Existential Othering and the Strange Case of the Bloody Excrement
We deplore prejudice and bigotry with respect to others, but overlook the roots of such destructive and alienated attitudes in an unavoidable aspect of experience that the Nahua (Aztecs) knew well: the troubled way that we respond to otherness. Here Kay Read, an historian of religion at DePaul University, reflects on her own troubled response to a Nahua image depicting the disgusting side of creation, fertility and death, dawn and sacrifice in a crimson stream of divine shit.
Archie Bunker: Why do they make dolls that do all the disgusting things people do?
Edith Bunker: That’s not disgusting, it’s natural.
A small segment of a pre-Colombian, Mesoamerican pictorial codex exists that raises a conundrum with respect to our relationships with nature. The little image resides within the Codex Borgia, a document hailing from a Nahua (Aztec) speaking area just over a mountain pass southeast of present-day Mexico City. This 15th-16th century divinatory almanac contains a full creation story presented entirely in
pictures. Originally, a ritual specialist probably would have rhythmically chanted this story to a captivated audience. Appearing inconspicuously on the left side of folio 45, the image depicts a black, mostly nude figure, a yellow stripe running down his nose and his curly hair brightly decorated. He is sitting in profile on a platform, centered within a cross-hatched arch which, in turn, is surrounded by nine heads. All of this appears to my eyes, anyway, quite fascinating, well executed and beautifully patterned. But the most astonishing thing is a quantity of red substance flowing out of what is clearly this guy’s anus; and even more weird, these red rivulets seem to be sprouting flowers. OK, in my book, this is definitely strange!
Why is this guy excreting red poop? Briefly, this is about the rising of Venus at dawn (believe it or not). The black figure is probably one of the numerous aspects of a Nahua god, Quetzalcoatl (Feathered Serpent) who is the embodiment of, among many things: cosmic creation, fertility, war, sacrifice and the planet Venus. Mesoamericanist Elizabeth Boone tells us that in this little image he is covered by a starry net, punctuated by nine star figures. His tangled (not styled) hair holds a Venus star and. . .he is excreting bloody diarrhea (2007: 207).
Two Kinds of Othering
What the heck is this about anyway? Boone may have helped me translate these graphic images, but she has only minimally helped my comprehension. For starters, I find this fairly yucky. My immediate reaction is one of disgust and horror, mixed with intense fascination. This culture is so strangely different from my own that I find myself automatically shoving it into a box marked “Other” because of my inability to fit it into my own normal, cultural sensibilities. Yet even as I am repulsed by and a little afraid of its strangeness, I am drawn to it as if to some horror flick; I close the box, but I keep opening its lid and peeking in. So, which do I do now; hide the box in the closet and slam the door, or take it out and examine its strange contents? By doing either, or both, I have just “othered” this image whether I wanted to or not.