by Inga Clendinnen

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1985

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 sympathetically then at least empathetically, those practices which even the investigator finds abhorrent in the extreme. Eventually, ethnohistorians will have to try to explain how the gas ovens “worked” in German society during that brief and terrible period in their history, and how the gulag functioned as a part of Stalinist society in the former Soviet Union.

This does not mean Clendinnen approves of the sacrifices, or that she really does not care one way or another. She in fact pauses from time to time to remind her modern reader that she is as horrified as she expects us to be at much of what she is describing so coldly and vividly. But moral comment is not her goal. Clendinnen tries instead to present the “interior architecture” of the Mexica social system as a whole, from as close to a Mexica perspective as someone radically divorced in time and space from the events in question can reasonably be expected to achieve. She does this well, but the result is distinctly unnerving, even nauseating. It is not unlike reading graphic news accounts of a serial killer’s methods or detailed descriptions of child abuse. What is lacking is an explanation of what motivated the Mexica while participating in these events. This in spite of the fact that Clendinnen describes the affective quite well, injecting statements about what the participants must have been feeling at nearly every opportunity in the discussion. In the end, it may not be entirely Clendinnen’s fault. The complex and contradictory feelings of another are finally a private affair, whether on a personal or social level.

Clendinnen has been criticized for drawing the bulk of her analogies for understanding Mexica values and attitudes from other less “developed” (usually North American) Amerindian cultures. The idea here is that the Aztec culture was “high” culture (with a highly developed material culture, art, and even an impressive science when compared with contemporary cultures), and in that way more closely resembled the “high” cultures of the ancient Near East (e.g., Egypt, Assyria) than those more genetically, geographically, and temporally proximate.

One thing is certain: Analogies are hard to resist. For whatever reasons, certain (some have said archetypal) conceptual frameworks, motifs, and attitudes are fairly widespread and enduring throughout world cultures, succumbing, it seems, only to that complex of changes commonly subsumed under the title “modern (Western) society.” Whether we can blame the Enlightenment, or the Industrial Revolution, or a combination of these and other forces, the gap is there, and it is wide. Certain ancient Greek philosophers may sound modern indeed, but the society in which they lived was not. Clendinnen maps some of the most distinctive areas of Mexica social life and self-understanding, if ultimately failing to explain entirely their most distinctive practice of human sacrifice.

One complex of ideas and attitudes has to do with things considered clean and unclean, and the overlapping of these sets with the sets of things sacred or profane. Modern remnants of these views do not do them justice. While we (in modern Western societies) talk of moral faults as “dirty,” for example, we do not include in that category physical defects, as would the Mexica and most of the rest of the world’s cultures until this century. Still less would we understand this dirtiness as contamination of the regular world from the world of the sacred, a transgressing of boundaries which must be expunged in order to reestablish the proper balance of the cosmos. Thus the ancient Jewish concept that holy scripture “defiled the hands,” the Samoan preoccupation with limiting contact with pregnant women, and the Mexica practice of not bathing or cutting one’s hair when fasting in preparation for some sacred ceremony all have at bottom the same concern: to keep the proper relationship between the sacred and the normal spheres. The lines are not moral, they are metaphorical and religious.

Another fundament of Mexica identity is the use of pathos to influence others, and especially the gods. This seems strange in view of the capricious natures these gods or forces were considered to exhibit, but nonetheless there is good evidence in Mexica and other sources that many cultures consider their gods reachable by the dramatic display of emotion and suffering. Clendinnen describes it poignantly, once again using one of her analogies from the Mexica’s North American cousins: “The Winnebago protagonist in Paul Radin’s Autobiography of a Winnebago Indian,deliberately left behind by his parents as they embarked on a fishing trip, pursued them along the shore, running, weeping—until his display of desperation reached a sufficient level of intensity to cause them to turn the canoe in to land, and to take him along. This was not a single episode, but a known strategy; if his passion of longing was sufficiently strong, his parents would yield. Desperate need if sufficiently dramatically expressed worked coercively on the unwilling giver.” The biblical account of Elijah and the frantic prophets of Baal comes to mind. For the Mexica, it was the Lord of the Close and Near, Tezcatlipoca, who embodied the capricious but reachable forces they most wished to influence in their favor.

The idea of valuing honor above life is fairly widespread, but the degree of institutionalized forms available for expressing this value in societies such as the Mexica are shocking to anyone not a part of such a culture. The interesting thing about this value, as with so many values, is its contradictory nature. While Amerindian vows of bravery on the battlefield were universally admired, there was also an understanding that the daredevil making such a vow would be protected as much as possible from the most obvious dangers to which he had so rashly subjected himself. To this day in many parts of rural Mexico an offended kinsman is expected to seek out blood vengeance, even for the accidental killing of his relative, and he would be forever shamed if he did not do everything in his power to achieve his end. Yet the very community which would despise him for cowardice for not attempting to gain his revenge is also obligated to try to stop him from carrying it out, perhaps from a deep-seated understanding of the cyclical nature of such a system of violence.

Clendinnen’s book is a study in contradictions, from the internal tensions of the Mexica culture to the inherent contradiction of trying to explain from Mexica perspective what it meant to be a part of that society, but doing so in the language of modern ethnohistory, writing of such horrible acts with such studied, glib dispassion. It is amazing that she succeeds at all; in fact, she not only gives us glimpses into the daily life of the Mexica but also helps us to understand ourselves.

Sources for Further Study

Library Journal. CXVI, October 1, 1991, p. 120.

London Review of Books. XIV, January 9, 1992, p. 15.

Science News. CXL, October 12, 1991, p. 236.

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