Number 13

Editor’s note: This content is archival.

Nahua Newsletter

February 1992, Number 13

The Nahua Newsletter

With support from the Department of Anthropology

Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne

Alan R. Sandstrom, Editor

A Publication of the Indiana University

Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies



Welcome to the 13th issue of the Nahua Newsletter, your communication link to others
from around the world with an interest in the history, language, and culture of
Nahuatl-speaking peoples. This issue contains news items of interest to Nahua
specialists, announcements, and an update of the membership directory including
information on recent publications and research activities.

Interest in the Newsletter continues and our membership now surpasses 310. The word
is spreading and presses are beginning to send copies of recent publications for
review. Accordingly, starting with this issue we will begin to publish book reviews
written by Newsletter subscribers. If you have any comments or if you wish to be
included on the list of reviewers, please drop me a note.

Also, please take a few minutes and send along any news items, announcements,
requests for cooperation, changes of address, and suggestions to:

Alan R. Sandstrom, Editor The Nahua Newsletter Department of Anthropology
Indiana-Purdue University 2101 Coliseum Blvd. East Fort Wayne, Indiana 46805

I would particularly appreciate hearing of changes in the mailing status of
subscribers. If you are aware of any modifications that I should make on the mailing
list, please let me know.

I am pleased to announce that we have sold two sets of mailing labels and that
proceeds will help offset costs entailed in producing and mailing the Newsletter. Also,
at press time, one subscriber has made a contribution to help offset publication costs.
The goal is to maintain the Newsletter as an open forum and to keep issuing it free of
charge to interested scholars. Your tax-deductible contribution to the Newsletter would
be greatly appreciated. Please make checks payable to Indiana University, annotated
“for Latin American Studies,” and send to:

Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies Indiana University 313 North Jordan
Avenue Bloomington, Indiana 47405.

News Items

(1) Members of the Nahua Group met in Chicago during the American Anthropological
Association annual conference. Approximately twenty people attended and it was decided
to sponsor a Nahua symposium at the next AAA conference in San Francisco. Jane Hill
graciously agreed to organize the session that we decided to call it “The Ongoing
Encuentro.” The theme of the entire AAA conference is “Multiculturalism in the
Quincentenary Year” and everyone felt that it is especially important the Nahuas be
represented. Jane has mailed fliers to everyone on the Nahua Newsletter subscriber
list, but in case you did not receive yours, the AAA meeting will be held December 2-6.
Abstracts for papers and all accompanying materials must be submitted to Jane by March
16, 1992. Reports from all areas of Nahua studies are welcome. All information and
necessary forms are in the January Anthropology Newsletter. Please submit materials to
Jane H. Hill, Department of Anthropology, Haury Building, University of Arizona,
Tucson, AZ 85721.

(2) Danièle Dehouve has published a new book entitled Quand les banquiers
etaient des saints: 450 ans de l’histoire économique et sociale d’un province
indienne de Mexique. It is described in the flier as follows:

Il fut un temps où, dans la région de Tlapa au Mexique, les banquiers
se nommaient saint Augustin ou saint Michel: les saints patrons des villages indiens
étaient en effet dotés de capitaux monétaires que les
“confréries religieuses” consacrées à leur dévotion
investissaient dans le commerce ou l’usure. Un tel rapport entre l’organisation
communautaire villageoise et le marché parait typique de l’histoire de cette
région indienne de la cote Pacifique.

Plus de quatre cent cinquante ans de la vie d’une société indienne
confrontée à l’économie de marché constituent la trame de
cet ouvrage, des premières formes de vente et de travail forcés au
développement de la petite production marchande en liaison avec les
confréries religieuses. Dans ce contexte, Danièle Dehouve suit la mise en
place d’une société postcortésienne entièrement nouvelle.
Elle décrit trois siècles de domination espagnole marqués par la
décadence de la noblesse indienne, la fragmentation en villages et la
transformation de l’organisation politique et religieuse locale. Puis elle
étudie l’explosion des conflits paysans que aux XIXe et XXe siècles
modifient ce paysage régional.

