Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 27, 2018
Elizabeth Morán Sacred Consumption: Food and Ritual in Aztec Art and Culture Latin American Studies: Art and Visual Studies. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016. 156 pp.; 27 b/w ills. Paperback $24.95 (9781477310694)

Elizabeth Morán’s Sacred Consumption is a study of the place of food in Aztec ritual. The foods examined by Morán were ephemeral, and the performances that characterized ceremonial life in Tenochtitlan and its provinces are similarly elusive in the archaeological record. Fortunately for scholars, indigenous artists, often directed by European friar missionaries, created manuscript paintings that represent elements of Aztec ritual. These illuminated books constitute the primary visual evidence for Morán’s study, though a few works of preconquest stone sculpture are discussed as well. Reading these images in light of colonial-period texts leads to a wide range of assertions about the nature of food in ritual. In the introduction, Morán writes that food gave ritual its meaning: food was transformed in ritual through both physical and symbolic changes; it catalyzed the emergence and transformation of the cosmos and food was sometimes conceived as a weapon for war.

Food is a powerful object in Aztec art history, as understanding the use of food in ritual illuminates Aztec concepts of representation. Reports from mendicant friars writing about Aztec ceremonies show, for instance, that a festival dedicated to the mountains involved creating their embodied images in the medium of tzoalli, a dough of amaranth seeds bound with honey. Reading the friars’ accounts, one is struck by the way in which an embodied landscape is temporarily realized in this sticky-sweet paste, only to be destroyed in sacrifice by the festival’s end. Beyond its occasional use as a material of sculpture, food as described in Sacred Consumption also becomes tied up in the web of identity that related to a festival’s participants, as when a group of young people are symbolically “cooked” as part of their initiation into adulthood—sweating and eating piping-hot tamales to match.

Following archaeologist Michael Smith’s distinction between state and popular rituals—and between those that are public and private—each chapter explores food in ritual as differentiated across scales, building from rites practiced in the home toward food and ritual in myths of cosmic creation. An opening chapter on food and ritual in Aztec domestic contexts addresses the feasts of well-known ceremonies—such as the bathing of newborns and marriage rituals—as well as less extensively studied feasts, such as the coming-of-age ceremony of Izcalli, with its emphasis on the role of material display in the relationship between the hosts of festivals and their guests. Foregrounded in Morán’s discussion is an argument that distinctions between domestic and public rites prove arbitrary in the Aztec context, for actions in the Aztec home (including the preparation and consumption of food) might have consequences further afield, a conclusion that invokes Louise Burkhart’s classic study “Mexica Women on the Home Front: Housework and Religion in Aztec Mexico” (Indian Women of Early Mexico, 1997, 25–54). Here, Morán is careful to note that the sources on domestic rituals tell us primarily about the rites practiced by elites, so that the dynamics of food and ritual in the homes of commoners are necessarily more resistant to study.

Major festivals took place every twenty days in Tenochtitlan, many of which are believed to have been propagated by the state. The role of food in these festivals is the subject of chapter 2, which has the dual aim of arguing for a multiplicity of roles for food in these celebrations and of making the case for the aesthetic dimension of food’s consumption and display. Among the notions of food described in this chapter, the most provocative is the proposal that food might have been a weapon or a threat during the festivals of the solar calendar, an argument that aims to account for the strictures placed upon celebrants who handled food and the corporal punishments meted out to those who treated it improperly, as well as a rite in which future sacrificial victims were taunted by images of their own death played out with the sacrifice of tortillas that represented their hearts.

Chapter 3 makes the interesting observation that in Aztec myths of cosmogenesis and of migration into the Valley of Mexico, changes in food culture accompany moments of major transformation of the cosmos, or of Mexica history. Morán draws our attention, for instance, to a detail in the Codex Boturini that shows how the migrating Mexica, not yet settled in their future island home, learn to produce the beverage pulque from a maguey plant, a scene that may poignantly allude to an indigenous artist’s imagination of the relationship between food technology and civilization. Related episodes studied in this chapter lead to the conclusion that acquiring and preparing food symbolize victory and success in Aztec myth and, furthermore, are agentive acts in histories of the primordial Aztecs. Chapter 4 argues for the role of food in ritual after the conquest; particularly insightful is a discussion of the ways in which paintings from the Florentine Codex reflect on the role of staples like maize and wheat in constructing the identities of Nahuas and Spaniards after the conquest.

Throughout Sacred Consumption, Morán returns to the argument that ritual scenarios occasioned the transformation of staple crops—here described as nominally basic foods—into sacred ones. From our vantage point, such a conclusion may seem intuitive, but Mesoamericanist readers may find themselves questioning whether terms like “sacred” and “mundane” could really be described as emic Nahua categories in the period under discussion, or whether this way of organizing the world in fact belonged to the late medieval Christian context in which many of Morán’s sources are embedded. Scholarship in Nahua studies suggests that the sacred and profane dichotomy requires critical reconsideration in this context; on a related point, Morán helpfully notes in the introduction that we should see “the everyday and ritual as intertwined aspects of life, a point of view that is more in keeping with Aztec philosophy” (5).  Still, Sacred Consumption’s narrative of Aztec ritual is largely one in which foods become something more than food, a construction that may reinforce Western ontologies rather than rethink them.

Indeed, studies of the Aztec period that rely heavily on colonial sources must contend with the contextual embeddedness of their data; on this issue, readers may find Sacred Consumption somewhat conflicted. Productively, Morán’s chapter on the colonial afterlives of food in ritual argues that the Florentine Codex paintings of vendors at market reflect the cultural politics of their moment, effectively demonstrating the necessity of the social context of New Spain to interpreting the images under discussion. At the same time, the chapters on the Aztec period tend to take the manuscripts of Bernardino de Sahagún and Diego Durán at their word as documents of preconquest history. In a discussion of paintings from the Florentine Codex that represent naming ceremonies, for example, Morán interprets images that represent men and women eating similar glyph-like tamales to conclude that the foods consumed in this ceremony were probably not differentiated by gender. To this, one might plausibly counter that some combination of chronological distance, colonial processes, and the nature of Nahua graphic conventions makes these paintings something rather distinct from unmediated records of ancient practice.

In fact, a closer reading of the same paintings might have led to a different conclusion altogether, for in these images, the foods consumed by men and women might be the same, but the serving vessels from which they eat are different, with women associated with a more complex vessel type with animal-like legs absent in the men’s feast. Questions of visual evidence aside, readers may find themselves hesitant to accept the premises of the discussion of Aztec aesthetics that situates chapter 2, where Morán writes that “the search for the ‘really real’ is certainly the focus of the art history of the Western world,” a concern “not significant for Mesoamerican people” (40), insofar as this expansive claim paints these traditions with too broad a brush. Regrettably, errors of fact appear at various moments in the book, as on page 51, where Morán misidentifies the festival when a divine footprint appears impressed upon a corn cake as Izcalli (when in fact it is Teotleco, or Pachtontli), or when Morán incorrectly identifies a text about the transformation of a deity into food in chapter 3 (as Durán’s Historia rather than the Florentine Codex). Such shortcomings notwithstanding, Sacred Consumption vividly evokes the flavors of the Aztec feasts, fixing our attention—and, surely, the attention of future research—upon a fugitive but essential aspect of Precolumbian religion.

Kristopher Driggers
Lecturer, School of Art, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley