priest-king roaring drunk, whereupon (e) Quetzalcoatl has some kind of sexual encounter with his sister, a high priestess, and (f) wakes from the debauch heartbroken; having realized that his authority has been betrayed, Quetzalcoatl decides to leave Tollan with some followers, resulting in (g) the immediate fall of the city or its waning over a period of years.
When Quetzalcoatl left Tollan, he promised to return. The Aztecs saw this in the future and expected that one day it would happen. It is not, at the moment, useful to argue whether this myth is in place to keep the people happy, or hoping for a better life, or even to argue over whether the myth was fully believed at the time. I suspect that, similar to modern thought and ideas on religion, there were those who firmly believed in the return of the god-king, and those who considered it "just a story." It is possible that Moctezuma himself did not fully believe in the myth of Quetzalcoatl, but rather that he had heard it time and again while growing up, and continued to think about it occasionally when portions of the myth were reenacted or recited in ritual. If he did not believe in the myth, then it makes the events of conquest that much more interesting.
Quetzalcoatl was said to be lighter skinned than the normal Mesoamerican Indian, and to have many wonderous abilities. When Cortez appeared in the east, the direction that Quetzalcoatl was said to disappear to and expected to eventually return from, bearing armour and impressive weapons, the connection seemed strangely obvious. Who was this, if not Quetzalcoatl returning to reclaim his throne, as he had promised to do many generations ago when he had first left? It fit the description, and it fit the basic timeline of the empire. Moctezuma's first thought was likely one of astonished disbelief, followed by a confusion in which he sought to place this event into another he had already faced, trying to draw on previous experience or teachings.
I cannot imagine what it was, but at some early point the myth must have come back to him. Perhaps an aide suggested it, or perhaps some memory stirred the throught. Whatever it was, it caused Moctezuma to associate Cortez with the Quetzalcoatl myth. This suddenly gave him a script to follow, but it is hard to imagine Moctezuma liking the way that this script turned out.
Quetzalcoatl was a perfect king. This caused serious issues for Moctezuma, who was suddenly only a second-rate king in comparison. Carrasco calls this the "subversive geneology" that had been created by the Aztecs, as it showed that none of the Aztec kings were truly as great as their illustrious predecessors. Moctezuma, it appeared, could not maintain his throne with another more qualified heir coming into the picture. Thus began a series of events aimed at debunking the myth, but it almost seems that Moctezuma never tried hard enough, or he discounted the things that pointed to Cortez being simpy human. I suspect that much of this is due to a fear that, without the myth, Moctezuma would need to find another way to deal with the situation, and he could not find a way that was as certain as the myth of Quetzalcoatl.
Cortez became a puppet in this play, filling in for Quetzalcoatl before he understood exactly what was going on. He had taken on the role unknowingly, accepting the gifts he was given and met with little opposition. It was probably very strange for him, but he did nothing to dissuade the Aztecs from this perception. Eventually, Cortez was able to fulfil the role that Moctezuma had placed on him, and played out the myth by finally siezing control of Teochtitlan and putting it under a new and (from his perspective) better rule.
But what about Moctezuma? It is interesting to note that, though he thought of Cortez as the returned Quetzalcoatl, he himself appeared to follow a very similar trajectory to the downfall of Quetzalcoatl himself. Cortez managed to play into this unwittingly as well, becoming the sorcerer who is antagonist at the head of a small force. He is appalled by human sacrifice, and he uses (unwittingly, but still noticably) tricks to keep Moctezuma guessing. The attempts to play it safe, to be cautious, could be likened to Quetzalcoatl's drunkenness, and when he finally awakes from this, and sees Cortez for who he really is, he is heartbroken and abdicates the throne, and the "new Tollan" falls very quickly. This series of events is very interesting, and this interpretation pushes the guise of Quetzalcoatl onto a person who did not see himself as that god, but who nonetheless acted out the same script.
It seems possible that Moctezuma was playing out the script in two ways, one consciously and the other subconsiously. In the first, Cortez is the obvious Quetzalcoatl; in the second, Moctezuma is the hidden Quetzalcoatl. How does this work?
