November 26 2022

Aztec Religion and Art of Writing with Isabel Laack

Interview with Isabel Laack

Isabel Laack joins Kristian Petersen to discuss her award-winning 2020 book, Aztec Religion and Art of Writing: Investigating Embodied Meaning, Indigenous Semiotics, and the Nahua Sense of Reality (Brill, 2019). Through the book, Laack investigates the religion and art of writing of the pre-Hispanic Aztecs of Mexico. Inspired by postcolonial approaches, she reveals Eurocentric biases in academic representations of Aztec cosmovision, ontology, epistemology, ritual, aesthetics, and the writing system to provide a powerful interpretation of the Nahua sense of reality.

Laack's book won AAR's 2020 Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the historical studies category. She is Professor for the Study of Religion at Tubingen University.

Kristian Petersen:

Welcome to Religious Studies News, I'm your host Kristian Petersen. And today I'm here with Isabel Laack, Professor for the Study of Religion at Tubingen University, and winner of the AAR Book Award in Historical Studies. She's here to speak to us about her book Aztec Religion and Art of Writing: Investigating Embodied Meaning, Indigenous Semiotics, and the Nahua Sense of Reality, published with Brill. Congratulations and thanks for joining me.

Isabel Laack:

Thank you very much, Kristian. And thank you for inviting me to this podcast interview. It's a pleasure.

Kristian Petersen:

Yeah, it's great. And the book really is super interesting and it's very comprehensive as somebody who is totally outside of your field. I felt really, like I understood where things were going, and of course, we're not going to be able to get into all that detail, but I'm wondering if you could start a little bit with a big picture? What are some of the key things we need to know about Aztec culture and Mesoamerican religions to get into your project and how did you embark on this? Where did it begin for you?

Isabel Laack:

Thank you for that question. I think I'm going to start with my personal journey leading to writing this book and studying these things. So my fascination for Indigenous American cultures was first stirred in high school in the context of the Quincentenary anniversary of the European conquest of America in 1992, when my History teacher taught us to critically reflect on European colonialism. And then later, I was privileged to learn more about the American peoples in my university studies of religion and anthropology. And I was always inspired by the motivation to better understand their ways of living as well as the injustice initiated by my European ancestors through conquest, colonization, and suppression. So while studying the research on the Aztecs, I realized there were not so many scholars from archeology or anthropology explicitly asking about Aztec religion. So maybe let me give you first a bit of background information who were the Aztecs.

The Aztecs lived roughly 500 years ago in what is now Mexico, and Mexico City, in fact is the old capital of the Aztec Empire called Triple Alliance during their times. It's called Mexico City because the people actually founding Tenochtitlan the capital of the Aztec Empire, they called themselves the Mexica. They were part of a broader culture or ethnic group called the Nahuas speaking Nahuatl. So the language of the Aztecs 500 years ago is actually Nahuatl. And I am calling them Nahuas during most of my book, because I wanted to emphasize that the term Aztec was applied later by European academics to identify all the people living in the Aztec Empire. But it was culturally and ethnically very diverse. But still I wanted to know something about this culture and this religion and I realized there was not so much research being done on Aztec religion in anthropology and archeology.

On the other hand, there were also a few scholars of religion working on the Aztecs or other Mesoamerican or Latin American cultures. However, there's so much to be gained from applying the perspective of a scholar of religion on the Aztecs. For example, taking on a broader perspective, asking for the big questions with the heightened reflexivity and sensitivity for any Eurocentric biases in fundamental concepts such as religion itself, for example. So I set out to explore the field of Aztec religion and the research on Aztec religion, by permanently asking myself, "Would I see this differently as a scholar of religion? Is there maybe an alternative interpretation than the one that has been dominating scholarship for decades or even centuries?" And I ended up working two years at Harvard University with Professor Davíd Carrasco. He is one of the most distinguished scholars of religion working on Mesoamerica, although he is from a totally different tradition within the history of religions as I am.

He is deeply inspired by the Chicago School, Mircea Eliade and Charles Long. I in contrast come from a deeply secularized European tradition in the study of religion, deeply influenced by the cultural turn. However, this difference turned out to be highly stimulating. At Harvard, I worked myself through bookshelves of secondary and primary literature on the Aztecs and ended up reorganizing central ideas about Aztec religion. First, I did this for myself, but then I realized why not writing it down, so that others can benefit from my process of rethinking. But I also kept my original research question concerning relations between the Aztec writing system, religion and their visions of the cosmos, as well as semiotic theories.

