Le Monde des Aztèques [The World of the Aztecs]

This blog entry is different from any of the ones I have ever written before.

It contains a book review and commentary on the current state of book reviews in the US. 

A while back, I was asked by a friend and former museum colleague to review a French-language book on the Aztecs. I agreed, read the book, wrote the review and then started looking for a place that would accept it. And that is where things went awfully awry. Between my reading and reviewing of the book and the day I am writing this, about two years have passed. Granted, I have not been pursuing this project on a daily basis, but I have been pretty persistent about finding an outlet for this review. As I have not been successful, I am posting it onto the museum’s blog. This is a first; I hope to follow up with more such reviews.

Drama angle
Aztec calendar stone
Creative Commons License photo credit: gorriti

I am not the only one who has noticed this “book review crisis.” As it happens, Dr. Michael Smith, an archaeologist working on Aztec sites, professor at Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change and a prolific author has made the same observation. He has blogged on this topic on several occasions, like here, here, here and here.

You get the picture. There is a problem out there in the world of publishing. So, here it goes. You will get the book review first, followed by details on the book itself.

Le Monde des Aztèques is a collaborative volume.

Danièle Dehouve is affiliated with the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes and the Université de Paris VIII. She has written several books on Mexico, most recently, Offrandes et sacrifices en Mésoamérique. Anne-Marie Vie-Wohrer is also affiliated with the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. She specializes in central Mexican writing systems and has authored Xipe Totec, Notre Seigneur l’ écorche, étude glyphique d’un dieu aztèque.

Each of the authors wrote about half of the volume. Danièle Dehouve contributed six chapters, dealing with the history of the Aztecs, the city and its king, the calendar, the day count, the concepts of time and space in Mesoamerica and bloody rituals. Anne-Marie Vie-Wohrer penned chapters on the Aztec pantheon, worldviews, man in the world, pictographic manuscripts and the writing system.

An introductory chapter sets the stage, defining the concept of Mesoamerica and outlining the physical and cultural geography of this region. The authors link past to present when they mention that out of the hundreds of indigenous languages that existed before Contact, there are more than fifty that have survived until today. In a nod to research conducted in South American rock shelters, human presence in the Americas is set to 33,000 BC, a date that most specialists in the field still find hard to accept.

The chapter on Aztec history addresses topics such as the origins of the Aztecs, how to read Aztec documents, the empire at the time of contact. Information related to the excavations at the Templo Mayor includes discoveries made up to the year 2006.  In the chapter on the city and the king, Dehouve teases apart the fabric of Aztec society. Starting with the office of the ruler, the author covers nobility, warriors, judges, priests, traders and artisans and farmers.

Quetzalcoatl
Templo Mayor, Tenochtitlan
Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Jami Dwyer

Three chapters deal with the calendar and the perception of space and time all contain common threads: our fragmentary understanding of these aspects of Aztec society is due in large part to the fragmentary nature of our sources.  The author does provide an easy to follow discourse on what could be a difficult matter to comprehend. The author also very effectively uses illustrations to help clarify her points, for example on p. 119, where the tonalpohualli calendar is discussed. One detail slipped though the cracks however, on p. 96, where the location of the Maya site of Copan is incorrectly listed as Guatemala; that site is just across the border in Honduras.

In her final chapter, dealing with bloody rituals, Dehouve argues that one ought to approach this subject from the Aztec point of view. This reviewer believes that references to the scholarly work by Eric Taladoire and Ted Leyenaar with regard to the Mesoamerican ballgame would have made this section more complete.

Anne-Marie Vie-Wohrer starts off her section with a discussion of Aztec deities.

The chapter has three parts, with detailed discussions of what we know about these gods. Illustrations from colonial-period documents are used with great effectiveness.  The following chapter deals with the creation of the world. Again, the use of illustrations allows the reader to follow the story in two complementary formats. For example, the author reviews the first page of the codex Fejervary-Mayer in multiple segments; each of these steps is accompanied by an image of the codex highlighting the very topic discussed in that portions. In the chapter on the creation of humans, Vie-Wohrer points out that there are many versions of the creation story and that some of them are contradictory.

In the final two chapters, Vie-Wohrer covers materials very familiar to her: pictographic manuscripts and writing systems. Those who are interested in these topics will find the references to the holdings at the Fonds Mexicain at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France very interesting. We can all agree with the sentiment expressed by the author regarding the tragic loss of so many prehispanic documents during the conquest and early colonial days.

This is a lavishly illustrated book on Aztec culture. Although there are many more topics on the Aztec world one could write about, I found the chapters well-written and well-illustrated. The bibliography presented at the end of the book presents a good starting point for those interested in things Aztec. One final remark, because the volume is written by two very qualified French researchers, one gets insights that occasionally differ from those offered by North American counterparts (be they Mexican or American). In order to appreciate these contributions, a working knowledge of French is a must. Sadly, this reviewer has noticed that all too often, this is missing among North American researchers.

Publication details:
DANIELE DEHOUVE, ANNE-MARIE VIE-WOHRER. 2008. Le Monde des Aztèques. Rineuve, Paris. 336 pp., ISBN-978-2-914214-51-3.
Book reviewed by Dirk Van Tuerenhout, Curator of anthropology, Houston Museum of Natural Science.
One can find more information on this book here and here. Just like the volume, these reviews are written en français.

