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

It is the aim of Inga Clendinnen to explore the ‘distinctive tonalities’, the ‘experimental landscape’, the ‘interior architecture’ of Mexica society, so as to explain the collective significance of religious rituals which almost invariably included human sacrifice. Indeed, her book concludes with a description of a scene remarkably similar to that described by Bernal Diaz del Castillo, albeit in this case viewed from the perspective of a native participant. The captured Spaniards were among the very last victims of a holocaust that had endured since at least the start of the 15th century. When in 1487 Ahuizotl, the lord or Chief Speaker of Tenochtitlan, celebrated the completion of the most recent enlargement of the pyramid temple of Huitzilopochtli, he devised a spectacle in which for four long days thousand of captives and slaves were forced to climb its steps, there to be sacrificed, their fate witnessed not merely by jubilant Aztec warriors but also by allied and subjugated rulers and secretly invited lords from enemy states. This reiterated offering of human hearts was annually renewed with more select victims during the chief feasts of the ritual calendar.

The practice of human sacrifice was to be found in most advanced Amerindian societies, and usually took the form of offering young children to the earth gods to ensure good harvests. The Mexica persisted in this custom, propitiating Tlaloc, the god of rains, by cutting the throats of children at his feast. What is not clear is when the human heart became the chosen food of the sun and his attendant sky gods. But what the recent excavations of the great pyramid site have confirmed beyond doubt is that the sacrificial rites witnessed by Bernal Diaz re-enacted Mexica creation myths. For Huitzilopochtli, a newcomer to the Mesoamerican pantheon peculiar to the Aztecs, was held to have sprung full-grown from the womb of Coatlicue, a fearsome earth goddess, engendered by a feather falling on her breast. His first act was to slay his half-sister Coyloxauhqui and her four hundred brothers on Mount Coatepec, the hill of the serpent, situated near ancient Tula, the capital of the Toltecs. Sure enough, at Tenochtitlan the great pyramid was named Coatepec and in 1987 excavations uncovered a stone disc on which the broken body of Coyloxauhqui was carved, located at the base of the pyramid steps, where it had received the broken bodies of so many victims. According to another Aztec creation myth, the re-emergence of the sun at the start of the fifth age of the world had depended on the voluntary immolation of all the gods, a myth which expressed the belief that the sun’s daily rising from the region of darkness required the regular shedding of human blood.

To illuminate the sensibility that underpinned these rites and myths, Clendinnen cites the moral discourses addressed to warrior children and the ‘Flowery War’ conducted against neighbouring states such as Tlaxcala and Cholula. At his birth the future eagle or jaguar warrior was exhorted to seek death, either in combat or as a sacrificial victim, so that his heart, his ‘precious eagle-cactus fruit’, would provide ‘drink, nourishment, food to the sun, the lord of earth’. From childhood the young warrior was urged ‘to savour the flowery death by the obsidian knife’, his predestined fate to be as much victim as victor. The purpose of the Flowery War was not conquest but the taking of captives, the battles consisting of a series of individual combats between warriors decked out in the finery of jaguar skins and eagle feathers. As Clendinnen observes, ‘the great warriors were solitary hunters,’ their prestige based on the number of enemies captured, with intense rivalry driving them forward, since failure on the battlefield entailed expulsion from the military lodges. If these noble warriors proved so ready to expose themselves, it was because they had been taught that sacrificial victims as much as men who died in combat would be immortalised, their spirits soaring like eagles to join the sun. Whereas the common ruck of humanity was condemned after death to a four-year journey through bleak nether worlds before suffering ultimate extinction, the warriors whose blood had sustained the sun finally became hummingbirds or butterflies, gorging themselves for all eternity on paradisal nectar.

