“Roof gardens, feathers and human sacrifice” – John GRAY

‘Our Lord, the lord of the near, of the nigh, is made to laugh. He is arbitrary, he is capricious, he mocketh … 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.’ This is how the last Aztec nobles, remnants of the civilization that was destroyed after the incursion into its territory of the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés in 1519, described their god – whose spirit they believed entered into their earthly ruler – in the Florentine Codex.

Named after the city where the original manuscript is kept, collected and transcribed thirty years after the conquest by a Franciscan missionary, the Codex presents a picture of a way of life that seems utterly alien to the modern mind. There are many today who, ascribing to the Aztecs needs and values they take to be universally human, cannot imagine a society in which these marks of humanity are absent. How could the Aztecs, fixed in rigid hierarchies, fail to want to choose the course of their lives? Surrounded as they were by ritual violence, how could they not feel revulsion? If the Codex does not reflect these impulses, it can only be because it portrays the Aztecs as less than human.

An alternative interpretation may be more interesting. If the Aztecs appear unrecognizably alien to the modern mind, 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.

Inga Clendinnen, a scholar with a profound insight into the Aztec way of life, writes:

There is one activity for which the ‘Aztecs’ were notorious: the large-scale killing of humans in ritual sacrifices. The killings were not remote, top-of-the pyramid affairs. If only high priests and rulers killed, they carried out most of their butchers’ work en plein air, and not only in the main temple precinct, but in the neighbourhood temples and on the streets. The people were implicated in the care and preparation of the victims, their delivery to the place of death, and then in the elaborate processing of the bodies: the dismemberment and distribution of heads and limbs, flesh and blood and flayed skins. On high occasions warriors carrying gourds of human blood or wearing the dripping skins of their captives ran through the streets, to be ceremoniously welcomed into the dwellings; the flesh of their victims seethed in domestic cooking pots; human thighbones, scraped and dried, were set up in the courtyard of the households – and all this among a people notable for a precisely ordered polity, a grave formality of manner, and a developed regard for beauty.

The ‘Aztecs’ were several different peoples, each with characteristics they prized as proof of their distinctiveness. But life in the great lake city of Tenochtitlan, which was for two centuries the capital of the Aztec empire and had a population greater than any city in Spain at the time the conquerors arrived, expressed an understanding of what it means to be human that was shared by the larger family of ‘Aztec’ or Mexica communities. Giving central place to human impulses that modern thinking denies, it is a conception that shocks and horrifies today.

The feature of the Aztec capital that most impressed the conquerors was its order and cleanliness. Inured to the filth of European cities, some of the 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 centre 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. Topped with its Great Pyramid, the central temple precinct contained dozens of pools, temples and lesser pyramids.

Today a city of this kind would be seen as an embodiment of human reason. In fact, this majestic settlement was an artefact of the practice of magic. The Aztec city was built to reflect a sacred cosmogony in which humankind was living in the last of five worlds, or ‘Suns’. When the last Sun ceased to shine, the city would be destroyed. Tenochtitlan sheltered those who lived in it from the gods – but only if they tended the city with the utmost care. ‘Through the devoted sweeping and ordering of the houses of men and the houses of gods, through remembering the sprinkle of pulque [an alcoholic brew] and the pinch of food routinely offered at the hearthstone, and the daily lacerations to draw forth one’s own blood, the Great Ones’ destructive manifestations might be held in check.’

For the Aztecs the gods were forces of havoc in the world. Forever at risk of disruption, order was a thin veil stretched over chaos. No increase of knowledge or understanding could deliver human life from primordial disorder.

A belief in underlying chaos lay at the heart of the Aztecs’ remarkably delicate aesthetic sensibility. 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 Aztecs used feathers not just as a type of adornment but as a pointer to the nature of things: like human life, the feather-work in which they delighted was essentially transitory. The ritual use of flowers expressed a similar conception. Warriors were taught to seek a ‘flowery’ death, a willed surrender to mortality that was celebrated in verse.

A belief in underlying chaos underpinned order throughout Aztec society. The violence of the state mirrored that of the cosmos and the gods. The Aztecs felt no shame in making a spectacle of killing. The population rejoiced in ‘the lines of victims dragged or driven up the wide steps of the pyramids to meet the waiting priests … fêted through the streets, to dance and die before the deities they represented … The killings, whether large or small, were frequent: part of the pulse of living.’

