Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion

Archive for February, 2009


After a round of reading, digesting, and refreshing, the brain is revitalized and it’s time to get back to work posting.  I’ve been wanting to start tackling Nahua ethics in earnest the past couple of months and have finally settled on an approach I hope works, starting with the cardinal virtues and moving from there.  Previously I discussed the cardinal virtue of charity, and today I’m going to write about the virtue that appears to me to be the lynchpin of the whole system — temperance.

Temperance Defined

I define temperance here reasonably closely to the traditional Greek concept of temperance, or sophrosyne.  In a nutshell, this concept traditionally meant moderation in word, deed, and thought, guided by self-knowledge.  The Delphine “Nothing in excess” and the Roman counterpart, “Moderation in all things” are well-known mottoes expressing this ideal.  There is evidence that the Aztecs conceived of temperance in a similarly broad sense, and I think it reasonable to include the role of self-knowledge as a part of their concept. The most direct way to find and learn about the Nahua virtue of temperance is to go to the huehuetlatolli we have left to us in the wake of the Conquest.  Many of these ethical speeches touch on this topic, and I’ve picked out some particularly useful examples from Book 6 of the Florentine Codex to discuss next.

“Moderation In All Things” In Mesoamerica

“On earth it is a time for care, it is a place for caution.  Behold the word; heed and guard it, and with it take your way of life, your works.  On earth we live, we travel along a mountain peak.  Over here there is an abyss, over there is an abyss.  If you go over here, or if you go over there, you will fall in.  Only in the middle does one go, one live.”

The Florentine Codex, Book 6, Ch.19, p.101

(Dibble & Anderson translation, copyright University of Utah, used without permission)

This beautiful and evocative speech gives us a taste of the Nahua take on temperance.  The speaker, a noble father addressing his daughter, emphasizes the critical importance of moderation.  The peak and the abyss are traditional metaphors for disaster in Aztec rhetoric, and illustrate the dire consequences of going to wild extremes.  This admonishment is very general, and for good reason, as this principle of moderation is to guide all actions, from personal demeanor to concrete practicalities.  For example, youths are instructed speak calmly and clearly, without either excessive ornamentation or crudity (p.100).  They are to carry themselves tranquilly, avoiding both excessive pride and excessive humility, disdaining hate and favoring a joyful demeanor, but knowing the value of well-timed and appropriate anger (Id. at 100-101).   People are to travel purposefully and prudently, neither rushing about restlessly nor strolling around pompously (Id.).  However, they are to be wise and know when haste is appropriate (Id.). And of course, a healthy mean in eating, recreation, sex, and clothing are also to be pursued.

To Excess — When Appropriate

Even these quick examples show that Nahua temperance wasn’t just a robotic defaulting to a middling response regardless of the circumstances.  Disruptive or more extreme behavior can be good as well, so long as it’s practiced appropriately.  This last point is absolutely crucial, as it shows the underpinning of temperance in Mesoamerica is balance.  More disruptive or extreme behavior isn’t necessarily bad, it’s only bad when misused.  Returning to an above example, anger isn’t one of the Seven Deadly Sins or one of the Three Poisons here.  Sometimes its the right thing to feel and express.

A second example is the quaquachictin or Otomi warriors.  These warriors were men so recklessly fierce they were known to throw themselves into battle with a berserk fury devoid of planning or restraint.  Described as “wicked but brave…furious in battle” these men exemplified a virtue (bravery) gone to excess, becoming a vice that denied them the right to exercise leadership over others (Id. at 110).  Yet, instead condemning them as hopeless reprobates, their foolhardy ferocity was channeled into an appropriate avenue as awe-inspiring shock troops.  Thus the virtue that turned into a vice was turned back into a virtue by putting it into a context where it could benefit society.  Dr. Burkhart described this something like “taking this violent, chaotic strength that otherwise could have destroyed society and channeling it into a form that would protect it” in Slippery Earth.  (Excuse my horrible paraphrasing, I can’t recall the exact point in the book where she discusses this.)

