Several hundred years ago, a small force of Spaniards landed on the shore of a land heretofore wholly unknown to European man. What followed has been characterized as the mass enslavement of an entire people, the systematic extermination of a culture, and as a genocide.
It was all of those things.
But try to see it from their perspective.
These were not sophisticated men. They were second and third sons, with no inheritance to secure their futures, who had struck out on their own to chance their fortunes in the New World as soldiers and adventurers. They hailed from a military culture, which had within living memory concluded a reconquest of their ancestral peninsula that had taken seven centuries to complete. They were hard men from a hard people.
In the world they came from, the divisions were between the three branches of the Abrahamic faiths. Whether Christian, Jewish, or Mohammedan, all agreed on the existence of a supreme deity that had fashioned the world for His ends and infused it with His presence, moulded Man in His image and breathed into him His essence. They inhabited a world ordered according to a divine plan, following rules that could be grasped by human reason. Further, the supreme being that gave shape to the world was benevolent – a stern father, but a father concerned with the well-being of His children, and while He may on occasion have reasons to inflict chastisements great and small on individuals and nations, it was only ever with the intention of leading them towards His light, that they might find glory in His grace.
These men stepped off their wooden sailing vessels, accompanied by warhorses and armoured war mastiffs, clad in steel breastplates, armed with sword, axe, dirk, arquebus, and cannon, and ventured into an unknown land inhabited by an alien people speaking an incomprehensible tongue, whose nobles sported head-dresses of brilliant quetzal feathers, whose warriors clad themselves in jaguar skins and painted skulls on their faces, whose men and women pierced and tattooed the flesh of their faces, elongated their skulls, and whose smiles showed teeth filed to a point and replaced with jade and turquoise.
As they made their way into the heart of this land they found themselves standing beside racks of skulls at the bases of vast stepped pyramids, watching as waterfalls of blood cascaded down the steps from priests wearing the flayed skins of victims offering up beating hearts torn from the chests of butchered men to the stone idols of savage gods whose fangs and claws glared out across the arid landscape. Surrounding them was a city of unparalleled magnificence, larger in scale than anything these men had ever beheld, of smooth white adobe walls shining in the merciless irradiance of the tropical sun, wide canals carrying the canoes of trade and strange tribute from every corner of the empire, its avenues thronged with richly attired citizens.
To be in the midst of such power and beauty, while to be confronted with such an incomprehensible scale of cruelty and bloodlust, led these men to come to the only possible conclusion: where their homeland was the land of God and His people, this, surely, must be the earthly domain of His adversary. The people around them were in thrall to Satan and his demons, and had constructed about them all the terrors and tortures of Hell.
And so those hard men from a hard people responded as such men must respond, when cut off from home, surrounded and outnumbered, exposed and alone in the heart of an evil the depth of which even their darkest nightmares and ugliest legends had never hinted might exist. They did the only thing they knew how to do.
For gold, yes. For riches and for land and for glory. These were adventurers seeking fortune, after all.
But they also fought for souls.
They fought, desperately, to kill all they must, in order to save who they could, and wipe an abomination from the face of God’s Earth.
In the centuries since, these men have been cast as heroes and villains both, for it is true that they enriched themselves as they shattered an empire and slaughtered a hundred thousand, enslaving the survivors on their plantations and in their mines as they stripped the land of its gold, and putting a hard stop to an ancient and sophisticated culture ... and it is also true that that culture had made of its land a nightmare soaked in blood and agony, and that these few hundred men consigned it to history’s trash pile. Few would argue the world would be better were waterfalls of blood to still pour down the steps of stone pyramids.
The degenerated morality of our age is blind to the heroism of this conquest – it sees only the horror of the extirpation of Aztec culture, and insists that the horrors of Aztec culture were exaggerated by the blood-soaked men who destroyed it. Both archaeology and contemporary accounts make a mockery of this. The Mexica were a people who worshipped gods that fed on tear-drops wrung from the eyes of tortured children; gods that licked up the blood spilled from bound captives tortured for days with small, precise cuts made by obsidian blades, as they hopelessly defended themselves with feathers; gods that feasted on the life energy harvested from human hearts; gods that gorged themselves on suffering, and held the world hostage to summary destruction lest their devouring appetites be left unsated.