Such practices cannot help evoking horror. A way of life based on human slaughter can only be a type of barbarism. But barbarians may have something to teach those who think themselves civilized, and in this case they show how tenuous are the assumptions on which western thinkers base their hopes of peace. Even the greatest realists among these thinkers base their account of order in society on an account of human motivation that is far removed from reality.

Consider Thomas Hobbes. A byword for a hard-boiled view of life – ‘Hobbesian’ has passed into common use as shorthand for a brutish struggle for survival – the seventeenth-century Enlightenment thinker was able to erect his bold edifice of thought only by excluding actually existing human beings from it.

The system constructed by Hobbes has an impressive simplicity. Aiming to rely on a minimum of morality, he postulated that human beings want to avoid death by violence more than they want anything else. Finding themselves threatened with such a death, they will contract with one another to set up a ruler with unlimited power to command obedience. This sovereign – a mortal god, Hobbes sometimes writes – will bring peace to warring humanity: ‘The Passions that encline men to Peace, are Feare of Death; Desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living; and a Hope by their Industry to obtain them. And Reason suggesteth convenient Articles of Peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement.’

Without this contract, Hobbes declared in a famous passage in Chapter 13 of his book Leviathan,

there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth, no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death …

Rendered in peerless English prose, it is a fine fancy. Much of the later part of Hobbes’s long life (he died in 1679 aged ninety-one) was given over to work in geometry – in particular, to squaring the circle. His belief that human beings respond to the threat of violent death by seeking peace is no less quixotic. He does not make clear whether he thought the process he described could ever actually occur. Yet there is no doubt that he believed his ideas could be practically useful, and he expressed the hope that his book would fall into the hands of a prince who would apply its teachings.

But if Hobbes’s language is marvellously clear, his thought is highly deceptive. The figures that appear in his system are not human beings, however abbreviated. They are homunculi invented in order to overcome a problem human beings are unable to solve: reconciling the imperatives of peace with the demands of their passions. Hobbes recognized that pride and the pursuit of glory stand in the way of order. Even so he believed that, impelled by the fear of death, humankind could renounce violent conflict and build a lasting peace.

Experience suggests otherwise. Rather than trying to escape violence, human beings more often become habituated to it. History abounds with long conflicts – the Thirty Years’ War in early seventeenth-century Europe, the Time of Troubles in Russia, twentieth-century guerrilla conflicts – in which continuous slaughter has been accepted as normal. Famously adaptable, the human animal quickly learns to live with violence and soon comes to find satisfaction in it.

It is true that, when they are weary of killing, human beings very often look for a tyrant to keep them in check. But it is never only a dream of order they are pursuing. A more organized type of blood-letting, often directed in the first instance against minorities Jews, Roma, gay people, immigrants and others who may seem different is part of the dream. Instead of passing their days in dull and senseless misery, those who practise persecution can see themselves as players in a struggle between good and evil.

Unable to exorcize violence within themselves, humans have chosen to sanctify it. This – without any pretence or compunction – was the Aztecs’ solution to the problem of order. Ritual killing embodied the savagery that is part of any kind of peace among humans.

When the tlatoani – the ‘Great Speaker’ who exercised supreme power – died and passed into the other world, the ruling lineage selected a new ruler from its adult males. Prowess in war was a crucial consideration, but once chosen the new ruler had to be imbued with the qualities of a god. Entering his palace only after a night passed praying naked in front of an image of the god Tezcatlipoca – the god of warriors and sorcerers whose name ‘Smoking Mirror’ referred to the obsidian mirrors made from dark volcanic glass that were used by the priests for divination – the ruler embodied the fickleness of fate. Also described as ‘the mocker’, Tezcatlipoca was celebrated in a poem whose first line reads: ‘I myself am the enemy.’ This was the god who entered into the ruler-elect. At that point the new ruler was possessed and there was no hope of taming his savagery: ‘when we replaced one, when we selected someone … he was already our lord, our executioner, and our enemy.’

The contrast with western models of authority is stark. Hobbes may have described his absolute sovereign as a mortal god, but it was a god bound by the terms of an agreement: if it did not keep the peace, it could be overthrown. But what if the ruler used its absolute power to pre-empt rebellion and then behaved with the arbitrariness of a god? The Aztecs expected nothing else. No one among them imagined that power could be tamed. But nor did they believe it could be dispensed with. Humans were fated to live in a world in which their rulers were their enemies. Yet these same enemies ensured a type of order that would not otherwise be possible.

