Tag: aztec geek

“Memories in Bronze, Feathers and Blood” up at BCS

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My Aztec steampunk short “Memories in Bronze, Feathers and Blood” is now up at Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

This is what we remember: the stillness before the battle, the Jaguar Knights crouching in the mud of the marshes, their steel rifles glinting in the sunlight. And the gunshot—and Atl, falling with his eyes wide open, as if finally awakening from a dream…

Read the rest here.

It will also be podcast in a later issue, if you prefer your Aztecs to come in audio rather than in text :=p

Any comments/discussion on the story can be left here or at the Beneath Ceaseless Skies forums.

Obsidian and Blood setting, 4: Acatl and death in Mexica religion

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This is part 4 of a series of posts on the setting of my Aztec fantasy series Obsidian and Blood, as a leadup to the release of Book 1, Servant of the Underworld, published by Angry Robot/HarperCollins (more information here, including excerpts and a book trailer). You can find part 1 (the Valley of Mexico) here, part 2 (the city of Tenochtitlan) here, and part 3 (about the Sacred Precinct and religion) here.

4. Acatl, and death in Mexica religion
My main character in the book is Acatl, High Priest for the Dead, who has the responsibility for investigating magical offences in the capital city of Tenochtitlan.

The word Acatl means “Reed”. It’s shorthand for his actual name, which is his date of birth in the calendar: Chiquacen Acatl, which means “The day Six Reed” [1]. I chose that name back when I was first writing “Obsidian Shards”, the very first story that featured him, for a number of reasons. The first is the association with the god Quetzalcoatl, Ce Acatl Topiltzin (see previous article)–who, among other things, was the patron of priests and of knowledge. The second is the symbolism of the day Six Reed itself: it has associations both with Mictlantecuhtli, the god of death (Acatl’s patron), and with the god of Justice–a fitting set of protectors for a death priest engaged in the investigation of magical crimes. [2]

Acatl’s patron is Mictlantecuhtli, the god of death. His name means “Lord of the Place of Death” (which I’ve shortened to “Lord Death” in the book for ease of reading), and he is one of the gods associated with the end of life. You can see a picture of him below, with the characteristic skeletal look.

The Aztec death system, like its religion, is complex. The basic idea is that there are several destinations for the spirits of the dead. What determines where someone ends up isn’t the respect of a particular morality (as in Christian religion). Instead, the only separating factor is the manner of death.

For those happy few who died in battle, their destination was Ilhuicatl Tonatiuh, the Heaven of the Sun. This included warriors who died on the battlefield, most sacrifice victims, as well as women who have died in childbirth. This last one can seem odd–but for the Mexica, childbirth was a struggle to bring a captive (the baby) into the world, an activity as dangerous as fighting other warriors in an effort to secure prisoners for sacrifice. Once ascended, the men would accompany the sun to its zenith; the women would then take over, from zenith to sunset. After four years, the spirits would come back into the mortal world: the men as butterflies, the women as moths. Below is a statue of a woman who has died in childbirth–transformed into a Cihuateteo, a fearsome female deity.

Another possible destination was Tlalocan, a watery paradise ruled by Tlaloc, the god of rain and storms. Those destined for Tlalocan had died of drowning, lightning strikes, and associated diseases (such as dropsy). There, they would enjoy the bliss of a land where crops bloomed year-long–Tlalocan is very much a peasants’ paradise, as Ilhuicatl Tonatiuh is that of warriors.

The babies who had died while still breastfeeding would go to Omeyocan, the Place of the Duality, where the supreme gods Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl would keep their spirits until they could be reborn after the end of the current age. In Omeyocan, the babies would suck the sap from a huge tree, as they had sucked milk from their mothers’ breasts. You might wonder what is the significance of breastfeeding: the answer is that it goes back to the link between blood and fertility. Those children are the ones who have never tasted the fruit of the earth–the fruit that have been sprouted thanks to the blood offerings of men. Hence, those babies have no debt either to the earth or the sun, and their spirits exist in a state much like the Christian state of grace.

You’ll notice that this barely covers any people at all. What of all the other spirits? The vast majority of people, those who did not fall into any of the categories outlined above, would go down into Mictlan, the Place of Death, or the underworld. This was a gloomy, cheerless place split over nine levels–from the entrance all the way down to the palace of Mictlantecuhtli and his consort Mictecacihuatl. On each of those levels, the spirit would face a gruelling trial. After four years of tribulation, the spirit reached the last level, where it was finally allowed to dissolve.

I adapted some of Mictlan’s trials into the underworld creatures Acatl deals with. The Wind of Knives, an elusive creature made of obsidian shards, corresponds to level five, where a wind as cutting as broken obsidian would tear the spirits apart. The beasts of shadows, with their taste for human hearts, come from level eight, where the spirit had to present a jade heart in order not have their own devoured by beasts.

Acatl himself takes on functions that pertain to all those places, since he investigates into magical crimes regardless of where the spirits might have gone (though he has access only to those spirits who have entered Mictlan, which can hinder him in his inquiries). I also gave him the more prosaic role of organising funerals, and helping the spirits’ passage into Mictlan. [3] Below is a particular form of funeral: a mummy bundle, which consists of putting the body in a foetal position, wrapping it in layers of clothes, and adding ornaments such as jade stones (the manner of disposing of the body also depended on the manner of death, but I’ll not go into details here).

And that concludes this series of articles about Aztec history–remember, Servant of the Underworld is out today if you want to check out what I did with all this nifty research. (order now–tell your friends–etc. :=) )


[1] The Mesoamerican calendar is a fascinating and complex system. I refer you to The Aztec calendar or Marie Brennan‘s article in Strange Horizons for brief introductions.
[2]In the series, I had to strike a balance between the Mexica fondness for tongue-twisting names, and readability for a Western audience unused to words of more than 4-5 syllables–so a lot of names were chosen for phonetic reasons and not because of any particular meaning.
If you’re curious, the names that do mean something, apart from Acatl and the gods’ names, are Ichtaca (“secret”), Mihmatini (“prudent one”), Palli (“leaf”), Teomitl (“arrow of the gods”), and Tizoc (“chalked leg”]). I’ll put up a character index at some point, promise.
For much the same reason of readability, I also fudged the rules for tacking on the honorific “tzin” at the end of a name (there’s a series of non-intuitive ways to tie together a noun and its “tzin”, but I figured I’d go a little easy on that before my readers went crazy).
[3]I fudged a bit here. There is, in reality, little evidence of a wide religious body associated with funerals. There is some reference to people who burnt bodies on pyres, but they seemed to have been officials rather than priests.

Obsidian and Blood setting, 3: The Sacred Precinct

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This is part 3 of a series of posts on the setting of my Aztec fantasy series Obsidian and Blood, as a leadup to the release of Book 1, Servant of the Underworld, published by Angry Robot/HarperCollins (more information here, including excerpts and a book trailer). You can find part 1 (the Valley of Mexico) here, part 2 (the city of Tenochtitlan) here, and part 4 (Acatl and death in Mexica religion) here.

Any questions or comments welcome!

3. The Sacred Precinct
Just as the valley of Mexico was the heart of the Empire, so the Sacred Precinct was that of Tenochtitlan. Its function was simple: to serve as the religious and ceremonial centre for the city.

Within the Serpent Wall that delimitated its boundaries, the Sacred Precinct included the major temples of Mexica gods, areas for specific sacrifices, and the houses and schools for priests. Its size was staggering–500m to a side, probably the reason why the Spanish maps of Tenochtitlan give it such a prominent (and distorted) place.

Mexica religion is a complex field, not least because the only information we have about gods came through the Spanish friars, who tended to be biased on such a fundamental subject. There are dozens of Mexica gods, each with several aspects: Tezcatlipoca, the Smoking Mirror, the god of war and fate, is also Yaotl, the Enemy, and Telpochtli, the Male Youth, patron of the education of young warriors. The sum of those aspects are often referred to as “complexes”: though the gods have separate names and aspects, they take their root in the same basic concept.

To understand the Mexica relationship with their gods, it’s once again necessary to go back–this time to the beginning of the current age[1]. When the sun first rose in the sky, it remained motionless, transfixing the land with its deadly rays. The gods, seeing that the sun was hungry, sacrificed themselves and gave him their blood, so that creation might go on. Men are thus macehualli, “born through divine sacrifice”, and, because the (dead) gods can no longer feed the sun with blood, that most sacred of duties falls to mankind.

Sacrifice to the Mexica was not cruelty or mere bloodthirstiness–rather, it was a fundamental act, continuously keeping the end of the world at bay. It was a ritual, and even in the aspects that horrify us the most, the point wasn’t to cause pain for pain’s sake: the Mexica did not practise torture, and were horrified when the Spanish had such casual recourse to it. Rather, a sacrifice victim became a substitute/incarnation for the god, recreating the fundamental sacrifice the gods had made at the beginning of time–giving their blood for the sun and the continuation of the current age.

