Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Aztecs by Nigel Davies

The flute is one of my favorite instruments, especially music written for it in the last century.  There is something reflective and ephemeral about it.  Here is C.M. Widor's Suite for Piano and Flute.

Empires of Early Latin America (The Maya, the Aztecs, the Incas,) 3 Boxed SET Folio SocietyEmpires of Early Latin America (The Maya, the Aztecs, the Incas,) 3 Boxed SET Folio Society by NORMAN HAMMOND NIGEL DAVIES

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have reviewed the Maya earlier and I have not yet read the book about the Incas. This review is about the second book, The Aztecs.

This book was a rewarding read and more enjoyable than the first book on the Mayans. Probably because we have so many more written resources about the Aztecs while the writers of the Mayans had mostly to rely on speculation from what they could glean from artifacts. Consequently their history is sketchy at best.

The Aztecs, however, are well documented and we are treated to how beautiful, sophisticated and also how awful and barbarous these early inhabiters of Mexico and Central America were.

The Aztecs had a large, complex religious system with many gods, but all pointed to a sun god who had to be appeased through human sacrifice. Hundreds of thousands of victims were sacrificed to ensure the sun's daily rising. Most of these sacrifices were conquered people and prisoners of war.

The Aztecs were not a peaceful people and war was a constant necessary, not just for economic reasons, but because the religion and values of the their culture demanded constant glory which was accomplished through warfare, conquest and the sacrifice of humans to their gods.

While there is no doubt that the Aztecs were barbaric, they also possessed an elaborate mythology expressed through poetry, which is as beautiful and sophisticated as anything the ancient Greeks composed.

Nigel Davies does a good job writing in a fluid style that brings the Aztecs to life as well as documenting the succession of leaders, ending with Monteczuma (his spelling) and the final confrontation with the Spanish.

Cortez' diplomacy, where he achieved so brilliantly and where he failed so abysmally is worthy of a book all to itself. The impression the Spanish made to this heretofore cloistered race was astounding. The Spanish did many things right and also many things wrong. People today love to refer to the "Black Legend" which attributes all sorts of atrocities to the Spanish conquistadores. One need look only at how the Aztecs and particularly Monteczuma treated their own people as well as the tribes enslaved in their empire and it is easy to see the Spanish as some sort of judgment passed by God. At least the human sacrifices stopped.

The missionaries also did much good and earned the trust and devotion of many of the tribal members. Not all were perfect as not all the Spanish soldiers were perfect, but howsoever, complicated humans acted in complicated situations, it is now history and Mexico today would not exist as we know it if it did not happen.

In fact, would it exist at all? Was the birth rate of the ancient Indians fast enough to replace the thousands that were daily sacrificed, or would the population have been ultimately self-annihilated?

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  1. Hi Sharon - I should read this. I read Charles Mann’s 1491 a few years ago. It painted a tantalizing picture of The Inca, Mayan and Aztec civilizations but I was left wanting more.

    Most of the Native American Cultures were brutal and violent. Much of what the Spanish and other Europeans did was unconscionable. The deeper one digs the less ethical that either side looks. I think that the overiding factor in modern people’s understanding is that when one side comes in and conquers another side, the conquerer is judged to be in the wrong despite whatever pluses and minuses one can argue about both sides. Personally, though perhaps a little simplistic, think that this is a good way to look at it.

    1. Hi Brian. I think you would find this book fascinating.

      I'm not sure how one defines "good" in the sense you are using it. If thousands of human sacrifices is preferred to bringing a more advanced civilization with a greater sense of human rights, I'm not sure I can agree.

      But whatever moral judgments we make, it's all history and the most constructive attitude is to consider how we can live in unity together in the here and now.

      I think that it is fashionable today to vilify people from one ancestry and view as victims other groups based on things that happened to people long dead and gone.

  2. lovely flute but hard to hear, at least on my computer (i'm hard of hearing anyway, tho...). i used to practice a piece by Widor when i was playing; i liked him...
    it's painful to read about the Aztecs and their culture... it may be fascinating but it's also horrific... i reference Cirtenecce's essay at Mockingbirds... on reading: pretty apropos... that reading discourages savagery... interesting post, though, with a balanced pov...

    1. Hi Mudpuddle.

      I have found that some of the youtube videos are hard to hear. I'll try to find better recordings in the future. I listen to everything on Spotify but I cannot link it to my blog.

      It was fascinating to see how beautiful the language, poetry and art of the Aztecs was, yet they were so vicious and merciless to each other. That opens up a whole topic, doesn't it? I would have assumed that art and poetry would be symptomatic of people with a more elevated sense of human rights, but apparently not.

      That sounds like a very interesting theory and I agree that reading develops the mind to higher levels of critical thinking and naturally would allow people to think, process information, powers of expression etc...on more sophisticated levels.

      Although the Aztecs did have a written language...

    2. Cirtnecce pointed out the holes in my theory, which i confess i didn't think of in my firecracker enthusiasm... i do tend to springboard off of transitory thoughts... mea culpa...

    3. But I think there is merit in your premise. It's worthy of pondering.

  3. This book looks fascinating. You have a very-cool looking chess set, as well. Looks great with the book cover. :)

    1. Thanks, Marcia. I'm not a good chess player, but I love history and when I read about the Isle of Lewis chess pieces I just had to get myself a set.

      The Aztecs, for all their barbarity, were indeed highly sophisticated in language and art.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.