If Hobbes had been right in his diagnosis of human conflict, Aztec life could only be a brutish anarchy, without art, industry or letters. The actuality was the thriving metropolis that so amazed the invading Spaniards. Destroyed soon after the conquistadores arrived, the Aztec city was an experimental refutation of some of the most fundamental assumptions of modern western ethics and politics.

Nothing about the Aztecs is as unsettling as their way of death. Many reasons have been suggested for their practice of ritual sacrifice. Clendinnen lists some of these ‘grandly simple explanations’: ‘human sacrifice as a device to enrich a protein-poor diet; human sacrifice as the invention of a sinister and cynical elite, a sort of amphetamines-for-the-people account; human sacrifice as technology, the Mexica response to the second law of thermodynamics, with the taking of the hot and pulsing human heart their despairing effort to replace energy lost by entropic waste’. As she writes, any explanation of this kind ‘assumes that which most needs to be demonstrated’.

It may be more useful to look at what happened. The victims were none of them volunteers. They seem to have been mostly outsiders – captives taken in war and slaves received in tribute from other cities. Only one category of victim definitely came from within the community – the small children who were offered to the god at points on the sacred calendar, who had been ‘purchased’ from their mothers. With regard to adult victims, a variety of techniques was employed to secure compliance. Most likely mind-altering drugs were used along with alcohol, together with practices of rehearsal that numbed the feeling of dread. There was no affectation of sympathy towards the victims. But nor were the victims seen as less than human, like so many casualties of the mass slaughters of the twentieth century, or sacrificed for the sake of an imaginary future generation that would live in peace. Instead, the captor and the captive were merged into one.

At the core of the rituals surrounding the killing was a blurring of the sense of self. Admired by their captors, warrior captives were visited and adorned in preparation for their deaths. Once the captive was killed – whether by ritual combat or by being beheaded on the killing stone at the top of the temple pyramid – the captor was given a gourd of blood, with which he daubed the mouths of idols throughout the city. The flesh of the captive was then used by the captor’s family in a ritual meal. But the captor himself did not partake, saying, ‘Shall I perchance eat my very self?’

Aiming to loosen the grip of the warrior’s conventionally assigned identity, these ritual killings allowed a connection to be made with the chaos that was seen to be more truly real. Stripping away the meanings with which the mind covers its fear, the killings allowed a revelation of naked humanity. Having been exposed, the absence of meaning was once again veiled. Swaddled in blood, life began again.

In Aztec thinking humans do not come into the world as fully functioning beings. Half-finished puppets of the gods, they must make their own identities – but not by choosing who or what they will be. Their ‘faces’ emerge in interaction with a world they can never control, or come close to understanding.

In the ritual killings, nothing was left of human pride. If they were warriors, the victims were denied any status they had in society. Stripped of their warrior regalia, they were:

trussed like deer to be lugged, heads lolling, up the pyramid steps; others, similarly trussed, cast writhing into the fire … The watchers must have seen an unfluent movement of men, climbing or stumbling or dragged up the steps; then seized, flung back, a priest’s arm rising, falling, then rising again; the flaccid bodies rolling and bouncing down the pyramid’s flanks … They watched again as each broken, emptied cadaver was taken up to be carried to the captor’s home temple for dismemberment and distribution: flesh scraped from skulls and thighbones; fragments of flesh cooked and eaten; human skins, dripping with grease and blood, stretched over living flesh; clots of blood scooped up to smear the temple walls.

It must have been a grisly spectacle – and for anyone who reads about it today, it is also uncanny. In Aztec ritual, Clendinnen concludes: ‘[The Aztecs] knew they were killing their fellow men. It was that humanity which defined them as victims. The Mexica [Aztec] genius, deployed across the astonishing stretch of their ceremonial life, was to figure a human stance within the inhuman conditions of existence.’

It is a superb summation, but it does not remove a sense of unease. The alien quality of the Aztec world does not come simply from the fact that they made a spectacle of killing. The Romans did as much in their gladiatorial games, but they did so for the sake of entertainment. The uncanniness of the Aztecs comes from the fact that they killed in order to create meaning in their lives. It is as if by practising human sacrifice as they did the Aztecs were unveiling something that in our world has been covered up.

