Clendinnen, Inga. Aztecs: An Interpretation

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Clendinnen, Inga. Aztecs: An Interpretation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Inga Clendinnen, born in 1934, is an Australian anthropologist and author, historian and academic.  She has taught history for many years, won several awards, and authored six books, including Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1517-1570 (1987); Aztecs: An Interpretation (1991); Reading the Holocaust (1998); Tiger’s Eye – a Memoir (2000); True Stories (2000); and Dancing with Strangers: Europeans and Australians at First Contact (2004).

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     In Aztecs: An Interpretation, Clendinnen provides a brilliant interpretation of the religious traditions as well as the culture of the Aztecs.  The author’s writing style makes this book a rather interesting read, indeed.  What is more, although Clendinnen’s interpretations of the Aztec traditions and culture are believable to the reader for whom the subject is novel, the author at no point makes the reader believe that her interpretations are the only correct ones.  The book is not based on objective research, and hence there is no question about the absolute validity and reliability of Clendinnen’s research.  Rather, the book is interesting for anybody who would want to reflect on the Aztecs given the information that scholars have already studied and interpreted about the Aztec culture and practices.  All the same, it is a given that these interpretations may or may not be correct.  Thus, Clendinnen states:

          Historians of remote places and peoples are the romantics of the human sciences, Ahabs

    pursuing our great white whale, dimly aware that the whole business is, if coolly considered,

    rather less than reasonable.  We will never catch him and don’t much want to: it is our own

    limitations of thought, of understandings, of imagination we test as we quarter those strange

    waters (275).

Aztecs begins from the historical and chronological perspective, with the migration of the Mexica or the Aztec people from the north down to the Valley of Mexico.  The book goes on to describe the rise of the Mexica people from an insignificant tribe that was almost wholly annexed, to an established community that was brutal as well as imperial in nature.  The Aztecs had become quite powerful, despite their humble beginnings.

     Next, the book focuses on the Tenochtitlan to examine its socioeconomic structure.  It is at this juncture that Aztecs helps to enhance the reader’s own interpretation of the Mexica culture.  The place of the Aztecs within the pan-Mesoamerican framework is further brought into focus.  After establishing the social as well as the historical context, however, the author takes the reader to a thorough examination of the social and the religious roles of the Mexica peoples, in addition to the meaning of ritual in the Mexica society.  This is, indeed, the central aim of the book: to help the reader understand the function of ritual among the Aztecs.

     Interpretation of human sacrifices in the Mexica tradition takes a special place in the book.  To my interest in the Biblical traditions, this interpretation adds special value, given the general scriptural understanding of the rise and fall of civilizations.  In other words, the brutality of the human sacrifices of the Aztecs may in part have led to their eventual downfall, seeing as the jealous God would have disapproved of such sacrifices of man who contained His own spirit.

     Aztecs also makes a special effort to study gender roles among the Mexica people, with a special emphasis on femininity.  The role of the Sacred in the Mexica perspective is also discussed quite thoroughly.  The reader comes to understand through this discussion that the culture of the Mexica people was deeply connected with their religious traditions or the Sacred.

     Clendinnen’s book is not entirely chronological.  Instead, it consists of “tentative, discursive explorations” that use “multiple, oblique, and angled approaches” (11).  The book becomes topical after it has traced the history of the Aztecs in the beginning.  Part I of the book carries a discussion of the city of Tenochtitlan, along with an analysis of its rise to power as well as the social relations in the city.  Part II discusses the roles of the people in the city, including victims and warriors, priests and merchanges, wives and mothers, in addition to children.  In Part III begin the various interpretations of the Sacred.  It is here that the author opens herself to agreeing and disagreeing with the interpretations of the historians of the past.  This part is followed by a discussion of the fall of Tenochtitlan to the Spanish in Part IV of the book.  Moreover, it is here that one who is interested in the Biblical view of the world may relate the fall of the Aztecs to the religious practices of the Mexica people that were flawed in the eyes of the Biblical God.

     Clendinnen guides her reader through a series of essays to discover how the various groups under discussion participated in and understood the human sacrifice ritual.  The interpretation of the human sacrifice was different for the wives of the Mexica people, for example, from how the priests of the Aztecs interpreted the role of sacrifice.  By exploring the main subject of the book through topical analysis, the author renders the interpretations rather digestible.  To put it another way, it is easier and more interesting for the reader to understand the mothers’ interpretation of human sacrifice separately from the the indepth exploration of the merchants’ interpretation.

     The author has access to various sources on the Mexica peoples.  However, she concentrates in her “methodological exercise” on a single text in trying “to discover what can be done through the close analysis of a single, if remarkably rich, text” (9).  The work that Clendinnen has used most extensively is referred to as the Florentine Codex, which was a colonial production, and may therefore be biased in its interpretation of the Mexica culture.  The author, however, finds the text to be of great value in her research, and includes it with archaeological evidence and the work of Diego Duran, a Dominican friar, to make her interpretations what they happen to be.  Clendinnen notes that the work of Duran is perhaps less reliable than the Codex to understand the “native ways of life” (9).  Furthermore, she likes the view of the Aztec culture presented by the informants of Sahagun.

     The author openly disagrees with certain interpretations of the sources that she has used to formulate her own interpretation.  Instead of using her sources indiscriminately, she disagrees with the belief expressed in one of her sources that the slaves that were sacrificed were Mexica.  She cautions the naive reader who might believe everything in historical texts: “All claims here must be tentative, the sources being what they are” (100).  Lastly, she agrees with the fact that the Codex too is defective, albeit an important source:

         The Florentine Codex has remained the main source for Mexica life in the decades before

    the conquest.  With all its defects–produced by survivors of the erstwhile ruling group;

    exclusively male; further distanced from the actuality we seek to glimpse by its idealizing

    tendency and its Spanish eliciting and editing; abducted into English–it is nonetheless the best

    source we have for Mexica views, and for accounts of Mexica action as described by Mexica

    voices.  If those voices were constrained on some occasions by inappropriate Spanish

    demands, on others they were allowed to run free, Sahagún being sufficiently sensitive to the

    risk of unwitting influence to give his informants a large degree of latitude on the issues which

    most interested him (279).

By agreeing and disagreeing with her sources at the same time, the author renders her work unbiased in many ways.


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Clendinnen, Inga. Aztecs: An Interpretation. (2016, Sep 26). Retrieved from

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