Les méthodes des antropologues et des historiens se combinent pour fournir
cette monographie régionale, la première à retracer une aussi
longue périod historique.

Première partie
Les lieux et les hommes
Chapitre I Tlapa, une voie d’accès à la cote Pacifique
Chapitre II L’évolution démographique
Chapitre III Haciendas, troupeaux et grands domaines
Deuxième partie
Espagnols et noblesse indienne
Chapitre IV Tlapa au moment de la conquete
Chapitre V Une période transitoire, les encomiendas: 1520-1550
Chapitre VI La réforme tributaire 1550-1650 (1) aspects économiques
Chapitre VII La réforme tributaire 1550-1650 (2) aspects politiques
Troisième partie
La formation de la communauté et de la production marchande
Chapitre VIII La marginalisation de la noblesse indienne
Chapitre IX Le village et la fiscalité
Chapitre X Le village et la production marchande
Quatrième partie
La communauté indienne moderne
Chapitre XI Après l’Indépendance 1810-1910 (1)
l’individualisation des échanges commerciaux
Chapitre XII Après l’Indépendance 1810-1910 (2)municipalités et
élites paysannes\
Chapitre XIII Le temps de la “coutume” 1910-1960
Chapitre XIV La communauté et les travaux d’équipement 1960-1980

To purchase the book, inquiries should be sent to Presses de CNRS, 20-22 rue
Saint-Amand, 75015 Paris, France (télex 200 356 F, Fax 45 33 92 13).

(3) Corn is Our Blood: Culture and Ethnic Identity in a Contemporary Aztec Indian
Village by Alan R. Sandstrom has just been published by the University of Oklahoma
Press. The book contains new information on village economy, religion, curing
practices, kinship organization, and processes of ethnic identity from a conservative
Nahua community in the tropical forests of northern Veracruz. It is written to be used
in undergraduate as well as graduate courses so that Nahua culture can be better
represented in the curriculum. The paperback edition is 420 pages long and contains 25
color plates ($19.95; cloth $39.95). It is volume 206 in the Civilization of the
American Indian Series.

Table of Index
Chapter 1 Entering the Field
Chapter 2 The Village in Its Setting
Chapter 3 Amatlán and Its People
Chapter 4 Social Organization and Social Action
Chapter 5 Amatlán Household Economic and Production Activities
Chapter 6 Religion and the Nahua Universe
Chapter 7 Ethnic Identity and Culture Change

Cooperation Section

Robert M. Laughlin writes: I would appreciate it if you could put in the Nahua
Newsletter a query to see if anyone has seen a Nahuatl translation of a Spanish
proclamation, “Proclama a los habitantes de ultramar,” signed by the Duque del
Infantado and dated August 30, 1812, Cádiz. It informs the colonists that they
have a new constitution, that prosperity is right around the corner, and won’t they
help defeat the monster Napoleon? Please send responses to: Robert M. Laughlin, NHB
112, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. 20560.

Book Reviews

As noted above, it is a pleasure to announce that beginning with this issue the
Nahua Newsletter will publish reviews of books that are of interest to readers. Not all
of the books are specifically about Nahuas, but so far the presses have sent items that
should be of general interest. I would like reviews to contain a summary of the work so
that readers can determine its relevance, along with a critical evaluation. This is the
place to express strong opinions about an author’s theoretical orientation and handling
of data. I will also welcome letters in response to reviews, either pro or con.
Subscribers to the Nahua Newsletter come from a variety of fields including art
history, linguistics, history, and anthropology. It will be interesting and
enlightening to read these differing perspectives. To get the process started, Michael
Logan has submitted a review of Daniel Reff’s new book on the impact of disease in New
Spain, and I have written a review of Inga Clendinnen’s new book on the Aztecs. Please
take a few minutes and write a response if you have comments to make.

Disease, Depopulation, and Culture Change in Northwestern New Spain, 1518-1764 by Daniel T. Reff. Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press, 1991. Pp. v+330. $30.00. ISBN 0-87480-355-1.

There is an irony of immense significance imbedded in the post contact history of
the Americas. Smallpox, as an agent of change, had an incalculable effect on
transforming the New World, perhaps more so than any other factor associated with
European conquest and colonization. Yet, and here is where the irony lies, smallpox
experienced a fate identical to the one it wrought on all too many native peoples–that
of extinction.

Though the world is now, thankfully, totally free of this disease because of
immunization, smallpox once functioned as a major, albeit brutal, architect of cultural
and demographic change throughout the Americas. If only those millions of Amerindians
struck from exposure to Variola, the smallpox virus, could now know that the dreaded
agent of their suffering and loss has also perished, then perhaps there could be at
last some “poetic justice” for the immeasurable hardships that Native Americans endured
as a result of, from their perspective, this unknown, uncaring, unstoppable
taker-of-life. The history of post-contact America owes all too much to this pathogen
introduced from the Old World.

It is perhaps impossible to overstate just how important smallpox was, frequently
working in tandem with other introduced maladies, notably measles and influenza, in
altering forever the culture history of the Western hemisphere. Virtually every aspect
of protohistoric and colonial Indian life changed as a result of diseases set loose in
a “virgin soil” population. Similarly, there is little in the history of European
domination of the Americas that cannot be seen as having occurred independent of the
European’s most sinister of all allies — the plague of pox.

Daniel Reff, in a superb analysis of ethnohistoric data, intermixed with materials
drawn from archaeological and ethnographic sources as well, develops a lucid portrayal
of the crucial and multifaceted role smallpox held in shaping the demographic and
cultural history of the Greater Southwest, a region encompassing northwestern Mexico
and the Puebloan zones of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. The importance of
Reff’s work, however, extends far beyond his regional focus. It extends to every corner
of the Western Hemisphere, from the Aleutians to Tierra del Fuego. Smallpox reached all
locales, and with equally dire consequences.

This book, an outgrowth of Reff’s doctoral dissertation (Oklahoma, 1985),
contributes importantly not only to the literature on disease as an agent of change in
the Americas, but to the recent literature that critically reassesses many
long-standing models of both aboriginal life and cultural collapse in the Greater
Southwest, as well as the dynamics of Indian-White relations in this region, and

The book contains six chapters, over the course of which appear thirty-one figures,
mostly maps to illustrate the geographic extent of various epidemics, and fourteen
tables that detail the demographic trends–the population loss–resulting from the
Indians’ increased exposure to European pathogens. From these tables and figures, and,
of course, the adjoining text, which is skillfully composed and presented, the reader
quickly gains an appreciation of the true depth and quality of Reff’s scholarship. The
book’s bibliography, which runs thirty-seven pages, is a valuable reference source for
anyone having an interest in disease and the social and demographic history of the

In the introductory chapter, Reff identifies the central objective of his research,
which is to document “the demographic and cultural consequences of Spanish-introduced
disease among aboriginal populations in northwestern Mexico, particularly what is today
northwestern Durango, Sinaloa, Sonora, and southwestern Chihuahua” (p.5). His analysis
also touches on the Pima of Arizona and the Puebloans of New Mexico, with occasional
reference to the Aztec of central Mexico and the Inca of Peru. An important feature of
chapter 1 is that Reff, from the very first sentence, highlights the horror and
suffering that smallpox caused within Indian communities. “It is doubtful,” he writes,
“that there was a word or phrase that aroused as much fear among native people in
Mexico during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as the term cocoliztli” (p.1).
This Nahuatl word for disease now encompassed within its domain the deadliest of all
maladies–smallpox. Cocoliztli claimed countless thousands of lives, thereby reducing
some native populations in the Greater Southwest by as much as 90 percent in the course
of only 150 years.