Modern humanity insists violence is inhuman. Everyone says nothing is dearer to them than life – except perhaps freedom, for which some assert they would willingly die. Many have been ready to kill on an enormous scale for the sake of creating a future in which no one dies of violence. There are also some convinced that violence is fading away. All say they want an end to the slaughter of humans by other humans that has shaped the course of history.

The Aztecs did not share the modern conceit that mass killing can bring about universal peace. They did not envision any future when humans ceased to be violent. When they practised human sacrifice it was not to improve the world, still less to fashion some higher type of human being. The purpose of the killing was what they affirmed it to be: to protect them from the senseless violence that is inherent in a world of chaos. That human sacrifice was a barbarous way of making meaning tells us something about ourselves as much as them. Civilization and barbarism are not different kinds of society. They are found – intertwined – whenever human beings come together.

If you take the Aztec world seriously – and it was, after all, one made by human beings – you will see the modern world in a new light. Humans kill one another – and in some cases themselves – for many reasons, but none is more human than the attempt to make sense of their lives. More than the loss of life, they fear loss of meaning. There are many who prefer dying to some kinds of survival, and quite a few that have chosen to go to a violent end.

At this point it is easy to think of jihadists courting martyrdom, but not all who choose a violent end are religious believers. Suicide-bombing has often been taken up for pragmatic reasons: it is a cost-effective method in asymmetric warfare, which can have benefits for the bombers’ families. But the practice has spread because it appeals to a need for meaning. The Tamil guerrilla fighters in Sri Lanka who first developed the explosive suicide vest were disciples of Lenin, as were some of the suicide-bombers in Lebanon in the Eighties. Rejecting any idea of an afterlife, they cherished the far more absurd fantasy of making a new world.

That humans are prone to absurdity was recognized by Hobbes. In a delightful passage in Chapter 5 of Leviathan that undermines much of the rest of the book, he writes of ‘the priviledge of Absurdity; to which no living creature is subject, but man only’. By absurdity Hobbes meant the tendency of humans to use words without meaning, and then act on them. Here he pointed to a feature of the human animal that his rationalist philosophy concealed from view. Alone among the animals, humans seek meaning in their lives by killing and dying for the sake of nonsensical dreams. Chief among these absurdities, in modern times, is the idea of a new humanity.

In the twentieth century, the worst episodes of mass killing were perpetrated with the aim of remaking the species. If followers of Lenin dreamt of a socialist humanity, the Nazis imagined they were bringing into being a ‘superior race’. Western governments that launch wars of regime change may seem in another league, but the impulses that drive them are not altogether different. Critics claim the true aims of these adventures are geopolitical – the seizure of oil or some other strategic advantage. No doubt geopolitics plays a part, but a type of magical thinking may be more important. Serving no realizable strategic objective, wars of regime change are an attempt to secure a place in history. By intervening in societies of which they know nothing, western elites are advancing a future they believe is prefigured in themselves – a new world based on freedom, democracy and human rights. The results are clear – failed states, zones of anarchy and new and worse tyrannies; but in order that they may see themselves as world-changing figures, our leaders have chosen not to see what they have done.

If the Aztecs also practised a type of magical thinking, they knew that their magic would eventually fail. When the Spaniards came they fitted nowhere in the Aztec scheme. Treacherous and cowardly, they breached every custom of war – attacking unarmed men, killing warriors on sacred ground, wiping out entire villages and kidnapping the tlatoani. The invading Spaniards also brought plague with them – the smallpox that ravaged the region’s indigenous populations.

Looking for guidance in omens, the Aztecs saw a light in the sky that sank into the lake. Still resisting and enduring a four-month siege, they surrendered only when the last tlatoani was caught trying to flee the city. The last of the five Suns had ceased to shine.

The ruin of the city was total. Having described its great rooms, courtyards, orchards, stonework and temples, one of the Spanish soldiers wrote: ‘All that I then saw is overthrown and destroyed; nothing is left standing.’ The remaining inhabitants were marked by the Spaniards as slaves. Women and boys were branded on the face. Promised safety, the tlatoani was tortured and then hanged. The temple guardians were killed by having dogs set on them.

No one can know what the priests thought in their final agony, but it is possible to suppose that they were not surprised by their fate.

GRAY, John, The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry Into Human Freedom. London: Random House, 2015.

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