This balancing of extremes and skillful application of them in the appropriate context is a thread that runs throughout the entire Aztec worldview to my eye.  Growth and death, eating and being eaten, chaos and order, etc.  Nearly everything in this system links opposites that struggle in creative (and destructive… and creative again) tension.  The great rivalry between Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl is the same battle writ in the persons of the gods themselves.

The Role of Self-Knowledge

While this segment is a little more speculative than the others, I think it’s reasonable to see a parallel of the Hellenic inclusion of self-knowledge in temperance when looking at the evidence.The need to identify time, place, and manner for applying varying levels of moderation points to a need to understand oneself and one’s place in a greater context.  If a person doesn’t know their own nature and how they fit into society and the cosmos, they can’t possibly apply temperance intelligently and effectively.  It also requires an understanding of how opposing forces interact, balance, and unbalance themselves and the world.

This applies in both the mundane and the metaphysical.  If you don’t know how others think and view you, you won’t know if anger will prevent or cause contempt.  Looking to a metaphysical example, I wonder if the core message underlying the story of Quetzalcoatl’s flight from Tollan was really about a failing of temperance.  In the story, His soft-hearted refusal to make the “human payment” (an excess of affection) would have had the effect of jeopardizing the fabric of the cosmos.  Viewed in this light, Tezcatlipoca’s seemingly cruel attack on His brother’s happy kingdom was the best thing to do, for it restored the balance and ensured the continuation of existence for all.

Conclusion: The Power Of Balance

This conceptualization of temperance as a balancing of extremes as well an endorsement of the median is incredibly robust and life-affirming.  This built-in flexibility and sensitivity to context avoids the rigid, unrealistic, and frankly inhuman dogmatism of many other systems.  It guides the individual through difficult behavioral choices without eliminating the need for reason or leading her/him astray with a one-size-fits-all rule that doesn’t really fit at all.  Additionally, I argue that it leads to a healthier individual and society.  Impossible standards breed hypocracy, dysfunctional psychological states, and needless suffering.  Realistic standards offer everyone a fair chance to live up to them, and a just reason for chastisement where violated. Finally, this virtue of temperance is a light in the darkness, with all that implies.  It’s a guiding principle to follow, but determining exactly where to puts one’s feet on the path it draws us down requires us to think carefully and act responsibly if we don’t want to veer off into the ravine on either side.

Tigre Boxing In Acatlan: Jaguar & Tlaloc Masks

Up today is another video about the Mexican Tigre combat phenomenon I discussed  a few weeks ago.  This one shows a style of fighting practiced in Acatlan.  Instead of rope whip-clubs as in Zitlala, these competitors duel with their fists.

Courtesy link to ArchaeologyTV’s page on YouTube for this Tigre combat video.

A particularly interesting feature of this video is the variety of masks.  Not only do you see the jaguar-style masks, but you’ll also see masks with goggle eyes.  Goggle eyes are, of course, one of the signature visual characteristics of Tlaloc, the very Teotl this pre-Columbian tradition was originally dedicated to.  (And still is in many places, beneath the surface layer of Christian symbols.)  If you look closely, you might notice that some of the goggle eyes are mirrored.  The researchers behind ArchaeologyTV interviewed one of the combatants, who said that the significance of the mirrors is that you see your own face in the eyes of your opponent, linking the two fighters as they duel.

This idea of a solemn connection between two parties in sacrificial bloodshed was of major importance in many  of the pre-Conquest religious practices of the Aztecs.  It can be seen most clearly in the gladiatorial sacrifice for Xipe Totec during Tlacaxipehualiztli.  During this festival, the victorious warrior would refer to the man he captured in battle as his beloved son, and the captive would refer to the victor as his beloved father.  The victim would be leashed to a round stone that formed something of an arena, and given a maquahuitl that had the blades replaced with feathers, while his four opponents were fully-armed.  As the captor watched the courageous victim fight to the death in a battle he couldn’t win, he knew that next time, he might be the one giving his life on the stone to sustain the cosmos.