It is not known who built and occupied Teotihuacán (pronounced tay-oh-tee-wah-kahn): the Totonac, Otomi or Nahua peoples have all been put forward. The site was established before 100 B.C and building of the vast pyramids continued until around 250 A.D. The city reached its zenith over the next three centuries, with a population in excess of 125,000, making it one of the largest cities in the world at the time. It was sacked and burned in the middle of the 6th century and was abandoned by 700 A.D. The fortunes and whereabouts of the people who built and occupied this city vanish alongside numerous Mesoamerican cultures with the rise of the Azteca-Mexica people, but we know that evidence of Teotihuacano influence can be seen at sites in the Veracruz area. And it was here, in 1519, that Hernán Cortés made his first inroads towards the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan (modern day Mexcio City), a city which he effectively destroyed two years later.
The site at Teotihuacán covers a huge area, of which only about a quarter has been excavated. The principle monuments, the Temples of the Sun and Moon, and the Temple of Quetzalcóatl, are joined by the Avenue of the Dead. The configuration of these building has been subject to intense speculation, ranging from the more scientific to New Age Bonkers (while I was at the top of the Temple of the Sun a European-looking woman, dressed in flowing gowns, opened her arms to the sun and started chanting some gobbledygook which she obviously believed was connecting her to something or other). In the 1970s heyday of New Age enthusiasts, a survey was carried out by Hugh Harleston Junior, who found that the main structures lined up along the Avenue of the Dead formed a precise scale model of the solar system, including Uranus, Neptune and Pluto (not discovered until 1787, 1846 and 1930 respectively). There is plenty more of this kind of stuff around, and every Spring Equinox morning thousands of people climb the Temple of the Sun with arms outstretched facing the sun on the eastern horizon. According to the Wikipedia article on this phenomenon:
Some New Age sources claim that at the point of the equinox, man is at a unique place in the cosmos, when portals of energy open. Climbing the 360 stairs to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun is claimed to allow participants to be closer to this “energy”.
Although recent research suggests that Teotihuacán was a multi-ethnic state, we do know that the Totonac people, who may have lived there, later bore a mighty grudge against their conquerors, the Aztecs, who regularly took tribute from them of slaves, many if not all of whom would be sacrificed. But the people who lived in Teotihuacán certainly practised human sacrifice also. I don’t know how far the New Agers go along with that kind of thing, but who knows, perhaps they secretly want to be sacrificed.
As part of my background reading into Mexican history I am currently immersed in the 19th century Hispanist William F. Prescott’s fascinating account The Conquest of Mexico (published in 1843). I know there are more up-to-date and scientific studies of the period, but none are as entertaining (and Prescott’s study can be downloaded onto a Kindle for only 99 pence). It is written in a style that wavers between the deferential and the ornate, which was no doubt intended to convey the maximum sense of verisimilitude, but which to a modern reader– and possibly, who knows, to the Victorians also – seems almost to verge into parody. Here is Prescott on Cortés’ arbitrary method of convincing the Totonacs that their religious and dietary preferences (i.e. worshipping wooden idols and eating people) were wrong, and they would be much better off serving the True Cross):
‘Fifty soldiers, at a signal from [Cortés], sprang up the great stairway of the temple [at Cempoala], entered the building on the summit, the walls of which were black with human gore, tore down the huge wooden symbols from their foundations, and dragged then to the edge of the terrace. Their fantastic forms and features, conveying a symbolic meaning, which was lost on the Spaniards, seemed in their eyes only the hideous lineaments of Satan. With great alacrity they rolled the colossal monsters down the steps of the pyramid, amidst the triumphant shouts of their own companions, and the groans and lamentations of the natives. They then consummated the whole by burning them in the presence of the assembled multitude.
The Totonacs, finding their deities incapable of preventing or even punishing this profanation of their shrines, conceived a mean opinion of their power, compared with that of the mysterious and formidable strangers. The floor and walls of the teocalli were then cleansed, by command of Cortés, from their foul impurities; a fresh coating of stucco was laid on them by Indian masons; and an altar was raised, surmounted by a lofty cross, and hung with garlands of roses. A procession was next formed, in which some of the principal Totonac priests, exchanging their dark mantles for robes of white, carried lighted candles in their hands; while an image of the Virgin, half smothered under the weight of flowers, was borne aloft, and, as the procession climbed the steps of the temple, was deposited above the altar. Mass was performed by Father Olmedo, and the impressive character of the ceremony and the passionate eloquence of the good priest touched the feelings of the motley audience, until Indians as well as Spaniards, if we may trust the chronicler, were melted into tears and audible sobs.’
This sprightly conversion was guided, in part at least, by the Totonac cacique’s knowledge that only with the support of the Spaniards could he gain revenge on his real enemy, the Aztec.
Back in Teotihuacán, I complete my ascent of both the Temple of the Moon and the Temple of the Sun (exhausting and at times perilous) and make my way along the Avenue of the Dead, to the visit the Temple of Quetzalcoatl (ket-sal-kwaht-uhl) – the plumed serpent deity – which is far smaller, but equally impressive in its way. Its façade is adorned with huge sculptures of a plumed serpent and of the rain god Tlaloc. A series of tunnels were found beneath the structure in 2010. They are thought to house the remains of the ruling elite.
