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Tarascan/Purhépecha Monarchs as “Stranger Kings”

November 06, 2018
An original bestowal of Curicaueri as obsidian being given to Hiripan, Tangaxoan, and Hiquingaxe. An original bestowal of Curicaueri as obsidian being given to Hiripan, Tangaxoan, and Hiquingaxe.

Two recent university press books in conversation: David Haskell examines his own The Two Taríacuris in context of On Kings by Marshall Sahlins and David Graeber.

A significant underlying theoretical issue in my recent book is how one narrative, told by a priest of the colonial-era West Mexican Tarascan/Purhépecha kingdom and found within a contemporaneous illustrated manuscript known as the Relación de Michoacán, fits into a larger framework formulated by anthropologist Marshall Sahlins. The Relación de Michoacán was written ca. 1540 by a Spanish friar, with input from indigenous informants. It conveys ethnographic and historical information concerning the Tarascan kingdom, describing the kingdom in the years immediately preceding the Spanish “conquest” and in the first 15–20 years of early colonial life from the viewpoint of the native elite.

Sahlins’s work going back at least 30 years (e.g., Islands of History, published in 1985) has examined how kings are often symbolically and sometimes actually “strangers” to their people, as they are represented as having come from afar. My book’s production took place before the publication of On Kings (Hau Books/Society for Ethnographic Theory, 2017), Sahlins’s latest work on this narrative and cultural structure, co-written with David Graeber. Now that I have had time to read and consider On Kings’s excellent contributions, I believe it is worthwhile to reexamine the data concerning the priest’s narrative and the larger structure and history of the Tarascan kingdom, in order to make the comparative contributions clear and to raise certain interesting questions.

One thought-provoking aspect of On Kings is the extent to which stranger kings are theorized to exist in some formulations in what Sahlins terms “reciprocal encompassment” (Sahlins 2017b: 150, 172; also 2017c: 230) with the pre-existing owners of the land (the literal earth). In earlier discussions of the stranger king, Sahlins proposes that any given polity governed by such a sovereign only exists due to the stranger king’s exploits (in some cases transgressions) that create the kingship, and thus also constitute the group of people over whom the sovereign governs. In On Kings, Sahlins’s examination of Kongo histories and ritual-political praxis, a sovereign’s power is balanced out and encompassed by the indigenous peoples to whom he is a stranger. In other words, the encompassment of the people by the king is in some polities only allowed to happen if the sovereign-to-be first acquiesces and allows himself to be domesticated and encompassed by the indigenous owners or the land. With respect to reciprocal encompassment, the Tarascan data from the priest’s speech and elsewhere in the Relación de Michoacán offer a counterexample to On Kings.

As revealed in my analysis of this Tarascan/Purhépecha data, what the royal dynasty, or Uacúsecha (eagles), claimed through the priest’s speech was not only to be stranger kings but also to have dually composed this embodiment with complex and dichotomous but complementary symbols. In the beginning of the narrative, the Uacúsecha symbolize a foreign, warrior, solar, sky, and masculine element that is balanced and countered by the autochthonous people who represent the earth and its fecundity, femininity, and priestly rites. By the end of the narrative, however, the Uacúsecha is composed of both elements and exists as a self-reproducing microcosm of the initially dichotomized cosmos. This kind of encompassment, as far as the narrating priest claims, does not seem to be the kind of “reciprocal encompassment” Sahlins analyzes. Rather, somehow the Tarascan kings seem to have claimed the autochthon-fecund-priestly identity as an encompassed part of their own foreigner-warrior identity. One example is the power of life-giving forces. In the Kongo and other African examples, it appears that this power is granted to the sovereign but also retained by certain factions of the autochthons. This is exemplified most strongly in the belief in the power of life and death over the sovereign himself, and in the propriety of regicide if certain failings either of the sovereign or the natural world occur. In the Relación de Michoacán, the foreign-warrior Uacúsecha manages to appropriate or usurp this magico-religious power of life and death as an added part of its new all-encompassing identity. This is evident in the narrative, for example, when a member of the Uacúsecha, Hiripan, “dies” but is revived by the combined efforts of Tangaxoan (encoded as a “Chichimec” foreigner) and Hiquingaxe (encoded/explicitly stated to be an “Islander” autochthonous part of the Uacúsecha whose destiny is to be a “sacrificer,” i.e., a member of the priestly class). Perhaps this encompassment of the Islander/autochthon magico-religious power within the Tarascan Uacúsecha royal dynasty, however symbolically, is one reason why the Tarascan state system appears more autocratic than other such stranger/sacred kingship systems—there appears to be no reciprocal encompassment á la Sahlins that acts as a check on Tarascan kings.

I have quite consciously used the word “appears,” however; it must be remembered that the priest’s speech and other aspects of the Relación de Michoacán clearly express how the kingdom and the kingship appear from the perspective of those wielding the latter over the populace of the former. It should perhaps be expected that they claim absolute sovereignty over every aspect of the kingdom and its underpinnings (understood in social, material, and metaphysical frames—in other words, the people and their kingdom, the resources such as food needed to maintain the people and their social structure, and the assistance of the gods to ensure these resources). An interesting question that merits consideration in this light is the strategy of the last independent king, Tzintzicha Tangaxoan, when Spaniards enter his territory. When the presence of the Spaniards poses at least a potential threat to Tzintzicha’s rule, Tzintzicha’s reaction might reveal a weakness in the Uacúsecha’s claim to have encompassed the Islander magico-political authority once and for all, since Tzintzicha rather quickly allies himself with two Islanders. These “Islanders” are the war general Huitzizilzi and political go-between Don Pedro Cuinierángari. Such alliances might suggest a need, precisely as Tzintzicha’s rule is threatened, to reconstitute the original Chichimec/Islander relations that were instrumental in founding the kingdom, as revealed in my analysis in The Two Taríacuris.

