Stanzas on an Ancient Superstition - Wikisource, the free online library

Stanzas on an Ancient Superstition  (1864) 
by William James Rivers



Ancient Superstition.








The nations of Annhuac believed that the sun, with all mankind, except a few individuals, had been three or four times destroyed. That another destruction, total and final, would occur; but only at the completion of one of their Cycles or Periods of fifty-two years, and only on the last night of the Period, and at midnight. The close of every Cycle was, therefore, a time of awful anxiety. Human victims wasere
sacrificed on their lofty pyramidal temple. Every spark of fire in the whole country, according to ancient custom, was extinguished. The people of the Aztec capital, led by their priests, marched forth at sunset in solemn procession to a mountain about six miles distant, to await on its summit their approaching doom. If the midnight hour passed as usual, the event was instantly indicated by a bonfire on the mountain. Games and national festivities followed.—See Cullen’s Clavigero, Hist. Mex., i, Bk. VI, p. 288—McCulloh’s Researches, p. 224.

I have supposed one aged priest, lifted above the superstition of his people, dispelling their terrible despondency by anticipating the hour, and secretly lighting a bonfire on their Teocal or high pyramidal temple.

W. J. R.



O’er Aztec tombs, with noiseless wings outspread,
Hovered the gloomy night. Oh, who can tell
The woe it brought, when sunk, as with the dead,
All pale with fear, a nation hopeless fell!
Scarce is the mastery mine, with magic spell
One spirit to recall—one who had stood,
That woeful night, a lonely sentinel,
Watching the signs of fate, in mournful mood;
But nerved with purpose bold and couange unsubdued.


Serene he stood the sacred height upon,
Where dripped the blood of recent victims, slain
To avert the fatal hour. No more the sun
Should rise (their prophets sang), but night again,
In starless triumph, her primeval reign.
Thrice had the earth, convulsed with partial doom,
Her stricken sons and daughters prostrate seen;
Thrice had beheld returning day relume
Her fields—and happy Life its wonted course resume.


Another Cycle ends; at midnight ends,
To-night! and trembling thousands wait to die.
Their agonizing fear together blends
The strange portents of earth and air and sky,
With mystic words of ancient prophecy,
That told the terrors of this dolorous night:
When star by star should vanish from on high;
And prayer, and vow, and sacrificial rite
Should fail to save one beam from all the realms of light.


When thro’ the awful gloom the voice of man,
Feebler and feebler heard, should pass away:
And living forms faint, helpless, groping, wan,
To loathsome reptiles fall an easy prey;
Till Death, relentless still, should end his sway,
His victory o’er—his sable banner furled—
And leave to dismal stream, and surging sea,
And crumbling rocks, down the dark valleys hurled,
To sound their echoing dirge, and mourn a lifeless world.


In artless rhyme I thought, forsooth, to tell
Only of one who durst with boldness stand,
That fearful night, and all that him befell.
For when their warrior host and priestly band
I called, to bare their breasts at my command,
And claimed their monarch’s voice to fill my song,
They spurned my feeble spell and borrowed wand;
Yet words and sighs that to deep woe belong
The naming of that night wrung from the flitting throng.


And still they seem before me—still my heart
Hears their loud wail as when they fled from view!
What though the boding dawn, the silent mart,
The death-like desolation spreading through
The haunts of men—what though such scenes renew
Their dreariness, and move before mine eyes!
My soul but sees, while tears my cheeks bedew,
That vast and moaning throng, whose piteous cries,
Through all the cheerless day, went echoing to the skies.


What first, what last of grief I heard or saw,
I know not; for like waves resounding came
The mingling vision. Numbed as with an awe
Transforming to one image all its dream
Of earthquake, plague, or devastating flame—
I seemed, where’er I turned my glance, to trace
The same—yet thousands—and yet still the same,
Woe-smitten father with uplifted face,
Pleading for a dear child that wept in his embrace.


On us, O Death, they cried! on us be cast
The hideous doom—on us thy horrors bring,
With all thy throes of anguish, all thou hast;
And from our suffering hearts with torture wring
The life-blood drop by drop—and we will cling
To thy cold hand, as to a friend’s, O Death,
If thou our children spare, and o’er them wing
Thy way, like twilight o’er fair flowers beneath,
Whose petals gently fall, chilled by the evening’s breath.


