Central America in the 16th century. The empire of the Aztecs and their allies is being overrun by the forces of Hernán Cortez. Conquistadores plunder while Catholic priests turn hundreds of sacred books into towering bonfires. In the Mixtec capital of Achiotlan the resident priest, Father Benito Hernández, comes into the possession of a sacred stone much revered by the Mixtec, known as the People's Heart. The stone is a wondrous thing. Father Burgoa, an eyewitness to the events, described the stone as being an emerald as large as a capsicum, “upon which a small bird was engraved with the greatest skill, and, with the same skill, a small serpent coiled ready to strike. The stone was so transparent that it shone from its interior with the brightness of a candle flame.”
We are lucky to have this preserved description, for it is all that remains to tell us of this remarkable stone’s appearance. Another Spaniard present offered the priest three thousand ducats for it. But Hernández did more than merely turn down the handsome offer. He carried his priestly destructive zeal to the extreme: first he had the priceless gem ground down to powder, then mixed the pulverised mass with water, poured it out upon the Mixtec earth, and trampled it underfoot.
Even given the wholesale destruction of such cultural artefacts which took place during this period, Father Hernández’ obliteration of this particular treasure seems to have gone that extra mile in terms of its finality - an indication of the priest’s drive, not merely to destroy the stone, but to erase its actual presence from the world. I wondered why this might be so. Could the priest perhaps have thought that he had chanced upon the fabled emerald said to have fallen to earth from the crown of Satan during the war in heaven? This fabulous jewel is said to be as legendary and as mystical as the Holy Grail. Stronger yet: for some, it actually is the Grail, with the Grail’s miraculous ability to confer enlightenment upon its possessor.
According to the legend, Adam possessed the stone in Eden, but left it behind after his expulsion. Seth, the son of Adam, briefly returned to the earthly paradise to retrieve it, and from that time it has been in the world, its whereabouts unknown. Perhaps the priest who stood frenziedly trampling the conquered soil imagined that his act of obliteration was in some tangible way a triumph over Satan - an act which would forever deny the Prince of Darkness any possibility of restoring his crown to completeness and glory. But evil does not reside in a stone: it is within ourselves. Father Hernández destroyed nothing except what would now be viewed as a priceless cultural treasure, and his own dark shadow remained behind in its place.
The images for this post are adapted from Gustave Doré's depictions of the fall of Satan. An account of the destruction of the Mixtec emerald can be found in Graham Hancock's Fingerprints of the Gods. The possible connection between Father Hernández' motive for destroying the stone and the legend of the stone from Satan's crown is my own.