General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 22 Sep 2017/11 Vulture
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Professor Susan D. Gillespie

Question for November 2012

Did the Aztecs work at night? Asked by Icknield Primary School. Chosen and answered by Professor Susan D. Gillespie.

Pic 1: Aztec soldiers (left) scouting at night. Codex Mendoza, folio 67r (detail)
Pic 1: Aztec soldiers (left) scouting at night. Codex Mendoza, folio 67r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

In Aztec belief, the best place for most persons to be during the night-time hours was safe in their own houses. There was no means of portable artificial illumination except pine torches, and certain dangerous spirits were believed to lurk at cross-roads and other places, ready to cause harm to anyone out and about at night for no good reason. However, certain occupations required people to work at night. These included warriors on certain occasions. We see such an instance in the Codex Mendoza (fol. 67r - pic 1), when the Aztec emperor has sent some experienced soldiers to scout an enemy town during the dark of night, while the people are asleep. The Aztec soldiers plan to sneak in to determine how they can best attack the town. However, the enemy town has posted its own soldiers as sentries to guard the town, and they are shown preparing to sound the alarm for their own people with a great shell trumpet.

Pic 2: Nightly duties for Aztec priests. Codex Mendoza, folio 63r (detail)
Pic 2: Nightly duties for Aztec priests. Codex Mendoza, folio 63r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

The most important night-time occupation was that of the priest. Again, visual information comes from the Codex Mendoza (fol. 63r - pic 2). The priests would engage in night-time penances, or acts of piety and devotion to their gods. They were required to burn incense and to prick their skin in self-sacrifice at regular intervals during the night as well as during the day. Some of them kept the great fires burning in vessels atop the temples throughout the night. Others went to shrines on the summits of mountains and other places to make offerings to the gods. Some priests played their musical instruments, such as the split-log drum, as a religious observance. Finally, there were the priest-astronomers, who watched the movements of the stars at night to mark the hours of the night and the changing of the seasons of the year.

Pic 3: Aztec wedding ceremony procession at night. Codex Mendoza, folio 61r (detail)
Pic 3: Aztec wedding ceremony procession at night. Codex Mendoza, folio 61r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

On some occasions, religious rites were held at night in which many people, not just the priests, participated. The most well known of these occasions is the lighting of the New Fire every 52 years. The great ceremony was held in the darkness of night. The priests looked at the night sky for the rising of the constellation Pleiades to tell them when to conduct the sacrifice that would create the new fire.

Pic 4: An Aztec mother makes her daughter sweep the house as a punishment during the night. Codex Mendoza, folio 60r (detail)
Pic 4: An Aztec mother makes her daughter sweep the house as a punishment during the night. Codex Mendoza, folio 60r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Other night-time activities that are shown in the Codex Mendoza include the wedding ceremony, when the bride is taken to the home of the groom, where the wedding will take place (fol. 61r - pic 3). She goes there just after dark, accompanied by friends who are holding pine-torches to light her way. A less pleasant example of a girl having to get up at night is shown in the Codex on folio 60r (pic 4). There a 12 year old girl is depicted sweeping her house and her street while the stars shine. As a punishment for disobedience, she was made to get up early in the morning, before the sun rose, to do the household sweeping.

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

Learn about the Aztec New Fire Ceremony

Professor Susan D. Gillespie has answered 3 questions altogether:

Did the Aztecs work at night?

If warriors turned into butterflies in the afterlife, what did ordinary people turn into?

Have any ancient rubber balls been found?

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