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General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 26 Mar 2017/13 Vulture
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Aztec style birthing figure, Dumbarton Oaks

Giving birth was one big battle

‘The magnificent squatting image of the Mexica goddess of childbirth, naked, solitary in the ecstasy of total effort, does not represent a woman in “labour”. Here we look upon the face of battle. If men challenged the death anguish on the jaguar meadow of war, women confronted it on the bloody field of childbirth...’ (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Lady Five Flint, with her serpent emblem floating behind her, gives birth to an heir, still attached by the umbilical cord; Codex Zouche-Nuttall, folio 16 (detail)
Lady Five Flint, with her serpent emblem floating behind her, gives birth to an heir, still attached by the umbilical cord; Codex Zouche-Nuttall, folio 16 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

This quote comes from Aztecs by Ingla Clendinnen, who goes on to emphasize that for the Mexica women struggling to give birth felt ‘possessed’ by some great outside presence, in the same way that men in battle were overwhelmed by the force of Huitzilopochtli. This metaphor of war goes on: ‘for those who emerged victorious from the struggle... the midwife greeted the newly delivered child, the little “captive”, with war-cries, while praising the panting mother for her warrior’s courage.’
The midwife - every pregnant Mexica woman was assigned one - welcomed the new mother as if she had just returned from a major battle, with these words (from the Florentine Codex):-
My beloved maiden, brave woman ... thou hast become as an eagle warrior, thou has become as an ocelot [jaguar] warrior; thou hast raised up, thou hast taken to the shield, the small shield. ... Thou hast returned exhausted from battle, my beloved maiden, my brave woman; be welcome.

A ciihuateotl figure, in the underworld. Detail from a mural by R. Anguiano, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico
A ciihuateotl figure, in the underworld. Detail from a mural by R. Anguiano, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico  (Click on image to enlarge)

So special to the Aztecs was the act of childbirth that if, sadly, a woman were to die in childbirth, she became a companion of the Sun, rising to one of the highest heavens - the same one as for male warriors who died in battle - and joined the honoured women who carried the Sun down from its noon high point to set finally on the horizon.
’In warfare and in childbirth, therefore, men and women found honour, ascending to join the Sun in its triumphal march across the sky’ (Caroline Dodds Pennock).
There was a fierce downside to this too: these women could return to earth to haunt humans at crossroads during the night, in the form of greatly feared cihuateteo spirits (‘divine women’): they stole children, caused sickness and led men astray. As we see time and time again with the Mexica, humans and deities were saddled with both gentle and fierce sides to their nature...

Info from:-
Aztecs by Inga Clendinnen, Cambridge University Press, 1991
Bonds of Blood by Caroline Dodds Pennock, Palgrave Macmillian, 2008.

Picture sources:-
• Main image: photo courtesy and © Dumbarton Oaks, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC
• Image from the Codex Zouche-Nuttall (original in the British Museum) scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition (Graz, Austria, 1987).

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 26th 2013

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