Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs by Camilla Townsend - review by Davíd Carrasco

Davíd Carrasco

Romancing the Scribe

Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs


Oxford University Press 320pp £19.99

On 17 December 1790, an enormous monolith with extraordinary carvings was unearthed in the great plaza of Mexico City. At the time, the Mexican intellectual Antonio de León y Gama supposed that it had functioned as a calendar and a sundial. He was the first in a line of dedicated Mexican scholars to write interpretations of this monolith based on archaeological evidence and Spanish and Nahuatl-language sources. Gama also transcribed the now-lost Codex Chimalpopoca, which contains Nahuatl accounts of the cosmological story depicted on the stone. Today, the massive sculpture is known as the Sun Stone, a reference to its depiction of five cosmic eras, called ‘suns’ in the Codex Chimalpopoca, along with the cause of each one’s end.

The challenge faced by scholars writing histories of the Aztecs (or Mexica, as they called themselves) is symbolised by the mutilation of the stone’s central image of the Fifth Sun, the age in which the Mexica were living when the Spanish arrived. The Fifth Sun’s demise was prophesied to come about, aptly enough, from the movement of the earth. The Spaniards, beginning in 1519, burned many native picture books and defaced or buried civic and ritual monuments. Their wars and diseases killed many native Mesoamericans, including storytellers and scribes, and their inquisitors hounded the survivors. Given the extent of human and cultural destruction, how can historians gather sufficient evidence to write insightful and reliable histories of the Aztec world?

I was eager to read Camilla Townsend’s Fifth Sun after learning that she made use of neglected Nahuatl documents, covering a period from 670 to 1631. She grounds much of her book on writings called xiuhamatl (‘annals’). In her introduction, she claims to have overcome the shortcomings of previous research, which was based largely on ‘objects uncovered in archaeological digs’ and ‘the words of Europeans’, a ‘dangerous endeavor that inevitably led to distortions’. She offers five ‘revelations’ – about the relationship between politics and religion, the complexity of Mexica life, the technological imbalances between the Spaniards and the Mexica, indigenous experimentation with Spanish culture and the rise of a group of historians who wrote in their native Nahuatl.

The hero of the book is an indigenous Christian scribe with the bilingual name Domingo Francisco de San Antón Muñón Chimalpahin Quauhtlehuanitzin (1579–1660), who wrote and edited a series of texts in Nahuatl and Spanish. If Townsend’s intent was to stimulate new interest in these annals and uncover vivid stories about individual actors, the politics of polygamy and Mexica resilience, and to communicate fresh knowledge about Chimalpahin’s world-view, she has succeeded. If it was to write an unbiased, comprehensive new history of the Mexica, integrating her own findings with the best recent international scholarship, free of armchair psychologising and fanciful speculation, she has not.

The first problem I see involves her vision of Aztec life and humanity. Many years of meticulous research tell us that the Mexica were a Nahuatl-speaking people who migrated into central Mexico during the 13th century, formed crucial political alliances through marriages with local ruling dynasties and built their capital, Tenochtitlan, on an island in Lake Texcoco. By the time the Spaniards marched into Tenochtitlan in 1519, it was both a garden city of great agricultural productivity and the centre of a tributary empire of more than four hundred cities and towns, extending from central Mesoamerica into parts of southern and eastern Mexico. As scholars such as Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, Anthony Aveni, Elizabeth Boone, Johanna Broda and Leonardo López Luján have shown, the Mexica were guided by a cosmology that encompassed celestial observation, militant control of goods and territories, extraordinary artistic creation and elaborate ritual oblations to gods whose presence permeated their daily lives.

Townsend, however, is emphatic that the Mexica ‘understood clearly that political life revolved not around the gods or claims about the gods but around the realities of shifting power imbalances … of gendered realpolitik’. In her version, for instance, the prisoners of war sacrificed by the Mexica were not ritual offerings to the gods but ‘collateral damage’ in ‘genuine’ political struggles. But is it right to apply to Aztec history a 19th-century German concept that minimises moral, theological and ethical considerations? As the Sun Stone, the annals and their 260-day ritual calendar clearly show, the Mexica believed that shifting social and political fortunes were intimately linked to imbalances in cosmic forces, which they could affect through daily devotion and sacrificial offerings to living gods.

Townsend’s limited vision of Aztec humanity is evident in the third chapter, where she characterises Tenochtitlan as an extraordinary example of an altepetl (literally, ‘water hill’), which her sage, the historian James Lockhart, defined as an ethnic city-state. This definition fits snugly into their view that social interconnections between Mexica families and neighbourhoods were arranged on ‘a sort of “cellular principle”’, making them effective, coherent political units. But nowhere in the book do we learn what Mesoamericanists familiar with the work of the Mexican historian Alfredo López Austin have known for decades: that altepetl was a polyvalent term, rooting the social and political order in the creative powers of a sacred mountain, which contained the ancestors, seeds and life-giving forces of the community.