In vain they plead; their frenzied souls must hear
Their children’s plaintive moans, and powerless be
Their life to save or soothe their sad despair.
Yet, ere the westering sun had touched the sea,
While swelled their maddening wail, a long array
Of white-robed priests swept forth, who called them near
The holy Teocal, once more to pray;
Perchance e’en yet to sacrifice and prayer
Some sign from heaven might come, some hope their hearts to cheer.


As when to sudden march, at Moses’ call,
A nation sprang—no faltering step delayed
Of age or sex; but forthwith great and small
Their homes forsook, and marched where’er he bade;
So these respond—tho’ hopeless and dismayed,
And stood in crowds the Teocal around,
Watching their priests, as up, with solemn tread,
Now hid, now seen, from side to side they wound,
Leading aloft to death their victims gaily crowned.


Sombre and vast, and midway to the clouds,
The pyramid upraised its towering head.
Ah! well the watchers know, when smoke enshrouds
That far-seen shrine, some quivering heart hath bled!
And well they know a shriek was heavenward sped,
That could not reach their ears so far below!
There, woe-begone, on trembling knees they prayed,
Till down returned the train with footsteps slow;
Their garments crimson-dyed, that went up white as snow.


And from their midst a voice that pierced the soul,
Proclaimed, with startling tone, “No victim slain
Can now the world’s impending fate control!
Rise from the dust—your suppliance is in vain;
Rise, and march forth—a nation’s funeral train—
To die where erst our fathers stood to die,
Nor shrunk to meet the doom the gods ordain.
Let martial songs, and bursts of minstrelsy,
And heaven-heard pæan shouts, our own brave death-dirge be!”


Then might the eye behold (if eye there were
Could turn to note another’s dire distress)
How sons their aged sires did onward bear,
And mothers to their hearts their infants press,
And fathers stoop their children to caress,
Or calm their fears—their own lips blanched with fear;
And then were heard shrill cries of wretchedness,
(If ear there were in all that throng could hear
Aught else but its own heart’s wild throbbings of despair.)


Beyond the city gates a mountain reared,
O’er crags and chasms, its lofty peak, whereon,
In ancient times, whene’er the fate they feared
Passed harmless by, the first bright signal shone,
Proclaiming, far and near, the midnight gone;
Then answering signals blazed, whose gladdening beams
Eastward and westward, northward and southward thrown,
Roused the vast empire from its doleful dreams
To song, and festive dance, und all that mirth beseems.


At morn, the sun first lit that mountain height;
There latest gleamed when dusky eve had come.
Thither went forth the crowd; some, in affright,
With loud lament for life implored, and some
In sorrow mute—but none durst wait their doom,
Durst wait, alone, the midnight shrieks tohear
Re-echoed back to each deserted home.
Ah! tho’ no hand could help, nor voice could cheer,
The fainting spirit craved some kindly presence near.


Yet had their cries of grief tumultuous been,
But pipes and blaring gongs in concert blent
Still urged them on, as, marching o’er the plain
And up the mount, their toiling steps they bent;
To gain ere night should cloud the steep ascent,
A terrace award, the rugged rocks among;
There, while the day a glimmering radiance lent,
Midway they paused; what time the priestly throng
To the departing sun charted their farewell song.


Whither, O God of light,
Whither from shrines and temples, in thy flight
Bearest thou the brilliant day;
Swiftly on with flaming wheels for ever far away?
Hasting in vengeful wrath
To waste thy glories where no hearts adore;
Thro’ lurid shades borne on thy path
Beyond the earth, and sea, and sky, unworshipped evermore!
Lo! here the clouds all night
Keep watch to announce, with gorgeous hues, the birth
Of joyous morn, whose golden light
Awakes the waves to greet thy beams with dance and boisterous mirth.


And here, sweet groves and flowers,
Bathed in thy warmth, their fragrant incense yield;
Here twittering birds in blooming bowers,
And rippling rills, the wooing breeze, and every teeming field,
Their daily homage bring
To thy life-giving beams—while blithely sing
Youths and maids with kindling eye
In thrilling melodies of love beneath the radiant sky.
When comes the lowering night,
They droop, and sleep, and dream of thy fair light;
If now that light no more be shed,
All hushed and motionless they are—and dark and cold and dead!


