Aztec religion at the time of its encounter with the Spaniards in the early 16th century was a sophisticated mix of ritual and symbolic imagination. In this interview with Molly H. Bassett, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia, listeners are treated to a glimpse of a society where human sacrifice was a tool for encountering the divine, priests turned into gods and goddesses, and death held radical meanings for religious agents.
At the beginning of the interview, Dr. Bassett shares how she became involved in Mesoamerican studies thanks to her mentor, Davíd Carrasco. “Hardly anybody… in religious studies” works in this area, she says, instead they are in allied fields such as anthropology or history. Stressing the power of mentors on her career, Bassett reminds all scholars of the role a devoted teacher can have on one’s life. And, as the interview unfolds, the value of this disciplinarity is on display as Bassett is able to ask different questions of the Aztec sources than previous scholars have been.
After providing an overview of the many shared features of pre-Columbian cultures from Southern Texas all the way to Honduras that became known as Mesoamerican thanks to the work of ethnologist Paul Kirchhoff. Stepped pyramids, pictographic writing, ballgames, sacrifice, and common linguistic families are just a few of the traits that reveal the roots of this cultural area. Bassett’s work has included a focus on linguistics and especially through the study of texts employing pictograms (sound and symbols) as in the Florentine Codex and Codex Mexicanus. The Florentine Codex was composed by spanish speaker missionaries who encountered Aztecs, and then learned and translated Nahuatl into Spanish with the help of tri-lingual scribes into volumes that contained both text and commentary.
One of the most fascinating elements of these early codices is its portrayal of Spanish conquistador Cortez’ encounter with Aztec leader Montezuma. Bassett’s work on this encounter, especially in her recently published The Fate of Earthly Things, argues that the codices present this ritual occasion as one where the Spanish were presented as “teotl” or gods. For scholars this has been a challenging interpretative moment. Did the Aztecs really think the Spaniards were gods? No, says Bassett, and by asking what the Aztecs meant by “teotl” she reveals the potency of teixiptla or local embodiments of god(s). Montezuma, she claims, may have used the gift exchange with the Spaniards as a way to prepare Cortez for sacrifice and transformation into a teixiptla.
By the end of the interview, Bassett comes to articulate the value of Mesoamerican studies for undergraduate and graduate students. Her own experiences coming to establish material from a religious studies’ perspective suggest the importance of discipline and method in defining the questions we can ask and therefore the answers our subjects can provide. In the classroom her graduate students–often not even Americanists and rarely Mesoamericanists–are challenged by this material, especially by primary materials that have been approached by methods from different disciplines. For many scholars who teach method or theory courses, Bassett’s presentation of a primary source and the way different disciplines’ methods can limit or expand our inquiries is an excellent model for teachers in all areas and subjects.
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