Feather Crown: The Eighteen Feasts of the Mexica Year by Gordon Brotherston


London : The British Museum , 2005 . 106 pp.

Recently, a spate of cable television documentaries in the United States have concerned archaic civilizations like the Aztecs, Mayas, or Incas. Narrators describe this city-state's “sophistication,” or that empire's “complexity.” Ostensibly homages, they frequently emphasize bloody sacrifice, class oppression, and warfare between regional city-states vying for dominance. Most programs focus heavily on the technological innovations that facilitated a civilization's development (watch Engineering an Empire on the Discovery Channel as an example). Yet ironically, the very cultural characteristics used to define them as civilizations—writing, calendrical systems, empirically accumulated knowledge, ruling ideologies, worldviews, and philosophies—frequently go unexplored or only peripherally mentioned. Appealing to mass audiences, these documentaries excise the very heart from the civilizations they seemingly extol. Like it or not, however, they do raise public awareness, thereby recruiting patrons for museums and students for college courses.

In stark contrast, in the impressive and methodical treatment of central Mexico's calendrical knowledge reviewed here, Gordon Brotherston carefully studies the available documentary record to analyze the measurement of time in Mesoamerica on the eve of the Spanish conquest. In the process, he reveals the tremendous sophistication—built on some 3,000 years of accumulated knowledge—of Mexica civilization (as the Aztecs termed themselves). However, Brotherston's dense analysis makes his study inaccessible to all but a few specialists. The gap between his treatment and those appearing in popular culture could hardly be wider.

His title Feather Crown: The Eighteen Feasts of the Mexica Year might at first strike readers as misleading because his principal intent is not to investigate the rituals, myths, or symbols associated with specific feasts per se, but to understand the Mexica's conception of time as marked by the “18 Feasts.” In his view, these feasts (generally termed ilhuitl, or “feather” in the Nahuatl language) are simplistically rendered by Europeans as familiar units, such as a month or a week (p. 1). Instead, he seeks to show how feasts organized tangible and immaterial aspects of Mexica civilization. Brotherston notes that:

the year of 18 Feasts was long and deeply enough ingrained as a concept to have existed in its own right as a calendrical cycle, independent in principle and in practice of the Tonalpoualli [i.e., ritual calendar]. This fact was fully recognized by those Europeans who first described the calendar used by the Mexica, yet compared to the Tonalpoualli, the year of the Feasts remains very much the poor cousin as far as western scholarship goes. This is so despite the huge scope and power ascribed to the imagery of the year in a great range of texts, and despite the fact that the Feasts continue to affect the rhythms of life in Mesoamerica today, mediated through the calendar of Christian saints and even in their original form. [p. 19]

A major objective of this book is to understand the ramifications and permutations of this calendrical cycle in different realms of Mexica life, whether imperial tribute payments (Chapter 3: Fiscal Acquisition) chinampas agriculture (Chapter 4: Planting Seasons) or the Mexica conceptualization of contemporary and historical relations with surrounding peoples (Chapter 5: “Life Waves Breaking”: the Great Dance; and Chapter 6: Prior Hosts). Concerning each subject, Brotherston seeks to filter out and portray the Mexica's own philosophical perspective, rather than allowing Spanish colonial interpretations to interfere with their fundamentally non-Western worldview. To do so, he painstakingly deconstructs the underlying significance of various prehispanic and 16th-century codices (the Mendoza, Borbonicus, and Mexicanus, to name a few). He also discusses the significance of familiar lapidary depictions, especially the famous Aztec Sunstone (e.g., Chapter 7: Anniversary Wheels). Each analysis requires filtering out or reckoning with the calendrical evolution in Europe from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar to prevent imported distortions (Chapter 2: Missionaries and Scholars; Chapter 8: Mexicanus). Unfortunately, reading these highly technical dissections and following Brotherston's chain of thought will tax the concentration and patience of the most knowledgeable specialist. And Brotherston declines to lighten the burden by providing pedantic definitions, summary statements, or descriptions of the monograph's organization. He does, however, use a great many figures and plates to accompany his analyses: photographs, codex facsimile plates, and drawings. For example, his discussion of the Aztec sunstone, complemented by photos and diagrams, provides valuable information on perhaps the most publicly recognizable “Aztec calendar” representation and illustrates how its figures and rings symbolize the various calendrical systems employed by the Mexica (p. 71).

If nothing else, in reading this monograph one cannot fail to be reminded of the genuine “complexity” of Aztec society (and the obstacles to studying it). As mentioned, it illustrates the potentially wide gulf between popular and academic presentations: if the former remains too simplistic, the latter potentially contains such baroque complexity that everyone short of specialists will struggle to comprehend the information. Can museum professionals and university professors transmit academic knowledge on par with studies like Brotherston's without smothering the spark of curiosity and enthusiasm generated by popular documentaries? For those who believe knowledge dissemination should transcend a primary group of professionals, Brotherston's monograph will pose a major challenge

An anthropologist and ethnohistorian, Stephen M. Perkins is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Oklahoma State University. His research focuses on the history of Mesoamerican peoples and his published work examines the organization of indigenous Nahua communities in Puebla, Mexico during the Spanish colonial period. He also co-directs an archaeological research project focused on protohistoric indigenous-European interaction in what is today north central Oklahoma during the early 18th century.