General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 19 Sep 2017/8 Reed
Text Size:

Link to page about the Maya Calendar
Today's Maya date is: 13.0.4.14.13 - 1734 days into the new cycle!
Link to page of interest to teachers
Click to find out how we can help you!
Search the Site (type in white box):

Aztec hearth illustration

Study the... HEARTH

A hearth is a simple firepit or fireplace - in many societies in the past, all over the world, it was the centre of the home - and of the temple: for the Aztecs it was very much a sacred space. And, like so many Aztec artefacts, there’s more to the hearth than meets the eye... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: The hearth above a newly married couple, Codex Mendoza, folio 61r
Pic 1: The hearth above a newly married couple, Codex Mendoza, folio 61r (Click on image to enlarge)

An Aztec hearth consisted of three stones supporting the comalli (in Mexican Spanish ‘comal’), a clay griddle on which maize tortillas were cooked and on which sat the pots, and between the stones logs were burned. Near the hearth the family would keep a clay or stone figure of Huehueteotl, the ‘Old God’ of fire and of the hearth: he was always shown as an old figure usually with legs crossed and arms resting on the knees (Picture 2). The mystical power of the fire god was within the stones themselves, and it was believed that anyone who offended the fire by walking on the hearthstones would die very soon. In poorer houses, with no ventilation (most were windowless), the house - often just a single room - soon filled with smoke...

Pic 2: Huehueteotl and Xiuhtecuhtli, National Museum of Anthropology
Pic 2: Huehueteotl and Xiuhtecuhtli, National Museum of Anthropology (Click on image to enlarge)

Every family, from whatever background, made offerings to the earth and to household gods before eating a meal: wealthy families honoured Xiuhtecuhtli (‘Turquoise Lord’ - Huehueteotl’s double) by decapitating quail (birds of the pheasant family) before the hearth. Poor families were happy enough just to sprinkle coarse incense directly onto the fire. Even today, women in Nahua villages can still be seen tossing a small piece of food into the fire as they make tortillas, feeding the Old God, and the same goes for drops of the fermented cactus juice ‘pulque’, still sprinkled today around the hearth before being drunk.

Pic 3: Can you see the hearth in the middle of this model Aztec farmer’s house in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City?
Pic 3: Can you see the hearth in the middle of this model Aztec farmer’s house in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City? (Click on image to enlarge)

The final, crucial stage in making the clay griddle was firing it in an oven. You could always recognise a well-made griddle (Picture 7) by its ring - a sign it had been well ‘tempered’ (little pieces of soft reed were added to toughen the clay before treating it with heat). Poorer quality ones, damaged in firing, would give out a cracked sound. (When Mexican women buy ‘comales’ in the market today, they will still test the product by rapping it with the knuckles to judge the ringing sound it makes!)

Pic 4: ‘You are to toil, you are to sweat, beside the ashes beside the hearth...’ Codex Mendoza, folio 60r
Pic 4: ‘You are to toil, you are to sweat, beside the ashes beside the hearth...’ Codex Mendoza, folio 60r (Click on image to enlarge)

The three hearthstones (Picture 5) were called tenamaztin - the same word as for triplets: some scholars believe that the ancient Mexicans dedicated the number 3 to the fire god Huehueteotl. Each stone had its own Aztec name - they were the guardians of the fire god Huehueteotl; there is the lingering belief in some parts of Mexico today that the three stones support the earth, with the fires of the underworld below and the clouds of smoke of the sky above. The stones had all manner of sacred powers: according to the Florentine Codex, the last thing you wanted to do as a youngster in a bad mood was to kick over a hearthstone: when you later went to war, your feet would go numb, and you’d be unable to run in battle - ‘quickly he would fall into the hands of the enemy...’

Pic 5: The three hearthstones supporting the ‘comal(li)’, Codex Mendoza, folio 60r
Pic 5: The three hearthstones supporting the ‘comal(li)’, Codex Mendoza, folio 60r (Click on image to enlarge)

For the Aztecs, it was through fire that the gods had been purified and transformed at the creation of the ‘Fifth Sun’ (our present world). In the famous first page of the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer (Picture 6: more on this in our ‘Ask Us’ section - follow link below), the Fire God is shown clearly at the centre of the world, just as a fire would be in the centre of an Aztec home.

Pic 6: The Fire Lord, Xiuhtecuhtli, at the centre of the world, Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, p.1
Pic 6: The Fire Lord, Xiuhtecuhtli, at the centre of the world, Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, p.1 (Click on image to enlarge)

When a baby girl was born, her umbilical cord would always be buried by the midwife next to the hearth. The Aztecs believed strongly that a woman’s main role was in the home; it was one of her key tasks to prepare meals, by the hearth (Picture 4). On cutting the cord, the midwife would give a crucially important speech at the start of the girl’s life, part of which went:-

‘From the middle of your body, I remove, I cut the umbilical cord.

Your father, your mother... have ordered...

that you shall be the heart of the house.

You shall go nowhere,

you shall not be a wanderer.

You shall be the covering of ashes that banks the fire,

you shall be the three stones on which the cooking pot rests.

Here our lord buries you...

and you shall become worn, you shall become weary.

You are to prepare drink, you are to grind corn,

you are to toil, you are to sweat, beside the ashes, beside the hearth.

Pic 7: The clay griddle on its three stones
Pic 7: The clay griddle on its three stones (Click on image to enlarge)

Yes, well... plenty of fuel there for ‘hot’ debate...!

Our Activity Sheet 3d, on the hearth
Our Activity Sheet 3d, on the hearth (Click on image to enlarge)

Sources and further information:-

Soustelle, Jacques, Daily Life of the Aztecs, Stanford University Press, 1961

Bray, Warwick, Everyday Life of the Aztecs, B.T. Batsford, 1968

Sullivan, Thelma D., and Knab, Timothy J., A Scattering of Jades, University of Arizona Press, 1994

Aguilar-Moreno, Manuel, Handbook to LIfe in the Aztec World, Facts on File, 2006

Berdan, Frances F., and Anawalt, Patricia R., The Codex Mendoza Vol. II, University of California Press, 1992

Picture sources:-

Main picture of a hearth: drawn specially for Mexicolore by Felipe Dávalos ©2008

Images from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) - scanned from our copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938

Codex Fejérváry-Mayer: image scanned from our copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1971

Photos from the National Museum of Anthropology by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore

Now that you’ve learnt more about the hearth, download the activity sheet on it (click on the PDF icon below) and get to work...!

Acrobat logo Download our Activity Sheet on the hearth...

Household gods

‘Ask Us’ - see the Fire God at the centre of the world

Feedback button