Urton describes myth as a resource. It is something we can go back to in order to discover things about ourselves that we didn't know before, and to draw upon for new solutions. If this is the case, then what Moctezuma is doing fits very well. He has failed to find precedent for dealing with this situation in his own life, in the lives of his fathers, and in the world around him, and so he has turned to the only thing that is available in order to achieve a level of understanding and functionality that he requires. He is able to do this both consciously and subconsciously, drawing on the myth in two ways that are helpful.
First, he places the mantle (literally as well as figuratively when he sends the garments of Quetzalcoatl to Cortez) of Quetzalcoatl onto Cortez in the primary mythical structure. Here, Cortez acts the part of the contemporary Quetzalcoatl, come to re-claim his throne. Secondly, Moctezuma assumes the role of the ancient Quetzalcoatl, who was forced to abdicate his throne through the subterfuge of the magician, who is played by Cortez. It's a very complicated way of considering this set of myths, but the two portions of the myths work remarkably well in tandem. The myths, it would appear, almost seem built to work together, with any king who abdicates being forced to follow the formula laid down by Quetzalcoatl, and any new king being forced to be claim the authority of Quetzalcoatl in order to obtain the throne. One must wonder how often this series of events played out in Mesoamerica over time.
Carrasco describes the way the myth is played out as a "mythic drama", borrowing the term "social drama" from Turner and modifying it a bit. In this mythic drama, actors arrive and are placed inside the roles dictated by myth, acting it out as characters, either re-enacting the hero's death or feats. In this case, we have a stranger (Cortez), someone who has no real knowledge of the myth, acting out the parts of the myth in such a way that Moctezuma likely assumes that he is, in fact, part of the myth. It is difficult to reconcile this idea with some of our modern theories on religion, in which we are hesitant to ascribe any sort of "divine plan" or unexplainable action to myth, but it seems that the myth was remarkably well placed to be taken up in both of these ways so easily.
I read Carrasco two weeks prior to a trip to Arizona. I had already become intrigued by the notions I've expressed above, and spent the time considering the theories of mythic drama and utilizing myth as a resource. It was on the trip back that I found the strangest application of these theories I had ever come across. While essays and articles that focus on the self are rarely seen in the academic study of religion for many various reasons that I hope to address, this one is vital to show how myth seems to work in settings such as Moctezuma's abdication.
I had booked passage on a shuttle between Tucson, AZ, and the Phoenix, AZ, airport. The fifteen passenger van was not quite full, and so was taking on passengers along the way. The destination was clearly marked on the sliding door and on the front of the van.
Almost outside of Tucson, just where the desert meets the city, we were turning to get back onto the interstate after picking up another passenger. Halfway up the ramp, a young woman flagged us down. She could not have been more than sixteen or seventeen years old, and she was dressed in designer jeans and a tank top, a makeup box sitting in the dust beside her. The van pulled over, and she crawled inside, stepping over me and landing in the seat next to me.
She sat for a moment, and I put my nose back into my book, trying to make sense of some articles on rites of passage. It was then that her phone rang, and she started talking. I kept my eyes on the paper in front of me, but I was listening to her explain things to her mother. Over and over, she tried to describe what she was doing and how right it was for her, repeating, "This is just something I have to do, Mom." Eventually, she started to wipe tears from her eyes, and finally she cut the conversation off, hanging up before she started to sob heavily.
Sitting next to her, listening to her cry, I felt like I wanted to help her, to try to reach out to her. I didn't know what to say, though, and I thought for a very long time about how to talk to her. I looked at her makeup case, and I thought about how she'd been standing alone on the ramp to the interstate, just one bag and her slightly out of fashion clothes. It was then that the lyrics to a Jimmy Buffett song, "West Nashville Grand Ballroom Gown", came into my mind.
West Nashville Grand Ballroom Gown
Standing on the side of the highway four exit
A lady in tie-dye, a bag by her side
Not really looking like anything special
Saw Tennessee tags and she waved for a ride.
