Thursday 18 September 2008

Feeding Tezcatlipoca

Tenochtitlan was the Queen of Meso-America.

Tenochtitlan was home to one hundred thousand souls.
It was a city of canals and gardens.

Of temples and palaces.

It was, no doubt, a brightly coloured city, where pretty girls danced joyfully in the sun hoping to catch the eye of a handsome warrior.
Where craftsman plied their trade, creating fine gold ornaments, exquisitely carved, artifacts which bedazzled in their opulent beauty.

They played ball games, did the Aztecs.

And their fields were rich with crops, the people were well fed, the people of this Queen of cities, the centre of a culture that stretched back thousands of years, the latest inheritors of a long line of states and empires that had risen and fallen in this part of the Americas where the possibilities of plentiful sedentary life had made possible a blooming of knowledge and the ability to pass that knowledge on.

It was amongst the greatest cities of the world. It was bigger than Rome, bigger than Venice, it dwarfed London. Only Constantinople amongst the cities of Europe could claim to be its equal.

Its mathematicians could calculate to the day the finer details of this star's 22,000 year rotation period amongst the other stars. And they knew of Zero long before such a curious nothing number was used by European number crunchers.

They had not the wheel and unthinking Europeans smile and say 'They weren't that smart then'.

But what use is a wheel without tractable ungulates to pull your carts?

The Aztec civilisation was a mirror culture, born in isolation, a parallel evolution. Their ancestors had discovered how to weave clothes, build in stone, make swords, worship Gods, all independently of their counterparts on the other side of the vast ocean.

So much that was different, yet so much the same.

And yet.

Underneath it all lay a darkness.
A dark perversion of human thought beyond our comprehension. Beyond our comprehension that a human culture that could build such a civilisation should have had as it's central tenet such a warped perspective on human life.

We judge the conquistadors for their atrocities. But maybe we should see things from their angle.
Because Aztec culture was what they came to first. Aztec religion.
Imagine you were shown what Cortes was shown. And imagine you believed firmly in one God and one message.
How could you think otherwise than that you were dealing with a people so thoroughly seduced by demons that there was no reasoning with them.

And would that not colour your perspective on every native people you encountered?

Imagine you are Cortes, being led through the streets of Tenochtitlan, a guest of honour, flowers garland your neck, the strangers from over the seas, come see, Quetzalcotl returned, come see how we have kept your house.

You mount the steps, the excitement is palpable. The temple priests make way...

And there it is.

Three hundred human hearts, the blood still trickling to the floor. Three hundred human hearts.
And they're proud. Proud of it. Proud of what they are showing you.
Three hundred human hearts.

Because to them, Tenochtitlan flourishes because the Aztecs feed their Gods.

No wonder Cortes decided that The Devil ruled these lands. The people of the New World, were in thrall to demons. They must be freed.

I guess it starts when life is still hard. Gods are a bit like tribal chiefs, they don't gather their food, someone else must do it for them. And there is a hierarchy in nature. Beasts eat plants. People eat plants too, but the beasts which eat plants are better. Gods eat beasts- and sometimes sacrificing a beast to the God is good enough, but really, the people that eat the beasts, that's what Gods like to eat most of all.

The people who give him people, not beasts, they're the ones he'll look after.

Our ancestors did it. But for one reason or another they stopped. They stopped at some point before they started building Thebes and Memphis, Nineveh and Babylon, Athens and Rome.

For some reason the people of Meso-America did not. For some reason, the more they learned, the more they thought their new knowledge was a reward for how well they fed their Gods. Keeping the Gods fed in style became a matter of pride in their cultures.

The more powerful and developed their cities became, the more human hearts adorned their temples.

In 1487 the Aztecs built a temple that was consecrated with ten thousand human hearts...

Quetzalcotl, Tezcatlipoca and Tlaloc were hungry Gods indeed. But the Gods that gave the Aztecs Tenochtitlan deserved to feast perpetually, surely?

The War of Flowers...

That's what they called it.