The gathering shades arise
To whelm each feeble ray before it dies;
The purpled clouds seem filled with blood,
And hoarsely rolls beneath thy car the ocean’s crimson flood,
O! God of light, for thee
Behold our hands with sacred stains imbued!
See—from night’s prison-caves set free,
Dread monsters flit, and dismal Fear, and all her horrid brood,
On shadowy wings are borne!
Send forth—O send athwart the darkening heaven
One glittering ray in token given,
That thou wilt still in triumph come, bringing the beauteous morn!


To save one cheering beam to light their way,
Westward they stretch their suppliant bands in vain;
And listless watch the death-bed of the day,
Till the dusk twilight fills the distant plain,
Then upward moves the melancholy train,
With frantic grief or stern and pallid face.
And many shudder and look back again
Thro’ streaming tears; and with unsteady pace
Follow reluctant on, nor dare their steps retrace.


Perchance their farewell glance sad memory leads
To tombs near home where they had hoped to lie;
While every throb of nature in them pleads
To shun the doom that calls them forth to die
Where no surviving hand will close the eye,
Or to its sheltering grave the body bear,
Oh! who would perish where no power is nigh
To shield the form we leave all helpless here?
E’en welcome then would be the bitterest foe we fear!


On all it loves the spirit may look down;
Part of ourselves the body is, to rise
Immortal, and again to be our own.
If what we cherish here, in death we prize,
The soul, abandoning the happy skies,
On mournful wing disconsolate may come,
Lingering where its cold corpse unburied lies;
Aa theirs must lie, to wither in the gloom,
Till the slow-crumbling hills their mouldering bones entomb.


Or yet, perchance, their glance might now recall
The scene whore childhood viewed the starry dome
Bent circling o’er their blest abode; where all
The world was centred, and each lovely bloom
Its birth-place had; as if for that dear home
The sun was made to shine and stars appear,
While sombre clouds or threatening storms would come,
As comes the ungenial shade of gloomy care
On boyhood’s sunny brow, unmeant to linger there.


Dear home of childhood! some kind fairy dwells
In your enchanted scenes, and bids you share
Our love, and clothes you with her subtle spells!
Sentient you seem; your flowers, methinks, may hear
The maiden’s sigh, when heaves her bosom near
Your blushing buds, from sight of all afar,
Nor tell the wanton breeze that wanders there,
Nor the enamored bee, nor twinkling star,
That bosom’s secret love, or what its utterings are.


There oft, with musing gaze, the sunset light
In boyhood they had viewed on grove and rill,
Till, dancing up from shrubby height to height,
It glanced its sportive beam from hill to hill,
And, from the mountain-top, in joyance still,
Leapt to the clouds, and peeped from pillows piled
Of beauteous hues, ere Evening drew her veil
Around its couch; then, like a rosy child,
It sunk to placid rest, and in its slumber smiled.


The priestly garb he wore; but seldom stood
With priestly crowd adoring sun or moon,
Or gods whose altars reeked with human blood.
His gentle heart the love of all had won;
That heart’s fierce conflict to them yet unknown,
With groans and tears he waged, as year by year
The bloody sacrifice he strove to shun,
Or strayed on solitary mountains, where
With nature he communed, and kneeled in humble prayer.


God is where’er the human voice invokes
His mercy and his aid. On sea or land,
In crowd or desert drear, who upward looks
Seems in the midst of heaven’s fair dome to stand,
Which spreads in silence round on every hand,
In emblem of an all-embracing love,
That guards each soul, yet doth o’er all expand,
Pouring its gentle influence from above,
Where’er, by day or night, thro’ the wide world we rove.


Such love he surely knew who yearning came
To bless the sorrowing and the helpless save.
When, visioned to my view, I sought his name,
His lips, responsive else, no utterance gave.
What paltry fame could such a spirit crave?
Let crested helm and kingly brows that wear
Fame’s tattered wreath, her gorgeous trappings have!
To him was given—’t was all he wished—to hear
The mourner’s happy song—the sufferer’s grateful prayer.