Some would point to the fact that the rites of the pre-Christian era often involved human sacrifice – the hanging trees of the northmen, for example, where slaves and criminals were fed to Odin, or the children offered up to the burning hands of Moloch in exchange for his blessings of wealth and good fortune1. Could not the Aztecs have been similarly tamed, led away from their practices without their culture being destroyed? And indeed it’s possible that, given time, they may have moderated themselves. Certainly the sheer scale of Aztec bloodletting was extreme by the standards of the surrounding peoples they’d subjugated. It was not only the conquistadores who were sickened by it; other nations native to the land chafed under the Aztec yoke, and this proved the crucial diplomatic wedge that Cortes was able to exploit, forming alliances with these other peoples that boosted his forces. Had it not been for the tens of thousands of native allies, the conquistadores would never have prevailed.
It’s certainly possible, maybe even likely, that the nahuatl-speaking peoples might have some day come to their senses, and that the world is a little poorer for that great culture having been wiped out. I’m sympathetic to that view. My taste for the exotic gives me a certain nostalgia for this lost world.
What interests me here, however, is why the Aztecs developed into the monster they became.
The renegade anthropologist Stone Age Herbalist recently published an exploration of Aztec metaphysics2. Do yourself a favour and read it, because it’s both fascinating and riveting. The Herbalist’s goal was to try and understand why the Aztecs developed their uniquely bloodthirsty worldview. His thesis is that this is related to their understanding of reality, and I believe he’s onto something.
Briefly, the Aztecs saw the world as being composed of an indivisible, mutable energy they called teotl. Every rock, cloud, tree, animal, and person was composed of teotl. So were the souls of men. So were the gods. Teotl was the basic stuff and animating force of everything seen and unseen. All objects, phenomena, and experiences were simply energy being transformed from one thing to another. The numerous gods were not distinct entities, but rather aspects of one underlying reality – different faces of what you might call one God ... although it would be a profound error to compare this to the Christian God.
The next major feature of Aztec metaphysics is motion. The transformation of energy was governed by three primary forms of motion: oscillatory motion, spiralling or twisting motion, and the chaotic motion of change that comes from intermingling two forms of teotl together such that something old is destroyed and something new created. All phenomena were ultimately affected by all three forms of motion. As an example, the apparent regularity of oscillation – for instance, the Sun’s motion across the sky – could at any moment be interrupted by chaos.
The Aztecs did not conceive of teotl as having a moral dimension. Energy simply moved around and changed, without purpose or ultimate goal. There was no plan, no divine ordering mind. There was simply energy in motion.
What strikes me about this is how similar Aztec metaphysics are to the reductionist physicalism of our own civilization’s worldview. We too see the world as nothing but energy and motion, believing ourselves embedded in a purely physical and ultimately meaningless cosmos, in which energy transforms itself from one configuration to the next simply because that’s what energy does.
The parallels go further. The Aztecs lived in a doomed world. The Fifth Sun would one day come to an end in catastrophic earthquakes that would wipe them from the Earth, and it would be as though they never existed; their lives were lived against a cosmic backdrop in which their precarious existence would one day cease, something that they might temporarily forestall but that they were ultimately helpless to prevent. We, too, inhabit a doomed cosmos: though we dream of conquering the stars and establishing galactic empires, in the long run the heat death of the universe will triumph, it will be as though we never were, and none of it will have mattered. Storm and fire and noise, signifying nothing.
Mattias Desmet has suggested that one of the contributing factors to the aimless anxiety that enabled the mass formation that ruined our society is precisely the despairing nihilism at the heart of our materialist worldview. It doesn’t seem accidental that Aztec metaphysics were similarly materialistic, and that the Aztec cultural personality was notably anxious, preoccupied with the inevitable end of all things.