Of all the gods of the pantheon, the two most important ones had place of pride in the Sacred Precinct: the largest building there was the Great Temple (Templo Mayor), a twin pyramid dedicated to Tlaloc, the god of rain and storms, and to Huitzilpochtli, the tribal god of the Mexica. Tlaloc, characterised by his google-eyes and by the fangs protruding from his mouth, was an old divinity (traces of him are found as far back as Teotihuacan, a millenium before the Mexica). Huitzilpochtli, a youthful man with a blue-green hummingbird headdress and a black mask around his eyes, was a newer god, elevated to supreme rank and twinned with Tonatiuth, the Fifth Sun, the provider of light and upholder of the world’s order. He was a god of war to whom prisoners were sacrificed; celebrated during numerous festivals. Below are images of both, drawn from various Mexica codices.

Two other gods also had large temples: the first was Tezcatlipoca, the Smoking Mirror, god of war, fate and rulership. It was before Tezcatlipoca that a new Emperor would meditate and do penance before being crowned. Tezcatlipoca was a capricious god, as likely to curse as to help–another of his associations was with sorcerers, the dark ones who used potions and body-parts to poison men, rob houses and despoil innocent people.

The second, and the last one I’ll mention in this very short introduction, is Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent. Under the name Ce Acatl Tolpitzin, he had been the ruler of the legendary Toltec city Tulla–his reign a golden age with no sicknesses, famines or human sacrifices. His temple in the Sacred Precinct honoured him as Ehecatl, the god of wind: it was a round tower without any asperities, so that it would not break the wind’s course as it sped through Tenochtitlan.

Among the other curiosities of the Sacred Precinct was the temalaccatl, or gladiator stone, where a captive warrior was given wooden weapons to fight against other, better-armed warriors until he finally succumbed; and the Jaguar and Eagle Houses, communal places for the elite warriors, those who had captured more than four prisoners on the battlefield. [2] My main character’s brother Neutemoc is a Jaguar Knight, and he would have looked much like the one depicted below: a full bodysuit made of a jaguar’s skin, the helmet worked out of the animal’s head so that the warrior’s own head protruded from between the teeth of the jaguar.

Though the emperor was the closest thing to a god on earth, standing for the authority of Tezcatlipoca and Huitzilpochtli, he did not live within the Sacred Precinct, but rather just outside it. We have evidence of several palaces built along the Serpent Wall, bordering the Precinct: that of Axayacatl (1469-1480), Ahuizotl (1486-1502) and Moctezuma II (1502-1519). It’s not clear whether the other emperors chose to inhabit a predecessor’s palace, or whether we haven’t yet found evidence of other constructions.

Those palaces were huge compounds, spread over a square kilometre or more: as well as a living space for the emperor and his family and the other members of the Triple Alliance, they also housed the courts of appeals, the workshops of imperial artists such as featherworkers, and goldsmiths, the treasury that held the tribute from the whole empire, and many other administrative functions of the empire. There were separate courts for civilians and the military, and the emperor acted as the supreme appeal. Those courts obviously play a large part in the book, which is focused on investigations and their consequences.

That’s all for today. Come back tomorrow for the final article, on my main character Acatl, and the Mexica approach to death (and the book launch, of course 🙂 )


[1]The current age was the fifth one in the cycle: previous ages had ended in worldwide disasters such as floods or rains of fire, and with humanity either completely wiped out or changed into animals. The current sun, Tonatiuh, is also referred to as the Fifth Sun. In the novel(s), I use the term “Fifth World” to refer to the mortal part of the universe, by analogy with the Fifth Sun.
[2]The orders of the Jaguar Knights and of the Eagle Knights tend to be listed as a single large body, with a single set of buildings. I have chosen to give them separate compounds, for plot-related reasons.

Obsidian and Blood setting, 2: Tenochtitlan

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This is part 2 of a series of posts on the setting of my Aztec fantasy series Obsidian and Blood, as a leadup to the release of Book 1, Servant of the Underworld, published by Angry Robot/HarperCollins (more information here, including excerpts and a book trailer). You can find part 1 (the valley of Mexico and the Mexica Empire) here, part 3 (the Sacred Precinct and Mexica religion) here, and part 4 (Acatl and death in Mexica religion) here.
Any questions or comments welcome!

2. The City of Tenochtitlan and the Migration Myth

If the basin of Anahuac was a place of waters (see previous post), Tenochtitlan was the archetype of an island city. It’s been referred to as the Venice of Mesoamerica, and not without reason, as most of the city was laid along canals.

