Wednesday, December 14, 2011

78. Double-Headed Serpent (Mexico, AD 1400-1600)

Spanish Destroy Aztecs!
This double-headed serpent is one of the most beautiful objects in the British Museum. It’s the main object, in our historical trajectory, representing Aztec culture, and it’s an example of how too much symbolism can get projected onto one object. One of MacGregor’s Aztec specialists speaks about the dual nature of most Aztec gods—like Shiva and Parvati in Hinduism, you have gods of duality, gods that are both male and female, winged serpents (Quetzalcoatl) representing both earth and sky, gods who stand for both life and death, creatures with two heads like the one in this object. And MacGregor wants it to represent dualities like the Old World and the New World, murderous friendship, modern Mexico with its dual European and mestizo citizenry. Whatever, it’s a gorgeous object and the encounter of Cortés and Moctezuma is indeed a turning point.

As usual, not to exonerate the Spanish...but the Aztecs could be pretty nasty. Like the Incas and lots of other meso-American cultures, they had both good (chocolate!) and bad (human sacrifice and lots of it!) And they had many enemies. The zillions of little bits of turquoise used to make this double-headed serpent came to Mexico City (sorry, Tenochtitlan), the capital, from as far away as Texas and Honduras. Most of their conquered territories didn’t like them very much—there was that whole matter of having to send slaves off to the capitol to be sacrificed en masse—and the Spanish exploited this when they got there, to weaken Aztec rule and take the place over. It sounds like it helped that many treated the Spanish as gods, initially, and that Moctezuma basically gave Cortés the key to the city when he first got there. The other thing that helped was smallpox, which slaughtered 90% of the indigenous people right away. And yet, since there were more people there to begin with—glorious, terrifying cities full of people—enough survived to mingle with the newcomers and give us the people who are there today, many with mixed native and European ancestry.

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