In this I had been strongly influenced by the books by art historian, Elizabeth H. Boone on Aztec and Mixtec painting and Manuscript painting, and Boone's approach to overcome Eurocentric biases in our attempts to understand how this form of visual communication the Aztec used, it's a visual communication, more painting than alphabetic writing, but we come to that later I think. So Boone's approach really inspired me. And I wanted to know more about how this form of visual communication works, and how the Aztec themselves saw the relation between the written sign and the world. But I also ended up reorganizing everything we know about Aztec religion. So that was really the great fun of it for me to rethink what has been written thus far about the Aztecs.

Kristian Petersen:

Yeah, that's great. The whole time I was reading through this, I was also thinking about these kind of challenges. And for me, I have to teach these world religions classes all the time, and I thought it'd be a great way to incorporate this material to critique the world religions' paradigm as well. So it's interesting to know that you were already thinking that as you approached your material.

Isabel Laack:

Mm-hmm.

Kristian Petersen:

One of the other really productive things you do in the book is you bring the study of religion to the broader Mesoamerican studies as you mentioned, and you take a particular perspective through the aesthetics of religion. So can you tell us what does this approach look like for you and how does this aesthetic approach help you analyze Nahua culture?

Isabel Laack:

So you mentioned teaching classes with introductions to world religions, and the very concept of world religions is in fact based on the idea of sacred scripture, being at the core of any religious tradition of worth any world religious tradition, and Aztec sacred religion is usually considered an indigenous religion with no writing system at all, and no sacred scripture, consequently, but that's not true. And I'm going to tell you later something about the writing system, but let me first say something about that aesthetic of religion approach, because that actually challenges the idea of sacred scriptures and the semantic interpretation of these scriptures as the core of religious studies and transforms it. So the aesthetics of religion, perspective is a theoretical perspective closely related to the fields of material religion, or visual religion, which are better known in the American context. And it takes into view basically everything related to the body, the senses and material, and sensory media.

So the Western academic study of religion because of its origin and history, is strongly shaped by Christian Protestant ideas, and has thus far mainly focused on analyzing belief systems and theologies that is cognitively and verbally expressed interpretations of the world. In the last decades however, some scholars of religion have turned their attention away from exclusively examining religious courses to consider what most ordinary people do with their religion in their daily lives. So scholars have come to realize that religion is lived with all the human senses and the body, not only cognitively, but also emotionally, performatively, and in interaction with material and sensory media, such as artifacts and objects, musics and sounds, images and colors, or smells and foot. And scholars promoting the material turn and the aesthetic turn in the study of religion attempt to better understand these ways of religiously making sense of the world ways going beyond using words.

The approach of the aesthetics of religion comes basically from Germany and so it's a group of scholars of colleagues with whom I work and we decided to name it aesthetics of religion, to emphasize the sensory aspects of it in relation to the material or visual thing. In my view, this approach reframes the inter relations between Aztec speech act or oral tradition, pictorial writing and cosmovision.

Kristian Petersen:

So you also help us understand how can we reconstruct an Aztec world view, which this of course might be a challenge. So what are some of the methodological issues that come up in reconstructing an Aztec sense of reality?

Isabel Laack:

This is really a fascinating question, and it touches on foundational and methodological issues in historiography issues that are discussed again and again in academia with different results. So among German historians of religion, there's a serious debate going on currently between advocators of discourse theory, and those inspired by a critical realism. Those arguing from the perspective of discourse theory would certainly deny any possibility of reconstructing the Aztec sense of reality, saying we could only produce a genealogy of discourses about Aztec ideas about reality. However, I am not interested in verbal discourses alone and not only in reconstructing images of the Aztecs. So I believe that we are able to enter into dialogue with the sources, telling us something about the pre-Hispanic Aztecs. I believe that these sources actually do tell us something about the way the Aztecs perceived and interpreted the world around them.

However, we must be fully aware that all we do is interpret these sources, and there are many limitations of interpreting these sources, and in our attempts to understand how the Aztecs actually lived and perceived the world around them, on a very simple level, we have the problem that only a rather limited amount of written sources have survived to this day. Very few manuscripts painted in the indigenous writing style, and some sources produced in early and late colonial times. All these written sources are deeply influenced by the respective use of their authors, locations, their context, even more so the colonial manuscripts. Everybody speaking of the culture and religion of the Aztecs is strongly homogenizing, a cultural and religious diversity of which we only have a glimpse thus far, yet the sources we know do express their views on the pre-Hispanic way of perceiving and interpreting the world.