The city was built on an island in Lake Texcoco, a naturally defensible place. Three huge causeways (1-2km long each), linked it to the mainland, each bearing the name of the city they led to: Tepeyacac, Tacuba/Tlacopan, and Itzpalapan. Each of them was guarded by several forts, and by an additional defence mechanism: the causeways were made of sections of stone-and-mortars, which alternated with wooden bridges, easy to demolish in the event of an invasion. This would allow the island city to become a veritable fortress.

Tenochtitlan itself followed a grid pattern: urban planning had left nothing to chance (indeed, there was a set of officials in charge of city planning, who had to approve major building works), and the houses were neatly aligned along the canals and streets. Those houses tended to be spread around patios; the more luxurious ones were compounds big enough to have one or several private courtyards, and perhaps even two storeys (a privilege reserved to noblemen).

The core of the city was divided into four districts or campans: Cuopepan, Moyotlan, Zoquiapan, and Atzacualco (see map below–I’m afraid it’s got one of the districts named wrong, but I couldn’t find anything clearer). Each district was in turn divided into calpulli [1]. A calpulli was a series of people related by birth and/or by profession, all living in the same area of the city: a tribe as well as an administrative unit. They had their own temples, marketplaces, civic centres, and their elders administered basic justice. We don’t understand yet all the ramifications between the calpulli or what kind of mobility you could have between them. I chose to make one of the characters in the book, Neutemoc–aka the social ascender–a member of a Tenochtitlan calpulli by marriage (his wife Huei being the one with the Tenochtitlan ties). My main character Acatl, being not only a priest but also the head of his order, stands a little apart from that particular system, but has retained some ties with his Coyoacan calpulli.

You’ll notice the presence of what seems to be another district north of the map. In reality, Tlatelolco was not another district, but the remnants of another city. Back when Tenochtitlan was founded, some of the Mexica disagreed on where to place the heart of the city. This opposing faction came to found Tlatelolco some kilometres north of Tenochtitlan itself. The cities cohabited peacefully for the better part of a century. But under Emperor Axayacatl’s reign, about 7 years before the story started, war broke out on a flimsy pretext, and the Mexica armies conquered Tlatelolco, all but absorbing it into Tenochtitlan. Tlatelolco was known for its daily market, set on a huge plaza where you could find anything from live animals to jewellery to ceramics. It had its own police system as well as its own court, which punished thieves as well as dishonest merchants. This market is where the priests in the book go for their daily rounds of purchases.

At the centre of Tenochtitlan was the centre of the religious life: the huge Sacred Precinct, which housed the major temples, and around which were arranged the Emperors’ palaces (I’ll dwell more on the Sacred Precinct in the next article).

So, why Tenochtitlan? I briefly touched on Tenoch in the previous post, the semi-mythical leader of the Mexica who gave his name to Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Empire. In reality, it’s a little more complex: like the name “Mexica”, there are several interpretations of the name Tenochtitlan. One of those is “The place of the prickly pear cactus”, and this refers to the founding of Tenochtitlan.

To understand why, we’ll have to backtrack a bit, and get back to Aztlan/Chicomoztoc, the mythical, paradisiacal place of origins. The Mexica believed that in times immemorial, they had lived in caves near Aztlan. They emerged from those to find their tribal god Huitzilpochtli, the Southern Hummingbird. Huitzilpochtli charged them with a mission to found a city to his glory. They set out, led by four priest-rulers, who were also the bearer of the idol of the god–and to whom he spoke in dreams. The Mexica migration was to take them over most of the Mexica valley: each time they settled down somewhere, disaster would strike, for Huitzilpochtli had a precise destination in mind, and would not let them grow soft among foreigners.

Several incidents are recounted, but the one that has the most bearing on Tenochtitlan is the battle against Copil: Copil’s mother, Malinalxoch, was an evil sorceress whom the Mexica had abandoned in the interest of the tribe. Her son came some time later to avenge his mother, but was defeated through the intervention of Huitzilpochtli, and his heart thrown into the marshes.

Generations later, the Mexica, hounded by the other tribes in the basin, had no choice but to enter the marshes, where they wandered around for days, dazed by fatigue and lack of food. In their moment of greatest despair, Huitzilpochtli spoke to them in a dream, telling them to look for his sign: an eagle perched on a cactus, which marked the place where they would found their city. The cactus had sprouted from the heart of Copil. It’s a striking image, laden with meaning: the cactus springs from an original sacrifice, which reinforces the link between blood and fertility. The fruit of this particular cactus, which is red and bud-shaped, also bears more than a passing resemblance to human hearts, and the fact that the eagle is feeding upon those is significant [2]. The eagle is also a symbol of the sun; and the vessels for holding human hearts were called cuauhxicalli, which means “eagle gourd bowl”. Taken together, all those elements form the Mexica ideal of providing nourishment for their god in the form of human hearts, either from themselves or from defeated captives.

