Aztec Blood Ritual

Over at Abandoned Footnotes, Xavier Marquez gives a gorgeous and garish review of Aztecs: An Interpretation (1995) by Inga Clendinnen. Though Marquez claims that his writing pales in comparison to Clendinnen’s, I beg to differ: they both turn some beautiful phrases. It’s a long post which deserves full and careful reading, but here is a teaser:

          But the religious instrumentality of the ritual was the least important part of their function, in my view; I suspect, as I’ve said on another occasion, that here ritual is prior to belief. For one thing, Mexica rituals, as powerful intensifiers of emotion, were singularly effective at producing experiences of the sacred; it makes better sense to say that rituals were for the sake of these emotional experiences than to say that they were for the sake of certain material outcomes (like victory in war, or a good harvest, or the avoidance of natural disasters), though they were obviously rationalized in such ways (e.g., as means to ensure that the sun rose every day, or to prevent the destruction of the world, etc.). At the end of the day, human sacrifice is, instrumentally speaking, pure waste: it only makes sense from the point of view of the intensified emotions (“experiences of the sacred”) that it helps produce in ritual context. In turn these emotions bound together the community and made for a particularly intense kind of social life:
          If Mexica rituals were valued for their connections and commentaries on life and their capacity to forge a particular kind of unity out of difference, participation was itself addictive. Given that access to ritual excitements was not an occasional grace note but an enduring part of the rhythm of living, ritual-generated experience and ritual-generated knowledge among the Mexica opened zones of thought and feeling at once collective, cumulative and transformative (p. 241).
          We might say that the theatre state at Tenochtitlan was primarily organized not to provide security, prosperity, or even glory, but for producing transcendental experiences. In this setting, Mexica priests were, in Clendinnen’s felicitous phrase, “impresarios of the sacred” (p. 242), practitioners of the only art that really mattered in the polity, and capable of setting in motion all of its resources for the sake of producing such collective experiences. Their “work” involved not just sacrifice, but a whole series of techniques, from fasting to powerful hallucinogenic drugs to chanting and dance, designed for maximum emotional effect. (There is a great deal of interesting “psychological engineering” in Mexica ritual, and I occasionally wondered idly about the genesis of such complicated practices). And the overall effect of their work was a “calculated assault on the senses.”

Indeed. I’ve just ordered Clendinnen’s book and look forward to reading more of Marquez’ blog. While perusing his post, I had visions of the spectacular sacrifice scene from Apocalypto:

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One thought on “Aztec Blood Ritual

  1. Larry Stout

    Let me recommend here some fascinating collateral reading:

    Looper’s “Lightning Warrior”
    Newsome’s “Trees of Paradise and Pillars of the World”

    Both are scholarly treatments of royal ritual among the Maya, focused on two contemporary city-state kings (one of whom captured and sacrificed the other) at the closely related Classic Maya sites Quiriguá and Copan. Blood-letting autosacrifice was practiced by elites as part of what is widely seen as a long-lived, shared pan-Mesoamerican cultural “kit”.

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