Sunday, June 12, 2005

Sunday trivia: daily life among the Aztecs

I wrote some earlier stuff about animal lore in Sahagún. Bernardino de Sahagún was a Spanish priest who, shortly after the conquest, learned Nahuatl and collected a vast diversity of lore from native informants. Essentially he asked them for examples and descriptions of everything--absolutely everything-- they knew about. The Spanish version survived church scrutiny, barely, and a single copy of the original Nahuatl raw material escaped destruction and has been translated into English. I own the Sahagún Spanish version (except to my sorrow I have lost one volume of it), and I have lately been reading library volumes of the English translation of the so-called "Florentine Codex" of the Nahuatl.

It is among other things an encyclopedia of the minutiae of daily life among the Aztecs. The Aztecs don't have a very good reputation. They were not well liked by anyone, especially their neighbors; with good reason. They sincerely believed that the continued orderly existence of their world demanded human sacrifice. We see the same sincerity, with perhaps an even greater death toll, with George Bush. The Aztecs, perversely in our view, accorded some honor to their sacrificial victims, whereas Mr. Bush, in contrast, simply considers the hundred thousand human beings and and counting who have died as a result of his sincerity, as collateral damage.

But I digress, as I always do--my point being that the Aztecs, in a certain way, were not much different from us.

To get back to where I was originally going: I love lists. This is a book of nothing but lists. Large parts of it is lists of ordinary stuff, the stuff of daily life. The conjunction of the familiar and the weird is interesting to me.

We have a list of trades. First in the list is "feather worker", apparently even more honorific than the second in the list, which is a goldsmith. Then we have copper workers, and lapidary workers--all evidently folks who made things for rich people. After that we have the mundane: carpenters (and the reader learns, if interested, that the Aztecs used the plumb line, and disliked crooked work), stone carvers, masons, scribes, singers (it was important to be able to do falsetto), and individuals who are called "wise men", evidently for hire. Maybe consiglieri would be the right word. After that, we have physicians.

Physicians seem to remind the Aztec informants of bad apples, for after that we have a list of troublemakers: sorcerers, fortune-tellers, and crazy people. The mentally ill were not well regarded, and were thought to be intent in causing harm to others when they did and said their crazy things. They were thought to be capable of turning into owls. Not good.

After crazy people come attorneys. The Aztecs had law, so it follows that they had people who made a living from it. The, finally, in this chapter, comes someone who I guess we would today call a lobbyist. Thus ends the bad apple chapter.

Then come ordinary trades. Tailors were men. Spinsters were women, as were weavers.

At that point the list of trades breaks off, to be continued later, and a new chapter begins with more troublemakers. Drunks. Lewd youths (is this familiar, or what? Lewd youths are restless, dissolute, shameless, presumptuous, sexually debauched, plus they go about eating mushrooms.) Pimps are next, with a description of what they do. Then, gays and lesbians. Aztecs, like Republicans, were homophobic (or perhaps Sahagún's informants were wise enough to deduce the viewpoints the Church wanted to hear.) Other kinds of bad people: murderers, deceivers, story-tellers (uh, oh, I would be in trouble here) who can be pleasing, amusing, and charming, but who are also prone to telling indecent tales, are shameless, and who have an evil tongue. Buffoons, and highway robbers follow.

Then we have a category of bad person for whom we have no known Republican equivalent: Temacpalitoti, persons who "dance with a dead-woman's forearm." These individuals dance with a dead woman's forearm, beat a two-toned drum, and cast spells that make you faint so that they can rob you. One of these types will steal your whole maize-bin.

(to be continued, maybe)

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