Thursday, November 21, 2013

Aztec Political Thought

(A footnote on Inga Clendinnen’s extraordinary “Aztecs: An Interpretation.” If there’s a better book on the Aztecs than this, I want to read it).

The Aztecs are hard to love. Theirs was a highly hierarchical society in which human sacrifice was a hugely important practice, ruling over a tributary empire oppressive enough that Cortés and his small band of Spaniards were easily able to foment rebellion among subject peoples and eventually destroy Tenochtitlan, despite being heavily outnumbered and more or less constantly on the brink of disaster. (Though I should say that Cortés himself strikes me as a great example of the Machiavellian “new prince,” a genuine conqueror of fortuna, always able to take advantage of whatever opportunities presented themselves). The usual presentation of the Aztecs as a warrior culture whose principal claim to fame is that they were able to conquer other peoples and leave behind some impressive monuments leaves me cold, and their art always struck me as difficult to relate to. But Inga Clendinnen’s superb book on the Aztecs paints such a powerfully seductive picture of their polity that I feel like I have a grasp of what is truly interesting about them for the first time. In particular, the Aztec (or better, the Mexica) view of (what we call today) “political” authority struck me as extraordinarily thought-provoking and worth thinking about, in part because it seems so alien, and in part because it shows the enormous importance of ritual in politics.

Consider this passage Clendinnen quotes from the Florentine Codex (one of the main sources for pre-conquest Mexica thought and culture), coming after the speech with which the Mexica greeted a new tlatoani (ruler; literally, the “Great Speaker”) and exhorted him to good behaviour:

Those early and anxious exhortations to benevolent behaviour were necessary, ‘for it was said when we replaced one, when we selected someone … he was already our lord, our executioner and our enemy.’ (p. 80; the quote is from Book 6, chapter 10, in Dibble and Anderson’s translation from the Nahuatl).

It’s an arresting thought: “he was already our lord, our executioner, and our enemy.” (Clendinnen comments on the “desolate cadence” of these words). The ruler is not understood by the Mexica as normally benevolent though potentially dangerous; he is the enemy, and yet as the enemy he is indispensable. There is something profoundly alien in this thought, with its unsettling understanding of “legitimacy,” something I do not find anywhere in the classical Western tradition of political thought. (Indeed, as longtime readers may guess, I think the political thought of the Mexica is further evidence of how impoverished and irrelevant our ideas about legitimacy are in the vast majority of historical cases).

But Aztec cosmology, it turns out, goes much further than this. The ruler embodies or channels Tezcatlipoca, who is often vaguely characterized as a god of “fate and war” (and normally downplayed in favor of Huizilopochtli, e.g., in the current Te Papa exhibit on the Aztecs here in Wellington, who is more understandable as a straightforward god of war, and is viewed as the “patron” of the Tenochtitlan Mexica). But Tezcatlipoca is the more important deity: he is described at the beginning of Book 6 of the Florentine Codex as “the principal god” of the Mexica.

A representation of Tezcatlipoca from the Codex Borgia. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

And he is not a merciful or benevolent god; on the contrary, he represents a kind of arbitrary malice that is visited on all alike, and is variously addressed as the Enemy on Both Sides, the Mocker, He Whose Slaves We Are, and the Lord of the Smoking Mirror (for the smoky reflections in dark obsidian mirrors used by the shamans, “obscure intimations of what was to come endlessly dissolving back into obscurity,” as Clendinnen puts it [p. 148]). From the same great prayer in Book 6 quoted earlier, addressing the ruler:

O my son, O our lord, O ruler, O my grandson: Our lord, the lord of the near, of the nigh, is made to laugh. He is arbitrary, he is capricious, he mocketh. He willeth the manner he desireth. He is placing us in the palm of his hand; he is making us round. We roll; we become as pellets. He is casting us from side to side. We make him laugh; he is making a mockery of us. (Florentine Codex, Book 6, chapter 10; p. 51 of Dibble and Anderson’s translation. The image is of a small ball of seed dough, rolled in the hand of the god).

