The Fifth Sun
Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs by Camilla Townsend
If we think of the Aztecs, we usually think of a violent, spiritual people, who built temples and pyramids in the middle of the jungles of Mexico, where they sacrificed their victims by the thousands, ripping out their still-beating hearts in orgiastic ceremonies, lest the sun should fail to rise.
Then strange men landed on the far-eastern shores. They came on enormous boats, with cloth unfurling from their long masts. They rode muscular, deer-like beasts and wore metal armour and carried metal weapons. Their leader, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, was greeted as an incarnation of the god Quetzlcoatl.
Within two years of his arrival Cortés had brought the Aztecs to ruin. In a number of key battles his men had demonstrated the superiority of their weapons. They were also helped by the repressed peoples that had been formerly enslaved and sacrificed by the Aztecs.
Now the temples stood empty, the priests of this violent empire were overthrown, and their bloodthirsty religion, with its demands of human flesh, gave way to a Catholic, hispanicised Mexico.
The received narrative is very wrong, or at least, very misleading, says Camilla Townsend. Her recent book Fifth Sun aims to overturn this narrow conception of the Aztecs as a uniquely bloodthirsty people in favour of a more nuanced view, which views them, like all peoples everywhere, as capable of both good and evil, beauty and horror.
To do this she has drawn upon texts written by the Aztecs themselves in the wake of the Spanish conquest. The arrival of literacy gave those first generations afterwards the opportunity to record their history while its memory and cultural imprint was still fresh in their minds.
While Cortés may have destroyed the Aztec empire, the people in it never went anywhere - or the peoples, I should say, for one of the very first things Townsend clarifies is that the term Aztec is, in many ways, misleading. There are many different peoples in Mesoamerica. Many of them spoke Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. Many did not. There are still millions of native speakers of Nahuatl.
In the late 1400s and early 1500s the Nahua had organised their societies in similar ways. They had similar (though not identical) mythologies, gods, rites, and rituals. Numerous loyalties placed one in their standing to the wider world: what mattered was not just whether you spoke Nahuatl or which tribe you belonged to, but which god was your tribe’s primary god, in which altepetl (city-state) you lived, and what family you came from.
The Nahua had migrated into the Valley of Mexico over several centuries. They came from what is now the south-western United States, from a semi-mythological homeland called Aztlan (from which comes the name Aztec). Legend has it that there were seven tribes that came from seven caves. One of them, the Mexica, would found the city of Tenochtitlan, built on the swamps of the western-side of Lake Texoco, on which stands modern-day Mexico City.
The Aztec empire was a confederation of three altepetl - Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan - collectively known as the Triple Alliance. They waged frequent wars against their neighbours, from whom they demanded tributes of food (corn and beans), slaves, gold, gems, hand-made goods, and other resources. The Mexica supplemented this agricultural tribute with birds, fish, insects, algae, and cactus. They also built chinampas - irrigated gardens - on the marshy lake, which yielded produce year-round.
With this abundance, Tenochtitlan grew to become the largest and most powerful altepetl in the Mexico Valley. Some estimate that it had up to 250,000 inhabitants, but Townsend sensibly points out that this would have required a population density greater than that of modern day high-rise Manhattan. A population of no more than 50,000 people is more likely, out of a total of about 1.5 million in the Mexico Valley.
It was a highly planned city that grew seemingly overnight. Two great aqueducts gave it drinking water. A huge pyramid stood at its centre, cutting the city into four quarters. Each quarter was further cut up into various neighbourhoods, bazaars, temples, and markets. It was a busy city, with goods and tribute from the surrounding land flowing into it everyday. The city’s permanent inhabitants were mostly skilled craftsmen or professionals: priests, builders, traders, weavers, gem-cutters, boatsmen, judges, and others.
There were slaves, too, but the scope of slavery was much broader than what we usually associate with the word. Slaves could be prisoners from neighbouring tribes, but usually they were ordinary people who could not repay their debts. This condition was not hereditary; a slave’s child was born a free person.
