The Strangeness of Tenochtitlan

The Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, was built on a series of islands in what was once a huge lake in the Valley of Mexico. The first time the Spanish saw the city, they were impressed by its massive temples, its brightly painted and beautifully decorated buildings, its royal gardens, its aqueducts, the orderliness and cleanliness of its streets, and the diversity of food sold on its large market. But the Aztecs also engaged in behavior that appeared strange and repulsive to Europeans, such as their extremely brutal rituals of human sacrifice.

Rituals of sacrifice

The Aztec formed a distinct society among the Nahua people in Mesoamerica. The Nahuas shared many traditions and beliefs. Warfare served both a political and religious imperative, where the highest honor for men was either to die on the battlefield or be sacrificed to the gods. With the exception of priests, all male citizens, nobles and commoners alike, were required to perform military service.

In fact, the Aztecs engaged in a highly ritualized form of warfare with neighboring Nahua city states, known as the Flower Wars, where each side fought with the explicit intention of capturing (rather than killing and conquering) their opponents. This secured the constant flow of captives that was required for their sacrifice to the gods, with about 40 to 120 individuals being killed annually in each Aztec town, while larger cities such as Tenochtitlan killed hundreds to thousands of individuals during years with special events such as centenaries or royal funerals.

“Human sacrifice has often been described as a cynical device used by the elite to maintain their influence,” writes Caroline Dodds in her book Bonds of Blood. But this was not the case with the Aztecs. In the last century before the Spanish conquest, war and sacrifice affected all social strata alike. All men, including the highest nobles, were expected to die in battle or sacrifice themselves to the gods if they were captured. Dodds describes the fate of the captured warrior as follows:

“Towering over the city, the great pyramid with its twin temples of Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc was the center of the Aztec cosmos and the seat of their symbolic and religious power. In a typical ritual, the victim ascended a great pyramid, through the blood which flowed from the summit to the base, perhaps even passing the bodies of previous victims which had been cast down the steep steps.”

“Reaching the temple platform, the helpless individual was confronted with the sight of the great sacrificial stone, stained with blood, which also matted the hair of the magnificently adorned priests. Seized by these gory apparitions, the victim was stretched backwards over the stone, each limb extended by a priest so that the back was arched and the chest stretched taut and raised high toward the heavens. A fifth priest struck open the chest with an obsidian knife, excised the heart with knife and hands and raised [the still beating heart] to the heavens, displaying to the gods the sacrificial fruit.”

As they climbed the pyramid, “every person still possessed a degree of power: the ability to choose the manner in which they faced their death.” Accounts reveal that many confronted their sacrificial fate with enormous courage, willingly giving themselves up to the altar, “shouting and exalting, with their heads held high.”

But even those who believed that their their sacrifice secured them a place alongside the Sun must have been daunted by what they saw. Records also tell of victims who lost their strength and were dragged to their death against their will.

After the heart was removed, “the body of the captive was flayed and the skin given to the captor.” His corpse was then consumed in a traditional feast of cannibalism by the captor’s family, although the captor himself abstained from eating his victim. A warrior was not supposed to get pleasure from these festivities; he was to be “reminded of the likelihood that he too would fall victim to the same fate.”

“The flayed skin then became a macabre costume for the captor and his associates, who wore the skin to beg for gifts for 20 days after the sacrifice. Dressed in the captive’s shell and adorned with his reflected glory, these young men advertised their status and boasted their courage. The captor was, quite literally, rewarded for his victory, receiving the fruits of this ritual begging in both honor and goods.”

Understanding the strange

Dodds describes the Spanish encounter with the Aztec civilization: “Awed by the magnificence of the great market and grand buildings of the capital city, Cortés requested of Moctezuma, through his translator Doña Marina, that they might see the Aztec gods. Led into the Great Temple, the Spaniards found themselves in a room caked black with blood and reeking like a slaughterhouse. In an incense brazier, the hearts of three sacrificial victims were burning.”

“Overwhelmed by the enormity of the atrocities with which they were confronted, the conquistadors followed Moctezuma to idols, shrines and altars, observing ‘diabolical objects’ and the traces of decades of persistent suffering: the stench was sometimes so great that they could scarcely stay in place.”

While these sacrificial rituals may appear horrible to our modern sensitivities, as they did to the Spanish, it is important to understand them within the context of Aztec culture.

As the philosopher Isaiah Berlin made clear, modern European thought has largely been prone to a worldview according to which there can only be one true belief; all other beliefs must necessarily be false.

