The Paradox of the Aztecs

In keeping with Spring, we address the theme of the cycle of life, as reflected in the art and beliefs of the Aztecs.

The Aztecs are the ultimate expression of the Meso-American cultural development, and sadly the last, as with the arrival of the Spanish, it was all destroyed, by war and by the diseases they brought with them. We are now beginning to learn that the conquest of the Americas was more the result of disease, rather than the superiority of the Spanish.

The paradox of the Aztecs is the contrast between the undeniably high achievement of their civilization and the brutality of their religious rites. They come from a totally different point of view from us, and their art reflects that, with its inescapable focus on human sacrifice. I find their art weirdly and disturbingly fascinating, and I’m sure I’m not alone. The challenge is to try to understand what it meant to them, rather than just our horror of it. What we do know is that this ritualized brutality was believed by them to be essential to keeping the cycles of life going. Blood nourished the gods, kept the sun rising in the East and the forces of chaos at bay. While all prior meso-American cultures had practiced blood sacrifice, both from their own bodies and with the killing of sacrificial victims, the Aztecs did it on an unprecedented scale. It has been said that at ceremonies celebrating great events, such as the inauguration of the last expansion of the central pyramidal temple in Tenochtitlan that at least 20,000 and as many as 80,000 victims were sacrificed. Much is unknown about the specifics, suffice it to say that many people lost their lives in ritualized heart sacrifice in the Aztec capital.

In the West human life is supposed to be sacred, yet our history is replete with war and the resultant death and the famine and suffering resultant from it. To say nothing of religious prosecutions throughout the history of the Christian areas, where people were tortured and killed simply for their differing beliefs. The Spanish came to the Americas fresh off their own war taking back the Spanish peninsula from the Moors, and the Inquisition was in full throes resulting in thousands of people being killed by torture and being burnt alive. The story of the Conquest of Mexico is full of bloody and horrific massacres of a brutality shocking to us today perpetuated by the conquistadores. And yet somehow, we accept the horrors of war and recoil at the thought of human sacrifice. One could argue that human life was sacred to the Aztecs who rarely killed in battle, since the objective of war was to obtain captives for sacrifice. The Spanish on the other hand killed wantonly in battle, massacring the Indians when they fought them, much to the shock of the Indians.

Art is visual, and reaches different parts of the brain, communicating on a non-verbal, often subconscious level. Religious art, such that of the Aztecs employ archetypes, symbols with meaning going back to prehistoric times, even if the images employed by a particular culture seem alien, they reflect shared human concerns and prototypes. We are all human, we want to live, and fear similar things. The difference is what did it mean to the culture. If one believes that the cosmic order requires human sacrifice, than death is given a different meaning from a culture that doesn’t believe that. The challenge is trying to understand the mindset of such a culture, something we may never really be able to do. But what we can do is admire the great art of the Aztecs, learn what we can of their culture and beliefs and allow it to speak to our deepest levels.