Each altepetl was ruled over by a tlatoani (literally “speaker”). Within the Mexica, the tlatoani was semi-elected, being a noble son of one of the two major families who had founded Tenochtitlan. Sharing power in this way prevented one family from dominating politics, while also giving the Mexica enough constitutional flexibility to shake off the prospects of a bad heir.
The tlatoani not only had to be competent in the rituals of his people - he was the representative of the Gods on earth - he also had to be a good wartime leader. The ascension of each new tlatoani called for a new wave of military campaigns against their neighbours. If they paid the demanded tribute - food, slaves, goods, handiworks - then their neighbours would be spared, and their altepetl allowed to function in its own way, according to its own laws and rituals. If they fought back, their fate would be like that of the Huaxtecs:
The soldiers from all the allied provinces took many captives, both men and women, for they and the Mexica entered the city, burned the temple, sacked and robbed the place. They killed old and young, boys and girls, annihilating without mercy everyone they could, with great cruelty and with the determination to remove all traces of the Huaxtec people from the face of the earth.1
Captives were distributed among nobles. Women might be taken as wives (polygny was a practice among the nobility) or domestic servants. Otherwise a slave might be sacrificed or sold to the slave markets.
Townsend tries very hard to present a nuanced picture of slavery and sacrifice as the Aztecs must have seen it. She is fiercely critical of past historians who have been excessively judgemental about these practices and made more of them that they should have, allowing moral outrage to cloud historical judgement. Yet she is very quick herself to condemn the Spanish for their actions. This uneven treatment comes across as mere moralising from the other direction, and tends to downplay the slavery and sacrifice which evidently did happen in the empire. Her need to damage-control these practices often brings her voice into the book in places where I wish she had simply let the history speak for itself.
To be sacrificed was seen as something of an honour. The ceremony itself was sombre in tone, with the viewers having fasted beforehand and standing in silence, flowers in hand, as it was carried out. Those victims who showed bravery and defiance until the end were greatly respected.
What was the point of it all? According to Townsend, it was a way to thank the Gods. “They are the ones who taught us everything,” their priests would later explain to the Spanish. “Before them, we kiss the ground, we bleed. We pay our debts to the gods, offer incense, make sacrifices… We live by the grace of the gods.” (49).
This isn’t quite on the level of “the sun won’t come up”, but it’s not far off it, and we’re struck with a cart-horse dilemma: are thanks being given because of what the Gods have done, or are the Gods only doing it because thanks are being given? Both seem to be the case. At different times, a priest or tlatoani may have been motivated by one reason or the other. And there’s also every possibility that some may have kept the practice alive for purely political reasons, to simply brutalise their neighbours and maintain the hegemony of the Triple Alliance.
Townsend is eager to demolish many of the myths and misconceptions surrounding slavery. She resists the characterisation of the Aztecs by sacrifice or slavery or violence. Perhaps her explanations are more nuanced than those of the past, which have tended to neglect Nahuatl sources in favour of the friars and conquistadors who legitimated their actions as the deliverance of human beings from an evil empire. But is this characterisation entirely wrong? Is the empire she describes not one ultimately based on extraction, tribute, and slavery? Is it not the case that its religion saw human sacrifice as a moral imperative, necessary to keep the universe ticking?
As Tenochtitlan grew larger, so did the number of sacrifices. In its early days, “only a few people would have been sacrificed on the monthly religious festival days.” (49). Townsend calls it a “horrible misconception” to think of thousands of sacrifices being marched to their death everyday. Yet she later admits that, by the time the Spanish had arrived, emperor Moctezuma was too busy presiding over sacrifices to take part in military campaigns: “going to the battlefield was no longer feasible as he would have been too busy participating in the public ceremonies that ran with blood.” (79).
