“Mexica ‘beliefs’ have been discussed confidently enough, but academics being natural theologians, usually at an unnaturally abstract pitch. My interest is not in belief at this formal level, but in sensibility: the emotional, moral, and aesthetic nexus through which thought comes to be expressed in action, and so made public, visible, and accessible to our observation.”
-Inga Clenninden | Aztecs: An Interpretation
Human sacrifice is not a human universal. The institution emerges at a specific stage of human sociopolitical development, and recedes when the transition is complete. Rarely found among nomadic hunter-gatherers, ritual homicide is also nearly absent in archaic civilizations (except for a few residual instances such as royal burials). But human beings didn’t make the leap from nomadic foragers to pyramid builders overnight. Nestled between was a transitional stage, when newly-settled people faced the monumental task of ditching the ancient kinship system, sacrificing their freedom to kings, and reorganizing themselves into the first states. This fraught transition was imposed by violence, as primitive egalitarianism was replaced by class oppression, and human sacrifice was employed to define social boundaries and to stave off panic with brutal acts of self-assertion. Kings gloried in their total freedom, the less fortunate were terrorized into submission, and the gods looked on with dripping fangs and growling stomachs.
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