The Good, the Bad and the Barbaric

Some criticisms regarding my decision to keep human sacrifice in my One World universe has come up, but rather than sit and pout in the corner, I think it’s a good opportunity to reexamine my choices and why I made them (and whether or not it was the right choice to make them). I’m not going to quote anyone, but several readers have been bothered by the fact that in this alternate world human sacrifice is still going on next to space travel and genetic engineering and artificial intelligences. I think it’s a valid concern worthy of discussion and contemplation, particularly since it makes this future civilization appear “barbaric” to some readers. And the last thing I want to do is paint a minority population with broad generalizations or make them seem backwards. If I’m unwittingly being racist, I want to change that.

Warning! Spoilers for other published stories in the One World series.

To start off, the story in question, “Night Bird Soaring”, was the first story I wrote in this universe, so I will admit that it suffers from a lack of truly deep world building; I had what I considered an really cool idea and I rolled with it. I started fleshing out the true scope of the world in other stories, so there’s a whole lot to the world that doesn’t show up in NBS, like the Food of the Gods (the clones that make up 99.9% of the sacrifices performed in the empire) and the changes that Cuauhtemoc instituted once he took power. A lot of things that go to explaining why human sacrifice has lasted so long just aren’t present in this story, so that is an inherent flaw. I can see where people could get grumbly about there still being human sacrifice in this future world, seemingly as unchanged as it was at 1521.

Onto why I decided to keep human sacrifice in the One World.

Human sacrifice has a very deep history in Mesoamerica; it didn’t start with the Aztecs, or even with the Maya; the practice even pre-dates the Olmecs (1200 BC), and it remained a core concept in Mesoamerican religion up until the Conquest (and only then changed because of the forcible conversion of the natives by Spanish clergy, the religious assimilation of their children, and the deaths of millions of the native population due to diseases such as small pox). It’s deeply ingrained in the mythologies and the literature that survived the Conquest. It’s featured prominently in their art, and it shaped the ways in which they wages wars (and in end these war methods resulted in some staggering losses against the Spanish, who fought for very different reasons, but more on that later). To say that it was some fly-by-night religious practice that had no meaning is a gross understatement.

In Mesoamerican cosmology, the world itself was created through sacrifice, on the part of the gods, and to repay this sacrifice, the gods wanted sacrifices made to them, specifically human sacrifices ( in replication of the sacrifice they made themselves). And the people made these sacrifices to keep their families safe and fed, because without the sacrifices, the rain god could wipe out all the crops or flood the village, killing everyone. Irregardless of whether one thinks this did any good for anyone, they believed it was serving good, and in fact it was considered a great honor to be a sacrifice.

This was a concept I had a really hard time wrapping my mind around when I first heard it in college; who the hell would want to be killed? Eventually though I started to understand; perhaps becoming a mother and realizing what lengths I would go to to save my children made this a bit clearer to me; I wouldn’t want to die for any god, but that just me. Some people are perfectly willing to do that, even in modern day, just as some people are willing to go off to war and die for the sake of their country. Some things don’t look stupid or crazy when you believe it will help those you love and are devoted to. In fact, warriors taken to the sacrifice by the Aztecs (or their neighbors) made a great show of convincing the crowd that they were proud to be there, and that they were honoring their family by being unafraid to die for the gods. Nor were they treated poorly by their captors; instead they were doted over and for the remainder of their lives were considered a member of their captor’s family. At it’s core, being sacrificed was considered an honor, not a punishment.

But what about all those tribes that joined the Spanish cause against the Aztecs during the Conquest? Surely they did so because the Aztecs were sacrificing their people?