Thus the migration had led them back to Huitzilpochtli’s place of victory–where, with the god’s blessing, they founded the city of Tenochtitlan. It was the place where they would “keep guard, await, meet the people in battle (…), vanquish them all and make them captive.” From the beginning, Tenochtitlan’s mission was thus to be a base for the conquest of its neighbours.

That’s all for today. Tomorrow: the Sacred Precinct and Mexica religion.


[1]The singular is calpulli, the plural calpultin, but I’ll stick with just the singular to make matters simpler.
[2]Depending on the legend, the eagle can also be feeding on other birds, a clear symbol of the neighbours who must be conquered. The variant depicted on the Mexican flag has the eagle eating a serpent, with a symbology I’m a little unsure of (I may be wrong, but it sounds to me like Christian overtones, and pretty much the only source of that image seems to be a post-Conquest document)

Obsidian and Blood setting, 1: the Valley of Mexico

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This is part 1 of a series of posts on the setting of my Aztec fantasy series Obsidian and Blood, as a leadup to the release of Book 1, Servant of the Underworld, published by Angry Robot/HarperCollins (more information here, including excerpts and a book trailer). You can find part 2 (the city of Tenochtitlan and the myth of origins) here, part 3 (the Sacred Precinct and Mexica religion) here, and part 4 (Acatl and death in Mexica religion) here.
Any questions or comments welcome!

1. The Valley of Mexico (and Aztec Empire)

Who are the Aztecs? The first question you’ll ask yourself when you read the book is why I refer to them by the name of “Mexica”. What’s with that, you ask? Well, the Aztecs never called themselves Aztecs. That was a name foisted on them later by the Spanish: it comes from Aztlan, the White Place (which the Aztecs listed as their place of origin and which you can find in hymns within Servant of the Underworld), but they never used it that way. The name they used for themselves was either Colhua Mexica or Tenochca. The second refers to Tenoch, their mythical first leader, who gave his name to Tenochtitlan (it’s a little more complicated than that actually, but I’ll get to that in part 2 of those posts). I used the first, shortening it a bit to make things easier.

No one is sure where “Mexica” comes from exactly: a popular hypothesis is that it comes from Metzli, which means “moon” in the Nahuatl language; another explanation is that it derives from the secret name of their tribal god, Mexitl.

To understand where the “Colhua” bit comes from, you have to understand that the Aztecs were late comers to the Basin of Mexico. The area had been inhabited for centuries if not millenia; and it was fundamentally different from the basin as it is now. For starters, there was a lot more water: see the map below for reference (Tenochtitlan, the island in the centre of the lake, is about where Mexico’s railway station is today). The Spanish drained it away to control the flooding, but before they came, the whole place was basically a marsh. It’s not for nothing that the Aztecs called the Basin of Mexico Anahuac, which means “The Place Between the Waters”: they were water people, just as their cousins the Maya to the South of Mexico were jungle people.

When the Aztecs came on-stage in the mid-13th Century, many civilisations had already come and gone: it’s a small area (the map covers about 40-50km over 30km), but it’s a fertile one, and a series of city-states fought each other for its political and economical domination. They each tried to legitimise their power by availing themselves of the legacy of the Toltecs, a semi-legendary civilisation said to have been ruled by the benevolent god Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent. The Aztecs were no strangers to this policy, and their first emperor married a princess from Colhuacan in order to establish themselves on the political map.

By the time 1480, the year of the novel, rolled around, the Basin of Anahuac had become radically different: the city-states warring for domination had been replaced by a network of tribute-paying vassals. The tribute flowed to the Triple Alliance, established in 1428: it was made up of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Mexica, Texcoco, and Tlacopan (see the second map). Though Tlacopan had started out as an equal-rights partner, it gradually lost its importance, and the Triple Alliance was soon steered by only two cities, Tenochtitlan and Texcoco. They sent joint armies to war every year, and grew rich on the astonishing amount of tribute sent them from every province, which included quetzal feathers, jaguar skins, adorned suits but also firewood, seashells, cotton…

A quick word about the Aztec Empire. By geographical standards, it was not that huge: to give you an idea, the Alliance didn’t control the whole of the basin until 1465, when they conquered Chalco (bottom right of the map) after a prolonged war. To be fair, they had started expanding out of the basin beforehand, and Chalco was the last troublesome province left within.

