General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Sep 2017/9 Jaguar
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Article suitable for older students

Can you tell us anything about the Aztec God of Good Health?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Lisa McConville: I am a Volunteer helping with a Yr6 project on the Aztec God of Good Health, unfortunately I can’t seem to find information on this particular God. I was wondering if you could give me any information? (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Toci, Codex Telleriano-Remensis, folio 3r
Toci, Codex Telleriano-Remensis, folio 3r (Click on image to enlarge)

We’re not sure where your information came from, but the closest the Aztecs came to a god of good health would most likely be Toci (‘Our Grandmother’). An age-old earth goddess and patron of midwives and healers, Toci was associated with the traditional temazcalli or sweat bath and is often identified with Tlazolteotl, goddess of purification and healing.

Toci as Tlazolteotl on the front of a ‘temazcalli’ sweat-house, Codex Magliabecchiano
Toci as Tlazolteotl on the front of a ‘temazcalli’ sweat-house, Codex Magliabecchiano (Click on image to enlarge)

Of course it’s never that simple, as every Aztec deity has many different associations or ‘faces’ - often opposite ones - and Toci had a connection with war as well, which you wouldn’t expect (notice she bears a shield and arrows in one hand). According to the Florentine Codex (Book 1) she had other names too, including Teteo Innan (‘Mother of the gods’) and Tlalli yiollo (‘Heart of the Earth’). Wearing her ‘hat’ as Tlazolteotl, according to the Florentine Codex,

...owners of sweat-houses prayed to her; wherefore they caused her image to be placed in the front of the sweat-house. They called her ‘Grandmother of the Baths’.

Toci as Teteo Innan, Florentine Codex Book I
Toci as Teteo Innan, Florentine Codex Book I (Click on image to enlarge)

The major festival dedicated to Toci was the harvest rite performed during the veintena (20-day calendar period) of Ochpaniztli (‘the month that one sweeps...’). Her connection with cleanliness is obvious from the fact that she is often shown carrying a broom or bundle of reeds in one hand (such bundles were used to clean the individual’s body in the sweat-bath). This emphasis on sweeping away dirt - and in so doing, evil - was at the heart of this festival, during which women basically went potty sweeping everything in front of them, especially homes and roads. This was very much a women-led festival, the whole ‘feast’ was directed by a woman and many priestesses impersonated earth and maize goddesses and ministered to the common people throughout the veintena.

Pottery whistle figure of woman and child - believed to be linked to an earth deity - Classic Veracruz culture, British Museum (Mexico Gallery)
Pottery whistle figure of woman and child - believed to be linked to an earth deity - Classic Veracruz culture, British Museum (Mexico Gallery) (Click on image to enlarge)

You can usually identify her thanks to the painted black mouth (and black spot in her cheek), the cotton spindles in her headdress, the bunch of reeds and the shield and arrows she carries. Why the connection with spinning? Spinning and weaving represent the circular movement of life, death and re-birth. Thelma Sullivan has written that ‘spinning goes through stages of growth and decline, waxing and waning, similar to those of a child-bearing woman. The spindle set in the spindle whorl is symbolic of coitus, and the thread, as it winds around the spindle, symbolizes the growing foetus, the woman becoming big with child.’ (Teachers, good luck explaining this to your pupils...!)

Cleanliness, the mothering female force, curing and good health, fertility, the earth, maize... all of these themes - and more - are linked to the Great Mother Goddess, of central importance in ancient Mesoamerica. As Henry Nicholson (to many the father of research on the Aztecs) wrote ‘of the many deities portrayed by the surviving stone images, more probably represent the fertility goddess than any other single supernatural’.

Recommended further reading (for grown-ups!):-
The Flayed God - The Mythology of Mesoamerica - by R. H. and P. T. Markman, Harper Collins, New York, 1992

Picture sources:-
• Image from the Codex Telleriano-Remensis scanned from our copy of the facsimile edition by Eloise Quiñones Keber, University of Texas Press, 1995
• Codex Magliabecchiano image scanned from our copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1970
• Florentine Codex image scanned from our copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Mother-and-child figurine: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore

Learn more about the Aztec steam bath

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