I believe that we can find something in it like a culturally shared way of seeing, perceiving, and interpreting reality and something very basic underlying this culture. Reconstructing this sense of reality is however, a highly abstract way of interpreting this culture from the perspective of the scholar doing it. So in sum, I do not claim that all Aztecs perceived reality the same way, but I think they shared some foundation of beliefs. Neither do I claim that I come in any way close to how any Aztec 500 years ago might have felt and thought. However, I do claim that if we read the surviving sources of Aztec communication attentively and reflect on the history of European projections, some interpretations of a more general nervous Aztec sense of reality make more sense than others do.

Kristian Petersen:

And you cover a wide range of topics of epistemology and ontology and all sorts of stuff. So I really would encourage listeners to check out the book because you go into all sorts of directions that are really fascinating, but one of them is you talk about Aztec concepts of divinity, and you both lay out a little bit of what previous scholarship has done, but then you also tackling in new ways. So can you tell us a little bit about how your work helps us understand this kind of Aztec Pantheon?

Isabel Laack:

Yeah, sure. So the Aztec Pantheon is a total mystery for all contemporary non now scholars, really have to say that. It is unbelievably large and complex and extremely fluid from all that we know. So we have single deities who overlap and merge with one another, or they divide themselves into several aspects. And there's an immense fluidity among the diety personae, and human interaction with them is highly complex and dependent on the context and situation. Many Western influence scholars have tried to find some kind of system in this Pantheon. And the first we know of is Bernardino de Sahagún, he was a Franciscan friar of the 16th century who left us the most important sources on Aztec religion. He compared Aztec deities with what he knew of Greek and Roman deities, and related the most important of the Aztec deities to particular areas of influence or to natural phenomena.

When I read all the attempts to find some kind of system in this pantheon and also the indigenous sources, I really realized something, apparently the Aztecs did not really care about any system, instead they were more interested in the practicability. They had no problem with the complex world ruled and influenced by complex deities. So as far as I understand it, and this is finally my unique interpretation based on scholars before me, but still my contribution to it. So my interpretation of Aztec deity conceptions is that the Pantheon was understood as a kind of continuum, reflecting many different layers and aspects of the material world and of life in this world. So from all I see in the sources, divinity was something deeply material and immanent, instead of expressing ideas of ontological transcendence, as we usually think it is related to the concept of the numinous or to divinity in different cultures. And I think that the Aztecs had no such idea of an ontological transcendence.

Kristian Petersen:

And towards the end of the book, you really lay out your key contribution focusing on Aztec writing system, this pictorial writing system. And you show us how it can be a very powerful system to express meaning. So can you tell us a little bit about visual communication in this context and what we might learn from a Nahua linguistic theory or semiotic system?
 

Isabel Laack:

Yeah, sure. So the Aztec writing system is typically seen as only a rudimentary form of writing, a pre-runner of writing, and is usually interpreted as mnemonic device helping the singers in the extremely rich or tradition to remember the stories. Elizabeth Boone, however, the art historian I followed is arguing that there was much more than that. The Aztecs were indeed a literate civilization using a very complex writing system of which we only knew very few specimens sadly. But in my study, I tried to understand this writing system on its own terms. And I realized that Aztecs writing, which is not alphabetical or logographic. So it does not express the sounds of language as we are used with our writing system, but it expressed abstract ideas about reality in visual ways. So using visual icons or symbols for abstract concepts, I realized that this writing system is in many cases capable of expressing layers of embodied, meaning in very complex ways and much more efficient than alphabetical writing does.

So usually alphabetical writing is considered as the most efficient form of writing, but following Boones, I opened my mind for that they are layers of meaning communicated in the system that go beyond verbally expressed thinking. So in this argument, I refer basically to the theory of embodied metaphors and embodied meaning by cognitive linguist George Lakoff, and Philosopher Mark Johnson. In a nutshell, the two argue that even our most critical and abstract thinking such as philosophical thinking, is fundamentally shaped by the ways we perceive our environment through our bodies. A simple example for this is the conception of time as a linear movement in space. So according to Lakoff and Johnson, we cannot think abstractly and critically without using embodied metaphors like this. So in my book, I applied this argument to pictorial writing. I showed the potential of pictorial writing to visualize embodied metaphors in images and signs, and how it enables the readers to understand these metaphors and ideas in a highly complex way.

