Wednesday, April 27, 2011


It is difficult to roam around the Templo Mayor site, the Aztec (or more properly Mexica) archaeological site in the historic centre of Mexico City, without being impressed or moved in some way. I was struck by two thoughts. First, how recent the history of this site is. The last major renovation to the Aztec temple occurred about 100 years prior to the arrival of the Spanish. The Spanish cathedral, literally a stones throw from the earlier temple, is itself impressive but if we can imagine traveling back in time another 100 years from its construction, there was the Aztec temple.

The second image that grew in my mind and became much more powerful than the image of the shortness of history, was that of the killing field. In the archaeological site and in the museum itself one sees the skull rack (I presume the one in the museum is original work while that in the site is probably a reconstruction), a representation of those killed in battle who were then sacrificed to the gods. Reliable accounts suggest that when the last renovation was made to the ancient temple 1000 people were sacrificed each day for the 20 days of the festival - 20,000 people lost their lives for the glory of god. All of this is now invisible but one can imagine the blood running down the temple, the body parts being dealt with and the fear that must have run through the streets. A visit to the ruins is like a visit to a concentration camp in Germany, the Cambodian killing fields or the country side of Rwanda. Yet, there are no signs telling us we are entering a killing ground, no suggestions to remember those who died at the site, no explanation of the use of body parts. It gets worse: there were five renovations to the ancient temple. Did each have a similar number of deaths associated with the grand reopening? Also of corse there were regular sacrifices at the site. Let your mind travel further and recall the enormous numbers of deaths in the streets (in what was really quite a small island) at the hands of the Spanish and of the Aztecs.

In an earlier post I reviewed the debate over cannibalism among the Aztecs and now it has become more real. One can indeed find images from Aztec sites of body parts being cooked and eaten. We know there was a belief that the bodies of those sacrificed became sacred: after death they took on additional importance. So it is unlikely the bodies were simply disposed of and more likely the bodies were consumed by the religious elite. This of course is only different from our treatment of the body of Jesus in its concreteness, not in its symbolism. How one might ask, could they possibly eat 20,000 sacred bodies? Perhaps this protein did in fact work its way down the “food chain” so to speak and fed a great many people.

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