Rituals and Moral Inversion

Rituals and Moral Inversions:

Over the past few months I’ve written a few articles on Aztec gods when I came across something interesting. I noticed that in several rituals something occurred that I found very interesting. I can only describe them as moral inversions. Let’s explain with examples. I first noticed this phenomenon when reading about Etzalcualiztli. During this festival priests were allowed to rob people they met on the road during their ritual processions, including official tribute bearers! This would never be allowed at any other time. In Panquetzliztli warriors and priests engaged in mock street battles with each other. Again, this social conflict would not be allowed at any other time of the year.

There are countless other examples. Based on the descriptions found in the Florentine Codex, ritualized robber occurs in more than a few. Street fighting also occurred in Ochpaniztli, and not just among warriors, as women also fought in this month. Rituals also frequently involved copious amounts of drinking. Normally, alcohol consumption was strictly controlled, and public drunkenness severely punished. Even human sacrifice can be seen as a form of moral inversion. Normally murder was strictly prohibited, and Mesoamericans reacted to it pretty much the same way we do. Except of course, during rituals.

Now, there are some very clear reasons for some of these exceptions and understanding them relies on comprehending the nature of rituals. Rituals serve to return the earth to an earlier, primordial state when the gods walked freely. Ceremonies then re-enact the original events which created the order of the world. Since the creation of the world required a sacrifice, this sacrifice had to be repeated. Alcohol consumption brings people closer to the spiritual power of the gods. However, this power was amoral, and potentially dangerous if misused, and so had to be controlled. During a ritual however, the order of the world had to be remade anyway and so bringing the gods into the world was acceptable. Plenty of other ritual activities can be understood this way. In addition, there is the transactive elements of many rituals, such as gift giving, burning incense, and prayers.

However, I can’t explain the street fighting or the robbery. I’m sure that Motecuhzoma did not want his tribute being stolen. I can’t imagine that he liked street fighting much either. It could be that these events were intended to recreate part of a myth. But I don’t know which part. Alternatively, these acts may have had a social function, or making a statement about the nature of life. Just focusing on the robbery of people by priests, we must remember that the priests were acting as Ehecameh, or wind spirits. These spirits usually mind their own business, but can become very hostile towards people, spreading misfortune in their wake. So maybe the theft of goods was intended to highlight the transiency of material possessions, and how these goods depend on the good will of the gods.

The street fighting may have had a strategic function. It kept warriors and society in generally prepared for combat and familiar with war and violence. Especially as these fights occurred around the time of the war season. But why were priests involved in Panquetzliztli? Why did they fight against the warriors? Did it build esprit du corps for the priestly orders? Does it reflect a struggle between the religious elements of the Mexica government and the military? As far as I know, no such conflict existed. Or was it intended to bring the two together through a shared experience? I just don’t know. Or, perhaps the simple reason these kinds of actions were permitted was just to let off steam in an otherwise strict society.

It occurred to me that similar moral inversions may exist in other religions too, and that the reasons for these actions may be clearer, or else better understood. I would be interested in hearing about these types of rituals from other people here, and if anyone has any theories or explanations for this type of behaviour during rituals.

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