[00:00:00] I don’t think I ever got interested in Mesoamerica just once. I think it was multiple times. I think that if I had to name anybody [who most influenced me] it would undoubtedly have to be Doris Heyden, who, as soon as I came down to Mexico the first time, opened her house and her heart to me. And I stayed with Doris part of that summer and the rest of that time traveled throughout Mexico by bus. And I think that those early times in Mexico were so filled with experiences that were fun and glorious. They had, in part, to do with the ruins, but also, just in part, to a group of people who were most generous and kind to outsiders. [There were] wonderful things that happened—spending a night in Veracruz, where it was too hot to sleep in a flea-bag, old hotel and sitting out playing poker with the wives of oil workers—the only time I have seen women sit outside in their underwear. They were a rough group of people, but very nice. Or just the excitement of meeting a couple of teachers who were out for St. John’s Day in Veracruz also. These two delightful ladies and I sat on a hillside together with a very large amount of beer, waiting for the “voladores” and eating the local food and chatting, and heading out the next day on the bus until the next stop. They were just wonderful things, and they just filled your soul.


[1:25:00] Unless you look at the patterns that you get in modern ethnographic literature, I cannot imagine being able to make much headway on looking at the figures of deities or ceremonies in ancient Mexico. I have been looking at the journey of the dead in the afterlife. In many communities, the Church steps in and takes over burial customs, so that what you don’t get is a full array of Precolumbian attitudes or practices about the actual burial process. What goes on in the Church seems to be pretty Christian. But what goes on outside the Church, and the beliefs surrounding death and burials, continued to be very Precolumbian. For example, most people believe that a dog will take them to the underworld and help them get across a river. Most people believe that after death the soul makes a journey. So those things seem to me to be very Precolumbian and remain intact. If you look at modern ethnography, you very often can begin to figure out some of the relationships of Precolumbian beliefs. Once you do that, you really begin to build up a picture of what, I think, went on in the ancient world, particularly if you use it in conjunction with the information that you get in the codices.

Natural History

[2:46:00] Most people grow up in a specific environment. They have to live; they have to eat; they have to make their living in a particular place. And so, when they [Mesoamerican people] speak about matters that seem to us to be religious or ideological, the metaphors and the ideas that they use are those based on the natural history of the environment: the animals, the plants and the birds around them. Because if you are going to talk about animating forces, then you are talking about what keeps the body alive. And immediately you are also talking about souls. I find this discussion about the soul to be a sub-text for almost everything that we look at symbolically. If I look at the Borgia group, for example, I now start seeing how descriptions of ancient Mesoamerican deities are really discussions about the natural history of the body—for example, the great goddess Tlazolteotl, whom Sahagún and other chroniclers described as “the eater of filth,” a strange designation for a goddess. And what it turns out to mean, I think, is that she consumes one of these animated forces that gets released at the time of death and has been composed of everyone’s negative thoughts and anger and anti-social feelings and actions. Without looking at the soul or without looking at people’s belief about the soul and what it is composed of, this goddess makes very little sense. She becomes a sort of oddity. But when you understand what the vocabulary is, she makes very good sense.

The Spaniards

[4:21:00] The Spanish are always a problem. We are always convinced that we know what they are talking about. But what happened was, [at] around the beginning of the sixteenth century, Europe was undergoing a massive shift in symbolism and symbolic vocabulary and belief in theological definitions. And, in many ways, if we are to understand the Spanish vocabulary and how they speak about native peoples, we almost have to go back and read about Church councils. For example, when they [the Spanish] talk about souls, we think of this as a sort of entity which is like radon gas. It has no real properties: it doesn’t smell; it doesn’t glow; it doesn’t anything. It is just sort of there, but it is very powerful in its effects. But when the Spanish were speaking about the soul, they were sometimes speaking theologically; in other words, a Christian definition of the soul that gets promulgated in Church councils. And other times they were talking about a medical soul, which they get directly right out of the ancient Greek idea of humoral medicine. And sometimes they were talking about a soul that was shared by animals and by plants. It was a completely different geography. And, once you get on to that, some of the things they say begin to make, I think, much more sense. I think someone should write a book called “What Every Spaniard Knew,” just about what people at the time of the Conquest really carried as their intellectual baggage, because that is a tremendous influence on the literature through which we interpret Precolumbian culture. So it makes very little sense, unless we look at that.


[5:53:00] The third thing that preoccupies me greatly is the relationship of the central Mexicans to the other members of the language family to which they belong, the so-called Uto-Aztecan or Uto-Nahua peoples. They have tremendous distribution from California to the Southwest, down through West Mexico to Central Mexico, and then down into Central America . So it is a huge language family with a lot of speakers. I have no idea what Uto-Aztecan means—whether or not it is a significant part of Aztec ideology or whether or not it was simply another variation of some common North American beliefs. Clearly, in some cases there are things that come up from Mesoamerica . For example, things having to do with corn technology. The Iroquois always seem to me to be in some ways “Mesoamerican North.” But, in the Southwest you have some very sophisticated agricultural people, the Hopi, who share a great many ideas with the Central Mexicans. Of course the Hopi also had the Tlaxcalans. The Spanish took the Tlaxcalan people up to that area, to the Southwest. And so, how much of it is Hopi and how much of it is Mesoamerican is also an interesting problem.