Nearby is the site of several mass graves, discovered in the 1980s. The remains of around 200 people who had been sacrificed were found, the victims’ hands tied behind their back (perhaps dispelling the notion that some Mesoamerican sacrifice victims were volunteers). Whichever version is true (and we know that sacrificial victims were most commonly captured enemies), we return again to the cult of death, which I have remarked upon in previous posts during this trip, and to which I will return.
I would hate to give the impression that I do not enjoy reading novels. It is just that in the normal course of my work I read an awful lot of fiction and sometimes I like to take a break, and prefer to read other things. Last month, for instance – and this is not unusual – I read a good deal of poetry, and especially enjoyed re-acquainting myself with the wonder that is Federico García Lorca.
Also, as some followers of this blog might recall, I entered the weird realm of Stranger Magic, Marina Warner’s absorbing study, subtitled ‘Charmed States and the Arabian Nights’. The many handwritten footnotes, exclamation marks and marginalia in my copy will no doubt draw me back to the book over and again during the years ahead. Borges comes up for special attention in Ms Warner’s book, not least for his essay ‘The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights’, in which he argues, according to Warner, that “every reader can be, and should be, creative; that you can make up the stories as you please. In the process, the translator is being translated.” What a wonderfully liberating notion! One of those ideas that makes you realise that yes, that is how reading goes, when it is going at its best, which is what makes it more of a pleasure than writing (a view, incidentally, expressed by Zadie Smith on a Radio Four interview yesterday afternoon, causing me to nod my head sagely while juicing a vile concoction of raw beetroot and spinach).
But it is the huge scope and influence of the stories that Shahrazad (or Scheherazade) weaves for the murderous Sultan to stave off her own (and her sister Dunyazad’s) execution that most preoccupy Marina Warner; that and the labyrinthine cultural mythologies that attach to tales with which almost everyone feels familiar, either – at the posh end of the market – through the exhaustive and archaic translation of the Victorian explorer, swordsman, linguist and pornographer Sir Richard Burton, or else, more likely, via the mock-heroic exertions of Aladdin, either in the town hall pantomime or Walt Disney Productions. Take your pick. Personally I would dearly love to own a leather-bound first edition set of Burton’s Nights.
What most interests me, however, are the ways in which, at a profound level, the feats described in The Thousand and One Nights – all those jinns (or genies) and magic carpets and animal transmutations – together create a pervasive magical sensibility that has cast its influence on many aspects of world literature, from early science fiction, through Victorian Gothic fantasy to Latin American and eastern European so-called magic realism. Warner also spends some time with Kafka, claiming that his:
“style, its careful accountancy of detail and its measured verisimilitude, performs a sleight-of-hand to obscure the symbolic, allegorical and fairytale character of his tales. Gregor’s metamorphosis is presented as an event that has taken place, and it involves a complete hypostatic change: species and substance into the real presence of a monstrous bug. No agents of the change are invoked, unlike the mythological tales by Ovid which Kafka echoes in the his story’s title, or the jinn who change men into beasts in the Nights, because this new, modernist supernatural does not presuppose a hierarchy of beings, higher and lower, divine or diabolical: the daimon occupies a here and now, curled up in the word that brings the thing – the bug – into being on the page for us, the readers.”
Although four stories by Franz Kafka are referenced in Stranger Magic, one that seems to have slipped through Warner’s fastidious net is ‘The Bucket Rider’, a short piece written when Kafka had escaped Prague, to spend a terrible, freezing winter in Berlin with Dora Diamant. The story begins:
Coal all spent; the bucket empty; the shovel useless; the stove breathing our cold; the room freezing; the trees outside the window rigid, covered with rime; the sky a silver shield against anyone who looks for help from it. I must have coal; I cannot freeze to death; behind me is the pitiless stove, before me the pitiless sky, so I must ride out between them and on my journey seek aid from the coal dealer . . .
. . . My mode of arrival must decide the matter; so I ride off on the [coal] bucket. Seated on the bucket, my hands on the handle, the simplest kind of bridle, I propel myself with difficulty down the stairs, but once downstairs my bucket ascends, superbly, superbly; camels humbly squatting on the ground do not rise with more dignity, shaking themselves under the sticks of their drivers . . .
Needless to say, the story ends badly, with the coal dealer and his wicked wife refusing to give even a shovelful of coal on credit, and the bucket-rider flying off into oblivion: “And with that I ascend into the regions of the ice mountains and am lost forever.”
I mention the story only in passing, having been reminded of it in this week’s TLS, in an article about Kafka by Gabriel Josipovici, titled ‘It must end in the inexplicable’ (TLS, 7 September 2012). The main point of the reference in the article is to dismantle an interpretation of the story by another critic, June Leavitt. But for me the central trope of the story is sufficient to link it to The Thousand and One Nights, whatever the interpretative differences we may entertain about Kafka’s intentions – which in any case is not a discussion that much interests me.
How else, we may wonder – other than through the universalism of the Arabian Nights stories – did the damned camels get into a story set in the icy Berlin winter?