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Quotes on the Aztecs

If nothing else, the Aztecs tend to fire people’s imaginations! We’ll be collecting below what we think are thought-provoking comments on the Aztecs as a civilisation: if you have your own favourites you’re willing to share, do send them to us and we may well add them to this page. (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

‘In Search of the First Civilizations’
‘In Search of the First Civilizations’

‘Why are violence and the sacred so intertwined? Why is death seen as necessary to renew life? ... To us the Aztec universe may appear irrational, terrifying, murderous in its brutality; and yet it is a mirror held up to our humanity which we ignore at our cost. For in the name of other ideals and other gods Western culture has been no less addicted to killing, even in our own century.’ Michael Wood (‘In Search of the First Civilizations’)

‘The Broken Spears’
‘The Broken Spears’

‘Today we are at last beginning to understand the intricacies of this amazing culture, which was the equal of any in Europe in moral refinement, artistic sensibility, social complexity, and political organization’ J. Jorge Klor de Alva (Foreword to ‘The Broken Spears’)

‘The Clash of Cultures’
‘The Clash of Cultures’

‘The Spaniards gave beasts of burden to relieve the natives of drudgery... meat to eat which they lacked before. The Spaniards showed them the use of iron and oil lamps to improve their ways of living.... They taught them Latin and other subjects which are worth a lot more than all the silver taken from them... it was to their benefit to be conquered and, even more, to become Christians’ Francisco López de Gómara, chaplain and secretary to Hernán Cortés (quoted in ‘The Clash of Cultures’ by Brian Catchpole)

‘How Art Made The World’
‘How Art Made The World’

‘[The Aztecs were] perhaps the most successful regime of terror the world has ever seen’; ‘[they carried out] mass murder... staged as an exultant feat of human butchery’; ‘[they] recorded the slaughter ... [in] an orgy of death imagery’ Dr Nigel Spivey (‘How Art Made The World’ (BBC TV and book)

‘A Scattering of Jades’
‘A Scattering of Jades’

‘These few fragments [of published Aztec poetry] are monuments, as durable as stone, to the humanity of the Aztecs, and perhaps more indicative of the nature of their civilization than the sacrificial altars where their still-beating human hearts were offered to the Sun’ Thelma Sullivan (‘A Scattering of Jades’)

‘The Aztecs of Mexico’
‘The Aztecs of Mexico’

‘In this world, torn with hate and war, adrift without an anchor or a compass with which to chart our course, we may well consider their [the Aztecs’] example. The Indians worked together for their common good, and no sacrifice was too great for their corporate well-being’ George C. Vaillant (‘The Aztecs of Mexico’)

‘Sons of the Shaking Earth’
‘Sons of the Shaking Earth’

‘In essence, the Mexica remained little more than a band of pirates, sallying forth from their great city to loot and plunder and to submit vast areas to tribute payment, without altering the essential social constitution of their victims’ Eric Wolf (‘Sons of the Shaking Earth’)

‘Burning Water’
‘Burning Water’

‘...we are here dealing with a totalitarian state of which the philosophy included an utter contempt for the individual... any freedom of thought or action was inconceivable in the Aztec world... dependence and instability were absolute, fear reigned. Death lurked ceaselessly everywhere, and constituted the cement of the building in which the individual Aztec was prisoner... Clearly the spirituality of some aspects of Aztec life must have sprung from an old pre-Aztec tradition, later betrayed...’ Laurette Séjourné (‘Burning Water’)

‘Daily Life of the Aztecs’
‘Daily Life of the Aztecs’

‘Such as they were, with their greatness and their weaknesses, their ideal of order and their cruelty, their obsession with the mystery of blood and death, their sensitivity to the beauty of flowers, birds and gems, their strength of religious feeling - strong to the point of suicide - their excellent practical organisation of the state, their attachment to their land and their maize, which still did not keep their eyes from turning continually to the stars - with all this, these ancient Mexicans were civilised men. Their culture, so suddenly destroyed, is one of those that humanity can be proud of having created. In the hearts and minds of those who believe that our common inheritance is made up of all the values that our species has conceived in all times and in all places, it must take its place among our precious treasures - precious because they are so rare. At long intervals, in the immensity of the world’s life and in the midst of its vast indifference, men joined together in a community bring something into existence that is greater than themselves - a civilisation. These are the creators of cultures; and the Indians of Anahuac [the Aztecs], at the foot of their volcanoes, on the shores of their lake, may be counted among them’ Jacques Soustelle (‘Daily Life of the Aztecs’)

‘Aztec Thought and Culture’
‘Aztec Thought and Culture’

‘”Nothing caused me so much admiration and seems to me more worthy of praise and remembering than the care and discipline with which the Mexicans raised their children. In effect, it would be quite difficult to find a nation which in its times of paganism gave more attention to this element of highest importance to the state”’ Father José de Acosta quoted by Franciso Xavier Clavijero (Historia Antigua de México, 4 vols.) in ‘Aztec Thought and Culture’ by Miguel León-Portilla

‘Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico’
‘Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico’

‘I also saw the things that were brought to the King from the new land of gold: a sun entirely of gold, a whole fathom wide, and a moon entirely of silver, of equal size, likewise two rooms of rare accoutrements, of all manner of their weapons, armour, bows and arrows, wonderful arms, strange garments, bed hangings and all manner of wonderful things for many uses, all much fairer to behold than any marvel. These things are all so precious that they are valued at one hundred thousand guilders. And in all the days of my life I have seen nothing that has so rejoiced my heart as these things. For I saw among them strange and exquisitely worked objects and marvelled at the subtle genius of the men in distant lands. The things I saw there I have no words to express.’ Albrecht Dürer, world famous artist, Brussels 1521 (quoted in ‘Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico’ by Elizabeth Carmichael)

‘Trans-Pacific Echoes...’
‘Trans-Pacific Echoes...’