More and more sacrifices were needed. They were increasingly drawn as tribute from rival altepetls, rather than from the city’s own sons and daughters. The dominance of the Triple Alliance became frozen, and conflict with their neighbours was crystallised into a highly-ritualised series of yearly sports games, known as the flower wars. These sports games were essentially a war-by-proxy, and the losers would be sacrificed.
The number of nobles in Tenochtitlan exploded too. There weren’t enough high positions for them, so they took on new roles in the expanding bureaucracy, as priests, judges, and administrators. The Mexica lacked writing (though they had a rich tradition of ideographic codices), but they still recognised a customary law and had a tributary calendar, which they pushed on their neighbours and were always trying to synchronise, so as to ensure the steady flow of tribute into Tenochtitlan. Maintaining this required young, educated, competent men.
This was becoming a problem though. The description of late Tenochtitlan brings to mind Peter Turchin’s theory of the overproduction of elites: that too many people, trained for too few high positions, often fail to achieve the recognition they feel they deserve, and in compensating for this, put new strains on the foundations of trust and cooperation on which their society was built.
Moctezuma dealt with the problem in numerous ways: the flower games made violence more controlled and less bloody; family life became more strictly regimented, with succession was limited to the father’s side only; and the state grew, with new positions for young men to fill. These administrators made the extraction of tribute more efficient, but this also made society more brittle, as Tenochtitlan’s people took on more specialised roles and became increasingly dependent on tribute to fulfill their basic needs.
Perhaps the Triple Alliance would have kept trudging along though, were it not for the arrival of Hernán Cortés, an extremely ambitious explorer and adventurer who was acting more on behalf of himself than the Spanish crown. He landed on the Yucatan peninsula and, hearing of the riches of Tenochtitlan, cut his way to Mexico through the jungle. He was able to inspire people, though he was not well-liked and had many enemies. When he landed, he burned his ships to discourage anyone from turning around. And he was playing a game of cat-and-mouse with the governor of Cuba, who disliked him and kept trying to reign in his destructive exploits, which so often ended in disaster for the native peoples.
The Spaniards must have looked very imposing in their metal armour, wielding their metal swords and cannons. On his march to Tenochtitlan, Cortés picked up several allies who resented their Mexican overlords. Along the way, the Spaniards lay waste to Cholula (the city the hot sauce is named after), which must have left a deep impression on the Nahua peoples. Having seen what the Spaniards were capable of, Tlaxcala, a confederation of four altepetl that had long been rivals to the Aztec Triple Alliance, decided to throw in their lot with these foreigners.
By the time Cortés arrived, Moctezuma had already heard of him and his exploits, including the destruction of Cholula. He bid his men stay in the royal quarters, where they were lavished with food and gifts. According to the Florentine Codex (an ethnography that was edited by a friar who wasn’t actually there), Moctezuma promised his kingdom to the Spanish. This promise was important to Cortés, because it allowed him to frame the subsequent conflict with the Aztecs as an uprising against Spanish territory, hence guaranteeing support from the Spanish crown. Townsend thinks this promise was an outright fabrication by Cortés.
It’s also at this point that Moctezuma is supposed to have revered Cortes as a god. According to Townsend, this is based on a linguistic misunderstanding. Moctezuma used the word teotl, which can mean both a god and that god’s representative on earth (i.e. a priest). These faraway invaders, not bound to any known altepetl, of unknown lineage, speaking their garbled and unintelligible language, nonetheless claimed to be representatives of some new, previously unknown God. It therefore made sense to address them as the representatives of this god - hence, teotl.
Moctezuma’s gestures towards Cortés may not have encompassed a desire to give away his kingdom. His polite, flowery language was in a register of speech the Nahua used to express dominance, and he fed and hosted the Spaniards and Tlaxcalans like honoured guests, as any tlatoani was expected to do.
