Understanding the Misunderstood

Camilla Townsend’s book ‘The Fifth Sun’ dispels the age-old notions that depicted Aztecs as a blood thirsty, barbaric civilization and throws light on their triumphs and struggles.

According to the Aztec folklore, the universe had imploded four times previously and they were living under the fifth sun thanks to the courage of an ordinary man called ‘Nanahuatzin (Na-na-wa-tzeen). When the Gods asked for a volunteer who could immolate himself and bring forth a new sun, Nanahuatzin volunteered and without much fanfare stepped into the fire. As he burned, the sun rose and the life on the earth was saved.

When I read this interesting story from Camilla Townsend’s book “The Fifth Sun: A New History of Aztecs”, which had been awarded the Montreal’s McGill University’s much coveted US$ 75,000 Cundill History Prize 2020, I was reminded of a similar legend inscribed on a plaque in the Mehrangarh fort of Jodhpur in Rajasthan.

When Rao Jodha wanted to build a grand fort on a hillock, a saint who was known as the Chidiyawale Baba was meditating in that area. Disturbed by the soldier, he cursed that if the king attempts to build the fort of his dreams, his kingdom would be fraught with repeated draughts. When the king begged the saint for forgiveness, the saint told him that though he could not take the curse back but if the king could find a man who is buried alive on his own will, the curse would be neutralized and the city would be protected. Thus in 1459 they found a volunteer in Rajaram Meghwal, who agreed to sacrifice his life protect the land and its people. In return, Rao Jodha promised him that he and his heirs would look after Rajaram’s family.
But, the question is would a foreigner understand this sacrifice or would he term it as a barbaric act? How can someone truly understand and appreciate these acts of heroism and sacrifice unless they understand the underlying culture, bravery and emotions of the person who willingly chose to end his life for a cause which he perceived to be much greater than him?
In most articles, books and movies, the Aztecs have been depicted as people who loved violence and brutally sacrificed people for their own pleasure or purposes. The Spanish conquistadors who came wrote about the grisly ceremonies where the Aztec priests would slice open their victims’ chests and offer their still beating hearts to the Gods. The bodies would then be tossed down the steps of the towering temple of Mayor. Many archaeologists have found skull racks and towers during the course of their digs and expeditions.

Movies like Apocaylpto have enough violence to convince the world that this ancient civilization knew nothing else. Spanish is a language spoken by millions across the world, hence when the Spanish conquistadors wrote about their perceptions and impressions of this ancient civilization, people took it to be the truth.
No one till now really bothered to go beyond this widespread perception of the Aztecs because for the people of the west it would mean looking at the other side of the story. It would mean understanding the point of view of an almost extinct civilization, the people who were really not ‘Indians’ but had been forced with a name just because when the famous explorer Christopher Columbus landed in Antilles near Mexico, he believed that he had reached the Indian Ocean. Though the mistake was discovered with time but the name stuck with Europeans, the Spanish friars and the subsequent explorers who referred to the native Americans as Indians. It seems quite similar to how some people still think of India as a land of snake charmers and elephants!

‘After the conquest, the young people trained in the Roman alphabet began to write down what the various elders said, carefully transcribing their words onto paper and then storing the folios on a special shelf or in a locked box- another well-loved innovation that the Spaniards had brought…[…].’
It was these records that helped Camilla Townsend, who is an American historian and distinguished professor of history at Rutgers University, New Jersey in United States, to understand the real Aztecs and their life. In her book, she says she ‘was sitting in a library when heard a captured Aztec princess shouting at her enemies.’ This inspired her to read the accounts of the early native Americans in Nahuatl (Na-wat) and Spanish and write a book which for the first time presented the Aztec point of view to the world.
From the book, it is obvious that the Aztecs were intelligent, enterprising and tough people who had learnt to make the best of every situation that they found themselves in.
In one story, when they found themselves living as the servants of another, more powerful ancient tribe, they devised a plan for their freedom. They offered to take responsibility for handling the festivities of an upcoming religious holiday and asked the overlord chiefs to lend them their broken cast off weapons for a performance for the rulers which they were happily given. After all, what could they do with the old weapons?
‘They worked night after night, patiently, painstakingly gluing, sewing and repairing, rendering the feathered, painted shields and spears truly beautiful . At last, they were ready to launch their bid for their people’s freedom- which of course they won.’
Aztecs were known for their sacrifices. Some prisoners of war were sacrificed in religious festivals while the women desired by the warrior were sent to his household. However, the sacrifices were not as gory as the movies and books have made them out to be.
‘In reality, it seems to have been a gravely quiet, spellbinding experience for the onlookers, […]. After a sacrifice, the warrior who had captured and presented the victim kept the remains (the hair and ceremonial regalia) in a special reed chest in a place of honour in his home for as long as he lived.’
It was mostly men who were sacrificed, however, when women were sacrificed the ceremony was different.
‘In one annual festival, for instance, a young girl taken in war was brought from a local temple to the home of her captor. She dipped her hand in blue paint and left her print on the lintel of his door, a holy mark that would last for years and remind people of the gift she gave of her life. Then she was taken back to the temple to face the cutting stone. It was an ancient tradition among the native people not to give way before one’s enemies; such stoicism brought great honour. ‘
This reminded me of the sacrifices made by women in the Indian culture specially when they had to perform jauhar to preserve their honour. Even today, many of Rajasthan’s forts have handprints of women who sacrificed their lives for their honour. In India’s history too, whether in war or death, men who have met their fate with courage have been revered and honoured.