The peace of the Aztec civilisiation meant that there were no prisoners of war to give to the Gods.
So the War of Flowers was brought in. Two towns would organise a battle, a bit like a football match. A spectator event.
A bit like a battle, fought like a battle. Except it was a battle fought in peace between people who were not enemies.

The losing side was sacrificed.

Because there had to be a constant supply of human hearts. When the blood stopped pumping, the heart was considered 'eaten'.

These were rational people. They lived in a society capable of supporting an infrastructure that could serve a city of a hundred thousand people. In those days, even the British Isles couldn't manage that.

Yet they believed they had to feed their Gods human hearts on a daily basis.

And no qualm of conscience ever interfered with this cheerful slaughter.

And outside those bloody temples craftsmen carved their intricate jewelery and maidens in fine clothes sat in the sun, playing games.

And we wonder how the Germans turned a blind eye to the holocaust?

We are animals and for all we kid ourselves that we're good creatures by nature, we're not.

It is possible to build human culture on the most monstrous concepts imaginable. And it is possible for people to take monstrous concepts for granted and not see anything wrong with them at all- if everyone around them is doing so too. We're logical beings, true, but Aztec culture proves that simply because you push an idea to its limits doesn't mean the idea was right to begin with. I dare say the Aztecs would claim tradition and 'Well it may not seem fair, but it's the only way it works. Don't feed the Gods and no crops will grow. And then we'll starve.'

I wonder will our descendants look back on us in the same way.

How many bleeding hearts does it take to satisfy the feeding frenzy of our Gods of today?


Anonymous said...

Wow, what a cool post! I enjoyed reading this very much ..I have heard archeologists speak about the Aztecs and their rituals being quite horrific. They apparently used children as well as offerings.

There is just never anything boring about the study of human beings. Never!

Anonymous said...

Nice post, and many people just don't realize just how bloodthirsty many of the, for want of a better word, pagan religions actually were. The Phoenicians sacrificed children, the Roman gladiatorial games began as a sacrifice to Roman gods as part of a funeral service, the 'Celts' used to practice human sacrifice...

People also seem to think that the prehistoric era was a sort of 'hearts and flowers lets all skip through the fields holding hands a la Sound of Music' sort of thing, but in reality that period was just as brutal and bloodthirsty. That was the period when the sword, which can have only one function, was invented. There was a grave site found in Europe where an invading band of the new farmers (known as the LBK) systematically slaughtered an entire hunter/gatherer community - men, women, children, all had the same axe-blow to the back of the head and then thrown into a earth pit...

Man's inhumanity to man, will it ever end?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps a brutal culture but at least they sacrificed they're people honestly.

Anonymous said...

Bunny's right. I don't know, really, in what ways the West is all that different, with respect to blood appeasement. With all of the burnings and hangings for such things as witchcraft, homosexuality, heresey, genocide (especially here regarding indegenous Americans) and the like, one would think that the numbers might be comparable on both sides. Moreover, the West really hasn't gotten over this tendency--just masked it in the form of crime prevention, war, police action, bloodsports, etc.. And when masking isn't good enough there's the engagement of virtual bloodlust via television and movies.

I can't really follow the hypothetical all that well, for I cannot see myself as Cortes, so absolutely sure of his self-righteousness. Were I to see the ritual sacrifices, I would be just as appalled, but probably for different reasons. For starters, I wouldn't see the Aztecs as demons, but rather as uninformed. I wouldn't so handily forget my own legacy of cultural violence, sacrifice, etc..

If my history serves, Cortes' big achievement really lay in rallying all of the Aztecs enemies against them. Of course, this later provided a platform for conquest and colonialism. The effects of this arrangement are very much with us today, both in the Western Hemisphere and in Africa.

Ghandi was once asked what he thought of Western civilization. He replied that he thought it was a good idea.

Anonymous said...

Eh? Sacrificed them honestly? They were not demons but just uninformed?

They were blood-thirsty and brutal, and I don't think any of their victims would have been feeling quite so charitable in their opinion of what was happening as they were held over the sacrificial block.