You can see the actual expansion of the Empire at the date of the novel below. It includes that basin, and territories around it: the red, purple and dark blue areas (you can sort of recognise part of the basin in the red zone around Tenochtitlan). It’s a little deceptive, because recently conquered areas tended to rebel and need more military interventions by the Mexica–so it’s not a map of political divisions as stable as, say, the Roman Empire. At its height under the reign of Moctezuma II in 1519, the Empire covered about 500,000 square kilometers, less than the total surface of France today. Again, not that big a place–it barely reached down to the Maya in the south of Mexico.

It didn’t help the Mexica conquests, though, that most of their territory was either mountains or marshes, which the armies had to walk on foot or navigate by boat (it’s often said that the Mesoamericans had no wheel, which isn’t quite true. They had the wheel on children’s toys, but in terrain so mountainous they judged it pointless to bother with chariots and other wheeled conveyances). Similarly, the basin of Anahuac was one huge lake (in fact, five separate lakes all merging into one at the rainy season) surrounded by mountains. It’s a testament to the Mexica ingenuity that they managed to field armies out of it.

The basin of Anahuac was the heart of the Empire and its most tightly controlled zone. It was a densely populated area. It’s hard to estimate the population, but most estimations are between 1 and 2.5 million inhabitants in 1519 (the date the Spanish arrived on the scene). For the area, this is pretty big: to give you an idea, Paris, one of the biggest cities in the 15th Century, held about 200,000 inhabitants.

Other places of importance in the basin:
-Teotihuacan (east of the map), “The Place where the Gods are Born”, was the site of an earlier civilisation which had grown to power by controlling the obsidian mines. It collapsed long before the Mexica, in the 7th or 8th Century AD–but the monuments that remained (including the massive pyramids of the Sun and of the Moon) led the Mexica to believe that this was a sacred place–the place where the sun had risen into the sky at the beginning of the current age. It was a city in its own right as well as a place of pilgrimage.
-there is a green line separating the lake in two different parts: this is a dyke built by Nezahualcoyotl, ruler of Texcoco, in order to separate the saltwater from the freshwater. It wasn’t enough to ensure a supply of water to the city of Tenochtitlan: an aqueduct had to be built, which brought water from the springs to the west.
-the chinampas, or chinamitls, or floating gardens: again, what little land was available wasn’t enough to support the population of Tenochtitlan, so the Mexica added some. The chinamitls are artificial islands made of the muck of the lake, held into place by wooden stakes driven into the lakebed (and by trees if necessary). They formed a dense grid of very productive fields, occasionally topped up by more muck in order to preserve the fertility.
-Coyoacan (on the first map, bottom left) is the place of birth of my main character Acatl.

That’s it for today. Tomorrow: the city of Tenochtitlan and the myth of Mexica origins.

Teotihuacan exhibition

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/rant mode on

So… The British Museum exhibition about Moctezuma that I went to earlier in December was one of the best I’d ever been to: lots of nice artifacts presented in a nice setting and with the right amount of scholarship.

The Teotihuacan one, however, was not the best by a large margin. It wasn’t a matter of artifacts: a lot of what was on display was awesome pieces ranging from pottery to small figures, as well as pieces of architecture and a few pretty impressive sculpture of gods. The centrepiece was a 1/100 reconstitution of the site with comments on each monument, which was a neat idea and nicely carried out.

However, the presentation itself was appalling. The text was way too long for the displays, and often placed in a manner that forced people to linger for 4-5 minutes in front of it just to process the sentences–which made for some huge jams (and, in some places, the important bits of text were in a corner, forcing people to pile up in front of another set of commentaries in order to read it. Cue double jam, and a total impossibility to access either bit of text or the relevant artefacts).

And whoever wrote it had a bad case of pedantism: I’m sorry, but I don’t really need to know that a flute’s holes were “plugged with the fingers, which allowed the production of various notes by varying the wavelength” (WTF wavelength in an archeological exhibition. Plus, if you really wanna be pedantic, a flute works in a fashion that’s a little more complicated when you plug the holes). And phrases such as “The artists of Teotihuacan used a variety of techniques to produce extraordinary art that has endured through the centuries” or some such are just wasted space. Let’s not even get into the plethora of “anthropomorphic masks” and “zoomorphic jars”–why not just stick to simpler words?

