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Nicholas James

Question for May 2012

Did the Aztecs force you to be who you were? Asked by St Nicholas School. Chosen and answered by Nicholas James.

Pic 1: Mexica (Aztec) farmer, Florentine Codex Book IV
Pic 1: Mexica (Aztec) farmer, Florentine Codex Book IV (Click on image to enlarge)

Yes; no; in a way .... One sign of a good question is that it needs several answers.

The options for careers, in ways of life like the Aztecs’, were (and are) comparatively limited. Most Aztecs farmed. There was much more variety of work in the city but many or most specialized jobs there were restricted to particular groups of families by those families themselves. They probably operated like the guilds in European towns of the same period.

Pic 2: Symbolic birth gifts for an Aztec boy (tools and weapons); Codex Mendoza fol. 57, detail
Pic 2: Symbolic birth gifts for an Aztec boy (tools and weapons); Codex Mendoza fol. 57, detail  (Click on image to enlarge)

There was pressure to take up one’s parents’ work. Baby boys, one report tells us, were carried to their first ceremony with a work tool of their father’s. The Aztecs ardently admired skills of various sorts, so that any craftsman could gain a good reputation — or a bad one!

Pic 3: Moctezuma II in his palace with his Council of Elders below; Codex Mendoza, fol. 69, detail
Pic 3: Moctezuma II in his palace with his Council of Elders below; Codex Mendoza, fol. 69, detail (Click on image to enlarge)

There were jealousies not only among trades but also between the social ranks. In the mid 1440s, Moctezuma I reserved certain privileges for his nobles; and then, in about 1502, Moctezuma II announced a new set of rules for the same purpose. Most of these regulations were about clothes and personal ornaments, things that could be seen. They were obviously meant for the rapidly changing city, where there were so many people who did not know each other that signs were needed as guides to respect. No-one born in an ordinary family was allowed to become a true noble; and the nobles, for their part, were expected to look and behave like nobles. Even wealthy merchants were normally expected to observe these rules in public.

Pic 4: A young Aztec warrior takes his first captive; Codex Mendoza fol. 64, detail
Pic 4: A young Aztec warrior takes his first captive; Codex Mendoza fol. 64, detail (Click on image to enlarge)

Of course, the regulations imply that some people were passing themselves off falsely as grandees. In a sense, then, the Aztecs ’did’ try to ’force you’; but there were a couple of exceptions.

There was a scheme of rewards for soldiers who captured enemies in battle, a series of honours and visible privileges, such as clothing and hair style, yielding respect and, in some cases, wealth too.

Pic 5: Aztec head priest scolds a novice priest; Codex Mendoza fol. 62r, detail
Pic 5: Aztec head priest scolds a novice priest; Codex Mendoza fol. 62r, detail (Click on image to enlarge)

Since most men were liable to be called up for military duty, many had opportunities to gain these rewards; although not even heroes were admitted to the ranks of the higher lords.

The other exception was the priesthood. In common with many ways of life, priests were treated as exceptions to ordinary rules; and some rose from humble origins to great public standing, although, again, other than nobles themselves, none to the higher aristocracy.

Pic 6: ‘Your place in the universe...’; exhibit within model of pre-Hispanic temple building, Diego Rivera Anahuacalli Museum, Mexico City
Pic 6: ‘Your place in the universe...’; exhibit within model of pre-Hispanic temple building, Diego Rivera Anahuacalli Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Yet, in a different sense, the Aztecs considered that ’who you are’ depended on the gods, on your place in the universe, so that no-one could be forced to be anything other than what they were. Some Aztecs saw certain features as signs of destiny, a particular pattern of the hair’s parting, for instance, for a child who would die for Tlaloc, spirit of water.

Pic 7: ‘Ten-Rabbit’ daysign and Mexica soothsayer at work, Florentine Codex Book IV
Pic 7: ‘Ten-Rabbit’ daysign and Mexica soothsayer at work, Florentine Codex Book IV (Click on image to enlarge)

Destiny was not usually so clear, though. So a fortune teller would be summoned to predict the baby’s prospects. If the date of birth was a day of bad omen, the soothsayer could recommend a better one for the child’s first ceremony. In this rite, it was named and lads were sent scurrying off to yell the name out among the houses. Many children of ordinary families were named for their day of birth. The umbilical cord was buried: a girl’s indoors, by the hearth, while a boy’s, typically, was given to a soldier to dig into a battlefield.

