The Aztecs are hard to love. Theirs was a highly hierarchical society in which human sacrifice was a hugely important practice, ruling over a tributary empire oppressive enough that Cortés and his small band of Spaniards were easily able to foment rebellion among subject peoples and eventually destroy Tenochtitlan, despite being heavily outnumbered and more or less constantly on the brink of disaster. (Though I should say that Cortés himself strikes me as a great example of the Machiavellian “new prince,” a genuine conqueror of fortuna, always able to take advantage of whatever opportunities presented themselves). The usual presentation of the Aztecs as a warrior culture whose principal claim to fame is that they were able to conquer other peoples and leave behind some impressive monuments leaves me cold, and their art always struck me as difficult to relate to. But Inga Clendinnen’s superb book on the Aztecs paints such a powerfully seductive picture of their polity that I feel like I have a grasp of what is truly interesting about them for the first time. In particular, the Aztec (or better, the Mexica) view of (what we call today) “political” authority struck me as extraordinarily thought-provoking and worth thinking about, in part because it seems so alien, and in part because it shows the enormous importance of ritual in politics.
Consider this passage Clendinnen quotes from the Florentine Codex (one of the main sources for pre-conquest Mexica thought and culture), coming after the speech with which the Mexica greeted a new tlatoani (ruler; literally, the “Great Speaker”) and exhorted him to good behaviour:
Those early and anxious exhortations to benevolent behaviour were necessary, ‘for it was said when we replaced one, when we selected someone … he was already our lord, our executioner and our enemy.’ (p. 80; the quote is from Book 6, chapter 10, in Dibble and Anderson’s translation from the Nahuatl).
It’s an arresting thought: “he was already our lord, our executioner, and our enemy.” (Clendinnen comments on the “desolate cadence” of these words). The ruler is not understood by the Mexica as normally benevolent though potentially dangerous; he is the enemy, and yet as the enemy he is indispensable. There is something profoundly alien in this thought, with its unsettling understanding of “legitimacy,” something I do not find anywhere in the classical Western tradition of political thought. (Indeed, as longtime readers may guess, I think the political thought of the Mexica is further evidence of how impoverished and irrelevant our ideas about legitimacy are in the vast majority of historical cases).
But Aztec cosmology, it turns out, goes much further than this. The ruler embodies or channels Tezcatlipoca, who is often vaguely characterized as a god of “fate and war” (and normally downplayed in favor of Huizilopochtli, e.g., in the current Te Papa exhibit on the Aztecs here in Wellington, who is more understandable as a straightforward god of war, and is viewed as the “patron” of the Tenochtitlan Mexica). But Tezcatlipoca is the more important deity: he is described at the beginning of Book 6 of the Florentine Codex as “the principal god” of the Mexica.
And he is not a merciful or benevolent god; on the contrary, he represents a kind of arbitrary malice that is visited on all alike, and is variously addressed as the Enemy on Both Sides, the Mocker, He Whose Slaves We Are, and the Lord of the Smoking Mirror (for the smoky reflections in dark obsidian mirrors used by the shamans, “obscure intimations of what was to come endlessly dissolving back into obscurity,” as Clendinnen puts it [p. 148]). From the same great prayer in Book 6 quoted earlier, addressing the ruler:
O my son, O our lord, O ruler, O my grandson: Our lord, the lord of the near, of the nigh, is made to laugh. He is arbitrary, he is capricious, he mocketh. He willeth the manner he desireth. He is placing us in the palm of his hand; he is making us round. We roll; we become as pellets. He is casting us from side to side. We make him laugh; he is making a mockery of us. (Florentine Codex, Book 6, chapter 10; p. 51 of Dibble and Anderson’s translation. The image is of a small ball of seed dough, rolled in the hand of the god).
Human and divine authority seem equally inescapable and malicious. The entire address to the ruler in this section of the Florentine Codex does contain a number of admonitions to behave well, yet it insists that nothing the ruler does will be sufficient to escape Tezcatlipoca’s malice; good behavior is no guarantee of divine favour:
Perhaps thou canst for a time support the governed … [But] [t]hou wilt become as smut, and he [Tezcatlipoca] will send you into the vegetation, into the forest. And he will cast thee, push thee, as is said, into the excrement, into the refuse … In thy time there will be disunity, quarreling in thy city. No more wilt thou be esteemed; no more wilt thou be regarded. … And soon it is all for thee; the lord of the near, of the nigh, will destroy thee, will hide thee, will trample thee underfoot. (pp. 49-50 of Dibble and Anderson’s translation of book 6, chapter 10 of the Florentine Codex).
