Thursday, 17 September 2009

Moctezuma at the British Museum

This show opens on Thursday (24 September). Moctezuma is the guy we used to call Montezuma, leader of the Aztecs in what's now Mexico. Apparently we got that wrong too and they called themselves the Mexica.

The Aztecs were an ancient people and their art is high quality. They carved granite and other stones into the faces of beast-gods and warriors - giant snakes were popular. HQ was a city in the middle of a lake (it's now Mexico City and the lake is no more). They grew crops on artificial islands and liked to paddle about the lake wearing garlands, singing and reciting poetry. How very civilized!

Aztec religion demanded a lot of human sacrifices. Wars with nearby tribes produced enough captives to supply the greedy gods. Skulls and skeletons dance through their art.

Then the Spaniards turned up, looking for gold. They were outnumbered, but great ruler Moctezuma (1466–1520) caved in and apparently accepted his and his people's fate. Did he think this was one war he couldn't win? Stone knives versus firearms isn't a fair fight. And how did he die? At the hands of his subjects, claimed the Spaniards.

Priceless artefacts and manuscripts tell the story. The Spaniards brought another religion which the Aztecs adopted. Perhaps it didn't seem too strange.

British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG, +44 (0)20 7323 8299

Dead can dance...

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