About Secret History

Commentary on Latin America.
Mostly about Mexico - but not always.
Designed to encourage readers to learn about
the apparently "secret history" of 500 million people
spread across two continents
- but not always.
You can always count on a little snark.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Ritual of Warfare: Blood for Paradise, Blood for Oil


The following are student essays from History 460: Religion in Latin America and their response to the idea of warfare as a religious ritual.  After the student essay I've included my own response.  Please consider leaving feedback for the students (or me).  The essays appear in no particular order.


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Ms. Littman

In Inga Clendinnen’s essay, “The Cost of Courage in Aztec Society” she discusses the complexity of the concept of courage, and it reminded me of the current oversimplification of the Islamic term Jihad. Courage, as Clendinnen eloquently lays out, is multifaceted and incredibly important to the Aztec belief system. She writes that, “[t]here seem to have been two kinds of bravery recognized in the Aztec fighting man… One was the attribute of those warriors… who hurled themselves heedlessly into the fray.” (Clendinnen 2010). Clendinnen adds that, “[that warrior] knows no fear because he has no knowledge. Admiration is reserved for the warrior who is morally informed; who understands his obligation. He will go humbly and quiet in this world, watchful, prudent… their only release, their only ease – the final encounter with Tezcatlipcoa…” (Clendinnen 2010). It was at the conclusion of that particular line that I felt a strong reminiscence for the Islamic Jihad, followed by an immediate annoyance at the overgeneralizations that surround the word. According to the BBC, “The literal meaning of Jihad is struggle or effort, and it means much more than holy war. Muslims use the word Jihad to describe three different kinds of struggle: A believer's internal struggle to live out the Muslim faith as well as possible, the struggle to build a good Muslim society, [or] Holy war: the struggle to defend Islam, with force if necessary. Many modern writers claim that the main meaning of Jihad is the internal spiritual struggle, and this is accepted by many Muslims.” (BBC 2009). To me, the Aztec concept of courage and the Islamic concept of Jihad share so much more that a religious connotation. Both words have several meanings within their own cultural context, both require knowledge and understanding before a difficult religious rite is undertaken, and both are humbling requirements in order to receive a positive final encounter with God. At their core, both concepts boil down to a powerful internal struggle. Jihad is too often oversimplified as “war” due to the current conflict in the Middle East and that is as frustrating and erroneous as saying the Aztecs were “violent”.

BBC. Jihad. 08 03, 2009. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/beliefs/jihad_1.shtml (accessed 01 08, 2013).
Clendinnen, Inga. The Cost of Courage in Aztec Society: Essays on Mesoamerican Society and Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

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Mr. Lamers

Over the past few days I have examined the writings of Inga Clendinnen on the Aztecs’ extreme focus on war in their most sacred religious practices. She described the life of a warrior from cradle to grave as centered on the sanctity of blood, which served as the most precious substance known to this ancient Mesoamerican culture. Clendinnen clarified the Aztec’s value of blood through their view of the world as being incredibly fragile and through their notion of how the earth’s stability depended on their proper performance of gory rituals to their gods. Aztec worship emphasized humanity’s relationship with their deities (and the earth) as one of give-and-take as illustrated in Clendinnen’s following passage: “This terrible creature [the earth] cried out in the night and refused to bring forth fruit until she was soaked in human blood and fed with human hearts. When satisfied, she brought forth the plants which provide man’s sustenance.” Constant gathering of war prisoners for ritual sacrifice seems to make sense when the earth will end or become inhospitable without a regular diet of human blood.

To label the Aztec religion as warlike is certainly correct, but the reasoning behind this behavior does not fit what is typically thought of as religious violence today. Upon mentioning the subject of war in the name of religion, most would think of holy wars with the objective of conversion and/or eliminating infidels like the Crusades carried out by Medieval Christians or contemporary violence from the jihads of Muslim extremists. An example of this brand of religious violence can be found in a recent incident in Bonn, Germany where a 24-year-old Indian student was beaten and had his tongue slashed by a group of Muslim extremists after he refused to convert to Islam.[1] Warlike activities of ancient Mesoamericans is so foreign to what we usually perceive as religious violence, that a warrior’s goal was not even to kill on the battlefield but to take prisoners for sacrifice to “feed the earth.”  Overall, I found war’s relationships with religion across these different peoples and situations fascinating.