Sat right beside me as the meter hit sixty
Explaining her travels and her family background
When she got through I could not help but thinking
She's a long way from the west Nashville grand ballroom gown
Her father had money and her mother had love
Channeled entirely to her dear sister Dove
Twenty-two years in society's plan
Wase cancelled at the swing of her dear mother's hand
Six hours later we hit Cincinnatti
Yawning she woke and then asked where we were
When she found out she said, "I must be going"
This close to Nashville was too close for her.
So I stopped by the roadside and I gave her five dollars
She took it then kissed me and gave me a note
She told me just to read it and mail it in Nashville
On old loose-leaf paper to her mother she wrote:
She said "Momma I'm fine if you happen to wonder
I don't have much money but I still get around
I haven't made church in near thirty-six Sundays
So fuck all those west Nashville grand ballroom gowns!"
Yes she's a long way from the west Nashville grand ballroom gown.
In this song, I felt a template for how to speak with her. Already, she had covered the first verse of the song very well, having been standing alone, a single bag, and waving for the van when she saw what the destination was (she had admitted as much to her mother during their short conversation).
I decided to try to see if this song would work as a template for my own mythological drama. It was a conscious choice to follow something that is ingrained in my thought processes as a form of myth. Examining it, we can see that it hearkens back to a sort of primordial time, if you consider that the song was released in 1974, 5 years before I was born, and that the lyrics refer to an earlier time, when you could pick up a hitchhiker and assume they were trustworthy, truly a mythical past to those of us raised in the 1980's.
My first attempt at conversation didn't go over well, but when I looked into the song, I was able to extrapolate a new opening statement that did go over well. I took on the persona of someone who, like the song's narrator, was a traveler by nature, and started talking about my own experience (again, pulled primarily from this and a few other Buffett songs, not my reality). I talked about the places I'd been, and how I had left home about her age. This opened her up, and she began to talk about why she had left home.
As the conversation passed for the next thirty minutes, I learned a lot about why she had left, and what her family situation was. It seems that she was from a family in which the father worked, having a well-paying job that allowed her mother to stay home. In the song, the mother's love is channeled into a sister; in this case, it was the family pet, a show dog named Zeus. The final straw was apparently not a physical slap, but an emotional one. I didn't ask for details, and she was unwilling to give them up. She only vaguely referred to "complications."
Eventually, she fell asleep, her head resting on my shoulder. For the next thirty minutes, I thought about the song, and how I'd used it in a way strangely similar to Moctezuma's use of the Quetzalcoatl myth. I thought about how much further I should go with the song, whether she would ask to be dropped off before we reached our destination, and several other things.
Finally, we arrived at the Phoenix airport. I shook her shoulder, and she woke with a start. I was amused to see her yawn and ask how far we were. I told her that we were almost at the terminal, and expected her to say, "I must be going," but she didn't. She just nodded sleepily and pulled out her cell phone.
She called someone in Washington, DC, by the name of Kim, and asked for her flight information, and then hung up the phone. While she'd been asleep, I had thought about how I wanted to follow the song, and I decided that giving her money would be a bad idea. Instead, I asked her if I could buy her lunch. She agreed to this, and we went into the terminal together.
We talked for a while longer over burgers, and finally she looked at her watch and said, "Oh, I gotta go. Thanks for everything!" and she grabbed her makeup box and turned to go. I quickly asked her to wait, and then reached into my bag, producing a bunch of stamps I had been using to mail postcards with. I handed them to her, saying that she would probably want to mail a letter to her mother sometime.
She took the stamps, and I saw her tears well up again. "I have to get to my plane. So do you. Thanks for everything you've done." She put out her arms, and I gave her a hug. She whispered something in my ear that I knew was for me to hear alone, and kissed my cheek. I watched her head down one of the terminal halls until she was lost from my sight.
It was surreal to me to have played out what seemed like a mythic drama, using something so mundane as a Jimmy Buffett song as my myth. Looking back over the song and the events, it was as if I was Moctezuma and the girl was Cortez. I had fallen back on a myth that was perfectly suited to the situation, and she had played the other part almost as if she knew exactly what the part required. How was this even possible? Can the situations be compared in a useful way? What exactly does this say about myth and it's uses?
