Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, August 05, 2011


Map of the Aztec Empire at its greatest extent.


The Flute of the Smoking Mirror
a portrait of Nezahualcoyotl- Poet-Kings of the Aztecs
by Frances Gilmor
University of Utah Press

    I was reading a different book about the Aztecs, and the book mentioned how one of their legends mentions that early in their history, they made some treaty with another city state, and arranged for a dynastic marriage.  The other city sent the kings daughter, and the Aztecs sacrificed her, flayed off her skin and then at the "marriage dinner" the high priest walked out in front of the other King dressed in his daughter's skin suit.  Yikes!

    So at the time, I discounted it, because I don't like to be in the habit of judging cultural/religious practices I find distasteful, even dancing around in skin suits like a f****** serial killer.    So anyway, I finally got around to reading this Flute of the Smoking Mirror, which is an assemblage of sources about this historic, pre-Contact King of the Aztec people.  It's been said of Nezahualcoyotl that he is the only "real person" in Aztec history and that's borne out by this narrative.

    Basically, Nezahualcoyotl lived in the early 15th century, and he was the son of the Aztec King.  His Dad lost a battle to a neighboring city state, and Nezhualcoyotl was young enough so that he escaped across the lake, and was able to grow up relatively unmolested, though occasionally harassed by the usurper.  Then he grows up puts together a coalition of forces with the help of other cities and they go and take back the Aztecs main city.  Emboldened by their success, the winning coalition (let by Aztecs though including other Nahuatl speaking city-states, expands their influence beyond the valley south and east.

    The "themes" of the Flute of the Smoking Mirror once Nezahualcoyotl is on top (though ruling together with Montezuma, the grand father of the leader that the Spanisn encountered) deal with the vagaries of being a King in the Valley of Mexico tradition.

   One problem he faced was the Aztec's tough laws against adultery.  It comes up three times: First, he kills one of his sons for adultery.  Then, he imprisons a second son for years until he's proved innocent.  Finally, he falls in love with the young wive of a trusted veteran soldier, and basically orders the soldier to sacrifice himself in the "War of Flowers" tradition so that he can marry the wive (avoiding adultery because the husband is dead, you see.)

   Also, and I feel I would simply be remiss if I didn't point this out, there is ANOTHER reference to a different occasion where the Aztecs would flay off the skin of a sacrificial victim and wear the skin as a suit.  Now, you PC types can call this an allegory or a metaphor or whatever, but the fact remains that the Aztecs had a god- Xipe Totec and he was depicted as:  wearing a flayed human skin, usually with the flayed skin of the hands falling loose from the wrists.  So I'm going to go ahead and say that this actually happened with the Aztecs, they actually wore flayed human skin as part of their religion.  That is some fucked up shit, that's all I'm going to say.  Fucked. Up. Shit.

   No wait- one more thing- this was only six hundred years ago- that is like an eye blink.  You can say whatever you want about the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, but they did not flay off the skin of human sacrifice victims and then wear the skin as a suit.  Some might say, torturing people and burning them at the stake was pretty mean spirited and gross, too which I would say, 1) the Aztecs tortured people and burned them AS WELL and the Spaniards did not rip the hearts out of live people to make it rain and run around wearing skin suits for days on end.  Does saying that make me an imperialist?  More like an empiricist. 

  All I'm saying is that if you want to understand Mexico's present, and by "Mexico's present" I mean the never-ending drug war that is killing tens of thousands of Mexican's every year,  you have to understand Mexico's past and to understand Mexico's pre-Spanish past, you have to understand the role of ritualized violence in their religion. 

         Just as you can describe Europe in the Middle Ages as "Christian" in character, so you can describe the Aztecs.  The human sacrifice element was emphasized, even as it compared to their predecessor and coalition cultures- the Aztecs emphasized the human sacrifice and the skin suit.  They elevated it to hithero unimagined levels in the same way that the Nazis developed genocide.   Human Sacrifice probably varied in significance through the pre-Contact history of MesoAmerican but when the Spanish showed up it was at it's height, and it was at it's height because of the Aztecs specific version of the larger MesoAmerican religious system.

    You can think of the present policies of the Mexican government as a kind of updated version of the human sacrifice- they know people will die, but are dedicated to the belief system that leads them to make the sacrifices regardless.


Four Cultures of the West
by John O'Malley
p. 2004
Harvard University Belknap Press

  I am of the opinion that you can't understand the present without a thorough grounding in the history of Christianity.  It may be possible to be a thoroughly non-Christian western intellectual today, but that has only been true for about 20-30 years.  Before that, even the anti-Christian writers and thinkers KNEW about Christianity because it was IMPOSSIBLE not to know.  As a general rule, political liberals, intellectuals and hipsters spend more time mocking Christianity then understanding it- and that is a shame.

   It's one thing to say that the history of Christianity is important to know, it's quite another to find the right books to convey that knowledge.   Half a millennium of religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants has introduced a ton of partisanship into the subject area.  Thus, when I find a good writer on the subject-  I stick with him.  John O'Malley is one of he good ones, Catholic though he may be.  Last year I read his excellent history of the Jesuit Order, The First Jesuits.  Four Cultures of the West takes as it's starting point the contrast between "ATHENS AND JERUSALEM" i.e. the respective influences of the Hellenic Philosophers vs. Hebrew Prophets on Western Civilization, itemizing that overlapping influence by describing Four Cultures and talking about their modern descendants.

   Culture One is the culture of "Prophecy and Reform"- here he is talking about the culture that gave rise to "JERUSALEM": Hebrew prophets, Christian Saints & Luther and his disciples.  This is a culture resistant to compromise and moderation.

    Culture Two is the culture of "The Academy and the Professions."  This is the culture which arose out of Athens, developed into medieval scholasticism, then into the University.  It's hard to ignore the impact of the University on our modern world but less easy to understand the relationship between the University and medieval  Scholasticism.

   Culture Three is the culture of "Poetry, Rhetoric & The Common Good."  This is the culture of what we would call today "The Gentleman"- educated but not scholarly- a culture that includes the Humanists of the Renaissance, the rhetorical orators of Rome and their spiritual descendants. Culture Three developed a strong critique of the Scholasticism of the medieval University that succeeded in transforming that institution into it's modern version.

   Culture Four is the culture of "Art and Performance"- this one is pretty self explanatory and probably the most familiar to readers of this blog since it includes popular music/popular culture, novels, etc.  Unfortunately, O'Malley's discussion of Culture Four is largely comprised of a recounting of the Iconoclast/Iconophile debate that took place in Southern Europe during the early middle ages, so it actually turns out to be the weakest chapter of the whole book.

   Developed out of a lecture series, Four Cultures of the West is very readable- no specialized knowledge required.  O'Malley's main point is not to describe each culture as independent from one another, but rather to note how they have influenced one another and how each has influenced the Modern World.  Each of the four cultures has maintained relevance from Ancient times to Modern times.  O'Malley is not trying to be totally inclusive- he acknowledges that he is omitting other significant cultures, such as the culture of the Germanic tribes on Rome's northern border, and the commercial/business culture that started in the early modern period.  Ultimately, O'Malley has a strong thesis, and this book is a good introduction to the subject of Four Cultures of the West.


Blog Archive