The Aztecs exhibition at London’s Royal Academy will stun and perplex many people who see it. There are displays of magnificent sculptures from pre-Hispanic Mexico.
There is a beautiful filmed reconstruction of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, one of the biggest and most magnificent cities in the world before the Spanish conquistadors tore it down to build Mexico City.
But there are also written descriptions of how many of the sculptures and building were used from gruesome religious rites in which captives were lined by the thousands, their hearts cut out, their blood drained into giant vessels and their flesh eaten.
How are the two sides of Aztec civilisation to be reconciled? The notes to the exhibition describe the succession of civilisations in Mexico and Guatemala over a 2000 year period and provide a chronology of the rise of the Aztecs in the 13th to 16 centuries AD. They contrast the figurative art of early civilisations with the realist sculptures of the Aztecs. But they do not account for the mixture of refinement and barbarity that is on show.
All the ancient civilisations originated, like modern capitalism, out of a combination of human ingenuity on the one hand and of crude exploitation on the other. Ingenuity led to new ways of producing wealth, especially the food needed for people to ward off malnutrition and starvation. Exploitation channelled the new wealth into the hands of minority ruling classes who used it to live in luxury, to creating elaborate structures for themselves, while the mass of people continued to lead lives of poverty and toil.
The Aztecs originally were foragers – people who surveyed by gathering wild fruit, nuts and roots and by hunting. They were an egalitarian, classless group. Early in the last millennium they began moved southwards from their original home region to the area around the Valley of Mexico. There they came into contact with peoples settled into villages and towns who sustained themselves by growing crops. The Aztecs began to copy their ways, but were subjugated by the rulers of one of the towns and forced to hand much of their harvest to them. Eventually they rebelled and fled, in 1322 AD, to marshy islands on one of the valley’s lakes.
Here ingenuity led to more advanced ways of growing food, by covering rafts of branches and roots with earth to create chinampas or floating gardens. Over the next century, the increased productivity of the Aztec cultivators provided the means to building Tenochtitlan as a city and to wage war successfully. A people who had once been subjugated began to subjugate others until Tenochtitlan was the centres of huge empire, extracting wealth as tribute from subject peoples
The growth of the empire did not, however, benefit all the Aztecs. It was accompanied by a polarisation between a small aristocracy of warriors and priests headed by a royal family one the one hand, and the mass of toilers, who lost their rights as they were reduced to serfdom.
A transformation in religious beliefs and ceremonies took place along with this. The Aztecs had a set of beliefs about gods associated with life as foragers and cultivators– with fertility, the seasons, the rising of the sun, rain and water.
But an emerging aristocracy needed religious sanctity for its power. It found it in the cult of Huitzilopochtli, the humingbird god. It ascribed to him a role similar to that given to Jehovah in the Old Testament, as a god of war leading a chosen people through various hardships to their present eminence. His supremacy was embodied in the temple towering over Tenochtitlan.
The cult involved rites of human sacrifice. This had existed in the preceding civilisations of the region, as in many early urban civilisations elsewhere in the world (early ancient China and early ancient Egypt, for instance). But as in these other cases, there were signs of the practice dying out. The god Quetzalcoatl had supposedly brought it to an end among the Toltecs half a millennium before. The rulers of the Aztecs now revived it on massive scale, claiming that unless Huitzilopochtli and his fellow gods received repeated libations of human blood the sun would stop rising. The blood was to come from the peoples conquered by the Aztecs.
These bloody rites fulfilled a triple function. They glorified the conquering, military role of the ruling class. like gladiatorial conquests of ancient Rome, they provided a ghoulish spectacle to distract the Aztec serfs from their own discontents. And they terrorised the subject peoples into submission
As in other similar societies, the costly superstructure of ruling class power began to have a debilitating effect on the agricultural output of the serfs, and series of famines beset the Valley of Mexico in the last decades of the 15th century. The rulers reacted by staging ever more spectacular sacrificial ceremonies – even waging mock battles against the subject peoples (by agreement their local rulers) so as to provide an endless stream of captive victims.
Bitterness at Aztec rule grew ever more intense among the subject peoples and classes. A widespread myth arose that the god Quetzalcoatl would return from exile in the east to bring to an end the blood sacrifices, the tribute and the oppression. Interestingly, the lower class artisans who made religious sculptures produced many more of Quetzalcoatl than of the bloodthirsty Huitzilopochtli.
Then in 1519, as the empire and the bitterness were both at their height, Cortes landed with a small band of Spanish soldiers intent on establishing an empire of his own. To some it seemed that here was Quetzalcoatl returned to free them from their servitude. The oppressed peoples flocked to fight for him against the Aztec rulers - only to find with a couple of years that Spanish oppression was as bad as the Aztecs had been. The Spanish even had their own version of human sacrifice to intimidate opponents of their rule – an auto de fe for burning heretics alive in what had been the Aztec market place.
• For an easily accessible introduction Aztec history and society, read Friedrich Katz’s Ancient American Civilisations