What is equally striking here is the relationship between combatants. On effecting his capture, the victor addressed his captive as ‘my beloved son’ and was in turn accepted by the captive as ‘my beloved father’. The captor accompanied the future victim to the sacred pyramid, and once sacrifice had been effected he was given the body so that his household might consume the limbs with maize. But he did not himself participate in this ritual meal, exclaiming: ‘Shall I, then, eat my own flesh?’ Instead, he donned the flayed skin of the victim, thereafter allowing friends to share in the privilege until it rotted. At the meal he wept tears of sorrow – not, however, for the victim, but at his own possible fate, since in the Flowery War there were few deaths but many captures. If some hardy warriors leapt up the temple steps shouting cries of defiance, others fainted or had to be dragged to the sacrificial stone. Nor did death always come swiftly, since some captives had to fight in gladiatorial combat, suffering multiple cuts, and others were roasted in fire until their skin blistered.

Although Clendinnen aspires to give equal weight to the roles of women in Mexica society, she merely concludes that as wives and mothers they ‘could function as independent social beings’. At birth, female children were warned that the world was a place of unhappiness and that their lot would be a hard one, confined to the home and its daily toil. In practice, some girls entered the temples as attendants, others practiced as harlots, and a privileged few impersonated female deities before being sacrificed. Although Mesoamerican cosmology postulated an equivalence of male and female principles in the primordial creation of the world, in practice the leading goddesses venerated by the Mexica were all aspects of a monstrous earth mother, usually depicted girt with serpents and skulls. The temple of Cihuacoatl was a low, dank, unlit lodge which Bernal Diaz compared to the jaws of hell. To be sure, women in labour were compared to warriors, the midwife greeting a successful delivery as a good battle, in which ‘the little woman had become a brave warrior, had taken a captive, had captured a baby.’ But as Clendinnen carefully notes, this apparent equivalence in role is misleading. For women who died in labour were buried in secret at night, and although their spirits joined Cihuacoatl they later returned to earth as night ghouls. Whereas the eagle warriors accompanied the sun as it rose in the morning, their female counterparts escorted the sun to the region of darkness beneath the earth.

In her discussion of the myths that expressed Mexica sensibility, Clendinnen observes that the sky god Tezcatlipoca, the Smoking Mirror, Lord of the Here and Now, was described as ‘arbitrary, he is capricious, he mocketh ... We make him laugh.’ If the world was thought to be a place of unhappiness, in part it was because the gods were both voracious and wanton, and the benefits they conferred procured at great cost. So also, poets declared the world to be like a painted book, proclaiming to the gods that ‘we exist only in your book while we are here on earth.’ The arbitrary quality of divine power was reflected in the authority exercised by the Chief Speaker, who was hailed as the Flute of Tezcatlipoca, as the very impersonator of the god, and hence fearfully addressed as ‘Our lord, our executioner, our judge’. In the last resort, so Clendinnen argues, the rituals of human sacrifice did not sustain or legitimate the social order and political authority: instead they expressed ‘submission to a power which is caprice embodied’. The annual holocaust signified that human beings were but one element in the cosmic vegetative cycle, blood and flesh feeding the gods in much the same way as maize fed humanity.

