Newsletter Issue:
Spring 2020

Anxieties and Paradox at the Templo Mayor

by Kimberly Aimée Alvarado, Cohort ’18

''In order to enable a shrine to be built, a shrine must be destroyed: that is the law—show me the case where it has not been fulfilled!” – Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality,  3:24.

The Templo Mayor in Mexico City (formerly Tenochtitlan) was expanded and built-over as many as six times during the reigns of the ancient Mexica, or, more well-known as, the Aztec. The Templo is certainly a case for the law of “enable, then destroy.” The nested architectural layers express different periods of the Aztec civilization. As you walk through the site, the layers of time and change are physically and architecturally visible. As Nietzsche states in the opening quote, never has there been a place where the old was not forced to make room for the new. At the Templo Mayor this force is forcefully visible. Each version of the temple was not necessarily destroyed, but deliberately covered over with stucco and built over, expanded, and set to new use once again. Time and weathering allows for a very clear glimpse into the stages of the sacred built environment of the Nietzschian shrine. The Templo Mayor was known as the axis mundi, or origin point of the Aztec world. This sacred place was also the epicenter of ceremonies of human sacrifice. Researchers suggest that ritualistic sacrifice to the gods was tied to ever-pressing anxieties related to preserving the survival of the Aztecs, in particular those in power at Tenochtitlan, known as the Tenochca.

Templo Mayor. Photo by Kimberly Aimee Alvarado
Templo Mayor. Photo by Kimberly Aimee Alvarado

While enabling and destroying epitomized an attitude of an establishing civilization ever in the midst of becoming, the opposing forces of order and chaos also characterized Aztec society. Scholars of Aztec studies problematize and wonder at the ways in which order and chaos paradoxically reconciled in this Aztec capital which was widely regarded at the time as the undisputed axis mundi of the world. To address the problem of anxiety and paradox, I look to Davíd Carrasco, Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America at Harvard Divinity School. The word anxiety seems to appear in the discussions whenever there is an attempt to understand, on the one hand, the juxtaposition of violent, disruptive, sometimes purposeful conflict and, on the other, highly ordered and planned living and warfare in Tenochtitlan and its environs. Through studies of pre-Columbian philosophy, history, anthropology, and archaeology, Carrasco addresses a popular question: how can we reconcile the monumental order and monumental chaos of the Aztec world, in particular during the rule of Moctezuma I (c. 1440s)?

In the essay, “The Templo Mayor: the Aztec Vision of Place” (1999), Carrasco attempts an answer for this concurrence through an interpretation of Aztec origin stories, such as the story of Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, sun, human sacrifice, and the patron of the city of Tenochtitlan. For Carrasco, sacrifice and escalated sacrificing of tributary human consumables—the roll down the Temple stairs onto the Coyolxauhqui Stone and final dismemberment—constituted a ritualistic reenactment of the birth, succession, and victory of Huitzilopochtli over his adversarial siblings (respectively killers and potential killers of their mother and the still-in utero god). The ritual, in one way, served as evidence for the supreme interrelatedness between Huitzilopochtli and the Tenochca. However, as Carrasco points out, the need for continual repetition was a manifestation of the inherent anxieties concerning their cosmic order, which circuitously pointed to living under constant threats from tributary states.

“Tzompantli” (skull rack) in the Templo Mayor. Photo by Kimberly Aimee Alvarado
“Tzompantli” (skull rack) in the Templo Mayor. Photo by Kimberly Aimee Alvarado

Today, the enduring relics of the Templo Mayor as imago mundi or the location of the innumerable sacrifices, remains as a reminder to the paradox of chaos and order of this ancient civilization in the face of threats to their way of life and the struggle for survival. From Huitzilopochtli’s temple (along with rain god Tlaloc), as a symbol as the “high hand,” to the Coyolxauhqui Stone’s “low hand” at the bottom of the stairs, these sacred spaces which embody the Aztec cosmic order, continue to speak to us from the past about our innate human anxieties and the struggle for survival. We build and rebuild, enable and destroy, order and chaotisize our world in ironically systematic ways. The Templo Mayor is a microcosm of humanity.


David Carrasco, “The Templo Mayor: the Aztec Vision of Place,” in City of Sacrifice: The Aztec Empire and the Role of Violence in Civilization (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), 49-87.

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