The introductory chapter also contains a rationale for Reff’s primary focus on
northwestern Mexico. He additionally explains why southwesternists have largely ignored
the role of disease in explaining both the collapse of native cultures in this region
and the acceptance of Jesuit-run missionary life by most tribal groups. As a closing
feature of this chapter Reff introduces the reader to the still popularly held, though
erroneous and ethnocentric, assumption that “civilization” — the lifeway of Europeans
— was destined, due to its superiority, to displace and surpass the “savage” native.
The myth of manifest destiny certainly owes less to this claimed superiority than to
the realities of introduced diseases, brutal enslavement, starvation, and mortal

The next three chapters are devoted, respectively, to an overview of the aboriginal
cultures of northwestern Mexico (chapter 2); reconstructing a chronology of the
epidemics occurring in the study area until 1764, two years prior to the expulsion of
the Jesuits from Mexico by royal decree (chapter 3); assessing the demographic
consequences of smallpox and other introduced diseases, particularly in relation to the
phenomenal infant mortality witnessed by Indian parents and the census-taking Jesuits
alike (chapter 4). It was especially the loss of the young that crippled, at times
totally denying, a population’s ability to rebound demographically from the
catastrophic culling that smallpox and its related Old World brethren placed on native
peoples. Cultures literally “imploded” by the weight of all in the group being gravely
ill at the same time. There were insufficient few well enough to procure and prepare
food, or to care for the sick. Cultural systems simply came to a halt as mortality rose

Chapters 2 through 4 represent the major thrust of Reff’s efforts. Each is superbly
done, with a wealth of citations and quantitative data given in support of his
reconstructions, many of which contradict established scholarly opinion on 1) the
complexity of aboriginal sociopolitical organization in northwestern Mexico; 2) this
region’s population size prior to and after contact (frequently given by tribal group);
3) the magnitude of population loss due to disease during the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries; and 4) the scenarios advanced for cultural collapse and site abandonment in
the Greater Southwest.

Reff, in chapter 5, his next to last, presents a truly innovative, yet again
well-documented, discussion of the Jesuit Mission Period in this region of Mexico
(1591-1762). The author here examines the dynamics of Mission Indian life and the
conditions that favored both change and continuity in native tradition. As with earlier
chapters, this one is well conceived, researched, and presented. It is indeed requisite
reading for all who study culture change in the Americas. Among the many topics
discussed, the following seem central: cultural parallels between Amerindian and
Spanish religion; the psychological void produced when aboriginal belief systems and
specialists failed to account for, or abate, the unfathomable suffering and losses due
to introduced diseases; and the explicit and, at times, unknowing skill of the Jesuit
priests to console, revitalize, and change such severely shocked native populations.
These and related topics are all covered skillfully with respect to the author’s
central theme that disease was the pivotal force behind the demographic and cultural
changes affecting Indian peoples in protohistoric and colonial northwestern New

Reff’s primary data sources are the documentary records produced by early Spanish
explorers who ventured into this region of Mexico and, more importantly, of course, the
lengthy reports — the memorias and anuas — of the Black Robes or Jesuit missionary
priests. Reff also makes use of limited archaeological and ethnographic literature in
developing his principal thesis that disease was a factor of greater importance in
shaping the culture history of northwestern Mexico, and the Puebloan southwest, than
other researchers to date have yet acknowledged.

In the sixth and concluding chapter, Reff summarizes the relevance of his findings,
which bear importantly on two interrelated research topics. The first of these concerns
the role of introduced disease elsewhere in the Americas. Drawing from the case of
northwestern Mexico, Reff concludes that: 1) the rapid and pronounced depopulation
witnessed in central Mexico and Inca Peru were not unusual; 2) profound changes in
aboriginal cultures can be linked directly to the precipitous decline in native
populations; 3) Indian acceptance of missionization owed more to population loss and a
disease environment than to the often assumed superiority of European culture; and 4)
Jesuit priests effectively reorganized much in terms of native extractive and
organizational strategies, yet the majority of Christian beliefs the priests sought to
inculcate were not totally accepted, but were reworked and blended with indigenous
religious elements.