When I asked Camilla Townsend about why sacrifices were such an integral part of all the ancient cultures of the world, she said, “I think the concept of a human sacrifice began as this idea where the ancient human beings were trying to show the divine that they were willing to accept their fate in a rather beautiful way. But unlike the common depiction in many books, these sacrifices initially were not an attempt to humiliate the enemy. On the contrary if the young warrior died without screaming, he was given a great honour as if he himself was a God. All warriors knew that if they were taken prisoners, that would be their fate. They would then try to show themselves, their enemies, their Gods and their people how strong they were and how willing to die they were for the cause.”
However, she further added that when the Aztecs were at the height of their power, sacrifices acquired a different meaning all together. “In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when the Aztec civilization was at its prime, instead of sacrificing an occasional prisoner of war, they started to sacrifice dozens of their enemies and prisoners of war. We have a text from that time which says that they used to go and kidnap or take people from the outskirts, places they were interested in conquering and bring them to their capital city and watch the sacrifices. These terrified people were then sent back to their homes where they convinced their townsmen to give up without a fight or else be prepared for a terrible war.”

Another interesting aspect about the Aztecs was the way they maintained two calendars and considered thirteen a lucky number. We, in India also refer to a lunar and a solar calendar. However, in our case, both calendars have the same number of days.
“There were two ongoing cycles of time. One was a solar calendar which consisted of eighteen months of twenty days, plus five blank or unnamed, frightening days at the end, for a total of 365 days. The other was a purely ceremonial calendar containing thirteen months of 20 days each, for a total of 260 days…The two cycles of time both returned to their starting point at the end of fifty-two solar years. Thus a bundle of fifty two years as they termed it was as important to them as a century is today. To name each year they tied it to the ceremonial calendar’s most important number: thirteen. The fifty two years were divided into four groupings of thirteen each, like this: One Reed, Two Flint-knife, Three House, Four Rabbit, Five Reed, Six Flint Knife…[..] Thirteen Reed, and then beginning again One Flint-knife.”
In her book, it was the younger generation of the Aztecs who worked to preserve the ancient records when they were conquered by the Spanish. Is it the case today too? Is the young generation doing anything to preserve their culture? “Yes, the younger generation of the native Americans in United States of America (USA) is trying to preserve languages and to offer classes and do everything that they can to make sure that the future people still have some access to these ancient ways of knowing speaking and believing. Today many young people leave the reservations, get jobs in the cities and become activists and remind us all that they are still native Americans. But it is an uphill battle compared to situation in Latin America where people were not put in reservations and can speak in their language, if not follow their religion. The people in Mexico have established classes, community centres, radio programs and books to validate and get people excited about these traditions. However, the truth is that to get a good paying job in Mexico, you must learn Spanish and then possibly English. It will not pay you in a financial sense to become an expert in languages like Nahuatl (Na-wat). The scholars in United States have been thinking about it and trying to raise money about it. Though there have not been any grand successes yet but there are programs attempting to make a difference.”
The book is filled not just with the real account of the events that transpired but also with fables and legends of the Aztecs that helped them to find their strength and fight battles that they would eventually lose. For the first time, Camilla Townsend could present a different story of a civilization that has long been misconstrued and misunderstood. However, one wonders if there are any other such long lost civilizations whose stories have just been misconstrued by their conquerors and they had no one to tell the truth?

This article by Shailaza Singh  was published in Rashtradoot Newspaper’s Arbit Section on 11 April 2021.


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