It isn’t clear to me if the Aztecs conceived of teotl as being fundamentally mindless, or simply devoid of anything humans might recognize as morality. Certainly the energy that we conceive as being the basic stuff of reality is quite without mind. Insofar as our nihilistic society might be said to worship anything, it is Lovecraft’s blind idiot god Azathoth: the Demon Sultan, the Nuclear Chaos, the Cold One who is the supreme omnipotence presiding over the dark cosmos of the Elder Gods. It strikes me that it almost doesn’t matter whether the Aztec metaphysics posited teotl as having intentionality or not; in fact, if it was conceived of as being intelligent, yet pitiless and merciless, that is in many ways much worse than a cosmos of dead mechanism.
Contrast this to the Hindu conception of the cosmos, in which all things – all matter, all energy – are ultimately made of Brahman: pure consciousness. Just as the thousands of Aztec gods are merely various faces of an underlying entity, so the innumerable Hindu deities are simply different aspects of Brahman; both apparent polytheisms reduce to a unifying monism. However, while there is some indication in historical literature of human sacrifice having played a part in the ancient practices of the Indian subcontinent, this does not appear to have ever been particularly widespread, and following the spread of the doctrine of ahimsa or nonviolence it has been absolutely prohibited. Certainly the followers of Vedic doctrine never engaged in anything on the scale of a routine Aztec holy day.
The Herbalist makes an interesting case that the Aztec propensity for ritual murder was intimately related to their metaphysical outlook on the universe as being composed purely of energy in motion. A warrior might take life energy from a captive by means of scalping him (the hair was believed to function as a sort of antenna for solar energy); the priests transferred life energy from humans to the gods in a sort of spiritualized extension of the food web. Since the Aztec cosmos is amoral at its most fundamental level, there is no moral dimension to be considered; only the practical aspects of how teotl is to be transformed.
It seems to me that one might divide views of ultimate reality into two basic categories: matter and energy as the basis of fundamental reality, or consciousness as the primary reality. The first excludes morality by its very nature; the second may not necessitate a moral dimension to reality, but it emerges quite naturally.
It may be that the Aztec culture, which at first glance seems to be steeped in the darkest depths of superstition, was in fact the purest possible expression of a materialist worldview. Their civilization was far from primitive: their astronomy, mathematics, engineering, and philosophy were all highly advanced. They were not stupid people. They took a materialist worldview and worked out the implications in extraordinary detail – not so much from the point of view of their technology, but from the perspective of what constitutes right action in such a world. Far from being superstitious, the Aztecs may have been more consistently rational than we are, insofar as we define rationalism as adhering to the logical implications of materialism (which is more or less how our culture does define rationality). It turns out that ‘right action’ in such a world means agony, blood, and death; where we pretend this is not the case, clinging as we do to the rapidly evaporating mists of a Christian morality rooted in an abandoned faith, the Aztecs confronted this, embraced it, gloried in it.
We ourselves have come a long way from those brutal Spanish conquistadores, to whom we like to imagine we are so morally superior. We sacrificed their loving God on the altar of our science in the 19th century, and have adopted a worldview that is in its broad essence strikingly similar to that held by the Aztecs. A mere century after putting God to the knife, we slaughter unborn babies in their tens of millions every year; we celebrate sexual perversion in month-long bacchanals; we mutilate and sterilize children; we raise our food animals in feedlots and chicken batteries; and we have ceased to be human beings possessed of immortal and divine souls of infinite worth, but become human resources with quantifiable economic value, to be moulded, shaped, managed, and unceremoniously and unsentimentally discarded the moment our cost exceeds our utility.
Perhaps the conquistadores were not so successful as they thought in exorcising the world of Aztec demons. Perhaps those dark gods merely slunk off into hiding, crossed the ocean hitch-hiking in the shadowed holds of Spanish treasure galleons, and whispered their secrets into Newton’s dreams, setting in motion the process by which they could once again possess the minds of an entire society and so resume their feast ... only this time, they intend to consume not a mere corner of Mesoamerica, but will lay the whole of the world on their table.