Clash of Titans, Seats of Empire: The Aztecs, Toltecs and Race of Giants in Ancient Mexico William L. Fash (Department of Anthropology)





William L. Fash (Department of Anthropology)
Freshman Seminar 44J  4 credits (spring term)  Enrollment:  Limited to 15

Note: No background or previous experience, on or in Mexico is required, only an open mind.

The film "Clash of Titans" was a British extravaganza dedicated to exploring the ancient Greeks' concepts of the interactions between humans and their gods. In Ancient Mexico, the tale of Topiltzin Quetzalcóatl, Toltec Prince of Tula is the best-known example of the intervention of rival gods in the affairs of kingdoms and empires. His tale and what was made of it by the Aztecs, and Spaniards, serves as the point of departure for our seminar. Just as the Greeks countenanced sacrifices and political assassinations, in Ancient Mexico the three great empires practiced human sacrifice, regicide, and warfare which was vital in their statecraft and economy. We will explore how these central components were explained and justified in their mythology, why reciprocity with the gods was so vital, and how and why each empire came to a violent end. A particular focus this year will be on the legend of Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl ("Our Prince, the Feathered Serpent") because the Feathered Serpent loomed very large in later Aztec mythology, and in the very founding of the earliest megalopolis of Teotihucan. To do so we begin with the riveting first-person descriptions of the Aztec Empire and its violent conquest penned by a foot solider in Hernán Cortés's army, Bernal Díaz del Castillo. In the following weeks we will explore the environmental basis, religious dimensions, and social and political development of civilization, cities, at the three seats of empire in ancient Mexico: the Aztecs, Toltecs, and Teotihuacanos. You will be engaged in answering the age-old (but never fully resolved) question as to why the Cult of the Feathered Serpent resulted in empires in Highland Mexico, but the Maya of Chichen Itza (who made more images of the deity than any other kingdom in Mexico) chose--or were unable--to create an empire on the scale of the Aztecs, Toltecs, or Teotihuacanos. We will make use of 3D models of Peabody Museum collections, archaeological studies, historical accounts, and recent films and other media to critically examine ancient practices and current perceptions of the Aztec empire (1428-1519 CE); its predecessor the legendary Toltec empire of Tula (850-1100 CE); and the foundational Teotihuacan empire (100-550 CE), known as “The City of the Gods” since it was built. The Aztecs and Toltecs went to Teotihuacan on pilgrimage every 20 days to make offerings because the scale of that ancient city was so massive, the architecture so impressive, and the religious art and historical lore so compelling, that the Aztecs had a legend that it was built in an earlier creation, by a race of giants. Seminar participants will use critical thinking to explore how the biases of the observer play a role in describing and explaining “the Other.” Students will analyze the ways that religion and the quest for power fueled the genesis, expansion and demise of all three empires and the great Maya kingdoms as well. First-years in this seminar will also explore the ways the living descendants of the Aztecs are reviving their traditional culture and how the Pre-Columbian civilizations are integral to the national identity of Mexico and Latinx people in this country, vs. the way they are portrayed in Hollywood and U.S. popular culture, through films and other media in the U.S. and Mexico.


See also: Spring 2023