aztec sacrifice-demonization, self-misrepresentation, or

Daniel A. Foss (U17043@UICVM.BITNET)
Mon, 27 May 1996 14:22:04 CDT

/* WARNING: depressed-mood speculations follow. */
I'm very much afraid we cannot depend on either side for exact numbers
of victims or even orders of magnitude in Aztec human sacrifice. The
Spaniards had every reason to literally Demonize their enemies in what
was, after all, conducted as a war of extermination legitimized by religious
conversion. The Aztecs, on the other side, construed the sacrifice of
(not exclusively but mainly) war prisoners as virtuous and reverential
religious worship; they provided themselves with an incentive to magnify
the numbers of prisoners sacrificed on memorable historic occasions to
a degree which strains plausibility in terms of the logistics involved.

There were other ideological factors operating.

First, the sacrifice of prisoners was associated with imperial expansion
and military glory. By confusion of correlation with causation, their
hegemony was best assured by exaggerating the perceived, relative to the
actual, number of captured enemies so dispatched in propitiation of
Huitzilopochtli, their principal national deity, who was, above all, a
war god.

Second, accounts of human sacrifice would have the indirect effect of
terroristic political propaganda, of the variety, "We can do anything
we like to you, and you cannot do anything about that." This would tend
to paralyze resistance before it emerged, and secure compliance to the
tribute system of exactions from what were, after all, loosely-administered
autonomous city-states.
By way of comparison, Egyptian New Kingdom rulers boasted of making trophy
mounds of the uncircumcised penises of slaughtered Libyans. Lesser enemies
were recorded as having been rendered "without seed," ie, "wiped out,"
including Israel on the famous Stele of Merneptah in the Cairo Museum. As
we know, this was a lie. Imaginary genocides by Israelites are plentiful
in the Old Testament; though hints of less-drastic results of warfare
survive, as when the inhabitants of Lachish buy their way out of genocide
by offering to perform forced labour. The genocide performed upon the
inhabitants of Jericho is fictitious, as that city had been in ruins
since the wars of Thothmesse III, over 250 years prior to the time
the probably-fictitious Joshua was supposed to have lived; the same
is true of the massacre of the inhabitants of Ai.
In emulation of former Egyptian practice, perhaps, David was set
the task of accumulating the penises of 200 Philistines as trophies
toward bridewealth for King Saul's daughter, Michal; but then, mythic
heroes of uncertain historicity can do anything.
Assyrian monarchs, as previously mentioned, exaggerated their violence
and destructiveness for overtly-terroristic purposes on their monuments,
while mentioning nothing about their economic-development schemes launched
in desperate efforts to get their conquests to pay for themselves.
Mass beheadings, presumably of prisoners, have been found in Shang
Dynasty tombs of circa 1200 BC; these were evidently religiously motivated.
Later, animal sacrifice was substituted for human sacrifice. But the
mass beheadings of war captives which disfigure Sima Guang's Mirror for
Government, in those sections dealing with the dispatch of peasant rebels
and the civil wars at the end of the Han Dynasty are gruesome in the
extreme. These massacres were represented as legitimate political terrorism.
Romans' treatment of their own prisoners, in gladiatorial games and other
cruel and unusual punishments, were even worse.

Third, the Aztec warrior lifestyle was aristocratic. It was exclusively
glorified at the expense of alternative occupations such as growing food.
The benediction pronounced over a newborn male infant, "May he meet death
on the battlefield or upon the sacrificial stone" would seem to exhaust
the forms of death construed as honourable. Yet surely, even among the
Mexica-Aztecs themselves, somebody was doing the work, ie, growing food
or carrying heavy objects. These activities, as ideologically slighted,
would be so understood by the exploited labourers themselves, if, during
the (possibly) rare occasions in their lives they were called up for
military service, they found the only possible avenue of upward mobility,
ie, from commoner to noble, lay in capture of enemies for sacrifice.
The figures for the population of the Valley of Mexico at the time
of the Spanish Conquest have been exaggerated in all directions, most
recently upward in order to magnify the extent of Spanish genocide. For
purposes of guesswork as to what alternatives to sacrifice existed, such
as forced labour, in the economy, we would need to know the population
figures with fair accuracy, estimate the population densities, and arrive
at some notion of the marginal contribution to surplus product foregone
by the Aztec regime in sacrificing a war prisoner, as opposed to putting
him to servile work. It then becomes uncertain how rational Aztec society
was in expanding production as opposed to heightening religious gratification.
That some societies, in the grip of ideology and entrenched interests
behind it, become self-destruction machines is indisputable. This hardly
needs pointing out. On the other hand, we have here an emergent class
society, in a Civilization Area where class societies had previously
emerged several times: Teotihuacan, Toltecs, Aztecs merely representing
the lattermost of successive hegemonies. Each of the prior efforts at
class exploitation ("Complex Society") had eventuated in an End of
Civilization; and each one, in succession, had featured resort to
terroristic sacrifice as it went down. It could be that social class,
or Civilization, as we are familiar with it and take it for granted,
is *never* imposed without gruesome lessons to the effect that, "We
can do anything we want to you, which you can do nothing about." Where
the corresponding evidence, say, for the Old World Neolithic, may have
been lost, perhaps because the perpetrators never included skull racks
in their monumental architecture. It is known, after all, that retainers
of the deceased were sacrificed in the latter's tomb in Early Dynastic
Egypt, Sumer, Shang China (noted above), and heathen Russia; lots more
where those came from. Does anyone suppose that the story of Isaac, in
Genesis, didn't once have another ending?

Daniel A. Foss