John F. Schwaller is Professor of History at the University at Albany (SUNY) and serves as the Latin American editor for the journal Ethnohistory. He is contributor to The Directory for Confessors, 1585: Implementing the Catholic Reformation in New Spain.
The cult of human sacrifice is a pervasive theme in this study. It is a concept that permeated Aztec mythology and was the central preoccupation of the aggressive Aztec state. Another particularly interesting belief explored here is the "mask pool," whereby gods could exchange regalia and, thus, identities.
This vivid and eminently readable study also covers the use of hallucinogens; cannibalism; the calendars of ancient Mexico; tlachtli, the life-and-death ball game; the flower wars; divine transfiguration; and the evolution of the war god of the Mexica. A splendid introduction to Aztec religion, The Fifth Sun also contains insights for specialists in ethnohistory, mythology, and religion.
Hassig first presents the traditional explanation of the Aztec calendrical system and its ideological functions and then marshals contrary evidence to argue that the Aztec elite deliberately used calendars and timekeeping to achieve practical political ends. He further traces how the Conquest played out in the temporal realm as Spanish conceptions of time partially displaced the Aztec ones. His findings promise to revolutionize our understanding of how the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican societies conceived of time and history.
The timing of Cortés's Good Friday landing, immediately before the initial assault on the Aztec Empire, enhances the significance of this work. Though the expedition was conducted under the authority of Diego Velázquez, governor of Cuba, the letter reflects an attempt to break ties with Velázquez and form a strategic alliance with Carlos V, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain. Brimming with details about the events surrounding Veracruz's inception and accompanied by mini-biographies of 318 signers of the document—socially competitive men who risked charges of treason by renouncing Velázquez—The First Letter from New Spain gives evidence of entrepreneurship and other overlooked traits that fueled the conquest.