As you guys know, I visited San Antonio about a week or so ago. It was a wonderful experience and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I found many surprises within the city and spent every night drunk on culture, socializing, and maybe a little alcohol…
Without a doubt, it was well worth the money spent and the time taken. I plan to let you guys know why I recommend you go (in another post), but what I want to discuss today and what I wasn’t quite expecting to find, was another love of mine hiding along the river walk; a stelae replica!
I am absolutely fascinated by Mesoamerican cultures, including, but not limited to the Maya and Aztec. Texas loves history, and so do I, so here’s an essay I wrote a few weeks ago about my thoughts on the Aztec, and honestly, people in general. I love exploring humanity and the universe. If you keep following my blog you’ll soon learn that my two great loves are examining the history of humanity (and the universe), and identifying possible explanations for the world around me.
*** Also, as a special note, there are Mesoamerican relics/ homages everywhere. This was just my favorite picture taken with one. : ) ***
This week, more than anything, I felt curious about the juxtaposition between the Spanish, the Mexica/ Aztec, and ourselves. Reading and deciding to create a response to research performed on each culture has led to many questions. Questions such as: How could a civilization be more complicated politically and socially than it is religiously; and does the carnality of their religion lend towards primitiveness after all? Is human sacrifice murder? Were the people willing; or where they simply bribed, pressured, and drugged? If you view it as murder, or even religious homicide, then can such a thing be a part of a civilized people’s culture? Is there any reliable evidence of shared humanity between them, the Spaniards, and us? Furthermore, where, when, and how does cannibalism comes into play, if ever?
In this paper, I’m going to mash up my response to multiple articles, including but not limited to, Clendenin’s Introduction, Notes, and “The World Transformed…” excerpts, as well as Pennock’s article on murder, and the list of monthly ceremonies (obtained from scholarly sources).
When the Spaniards first met the Mexica, they were in awe of the beauty and complexity of their civilization. Bernal Diaz’s stated that “When we saw all those cities and villages built in the water, and other great towns on dry land, and that straight and level causeway leading to Mexico, we were astounded. . . These great towns and cues (pyramids) and buildings rising from the water, all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision. . . Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream. …It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before.” (Cohen, 214)
I found this description to be profound because it clearly captures the thoughts and feelings of someone distanced from me by time and culture, as they first encountered, yet another foreign culture. When the Spaniards met the Mexica, they were already fairly advanced and notably complex, but where they civilized? If you will recall, earlier I asked how a civilization could be more complicated politically and socially than it is religiously. I then went on to question whether the carnality of Aztec religion lends towards primitiveness after all. The documentation presented in each of the presented essays describe a Spanish tendency to label the Mexica people as brutal, inhuman, and/ or outright abhorrent. As an observer that shares neither religion, nor ethnicity with either the Spanish or the Mexica, I would argue that the Spanish struggle to determine whether these were a civilized people is as understandable as it is ironic and insulting. It is my personal belief that religion is simply a primitive, yet effective, method/ tool used by the powerful to control the masses. Both parties killed in the name of their lord. Followers of Pre-Contact Mesoamerican religion were guilty of auto-sacrifice and the deaths of ixiptla, but the Christians were guilty of centuries of crusading, supporting capital punishment, justifying slavery, world-wide colonialism, the mistreatment of women, homosexuals, and all whom are different, and without hesitation; multiple attempts at genocide. If anything, I see a shared humanity in the two. Humans are generally awful, and that is something that transcends time, culture, and ethnic background. So were they at all primitive? Perhaps, but no more so than the Spanish. Were they civilized? I believe so. Whether or not a culture is considered civilized is relative and up to interpretation since the term is more squishy than ridged. For instance, there is a famous line that grades a society’s level of civility on how it treats its prisoners. For the sake of this response paper, I would say the minimum requirements for being civilized are political complexity and law, as well as the socio-economic success of an entire region, i.e.) city-states.
The Mexica people were very politically, economically, and socially complex. They instituted laws that prevented unsanctioned violence, a military that maintained geographical boundaries, as well as apartments that housed disparate ethnic groups. They regularly traded with neighboring cities and they married for political and monetary gain. Judging a people that we never did fully understand, (and likely never will), because their methods for achieving similar goals are strange or upsetting, is irresponsible. It is in all of our best interests to understand one another before any attempts at converting their views to our own. We stand to learn something from everyone we meet, even those we assume to be unintelligent or savage.
In regards to murder and religion, the posed question becomes much more difficult to answer. I almost get the impression that in many instances it was more “assisted suicide” than murder, and that in others, it more closely resembled wartime killing than an unlawful street killing. As described in Pennock’s paper, “The deaths of these sacrificial victims occurred in the same period that the Iberian church and state were executing heretics and opponents in bloody displays of ritualized violence,” (Pennock, 277). Therefore, what makes the Aztecs especially bloody? What creates the suspicion of mass murder as opposed to the honorable, religious killings that the Mexica claimed they were?
