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Mice: Aztec spies!

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The codex picture above comes from a section on travel by merchants. Can you SPY the chirpy-looking mouse at the bottom of the trader’s travelling staff? You guessed it...
To the superstitious Aztecs or Mexica people, the humble little mouse was bad news. It eats the things humans eat, and ‘it hunts out articles of value, it gnaws, it shreds, it finds its way into places and damages everything...’
The famous Florentine Codex says: ‘Hence also the eavesdropper is also called mouse, because no matter where, he continually enters the house, he hears and acquires the information and inquires into one’s affairs. Hence is said the saying “I mouse him”; that is to say, “I eavesdrop on one”.
Little surprise, maybe, that the mouse became a symbol for the Aztec ’disguised merchant’, basically a spy in the guise of a trader, who brought valuable information on potential new sources of wealth - and how these were defended - to the ruler of the day in Tenochtitlan. But the risks were high: if caught, well, see for yourself (above)...
The ‘mice’ were secret agents, trained to dress and speak like the locals, blending in wherever possible, constantly on the lookout for military intelligence of all kinds. The ‘disguised merchants’, though, at least did SOME trading. If any of them brought back gems of info they were given handsome rewards, from fine cotton capes and gold lip plugs to whole plots of land (where they could play ‘I spy...’)
emoticon The Aztecs wouldn’t RAT on you, but you could get ‘moused’!

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Pochteca merchant, Codex Fejervary Mayer, detail

Mice: Aztec spies!

The Mixtec* Codex Fejérváry-Mayer (also known as the Tonalamatl de los Pochtecas or Merchants’ Almanac) contains an important section on Travel, in several pages of which long-distance traders are depicted. On the right here is one of them. Curiously, there is a chirpy looking rodent at the foot of this merchant’s travelling staff: what does it show? Dr. Matthew McDavitt has kindly drawn our attention to its likely meaning... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Mice: Florentine Codex, Book 11
Pic 1: Mice: Florentine Codex, Book 11 (Click on image to enlarge)

The humble mouse carried rather negative associations to the superstitious Aztecs (learn more from the link below). It represented far more than a simple pest. Book 5 of the Florentine Codex describes a mouse’s presence in Mexica homes as ‘ominous’, and in Book 11 we learn why:-

Its food is maize. It eats ripe ears of maize, it eats chili, gourds, gourd seeds and ‘chía’... it eats chocolate [and] cacao beans. It indeed eats like a human being... Also it hunts out articles of value. It gnaws, it shreds the capes the precious feathers. Whatsoever is guarded as precious, it gnaws all; it damages all. No matter where it is, no matter if it is carefully guarded as precious, no matter how inaccessible the place, it enters, it damages the precious things. Hence also the eavesdropper is also called mouse, because no matter where, he continually enters the house, he hears and acquires the information and inquires into one’s affairs. Hence is said the saying “I mouse him”; that is to say, “I eavesdrop on one.” (Our emphasis).

Pic 2: ‘Eavesdropper’, Codex Mendoza folio 70 (L); sketch of ‘Place-of-eavesdroppers’, Mapa de Cuauhtinchan no. 2 (R)
Pic 2: ‘Eavesdropper’, Codex Mendoza folio 70 (L); sketch of ‘Place-of-eavesdroppers’, Mapa de Cuauhtinchan no. 2 (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

Because of its folklore connection with eavesdropping, it is perhaps little wonder that the mouse - quimichin in Náhuatl - became a symbol for the ‘disguised merchant’ or nahualoztomeca, effectively a spy in the guise of a trader, who was to play a key role in the expansion of the Mexica empire under the ‘Triple Alliance’, bringing valuable information on potential new sources of wealth - and how these were defended - to the ruler of the day in Tenochtitlan. Jacques Soustelle suggests that quimichtin (plural) referred to ‘secret agents’, nicknamed mice ‘because they went about by night or secretly, hiding themselves’ (he quotes Fr. Toribio Motolinía), as distinct from the disguised traders.

Pic 3: The fate of merchant-spies, if caught in enemy territory. Codex Mendoza folio 66r
Pic 3: The fate of merchant-spies, if caught in enemy territory. Codex Mendoza folio 66r (Click on image to enlarge)

The ‘mice’ were formal spies, trained to dress and speak like natives of the target community, blending in wherever possible, constantly on the lookout for military intelligence of all kinds, including possible traitors who could be bribed to act as local informants. The disguised merchants, on the other hand, were a special class of trader-spy, who ‘began as ordinary travellers who were obliged to disguise themselves as natives when entering enemy territories in search of rare goods... the gossip of the markeplaces and the network of commercial contacts yielded vital information to the trader-spies’ (Richard Townsend).
The missions of both these specialist groups were decidedly dangerous ‘...for the people of the [foreign] cities were on their guard. In a country made up of little separate divisions in which everybody was known by his neighbours and in which costume, language and customs differed from one place to another, it was difficult to pass unnoticed; and the detected spy was put to death at once, together with his accomplices... [And some sources say served up with chili sauce!]