Pic 8: Tezcatlipoca - illustration based on the Codex Borgia by Miguel Covarrubias
Pic 8: Tezcatlipoca - illustration based on the Codex Borgia by Miguel Covarrubias (Click on image to enlarge)

Consulting the fortune teller showed that ’who you were’ could not be changed: it depended largely on the state of the world at the time of birth. Indeed, in more thoughtful moods, some noblemen warned their sons that only the dreaded god, Tezcatlipoca, knew what was to befall them.

On the other hand, choice of day for the naming ceremony shows how Aztecs thought that fate could perhaps be steered. The burial of the cord shows that they expected girls to work about the house and boys to be vigorous. Then family, neighbours and friends alike would help to form the child’s personality and habits. Commonly, they would come up with a nickname, in effect replacing the ritual name. Thus, while respecting fate, the Aztecs did expect to affect both upbringing and adult behaviour.

Pic 9: A Mexica family in slavery, Florentine Codex Book VII
Pic 9: A Mexica family in slavery, Florentine Codex Book VII (Click on image to enlarge)

In some cases of recent history, such as Russia, people were ‘forced’ into particular jobs but the Aztecs probably could not have done that even if they had they wanted to. They did have slaves but, unlike most in the Old World, the Aztecs’ could be freed. Nor did slaves’ children inherit the condition: by 1510, they were declared to be free.

In a third sense, ’force’ was probably no issue. For one thing, there would have been much less concern about social standing before the 1420s. Even in 1500, could we have asked Aztecs, ‘Who are you?’, most would have replied that they belonged to some particular neighbourhood or village.

Pic 10: Aztec faces in a crowd, Florentine Codex Book II
Pic 10: Aztec faces in a crowd, Florentine Codex Book II (Click on image to enlarge)

For that was how people treated each other from day to day, beginning with those boys calling out the baby’s name. Even soldiers served, most of the time, alongside their neighbours, under their local leaders. Of course, ‘who’s who’ would have been less clear in the city centre or the great market at Tlatelolco; but there, even if most people acted modestly, would some not have chuckled privately about nobles or posers passing among them in the crowds?

Pic 11: Follow my leader? Pre-Hispanic figurines, Diego Rivera Anahuacalli Museum, Mexico City
Pic 11: Follow my leader? Pre-Hispanic figurines, Diego Rivera Anahuacalli Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

How much, then, could the Aztecs have ‘forced’ you? The governors tried to control ‘social climbing’ but there were blocks to ambition regardless of Moctezuma’s rules. Nicknames show that everyone had to put up with how their neighbours thought of them.

Compare our own way of life. We do have more careers from which to choose; and we feel few restrictions on how to look. Yet, considering how we adapt all the time to family, to friends, workmates, team-mates, rivals, and every other acquaintance alike, and considering how our own prospects are limited, how free are we ... ?

Helpful reading:-
• Frances F Berdan 2005 The Aztecs of Central Mexico: an Imperial Society (2nd ed.), Chapters 2-4 Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth
• Michael E Smith 2012 The Aztecs (3rd ed.) Chapter 6 Malden: Blackwell

Picture sources:-
• Pix 1, 7, 9 & 10: Images scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro facsimile edition of the Florentine Codex, Madrid, 1994
• Pix 2, 3, 4 & 5: Images scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition of the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford), London, 1938
• Pix 6 & 11: Photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 8: Image scanned from our own copy of Mexico South by Miguel Covarrubias, Cassell & Co., London, n.d.

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Mexicolore replies: You’ve struck gold here, Katia! Yes, most definitely they did. In fact in their philosophy and teachings the Mexica describe part of the role of a teacher, a wise person, as one who ‘makes wise the countenance of others; to them he gives a face (a personality]; he leads them to develop it... He puts a mirror before others, he causes a face (a personality) to appear in them...’ The tlamatini was both teacher and psychologist, a ‘teacher of people’s faces’, and the equivalent of our modern concept of personality was the Náhuatl disfrasismo of ‘face and heart’. You can learn more about this in Miguel León-Portilla’s classic work Aztec Thought and Culture (1963).
Mexicolore replies: You’re right, Olive, sorry about this. We try to have on the site plenty of articles for all ages and abilities. Actually there is a shorter answer to this same question that we added back in March 2011 (look down the menu on the right...)
Mexicolore replies: Good question! There’s little direct evidence of class envy, but of course it must have existed in some form or other. You might glean a little more insight from checking out two other pieces on our website -
• http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/home/aztec-manners
and
• http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/ask-experts/did-the-aztecs-force-you-to-be-who-you-were-1