But in some of his actions, I can’t help but see an expression of weakness. For instance, he showed the strangers “maps and tribute lists”, clearly hoping to “convince them to leave and to have established the most favorable possible relationship with them by the time they did.” (110). Townsend’s wording here makes it clear that Moctezuma’s offers were intended as tribute, and weren’t some kind of misconstrued gift. The Spaniards were terrible guests and rudely demanded the riches they saw around the city. Perhaps Moctezuma in trying to slake their greed, only fed it.
Did Moctezuma really envision these strangers as his inferiors or equals? If so, I don’t see why the divinely-ordained emperor of most of the known world would offer them tribute and let them overstay their welcome - unless he had to, as a matter of survival. He probably never gave up his kingdom. The notion may not have even been intelligible to him, given differing notions of Spanish and Aztec sovereignty; so long as it paid its tribute, an Aztec vassal state did not hvae to give up its laws, customs, or religion.
Yet insofar as there was a common political language, Moctezuma’s actions don’t seem like the actions of a sovereign equal. They look like submission. I’m not sure Townsend is justified in dismissing Cortés claim as an outright fabrication on nothing more than his untoward character. It’s entirely possible Moctezuma willingly surrendered something - though he may have thought he was only giving up material riches, whereas the Spanish thought he was giving up absolute sovereignty.
During the stay in Tenochtitlan the governor of Cuba landed in the Yucatan. He had come to put an end to the expedition. Cortés rode out from Tenochtitlan to meet the governor in battle. He defeated the governor and convinced the rest of his men to join him in Mexico.
While he was gone, Cortés left a small detachment at Tenochtitlan who got into a serious conflict with their hosts. Accounts differ as to what happened. The Spaniards claim to have intervened in a ritual to stop human sacrifices, while the Aztecs, who had gotten permission for the celebrations to go ahead, claim the Spanish attacked them for the gold with which they had adorned their sacrifical victims. Either way, it was a bloodbath; a number of nobles and priests were killed.
By the time Cortés returned, the Aztecs had elected a new tlatoani who was not so concilliatory. Long fed up with their impudent guests, they were beginning to turn on them. The Spaniards withdrew to the royal quarters to plan their next move. Cortés took Moctezuma as a hostage and tried to use him as a mouthpiece through which he could command the city’s defenders to let the Spaniards leave in peace. It didn’t work; Moctezuma’s people jeered him.
Accounts diverge on what happened next. According to Spanish sources, Moctezuma was stoned to death by his own people. Nahuatl sources suggest that he was killed by Cortés, and this is clearly what Townsend believes. Frustratingly, she gives little argument here beyond a general appeal to Cortés and his ruthless character.
What’s clear was that the Spaniards and Tlaxcalans weren’t leaving the city without a fight. The Mexicans had destroyed most of the causeways out of the city, but there was a causeway remaining on the western side, and they made for it at night. The alarm was sounded as they tried to cross. Hundreds of canoes suddenly appeared in the waters around them. They were slowed down by the rain and their own greed, from all of the gold they had looted which they tried to take with them. Hundreds of Spaniards and Tlaxcalans died. To make it to shore they had to wade over the corpses of their comrades and horses.
After la noche triste (“the sad night”), the remaining causeways were destroyed, leaving no way for the Spaniards to march back into Tenochtitlan. Cortés made preparations for a naval assault. His men taught the art of ship-building to the Tlaxcalans, who constructed several brigantines to carry the invaders across the lake.
It took three months to subjugate the city. Fighting was extremely fierce, proceeding street-by-street, plaza-by-plaza. The defenders ran out of food and ate anything they could to survive: deer hides, insects, lizards, soft mud bricks. By the end, the entire city was at a stand-still. Nearly every man was put to death, including those who surrendered. What few survivors left swam or waded or canoed across the lake and fled into the hinterlands:
On the roads lay shattered bones and scattered hair. The houses were unroofed, red with blood. Worms crawled on the roads, and the walls of the houses were slippery with brains.2
Just like that, the Triple Alliance was over. Its greatest city lay in ruins. Through one overwhelming show of force, the Mexican Valley was brought under Spanish rule. In a few generations the Nahua would become largely Christianised and partially hispanicised, and the old ways of life forgotten.