Human and divine authority seem equally inescapable and malicious. The entire address to the ruler in this section of the Florentine Codex does contain a number of admonitions to behave well, yet it insists that nothing the ruler does will be sufficient to escape Tezcatlipoca’s malice; good behavior is no guarantee of divine favour:

Perhaps thou canst for a time support the governed … [But] [t]hou wilt become as smut, and he [Tezcatlipoca] will send you into the vegetation, into the forest. And he will cast thee, push thee, as is said, into the excrement, into the refuse … In thy time there will be disunity, quarreling in thy city. No more wilt thou be esteemed; no more wilt thou be regarded. … And soon it is all for thee; the lord of the near, of the nigh, will destroy thee, will hide thee, will trample thee underfoot. (pp. 49-50 of Dibble and Anderson’s translation of book 6, chapter 10 of the Florentine Codex).

(Clendinnen notes many other examples of the “shared and steady vision common to the different social groupings in Tenochtitlan” concerning “the casual, inventive, tireless malice of the only sacred force concerned with the fates of men,” p. 148).  And the ruler himself is a microcosmic image of the macrocosmic arbitrariness of Tezcatlipoca; as Clendinnen puts it, “Tezcatlipoca in the Mexica imagining of him was the epitome of the great lord: superb; indifferent to homage, with its implication of legitimate dependence; all bounty in his hand; and altogether too often not in the giving vein” (p. 83). She comments at more length on the analogies between divine and political authority:

It was this principle of subversion, of wanton, casual, antisocial power which was peculiarly implicated in Mexica notions of rule, and was embodied (at least on occasion) in the Mexica ruler. … For most of the time the tlatoani functioned in the mundane world, his authority deriving from his exalted lineage, his conquests, and his position as head of the social hierarchy. But that was merely a human authority, which could be displaced by Tezcatlipoca's overwhelming presence, especially when men who had violated the social order were brought before their lord. The place of royal judgment was called ‘the slippery place’, because beyond it lay total destruction. If his careful judges reflected on the niceties of their judgments, there were no judicious metaphors in the ruler’s punishment: only obliterating sacred power (p. 80).

When reading these passages, I cannot help but think: how could the Mexica be reconciled to their social and natural worlds with such an arbitrary, even malignant conception of divine and political authority? How is a ruler or a deity who is simultaneously seen as an enemy inspire support and commitment? As Clendinnen puts it, the puzzle is that “submission to a power which is caprice embodied is a taxing enterprise, yet it is that which the most devoted Mexica appear to have striven to achieve” (p. 76). Yet she hits on the right answer, I think, when she interprets these statements in the context of the rituals of Mexica society. In particular, she shows the Aztec state as an extraordinary example of what Clifford Geertz, referring to pre-colonial Bali, once called the “theatre state.”

I mentioned earlier that human sacrifice was one of the central practices of Mexica society. But this does not quite capture what was going on. Human sacrifice was the most intense part of the pervasive ritual practices that structured Mexica society, but it was never merely sacrifice.  Sacrifice was the culminating act of a set of amazing spectacles, enormously powerful intensifiers of emotion that made use of the entire register of Aztec symbols and pharmacopeia, and drew on the full resources of the empire. (Clendinnen’s descriptions of the Toxcatl, Izcalli, and Ochpanitzli festivals, running to many pages, cannot be properly summarized here – I am not competent enough – but they give a taste of the overwhelming intensity of the Mexica experience of ritual life, something that we can barely appreciate from looking at the stone relics available in museums). These spectacles were not closed or purely elite affairs, but involved the enthusiastic participation of ordinary people (as far as we can tell, but Clendinnen makes a good case). And they were not “games” (like the Roman gladiatorial contests) for the entertainment of spectators, or irregular and more or less infrequent affairs, like witch burning or hangings in Europe. Human sacrifice happened regularly and was central to Mexica self-understanding: “It is Mexica picturings which dwell on the slow tides of blood down the steps of the pyramids, on skull-faced deities chewing on human limbs, and human hearts pulped into stone mouths ... The killings, whether large or small, were frequent: part of the pulse of living” (p. 88).

