Tlacaélel, a man of our time?
Watching an old British travelogue the other night, I was rather annoyed by the way every every indigenous Mexican (and surviving indigenous custom) was described as “Aztec”. The Aztecs themselves were simply the ruling class of the Mexica, the people of what is now metropolitian Mexico City. Given recent events and revelations, though, perhaps that 1960s travelogue wasn’t completely wrong.
In lumping everything pre-Conquest with the Aztecs, we forget they were only an “Empire” for about 100 years, and that they were less an Empire in the sense of direct control over subject peoples as they were an economic and political “superpower” that wasn’t shy about using force to maintain access to needed (and merely desirable) goods and services, or to maintain garrisons (what today we’d call “overseas bases”) to drive home the point that they can and would intervene when necessary, but prefered to rely on ideology.
And the great ideologue of the Aztecs was Tlacaelel, the very long-lived (1397 – 1487) brother of Montezuma I. Described as both an economist and a religious “reformer”, Tlacaelel’s greatest contribution to the Aztec hegemony was understanding that belief systems can be used for control. While human sacrifice was always part of Mesoamerican religious practice, it was Tlacaelel who made it central to Mexica beliefs, and who — by whatever means necessary — forced the client states and subject people to accept the general principles of that system.
Tlacaelel not only invented the “flower wars”… the ritual fights between the “Aztecs” and their subjects … which their subjects were obliged to loose… in order to bring in captives, who were then sacrificed. And, the subject people paid tribute in sacrificial victims.
Think of it as arms control… overwhelmingly, the sacrificial victims were young men, either warriors or potential warriors from the subject or client states. In a world of human-powered weaponry, this removed the means of delivery of those weapons, and — incidentally — deprived clients and subjects of potential leaders who might become a threat to the central power.
Furthermore, part and parcel of his “reforms”, Tlacaelel reformed the educational system. With special schools for the elites … in which the children of privilige learned not only the philosophy and science of human sacrifice, but the ethical justification for it… and a lesser education meant to provide technical skills needed by the state, and to inculcate the sense that one’s lot was to be sacrificed, to feed the system.
Of course, we’re living in the 21st century, where our God is not Huizapotchli, but the Dollar, and where the purpose of education is not to convince us that we must give our lives if the sun is to rise in the morning, but rather that we must work constantly to keep the dollar strong and healthy. Why would there be a phoney war against the people… given that we think in terms of exports and imports, not sun gods? Why would anything think killing off the young, and future leaders, might be a means of preventing challenges to the system? Why… that would be unthinkable… wouldn’t it?