Inga Clendinnen has written a fascinating, thought-provoking book, which has already attracted considerable praise. Her interpretation of Aztec ritual and myth derives from a close reading of the Florentine Codex, a lavishly illustrated recension of Bernardino de Sahagun’s General History of the Things of new Spain, written with parallel columns in Nahuatl and Spanish. Based on depositions of elderly Mexica noblemen obtained some twenty to thirty years after the Spanish conquest and copied down in Nahuatl by young Indian scholars who had been taught by Sahagun at the Franciscan college of Santa Cruz Tlatelolco, this is a unique text which ranges from descriptions of ritual and omens to moral discourses and myth and ends with an account of the conquest related from the Mexica point of view. What it entirely fails to do, however, is to offer any account of the historical development of the Aztec state. To obtain information on that subject, it is necessary to consult the Cronica Mexicana, an account written by Moctezuma’s grandson, Hernando Alvarado Tezozomoc, and the history composed by Diego Duran, a Dominican expert in Nahuatl who employed much the same sources as Tezozomoc. In these accounts we encounter a dramatic narrative which relates, Chief Speaker by Chief Speaker, the manner in which the Mexica came to dominate Anahuac. The origin of such practices as the Flowery War are clearly dated and attributed. Moreover, the recent excavations of the great pyramid temple have revealed that its successive enlargements during the 15th century were clearly associated with the expansion of the Aztec empire.* By concentrating on Sahagun’s great work, Clendinnen writes as if inhabiting ‘the ethnographic present’ of the early 16th century and scants the dynamic historical process which preceded and sustained the society she seeks to interpret. The foreshortened perspective certainly makes for dramatic intensity: but it seriously distorts the character of the Mexica polity. Obviously, the intellectual rationale for her concentration on ritual as a form of public action derives from Clifford Geertz’s concept of the theatre-state in Bali, where political power found expression in the competitive spectacles mounted by the petty courts that dominated the island. But a model of political behaviour devised to interpret the highly involuted, relatively pacific society of an Indonesian island cannot be readily applied to the violent, expansive Aztec state, which within little more than eighty years swept down to the Caribbean coast and as far south as Guatemala. It is perfectly just to describe the Flowery Wars and the fate of the noble warriors therein: but the thousands of victims sacrificed in 1487 came from large-scale warfare and territorial annexation.

One final caveat. Throughout her discussion, Clendinnen draws upon the recorded experiences and practices of ‘the North American warrior society’, alleging that the sensibility of tribes such as the Crow, Huron and Seneca offers the student of the Mexica ‘resonances and refractions too rewarding to be resisted’. Amidst the splendours of Tenochtitlan, a city divided into the four quarters which surrounded a sacred precinct housing some eighty temples and lodges, inhabited by two hundred thousand warriors, priests, craftsmen, merchants and labourers, connected to the mainland by causeways and an aqueduct for drinking water, situated with a valley where hillside terracing, raised fields and lakeside floating rafts yielded an agricultural production capable of feeding a million persons – within this complex society there thrived an ethos reminiscent of the warriors of the Great Plains. It is a challenging thesis. It is a thesis which echoes the writings of such 19th-century anthropologists as Lewis Morgan and Adolphe Bandelier. It is also a thesis which will be rejected in Mexico by patriots perturbed by the possibility of seeing their glorious ancestors pictured in a nightmare version of Dances with Wolves. Their response will be to insist on the highly stratified character of Mexica society, the complexity of its agricultural system, and the refinement of its calendrical computations and artwork.

Although Clendinnen asserts that ‘all young Mexica males were exposed to warrior training,’ most commoners obviously did not participate in the code of the eagle and jaguar knights to whom the elders addressed their exhortation to prepare themselves for ‘the flowery death by the obsidian knife’. Indeed, commoners were addressed as ‘the tail feather, the wing feather’ and although mention is made of possible battle experience their life was envisaged as absorbed by toil. Judged from the perspective of historical sociology, the Aztec polity is better compared to ancient Egypt or Assyria than to the Iroquois confederacy or the Sioux nation.

None of these qualifications should deter potential readers. Aztecs offers a gripping account of an alien society and thus enlarges our apprehension of the sheer diversity of human culture. In her epilogue Clendinnen compares her attempt to understand Mexica to Captain Ahab’s quest for the great white whale. How can we comprehend or feel empathy with a people whose values and sensibility were so distant from our own? It is a challenge shared by both historians and anthropologists. Even if Clendinnen’s interpretation may not command universal assent, it will certainly enjoy a wide readership and elicit vigorous debate. It sent me scurrying back to Sahagun, Bernal Diaz, and other 16th-century chronicles which offer such a profusion of data on so many aspects of Mexica history and religion, but leave so many vital strands of evidence in the shadows. For this alone, I am grateful for the opportunity to have read her book.

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