For the Mexica, the Tenochtitlan altepetl rising from Lake Texcoco was a material replica of that sacred mountain. Its politico-religious nucleus was the monumental pyramid known as the Templo Mayor, or Coatepec (‘Serpent Mountain’). At the summit stood two shrines, one dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec sun and war god, and the other dedicated to the god of rain and agriculture, Tlaloc, facing a round temple devoted to Quetzalcoatl, the ancestral creator deity associated with the wind. But Townsend devotes more space to describing the Aztec ruler Moctezuma’s ‘zoo’ than she does to this colossal structure and its prodigious ceremonial and historical significance. Readers would never know that nearly a half-century of excavation and analysis of this ritual precinct, yielding more than twelve hundred publications largely by Mexicans, has revolutionised Aztec studies and informed major exhibitions in Mexico City, London, Paris, Denver, New York and many other places, visited by millions of people.

Similarly, in her introduction as well as her appendix, ‘How Scholars Study the Aztecs’, Townsend downplays advances made by an interdisciplinary community of specialists when she channels a position Lockhart called ‘the law of the preservation of energy of historians’. This holds that scholars study the ‘easiest (most synthetic) sources first’; once they cease ‘to produce striking new results’, a fresh generation shows up and ‘takes the next easiest’, and so on. The implication here is that for years archaeologists and interpreters of native picture books and stelae toiling in difficult conditions and historians combing through massive collections of Spanish documents have been taking the easy way out. Worse, some of them had ‘already decided who the Aztecs were’ and felt they ‘didn’t need to eavesdrop on their private conversations’. To be sure, interpreting Nahuatl is arduous work, but Mexican and other scholars who barely make Townsend’s bibliography have for decades included these sources in wider ensembles of evidence, with admirable results.

Another concern I have is that Townsend’s interpretations are marred by conjectures, lay psychologising and a form of mentalism that puts speeches into Aztec mouths and her thoughts into Aztec minds. In two engaging chapters, she distils her earlier research on Malintzin, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés’s famous translator and concubine, who bore him a son. At one point, however, and without a shred of evidence, Townsend gives her a major role in the 1524 theological disputation between Franciscans and Mexica elders: ‘The interpreter – almost certainly Malintzin, though it could conceivably have been one of her apprentices – did her best to translate’. What historical method can support such an invention?

Elsewhere, she strives to capture Chimalpahin’s subtle moral outrage at the execution and dismemberment of thirty-five black men and women accused of organising a thwarted revolt against the Spaniards in 1612. After witnessing ‘an atrocity committed in the name of the law, the name of the king, and the name of God’, Townsend writes, ‘he had no choice but to doubt the justice of the laws as well as the morality of the men who enforced them … there was a limit to the moral authority he would accord the Europeans who ruled his world.’ I understand the wish that Chimalpahin, perhaps traumatised by these terrible scenes, thought in these terms. Yet he was no liberation theologian, as evidence elsewhere in his writings shows. He expresses no qualms when Spanish women or a mulatto charged with impersonating a priest are burned at the stake; rather, he reports in a proud voice that ‘the Holy Father who is in Rome … orders the inquisitors to do justice here in Mexico’. Likewise, he has no problem with indigenous vigilantes killing fugitives and turning them over to the authorities for dismemberment and display.

Townsend also downplays Chimalpahin’s fascination with colonial Mexico City as a Catholic theatre of a thousand wonders, where experiences of divine presence are intertwined with political and social life. In a perusal of forty random pages of his journal, one finds a gorgeous mapping of religious processions through a sacralised landscape of churches, decorated crosses, images of Christ and the Virgin Mary, and even a painting of St Francis sitting on an eagle perched on a cactus – the emblem of Mexica Tenochtitlan.

While Townsend’s informed use of the annals yields many insights into the Mexica, I must conclude that the best English-language account of their pre-Hispanic life remains Inga Clendinnen’s Aztecs: An Interpretation, whose ‘exact imagining’ is based on a rigorous analysis of gender, social relations and ritual performance. Future studies will have to take into more serious account the fact that Mexico – both before and after the conquest – was animated by omens, eclipses and gods who returned in physical and symbolic forms as the calendar turned. Chimalpahin is telling us as much when he reports that a deceased child placed before the image of San Diego was brought back to life, and when he states, ‘I saw two miracles. I really saw them.’ In Chimalpahin’s city, native Mesoamerican and Spaniard, African and Asian walked with the divine and were visited by at least two gods of the Fifth Sun – Quetzalcoatl and Jesus Christ on the Cross.

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