The second topical area where Reff’s findings are particularly significant pertains
to the long assumed “gap” in the archaeological record for the Greater Southwest. The
relative paucity of sites and components dating to the protohistoric period (1450 to
1650) had been read by most researchers as compelling evidence for cultural collapse,
site abandonment, and outward migration prior, the logic went, to the arrival of
Europeans in this area. Reff points out, however, and convincingly so, that this
assumed gap is more artificial than real, and its “existence” owes primarily to the
fact that most researchers have overlooked the role of introduced disease in altering
the culture history of the Greater Southwest. Rather than an actual gap between late
prehistoric cultures and those observed during the colonial period, there is indeed a
continuum, one which becomes understandable when the presence of disease is taken into
account. “If we recognize,” notes Reff, “that the gap in the archaeological record is
artificial, then various anomalies are no longer problematic…” (p.280). In his use of
the word “anomalies,” Reff is referring, of course, to a number of highly apparent and
long studied “problems” in Greater Southwestern culture history.

Site abandonment, for example, is precisely what one would expect given the
virulence of introduced disease. So, too, is the “much debated lack of continuity that
characterizes the Hohokam and the eighteenth century Pima…” (p.281). Reff goes on to
add that “if we acknowledge the evidence of disease, then we also have an explanation
for the lack of correspondence that characterizes the accounts of life that were
compiled by Spanish explorers (A.D. 1530-65) and the later accounts of the Jesuits.”
Similarly, “Acknowledging the evidence of disease makes it further possible to account
for Jesuit and Indian relations without reference to ethnohistoric notions of cultural
superiority” (p. 281). Reff’s data do much to resolve these apparent anomalies. They
also serve well to provide cultural continuity where earlier only a gap had been

The overall value of Reff’s book owes to many different things. Foremost among these
is the invaluable service Reff has provided by bringing a large and diverse archival
record into the public domain. Had not this demanding project been completed, other
scholars interested in historical epidemiology and Native American culture change would
have been denied what is now a singular, though comprehensive and meticulous overview
of ethnohistoric sources for northwestern Mexico and the Greater Southwest.

The innovative and eclectic perspectives woven into Reff’s work are to be applauded
as well. He has given our discipline not only a truly worthwhile case study of the
impact of Old World diseases in a novel environment, but sound critiques of, and
alternatives to, conventional scholarly opinion on Greater Southwestern culture
history. As a result, what were once considered voids, anomalies, discontinuities, and
discrepancies in both the archaeological and ethnohistoric records for this region of
the New World can now be more realistically viewed as outcomes of introduced disease.
Researchers now have a causal model far better equipped to explain the dynamics of
demographic and sociopolitical change in the Greater Southwest than what earlier
reconstructions had to offer. Disease seems so simple, yet as an agent of change it far
overshadowed other suggested architects of a changing culture history, from drought and
environmental degradation to warfare, invading hostile groups, revolt, outward
migration and, of course, the superiority of the newly arrived European ways. Reff
confers to disease, notably smallpox, its rightful place, albeit an infamous one, in
the history of once separate peoples.

Cocolitzli transformed the Americas. And in its wake Indians suffered unprecedented
suffering and loss of life. Their worlds were shook beyond what most could endure, with
native healers and priests unable to explain and, more importantly, stop the ravages of
this disease. Reff does a superb job of retracing both the history and impact of
disease on native population, sociopolitical organization, and world view. What this
reviewer finds so attractive about Reff’s work is that, while he presents his thesis in
a dispassionate and empirical manner, he does not lose sight of the immense
psychological shock Amerindians bore as their own cultures increasingly failed to
protect them from these once totally unknown diseases. Their cultures also failed to
explain why they should endure unparalleled suffering while most Europeans went
unscathed. This shock certainly fueled rapid cultural change, with native peoples
desperately searching for things, both old and new, that would enable them to

Hispanic acculturation among the Indian peoples of northwestern New Spain (and
elsewhere, of course) was a dynamic of cultures in contact, yet it would never have
occurred as history informs us without the presence of smallpox. By demonstrating the
validity of this exact point, Reff clearly exposes the ethnocentric bias of
interpretations of acculturative change couched in the logic of European cultural
superiority. Reff also adds novel and needed insight into a re-thinking of Greater
Southwestern culture history.