The introduction of literacy brought an opportunity for the Nahua to preserve what they could of their history though, and it is the writings produced in this time period which Townsend largely draws upon. Her task, as she sees it, is to re-balance the historiography of the Aztecs, which has focused too much on Spanish writings in blatant disregard of Nahuatl sources:
Libraries are generally thought to be very quiet places, whether they shelter stacks of rare, leather-bound books or rows of computers. Another way to think of a library, however, is as a world of frozen voices, captured and rendered accessible forever by one of the most powerful human developments of all time—the act of writing. From that perspective, a library suddenly becomes a very noisy place… Some conversations are almost impossible to hear. Even someone who is desperately trying to distinguish what an Aztec princess is shouting, for instance, will generally have a hard time of it… The voice overlaying the scene is that of a Spaniard, telling us what he is sure the girl must have thought and believed. Instead of her words, we hear those of the friars and conquistadors whose writings line the shelves of the library.
I agree with everything Townsend writes here. Yet her own writing swings too wildly in the other direction, offering simple moralisations from the opposite direction, rather than grounding the Aztecs in the real complexity of their society. To be fair, some of this nuance is actually present in the book, but it’s often to be found in the endnotes rather than being woven into the main text, where it ought to be. I eventually got tired of flipping back and forth.
Townsend says she did this to keep the history appropriate for a general audience. I think it needs to be in the main text though: Townsend is participating in an historiographical brawl, and it’s essential we know the actual claims made by past historians that she is overturning. It’s no use beating up on arrogant Spaniards who lived 400 years ago. What is the scholarship since then that has informed the received narrative? Surely it’s not just Apocalypto by Mel Gibson and Age of Empires II expansion packs.
There are a few other interesting things to note about this book. Its approach is to follow a different Nahua each chapter, proceeding as though written from their perspective. This is with mixed success: when Townsend switches from the limited perspective to a more birds-eye view of society as a whole, the effect is just awkward. Lack of self-restraint sees her own authorial biases creeping into the text and yanking us out of the narrative. It would not be wrong to amend her image of the friar dubbing over the Aztec princess with spliced-in audio of Townsend yelling over both of them.
To capture something of the poetry of Nahuatl, Townsend refers to people not only by their Nahuatl name, but also by a literal English rendering of it; hence, “Chimalpahin” might also be called “Ran-with-a-Shield”. Some Nahua also took additional names, such as Spanish names, baptismal names, surnames, pen names, or names adopted to connect with their heritage. Some are named after ancestors that appear earlier in the book. These names can get long, and come in a tongue-twisting mixture of Spanish and Nahuatl that are likely to overwhelm anyone unfamiliar with these languages.
What she tried to do was admirable, but it’s very difficult to preserve the beauty of words across two (or three) very different languages. The result is striking, but only for how frustrating it is when the book’s pace grinds to a halt. As a dumb Anglophone, I would have preferred some of the linguistic nuance to be elided.
Perhaps Townsend wrote the wrong book. She clearly has interesting things to say about Nahuatl translations and Mesoamerican historiography and culture. Her strength seems to lie in the careful analysis of intriguing Nahuatl sources. Where these suck you into the past, the book has a certain charm to it. And despite its shortcomings, there are genuine moments of wonder in here: the past is an interesting place - “a different country” - and sloppy writing doesn’t make the Aztecs any less fascinating. Aspects of their culture and society may always remain in shadow, but as for the empire itself? I don’t think we’ll have to worry about forgetting its existence for a very long time.
This account, from the Florentine Codex, is cited by Townsend p. 48.
This account, from the Tlatelolco Chornicles, is cited by Townsend p. 127.