I mentioned earlier that human sacrifice was one of the central practices of Mexica society. But this does not quite capture what was going on. Human sacrifice was the most intense part of the pervasive ritual practices that structured Mexica society, but it was never merely sacrifice. Sacrifice was the culminating act of a set of amazing spectacles, enormously powerful intensifiers of emotion that made use of the entire register of Aztec symbols and pharmacopeia, and drew on the full resources of the empire. (Clendinnen’s descriptions of the Toxcatl, Izcalli, and Ochpanitzli festivals, running to many pages, cannot be properly summarized here – I am not competent enough – but they give a taste of the overwhelming intensity of the Mexica experience of ritual life, something that we can barely appreciate from looking at the stone relics available in museums). These spectacles were not closed or purely elite affairs, but involved the enthusiastic participation of ordinary people (as far as we can tell, but Clendinnen makes a good case). And they were not “games” (like the Roman gladiatorial contests) for the entertainment of spectators, or irregular and more or less infrequent affairs, like witch burning or hangings in Europe. Human sacrifice happened regularly and was central to Mexica self-understanding: “It is Mexica picturings which dwell on the slow tides of blood down the steps of the pyramids, on skull-faced deities chewing on human limbs, and human hearts pulped into stone mouths … The killings, whether large or small, were frequent: part of the pulse of living” (p. 88).
In academic circles, it is not unusual for books on a subject like this (e.g., Todorov) to romanticize pre-Westernized Mexico, putting into ever-apologetic ‘context’ (and refusing to ascribe objective moral disapprobation to) such replete savagery. It’s part of that postmodernist obsession with romanticizing ‘the Other’, no matter how reprehensible that Other might be.
Here’s the final paragraph of Marquez’s review, where the reviewer struggles with the cognitive dissonance implicit in Clendinnen’s approach to her subject:
There is much more in this amazing book I have barely touched. Clendinnen’s chapters on women in Mexica society are a tour de force, and her discussion of the Aztecs’ final defeat by the Spaniards is touched by a deep empathy. She sees Aztec life from their perspective, at least as much as such a thing is possible. The book left me with an uneasy feeling, though. Could one imagine a situation in which Aztec culture had not been so completely destroyed by the Spaniards? How, given the dependence of their way of life on human sacrifice, could the outcome of the encounter between Spaniards and Mexica have been any different? The incommensurability of Mexica and Spanish values was not simply a result of what they believed; it was an incompatibility of ritual practices so thoroughgoing that no understanding seems to have been possible without a complete change in the ritual context. And in the end, the Aztecs remain hard to love.