The recent Aztec exhibition at the Royal Academy was universally acclaimed as an extraordinary event.
Hardly a critical word passed the lips of commentators, who marvelled at the quality of the pieces on show and the exotic aura surrounding them.
Regular readers of ‘Freud Today’ will imagine my disappointment when I tell you – I can hardly believe it myself – that there was not a single reference to castration in the whole show or the catalogue. In fact had it not been for my loud exclamations of incredulity, my family and other members of the public may have gone round the exhibition imagining that the Aztecs had no sexual dimension to their lives at all. Perhaps the Aztecs were an alien species from Mars.
It was only in the penultimate gallery that I noticed (behind a wall) a representation of a snail shell. It was reluctantly admitted at the end of the identification label that the snail shell was ‘a symbol of the female genital’. Rest assured that there were no references to symbols of the male genital in the show, despite the fact that the most powerful god was represented as a serpent, and that the main female god has a ring of serpents dangling around her waist (think of Medusa).
Nor was there any reference to the myth in which the god Quetzalcoatl makes new human beings after the flood by cutting his penis and giving blood to the lady of the serpent skirt – a goddess described by others as having “many short phalli dangling about her waist.” Naturally this castration of the chief god would have been ritually enacted by the god’s representatives on earth, and we learn that the priests did indeed ‘shed blood’ as part of their ritual duties. Again no mention of castration (symbolic or real), despite the fact that priestly castration is common in human history.
Other people also shed blood in Aztec society – the hundreds of thousands of human sacrifices, whose hearts were torn from their bodies. In Medieval Europe the throbbing heart was equated with the phallus. The Aztecs were apparently deficient in making any such symbolic equation, though strangely enough all these rituals and gruesome sacrifices were concerned with the problem of fertility. Perhaps they were just a bit stupid and did not realise that sexuality has anything to do with fertility, or, unlike the rest of the human race, their brains did not have the capacity to synthesize experience and connect relations in the natural world to relations in the human world.
Of course the other possibility is that it was not the Aztecs who were incapable of seeing the obvious, but the organisers of this exhibition. Freud would not have been surprised that the evidence of castration has been expunged. It is not an easy thing to come to terms with.
“The whole occurrence…” Freud writes “… is so completely forgotten that its reconstruction during the work of analysis is met in adults by the most decided disbelief. Indeed, aversion to it is so great that people try to silence any mention of the proscribed subject and the most obvious reminders of it are overlooked by a strange intellectual blindness.” (SE23 p191)
Ivan Ward’s Castration (2003) is published by Icon Books.