What Aztec civilization can teach modern Americans about religion and culture

June 25, 2012

Daily Life of the Aztecs is one volume in a series of books that describe classic civilizations of Rome, ancient India, the Etruscans, Greece in the time of Pericles, and Palestine at the time of Christ. Although the Aztecs reached their zenith in the early 1500s of the Common Era, long after the others had disappeared, their culture had a strong degree of symmetry with the ancient Eurasian civilizations.

I have often wondered about the Aztecs because they were dominant in the regions of North and Central America that were overcome by Spanish conquistadores and missionaries. My continuing activities in the Sonoran Southwest, with its admixture of European and Native American cultures, increase my desire to know something about the Aztecs, “those fierce, honourable, death-obsessed, profoundly religious people whom Cortés and his minions encountered five hundred years ago.

It surprises me to learn that there is a large body of source material from which to draw in order to write an entire book on the Aztec civilization. Author Jacques Soustelle describes the “many sets of records that can be compared and combined.” Despite the systematic destruction of Mexico City by the Spaniards, a growing body of architectural artifacts have been discovered and studied.

“A wealth of written documentation” has survived. Much was written by the Mexicans themselves. Soustelle refers to “an immense quantity of books…written according to a pictographic system that was at once figurative and phonetic, and treating of history, history combined with mythology, geographical description, ritual and divination.” He claims that this literature includes “piles of official paper” dealing with all kinds of disputes that would arise in a city which he estimates had a population of 1,000,000 people.

After the Spaniards arrived, Indians adopted European letters for their accounts, sometimes using their own language and sometimes using Spanish. Despite efforts by the conquerors to destroy this literature, much remains.

Furthermore, the Spaniards wrote about the Aztecs. Some of the authors show little objectivity or understanding of what they described. Other European writers, however, learned the native tongue and wrote carefully and in trustworthy fashion.

Soustelle (1912–1990) was both a scholar and a politician. When he wrote this book, which was first published in France in 1955, he was director of “the most famous ethnographical museum in the world, the Musée de l’Homme” in Paris.

As I read this imaginatively and gracefully written book, I am learning much about the complex, sophisticated culture that flourished in Mexico at the time of the Spanish invasion.

I am also recognizing how much the writing and reading of books is influenced by the frame of reference that authors and readers bring to their work. Soustelle, a European scholar steeped in Catholic culture and the feudal systems of Europe frequently uses analogies from that world to describe Aztec civilization and life. With my American background and interest in the non-urban Native Americans of cooler climates, I find myself continually amazed at the patterns Soustelle presents.

More important to me, and likely to prompt further postings in this series, are several themes in Aztec culture that are directly relevant to Americans today who are concerned about the character of our own culture: the perils of combining political authority and religion, the destructive results when war and religion join forces, the strength and weakness of societies in which religion is the compound that holds things together, and the fascination and evil possibilities that come when the shedding of blood is the ritual that keeps nature and society in motion.

Note: Although Soustelle’s book was written more than half a century ago, its continuing usefulness was confirmed when the English translation by Patrick O’Brian (1961) was republished in 1991 by Phoenix Press (London). Its value is also supported in Tlacatecco, a blog dealing with Mesoamerican culture, history and religion. More recent books about Aztec culture, history, and religion are available for readers interested in delving more deeply into this subject. My thanks to Annie Bloom’s Bookstore in Portland’s Multnomah Village where I came across Soustelle’s book.