The Mexica, like most other peoples that have ever engaged in sacrificial practices, understood these rituals partly in instrumental terms – as ways to “propitiate” the gods so as to achieve some favorable outcome. (And I suspect that, given a geographical setting where the main instrumental aim of religious ritual was to avert natural dangers that came at irregular intervals, such practices were subject to an “intensification ratchet” – if your efforts did not succeed in preventing the earthquake, volcanic eruption, or hurricane despite the previous long period of peace and quiet, the best inference is that it’s probably because you did not try hard enough. But that’s a story for another day; see Watson’s “The Great Divide” for some speculations along these lines). Clendinnen suggests that the Mexica understood what they were doing as, in a sense, catching the attention of the gods and awakening their pride:

The aim was to waken pride … The gods, those notoriously abstracted givers, had first to be attracted by performances which would catch their attention, and then coaxed to munificence by the presentation of gifts, the richer the better. There were histrionic displays of confidence in the generosity of the lordly giver (p. 72).

But the religious instrumentality of the ritual was the least important part of their function, in my view; I suspect, as I’ve said on another occasion, that here ritual is prior to belief. For one thing, Mexica rituals, as powerful intensifiers of emotion, were singularly effective at producing experiences of the sacred; it makes better sense to say that rituals were for the sake of these emotional experiences than to say that they were for the sake of certain material outcomes (like victory in war, or a good harvest, or the avoidance of natural disasters), though they were obviously rationalized in such ways (e.g., as means to ensure that the sun rose every day, or to prevent the destruction of the world, etc.). At the end of the day, human sacrifice is, instrumentally speaking, pure waste: it only makes sense from the point of view of the intensified emotions (“experiences of the sacred”) that it helps produce in ritual context. In turn these emotions bound together the community and made for a particularly intense kind of social life:

If Mexica rituals were valued for their connections and commentaries on life and their capacity to forge a particular kind of unity out of difference, participation was itself addictive. Given that access to ritual excitements was not an occasional grace note but an enduring part of the rhythm of living, ritual-generated experience and ritual-generated knowledge among the Mexica opened zones of thought and feeling at once collective, cumulative and transformative (p. 241).

We might say that the theatre state at Tenochtitlan was primarily organized not to provide security, prosperity, or even glory, but for producing transcendental experiences. In this setting, Mexica priests were, in Clendinnen’s felicitous phrase, “impresarios of the sacred” (p. 242), practitioners of the only art that really mattered in the polity, and capable of setting in motion all of its resources for the sake of producing such collective experiences. Their “work” involved not just sacrifice, but a whole series of techniques, from fasting to powerful hallucinogenic drugs to chanting and dance, designed for maximum emotional effect. (There is a great deal of interesting “psychological engineering” in Mexica ritual, and I occasionally wondered idly about the genesis of such complicated practices). And the overall effect of their work was a “calculated assault on the senses,” that contrived

by very different means, the kind of delirium that we associate not with high reverence but with Carnival. Through the chant when the priests spoke in the voice of the gods and the people replied; the swirling movement of processions and the slow turnings of the dancers in the flare of the pine torches; through the long preparation, the long isolation from the routine in the fasting period, the distancing formality of the painting and robing; through the patterns of dance and drum and song etched into the senses and graven into the muscles of throat and calf and thigh, came a shifting in awareness and of the boundaries of the self. And only then, as the self evaporated and the choreographed excitements multiplied and the sensations came flooding in, did the god draw near (p. 258; I could quote Clendinnen all day).

Such rituals should not, I think, be understood as promoting an “ideology” of submission – in the sense of stories told by ruling classes to preserve their privileges. No “private” privileges could compare to the intensity of these manufactured collective experiences, for one thing; and, as Clendinnen notes, the rituals at Tenochtitlan did not help to compel acceptance of Aztec supremacy among subject peoples either. Though it is true that in their thoroughgoing embrace of submission to and dependence on the god, Mexica rituals did dramatize the microcosmic hierarchy as an instance of the macrocosmic one, that hierarchy is not presented as just, or fair, or otherwise as "justified" in any sense we could recognize; the power of such practices was in their sacralization of social life through extraordinary emotion, not in their "justificatory" content. At the end of the day, their deep “message” could hardly serve to legitimize anything in the sense of persuading the subjects of the ruling elite’s “right to rule.” Again, Clendinnen is a much better writer than I am:

Just how fragile our social worlds are is something normally and mercifully masked from us, perhaps because we have been too little sensitive to the difference between societies which proceed as if the cultural terms of their existence are reasonably well fixed, and those where the 'making' aspect is evident, and where the recognition of dynamic possibilities is counterpoised by the recognition of the fragility of that which is made: the subversive insight built into the texture of that which is built. … In imperial Tenochtitlan the hierarchy was privileged to watch enactments intimating its own necessary final dissolution, or at least acknowledge its carefully crafted state to be a made thing: another precarious human construct. Beneath the immediate and superficial message of the high rituals ('the Mexica, gloriously differentiated, gloriously dominate') the darkest aspect of the human condition was dramatized through this brilliant human making …

What the rituals finally and most powerfully represented was a vision subversive of human distinctions, with all the elegancies and elaborations of the social order collapsed into the carnal indifference of death. The glamour attending the warrior performance on the gladiatorial stone would seem to be in fine accord with the 'warrior ideology' and its classification as state-sustaining, as handpicked Mexica warriors delicately slit the skin of their tethered victims in a display of Mexica might; but an analysis sustained over the whole parabola of the action from the perspective of the captor and his kin suggests a much darker vision. And most ritual warrior deaths were notably less heroic: trussed like deer to be logged, heads lolling, up the pyramid steps; others, similarly trussed, cast writhing into the fire …

Honours so hardly won were denied, ignored, made meaningless as men, jealous of least indicators of rank and ordered in accordance with that rank, watched undifferentiated bipeds being done to bloody death. …

In that butchery - there was no surgical precision here - blood jetted up, heads dangled from priests' hands, violated bodies were carried away for more dismemberings and distributions. And all this where large-scale butchery of animals was unknown; where humans were the creatures men most often saw slaughtered. If (as some would claim) all ceremonial works to sustain the existing social and political order, these performances did so in most devious ways. It is a perilous business to assert over close to half a millenium and vast cultural distance what the Mexica saw, and made of what they saw. It is nonetheless difficult to see these enactments as directly legitimating the Mexica, or indeed any, social order [my emphasis]. …

What the Mexica were shown, again and again, was a hard lesson - hard because it ran counter to human passions, vanities and affections, allowing no status to individuals or peoples or castes, but speaking only to mankind: the human body, cherished as it might be, was no more than one stage in vegetable cycle of transformations, and human society a human arrangement to help sustain that essential cycle. 'Enchantment' and 'violence' are typically presented as alternative strategies for the maintenance of social stability, but that distinction is not easily drawn in Tenochtitlan, where acts of state-approved violence were at once part of the complex rhetoric of cosmically sanctioned human power, and, more profoundly, illustrative of the ferocious constraints on the merely human. (pp. 260-262).

(Incidentally, I think this should give pause to those who think that unmasking the “naturalness” or asserting the “contingency” of a social order has liberating effects. But that’s a different story, and this post is quite long already.)

There is much more in this amazing book I have barely touched. Clendinnen’s chapters on women in Mexica society are a tour de force, and her discussion of the Aztecs’ final defeat by the Spaniards is touched by a deep empathy. She sees Aztec life from their perspective, at least as much as such a thing is possible. The book left me with an uneasy feeling, though. Could one imagine a situation in which Aztec culture had not been so completely destroyed by the Spaniards? How, given the dependence of their way of life on human sacrifice, could the outcome of the encounter between Spaniards and Mexica have been any different? The incommensurability of Mexica and Spanish values was not simply a result of what they believed; it was an incompatibility of ritual practices so thoroughgoing that no understanding seems to have been possible without a complete change in the ritual context. And in the end, the Aztecs remain hard to love.

(Update 11/21 - fixed some typos).


  1. Fascinating post! Pondering your question on whether classical western political thought has a similar concept to the ruler-as-enemy among the Mexicali. Would the desire of the apostle Paul to be "the anathema of Christ" come close?

    1. Thanks Paul! I don't know enough about your reference to Paul to say so, though, a few people have mentioned Mesopotamian gods as similar.

