General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 23 Nov 2017/8 Flint
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Maria Mursell in a Mexican baby-carrying basket with Mexicolore

Baby basket

The Aztecs treasured equally baby boys and baby girls - indicated by references in the Florentine Codex to newborns as ‘precious jewels’ and ‘beautiful feathers’. There could be no greater treasure, then, for the Mexicolore teaching team to take to a school than our own daughter Maria - just 7 weeks old! (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Using the baby-carrying basket, Cuetzalan, nr. Puebla, Mexico
Pic 1: Using the baby-carrying basket, Cuetzalan, nr. Puebla, Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

On November 21st. 1984 we made a special return visit to Brookmans Park Primary School in Hertfordshire to celebrate with the children and teachers - with whom we had worked closely on a Mexico project during the Spring Term of that year - the birth of Maria Grace. Dressed in a miniature ‘Flor de Piña’ costume, good as gold, she was carried nervously in a traditional Mexican baby-basket by several teachers (here by our good friend Jackie Ball) AND children, who generously gave her presents (including a squeeky duck that immediately became her favourite toy...). Her visit was a huge success.

Pic 2: Chichimec family, Florentine Codex Book 10
Pic 2: Chichimec family, Florentine Codex Book 10 (Click on image to enlarge)

The generic Náhuatl (Aztec language) name for a carrying-basket, generally worn on the back but also on the shoulders, was a huacalli (commonly called today a ‘huacal’). Central to Aztec life, this sort of artefact would be well used and well cared-for:-


The Aztecs, whose animistic beliefs imbued inanimate objects with conscious spirits, yearly performed a ritual in gratitude to their tools, which had served them well and faithfully. [Franciscan friar] Durán relates that during the month of Etzalcualiztli (‘Eating of cooked maize and beans’), a ceremony was held to afford a much-needed rest to agricultural implements: tumplines, digging sticks, baskets, carrying boards, and cords used to tie bundles. On the day of this particular feast, all these items were placed on a special platform in a farmer’s home and thanked for their help in the fields and on the road. Food, pulque, and incense were then offered to the tools, as well as "a thousand salaams, salutations, and speeches. This rite was called Repose of the Servile Implements."

‘The Codex Mendoza’ facsimile edition Vol II, Frances Berdan & Patricia Rieff Anawalt, 1992, p.229

Pic 3: carrying a baby brother or sister in Cuetzalan
Pic 3: carrying a baby brother or sister in Cuetzalan (Click on image to enlarge)

Maria’s basket, carried by nearly 2,000 English school children over almost 30 years, comes from the small Náhuatl-speaking town of Cuetzalan, Puebla, in Mexico’s Sierra Norte, and is still in popular use today. But evidence for this style of basket in pre-Columbian times is hard to find. There are next to no references in the encyclopedic Florentine Codex to this type: the one we show here (Picture 2) is on the back of a Chichimec - a term often reserved by the Aztecs for nomadic, less ‘educated’ peoples. Yet the Florentine Codex DOES confirm (Book 2) that Aztec mothers carried infants on their backs. Much more commonly shown is the cradle type of basket clearly illustrated in the Florentine and Mendoza codices (Pictures 4, 5, 6 and 7).

Pic 4: Florentine Codex, Book 6
Pic 4: Florentine Codex, Book 6 (Click on image to enlarge)

There’s no doubt that the Aztecs were wonderfully tender and loving towards very young children: the little naked body of a newborn baby was petted and stroked by the entire family, men and women alike, ‘to show that it was loved’ (couldn’t we learn from this today?). Births were seriously happy affairs, the mother having gone through an epic struggle likened to war. The festivities that followed a birth could last for up to 20 days!Women of all classes were helped at every stage by one or more midwives (nobles being supported by up to 3) plus assistants... Breast fed usually for at least the first two years, the infant enjoyed divine protection - and could not be punished.