On the high Teocal, in reverie lost,
Still as a statue, save the glancing eye
That traced each movement of the starry host,
He saw not, rising slowly, gloomily,
Like spectre giants far off in the sky,
The mustering clouds—but gazed as tho’ he meant
The world’s portentous horoscope to try;
Alas! how hard to rest in faith content,
E’en if from God himself a heavenly guide be sent!


But faith prevailed. “No will,” he said, “or thought,
Or power, I find within your orbs of light.
Tho’ sages teach that your fair rays are fraught
With evil destinies, that all your bright
And marvellous host but blazon o’er the night
The doom of realms, ordaining kings to die,
And beautifully beaming on the blight
Yourselves have wrought, and on crushed hearts that lie
As now—to-night! beneath your ruthless tyranny.


“Falsely they teach! The glory that is strown
O’er your mysterious path He will uphold
Whose ministers ye are, around whose throne
Ye tremulously move in awe controlled.
And we shall live! and you, even as of old,
All impotent to harm shall still appear:
No beam annulled, no dire confusion rolled
Amid your ranks, nor thro’ the darkened air
Shall nature’s death-song sweep from falling sphere to sphere.


“Once arbiters of fate, your host did seem;
Prophetic sovereigns of all good or ill.
New-wakened to the thought of God supreme,
I come, as tho’ His mandate to fulfil,
I come to break your fancied power—to still
The tumult of despair. No more to me
Shall purposeless destruction mark the will
Of nature’s God. E’en now, as mine shall be,
The souls of all, from doubt and maddening terror free.”


But while he spake, the lightning flashing forth
Darted its signals thro’ the distant air,
Calling the pitiless storm-God to the earth—
Slowly he turns, a pile immense to rear
Of resinous wood heaped up with many a layer,
Where sleeps the strength of roaring flames. But fast
The storm assails him, lifts his hoary hair,
And round him whirls, as round some stately mast,
Alone and tempest-tossed, that scorns the howling blast.


Hark! on the wild wind comes there not a shriek!
Or do the demons whom he dares betray
Even at their holy shrine, draw near to wreak
Their vengeance ere his proud words pass away?
Again that cry! the wail of agony,
Heard shrilly from the mount thro’ wind and rain
And deafening storm. But still without dismay
He stands. Why haste to seek his friends again,
Whose horror would but hear his soothing words in vain?


But thundering round him the fierce storm had come
Through the rent sky. And gleaming o’er his head
The lightning flashed—then all again was gloom.
Startled, as tho’ a funeral torch had shed
Its glare into a tomb where lay the dead
He might have saved by putting forth his hand—
He cried, ’t is done!—and soon the flame is spread
From layer to layer; as when a lightning-brand
The Almighty burls, and forests blaze at his command.


On many a height throughout the darkened realm,
Sad watchers far and near their vigils keep,
Nor turn their earnest gaze from whence the flame,
By ancient rite first lit, should upward leap
Above the Aztec Mount, and bid each steep
Its blaze respondent wake. No hand had done
Such deed before, had dared their terrors sweep
At once away—nor could they tell if on
The mount or Teocal the distant signal shone.


The flame burst forth. Far from the Teocal,
With quickened step, the hero-priest had gone.
None knew his name who ventured for them all
To break, ere yet the destined hours had flown,
Their spell of terror. Brighter, higher shone
The daring signal, curled its lambent flame,
And shot its eager light; while swift upon
Its happy errand, each diverging beam
Sped cheerily to bear glad news whero’er it came!


Mingled with thankful prayers, shout after shout
Of sudden joy from far-off cities rose.
And now the birds in strange alarm fly out
From hidden nests, now flap their wings in close
And closer circles round the flame;—as glows
From tower to tower the ascending beacon-light
Thro’ all the excited land, and eastward throws
Its gladdening rays, and westward takes its flight,
Blaze answering to blaze from hill and mountain height.


Skimming the lake it passed, and o’er the stream,
A band of light, till on the ocean's breast
Scattering its diamonds, fairer than the gleam
Of Evening-Star, it glittered in its rest,
Its happy mission done.
What lips unblest
As mine, a nation’s joy and loud acclaim
For life can tell? When all in garlands drest,
With rapturous songs greeted the Day’s bright beam,
That dawning o’er the cast in cloudless brilliance came.

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.