Wednesday, July 6, 2011


I had gone with Miguel to the great Zapotec site at Monte Alban, just a few miles outside of Oaxaca.  It was early in the morning and the few other people there were swallowed up in the immensity of the place and it was as if we had it to ourselves which, pleasing as it might be to a certain sort of romantic, is not at all authentic to what it once had been, and I listened to Miguel’s descriptions and tried to fill the empty, grassy space with a teeming multitude of Indians dressed in fancy-patterned textiles and bright feathers and the platforms topped with tented pavilions and flags and here and there the glint of gold, and charcoal braziers and copal incense smoking the air and the babble of voices and the sounds drums and flutes and whistles and the noises of animals and the shriek of birds, instead of the bare, silent stone work that was all there was left, and so much of that with tell-tale black pebbles set in the mortar to indicate that it was an archæologist’s reconstruction, their best-guess as to what had once been there but now lost. 

Miguel was talking about the Indian cult of the underworld and mentioned that there was a tradition of an underground passageway connecting Monte Alban with the ancient burial place of the Zapotec kings about thirty-five miles away, at Mitla.  No such a tunnel has ever been found, he said, but the historian Burgoa, an early friar, described an entry into the tomb at Mitla where they found a pillared chamber and broad highway, but were frightened away when a wind came up and blew out their torches.  He said that I could find the account in Burgoa’s Geográfica, of which there was a copy in the library at the Art Institute.  And so I was out early the next morning to the Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca, and in its long, narrow library I found a beautiful facsimile edition of fray Francisco de Burgoa’s Geográfica Descripción, printed in Mexico City in the year 1674, and there I found the story.

A party of friars came to the city and, though the Gospel had been preached there, they found the natives still wed to their former, lamentable practices and worshiping the devil, particularly at a great opening in the earth which they vainly supposed connected to the domain of the dead in the underworld.  Intending to dispel this ignorance, the friars, full of zeal, took torches and entered this “gloomy concavity” where they descended wide steps and found themselves in a hall whose ceiling was supported by great pillars and there was what appeared to be a broad street.  They continued their descent.  The air was full of noxious odors. Then suddenly a chill wind came up and extinguished their torches, plunging them into darkness, whereupon the friars retreated in great haste and ordered this “infernal postillion”  --  this backdoor to hell  --  sealed up, which Burgoa tells us was done “con cal y canto,” with cement and song.

Well, now.  That was exciting.

(The story will continue . . .)

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