Pic 5: Mother with midwives, Florentine Codex, Book 6
Pic 5: Mother with midwives, Florentine Codex, Book 6 (Click on image to enlarge)

Immediately after a child was born, the midwife cut the umbilical cord (a boy’s was later buried in a battlefield, a girl’s under the hearth at home), washed the baby, wrapped it in a cloth, recited the appropriate prayers - these included a prayer to the goddess of water Chalchiuhtlicue for a calm and pure heart - and carried the infant into the house to place it in the waiting cradle. It’s interesting that in the Florentine Codex this type of cradle sometimes appears as a general symbol for ‘baby’, whether or not you can see an infant inside! (Is there one in Picture 5?!)

Codex Mendoza, folio 57r
Codex Mendoza, folio 57r (Click on image to enlarge)

The famous image in the Codex Mendoza shows not just a newly born baby, but also part of the preparations for the all-important naming ceremony that followed: 4 days (shown by the rosettes above the baby) after the birth, the midwife (whose professional status was exceptionally high in Aztec society) took the naked baby away to be ritually washed and named - not by a priest or soothsayer, but by the midwife herself. Once the name was ‘out’, youngsters sprinted round the entire neighbourhood yelling the news of the babe’s name, ‘hot off the press’. And after the naming ceremony the ‘mother’ of all banquets began, including, of course, lashings of chocolate and pulque...

Pic 7: Families gathering for the Aztec festival of Izcali, Florentine Codex, Book 2: pulque time...!!
Pic 7: Families gathering for the Aztec festival of Izcali, Florentine Codex, Book 2: pulque time...!! (Click on image to enlarge)

The last 20-day ‘month’ in the Aztec farming year included the wonderfully family-based festival of The Eating of Tamales Stuffed With Amaranth Greens, in which cooked tamales were shared not only with the whole family but with close neighbours too. In true picnic-style, according to the Florentine Codex, ‘[Everybody was] arranged in a circle. They rounded up, gathered together, brought together, assembled their children. This formed the family.’ (Picture 7). The ‘month’ ended with the festival of Izcalli, the only time in the year when young children could drink the sacred fermented cactus juice drink popularly known as pulque, a privilege even to be enjoyed, symbolically at least, by infants:-


‘There they gave pulque to all the small children - those who were already a little large and those who still lay in the cradle. They only made them taste it. Indeed everyone already mature was drunk... The pulque ran like water.’

Pic 8: Aztec cradle, illustration by Felipe Dávalos
Pic 8: Aztec cradle, illustration by Felipe Dávalos (Click on image to enlarge)

The next page in the Codex Mendoza, by the way, jumps, in telling the story of growing up in the Aztec world, from a newly-born to a young child of 3 years old, entitled to just half a maize tortilla a day. Once weaned, his or her life changed dramatically: not only was the change of diet severe (the Aztecs had no access to non-human animal milk), but on weaning the infant suddenly entered the social world around them and had to learn to face the ups and downs of life just like everybody else... Maria’s an example to us all!

Pic 9: Mother/child-related Aztec artefacts, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 9: Mother/child-related Aztec artefacts, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Sources of information:-
The Florentine Codex translated by Arthur J O Anderson and Charles E Dibble, School of American Research, 1979
The Essential Codex Mendoza by Frances F. Berdan and Patricia Rieff Anawalt (University of California Press, 1997)
Aztecs by Inga Clendinnen (Cambridge University Press, 1991)
The Everyday Life of the Aztecs by Warwick Bray (Dorset Press, 1968)
Daily Life of the Aztecs by Jacques Soustelle (Stanford University Press, 1961).

Pic 10: Graciela carrying Mexican baby Maria in traditional rebozo (shawl) and basket
Pic 10: Graciela carrying Mexican baby Maria in traditional rebozo (shawl) and basket (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture sources:-
• Main picture: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pix 1 and 3: photos by Sean Sprague/Mexicolore
• Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence): all images scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford): image scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938
• Pic 8: illustration drawn for Mexicolore by Felipe Dávalos ©2008
• Pic 9: Photo by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore
• Pic 10: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

Learn more about children during the festival of Izcalli...

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