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.