The text also had a bad case of misapplied marxism: “members of the priestly caste constructed vast temples in order to reinforce their authority and place at the top of the hierarchy”? Er, didn’t they build the temples to honor the gods? I very much doubt that they consciously built prestigious places to put down the peasant masses. (and, seriously, “members of the priestly caste”? there’s “clergy” or “priests”, which would have done just as well).
And the very last bit of the exhibition speculated on the fall of Teotihuacan, noting that there had been a great fire and a number of broken buildings and destroyed marks of power–listing as a possible (and indeed likely) explanation a mass rebellion of the lower classes against their oppressors. Or maybe, you know, there was an invasion of a big army that toppled the government, set the city afire, and sought to erase the Teotihuacan economical and cultural domination over the area? History shows loads of invading armies in similar situations (rich city, spends more time on banquets and luxury than on a standing army or fortifications). Full-blown revolutions, however, are few and far between…. [1]

It all culminated in a striking panel that looked like a broken Aztec calendar stone, with a central skull-like face framed by rays. It had a double caption, one for the adults and one for the children. The adult one speculated it might symbolise the victory of Quetzalcoatl over Mictlantecuhtli (fertility and creation over death); the children’s one went ahead and named the central figure as the Sun (the only connection with Quetzalcoatl being that they’re both “good” gods, as in associated with light and life and other “friendly” things, if you’re going by Christian standards of good vs evil, life vs death and light vs dark). *headdesk* I think that summarises exactly how much trust one can put in the captions…

I don’t regret coming, because as said above, the artefacts were awesome, and I very much doubt we’ll see them again in France for a while. But I’m glad I stopped wasting time to read the text.

/rant mode off

(and yes, beginning as we mean to go on: being crabby about misapplied science and history. Seems as good an idea as any)


[1]There have been overthrows of the government in history, for instance in Imperial China, but most of those tend to put a similar type of government back on the throne, and I have seen very few spontaneous uprisings of oppressed peasants, if only because the peasants are seldom aware of being oppressed. They’re far too busy fighting against floods, famines and the rest of the agricultural disasters to speculate on their right to equality, which tends to be a ludicrous notion in most ancient societies. Even the Greeks didn’t believe everyone should vote in a democracy.

A (brief) weekend in London

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So… Took Friday off, and dragged the BF to London, in order to see the Aztec exhibition at the British Museum.

Friday was the obligatory trip down memory lane, specifically of South Kensington and our old house–which felt very weird, especially when walking in front of the French lycĂ©e. It was followed by a wonderful Indian dinner with Seb Cevey and Jane in Brick Lane. Tried a random Bengalese dish with mango, which turned out to be wonderfully sweet (and not really spicy).

Saturday morning was Forbidden Planet, aka the bookshop of doom. I had almost succeeded in emerging with only one book (an omnibus edition of Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos books), when the BF suggested innocently, “Are you sure this is all you want?” Whereupon I stupidly turned around to stare at the “New Releases” rack, nabbed a signed copy of Elizabeth Bear‘s By the Mountain Bound, caught a glimpse of Daryl Gregory‘s new The Devil’s Alphabet, which made me decide to buy his Pandemonium
At least I only got three books. *whimper* (I also got the chance to see some of Angry Robot‘s most recent releases on the shelves, eye-catchingly placed).

In the afternoon, we went to meet up with VDer Stephen Gaskell and Elle for a look at the new “We Are Astronomers” show at the Greenwich Royal Observatory. The show itself didn’t feature ground-breaking science, but the presentation was awesome, with very cool illustrations and pseudo-3D effects that look pretty good when spread over the dome of a planetarium. Much, much fun. Unfortunately, we couldn’t have dinner with Steve, but it was a great afternoon all the same.

And finally, Sunday, aka the day for which we’d booked the exhibition tickets.

All I can say is “wow”. They had really gathered a lot of cool pieces. A particularly geeky moment included my bending over a glass case peering at a codex and going, “This can’t possibly be the real Codex Mendoza“. (it was). They had the Codex Duran too, the Codex Borbonicus, the Great Temple dedication stone (yes, I realise I’m gushing and that you probably don’t know what they are. It’s like having most of the major artefacts in a very small room. With only a handful of people so you can stare all you like). And I actually got to see a sculpture of an ahuizotl (a creepy water-creature that plays a big part in both my novels) as well as artefacts linked with Tizoc, an Aztec emperor who also features in the novels.

The items themselves were pretty nicely presented with plenty of context, even if, on multi-object displays, it wasn’t always obvious to see which tag corresponded to what. And while I loved the scaled model of the Tenochtitlan sacred precinct (which had me pointing, “Oh, look, Acatl’s temple is here, and this major location in the book is here”…), I could have done without the dramatic trails of blood on the temple staircases, especially since most of the temples didn’t actually have the sacrifice stone. It felt pretty cheap. But overall, it was an awesome exhibition, and I’m glad we got tickets and saw it before it finishes.

And then we hit the exit and the souvenir shop, and it was Forbidden Planet all over again.

