Philip P Arnold. Eating Landscape: Aztec and European Occupation of Tlalocan. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1999. xvii + 287 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-87081-518-8.
Reviewed by Camilla Townsend (Department of History, Colgate University)
Published on H-LatAm (October, 2003)
Looking for Mexicans in Tlalocan
Looking for Mexicans in Tlalocan
Philip Arnold, as a historian of religion, has been concerned that scholars have sought to understand the pre-Hispanic world view of central Mexicans by looking "through the lenses of those bent on its destruction" (p. xv). He has therefore attempted a project very different from the norm. He has spent time thinking about the way in which central Mexicans construed their relationship to the physical world, and hence to each other using as his evidence descriptions of ritual provided in those same vexed colonial texts. He also explored the understanding that the Europeans had of their own relationship to the world. Comparing the two will, he hopes, "bring the contemporary world into contact with Tlalocan", perhaps more effectively than simply gazing at a text written by Sahagun ever can.
Tlaloc was the god or complex of gods--"full of earth, made of earth" (as the name implies), fertile, full of rain. Tlalocan, then, was his place, the material world of the Aztecs, "the embodiment of the Valley of Mexico" (p. 33). He is important, argues Arnold, "for how a human community understands its appropriate relationship with the material world will reflect how it understands its relationship with other beings" (p. 1). Rituals revolving around Tlaloc point to "the Mesoamerican preoccupation with the violence of consumption" (p. 3). Sacrificial offerings could be referred to as "debt-payments." "Implied in this understanding of sacrifices to Tlaloc was that these gifts were payments for 'goods' received and that human life (or blood) was the medium of exchange" (p. 81). In other words:
"Ritual violence dramatized for the Aztecs both how suffering was an intrinsic feature of life and also how one could easily become a victim of violent activity simply by virtue of where one found oneself. Actions of the various priests articulated an understanding of the paradox of how the destruction of life was involved in the continuance of human existence." (p. 101)
Thus, children were sacrificed regularly at the temples, understood as gaping, toothed mouths of the divine (chap. 4). They became noble and part of the place with all its religious significance.
The Spanish, in contrast, distanced themselves from the place that gave them life. "Rather, the transcendent realm, or heavenly world of God, was more important than material life" (p. 218). That of the Aztecs was an "eating world" but that of the Spanish most definitely was not. Instead, it existed to be eaten, used, and consumed.
Since the space devoted in the book to Spanish cultural practice and conception is rather limited, and the attention paid to Aztec sacrifice, particularly of children, is quite extensive, Arnold makes an important point at the beginning and end of his work. "Much has been made of the brutality of Aztec religion. What is often not mentioned, however, is that throughout the Americas Europeans killed, or were directly involved in the deaths of, millions more human beings than the Aztecs" (p. xvii). The Aztecs, Arnold adds, were honest in their religious ritual, the Spanish, self-delusive.
If there are faults in the work, they lie perhaps in a set of traditions, and not in the author's execution, and they are faults that many will see as virtues. Jacques Lacan is known for having argued that truly weighty arguments must be packaged in weighty texts that force the reader to work for what he uncovers. I have never agreed. True brilliance, to my mind, though able to muster legions of details, subtleties, caveats, and subordinate clauses, is incisive in its essence. I do not think any word should be repeated as often as "hermeneutic" is in this book. It does not help the argument; it even, I believe, does much to obscure the Aztec way of thinking and being that the author so much wants to engage.
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Camilla Townsend. Review of Arnold, Philip P, Eating Landscape: Aztec and European Occupation of Tlalocan.
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