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The Aztec cult of death and more of our favorite books.


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Salon Staff
January 7, 2003 4:26AM (UTC)

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Aztecs of Mexico: Origin, Rise, and Fall of the Aztec Nation by George C. Vaillant
There are numerous reasons not to recommend George Vaillant's pioneering study of the most remarkable society of pre-Columbian America, first published in 1944, and now out of print. For one thing, it's full of errors: More recent archaeological and historical research has made clear that Vaillant's chronology of Mesoamerican civilization is off by several centuries; he knew very little about the "Olmec" culture of Monte Albán (today understood as the Valley of Mexico's first civilization); and his conclusions about the Toltecs, the ancestor culture upon whom the Aztecs modeled their empire, are significantly misguided. But, hey, those are just facts, and you can get those from any of a half-dozen more recent books. Vaillant's volume -- easily obtainable on the Internet for less than $5 -- remains a sympathetic and sophisticated account written by a genuine genius. A polymath who died at 44 but had become the leading academic authority on his subject, Vaillant constantly and dryly reminds us that there is little reason for Euro-American readers, products of centuries of imperialist war and religious conflict, to feel superior to the Aztecs. Unlike more cautious contemporary commentators, however, Vaillant is unafraid to confront what he calls the "paralysis" of Mesoamerican culture and its central conundrum: Beneath the magnificent aesthetic, agricultural and engineering accomplishments of the Aztecs (and all other early Mexican civilizations of note) lay a passionate commitment to blood sacrifice and a cult-like devotion to death.

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-- Andrew O'Hehir

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