For the Catholic Spanish, there could only be one truth: that of the gospel of Jesus Christ. For later rationalist philosophers such as Descartes, truth was not to be found in divine revelation, but rather logically deduced from “clear and distinct” axioms. While they shunned arguments based on religious dogma, most Enlightenment thinkers still expressed a monist worldview in which there could only be one truth.

The Aztecs did not believe in Christian sins and virtues. Neither would they have agreed with the modern Enlightenment idea of universal human rights. Can we say that they were wrong to sacrifice so many people?

A few lucid minds, such as the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, argued against this kind of thinking. For Vico, we cannot rely on deduction to reach an understanding of the past. In order to understand cultures that are very different from our own, we must open our mind to ideas that are not derived from axioms, but rather discovered from circumstance.

Vico noticed that past societies are strangely different from ours, that men of the past did not think like we do. He thus casts a doubt on the Enlightenment idea that there is a single universal human nature that applies to all peoples. People do not exist in a vacuum; they are part of a specific society in which specific cultural values emerged. To understand foreign cultures, we must try to understand how they think; we must try to understand their myths and their symbols. This understanding requires what Vico called fantasia – or imagination.

Berlin notes that there is some similarity here with Montesquieu, who also reflected in his De l’esprit des lois about what the Aztec emperor Moctezuma said to Cortes, when he told him that the Christian religion was all fine for Spain, but that the Aztec religion was best for his people. For Montesquieu this was not an absurdity. It was not absurd, because the Aztecs had until that point nothing but their own historical laws and values as a precedent to judge the merits of the Christian faith. Its strange and incongruent precepts made no sense to them. Yet the Spanish nonetheless insisted that only their religion is true.

To understand social conventions, we must put ourselves in the shoes of their creators, which is why past and foreign cultures should be studied deeply. Moral values are relative to the society we live in; they are not universally valid rules, as Enlightenment rationalism would have it. Vico would have said that human sacrifice must have made sense for the Aztecs; and that the question is not whether or not they were wrong, but rather how such a practice came to be accepted among them.

The slippery earth

The philosopher John Gray pointed out that, if we had been able to see it today, Tenochtitlan “would be seen as an embodiment of human reason.” The Aztec city had a population greater than any city in Spain at the time the conquerors arrived. But unlike crowded European cities, which were usually full of filth, the Aztec capital was extremely clean and well-maintained. Some of the Spanish soldiers wondered if Tenochtitlan was a dream.

“Linked to the land by three causeways, the city was a vast settlement, with its aqueducts, dwellings and streets meticulously planned. Large or small, its houses were bright and elegant. All the buildings shone with whitewash and were bordered by ruler-straight canals and well-swept footpaths. Green gardens had been cultivated on land reclaimed from the lake, while plants and flowers were grown on the roofs of the houses. The center of a network of trade and tribute, the city was rich in precious metals. The walls of great courtyards were decorated, and the priests produced beautiful painted books.”

Yet the beauty of this city was no product of reason. It was “an artefact of the practice of magic. The Aztec city was built to reflect a sacred cosmogony. Tenochtitlan sheltered those who lived in it from the gods — but only if they tended the city with the utmost care.”

The Aztec gods were forces of havoc in the world. Order was always at risk of disruption. But “if order was fleeting, so was beauty. Transiency was a mark of what is ultimately real — the opposite of many western traditions in which it is the passing world that lacks substance […] The violence of the state mirrored that of the cosmos and the gods.”

When they were seven years old, Aztec children were enrolled and educated in community schools, only rarely seeing their families again until they reached the age of marriage. The core of Aztec education centered on religious and military training — although poetry, music and dance were also part of the curriculum.

“Although pain and mortality were unremitting companions of every Aztec’s existence, it was for warrior men that a precipitate death appeared preordained. For them, to die upon the [sacrificial] stone or the battlefield was idealized as the defining endeavor of their life and their ultimate fate. The male lifespan was circumscribed by the demands of his destiny,” writes Dodds.

The Nahua people regarded the world as filled with pain, sorrow, suffering and death. The world is a treacherous habitat in which even the most morally upright person can easily slip into moral wrongdoing. Humans lose their balance easily, which is why they are in constant need of guidance.

It is slippery, it is slick on the earth

— Nahuatl proverb

For the Aztecs, all morally and aesthetically appropriate human activity is defined in terms of how to maintain balance upon the slippery earth. All human activity should be directed toward this aim. In this sense, Aztec thought is pragmatic. It is also closer to the “way-seeking” philosophies of Taoism and Buddhism than the “truth-seeking” of most European philosophies.

