General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 23 Nov 2017/8 Flint
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Illustration of Aztec petate reed mat bed

Study the... PETATE

Every Aztec person slept on a petate! It was one of the few basic items to be found in every single Aztec home, rich or poor. Yet it was far more important than just a simple bed: read on... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Petates are still hugely popular today in the Mexican countryside, though usually raised up on a frame - to avoid any scorpions!
Pic 1: Petates are still hugely popular today in the Mexican countryside, though usually raised up on a frame - to avoid any scorpions! (Click on image to enlarge)

In Náhuatl it was called a petlatl; this word has changed slightly - to ‘petate’- and become part of every-day Mexican Spanish. Petates are still widely found today throughout the countryside in Mexico: used not just for beds but also as mats to lay out produce to sell in the market (as in Aztec times). You can imagine, they’re also great today to take to the beach or hills for a picnic...!

Pic 2: SPOT THE PETATE in this museum model of the inside of an Aztec house!
Pic 2: SPOT THE PETATE in this museum model of the inside of an Aztec house! (Click on image to enlarge)

The petate was so much a part of Aztec life that it appears in several codices. In Picture 3 you can see a couple getting married, sitting symbolically on a petate. The marriage is shown by the tying of the two tunics together. The old folk round about them are giving them plenty of advice for the future... Most Aztec people used the petate as a bed at night and as a seat during the day (set on a low platform made of earth, or occasionally of wood). A family’s clothes and few valuables were kept in a wickerwork chest called petlacalli (literally, a ‘mat house’). The modern Mexican Spanish word ‘petaca’ comes from this.

Pic 3: Marriage, the couple sitting on a petate. Codex Mendoza
Pic 3: Marriage, the couple sitting on a petate. Codex Mendoza (Click on image to enlarge)

In Picture 4 you can see the emperor Moctezuma II in his palace in Tenochtitlan, sitting on a petate. He also used a chair similar to a modern seat, called icpalli - more about this in our ‘Study the ICPALLI’ page...

Pic 4: Moctezuma sitting on a petate in his palace. Codex Mendoza
Pic 4: Moctezuma sitting on a petate in his palace. Codex Mendoza (Click on image to enlarge)

There were whole neighbourhoods in Tenochtitlan that specialised in making petates, out of common reed from the lakeside. Fine ones could include lengths of reed coloured with natural dyes mixed in with the plain ones to create lovely patterns. See one in our mini-feature ‘A people’s bed’ (follow link below).

Pic 5: Moctezuma II atop a petate. Tovar Manuscript, pl. XVII
Pic 5: Moctezuma II atop a petate. Tovar Manuscript, pl. XVII (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztecs used elegant, flowery speech, full of metaphors, very often with two words or phrases combining to form a single idea. A good example involves the humble petate: ‘mat, seat’ meant throne, as did ‘Eagle Mat, Jaguar Mat’. Eagle and Jaguar Knights were two of the highest ranks in the army, and the Florentine Codex refers to the privilege enjoyed by ‘those who took four captives [in war]... from then on they could sit on the mats they used and icpalli [seats] in the hall where the other captains and valiant men sat.’ So Ocelopetlatl, Cuauhpetlatl - literally ‘The jaguar mat, the eagle mat’ meant throne or what we nowadays would call ‘seat of power’.

The game of patolli, Codex Magliabecchiano, p. 60
The game of patolli, Codex Magliabecchiano, p. 60 (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztecs enjoyed playing a board game called patolli, using beans as counters. The game was played on a roll-out petate mat that could be carried around everywhere. The game was highly popular, and bets were regularly placed on the outcome - the Aztecs seem to have been particularly keen on gambling and betting, partly perhaps because they were highly superstitious, and linked good and bad luck closely to the signs and numbers in their ritual calendar.

Burying a dead person in a petate - notice the man crying (right); Codex Tudela, folio 58
Burying a dead person in a petate - notice the man crying (right); Codex Tudela, folio 58 (Click on image to enlarge)

Confirming its life-long importance to the Aztecs, the petate was pressed into service from the cradle to the grave: the midwife placed the new-born babe carefully on the mat before taking it to be ritually washed - and, at the other end of life, the dead body of an Aztec was placed, with gifts, rolled in the position of a foetus, in a petate, to be buried or cremated as a death bundle, often under the house where he or she had lived.

Our Activity Sheet 3a, on the Petate
Our Activity Sheet 3a, on the Petate (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture sources:-
Main picture of a petate: drawn specially for Mexicolore by Felipe Dávalos ©2008
Interior of farmer’s house today: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
Aztec house model, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City: photo by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore
Images from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) - scanned from our copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938
Moctezuma (Tovar Manuscript) - scanned from our copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1972
Patolli (Codex Magliabecchiano) - scanned from our copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1970
Burial (Codex Tudela) - scanned from our copy of the Testimonio Compañía Editorial facsimile edition, Madrid, 2002

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

emoticon Moctezuma slept on a whole pile of petates: maybe that’s where the saying ‘One petate, two petates, three petates, four...’ comes from!

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

‘Home smoky home!’

‘A people’s bed’

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: Nowhere that we know of, I’m afraid. Let us know if you find a source!
Mexicolore replies: That explains it!
Mexicolore replies: Thanks, Tecpa! In fact there is a real one in the first photo on this page (inside the farmer’s house), but your photo is much better...