‘To put it in a nutshell, the Central and South American high cultures of antiquity were entirely worthy of comparison with what the Old World had achieved by the time of the Han, the Gupta, and the Hellenistic age. The fact is that the Amerindian high cultures were a human modality of their own, and those Spaniards who came among them first would have had the sensation, if they had ever heard of such literature, of treading in a world of imaginative science fiction. But it was real, and the Amerindian achievements deserve all our sympathy and praise.’ Joseph Needham and Gwei-Djen Lu ‘Trans-Pacific Echoes & Resonances: Listening Once Again’

‘Dances of Anahuac’
‘Dances of Anahuac’

‘Clearly, it is difficult for us to come to a true understanding of what human sacrifice meant to the sixteenth century Aztec; but it may be observed that every culture possesses its own idea of what is and what is not cruel. At the height of their career the Romans shed more blood in their circuses and for their amusement than ever the Aztecs did before their idols. The Spaniards so sincerely moved by the cruelty of the native priests, nevertheless massacred, burnt, mutilated and tortured with a perfectly clear conscience. We, who shudder at the tales of the bloody rites of ancient Mexico, have seen with our own eyes and in our days civilized nations proceed systematically to the extermination of millions of human beings and to the perfection of weapons capable of annihilating in one second a hundred [times] more victims than the Aztecs ever sacrificed.’ Jacques Soustelle quoted by Gertrude Kurath and Samuel Martí (‘Dances of Anáhuac’)

‘Mirror of the World’
‘Mirror of the World’

‘The ceramic sculptures serving this mass city cult [of human sacrifice] revelled in convolutions of gore as a matter of gross spectacle’ - Julian Bell (‘Mirror of the World: A New History of Art’)

‘Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest’
‘Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest’

‘The Spaniards are perfectly right to govern these barbarians of the New World and adjacent islands; they are in prudence, ingenuity, virtue, and humanity as inferior to the Spaniards as children are to adults and women are to men, there being as much difference between them as that between wild and cruel and very merciful persons, the prodigiously intemperate and the continent and tempered, and I daresay from apes to men’ - Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (1547), quoted by Matthew Restall (‘Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest’)

‘Mornings in Mexico’
‘Mornings in Mexico’

‘The Aztec gods and goddesses are, as far as we have known anything about them, an unlovely and unlovable lot. In their myths there is no grace or charm, no poetry. Only this perpetual grudge, grudge, grudging, one god grudging another, the gods grudging men their existence, and men grudging the animals. The goddess of love is goddess of dirt and prostitution, a dirt-eater, a horror, without a touch of tenderness...’ D. H. Lawrence (‘Mornings in Mexico’)

‘The True History of Chocolate’
‘The True History of Chocolate’

‘Probably no other nation, past or present, has received such a bad press as the Aztecs (or the Mexica, as they usually called themselves). In the minds of the public at large, the Aztecs are almost universally viewed as a cruel and sadistic people, on a par with the Nazi Germans for their sadistic, bloodthirsty atrocities...’ Sophie D. Coe & Michael D. Coe (‘The True History of Chocolate’)

‘The Aztecs’ by Lucien Biart
‘The Aztecs’ by Lucien Biart

‘The double aqueduct of Chapultepec followed a route which, like the causeways built over the lake, is an irrefutable proof of the industry of the [Aztec] Mexicans. But the intelligence and knowledge of their architects shines most brilliantly in the city of Mexico, for they were compelled to make the land on which they were to build, by connecting many islands. Besides this task, they had to build dikes and walls in different parts of the valley, to protect the city from the inundations which threatened to destroy the city every year.’ Lucien Biart (‘The Aztecs: Their History, Manners and Customs’)

‘Postdata’ by Octavio Paz
‘Postdata’ by Octavio Paz

‘A people of soldiers and priests, stargazers and sacrificers. And of poets: that world of brilliant colours and shadowy passions was interspersed with brief, prodigious flashes of poetry. And in all the manifestations of that extraordinary and terrible nation, from astronomical myths to poets’ metaphors, and from daily rituals to priests’ meditations, the obsession, the smell, the stench of blood. Like those torture wheels that feature in the novels of de Sade, the Aztec year was a cycle of 18 months drenched in blood; 18 ceremonies, 18 (different) ways to die: from shooting with arrows to drowning, from strangling to skinning. Dance and penitence...’
Octavio Paz (‘Labyrinth of Solitude - Postdata’)

‘The Indians of the Americas’
‘The Indians of the Americas’

‘The Aztecs’ life was one of efficient, many-sided agriculture; of craftsmanship unexcelled in the Western Hemisphere or the world; of much democracy in human relationships. Its social base was the exogamous clan, and within the clan, leadership was achieved and kept through proved individual merit. Clans united into tribes, with equal representation on the tribal council; and the council chose the tribal functionaries on the basis of demonstrated merit. There existed rank, but not caste, the only exception being the quite fluid, shifting slave class. The slave controlled his own family and could in turn hold slaves; none were born into slavery; murder of a slave brought the death penalty to the killer; slavery became a temporary status while a man expiated a crime; often families of the poor would rotate their children, one at a time, into temporary slavery...’ John Collier (‘The Indians of the Americas’)

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