by Inga Clendinnen

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 686

Social and Political Organization of a Theocratic State

The Mexica, a central Mexican society that Europeans later renamed “Aztec,” were organized into a theocracy: the rulers were identified with gods. Therefore, the members’ adherence to social rules and state laws involved their devotion to the gods. The Mexica worshipped powerful male and female gods, Inga Clendinnen explains, but earthly power was far more strongly associated with men than women. The priest-kings who ruled the Mexica promoted militarism and expansion by centralizing power within a warrior caste. The constant wars of conquest brought glory to the gods through the achievements of these Eagle and Jaguar warriors, who would be amply rewarded on earth and beyond.

While increasing the extent of the empire’s territorial control was important, the capture of enemies was even more central. These captives played necessary roles in life as laborers and servants, as Clendinnen shows, but also in death, as sacrifices. As the empire grew, its bureaucracy expanded, and Tenochtitlan, the capital, became increasingly complex; both involved the enlargement of the temple buildings and support systems. The empire was extended through a religious administrative structure, with elites serving as temple priests and priestesses. Rituals—in part through the grand spectacle aspect of large-scale performances—played a key role in perpetuating theocratic control.

The Role of Ritual in Sustaining the Universe

The duties that it was thought people owed to the gods pervaded every aspect of Mexica ideas and practices. This religious worldview was perpetuated on a daily basis by routine actions, including the socialization of children. The Mexica celebrated a number of highly significant rituals associated with celestial phenomena and observed according to calendrical calculations.

Even more significant, Clendinnen argues, was the overall ritualization of ordinary life. Popular commitment to engaging in these annual rituals was supported among all the Mexica people—even beginning at an early age, as they became accustomed to participating in small daily rites. Many rituals involved regular attendance at the temple and constant offerings to the priests and attendants. Failure to carry out any rituals, no matter how small, were thought to damage the precarious cosmic harmony. On a grander scale, inadequate or improper execution of the complex annual rituals would lead to catastrophe, the end of the world. The participation of huge numbers of people over several days was crucial to preventing such disaster.

The Necessity of Sacrifice

The capricious character of the gods, who were not obligated to treat humans kindly, was a strong motivating factor for the Mexica in adhering to their ritual calendar and proper practices. The gods had voracious appetites that could not easily be quenched, so humans had the obligation to feed the deities’ most essential, ardent desires. The strongest of these desires were for flesh and blood.

Through the figures of the priests, the earthly manifestations of divine power, human beings had both the privilege and the obligation to serve the gods. The high priests of the central temples were considered to act not as humans but as temporary embodiments of the gods. Clendinnen explains that the priests’ bodies were the vehicles by which the gods consumed their vital sustenance. The most crucial annual rituals were conducted in the dark days at year’s end, near the winter solstice. To properly carry out these most important rituals—for which the Mexica became infamous in the Spanish chroniclers’ accounts—all the empire’s people had to be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. For warriors, giving their lives on the altar of sacrifice was as great an honor as dying on the battlefield.

Dedication to carrying out such sacrifices was not limited to a few individuals authorized to kill the most carefully selected victims. Because human sacrifice was so crucial to the perpetuation of life, commitment and participation were important at all levels. These activities ranged from caring for future victims and cleaning up after the bloody events concluded. Clendinnen makes it clear that the occasional, massive sacrifice—and concomitant consumption of blood and body parts—was not an unusual event; rather it was part of the total social fabric that kept Mexica society alive.

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