A final point for discussion contrasts the Tarascan variant on the Stranger/Sacred King formulation with David Graeber’s (2017a, b) discussions of sovereignty. Graeber proposed the ability or even expectation that sovereignty is defined by the ability to take human life at will, in the manner of a god. In Graeber’s discussion of various sacred king formulations, this propensity toward indiscriminate violence demonstrates the king’s unquestioned authority, but this authority is limited by society to the immediate surrounding of the king’s body and to the system’s spatial restriction of the sovereign to the court and palace. In Graeber’s analysis, then, the sovereign both wields unquestioned power and is quarantined from doing too much damage to society. The priest’s speech and other data in the Relación de Michoacán indicate that the Tarascan king and Uacúsecha claimed to have constituted and perpetuated the state precisely by personalizing a bureaucracy such that that entity was a materially constituted reflection of him/the institution of kingship. I detailed how this would work (to the extent that it did) in my dissertation (Haskell 2008a) and subsequent summary thereof (Haskell 2012). In this sense, the bureaucracy was not the abstract and depersonalized bureaucracy of modern states, but one highly invested and imbued with the personhood of the king--his insignia, other objects, his kin (women who cemented alliances with subordinate lords), and so on. It is in this sense that the Tarascan royalty claimed to have overcome some of the structural arrangements limited the exercise of the sovereign’s power to certain times or the immediate surroundings of his physical person as noted by Graeber. Additionally, the priesthood seems to have been completely subservient to the king, and the chief priest's staff (see figure below) was claimed to have manifested the voice of the kingly patron deity, Curicaueri. Curicaueri itself was in Tarascan political-religious praxis a chunk of obsidian from which knives were knapped that would then be carried forth to conquered towns (Haskell 2015).

The chief priest's staff was claimed to have manifested the voice of the kingly patron deity, Curicaueri.

It is also essential to understand that, according to the Relación de Michoacán, in the Pre-Hispanic era the Chief Priest narrated the history of Curicuaueri (as also a/the history of the Uacúsecha royal dynasty) while at the same time a cadre of lesser priests travelled throughout the kingdom and recounted the same story at the same time. This is why the intersection of the multiple priests recounting this narrative and the relations involving splitting Curicaueri is furthermore represented in the figure above; it indicates the fractality of both the narrative and the material manifestation of the deity. Each narration, and each physical instantiation contains/signifies all of the other narrations and physical instantiations distributed throughout the kingdom.



Graeber, David. 2017a. “The Divine Kingship of the Shilluk: On Violence, Utopia, and the Human Condition.” In Graeber, David, and Marshall Sahlins, On Kings, pp. 65-138. Chicago: Hau Books.

Graeber, David. 2017b. “Note on the Politics of Divine Kingship: Or, Elements for an Archaeology of Sovereignty.” In Graeber, David, and Marshall Sahlins, On Kings, pp. 377-464. Chicago: Hau Books.

Haskell, David L. 2008a. “Tarascan Kingship: the Production of Hierarchy in the Prehispanic Patzcuaro Basin, Mexico.” Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Florida.

Haskell, David L. 2008b. “The Cultural Logic of Hierarchy in the Tarascan State: History as Ideology in the Relacion de Michoacan.” Ancient Mesoamerica 19(2):231-241.

Haskell, David L. 2012. “The Encompassment of Subordinate Lords in the Tarascan Kingdom: Materiality, Identity, and Power.” In Identity and Power in Mesoamerica: Current Theory and Practice in Archaeology, edited by Eleanor Harrison-Buck, pp. 90-102. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, Foundations of Archaeological Inquiry Series.

Haskell, David L. 2015. “Places to Go and Social Worlds to Constitute: the Fractal Itinerary of Tarascan Obisidian Idols in Prehispanic Mexico.” In Things in Motion: Object Itineraries in Anthropological Practice, edited by Rosemary A. Joyce and Susan D. Gillespie, pp. 63-80. Santa Fe, NM: SAR Press.

Sahlins, Marshall. 1985. Islands of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sahlins, Marshall. 2017a. “The Cultural Politics of Core-Periphery Relations.” In Graeber, David, and Marshall Sahlins, On Kings, pp. 345-376. Chicago: Hau Books.

Sahlins, Marshall. 2017b. “The Atemporal Dimensions of History: In the Old Kongo Kingdom, For Example.” In Graeber, David, and Marshall Sahlins, On Kings, pp. 139-222. Chicago: Hau Books.

Sahlins, Marshall. 2017c. “The Stranger-Kingship of the Mexica.” In Graeber, David, and Marshall Sahlins, On Kings, pp. 223-248. Chicago: Hau Books.

David L. Haskell is adjunct full professor at the University of Maryland University College and adjunct professor at Ohio University and Franklin University. He has authored or coauthored several peer-reviewed articles and chapters in edited volumes, theorizing and investigating Tarascan culture and state formation from various ethnohistoric and archaeological perspectives.

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