Dee Brown records the following tale about a Native American from a Northwest tribe in an encounter with a pioneer woman: “He and a small band visited a tent camp, and seeing bright-colored quilts and shiny utensils all about and no one near but a few ‘white squaws,’ he decided to help himself. One of the ‘white squaws,’ however, began defending her possessions with a heavy tent pole. ‘She laid it about, right and left, over heads, shoulders, and backs until she put them to flight.’ Next day the warrior returned, apologized for his conduct, and offered the woman’s husband five hundred dollars for her. He was quite disappointed to learn she was not for sale.” This vignette is a powerful reminder of the cultural gap which exists between all cultures, but especially between “traditional” and “technological” societies. Understanding others is supremely difficult. Fortunately for the reader, understanding this book is only moderately so. Inga Clendinnen has set about to explore this gap at its most difficult point: where it touches what we have come to think of as core human values. The question she seeks to answer in her book could be put this way: How is it that high Mexica culture (that is, the people who with others ruled the Aztec empire) could appropriate human sacrifice as a regular, systemic, fully integrated part of their society and its workings? Her answer is chillingly straightforward. At certain key points their view of reality was fundamentally different from that of the modern reader (or for that matter from that of many contemporary traditional societies). In political discourse, commitment to a certain view of reality goes by the name of ideology, in the social sphere it is called ethos or mores, and in religion it is sometimes called theology. For a fully integrated traditional society all of these names mean too much and too little. Too much because they imply cultural development and distribution of labor not always present in Mexica society, too little because, as is so often the case, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
First Clendinnen must defend her premise that human sacrifice was in fact a functional, organic part of the cultural self- understanding of the Mexica, not only their priest and warriors but also the rest of their society—or at least of enough of the rest to make the whole thing work for several centuries prior to the Spanish conquest. She does this by piling up so much data (extracted in the main from the Florentine Codex, a compilation of recollections of Mexica men a generation after the conquest) that it is hard to resist her contention that human sacrifice was indeed an integral part of the working of Mexica society.
Ideas put forward by others, that this practice was imposed from above in a hierarchical society, or was a relatively infrequent occurrence, blown out of proportion by the Spanish conquerors, are not so much dismissed as buried in the evidence Clendinnen amasses. Mexica culture was indeed hierarchical, perhaps more so than many had previously imagined, but Clendinnen’s data shows involvement of all layers of society in the sacrificial system, and to the extent that social mobility did exist, it was also integrated into the warrior- captive-sacrifice matrix. The theory that such sacrifices were only occasional is simply destroyed by examples on virtually every page of the book. Indeed, the second point is made so well that even the author realizes that the sheer number of victims strains credulity. She asks, and rightly so, how did the Mexica dispose of twenty thousand bodies over the course of several days of feasting and sacrifice? The answer may lie in the first point: Many people were involved at all levels to make this system work.
Clendinnen divides her book into four major parts, the first three of which build the case (the fourth functioning as a historical closure): part 1, “The City”; part 2, “Roles”; part 3, “The Sacred”; and part 4, “The City Destroyed.” Her conclusion is this: that the Mexica felt they had to sustain their sacred (to us natural) forces, or gods, with human flesh (hearts) and blood in order to pay for having been sustained by them and to assure the continuance of this sustenance. This is not entirely new, but the way Clendinnen explains it tries to make sense of it from a Mexica perspective. It is this aspect of the book most readers will find disquieting. It is hard to find analogies, but perhaps one or two will help. Hearing a good defense lawyer ask probing, graphic, yet technical and precise questions of an alleged rape victim on the witness stand, we are moved both to disgust and to admiration. The lawyer tries to get “inside” the experience in order to expose a meaning different from the one attached to the event by the witness. If anthropology has any value, it must try to explain, if not...
(The entire section is 1985 words.)