General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 16 Aug 2018/1 Lizard
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How did lower caste people address the emperor?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Mark Wright: How did lesser caste people address or speak to the emperor? How did they address priests and other lower caste people? (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

The emperor with entourage: detail from a mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City
The emperor with entourage: detail from a mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

We wouldn’t use the term ‘caste’. It suggests complete lack of social mobility, which wasn’t the case with the Aztecs (that’s not to say the Mexica didn’t have a very hierarchical society). To answer this question we enlisted the help of one of our Panel of Experts members, Dr. Anastasia Kalyuta, who kindly provided the following information:-

The standard form of addressing the tlahtoani (ruler), including huey tlahtoani (emperor) was: Tlacatle (Person, but suggesting a very important person indeed), noxhuihtzine (Our dear/venerable grandson), tlahtohuanie (Speaker/Ruler). Note the final vocative ‘-e’. [E.g.: Mexica address to Coxcox, tlahtoani of Culhuacan (Crónica Mexicayotl in Tres crónicas mexicanas. Textos recopilados por Domingo Chimalpahin, paleografía y traducción de Rafael Tena, Mexico: Cien de Mexico:86). Also in Anales de Cuauhtitlan (Codex Chimalpopoca), 1992 eds. and trans. J.Bierhorst, Tucson, University of Arizona Press]. The ill-fated Tzompantecutli addressed Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin as Totecuyo (Your Lordship), a term usually reserved for gods like Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl.

A penitent confesses his sins, or ‘tlatlacolli’, to a priest of Tlazolteotl. Depicting confessed sins as toads and other creatures is a European motif. Florentine Codex Book 6, f. 21v
A penitent confesses his sins, or ‘tlatlacolli’, to a priest of Tlazolteotl. Depicting confessed sins as toads and other creatures is a European motif. Florentine Codex Book 6, f. 21v (Click on image to enlarge)

Motecuhzoma himself used this form of address to Cortés during their first meeting (as recorded in the Florentine Codex, implying that he was the returning Quetzalcoatl). Bernal Díaz in his chronicle claimed that during an audience Motecuhzoma should be addressed three times as: Señor, mi señor, gran señor that is ‘Lord, my lord, great lord’ (Díaz Historia verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva España, Barcelona: Biblioteca Sopena: p. 287). This sounds plausible bearing in mind the repetitive manner of lengthy Nahua speeches, but I haven’t found any confirmation of Bernal’s statement in other sources.

With regard to addressing other commoners in general the situation is complicated because the Nahuas (Aztecs) didn’t have a standard polite form of address like the English Mr. or Ms. Instead they often used kinship terms such as iccauhtli - ‘younger sibling’ (there is no exact equivalent to English brother or sister in Classical Nahuatl) - in polite conversation. However, they also used one’s name with the honorific -tzin as in Cuauhtemotzin for instance. Priests or calpulli (community) elders might be addressed as ‘Our fathers’ - totahuan. The trickiest case is in Sahagun’s Primeros Memoriales where we have all possible forms of address to individuals of various social statuses from commoners to rulers. In this source the ruler’s daughter calls him noconetzin, that is ‘my dear child’ - a case of inverted use of kinship terminology. The son of a nobleman, merchant or craftsman address his mother as noiccauhtzin, ‘my dear younger sibling’. I have some suggestions as to why they used these unusual forms but it deserves a separate article for a scholarly journal...

Picture sources:-
• Mural photo by Evita Sánchez Fernández/Mexicolore
• The Florentine Codex image is from Bernardino de Sahagún, Códice Florentino, the 1979 facsimile edition published by the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana and the Archivo General de la Nación (supplied by and thanks to Louise Burkhart).

‘Pre-Hispanic Nahua Naming Patterns’

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