And if the American Indians are going to be brought into this, let's not forget their attempts to wipe out their own predecessors to American soil. You can't keep blaming the West for everything no matter how much people try.

Anonymous said...

just thought I would add that for your education


Anonymous said...

They used to stick whacking great thorns through their tongues (even royalty!) & all kinds of inconvenient gods-pacifying blood-ceremonies ensued...

Anonymous said...

Kate- The Aztecs are one of those cultures which ended up being truly aborted- as in, they were truly eredicated from the cultural mix that makes up the world of today. That's relatively uncommon, actually.

Most cultures pass something on, the Aztecs really were totally consigned to the wastebin of historty, perhaps the most advanced culture to suffer that fate.

The Incas were lickier, their culture actually survived a lot more- in fact in some ways still underlies a large part of Peruvian culture.

The Mayans were cannibals incidently, not sure if you knew that.

Ginro- Yes, I often think its quite bizarre the way you get people glorifying the Druids and suchlike. Like the ones who dance round stonehenge thinking it was all about worshipping plants and the like.

The fact is, these were barbaric belief systems. And the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Cultures that stuck by them were eradicated by cultures that moved to better belief systems.

Generally speaking, when two cultures collide, it is the one with the stronger internal dynamic that wins.

History is quite Darwinian, and whether we necessarily sympathise with the Spaniards or not, the rapidity with which a small group of freebooters conquered so many ancient cultures has to be, in part due to greater efficiency of the belief system that united them.

Morality of course, is basically down to efficiency.

Its what works.

The conquistadors had a system of living (a religion) which on an empirical level WORKED better in terms of social cohesion.
Which is why it had swept all before it.

Bunny- They did, it's true. We sem to be much better at disguising it these days.

Because the sadrifice is less open. It's far away. The suffering is indirect. It's just lives decimated and wasted at the behest of the unchallengeable Gods of Western Orthodoxy.

And even at a level closer to home. Aren't the residents of our sink estatesw, blighted by crack and prostitution, aren't they a 'necessary' sacrifice in some ways?

X-dell- First paragraph, I totally agree.
Which is part of the point I was making.

The point is in the alien nature of Aztec culture which makes the dynamic easier to point to.

The second paragraph, yes I can see Cortes point of view.

One has to put yourself in a midset where you KNOW your faith to be right. All others are wrong, the only question is why. With things like Buddhism, we can se that Marco Polo and others thought they wre wrong, but simply didn't know any better. Ok, they were a bit misled (in their eyes) but just because no one told them about God.

What Cortes saw convinced him that this religion he saw was told them by SOMEONE, it was too evil for human beings to come up with it of their own accord- and we must remember just how far away from any thinkibg he was likely to have come across this was, after all Muslims wre considered wholly deviant and their religion holds many points in common- it must have been TAUGHT them by Satan himself.

You have to see it from the mindset of late 15th century Castile- a culture which looked back at its five hundred year struggle against the moors in deeply religious terms. It was a crusade culture, no doubt about it.

I think with all these things, one has to adopt a certain moral relativism.

We are all the products of our own life histories and the context within which they are set.

Ginro- I tend to adopt a fairly determinist position on these things.
These things follow very Darwinian laws.

The best morals, ultimately, are the ones that win.

And it's worth considering that.


I don't think we are the most morally sensitive we are capable of being, but perhaps the fact we are morally sensitive enough to mourn the losers of history in itself proves that the best moral system- of those on offer- ultimately won.

Gledwood- Ritual mutilation seems to be beloved by all religions...

Some religions today- and I'll say no more- still practice genital mutilation.

And I actually think that's not very enlightened either...

Anonymous said...


That's a very good point, and I don't think they would have.

Anonymous said...

I loved the facts that you lined up so neatly in this post, the build up to your point the way it was delivered - what a wonderful and thought provoking post, your writing easily draws a reader in.
(P.S. - I want to thank you for your comment on my latest blog - it hurt to read it, but ultimately it is how things need to work and while I could not put that exactly into words - you did a great job of it for me- so thank you, very much.) Cat