I suppose that the way this played out could have a very simple explaination: not only was I aware of the theories that I was interpreting this situation with, but I was also fully aware that I was trying to work in this mythological paradigm. It is possible that, through my actions, I was forcing her to move along the same path that I was taking, and to enter the same mythological mindset I had. This doesn't explain why she managed to do things (like kiss my cheek) which I didn't initiate, yet which still occured in the song. Is it possible that the song harkens back to some primordial or primitive myth that is stored archetypally in our collective unconsciousness? I don't really think so, but I think that Carrasco's theory of the mythic drama, in that in order to interact with this girl, I was forced to "find suprapersonal models of explaination," and these came in the lyrics of Buffett songs.
I think that, if both these pieces fit the idea of a mythic drama, we need to consider that they may be very useful to compare. Also, I think it's important that we don't fall into the trap of dividing the "primitive" mind of Moctezuma from my "modern" mind. I suspect that the process he went through to discover a way to react the the arrival of Cortez and the Spanish was very similar to the process I went through to deal with the young woman I met in this van. I would further argue that Moctezuma was fully aware of the outcome if he followed the path of the myth, just as I began to expect things to happen just because they were in the song. I also think that he was stuck in his myth as soon as he accpeted that it was a good way of dealing with the events unfolding around him, just as I ceased to consider other ways to talk and deal with this girl as soon as I accepted the song as a valid starting point.
All of this raises some very interesting ideas about how myth works. On the one hand, we had Moctezuma, a man probably schooled in his mythology and trapped in a culture that discussed and built this myth as their own claim to legitimacy; on the other hand, there I am, a very big fan of Jimmy Buffett, but only for the past three years or so, in a culture that is often not impressed with his music and where his songs get no airplay. How is it that I can claim that Buffett has earned the same status in my mind that the Quetzalcoatl myth has earned in Moctezuma's?
Over the past two years, I have been thoroughly immersed in the songs and writings of Jimmy Buffett. I own several books and nearly his entire discography. I listen to him at work, and in the car on the way to and from there. I have memorized the lyrics to 95% of his entire body of work.
In a class two years ago, we were discussing the reason that Orthodox Jews memorize scriptures. One of the primary reasons turned out to be so that the scriptures were accessible to them whenever a problem arose. Through memorization, each scripture was now available to describe a mythic solution to a very real, very contemporary problem. The memorization of Buffett lyrics appears to have served a similar purpose to me, as I have begun to quote lyrics in all manner of situations, from class discussions to expressing my condonlances at a funeral. It's strange to do so, but I have accepted it as a function of the memorization, and thus the songs are fully accessible to me, and have become mythologized in my own mind.
I don't consider myself to be de-mythologized simply because I can recognise when I am using myths as tools; rather, I prefer to think of myself as using my own re-mythologization as a way to interact with things that I would be lost trying to react to without the myths I use. The mythologies I grew up with have taken a back seat to the ones I deal with now, and the new ones are at least as thorough and as complete as many other mythologies that people learn in their religous education.
Looking at my conscious decision to use the myth, and comparing this with Moctezuma might go a bit too far. It is entirely possible that his choice of myth was thrust upon him by the society he lived in, and that my experience is a unique blend of too much Buffett music and too much theory. If this is the case, then we will need to revisit the idea that perhaps Moctezuma was dealing with a "primitive" consciousness, and that this makes my experience vastly different because it comes from a more analytical or modern mind. This causes some serious implications with my ideas, but I simply cannot imagine how Moctezuma might not have realized that he was using his myth as a tool. The number of times he tried to work against it (half-hearted though they may have been)indicate that he was not completely sold on the myth of Quetzalcoatl coming true, and I expect that these attempts to "break the myth show that his mind should not be classes as something less than our own.
As humans, we are not so different from Moctezuma. We seek to return to a primordial past, to access a storehouse of myth and stories that extend our own experience beyond what we could have known in this life. When we do this, we show that we still need our myths, and that they serve amazing and useful places within our minds. It is doubtful that we will ever escape them or see the end of their usefulness.