Art, Politics And Aztecs

Nothing feels benign anymore. That’s the lesson of terrorism. Planes used to be safe — flying used to be fun! So were movies and restaurants.

Everything feels wrong. We can land a rover on Mars, but our kids can’t pass math. We esteem yesterday over today and tomorrow. Major religions seem rigid. Many folks find life black and white. Then there’s the hate, the violence. It seems like one day there’s a shooting, and the next there’s an execution . America can’t even invade the right country anymore. Life seems overwhelming.

How do we approach all this? How do we approach all this safely?

Not long ago, we were in Mexico City. There is something quite evocative about standing before the Chacmool, a sacrificial altar. A human sacrificial altar. It reminds us of New York City.

A few years ago, we spent a week in New York City. We especially wanted to see the exhibit of Aztec art at the Guggenheim Museum.

We had lunch at the Tavern On The Green, a fashionable restaurant in Central Park. We sat next to a delightful group of eight women. They were high school classmates. To celebrate a birthday, they had flown in from all over the country. There was much photographing and joking. Their friendliness overtook our corner of the restaurant. And while we were not in their party, they were impossible not to notice.

Especially when, as suddenly as a tsunami, their conversation turned to the World Trade Center. They all knew someone who had died. One spoke of a neighbor, another of a brother-in-law. With anxiety still in her voice, the teacher told how she watched the towers collapse from her classroom. Most poignantly, the retiree added, “It’s different now that I live in Florida. Those people aren’t like us. They aren’t always on alert.”

The ladies at the neighboring table know something about fear.

The Aztecs ruled their region by terrorizing their neighbors. They were a rigid society. They were feared and despised by their neighbors, upon whom they constantly warred. But the aim of their “Flowery Wars” was not slaughter. They captured their opponents for human sacrifice.

That’s what’s so engaging about the Aztecs. In the town where Ground Zero is being reconstructed, we identify with the sacrificial victim.

The sacrifice was bent backward over the Chacmool, the altar. The victim’s arms, legs and head were held firmly by five priests. A sixth priest quickly and expertly plunges an obsidian knife between the terrified victim’s ribs. He twists the knife, spreads the ribs. A sacrifice is considered well done when the priest holds aloft the still-beating heart.

In a hostile universe, daily human sacrifice was needed to appease the gods. Sacrifice was a common part of minor ritual. On the other hand, thousands were sacrificed during the dedication of the Templo Mayor in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, today’s Mexico City.

But such sacrifice also earned the Aztecs the hatred of their neighbors, who were easy for Hernan Cortez to recruit. The Aztec empire ruled central and southern Mexico for about 300 years. But their reign ended swiftly upon the arrival of Conquistadores in 1519.

There was much to learn from an exhibit of Aztec art set in the town where there occurred the greatest loss of life due to a terrorist attack on American soil.

The Aztecs felt inferior to others. They esteemed their ancestors over themselves. Their theology was demanding. Life was black and white. The living were haunted by the dead, and they needed to appease the terrifying gods with human sacrifice. Xipe Totec, their god of fertility, was honored and appeased by priests who draped themselves in the skins of the sacrificed. They wore these skins until they virtually rotted off. Priests so clothed reminded the citizens that they were never safe from the demands of the gods. The Aztecs inhabited a world they found terrifying, and coped by becoming terrifying themselves.

Today, the Aztecs are reduced from their grandeur. We no longer have to fear them. We can go to the museum, and see the beautiful and frightening artifacts of a once dangerous people. Unlike the enemy who brought down the Twin Towers, the Aztecs no longer need be feared. Here at least we can be reassured that some fearsome enemies can be stopped.

Now we have a different enemy, one that we cannot see coming. Terrorism lurks in the most benign places, so that nothing feels benign anymore. (Where will we be vulnerable next? The food supply? Our french fries?) We have become afraid and vulnerable.

There was much reassurance offered by that exhibit. When we identify with the victims of the Aztecs, then we participate in an internal drama. We imagine capture and death, but we evade it. This time we get to leave unscathed. The ladies at the adjoining table remembered, again, years and months later, the ones who did not survive the attack. The Aztec exhibit engaged us in an imaginative trip into the terror. But this time we walk away.

Phoebe Ann Cirio is a psychoanalyst in private practice. John Samuel Tieman is a regular contributer to Coal Hill Review. They are married, and live in St. Louis.


Filed under: John Samuel Tieman, Prose