Pic 4: Disguised merchants at Tzinacantlan, Florentine Codex Book 9: ‘And no-one at all could tell whether they were perchance Mexicans [Aztecs] when they were anointed with ochre’.
Pic 4: Disguised merchants at Tzinacantlan, Florentine Codex Book 9: ‘And no-one at all could tell whether they were perchance Mexicans [Aztecs] when they were anointed with ochre’. (Click on image to enlarge)

‘But if, on the other hand, the spy came safely home and gave an exact account “of the peculiarities and the weaknesses of the place and of the negligence or vigilance of the people” he was given lands as a reward’ (Jacques Soustelle).

So valuable did the emperor consider trader-spies - indeed merchants of all kinds - that if they were mistreated or killed in a foreign land this was regarded as an attack on the Mexica state and war was declared without hesitation.

Pic 5: Dr. Matthew McDavitt’s interpretation of two related panels from the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer (above) and Codex Borgia (below)
Pic 5: Dr. Matthew McDavitt’s interpretation of two related panels from the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer (above) and Codex Borgia (below) (Click on image to enlarge)

In this context we can go back to the main picture at the top of the page and make more sense of the role of the mouse: the merchant has been speared in an enemy attack, after being suspected of being a quimichin - the high price for such a high-risk career. Merchants of all kinds - the general term for which in Náhuatl was pochteca - faced real hazards on foreign journeys, ‘one of the most expeditious [simple and effective] ways for subjugated peoples to signal disaffection from Mexica domination being to maltreat Mexica merchants’ (Inga Clendinnen). Because of the risks they faced, merchants laid claim to special warrior status, and were rewarded in turn by Aztec emperors with high-value gifts such as particularly fine cotton capes and gold lip-plugs. It seems a safe bet to assume that there was constant resentment towards wealthy merchants among Mexica warriors, and it is a known fact that the pochteca entered and left Tenochtitlan at night in order to draw as little attention to his valuable cargo as possible. In Clendinnen’s words ‘Merchants knew to tread softly in the streets of Tenochtitlan’.

Pic 6: Place-glyphs for the town of Quimichtepec (‘Hill-of-mice’) from (top) Codex Mendoza folio 16r and (bottom) Codex Telleriano-Remensis folio 42v
Pic 6: Place-glyphs for the town of Quimichtepec (‘Hill-of-mice’) from (top) Codex Mendoza folio 16r and (bottom) Codex Telleriano-Remensis folio 42v (Click on image to enlarge)

Mexica lives were regularly influenced by auguries (predictions, omens, prophecies...) and superstitions of all kinds, and the merchant community was no exception: if at all possible merchant caravans set off from Tenochtitlan on dates known to be lucky for their trade, such as 1-Snake, and returned on similarly fortuitous days such as 1-House and 7-House. What’s more ‘On the day before setting out, both the pochteca and those relatives who were to be left behind washed their heads and cut their hair - a thing they would not do again until the travellers had returned safely’ (Warwick Bray).

Whether it’s coincidence or not, at least two towns - Quimichtépec (‘Hill-of-mice’ or ‘Hill-of-the-rodent’) and Quimichtlan (‘Place-of-mice’ or ‘Place-of-eavesdroppers’) feature in several codices - see Pic 2 and Pic 6. They were of course well known among local families as great places for playing I Spy...

Special thanks to Dr. Matthew McDavitt for drawing our attention to this.
*NOTE: Though the Mixtec were not Náhuatl speakers, experts don’t all agree where exactly the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer comes from, and in any case, the “mouse” nickname probably appeared in the languages of the other peoples visited by the Aztec pochteca.

Picture sources:-
• Image from the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1971
• Images from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Images from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark 1938 facsimile edition, London
• Image from the Mapa de Cuauhtinchan reproduced with kind permission of Keiko Yoneda, from Keiko Yoneda, Mapa de Cuauhtinchan núm. 2. México: Miguel Angel Porrúa-CIESAS, 2005.
• Image from the Codex Telleriano-Remensis scanned from our own copy of the facsimile edition by Eloise Quiñones Keber, University of Texas Press, 1995
• Pic 5: courtesy of Dr. Matthew McDavitt

Quoted info sources:-
Daily Life of the Aztecs by Jacques Soustelle (Stanford University Press, 1961)
Aztecs by Inga Clendinnen (Cambridge University Press, 1991)
Everyday Life of the Aztecs by Warwick Bray (Dorset Press, 1987)
The Aztecs by Richard F. Townsend (Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2000).

emoticon Q. What did Aztec parents encourage children to do on seeing a mouse?
A. ‘Whatever you do, don’t ignaw it’...

Ants, frogs and mice and the bad luck they brought Aztec households

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