(Clendinnen notes many other examples of the “shared and steady vision common to the different social groupings in Tenochtitlan” concerning “the casual, inventive, tireless malice of the only sacred force concerned with the fates of men,” p. 148). And the ruler himself is a microcosmic image of the macrocosmic arbitrariness of Tezcatlipoca; as Clendinnen puts it, “Tezcatlipoca in the Mexica imagining of him was the epitome of the great lord: superb; indifferent to homage, with its implication of legitimate dependence; all bounty in his hand; and altogether too often not in the giving vein” (p. 83). She comments at more length on the analogies between divine and political authority:
It was this principle of subversion, of wanton, casual, antisocial power which was peculiarly implicated in Mexica notions of rule, and was embodied (at least on occasion) in the Mexica ruler. … For most of the time the tlatoani functioned in the mundane world, his authority deriving from his exalted lineage, his conquests, and his position as head of the social hierarchy. But that was merely a human authority, which could be displaced by Tezcatlipoca's overwhelming presence, especially when men who had violated the social order were brought before their lord. The place of royal judgment was called ‘the slippery place’, because beyond it lay total destruction. If his careful judges reflected on the niceties of their judgments, there were no judicious metaphors in the ruler’s punishment: only obliterating sacred power (p. 80).
When reading these passages, I cannot help but think: how could the Mexica be reconciled to their social and natural worlds with such an arbitrary, even malignant conception of divine and political authority? How is a ruler or a deity who is simultaneously seen as an enemy inspire support and commitment? As Clendinnen puts it, the puzzle is that “submission to a power which is caprice embodied is a taxing enterprise, yet it is that which the most devoted Mexica appear to have striven to achieve” (p. 76). Yet she hits on the right answer, I think, when she interprets these statements in the context of the rituals of Mexica society. In particular, she shows the Aztec state as an extraordinary example of what Clifford Geertz, referring to pre-colonial Bali, once called the “theatre state.”
I mentioned earlier that human sacrifice was one of the central practices of Mexica society. But this does not quite capture what was going on. Human sacrifice was the most intense part of the pervasive ritual practices that structured Mexica society, but it was never merely sacrifice. Sacrifice was the culminating act of a set of amazing spectacles, enormously powerful intensifiers of emotion that made use of the entire register of Aztec symbols and pharmacopeia, and drew on the full resources of the empire. (Clendinnen’s descriptions of the Toxcatl, Izcalli, and Ochpanitzli festivals, running to many pages, cannot be properly summarized here – I am not competent enough – but they give a taste of the overwhelming intensity of the Mexica experience of ritual life, something that we can barely appreciate from looking at the stone relics available in museums). These spectacles were not closed or purely elite affairs, but involved the enthusiastic participation of ordinary people (as far as we can tell, but Clendinnen makes a good case). And they were not “games” (like the Roman gladiatorial contests) for the entertainment of spectators, or irregular and more or less infrequent affairs, like witch burning or hangings in Europe. Human sacrifice happened regularly and was central to Mexica self-understanding: “It is Mexica picturings which dwell on the slow tides of blood down the steps of the pyramids, on skull-faced deities chewing on human limbs, and human hearts pulped into stone mouths ... The killings, whether large or small, were frequent: part of the pulse of living” (p. 88).
The Mexica, like most other peoples that have ever engaged in sacrificial practices, understood these rituals partly in instrumental terms – as ways to “propitiate” the gods so as to achieve some favorable outcome. (And I suspect that, given a geographical setting where the main instrumental aim of religious ritual was to avert natural dangers that came at irregular intervals, such practices were subject to an “intensification ratchet” – if your efforts did not succeed in preventing the earthquake, volcanic eruption, or hurricane despite the previous long period of peace and quiet, the best inference is that it’s probably because you did not try hard enough. But that’s a story for another day; see Watson’s “The Great Divide” for some speculations along these lines). Clendinnen suggests that the Mexica understood what they were doing as, in a sense, catching the attention of the gods and awakening their pride:
The aim was to waken pride … The gods, those notoriously abstracted givers, had first to be attracted by performances which would catch their attention, and then coaxed to munificence by the presentation of gifts, the richer the better. There were histrionic displays of confidence in the generosity of the lordly giver (p. 72).
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,” that contrived
by very different means, the kind of delirium that we associate not with high reverence but with Carnival. Through the chant when the priests spoke in the voice of the gods and the people replied; the swirling movement of processions and the slow turnings of the dancers in the flare of the pine torches; through the long preparation, the long isolation from the routine in the fasting period, the distancing formality of the painting and robing; through the patterns of dance and drum and song etched into the senses and graven into the muscles of throat and calf and thigh, came a shifting in awareness and of the boundaries of the self. And only then, as the self evaporated and the choreographed excitements multiplied and the sensations came flooding in, did the god draw near (p. 258; I could quote Clendinnen all day).
