Saturday, December 11, 2004
Cultures of death
Let us suppose that you are living in the great city of Tenochtitlan (today’s Mexico City) in the glory days of the Aztec Empire—that is, before the arrival of Cortés and the Spaniards. And let us imagine that you are worried—very, very worried. Will the sun rise tomorrow? What if it doesn’t? What if it never comes up again? We must do something to make sure the sun rises tomorrow or we are doomed!
Well, luckily for you, the Emperor, the leading nobles, and the chief priests have given this matter a great deal of thought. What we must do, they explain, is have the chief priest rip the hearts out of thousands of living humans, toss the hearts into a large stone container as food for the gods, and then hurl the bloody bodies down the steps of the Great Temple, whereupon they will be carefully butchered, cooked up, and eaten by the elite. There! That ought to do it! And sure enough, the sun does come up the next day!Is this what we learn from the monumental exhibition on the Aztecs currently installed at the Guggenheim Museum? Not at all. The existence of human sacrifice is gently alluded to, but certainly not emphasized. The issue of cannibalism is not mentioned at all, although it is an established fact that the Aztecs practiced cannibalism. The overall tone of the exhibition conforms to the prevailing mood of multicultural sensitivity and “understanding,” but we should no longer be surprised by that. The museum bookstore has a children’s book illustrating this bizarre culture. One sees weirdly jarring images of immaculately dressed small brown people going happily about their daily lives, apparently oblivious to the avalanche of carnage which is the very essence of their culture