So let me give you one small example, many of the surviving indigenous manuscripts show cosmograms, that is graphic visualizations of Aztec ideas about the cosmos. And Aztec cosmo vision sees time and space, or rather place as two sides of the same coin as two aspects of the cosmos that cannot be separated from one another. Whereas in European abstract conceptions of time and space, both are usually considered separate. So instead of explaining the indigenous knowledge about the cosmos in words, the cosmograms show the days of the calendar following one another on a ribbon that flows circularly around the center in the form of a four-leaf petal, very beautifully, actually.

The four petals also signify the four carbon directions. In this way, the cosmogram shows how time moves through the spatial world, how time is placed and place is timed. And when you look at the cosmogram, as a skilled reader, you immediately grasp this idea of time moving through place, and place moving through time. You actually see in the cosmogram, the balanced symmetry of the cosmos and how the periphery of the four directions is balanced by the center, and following Lakoff and Johnson, you can even feel this model of the cosmos inside your body. You can connect with it through your bodily experience of balancing yourself in your environment. So this is a totally different form of visual communication of abstract and body metaphors than explaining the idea at length, with words as I did now here in this interview.

Kristian Petersen:

Yeah, it's a great book. And after reading through it, I certainly they learned a lot, not only about as culture, but also it was very helpful in thinking about how I might approach my own subject. And I'm wondering if we can just finish up the conversation with your thoughts on how you imagine others in the study of religion might benefit from your work?

Isabel Laack:

Yeah, sure. So one of the most obvious reasons to read this book is to be interested in Aztec religion naturally, or Mesoamerican indigenous cosmos visions in general. And I think in the u.s. this might be relevant because of the growing community of Hispanics and Mexicans searching for their identities, and calling to see their pre-Hispanic traditions in a positive way. But apart from that, I believe I also have something to say for fellows scholars of religion, not specifically working on Latin America. In fact, I see it as one of the characteristics of my approach that it is not just a historical study of Aztec religion. Instead, my research was always inspired by broader theoretical and methodological questions from the study of religion.

So I think there are mainly three aspects of interest for my colleagues in the study of religion. The first would be questions of methodology and the perspective aesthetics of religion. The second critique of the concept of scripture, which is still dominant in the study of religion, and third, the reflection of our basic conceptual tools, such as religion, knowledge and science. And let me tell you something more and short about these three things. So first questions of methodology.

One of my initial motives was to apply the perspective of the aesthetics of religion to Aztec culture. The underlying question is does our image of the specific religious tradition at a given time and place, change by looking at it from the perspective of the aesthetics of religion? I believe it does. Anyone interested in seeing in which way it does and how my narrative about this religion change is, is invited to read my book.

So related to this is the second aspect, my critique of the concept of scripture. So the study of religion is still very much shaped by Christian ideas of the holy book as the core of any religion. It is also shaped by the approaches of historiography and the philologies mainly working with written texts. My argument is that in many religious traditions, texts play a completely different role than we usually think. Reading about the concept of the book and material text practice among the Aztecs in my book, might open the reader's horizon in a similar way to look at similar phenomena in their own religious traditions or their religious traditions they study, focusing on social text practices or material text practices. For example, what is more there are many non-phonographic systems of visual of communication in the world's cultures to which the study of religion has paid only little attention thus far. So reading about embodied knowledge as expressed in Aztec painting might inspire new perspective on other non-alphabetic communication systems in other religious traditions.

The Nahua our combination of oral and written traditions is much more complex than previously assumed, and engaging in this way with indigenous forms of communication teaches us very much about the many human possibilities of making sense of our lives in this world. Without applying the perspective of the aesthetics of religion, I think I would've stick to the normal ways of hermeneutics and text interpretation. And the last point was the conceptual tools, which we usually use in the study of religion, namely the concept of category of religion as related to the concept of science and knowledge.

So one of my central arguments is that the concept of divinity was thoroughly immanent, Aztec deities were understood as materializations of deeply imminent characteristics and aspects of the world. In the end, I believe that the Aztecs communicated and interacted with these deities in order to secure a healthy and wealthy life here on earth, and this argument could be interesting for all scholars working in the fields of postcolonial theory and decoloniality, starting to deconstruct the idea of the supremacy of Western science by realizing the essential colonialism when we distinguish between science and religion, and when we see indigenous knowledge as something inherently different from Western and science and religion.

Kristian Petersen:

That's great. Thanks so much for your time. Congratulations on the award. It's a wonderful book. I hope people will take a look, and thanks again for talking to us.

Isabel Laack:

Yeah. Thank you very much for inviting me to this interview. And it was a great pleasure talking to you.