  2. Anonymous4:55 AM

    Seems like the Mexica lived under Cthulhu. I guess bloody Cortéz was indeed a sort of liberator, after all.

    1. You did not understand the concept of Tezcatlipoca and there is so much ignorance.
      Tezcatlipoca is a real and imagined entity. He is the darkness within us all that we deny and it faces us in the mirror when its too late. Tezcatlipoca is the name to all that which we consider "misforture" or "fortune" but without the maturity and wisdom to realize it is all, and neither good or bad.
      Tezcatlipoca's message is that we are our own worst enemy. As such, we are also our own best friend.
      The Mexica world view is distinguished and complex than the God of Johnathon Edwards and American Protestantism.

      Tezcatlipoca has four aspects, each one relating to aspects within ourselves, society and within the tlatoani.

      Quetzacoatl, the creative beauty in life. Huitzilopocthli, the action and warrior. Xipe Totect, transformation. and Tezcatlipoca, death and life within one. He is not a Cthulu figure, nor were Aztecs war hungry, mindless people.

      One can't understand Mexica or Aztec culture without participating in it. Danza azteca and being within a kalpulli (Ceremony clan) is the only way to live this philosophy and, ultimately, undrstand it.

      Cortez was not a liberator.
      Please check your ignorance.

    2. No, cortez was not a liberator. Please don't say such ignorant things like that.

      Tezcaltlipca and his three other aspects in the form of Huitzilopochtli, Quetzacoatl and Xipe Totec refer to four aspects within the psyche and within a person. The creativity (Huitzi), inner strength and warrior (Quetzal), and transformation , Xipe Totec.

      Tezcatlipoca is our own self. We are our own enemy, we get in the way of our own victories and so are causers of our own misery. Tezcatlipoca is the darkness we ignore and looms out at night, faces back at us from a mirror. he is there to remind us of the dark side of life and to fight it (Quetzalcoatl) to find the beauty (Huitzilopochtli) for ultimate transformation (Xipe Totec).

      ANd it's a cycle of ups and downs, as is believed in Hindusim that we are now in the Kali Yuga ready to go to an enlightened era.

      The Mexica world view is much more sophisticated than white /eurocentric scholars are willing to give them credit for, and us who live Mexica beliefs, ceremony,ritual and philosophy are not considered because we are not 'direct descendents" nor in the white man's academies.

      All of these beliefs and ceremonys are better understood if one lives them. Aztec danza/dance (ceremonial dance) circles known as Kalpullis or Kallis (neighborhood in Nahuatl) are a good way to start. Some kallis are closed to outsiders, some are open. Most of them you have to know someone to get in.

      As for the tlatoani, what wasn't mentioned is what tlatoani really means. It means "speaker" or "he who holds the word" (palabra, word). Palabra is not just speaking, but that the words one speaks are medicine and a reflection of the interior state.
      AS medicine, words can harm or cure. It's better to cure than harm. Harm is done when there's an unchecked Tezcatlipoca within us, not acknowledged.

      Palbra is to be done. As it is said, so my will be done. Those who have palabra or give palabra and held to their word, and must comply with what they said to remain in harmony with one's word. Word is a reflection of inner mind, so why would you not follow up on words spoken? That is not harmony and is contradictory.

      So the tlatoani was the word holder for the people he took care of. He dealt with the other villages and nations , politcally. Thats all he had: political power.

      The real power, as has always been in world history, lays with the priestly class.

  3. Anonymous8:46 AM

    you familiar with Rene Girard?

    1. Anonymous, no, I'm not, but after looking it up it sounds like someone I should read.

    2. Fascinating but I'm not convinced the ritual mystical payoff, although very real and unifying, was the glue of this society. It seems more likely that people kept going to the ritual because not to participate was to invite ostracism or being one of the sacrificed. A society built on meanness, whether under Jim Crow and slavery, or Hitler, or the society you discuss, treats non-participants as traitors worthy of bad treatment. To avoid bad treatment, one goes along. There are not many Dietrich Bonhoeffer's in most societies, which is how to worst and meanest rulers can do so well for a time. In a word, "fear" of material deprivation no doubt mixed with some psychic payoffs. Not a simple opiate of the Mexica masses, but rather divide/distract-and-conquer.

    3. Francisco, there's probably some of that as well, though it's hard to tell how much from our remaining sources. I've written about these dynamic of ostracism and punishments myself here: So I sympathize with your point in principle. But rituals in Mexica society seem to me about a order of magnitude more intense than anything in any other society I know of - less "opiates" and more like some of the powerful psychodelics the Mexica and other mesoamerican peoples used. And elites were also seduced by the power of the rituals - more so, perhaps, than non-elites.

    4. Hi Xavier,
      "the swirling movement of processions and the slow turnings of the dancers in the flare of the pine torches; through the long preparation, the long isolation from the routine in the fasting period, the distancing formality of the painting and robing; through the patterns of dance and drum and song etched into the senses and graven into the muscles of throat and calf and thigh, came a shifting in awareness and of the boundaries of the self"
      I wonder if ritual scourging by Shias and Tamil worshippers of Ayyappa have similar roles. I have heard similar descriptions by followers of Ayyappa and it was a little surreal to read this description for me !!!

    5. Prasad, it would not surprise me if they do, though the Aztec festivals probably ended in a darker note. Several mesoamerican peoples also engaged in ritual bloodletting (self-mortification) as well as ritual preparation.

    6. As an active participant of "Aztec" (Mexica, please) ritual and ceremony, the headspace it creates is VERY MUCH REAL. And these are beliefs still held by many people.
      There is spiritual transcendence, ego death etc. It is no wonder that the mushroom, the flesh of the gods, grows in Mexico. Mexica ceremonial practices, such as danza and the temezcalli, are transformational and deep, transcendent experiences that , if one isn't mentally prepared enough, can lead to a sort of psychosis as gained from after doing hallucinogens (hallucinogenic psychosis).

      If one doesn't "get it", then Aztec danza just seems like people in costumes dancing in a circle.
      How sad.

      Ceremony and ritual involved everyone, because it is a community. Yes, there were consequences to not participating and Tenochtitlan deteriorated, but for the most part, ceremony and ritual were inclusive.

      Even today in danza, as it was done back then, people dance in concentric circles with the drummmers and altar in the middle. Each danzante embodies a cosmic body, planet , start etc. The altar is the sun or the cosmic creation force (ipamenohuali). We are each within this cosmic dance to keep the movement (ollin) going, the movement made from tension between the sacred world and the normal world, between death and life. These forces exist independantly of one another within the same reality (Heraclitus anyone?).

      The best warriors (for all dancers and all people are warriors in this battle of life, battle of self dignity and protection of our people and families) dance within the middle circle, while women, children and the elderly dance in the outside circles to keep the harmony.
      We dance in male/female order to keep harmony as well, and each of th efour elements plus father sky (ipamenohuali) and mother earth (tonantzin cuatlicue) are included, we greet each of these and we say goodbye so that our dance can be honoring to all.

      I hope this clears up any misconceptions or at least helps illuminate whatever is troubing in the book.

    7. Anonymous3:22 AM

      You are both right, each arguing from your own cultural perspective, and wrong from the other. Context matters so much; that's the most important thing to understand from this article. With some helpful context in hand, you can have more polite and interesting conversations where sharing ideas fosters growth instead of acrimony.

  4. Anonymous3:54 AM

    Fascinating review. It sounds like it has something in Common with Wyatt MacGaffey's BaKongo political culture. Anyway thank you for the thought provoking review

    1. Thanks Anonymous - and thanks for the recommendation. Had not heard of MacGaffey.

  5. Superb! "Sacralisation of social life through extraordinary emotions"--opens up whole perspectives for me as i can see how to port this into understanding of street theatre film promotional techniques 1920s Ballyhoo--the drawing of ludic street spaces of intense theatricality quite disconnected from considerations of any ideological aims of films.

  6. Anonymous4:55 PM

    "...and yet as the enemy he is indispensable. There is something profoundly alien in this thought..."

    This has been and still is true today. Some societies define themselves only in opposition to something else. For example, the USA exist only in opposition to Nazi Germany, then the Soviet Union, then Saddam Hussein, then Iran, now China.