You need Adobe Flash Player to view this content.
Click here to download Adobe Flash Player
General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 27 Feb 2017/12 Water
Text Size:

Screen with scenes from the conquest of Mexico - Aztec musicians and dancers in a canoe

Click to see the latest Artefact in the Spotlight!

link of the month button
Watch a short video on one of the most iconic of Aztec artefacts - the Mexica headdress in Vienna
Link to page about the Maya Calendar
Today's Maya date is: 13.0.4.4.9 - 1530 days into the new cycle!
Link to page of interest to teachers
Click to find out how we can help you!

Professor Felipe Fernández-Armesto

What did the Spanish do after the native population collapsed [in the century after the Conquest]? asked Crosshall Junior School. Read what Professor Felipe Fernández-Armesto had to say.

Search the Site (type in white box):

Click to see Tec's summary for kids Article more suitable for mature students

Molly Bassett

Aztec Concepts of the Human Body (1)

Part I: Birth & Destiny. This is the first part in a planned trilogy on Aztec concepts of the human body kindly written specially for us by Molly Bassett, doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, USA.

Midwife and patient, Florentine Codex, Chapter VI
Midwife and patient, Florentine Codex, Chapter VI (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztecs’ understandings of their bodies – and their destinies in life – began with pregnancy and birth. Even before a child was born, her or his mother followed a midwife’s advice. For example, Aztec midwives cautioned pregnant women against chewing chicle (a gum-like substance) because it could adversely affect the baby’s ability to suckle (Florentine Codex, Chapter 6:156). Additionally, midwives suggested that pregnant women not fast during religious observances because, “it would cause the baby to starve” (FC 6:156). Midwives and mothers understood that “what the mother drank, what she ate, that also the baby absorbed; it took [substance] from her” (FC 6:156). Midwives and mothers believed that by following these cultural traditions and others, they could ensure a successful birth and a healthy baby.

Mother, child and soothsayer, Florentine Codex, Chapter VI
Mother, child and soothsayer, Florentine Codex, Chapter VI (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec ‘pipiltin’ (nobles) and ‘macehualli’ (commoners) believed that their bodies and their destinies were fundamentally connected to the day on which they were born and the rituals midwives performed on that day. The day on which a woman gave birth was an exceptional day for her and for her child, because the Aztecs likened the honorable fight a woman in labor to a warrior on the battlefield:-

"When the pregnant one already became aware of labor pains, when it was said her moment of death had come to pass, when already she wished to give birth, they quickly bathed her . . . And when the baby had arrived on earth, then the midwife shouted; she gave war cries, which meant that the little woman had fought a good battle, had become a brave warrior, had taken a captive, had captured a baby." (FC 6:167)

Birth of a boy, Florentine Codex, Chapter VI; notice the miniature shield and arrows set, bottom left
Birth of a boy, Florentine Codex, Chapter VI; notice the miniature shield and arrows set, bottom left (Click on image to enlarge)

Immediately the midwife (or in the case of noblewomen, midwives) performed an important ritual related to the baby’s destiny: she cut the umbilical cord, a powerful reminder of the child’s physical connection to its mother and source of life. If the baby was a girl, she buried the umbilical cord near the home’s hearth, and if it was a boy, it was placed in a battlefield. The midwife held the baby, and according to its sex, she narrated its future. Male infants heard about futures of warfare and religious obligations: “Thou belongest out there; out there where thou has been consecrated. Thou hast been sent into warfare. War is thy desert, thy task. Thou shalt give drink, nourishment, food to (Tonatiuh) the sun, (Tlaltecuhtli) the lord of the earth” (FC 6:171). Midwives told female infants about futures spent in domestic pursuits: “Thou wilt become the heart of the home . . . And thou wilt become fatigued, thou wilt become tired; thou art to provide water, to grind maize, to drudge; thou art to sweat by the ashes, by the hearth” (FC 6:172). From an Aztec’s birthday, he or she was intimately connected to his or her future.

Symbolic birth gifts for an Aztec girl (top, Florentine Codex, Chapter VI), and for boy and girl (bottom)
Symbolic birth gifts for an Aztec girl (top, Florentine Codex, Chapter VI), and for boy and girl (bottom) (Click on image to enlarge)

In addition to these rituals, the day on which an Aztec was born strongly influenced her or his destiny. The Aztecs followed two calendars, a solar calendar and a ritual calendar (‘tonalpohualli’) concurrently, and the ritual calendar, which lasted 260 days and was composed of twenty months with thirteen days each, gave each Aztec a personal day-sign. Several codices contain birth almanacs, or guides to the significance of birthday day-signs. In Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate, Elizabeth Hill Boone explains that the birth almanacs were arranged in sets of scenes that depict the four important aspects of birth:-

“the birth itself, the presentation of the child, the manipulation (cutting?) of the umbilical cord, and nursing” (140).