At the time of the Conquest, all the tribes in Aztec lands were practicing human sacrifice, so no, that wasn’t the issue. The Aztecs controlled a very large portion of Mesoamerica and imposed taxation on all its realms, some heavier than others. Part of that taxation involved sending sacrificial victims to Tenochtitlan, but on the whole they weren’t interested in stopping human sacrifice, but rather throwing off the yoke of their oppressors (but unwittingly accepting the yoke of another). Some tribes were deeply bitter about the number of sacrificial victims the Aztecs were taking off them, like Tlaxcala, which wasn’t strictly under Aztec rule, but was forced to participate in numerous “flowery wars” to keep the Triple Alliance from going to all-out war with them. The “flowery war” was a ritualized battle with the express intent of gathering sacrificial victims, a concept created by the Aztecs to feed the political and religious ambitions of one particular Cihuacoatl (sort of like a vice president to the emperor, who oversaw the domestic and economic welfare of the empire). This Cihuacoatl, named Tlacaelel, held sway through 4 different emperors and systematically increased the power and influence of the Mexica’s primary god, the war god Huitzilopochtli. Too keep up with the demand set up by Tlacaelel, prisoners from neighboring cities had to be taken, and not many appreciated the extra burden. So in the end it wasn’t human sacrifice itself that drove the killing wedge between the Aztecs and the other tribes, but rather their extreme politicizing of it.

Using this as a spring board, I decided that one of the first things Cuauhtemoc would do when he took power was to back off the mass sacrifices and high taxation and instead work on uniting the tribes in common cause against the impending European invasion. This is a rough 200-300 year period that results in a united North and South America where each nation is allowed to worship as they see fit while the Mexica themselves have chosen to continue with their core religion. The advent of advance science actually gives the Mexica the opportunity to increase their tribute to the gods without chiseling into their own population, by producing clones of everyone born into the empire (Food of the Gods). Science is seen not as a answer against the gods, but rather a tool given to them by their immortal emperor to better please the gods (and it should be noted that because of Cuauhtemoc’s immortality, he quickly became thought of as a god himself, specifically Huitzilopochtli).

Around the time NBS takes place, secularism is starting to rise, but Cuauhtemoc’s continued presence is still a source of “proof” to a largely religious society that the gods do exist. Something will have to give, and I’m looking forward to exploring the possibilities.

That’s the universe, in a nutshell, as I’ve worked it out to this point. It’s by no means unflawed, but I also don’t see the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican tribes abandoning their core religious values in short form, particularly when they think they have proof of its rightness leading them into glory. In my mind, it would be a slow process built on long-term contact with other tribes that don’t practice it, shifting the focus more onto personal sacrifice as opposed to government sanctioned. I also see it splintering off into diverse groups that believe different things, but I don’t see human sacrifice completely disappearing. Is human sacrifice inherently evil? I don’t necessarily think so, so long as the sacrifice is being made willingly by the one who will die (no more than it’s evil to die to save your children, or you chose to go to war to fight for your country and end up getting killed. Now, being forced to the sacrifice, or being forced to fight in a war you don’t believe in…. No part of me can get on board with that.)

There is something that bothers me in all this discussion though, and that’s the underlying assumption that our system, our religion, our morals that we have today are superior to what came before, and so any civilization that doesn’t aim to achieve the world we currently live in must be barbaric by definition. If they practice human sacrifice, they are barbaric, and the racist author is saying that they cannot rise out of that barbarism on their own. I think it’s a worse crime to try to white-wash a civilization to match what we consider “civilized”. And I admit, I struggle with this all the time, trying not to let my modern white American woman sensibilities creep in and frick up my stories about Aztecs and Toltecs. And I don’t always succeed. I might have completely fricked up my world building for my One World stories, but I tried my best to remain true to the culture’s core religious values and extrapolate outward. Maybe I failed miserably though.

I’m a bit nervous talking about this, because this is a volatile topic, and I truly hate the idea that I might have done something racist without thinking, but it’s an important discussion to have and think about, for both readers and writers. I don’t want to write still more white-washed minorities, but I also don’t want to contribute to perpetuating exoticism. Life is a never-ending learning process, so when I take a wrong step, I’m willing to listen and see about taking a right step. And it’s never a bad thing to stop and reevaluate.

One Response

  1. Austin Briggs

    I have to say, I support your choice. I also believe that were the Aztecs to follow up on their victory after the Noche Triste, they’d continue with (most probably scaled back) sacrifice. As would all the other tribes in One World.

    I’m surprised that quite a few people express the point of view that the local tribes helped the Spaniards because they opposed the human sacrifice. This is beyond incorrect.