Sofia Rodas ’22: Book VI, Chapter 32 (Of the Cups Made from Human Skulls and the One Owned by the Great Prince Atabaliba)

Of the cups made from human skulls; specifically about one owned by the great prince Atabaliba, and of what he exchanged for a cat and what he gave a Spaniard for a sparrow hawk.

Translated by Sofia Rodas

A short account (well, maybe three) is included in this chapter XXXII as prelude to the third part or volume of this history, where matters regarding the great prince or king Atabaliba will be discussed. And because just a few days ago I received notice of a new treatise written by a gentleman from Sevilla, Pedro Mexía, titled Silva de varia leccion [A Miscellany of Several Lessons]. It cannot be denied that the author is a scholar and his work useful and that the style is one whose elegance is worth a gem of many carats; I know also of his creativity and writing, which are more than enough for this work and other greater ones.

Further, I will say two more things here before I get to the three summaries or short accounts that I offered above. Firstly, it appears to me that the name or title of the book is very well thought out and very appropriate to such a volume. This is because it addresses many and diverse topics, and just as the trees and plants produced in the silva or woodland are differentiated, as are the animals and birds that inhabit them, so he gave it its title of silva to reflect the topics and matters that in his mind (that of the writer) had already been chosen and noted and approved by him, so that out of the ample range of possibilities, he (like a prudent compiler) could pick the choicest of many tender memories and unique lessons to show us, in brief form, what many grand volumes contain. The second thing that comes to mind, aside from the fact that this new treatise, Silvia de varia lección, has given me as reason to praise the skill and authority of its author, is that he gave his endeavor a name that may appear fanciful or not seen before, when in reality it is often used. Because as the holy scholar Isidore says in his Ethimologias,[1] I want to state that those various lessons have another title and proper name, and it is Comentarios. Just as the dictator Caesar wrote, titling it Caesar’s Commentaries, because he offered a summary account of the events of his own life. And what I write in this Book VI of the Natural History of the Indies could very well be called Comentarios. For just as this gentleman, Pedro Mexía, eluding the appropriate title, gave his work a different but just as fitting name, calling it Silva de varia lección, thus I did not entitle this sixth book Comentarios and called it Libro de los Depósitos or Book of the Summaries. And what I had written of it was printed in 1535, and everything included in that first printing has been expanded to encompass everything in this second printing, which is a lot, and continues to grow every day. This is because these treatises or commentaries address topics of the highest interest, as they record everything necessary for the recreation of men with a desire for learning and who do not avoid as virtuous and laudable an exercise as reading, so long as that endeavor is focused on books that are true and useful and not adulatory: in cujus compositione homines multis mendaciis adulantur, as the same Isidore said in the aforementioned text.

Returning to the first purpose of these accounts, I say that chapter IX of this book VI addresses what Pliny writes of certain cups used by anthropophagi. They are made from the heads of the men they kill, and he writes: “The anthropophagi or maneaters (which we have mentioned), are a ten-day journey above Borísthenes, and they drink with the heads or skulls of men, and they wear their teeth and hair as necklaces, as written by Isigono.”[2] Many things are found in my history of the Indies that will make you believe in the evil of these Indians and their eating of human flesh. I knew the grand prince Atabaliba to have a cup made from his brother’s skull; from this one can infer the rest. The head was thoroughly emptied of brains and inner parts, leaving the inside smooth. The rim of its circumference was made of well-carved and fine gold, and the top part of the skull had smooth black hair, cured in a manner that affixed it to the cup. Atabaliba drank from it at parties, and it was one of the most precious jewels or treasures of his chamber and one of the best known.

The second account is that among the Spanish that found themselves in the prison of Atabaliba, there was one who had domesticated a cat. One day Atabaliba saw the way it caught a mouse, and the sight so pleased him that he begged the owner of the cat to give it to him and gave him more than a thousand gold pesos for the cat. From then on, when he wished to be amused, they brought mice, and he would release the cat who would catch them. It was a great hunt and a source of much laughter for him.

The third account is about a nobleman that was part of governor don Francisco Pizarro’s army. He tamed a sparrow hawk and used it to hunt teals and turtledoves and other birds. Atabaliba found this to be a marvelous thing and said that men who know how to tame and keep birds could do anything in the world and would know how to be lords of the world, for they created bird hunters to hunt other birds. At the time he gave that gentleman more than two thousand gold pesos for the sparrow hawk, and even though the bird was his he wanted the gentleman to continue taking care of the bird and bring it before him every day. He greatly enjoyed seeing his sparrow hawk, and he had gold bells made for it and dressed it like the bird of a grand prince, and it was truly great and treasured. More will be said of this matter in the third part of this history, when telling of the conquest of New Castile and those southern parts. And it was no small crime to kill a man such as him, especially in the manner that he was killed.

[1] Commentaria dicta, quasi cum mente. Sunt enim interpretations, ut commenta juris, commenta Evangelii. Nam quiequid breviter componitur, commentarium dicitur; quod vero elongator, exposition nominator. Book VI, Chapter 8.

[2] Pliny, Book VII, Chapter II.