Debate Magazine

Reading Aztec Ritual

By Cris

As an antidote to the vacuous beach reading lists that are ubiquitous at this time of year, I always resolve to read intensively in one area to fill some inexcusable gap in my ethnohistoric knowledge. Last summer, the gap was filled with four excellent books on Australian Aborigines. This summer, I have initially focused on the Mexica or “Aztecs” and just finished these three books:

I was, of course, hoping that this reading would explain why the Mexica ritually sacrificed and heartily ate so many people. While I have previously considered several possible answers, I can’t say these books pointed toward any one answer as better than another. All the possible answers seem viable and the most controversial — that the Mexica lacked animal proteins and thus turned to eating humans — also seems supported. Though none of the above authors make this ecological argument, the Valley of Mexico was indeed lacking in large game animals and domestic stock. This presumably explains why the Mexica so often supplemented their maize-based diet with small animals (e.g., birds, rodents, and insects) not normally hunted where large animals are available.

Among symbolically inclined anthropologists, however, this “protein” explanation is anathema. Also anathema for symbolists is taking the Mexica at their word and accepting what they said about human sacrifice: the gods demanded it. For reasons not entirely clear, symbolists can’t countenance straightforward or literal explanations which are usually denigrated as being too “instrumental.” While the Mexica may have thought and said that the gods required human blood, symbolists and ritualists often claim this can’t really be the explanation for sacrifice. Having dismissed the literal and instrumental, they thus search for deeper answers, hidden meanings, and alternative explanations.

While I think the ecological and instrumental explanations are good, as is the political argument that sacrifice was a dominance display to terrorize tributaries and enemies, most anthropologists still prefer a Durkheimian or evolutionary “ritual cohesion” theory. We are thus told that the Mexica killed and ate tens of thousands of people each year because the sacrifice rituals aroused intense collective emotions and bound the people of Tenochtitlan into a more cohesive and cooperative community. While there surely is some affective truth to this, as a primary or exclusive argument it is dubious.

This brings me to the books. If you are interested, start with Thomas’ Conquest. It’s an authoritative and detailed history which also happens to be a ripping good yarn. I could hardly put it down and thought it was more exciting, indeed incredible, than most epic fiction. The conquest was in many ways surreal, not least because Cortés was so weirdly indefatigable. Sociopaths in the service of Christian empire don’t usually grip me, but Cortés certainly did.

Soustelle’s Daily Life, which I actually read first (but should have read after Conquest), is a richly textured and deeply empathetic look at the ordinary and more mundane aspects of Mexica culture that are so often submerged beneath the lurid, violent, and ghastly. By all accounts, Tenochtitlan was an astonishingly beautiful, exquisite, and well-ordered city. The Spaniards were floored by its large size, high culture, brilliant architecture, and teeming market — none (except for the few who had visited Constantinople) had ever seen anything like it. They could hardly believe that Amerindian “savages” were capable of such domestic and civic excellence. Soustelle renders all this so convincingly and lovingly that when he gets to the final chapter, which for Tenochtitlan is total destruction, he seems genuinely heart-broken. For a brief moment I joined him but then quickly reminded myself that Tenochtitlan, however sublime, was also a house of many horrors.

Of the three books, Clendinnen’s is the most ambitious, audacious, and in the end, disappointing. She, like so many of us, stands in imaginative awe before Mexica culture and ritual performance. She wonders, like so many of us, what it was like, how it was seen, what was felt, heard, sensed, and experienced. It must have been, and in some ways was, overwhelming. There was a tautness to Mexica culture that tinged everything and tainted everyone. Fear and uneasiness, bordering on and spilling over into cosmological paranoia, were pervasive. Clendinnen elegantly explores this razor’s edge along which so many, both citizens and sacrificed, were literally and figuratively sliced. Her book, really a collection of essays or evocations, is a lyrical tour de force, theoretically fitting somewhere between Clifford Geertz (good) and Victor Turner (bad). Frustratingly at times, Clendinnen journeys more than she arrives. But in this journey she well and truly conjures the cultural poetry and ritual mesmerism of Tenochtitlan. Her penultimate chapter, “Ritual: The World Transformed, the World Revealed,” is among the best, as Xavier Marquez so well observed in his comment on Clendinnen’s book.

Oddly, or perhaps predictably, Clendinnen really hits her stride at the end, only after she has finished her symbolic-emotive excursis through the sacred wonderland of Tenochtitlan. In an appendix, “A Question of Sources,” her muse happily alights on issues that apply not just to the Mexica but to all oral and performative societies that we “see” – or try to imagine – through the opaque and distorting lens of writing:

We are professionally text-orientated people in a text-orientated society. That can severely limit our capacity to grasp the possible meaning of texts, and more particularly other kinds of sources, produced by other kinds of societies. How are we to discover the moods and meanings of peoples who, like the Mexica, expressed themselves most readily in song, dance and formal speech, and in “writing” as we know it not at all? [W]hile most of us have no experience at first or even second hand of a less than thoroughly literate culture, we know that vast numbers of people in the past – women, children, slaves, workers, indeed almost everybody – while talkative enough in their own worlds, were retrospectively struck dumb, rendered “inarticulate,” by the selectivity of the written record. (281)

Historians work with those painfully retrieved words pinned like so many butterflies to the page, remote from their animate existence. It is hard to keep in mind their flickering variability, their strenuous context dependence, in life. Words do not always mean what they seem to say…Then there is the question of what is not said; as Jose Ortega y Gasset has observed: “The stupendous reality that is language cannot be understood unless we begin by observing that speech consists above all in silences. Each people leave some things unsaid in order to be able to say others.” [U]nderstanding must be sought through the analysis of observed action. (284-85)

The consequences of the mechanical difficulties of representing the spoken word on the page are less manageable. Nahuatl was a language of compound words, and highly inflected, with prefixes, suffixes, and infixes (283). This brushes what is perhaps the most intractable, troubling, and engaging problem of all. Nahuatl was and is a language rich in metaphor, and the Mexica took delight in exploring veiled resemblances…In a differently conceptualized world concepts are differently distributed. If we want to know the metaphors our subjects lived by, we need first to know how the language scanned actuality. Linguistic messages in foreign (or in familiar) tongues require not only decoding, but interpretation (287).

So, unhappily, what most mattered to the Mexica has left no remains, and what does now remain is mute: the dance, the drum, and chant which formed so central a part of Mexica ritual as lost as the wreathing flowers (289). There were particular somatic and kinetic experiences the Mexica identified with the encounter with the sacred. It has been one of the major challenges of this study to reconstruct, from fragile clues, something of the context and content of those experiences (290). A glance at any actual society, with its multiple and cross-cutting networks and ambivalences, teaches us how unreal the most complex reconstructions must be in their unnatural simplicity. [W]e always have to be ready to acknowledge that whole areas of life of high significance to our subjects  might simply escape our awareness altogether: a demoralizing recognition, but a necessary one. (292-93)

While not totally demoralizing, it is sobering to hear – as Walter Ong and Jack Goody have repeatedly said – that oral cultures are completely different kinds of beasts than our own. So much is lost in our translations.


Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog