Reading Aztec Ritual

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 am 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 either a Durkheimian (i.e., social) or evolutionary (i.e., adaptive) “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 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, groomed gardens, enchanted bestiary, 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 symbolically affective 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.

Finally I will say, in partial and tepid defense of the Mexica, that there was something refreshingly honest about their ritual sacrifice of (mostly) war captives. Though few wish to acknowledge it and most tendentiously deny it, all empires are built on slaughter and drenched in blood. I don’t see much difference between killing on battlefields and sacrificing on temples. The aim and result is the same. The difference, in the Mexica case, is the eating. The old proverb – waste not, want not – springs immediately to mind, but this is probably too proteinist and pragmatic. While I can see how the conquistadors found Mexica cannibalism revolting, their double-standard disgust with ritual sacrifice is harder to understand. The Spanish-Christian conquest of both the Mexica and Inca was accompanied by the most sordid kinds of slaughter, not just of warriors but also of women and children. Killing is killing, no matter what forms precede the final deed.


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8 thoughts on “Reading Aztec Ritual

  1. Larry Stouttout

    Intriguing stuff as usual, Cris.

    Although the Aztecs, according to my tenuous understanding, were mystified by (and in awe of) the by-then-abandoned metropolis Teotihuacan, once the hub of Mesoamerican cultures, some archaeologists/anthropologists consider that the Aztecs had inherited many of their ways and beliefs. That Aztec cannibalism had precedent in Teotihuacan is posited by Annabeth Headrick in this very interesting and scholarly book:

  2. EmmaDora

    “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.”

    I recall reading Clendinnen’s fascinating interpretation of the Mexica culture back in the 1990’s and thinking, “To live the life of an Aztec must, emotionally, have been like walking a tightrope and helplessly sliding down a funnel at the same time.”

    Though Mexica culture did not provide its members with the conceptual or verbal vocabulary that would have made it possible for anyone to articulate this desperation.

  3. Onoosh

    I was astonished to discover that our library actually had a copy of the Thomas book, which is now on hold for me. That is, if they can find it. Thanks for the recommendation: I don’t re-read Jane Austen until the Fall-Winter season.

  4. Dominik Lukes

    First, can I just warn you to take anything non-linguist anthropologists say about language with a dune of salt. “Nahuatl was a language of compound words, and highly inflected, with prefixes, suffixes, and infixes (283).” This is true for the majority of languages in the world. I had a look at the Wikipedia entry for Nahuatl and while the verb inflection may seem a bit odd to a Western European, it’s not unusually complex and nouns are a doddle when compared with say Russian. But this has nothing whatsoever to do with difficulties about writing it down.

    “Nahuatl was and is a language rich in metaphor, and the Mexica took delight in exploring veiled resemblances…” This is complete and utter nonsense. Language is rich in metaphor and all cultures explore veiled resemblances. That’s just how language works. All I can surmise is that the author did not learn the language very well and therefore was translating some idioms literally. It happens. Or she’s just mindless spouting a bullshit trope people trot out when they need to support some mystical theory about a people.

    And the conclusion!? “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.” Translated from bullshit to normal speak: “When you translate things from a foreign language, you need to pay attention to context.” Nahuatl is no different to Spanish in this. In fact, the same applies to British and American English.

    Sorry for the angry outburst, but I get really annoyed by pseudo-linguistic lyricism.

    Second, I’ve been listening recently to lectures and reading a few things on the various European conquests. I particularly like ‘Crusades through the Arab Eyes’. While I don’t particularly subscribe to the civilized/barbaric dichotomy, it strikes me that from the modern perspective we (and I think most people still identify more with Cortes or the crusaders) were the barbarians in all of these encounters. Liars, cheaters, rapists, murderers and genocidal maniacs. So why should we spend any more time on the question of cannibalism (other than modernist prurience) than the behavior of the progenitors of our own ‘civilized modernity’. Both sides in the conflict strike me as equally alien to modern sensibilities. And, at the same time, as recent scholarship seems to want to stress, entirely modern in their seeking of alliances, symbols of legitimacy and internal power relations. Germs would have helped. Guns a little bit. But political maneuvering was the key thing.

  5. Cris Post author

    I think we spend more time on cannibalism because it is, as a matter of primatological and cross-cultural fact, a somewhat odd behavior. It’s not especially anomalous, and indeed is quite understandable from a number of perspectives, but it is relatively rare. Institutionalized cannibalism is even more rare, which makes the Mexica case so interesting.

    I can’t really speak to the linguistic issues, though I did wrench Clendinnen’s words out of much more detailed context and discussion of this topic. The sentence that you quoted, and so dislike, is embedded in a long discussion of how that fact has given rise to some famous, and famously unresolved, translation issues of apparently very simple statements in Nahuatl. The context, if I recall correctly, is a line or two of text in a key poem, though translators and linguists have been arguing about the meaning for at least one hundred years. Needless to say, the competing translations are entirely different.

    I will also note that Soustelle, who seems to have been expert on Nahuatl, often commented on its unusual form and structure. In his book, Thomas noted that within a single generation after the conquest, Nahuatl speakers had some difficulty comprehending what was being said, and intended, by the older speakers. These later speakers found the older form opaque and “flowery,” and seemed not to understanding the dense metaphors and allusions. I seem to also recall Sapir commenting that Nahuatl was an unusual language and more metaphorical than most.

    Of course all languages have metaphors, but the frequency and intensity of usage may vary according to cultural emphasis. In several comments on this blog, Gyrus has mentioned the Royal Society’s war on metaphor — I’m not familiar with this, but it seems relevant here.

    Finally, my point about losing things in translation was directed toward the idea that “translating” what Walter Ong calls “primary oral cultures” into languages that have become text-based or “chirographic” is a perilous and quite difficult undertaking. We lose much when we “translate” from oral to literate.

  6. Dominik Lukes

    Re cannibalism. Sorry, I was really after rhetorical effect. I do think that it’s worthwhile to study cannibalism. But knowing that the Aztecs practiced the highly unusual large-scale institutionalized cannibalism is perhaps the paradoxical thing to know about them given the atrocities committed on them by the conquistadors. Of course, I do not forget that they themselves were recent aggressors of noted ferocity and ruthlessness.

    To your points on language. I know nothing about Nahuatl and I’m sure it has some unique points but if you look at the list of its grammatical structures in WALS (World Atlas of Linguistic Structures), you can see that every feature listed has ample counterparts in the region and around the world ( Sapir, of course, was an expert on the Uto-Aztecan languages but his only 2 mentions of Nahuatl in his Language do not remark on it as being in any way unusual. However, since he is the one who brought us the current orthodoxy that all languages are equivalent to each other, I’d like to see the actual quote.

    Variation in the “frequency and intensity” of metaphor across language is highly problematic. The key issue is that we have no way of quantifying what is a metaphor (let alone how intensive it might be). Saying “He goes to bed at 7pm” and “He goes to bed with the hens” (actual Czech idiom) may seem to be a contrast between literal and metaphorical but “at” is a spacial preposition being used for a time reference so it is also in an important sense metaphorical. However, something like “with the hens” is quite salient so likely to stick in the minds of people who don’t notice metaphors. But apart from all that (how many metaphors are hidden here), we should be made suspicious of any such statements simply by noticing how many languages this particular claim is made about. Try Googling “* is a very metaphorical language” (including the quotes) and you get English (several times), Arabic, French, Nahuatl, Chinese, Shona, Hebrew, Hawaiian, Tamil, Lakota, and Gaelic (listed as metaphorical ‘unlike English’). All these languages have in common is that someone needed to say something unusual about them so picked on a popular trope.

    The quote about difficulties of younger generation understanding the older one is also very typical in cases of rapid language change or language death. If you have massive disruption, the parts of language which rely on shared context (like metaphors) are likely to suffer the greatest dislocation. It certainly isn’t evidence of Nahuatl being peculiarly metaphorical.

    The Royal society’s war on metaphor (I never heard it called that but I know what it’s about) is a case in point. Just look at Hobbes spending considerable amounts of time decrying metaphor in a book which is giant (pun intended) metaphor itself. He was just against flowery and poetic language hiding lack of ideas. As am I. But speaking plainly and without poetic adornment still relies on metaphors. Hobbes went on to call metaphors ‘ignes fatui’ a pretty good metaphor to make his point but also evidence of how useless he was at identifying metaphors.

    Finally, I’d like to see a lot more evidence and careful reconsideration of Ong’s points about oral cultures. It is highly controversial and contains a lot of reasoning by voodoo like “sound exists only when it is going out of existence”. While I agree that written language is not just spoken language written down, and in some ways, you have to ‘translate’ from speaking to writing and vice versa, I am very skeptical (as Sapir would be) about any fundamental incommensurability between an oral and written culture. Or at least no more than between any two different cultures or languages.

  7. Gyrus

    “The Royal Society’s war against metaphor” is my own casual terminology, but my main source is Rhetoric, Science, and Magic in Seventeenth-century England by Ryan J. Stark. The usual quote I trot out to illustrate it is from Samuel Parker, who wrote in 1670: “Had we but an Act of Parliament to abridge Preachers the use of fulsom and luscious Metaphors, it might perhaps be an effective Cure of all our present Distempers.” So underneath the utilitarian, rationalist objection to flowery language hiding a lack of (utilitarian) ideas, there was a very strong impetus governed by the turmoil of the 17th century. I see this in light of Toulmin’s idea in Cosmopolis, that the 17th-century ‘Quest for Certainty’ in science was similarly a reaction against the religious turmoil of that century. And that unfortunately a skeptical tolerance of uncertainty (embodied for Toulmin in the figures of Henri IV and Montaigne) was the victim of this anxious desire for concrete certitude.

    I appreciate Dominik’s reaction against the surface lyricism of the quotes about Nahuatl language, but even without Cris’s explanation of the depths behind those quotes, I’m a little skeptical of this kind of skepticism. I know nothing about Nahuatl, so this skepticism is completely provisional. It’s based on my research into the ‘many Eskimo words for snow’ myth. This myth seems to have propagated through carelessly-written textbooks based on Boas’s work among the Inuit, where he only actually lists 4 words for snow, and fails to distinguish between ‘words’ and ‘roots’. And since Inuit is polysynthetic, they potentially have a great many “words” for snow – as they do for almost anything else. (Correct me here if necessary Dominik, I’m no linguist! Though I see Nahuatl is also considered polysynthetic – is this a factor in it being considered ‘unusual’?)

    So, naturally, many have enjoyed debunking this ‘myth’. But I think there’s something important in its endurance beyond careless scholarship and the gullibility of the masses. Hugh Brody remarked in The Other Side of Eden: ‘My speculation is that the persistence of the stereotype regarding the “mysterious” Inuit range of words for snow, overstated or misrepresented as it is, symbolises a divide, and therefore a sense of this divide, between agriculturalists and hunter-gatherers.’ Eskimos do indeed, for obvious reasons, possess an incredible sensitivity to different types of snow and ice, picking up on clues like minute variations in colouring, the sounds of ice cracking, etc. in order to navigate landscapes that seem to be completely without landmarks to the non-Eskimo. And while sensual sensitivity to nature does seem to more sophisticated among hunter-gatherers than among agriculturalists (again for obvious utilitarian reasons, if nothing else), the divide isn’t that neat. There are interesting parallels with the navigators of the agricultural Pacific islanders, who can read the sea in the way Eskimos can read the snow and ice.

    The point is surely a kind of mundane one, that different cultures with different lifeways in different environments possess and cultivate different levels of sensitivity to their environments, and deploy the imagination differently in using these sensitivities to construct their worldview. I’m sure the relationship between these worldviews and languages is complex, with lines of causality going both ways. But language is often the main index we have of these differences, and languages perhaps get loaded with a little too much in the way of explanation of these differences. Whatever metaphorical capacities modern languages have, the atrophy of cultivating sophisticated ways of perceiving nature in them means that other cultures that possess closer linguistic bonds to nature are very striking to us. Very easy to romanticize, and thus too easy to dismiss. I’m all in favour of throwing out the dirty bathwater of false notions about language, but I’m cautious of losing the baby of appreciation for non-industrial ways of engaging with nature imaginatively.

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