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Saturday, 26 January 2019

Book review: Aztecs, Inga Clendinnen (1991)

This exhaustive history of the Mexica people of Central America attempts to come to grips with a society that has had a poor public profile for a long time. Ever since the appearance of the Spanish in the new world in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Aztecs has suffered from bad PR and a standard narrative that held that the common folk in this (at the time fairly recent) empire were kept in thrall by a distant and uncaring elite only concerned with its own survival. The stereotypical blood sacrifices play easily into misconceptions that have been spread in popular culture.

Clendinnen, who is dead now but who in memory is respected in Australian history circles, tries to go beyond the routine narratives to find the truth about those sacrifices and about the real relations that dominated the Mexica society and that gave meaning to the lives of the people who lived in it. I’d have to say that she is largely successful, and to note that if she is unsure of a theory (due to the lack of a primary source for example) she will disclose that she is extrapolating points from flimsy material.

The only criticism I would have is that she did not learn the Nahautl language spoken by the Mexica and by other peoples living in the area, before starting her study. She relies on translations from the Spanish and on translations into English of the existing sources in Nahautl.

Basically, Clendinnen finds in her study that the way that Mexica cosmogony was organised in relation to the political settlement of the society that held those beliefs meant that the whole population was intimately involved in ceremonies such as human sacrifices, and in regular feasting paid for by rich benefactors. The relationship between the common folk and the nobililty in Mexica society, and the consequent relationship between the ruler and the gods, meant that participation in regular rites such as these was unproblematic and engaged in with enthusiasm by all parties. There was no “coercion” of the kind that you might imagine must have existed in order to get people to behave in the ways that they evidently did, except for coercion of the men who were put up for sacrifice; captives in “war”. People were free actors who found their essential agency within a system of religion and of political power that rewarded all people in the community in different ways.

The capricious gods demanded sacrifice and the people, eager to help maintain Mexica dominance in the land, voluntarily performed their duties as warriors, priests, merchants, pleasure girls, or mothers. The gods provided for the people through maize, the staple crop, and this bounty had to be repaid in kind, with the blood of the enemy. The warrior class was the dominant class in this society as war was the way that this society worked to sustain its local dominance, and the Mexica eagerly participated in events in order to preserve the status quo that rewarded all in different ways. The gods had to be propitiated by the available means given to the people by tradition and the society that existed told itself stories that functioned to perpetuate itself at the top of the tree of kingdoms in its part of the world.

Clendinnen goes into a lot of detail about the lives and psychology of different types of people, including warriors and mothers, but I didn’t finish this book. Once it had made its main points I found the narrative to lack a strong core, although the language used is excellent and Clendinnen is the master of the apposite adjective. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about the religions of Asian people and about human societies generally. This is a rewarding book that provides a rich harvest of good ideas and learned insights.

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