Any reader of Reff’s pioneering work will quickly come to realize just how
significant smallpox was as an agent of change in this region of the Americas.
Cocolitzli was unparalleled in the suffering it caused and the cultural transformations
it facilitated. Reff deserves acclaimed recognition for instructing us so clearly that
this was indeed the case.

Michael H. Logan
Department of Anthropology
University of Tennessee

Aztecs: An Interpretation by Inga Clendinnen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Pp. vii+398. $29.95 ISBN 0-521-40093-7.

This exploration of pre-Conquest Mexica world view by award winning historian Inga
Clendinnen promises to make a significant impact on Nahua studies. The book has already
won praise from scholars and it will reach a wide audience as a Book-of-the-Month Club
alternate selection and a History Book Club selection. The work is scholarly and
contains fresh insights into how the Mexica structured their world. Yet in the end, I
found the book disappointing from an anthropological perspective and limited in its
substantive contribution to our understanding of Mexica culture.

Clendinnen’s interest is in illuminating Mexica “sensibility: the emotional, moral
and aesthetic nexus through which thought comes to be expressed in action, and so made
public, visible, and accessible to our observation” (p.5). Her interpretations focus
“less on words than actions, and especially ritual actions” (p.5), less on belief than
the world view that underlies belief. She is not interested in the perspectives of the
elites, the usual grist for the historian’s mill, but wishes to understand “the
multiple ways in which ordinary Mexica men and women-in-the-city street made sense of
their world” (p.2). Rather than tackle the complexity of Mexica ritual as a totality,
she chooses to emphasize the one feature that sets the Mexica apart on the world
cultural stage: “My concern is to discover how ordinary people understood ‘human
sacrifice'” (p.4).

Clendinnen is to be admired for her courage in tackling such a task. To map the emic
world of a living group is a monumental undertaking that has not yet been achieved to
anyone’s satisfaction, but to attempt such an analysis on a group so removed in time,
space, history, language, and culture is positively “Quixotic,” to use her own word
(p.5). And yet she has selected a key question in Mexica studies, a question that
intrigues scholars and lay people alike. How could the Mexica have incorporated into
their day-to-day world the public spectacle of human sacrifice on such a scale? How
could such death, and often gruesome death at that, be rendered tolerable to so many
people over such a span of time?

She begins with a discussion of Tenochtitlan, which she calls a “beautiful parasite
feeding on the lives and labor of other peoples” (p.8). The architecture of the city
and its magnificently staged rituals served as a physical and aesthetic justification
for Aztec hegemony and for Aztec claims to wear the mantle of the Toltecs. Rituals in
particular were a kind of state theater expressing Aztec power, and leaders of
surrounding polities were always “invited” to witness the spectacles. For Clendinnen,
the key institution through which the average person experienced this engineered
magnificence was the calpulli. It represents the local group through which state
obligations and expectations were administered, where victorious warriors enjoyed
admiration, and where family and neighbors wept over military deaths.

Clendinnen presents a sophisticated if somewhat conventional interpretation of the
relation between the individual and the sacred for the Mexica. For her, Tezcatlipoca
best illuminates Mexica religious principles. All powerful and yet unpredictable, The
Mirror’s Smoke, as she calls him, exemplifies the uncertain relation between this deity
and his “slaves” or followers. Capriciousness of the sacred is reflected in Mexica
negative attitudes towards excess of any kind; drunkenness, heightened sexuality, or
physical filth. Self-abandonment can represent an invitation to the sacred with
unpredictable results. This conception of the sacred helps clarify the filthy
appearance of Mexica priests with their blood matted hair.