Pennock presents one of the most compelling rebuttals to the researcher (and student) obsession with Aztec interest in blood and torture. He argues that documentation from the time is unreliable and that there is no real consensus around what the number of yearly victims should be, except that maybe, perhaps, twenty thousand sounds nice. Pennock even admits that it is just a popular number, and that behind it, is little attachment to real life. Without believable, reputably sourced statistics to stand behind, we cannot say for sure whether the Mexica people were bloodier than others that lived around the same time or not. One scholar, Davis Hanson, compared the killing to the Holocaust. He claimed that the rate at which people perished during the 1487 Templo Mayor dedication outperformed Hitler at Auschwitz or Dachau. Even if this were the case, does the volume at which people are sacrificed change what the killings represent to the people? Does it stop them from accomplishing what they believe the ceremony will accomplish? At what point can an outsider say that a religious killing is otiose and should be considered murder? I do not have definite answers to these questions, but I find the varied viewpoints of the cited authors to be intriguing. I am somewhat of a stickler for definitions, and Merriam-Webster defines murder as the unlawful, premeditated killing of one human being by another. With this in mind, I do not consider the religious killings to be murder. Morally defective? From the standpoint of a Christian, perhaps. Murder, however? No.
It was obviously lawful for priests and warriors to kill so I will not apply my focus there. We also know that it was premediated. The Mexica people kept a calendar. What we do not know, however, is whether the sacrificed went willingly. Yet another question that I cannot answer for sure. My suspicion is that the Mexica people that sacrificed themselves to honor their gods were likely willing and that the captors, although less willing, knew their possible fate from the moment they joined the military… and honestly, probably since boyhood. When any individual, indigenous person opted to participate in Mesoamerican society, they agreed to follow a certain status quo regarding social and political issues. The various papers I read made it clear that sacrifice, religion, and war were of the utmost importance to the Mexica, so by the time they made it to adulthood, they’d been sufficiently groomed, and depending on your perspective, brain-washed into believing THIS was what they wanted to do; THIS was how they wanted to die: gruesomely and gloriously.
Finally, I would like to briefly address cannibalism. There is not much to go on from the reading I’ve done on the matter and I do not know which outside sources to trust, because even papers I source from Google Scholar might be the sensationalized result of a passionate historian. As far as I can tell, cannibalism was relatively rare and not a cultural norm. It would appear that, perhaps, it is a tool for humiliation. As explained in the paper on Aztec Cannibalism: Nahua versus Spanish versus Mestizo accounts in the Valley of Mexico, each writer presented a different treatment of cannibalism as compared to someone of a different ethic allegiance. The Spanish were horrified by the cannibalism they “witnessed”, but in two of the three stories told by the Mexica people, so were the Mexica people. I imagine instances of cannibalism in Mesoamerica were akin to documented instances in United States history. Yes, it has happened… more than a few times – but it is still frowned upon. I simply cannot bring myself to believe the notion that the Aztec were bloodthirsty people-eaters that lusted for human flesh. There is not enough information to conclude that cannibalism was institutionalized. Furthermore, most of the accusations comes from the Spanish or their Mestizo children, people that had little to no interest in preserving a good image of Mesoamerican people. Perhaps, the Spanish and the Mestizo felt that making such great claims against the Aztecs was neither defamation, nor slander because the culture was not of God anyway.
My final commentary speaks on our shared humanity. All of the research I’ve performed built upon ideas of humanity and civility. It begged the question of what makes a culture or society civilized and what makes them barbaric? What is murder? What can be said to be acceptable when done for religion? Sacrifice? Conquest? The societies we have built, as well as the cultures we have created, reflect our place in space and time. It presents an image of what is important to us. As I reflect on this week’s readings, I am reminded of how similar we all are. No matter how disparate our physical or mental location, we are all human, and though through varied methods, we generally want to achieve similar goals. I am reminded of how easy it is to misunderstand the unknown and historical reactions to novel experiences. Of how short the span of our lives are, and how relatively recently the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica reigned over the continent. It will not be long before we have run out of time and future researchers are studying us… trying to figure out what we used rotary phones for, and whether or not we should be considered as having been civil. As so eloquently put by the contemporary Nahua of San Miguel: “We eat of the Earth, then the Earth eats us.”
Citation: Diaz, The Conquest of New Spain, trans. J. M. Cohen (London, 1963), p. 214.
Victor Davis Hanson, Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power (New York, 2001), p. 195.
Song recorded by the anthropologist Tim Knab: We eat of the Earth, then the Earth eats us.