Multi-layered links between animals, humans and calendar signs, Codex Borgia, folio 53
Multi-layered links between animals, humans and calendar signs, Codex Borgia, folio 53 (Click on image to enlarge)

A sequence of deities accompanies the child through these events and oversees each activity. One example follows a path associated with the day-signs Crocodile (‘cipactli’), Wind (‘ehecatl’), House (‘calli’) and Lizard (‘cuetzpalin’):-

For anyone born on one of the first four day signs (Crocodile, Wind, House, Lizard), the maize/flower/solar lords Centeotl or Xochipilli would control the birth, Xochiquetzal or Centeotl would present the child, Macuilxochitl or Xochipilli would manipulate the umbilical cord, and Mayahuel would suckle the child. A theme of vegetation and abundance thus governs the birth process for those fortunate to have these day signs. (Boone 141).

While these day-signs were favorable, others were less so. Day-signs Water (‘atl’), Dog (‘itzcuintli’), Monkey (‘ozomatli’) and Grass (‘malinalli’) involved deities associated with ritual sacrifice and death, and these day-signs would have fated a difficult birth and life (Boone 141).

Human body form with calendar sign associations, Codex Vaticanus A/Ríos, folio 54r
Human body form with calendar sign associations, Codex Vaticanus A/Ríos, folio 54r (Click on image to enlarge)

In addition to birth rituals and the fortune of birthday day-signs, Aztecs bodies also contained three forces that controlled an individual’s vigor, vitality and passions. The Aztecs associated each of these forces with a particular organ. ‘Tonalli’ derives from ‘tona’, a word that means “heat” and is associated with the sun, the sun’s warmth, and individual destinies. The tonalli was located in the head, and the Aztecs believed that creator deities placed the tonalli in an individual’s body before birth. This vital force regulated a person’s growth, body temperature and liveliness, and each person’s tonalli differed according to his or her status, age, and experience. Interestingly, tonalli could leave the body through dreams, ritual hallucinogenic experiences, or fright. At death, the tonalli continued to reside in the individual’s earthly remains.

Colour illustration by Phillip Mursell
Colour illustration by Phillip Mursell (Click on image to enlarge)

The ‘teyolia’ (from ‘yollotl’, heart) resided in the heart and was the seat of a person’s knowledge and vitality. In contrast to tonalli, teyolia separated from the body at the time of death and continued into the individual’s afterlife. The posthumous destiny of teyolia depended upon the type of death a person suffered. The third vital force, ‘ihiyotl’ (breath) controlled an individual’s emotions, desires and passions. Of the three forces, ihiyotl is the most mysterious. Perhaps its mystery stems from a lack of ethnohistoric descriptions of its significance and functions, but ihiyotl seems to have been visualized as “a luminous gas that had qualities of influencing other beings, in particular attracting them toward the person” (López Austin 234). These three vital forces and their connections with body organs characterize the ways in which Aztec understandings of the body interwove physiological and cosmological concepts.

Consultation with a midwife, Florentine Codex, Chapter VI
Consultation with a midwife, Florentine Codex, Chapter VI (Click on image to enlarge)

Molly Bassett is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her dissertation examines the Aztec concepts ‘teteo’ (traditionally “gods”) and ‘teixiptlahuan’ “impersonators or representatives” and revisits Mesoamericanist (re)constructions of the Aztec “pantheon” in light of female deity collectives, such as the ‘cihuateteo’, ‘tzitzimime’ and ‘tlazolteteo’. Her general interests include deities and deification, death and the afterlife. She can be reached at mbassett@umail.ucsb.edu

Bibliography
• Boone, Elizabeth Hill. Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Faith. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007.
• Furst, Jill L. The Natural History of the Soul in Ancient Mexico. New Haven: Yale UP, 1995.
• López Austin, Alfredo. The Human Body and Ideology. Thelma Ortiz de Montellano and Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano, trans. 2 vols. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988.
• Ortiz de Montellano, Bernard R. “Human Body,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures. Davíd Carrasco, ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006.

Illustrations
• 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
• Symbolic birth gifts: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Codex Borgia image scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1976
• Codex Vaticanus 3738 ‘A’ (aka Codex Ríos) image scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1979
• 3-souls illustration by Phillip Mursell/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Mar 22nd 2008

Feedback button

Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: In the case of the tonalli the connection is strong and clear. In Molina’s ‘Vocabulario en Lengua Castellana y Mexicana’ (1571) the word means both ‘soul’ and birth (calendar) ‘sign’. You need only to consult Book IV of the Florentine Codex to find plenty of examples of destinies (tonalli) associated with particular day signs. In the other two cases, information is much scarcer. We recommend you read, as a starter for all this, Jill Furst’s excellent book ‘The Natural History of the Soul in Ancient Mexico’ (1995). If we can get further, expert, help on this, we will...!
Mexicolore replies: ...A tí, Ivonne, por esta referencia, por cierto muy buena.
Mexicolore replies: You’re right of course, Rose. This is a huge area and the present article is only an introduction to the topic. We do have a little more information on the influence of the other day signs in our ‘Daysign Destinies!’ page, in the Aztec Calendar section. Here’s the link -
http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/calendar/daysign-destinies
Mexicolore replies: Thanks for this, Ann - it’s great to be of service in this way.