The author has an interesting discussion of the strategy that Mexica devotees use to
influence the uncertain sacred. She sees in their actions during rituals and before the
altars an attempt to demonstrate total dependence on the deities by eliciting their
pity. Self-debasement and painful, bloody acts of contrition set up a kind of exchange
with deities who are encouraged to take pity on their poor followers. She distinguishes
this concept from the Christian idea of mercy. For the Mexica, in the end, only death
can repay the earth and its associated deities for the gift of life.

Clendinnen next turns her attention to human sacrifice with particular emphasis on
the bathed slaves or ixiptla(s), defined as god representations or more accurately,
god-presenters (p.253). These victims were honored in the months and days before their
deaths on the killing stone and their role demanded that they cooperate with their
executioners in sometimes bizarre ways. The author asks how this cooperation could
possibly have been elicited. Victims were under the spell of having been specially
selected for their roles and of being rehearsed in what was expected of them. She finds
that near the time of death victims were treated very gently by old women and that this
infantalized them and made them pliant. Face-washing rituals replaced old statuses with
new ones, making victims more receptive to their fate. Also, victims were universally
admired and provided with gifts, special food, and “pleasure girls” and this built up a
sense of obligation and cooperation. The victim was exposed to the deliberate
preparations for the sacrifice that would have exercised a coercive influence and made
death seem inevitable. Finally, there were the hallucinogenic effects of dancing, mock
battle, and, near the end, the consumption of drugs.

The author tries to get at the ethos of Mexica urban life by examining the roles of
warriors, priests, and merchants. She finds that life was characterized by an extreme
competition for individual fame — fame that was seen as fleeting and insubstantial.
Deviation from rules or the warrior ideal in any aspect of life often resulted in
brutal public retribution. “Public physical humiliation and extreme violence is used
economically in most polities, and against the prestigious rarely and as a last resort:
in Tenochtitlan it was used extravagantly, publicly, and as a first resort”

Clendinnen then looks at Mexica sex roles. She finds male status to be based on a
“highly vulnerable social construct” (p.143), basically that of the warrior who may be
victorious one day and a sacrificial victim the next. If a victim fails to act properly
in the moments before sacrifice, the capturing warrior’s status can be reversed and he
is subject to public humiliation. The author’s more extensive treatment of women’s
place in Mexica society is the most successful part of the book. She finds that women
and men’s lives were inextricably intertwined, that there was no apparent warring
between the sexes, and that the best virtues were ideals for all humans and not just
males. In marriage, women were partners and not merely helpmates. “The identification
of the woman’s womb with the great womb of the earth was the foundation of the Mexica
system of thought” (p.208). For the Mexica, “both women and men pursue their separate
and dangerous paths to maintain humankind’s precarious purchase on existence”

After a discussion of Mexica aesthetics, the author provides a detailed
interpretation of ritual. Humans may glimpse the sacred as through a smoky mirror, with
certain creatures and objects such as birds, butterflies, and jade providing
intimations of the divine. The deities were not bounded entities but more like forces
and qualities that could assume many manifestations. She sees in Mexica thought what I
would call a pantheistic quality where sacred earth, blood, flesh, and maize “are the
same substance in different forms” (p.252). In this view, the ixiptla were not
impersonators but rather “that which enables the god to present aspects of himself”
(p.253). According to the author, the Mexica had a metaphysical religion in which
everything partakes of universal sacredness. This idea of shared substance made human
sacrifice especially meaningful and logical given Mexica assumptions about the

Clendinnen tries to uncover the deepest emotional wellsprings of Mexica ritual and
ultimately traces it to the small observances held at home. “Thus the intricate themes
of human-sacred interdependence, and the cautious, long-evolved human strategies for
survival rehearsed at the domestic hearth, were enacted in the ritual theater” (p.248).
Major rituals repeat on a large scale the experiences of children when they undergo
their initiation and other personal rites that have a deep meaning for the individual.
She concludes that Mexica ritual, far from legitimating social structure, in fact
illustrated, through state-supported violence and death, human limitations and frailty
in an inconstant universe. The author concludes the book with a discussion of the
Conquest and an epilogue in which she reviews the documentary sources upon which she
bases her study.