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Ms. Holbrook-Bruhns:

This quarter I am taking class on religions in Latin America. One of the major themes that has piqued my interest is the idea of violence as an essential part of worship. Pre-conquest Aztec religion could not function without violence. In turn, the reliance on courage while participating in violent activities was equally central. According to Inga Clendinnen on “The Cost of Courage in Aztec Society”, the only way for males to enter paradise was by death in battle or by being captured and sacrificed on a killing stone. Not only did you have to die a violent death, but you had to strive for it, or at the very least embrace it.

For me this intersected, somewhat weirdly, with the current problem of suicide bombers in the Middle East. A recent suicide attack in Afghanistan killed four people according to Reuters Canada. Both violent ends were/are religious and function as an assurance of entrance into heaven for the practitioners. This type of religious violence is more similar to Aztec violence than one might assume at first blush. Both are religious acts and acts of violence and both accomplish more than just a religious end. With the Aztecs, one of the consequences was an elimination of the strongest warrior group in a rival city, leaving it weakened and easy to manipulate. With current deaths/killings, one of the consequences is a mental and moral degradation of the people attacked. At the very least it tends to discomfit the victims.

For example, U.S. General John Allen, the commander of the NATO forces in Afghanistan “condemned the attack” for “disregarding civilian life.” Both Aztec religious violence and suicide bombers are sectarian in nature with one goal having been the unsettling of those on the receiving end of the violence. The Aztecs were highly successful at both achieving practical and religious ends. Are suicide bombers equally successful? 

Reuters Canada. “Double Suicide Attack Kills Four in Afghan South”. http://ca.reuters.com/article/topNews/idCABRE90503I20130106 (accessed 1/8/13).

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Mr. Mailhot

The phrase “war and religion” often conjures up thoughts of Medieval Crusades or Jihads of Islam. But, there is a distinction that should be made; “war and religion” is different from a “war of religion.” Violence and war was, and still is, a large part of many faiths. Think of the accounts of stoning in the Bible, self-immolation in Buddhism and Hinduism, and martyr-suicide bombers of present-day Islam. These are some of the world’s most influential religions that, while rooted peace and tolerance, sometimes practice violence, war, and extreme intolerance. A prime example is the ancient Mayan and Aztec people whose history overflows with images and descriptions of a people who used war, bloodletting, and human sacrifice to intimidate an enemy, and show religious devotion to god. 

Modern religions do not take war prisoners, at least not any influential religion. The faithful are instead often focused on conversion. This difference was not as distinct for Mayan and Aztec cultures. When a war expedition resulted in victory, captives were taken for a twofold purpose. First, as Spaniard Diego de Landa recorded, male captives were often sacrificed and “their masters kept the bones, and displayed them in the [ceremonial] dances, as a mark of victory.” Second, as prisoners were brought in, mesmerized and intimidated by their captor’s city, watching their warriors being sacrificed, they would be all but forced to accept the customs of their conquerors. In this way, religion spread as a byproduct of violence rather than through forceful conversion. 

In many ways, however, connections between war and religion in these ancient cultures had the same aim as much of the violence we see today: to show devotion, even to death. Similar sentiments can be seen in modern Tibet where, in 2012, there were over 75 recorded self-immolations, acts that show the victim’s ultimate dedication and faith in their beliefs.  The spilling of blood through war or sacrifice had the significance of repaying the earth for what it had provided. Mayan and Aztec warriors approached war simply as courageous devotees, not as violent missionaries. 
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Mr. Melton