Living wisely requires performing ritual activities devoted to restoring lost balance, as well as avoiding future imbalance. These rituals included penitence, mortification, and sacrifice. Death, suffering and blood were not things to be avoided. They were an integral part of Aztec life, and were required to maintain balance in the universe.

This was a devout society in which the capacity to actively work and perform difficult obligations without losing heart was greatly admired. “The Aztecs felt no shame in the line of victims dragged or driven up the wide steps of the pyramids to meet the waiting priests.”

The world was only kept in balance through continued struggle and sacrifice. For Aztec men, the most glorious fate in this struggle and ultimate act of self-sacrifice was to die in battle or at the hands of a priest, whereas for women an equivalently glorious death was to die in childbirth.

Their religion lacked the Judeo-Christian concepts of paradise and hell. Aztecs did not believe in eternal afterlife. Death ultimately leads to oblivion, and the only life that matters is the one we have here on earth. However, a special fate was reserved for warriors, who upon their death would have the privilege to join the glorious Gods for a short period of time before disappearing into oblivion.

“The warrior who died in battle or as a sacrifice at the hand of a priest received the flowered death by the obsidian knife. He was elevated to the sky, there to drink the fragrant juices of the gods and to give honor by accompanying the Sun — from its rising in the morning to the noonday zenith. A military or sacrificial death was a fate to be envied and craved; warriors lived their lives in anticipation of the day when they would join those elevated to the Sun’s domain.”

Education was particularly difficult for the youth destined for priesthood. “Temple training was a harsh and austere existence which encouraged unconcern for physical comforts and emphasized a focus upon industry, devotion and self-denial: denial of comfort, denial of sociability, even denial of physical welfare.”

Boys and girls alike were forced through “unremitting labor, sleepless nights, famished fasting and persistent cold,” and it is likely that many longed back to the safety of their family homes. However, their teachers encouraged them to shun their past comforts and focus on the new life ahead of them.

“Physically and psychologically divorced from his family unit, an Aztec priest was the human intermediary with a hostile and foreboding force, which required constant appeasement with gifts of blood. Dedication to priesthood was an appalling reality in which priests were permanently marked with the filth of their duty. Forbidden from combing or cleaning their hair, and occupied in private and public with violent rituals, the priests were covered with both their own and their victims’ blood.” While priests did not die on the battlefield, they paid penance by cutting and piercing themselves, including their penis, spilling their own blood to appease the gods.

The Aztecs believed that a great and continuing sacrifice by the gods sustains the universe. Everything — from a successful childbirth, to a successful battle, to a successful harvest — was due to the gods. This in turn created a strong sense of indebtedness. Sacrifice was often referred to as nextlahualli or “debt-payment,” of which human sacrifice was the highest offering that could be made to repay a debt to the gods.

According to the Aztec myth of the Five Suns, the world has gone through five cycles of creation and destruction, with the current era being the fifth. The universe is in a constant process of change, in which the gods are omnipresent active elements, and in which human lives are ephemeral. The world is only kept in balance thanks to constant sacrifice. To stop sacrificing would introduce chaos and ruin in the cosmic order; such an offense to the gods would have been unthinkable for an Aztec.

Learning from the barbarians

What the story of the Aztecs shows, more than anything else, is how malleable the human mind really is. In our relatively prosperous era, it is easy to forget to what extent our species is perfectly capable of accommodating and normalizing violence and death, even during times of peace.

Nearly every modern Western philosopher — whether Rawls or Habermas — would likely argue against Aztec sacrifice as an institution that infringes fundamental rights and unnecessarily promotes human suffering. What is strange is that the Aztecs themselves would have disagreed. Had they not been conquered and converted to Christianity by force, the Aztec might have told these philosophers, as Moctezuma told Cortès, that liberalism and critical theory might be good for Europeans, but that the Aztecs are better off with their own traditions.

How could they not feel revulsion at such brutal slaughter and suffering? “If the Aztecs appear unrecognizably alien to the modern mind,” writes John Gray, “it may be because the modern mind does not recognize itself in the Aztecs. We cannot understand the Aztecs because we do not want to understand ourselves.”

If we accept that humans are not rational creatures but animals acting primarily on instinct, capable of adopting any kind of magical thinking, no matter how dark or violent, and if we accept that religious and ideological disagreement is unavoidable, it makes little sense to promote a political philosophy which assumes that there can be such a thing as universal moral values.

As the political philosopher Chantal Mouffe argues, “the search for consensus without exclusion and the hope for a perfectly reconciled and harmonious society have to be abandoned.” They have to be abandoned, because what humans value will always remain diverse, incomprehensible, and strange.