Such rituals should not, I think, be understood as promoting an “ideology” of submission – in the sense of stories told by ruling classes to preserve their privileges. No “private” privileges could compare to the intensity of these manufactured collective experiences, for one thing; and, as Clendinnen notes, the rituals at Tenochtitlan did not help to compel acceptance of Aztec supremacy among subject peoples either. Though it is true that in their thoroughgoing embrace of submission to and dependence on the god, Mexica rituals did dramatize the microcosmic hierarchy as an instance of the macrocosmic one, that hierarchy is not presented as just, or fair, or otherwise as "justified" in any sense we could recognize; the power of such practices was in their sacralization of social life through extraordinary emotion, not in their "justificatory" content. At the end of the day, their deep “message” could hardly serve to legitimize anything in the sense of persuading the subjects of the ruling elite’s “right to rule.” Again, Clendinnen is a much better writer than I am:
Just how fragile our social worlds are is something normally and mercifully masked from us, perhaps because we have been too little sensitive to the difference between societies which proceed as if the cultural terms of their existence are reasonably well fixed, and those where the 'making' aspect is evident, and where the recognition of dynamic possibilities is counterpoised by the recognition of the fragility of that which is made: the subversive insight built into the texture of that which is built. … In imperial Tenochtitlan the hierarchy was privileged to watch enactments intimating its own necessary final dissolution, or at least acknowledge its carefully crafted state to be a made thing: another precarious human construct. Beneath the immediate and superficial message of the high rituals ('the Mexica, gloriously differentiated, gloriously dominate') the darkest aspect of the human condition was dramatized through this brilliant human making …
What the rituals finally and most powerfully represented was a vision subversive of human distinctions, with all the elegancies and elaborations of the social order collapsed into the carnal indifference of death. The glamour attending the warrior performance on the gladiatorial stone would seem to be in fine accord with the 'warrior ideology' and its classification as state-sustaining, as handpicked Mexica warriors delicately slit the skin of their tethered victims in a display of Mexica might; but an analysis sustained over the whole parabola of the action from the perspective of the captor and his kin suggests a much darker vision. And most ritual warrior deaths were notably less heroic: trussed like deer to be logged, heads lolling, up the pyramid steps; others, similarly trussed, cast writhing into the fire …
Honours so hardly won were denied, ignored, made meaningless as men, jealous of least indicators of rank and ordered in accordance with that rank, watched undifferentiated bipeds being done to bloody death. …
In that butchery - there was no surgical precision here - blood jetted up, heads dangled from priests' hands, violated bodies were carried away for more dismemberings and distributions. And all this where large-scale butchery of animals was unknown; where humans were the creatures men most often saw slaughtered. If (as some would claim) all ceremonial works to sustain the existing social and political order, these performances did so in most devious ways. It is a perilous business to assert over close to half a millenium and vast cultural distance what the Mexica saw, and made of what they saw. It is nonetheless difficult to see these enactments as directly legitimating the Mexica, or indeed any, social order [my emphasis]. …
What the Mexica were shown, again and again, was a hard lesson - hard because it ran counter to human passions, vanities and affections, allowing no status to individuals or peoples or castes, but speaking only to mankind: the human body, cherished as it might be, was no more than one stage in vegetable cycle of transformations, and human society a human arrangement to help sustain that essential cycle. 'Enchantment' and 'violence' are typically presented as alternative strategies for the maintenance of social stability, but that distinction is not easily drawn in Tenochtitlan, where acts of state-approved violence were at once part of the complex rhetoric of cosmically sanctioned human power, and, more profoundly, illustrative of the ferocious constraints on the merely human. (pp. 260-262).
(Incidentally, I think this should give pause to those who think that unmasking the “naturalness” or asserting the “contingency” of a social order has liberating effects. But that’s a different story, and this post is quite long already.)
There is much more in this amazing book I have
barely touched. Clendinnen’s chapters on women in Mexica society are a tour de force, and her discussion of the
Aztecs’ final defeat by the Spaniards is touched by a deep empathy. She sees Aztec
life from their perspective, at least as much as such a thing is possible. The
book left me with an uneasy feeling, though. Could one imagine a situation in
which Aztec culture had not been so
completely destroyed by the Spaniards? How, given the dependence of their way
of life on human sacrifice, could the outcome of the encounter between
Spaniards and Mexica have been any different? The incommensurability of Mexica
and Spanish values was not simply a result of what they believed; it was an
incompatibility of ritual practices so thoroughgoing that no understanding
seems to have been possible without a complete change in the ritual context. And in the end, the Aztecs remain hard to love.
(Update 11/21 - fixed some typos).