After reading The Cost of Courage in Aztec Society by Inga Clendinnen, I was convinced that the Aztec cities and tribes were unified, not necessarily by a feeling of nationalism, but by a common religion and a sense of “place” that the religion determined.  Upon reading the description of the attitudes of the warriors in Clendinnen’s work, I gathered that the Aztec warrior accepted his fate regardless of his status as captor or captive because of the greater connection to the encompassing religion of the region.  This seems to be in sharp contrast to the American idea of nationalism and more in sync with the theocracies of the Middle East. 
The American Dream is an ideal that exists apart from Christianity, or any religion for that matter, even though God is used by some as the centerpiece for its promotion.  The Islamic Middle East, on the other hand, seems to be a region united by religion instead of nationalism, much like the Aztec region.  The war effort by Islamic nations and sects appears to be an effort similar to that of the Aztecs, in that religion, not nationalism, is the driving force behind expansion, war, and terrorism.  Although violence does not seem to be as widely accepted by the population of the Islamic nation as it was by the Aztec population, it is justified by many government and religious leaders in the region. 

Even though it is true that Middle Eastern nations have governmental struggles that are unrelated to religion, the nation of Islam is just that—a nation.  Much like the Jewish nation, which has also embraced nationalism even in Diaspora, the Islamic nations of the Middle East have united around an encompassing religion to form the region that we now know as the Middle East.  Furthermore, the “Aztec warrior” is embodied by the suicide bomber when s/he is willing to sacrifice his or her life and the life of fellow believers for the expansion of that religion; consequently, the value of life is diminished when contrasted with the value of the larger belief system. 
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Ms. Trott

In the reading of The Cost of Courage in Aztec Society by Inga Clendinnen, the relation between the Aztec Warriors and their belief system is discussed. Warriors, chosen based on patriarchal heritage, were trained in acts of fighting. In rare cases, few commoners who showed promise of their ability to fight were allowed to have a higher standing, if only for their lifetime. Different rituals took place in the Aztec practice of warfare, ranging from group battles to holding enemies captive. It was seen to be more important to hold a victim captive, rather than killing them. The idea behind slaying and honoring the gods with the body and blood of one’s captive showed the warriors returning blood to the gods. This blood made up for all of the earthly goods the Aztecs received from the earth, as they believed that if you cut the earth, you are taking life and must return it in order to continue living. This connection of human sacrifice emphasizes the importance of warfare and religion in the Aztec culture.
Similar to the Aztec perspective of war and religion, is the example of suicide bombers in the Middle East. A suicide bomber attack that took place on January 6, 2013 in Afghanistanˡ is quite similar in the way of showing how a cultures belief can lead to the slaying of others. The Taliban disagreed with the community meeting of the Shura, and in retaliation, reacted with sacrificing their own lives and others to stop it. This shows the ties between religion and warlike tactics in order to achieve certain goals of a belief system. 
While both cultures emphasize needing to give a life in order to receive life, which is their primary method of paying homage, I find these methods extreme. I respect both methods of worship, but in western culture this is not seen as socially acceptable. Murder or sacrifice is one of the highest offenses in our culture, but in the case of the Aztecs and the Taliban, it is not our place to judge their form of religious practices.

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Dormady Response

As a class we recently began discussing the concepts found in the intersection of religion and warfare.  Inga Clendinnen, in particular, seemed to garner the most attention from students with her “Cost of Courage” essay that looks at the ceremonial nature of Nahua conflict, captive taking, sacrifice, and ritual cannibalism.  I’ve loved this selection since I first read it as an undergraduate for its ability to move “Aztec” warfare beyond simple violence and in to the world of community worship.

I was (mildly) surprised when almost every student made the connection between Aztec violence and suicide bombers.  Not because the community and ritual associations are much of a surprise – I think that is an easy leap for students to make that have spent at least half (or more) of their life with the images of suicide bombers and the discourse of the American interpretation of “Jihad.”  No, my surprise was that they all chose to downplay the associations of religion, ritual, warfare, and violence within their own society.

In a way, as Aztec violence fed the earth and brought forth the prosperity of that agricultural society, warfare provides the same function for the United States.  As we offer for sacrifice the lives of our citizens it brings forth from the earth the petroleum needed to make our lifestyle possible.  When the protestors raise their banner of “No Blood for Oil” they are not just challenging an economic model, but a ritual of violence and sacrifice that makes society work.  By extension it is little wonder that questioning war is not just a matter of policy for some, but instead an act of treason:  attacking the sacrifice of warfare is heresy in a world where the accumulation of goods is a religion of its own. 







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