OUT OF THE DARK­NESS

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christo­pher Allen

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

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