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Part 16 Part 18

The Aztecs: A Tributary Empire (17)

Debunking Where Debunking Is Due

It is easy to be lulled into believing that all of the ancient Nahua valued war above all else, and thought death in war or childbirth or on a sacrificial stone was a quick route to eternal happiness as a butterfly. It is perhaps what Sahagún's informants told him. However it is also absurd. Here is why:

The Nahua were an agricultural people, and as with all agricultural societies, this meant that the vast majority worked very hard keeping their households going and keeping their crops coming in. To imagine that very many people spent very much of their time marching around in feathers or ripping each other's hearts out is to ignore the demographic constraints that nature imposes upon human populations. Even those boys who attended the calpólli schools and sang war chants also spent time in the fields and got married in their 20s to found families. Calpólli chiefs were probably often men who had engaged in battles, but competence at a range of other tasks, from bookkeeping to dispute settlement, were eventually more important to them, just as they are to all real leaders. Many men lived to retire at age 52 and spend their remaining years as calpólli elders (calpol-huehuétqueh), and obviously none of these respected people had died on a battlefield or sacrificial stone, and they apparently were content not to become butterflies.

photo by DKJ
Willing Victim? It is difficult to imagine that very many of the young men taken in battle and ritually killed by the Aztec polity thought it was a good idea. At the scale at which the Aztecs practiced this, coercion and intimidation seem the best interpretation. This modern Mexican waxwork is remarkable in representing the process of tearing out someone's heart as involving very little blood, literally "cleaning up" this remarkable aspect of Mexico's cultural heritage.

In other words, although success in warfare was important, and in spectacular cases could be rewarded with agricultural estates, most farming was done by hardworking farmers, and most households, both before and after the Spanish conquest, were far more concerned with sickness and health, with raising and cooking food, with mending nets and feeding turkeys, with telling stories and playing with children, than they were with the politics of empire or with wishing they could wear sandals with feathers, or with ceremonies designed to make the régime look imposing. And most people in the Aztec empire had never laid eyes on Tenochtítlan. In other words, a Nahua farmer or craftsman and his family could live perfectly satisfactory lives without spending any of it thinking about wars in Oaxaca or sacrifices in honor of Xípe Tótec. The vast majority probably led just such lives.

Traders —the pochtécah mentioned earlier— did not win that status through participation in warfare either. On the contrary, the profession of trader, which was far older than the Aztec régime, had its own prestige hierarchies, with its own ranks, and among the Mexica there were calpólli-based trading expeditions. The traders we are told about, the spectacular traders, traveled long distances, engaged in political spying, and carried luxury goods back to the palace for redistribution to favored warriors. But the great market at Tlatelólco was full of people trading turkeys and fish and pumpkins and chipped stone tools. These were not people leading picturesque lives full of skullduggery or of secret sources of gold or of deeds of derring-do. The vast majority of them have to have been ordinary people, trying to go about the prosaic business of living their lives.

In other words, although militarism was very central to the Aztec political system, and even though many thousands of people were purposely killed in the course of the brief history of this régime, it is important to remember that many of the most striking things we read about Aztec life, from the human sacrifice to the feather embroidery, affected only a small portion of the population.

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