Clendinnen’s scholarship is extremely impressive. She reads widely and cites sources
ranging from anthropology to art history. The work is well organized with a good Index,
appendices that summarize information, and color plates. Yet I found the book somewhat
difficult to read. Her ornate style of writing obscures her insights and makes it
difficult to discern precisely what she is saying. Continuity is interrupted by the
number of citations on each page that forced the reader repeatedly to turn to the back
of the book. But from my perspective the major problem with the work is the
interpretivist orientation assumed by the author. Geertz’s unseen hand is felt here and
thus much of the value of the book is subverted.

The author assumes, incorrectly I think, that the Mexica were of a mind about their
society and ritual practices. She makes no room for dissent, Mexica atheists,
resistance, internal political strife, contested understandings, and the subtle but
pervasive “weapons of the weak” used by commoners against their oppressors. In her
hands the Mexica become unbelievable automatons uniform in thought and deed. I can
testify that this characterization is certainly not the case with their living

Reflecting the mirror smoke of Geertz, Clendinnen engages in a kind of symbolic
numerology. Interpreting documents is an infinite process, and it is a game that anyone
can play. The difficult part is providing criteria for verifying that one
interpretation is better than another. Without this crucial bit of methodology we are
doomed to numberless reworkings of the written record with no hope of scientific
progress. Insights abound in her work but it is difficult to know what to think about
them. Much of what she writes may be true, but without a better means of verification
it represents only one possibility among various alternatives.

By focusing on meaning alone outside of its political, economic, ecological, and
social context, the author avoids questions of why something like Mexica religion and
the cult of human sacrifice develops in the first place. What situations faced by the
Mexica led them to develop such a state religion and what factors can help explain a
reliance upon human sacrifice that is unique in the ethnographic record? Is she
implying that culture is a totally arbitrary creation uninfluenced by material factors?
Her approach insures that these questions will never be addressed, much less answered.
In the end, the problem of human sacrifice among the Mexica remains unresolved.

I was delighted that Clendinnen found ethnographic information from other American
Indian groups useful in her search for insights into Mexica ethos. Her foray into
ethnology is to be commended. However, instead of comparing such groups as the
Winnebago and the Crow with the Mexica, cultures far removed in space and life style,
why does she not stay closer to home? Excellent ethnographic information on
contemporary Nahuas (as well as related groups) has been published over the years, many
containing data on psychological orientation, symbols, and ethos. By confining herself
to North American cultural comparisons, she overlooks a rich source of data that could
have been used to lend weight to her interpretive conclusions.

Clendinnen is well aware of the difficulties of the task she has set for herself in
this book. The opacity of the documents and problems of gathering emic data on a people
long dead, however, are not her greatest impediments. The overwhelming obstacle remains
the interpretive approach in which belles lettres are valued over canons of
verifiability. In one passage, the author compares historians of remote places and
peoples to Ahabs pursuing the white whale. Then she adds, “We will never catch him, and
don’t much want to” (p.275). She goes on to say that such research simply tests the
limits of our own thought, understanding, and imagination. This book is well worth
reading but I did not find it a fully satisfying experience, nor may others interested
in catching whales.

Alan R. Sandstrom
Indiana-Purdue University
Fort Wayne, Indiana

Illustrations this issue

The illustration that appears in this issue is taken from Inga Clendinnen’s book
Aztecs: An Interpretation (1991 Cambridge University Press), following p. 240.

Directory updates

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