In addition to lots of Aztec-themed souvenirs (the mug with the “Five Movement” glyph really had me hesitating), it also had books. Whole bookshelves of them. The BF was very understanding and let me browse for half an hour, writing down the names of authors and books that looked interesting. In the end, I stuck to three books again: the catalogue of the exhibition, which like all British Museum catalogues is amazingly detailed with lovely pictures and plenty of extra information (and a handy index), Karl Taube’s and Mary Miller’s The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya, the closest to a dictionary of symbols I could find (with illustrations), and Michael E. Smith’s The Aztecs, which has interesting considerations on crafts and agriculture as well as daily life.

On the minus side, I got to drag the aforementioned souvenirs through the rest of the afternoon–which meant a Chinese noodle restaurant and part of the rest of the British Museum (the Enlightenment gallery, which chronicles the history of science in the 18th and 19th century, and an exhibition on Japanese culture throughout history). But it was well worth it.

And since I never got to see the Chinese ceramics, I’ve made a mental note to come back to the British Museum next year :=)

(I have some genre-related stuff to catch up to as well, but that will have to wait until I have defeated the Giant Pile of Laundry To Be Ironed)

Fun with series

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About 2 chapters and a bit into Harbinger of the Storm, and already struggling with continuity issues. For starters, I know I worked out all the dates for Servant of the Underworld using my trusty Aztec calendar–unfortunately, I lost the file somewhere in transit between my old laptop and the new mac. Bottom line, I’m rereading the manuscript and hoping for clues that will tell me when exactly everything was taking place…

Also, fun activity of the day: work out maths. If you know the European year for something (say, 1481), and the Aztec sacred day for something in the same year (say, One Movement), what is the European date? It’s trickier than it sounds, mostly because the Aztec system is so weird.

For starters, you have two calendars: one is the solar year, which is 365 days, and, like in most civilisations, is separated into months, in this case eighteen months of twenty days plus five “empty days”.

Then, overlapping it, you have the sacred or religious calendar, which is 260 days long. This is the one that has the cool day names like Seven Serpent, Two Jaguar and so on. It’s the one in which the divinatory records were made, and hence the one in which a lot of the dates come from. It doesn’t really have months: “Serpent” is a daysign that recurs every twenty days. The calendar goes something like this: you have thirteen numbers, and twenty day signs. You increment both simultaneously until you run out of numbers, wrap the numbers around to 1 while continuing to number the day-signs to 20, then wrap that around to 1, while continuing to count the day numbers to 13, and so on…
Simply put, if I use a second set of numerals for the day signs instead, the count goes 1-1, 2-2, … 13-13, 1-14, 2-15,… 7-20, 8-1, etc.
In full names, it goes all over the place: One Crocodile, Two Wind, Three House… Thirteen Reed, One Jaguar. Two Eagle, … Seven Flower, Eight Crocodile… It’s not quite as disorganised as it looks like: the key is not counting the months, but going instead for the trecenas, the groups of thirteen days that go from one to thirteen (in the example above, the first trecena runs from One Crocodile to Thirteen Reed, and the second trecena starts on One Jaguar).

Now, the Aztec Calendar lets you enter a date in Julian or Gregorian calendar, and gives you the Aztec date for this day (in this case, the solar year, the trecena, and the sacred day). The key is then working out where you are in the year, and how far ahead you have to advance to reach your goal of day One Movement in the year 1481 (which is solar year Two House). In practise, I worked out the trecena for the day One Movement, and how distant it was from the trecena for my random date (basically, for the maths geeks, count in increments of 13 modulo 20, which gives you the number of trecenas, ie the number of days, which you then convert back into months).

If that sounds painful and confusing, that’s because it is. But it worked–I now know where in the year the book is supposed to be set 🙂

“Blighted Heart” in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

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My Aztec-y short story “Blighted Heart” is now up in issue 22 of Beneath Ceaseless Skies:

For years my city gave the hearts of maidens to the corn-man to awaken him, but on the day I came to him I was no longer untouched by man. The priests were careless; they had checked the previous morning, but did not check again. Their mistake, and mine, for I had made love to a warrior on the evening before, out of pique, out of a desire to defy them for the last time before they took my innocence away. I was not thinking of the consequences at the time.

The corn-man was in a room at the top of the largest pyramid temple. I came in, half-carried by two warriors, to gaze on row upon row of expectant faces. Dozens of priests had gathered to watch the last sacrifice—mine. I could not breathe; fear constricted my chest with each step. Fear of pain. Fear of loss.

Read more.

Plans for October, 2009…

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