Zut alors.

100 years – 100 Objects: Aztec Stone Figure

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Dirk, the museum’s curator of anthropology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent human cultures throughout time and around the world, that we’ll be sharing here – and at 100.hmns.org - throughout the year.

aztecThis stone figure is a silent witness to one of the best known Pre-Columbian civilizations, the Aztecs. Aztec history chronicles a meteoric rise of a band of hunters and gatherers who, in few centuries, went from a nomadic lifestyle to that of city-dwelling empire builders. While their ascent to power was phenomenal, their demise was cataclysmic. Only three years after meeting the Spanish for the first time, Aztec civilization ceased to exist as an independent political entity.

The statue depicts Chalchiutlicue, a goddess of water (literally her name means “She of the Jade Skirt.”)

Explore thousands of years of Native American history in the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the 100 Objects section at 100.hmns.org

May Book List: Hispanic Culture

One of the best ways for children to learn about different cultures is through literature.  When children read about other cultures, their respect for that culture grows as their knowledge of it increases.  And, when children see themselves in books it enhances their self-esteem and helps them develop pride in their culture.  In addition to learning about the Hispanic experience, children’s books about our southern neighbors are colorful, insightful and just plain fun.  Three of my favorites are described below.

Lois Ehlert’s “Moon Rope” (Un lazo a la luna) is an adaptation of the Peruvian tale “The Fox and the Mole,” and her fascination with pre-Columbian art is readily visible in the collage illustrations which reflect Peruvian culture.  Written in both English and Spanish, this is the story of a fox who wants to climb to the moon on a rope of grass.  He convinces his friend the mole to go with him, but the mole returns to the earth where he stays to this day. What happened to the fox?  Can you see him in the moon? 

poinsettia
Poinsettia 
Creative Commons License photo credit: James Gagen

Author-illustrator Tomie dePaola’s books are easily recognized for their bright colors, simple lines and wonderful stories.  DePaola has the distinction of having been honored by the American Library Association with both the Newbery Honor Book Award (the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children) and the Caldecott Honor Book Award (the most distinguished American picture book for children.)  “The Legend of the Poinsettia” follows dePaola’s incredibly successful “The Legend of the Bluebonnet” and “The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush,” legends familiar to every schoolchild in Texas. 

In “The Legend of the Poinsettia,” Lucida’s family lives in the mountains of Mexico.  One day near Christmas, Padre Alvarez visits her family and asked Lucida’s mother to weave a new blanket for the figure of Baby Jesus in the Christmas procession.  The blanket is a gift to the Baby Jesus on Christmas Eve. After buying the finest yarn, Lucida’s mother becomes sick and has to live with relatives until she recovers.  Lucida tries to weave the blanket, but the yarn becomes hopelessly tangled.  On Christmas Eve Lucida hides because she has no gift to give, but an old woman tells her, “Any gift is beautiful because it is given.”  Lucida gathers green weeds, places them around the altar in the church and kneels to pray.  Instantly, the end of each weed becomes tipped with a flaming red star, and the weeds outside the church are transformed, too.  The people of the village call the brightly colored flowers “La Flor de Nochebuena” – the Flower of the Holy Night - the poinsettia.  Lucida’s simple gift is a part of our Christmas traditions today.

Gary Solo is a well-known Hispanic author of both books for children and young adults.  The picture book “Too Many Tamales” celebrates family love at Christmas.  Maria and her mother are making tamales for Christmas Eve dinner.  While kneading the masa, the temptation becomes too great for Maria, and she tries on her mother’s special ring before she returns to making the tamales.  A few hours later aunts, uncles and cousins arrive and the children go upstairs to play.  Maria suddenly remembers the ring and knew it must have been baked into one of the 24 tamales.  The cousins ate all the tamales, but found no ring, so Maria had to tell her mother what she had done.  All’s well that ends well, and Maria’s Aunt Rosa reminds everyone that the second batch of tamales always tastes better than the first!

kiva
A Native American Kiva 
Creative Commons License photo credit: Dave Boyer

Plan a visit to the McGovern Hall of the Americas on the third floor of the Houston Museum of Natural Science.  This incredible hall has examples of Native American life from the Arctic to the Amazon.  You will learn about life in a kiva, see a collection of kachina dolls, discover the importance of the jaguar to the cacao fields, witness an ancient ball game played by the Aztecs and so much more!  After reading about Hispanic culture, you will experience it for yourself.

100 Years – 100 Objects: Pre-Columbian obsidian labrets

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 - meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

labrets-4x6This description is from Dirk, the museum’s curator of anthropology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent human cultures throughout time and around the world, that we’ll be sharing here – and on hmns.org – throughout the year.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or, in this case, in his lips. These are volcanic glass lip plugs, manufactured by Pre-Columbian people in Mesoamerica. They symbolize the great lengths Pre-Columbian people would go through to look beautiful. Imagine the high degree of craftsmanship required to manufacture these items. Volcanic glass is brittle and thus a challenge to work.
labrets-original-detail-right

Explore thousands of years of Native American history in the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see larger and more detailed images of this rare specimen – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the photo gallery on hmns.org.