The Hunger of the Gods

David Brading

  • Aztecs: An Interpretation by Inga Clendinnen
    Cambridge, 398 pp, £24.95, October 1991, ISBN 0 521 40093 7

Shortly after their dramatic entrance into the island city of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, Hernan Cortes and his companions climbed the 114 steep steps of the great central pyramid there to encounter in the temple of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec tribal god, the stench of the blood-caked walls and floor and the sight of human hearts burning in braziers. During the subsequent siege of the city, their disgust turned to horror, not untinged with terror, when on suffering a temporary reverse, they heard the triumphant sound of the great drum, conches and horns, and saw their captured comrades being dragged up the temple steps. They saw the Indian priests stretch their captives on altar stones, cut open their breasts with obsidian knives, and offer the palpitating hearts to their god. The victims’ bodies were kicked down the steps and at the pyramid base were decapitated, with the limbs cut off, destined for ritual cannibalism, and the trunk and entrails fed to wild animals kept for that purpose. The skins, including bearded faces, were removed and flayed, thereafter to be donned by the warriors who had captured the Spaniards.

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[*] Sahagun’s work has been translated as The Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, 13 vols. by Arthur Anderson and Charles Dibble: the School of American Research and the University of Utah Press (Santa Fe, 1950-82). For a succinct account of the Mexico City excavations see Johannes Broda, David Carrasco and Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, The Great Temple of Tenochtitlan, University of California Press (London,1987).