OUT OF THE DARKNESS
GEORGES Bataille (1897-1962) was a philosopher , anthropologist, archivist and numismatist, perhaps best known for his Histoire de l’oeil ( Story of the Eye) (1928), a sort of epic of erotic excess in the direct filiation of the Marquis de Sade. As a lover of the transgressive and as an anthropologist, he also wrote a thoughtprovoking essay on the Aztecs, published in the same year, at the height of surrealist interest in tribal culture and its more extreme manifestations.
The essay, whose insight derives from a unique combination of sympathy and horror, was published in English translation in 1986 as Extinct America in the art-theoretical journal October, and subsequently reprinted in the anthology October: The First Decade (1987). As Bataille writes in the opening of the piece: “The life of civilised peoples in pre-Columbian America is a source of wonder to us, not only in its discovery and instantaneous disappearance, but also because of its bloody eccentricity, surely the most extreme ever conceived by an aberrant mind. Continuous crime committed in broad daylight for the mere satisfac- Aztecs: Conquest and Glory Australian Museum, Sydney, to February 1 tion of deified nightmares, terrifying phantasms, priests’ cannibalistic meals, ceremonial corpses, and streams of blood …”
As the author goes on to say, this applies above all to Mexico, though the case of Peru also confronts us with the paradox of a society that meets the basic criteria of civilisation — the mastery of agriculture and the construction of cities — yet exhibits the signs of a retarded moral development and religious practices more akin to those of tribal animists.
Now, with the impressive Aztec exhibition at the Australian Museum, we have the opportunity to ponder a society even more steeped in blood, and in which human sacrifice was a daily occurrence. The exhibition comes from several institutions in Mexico and includes many important finds that have been excavated in Mexico City and restored only in recent decades.
Like the Incas, the Aztecs were fairly recent conquerors, but similarly inherited and carried on already longstanding traditions. Their culture had twin foundations in agriculture and warfare, and this was reflected in the double patronage of the Great Temple in their capital Tenochtitlan, today the site of Mexico City.
The temple, which grew higher in the course of seven rebuildings by emperors seeking to outdo their predecessors, was dedicated to Tlaloc, god of rain and fertility, and to Huitzilo- pochtli, god of war. Each of these divinities required a constant supply of human sacrifices, which could range from young girls to captured warriors. Indeed the principal object of war, apart from territorial expansion, was to capture prisoners for sacrifice.
For this reason all boys, aristocratic and commoners, underwent military training, using wooden clubs and spears tipped with flint, for they had no iron; they were essentially an advanced Neolithic culture that had discovered gold and silver, and some copper, for ornamental purposes but not the smelting of harder metals.
Once captured, prisoners dedicated to the gods were initially treated with some consideration because, like all sacrificial offerings, they were sacred. But when they were killed, it was in a spectacularly horrible manner.
The victim was stretched backwards over an altar, a temple assistant holding each limb, as we see in drawings done by Aztec artists immediately after the Spanish conquest. Then the priest slit open their abdomen with a flint blade, reached into the cavity and tore out their heart. The corpse was then thrown down the steep stairway leading to the top of the temple; later his body would be eaten by the priests.
In the most gruesome variant, used in the cult of the spring god Xipe Totec, the priest would flay the victim and put on the bloody skin, which would cover his body and head. He would wear this skin for 20 days until it rotted and fell away like that of a moulting snake — this being the symbolic reference in a cult of seasonal renewal.
A duality vessel that represents a warrior who is both healthy and sick, alive and dead