Message of Aztecs Endures

December 15, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: The lesson of empires: One falls, another ascends. This winter, a Mexican branch of Wal-Mart opened a store in the shadow of the Aztec’s pyramid of the sun.

(Chanting) Even as Mexicans wandered the bright aisles of Wal-Mart, an exhibit of Aztec archaeological objects has opened at New York’s Guggenheim Museum.

As an American, a cultural descendant of English Puritans, I see this exhibit initially through Protestant eyes. These Indian gods seem as incomprehensible, as remote as Sumerian idols.

Actually, the Aztecs were not an ancient people because we moderns tend to view Aztec civilization as the culmination of thousands of years of Indian civilizations in Meso-America, we confuse the end with the beginning.

The majority of these artifacts date from the 15th century, closer to us in time than the medieval cathedrals of Europe. For me, the difference between Mexico and America is the difference of time and the Indian.

As someone related by blood to the Mexican Indian, I must read history in the Americas as continuous, not, as the Puritans imagined, a fresh start. What would English Protestants have thought, how would they have proceeded in the new world if they had come upon such epic stones at Plymouth Rock?

The Puritan conceit– that America was virgin land, that Indians were marginal to European settlement, that Puritans were new Adams, new Eves– all such innocence about history would have been impossible in the face of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan.

In Mexico, these stones are not gravestones, but reminders of all that existed before and ahead. Mexico knows that the Indian is alive, is even today, for example, illegally trespassing America’s border and entering our sovereign history. And look! In this stone is my profile.

Aztecs were consumed with awe. These carvings describe a pitiless world, a world without mercy. Fertility is a constant theme, but there is no image of eroticism. The only description of emotion is this dog, but the emotion cannot be described.

The ramps of the Guggenheim ascend. Everything circles around religion and death and the obscene knowledge of the skull beneath the skin. The Aztec seems held by the dialectical: Earth and sky, animal and human, human and divine.

Aztecs were held by duality and by metamorphosis. Animals appear as messengers of the gods; gods take animal forms; humans appear in animal guise.

This warrior wears a helmet in the shape of an eagle, or is this an eagle taking the shape of a man? For all the beauty and majesty of their civilization, history attaches a notorious decadence to the Aztecs.

To appease unpredictable gods, Aztecs sacrificed thousands of Indians from neighboring tribes, cut their beating hearts from their bodies with obsidian knives.

To contemplate the religious art of such a people is to recognize that religion is not only something that can ennoble our humanity; religion sometimes is a dangerous preoccupation, a madness.

I do not think, after all, the Aztecs would be appalled to learn that a few miles from this museum thousands of people were recently slaughtered in the name of god, or that now in so many parts of the world– Pakistan, Israel, Palestine, Iraq, India, Africa, America– religion is made into a knife.

Despite their metropolitan culture, a city of floating gardens, despite warriors of fame and skilled engineers, the Aztecs were finally defeated by a band of Spaniards and their Indian allies.

To mark the end of one empire and the conquest of the next, there is this cross, incorporating religious images of the Aztec and European Christianity.

As the Mexican Indian would tell us, empires come and go. What persists is the blasphemy of believing that murder is prayer. I’m Richard Rodriguez.