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Professor Elizabeth Brumfiel, Mexicolore contributor

Aztec Women: Capable Partners and Cosmic Enemies

Elizabeth M. Brumfiel, Professor of Anthropology at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois (USA), has generously written this article for us on the paradoxical position of women in Mexica (Aztec) society - an abridged version of the chapter with the same title from The Aztec World, edited by Elizabeth Brumfiel and Gary M. Feinman (Abrams, New York, 2008). Very sadly, Professor Brumfiel died of cancer on January 1st. 2012; we feel deeply honoured and grateful that she contributed the following article to Mexicolore just weeks before her death, in failing health...

Pic 1: A commoner Aztec woman, stone statue, American Museum of Natural History, New York (cat. no. 30.1/1201)
Pic 1: A commoner Aztec woman, stone statue, American Museum of Natural History, New York (cat. no. 30.1/1201) (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec women faced contradictory conditions. On the one hand, much of their social environment was based on the principle of gender complementarity, which defined female and male as distinctive but equal and interdependent parts of a larger productive whole. On the other hand, they were increasingly subject to an ideology of gender hierarchy sponsored by the Aztec state. This ideology glorified male warriors and portrayed women as agents of cosmic disorder and enemies destined for conquest (Picture 1).
Sixteenth-century documents indicate that gender equality prevailed in many areas of Aztec life. Aztec men and women regarded themselves as equally related to their mother’s and their father’s families. Men and women could both own houses, land, and moveable property, and they inherited these assets equally. Men and women had parallel positions of public authority in the market, in young men’s and young women’s houses, and in temples. Market women and noble women were not impoverished; in fact, they controlled substantial wealth. The Aztecs said that a woman born on the lucky day 7 Monkey “would be very rich. She would produce well, make her wares well, and bargain astutely.... Not failing or diminishing, her dealings... would turn out well” (The Florentine Codex Book 4).

Pic 2: A father teaches his son to fish; a mother teaches her daughter to weave. Codex Mendoza, folio 60r.
Pic 2: A father teaches his son to fish; a mother teaches her daughter to weave. Codex Mendoza, folio 60r. (Click on image to enlarge)

But Aztec women also were assigned an inferior status, particularly in the art, ritual, and mythology sponsored by the rulers of the Aztec state. The state depicted women as the instigators of conflict and cosmic disorder, destined for defeat at the hands of more powerful Aztec warriors.

Gender Complementarity
Gender complementarity was a fundamental precept of Aztec religion. It was understood that the birth of all living things, especially human beings and agricultural crops, required complementary male and female contributions. Human life required sexual intercourse between a husband and wife; agricultural fertility required that a moist, dark, female earth be charged with the heat and energy of a male sun. Prior to anything else in the cosmos, there were two primordial gods, Ometecuhtli (Lord of Duality) and Omecihuatl (Lady of Duality).
Gender complementarity also emphasized the equivalence and interdependence of men and women in economic and social life. In Aztec households, men and women were assigned different duties with the understanding that both sets of activities were necessary for the success of the family. Male activities generally occurred outside the house: farming, fishing, long-distance trading, and making war. Female activities were mostly connected with the house and its associated courtyard: sweeping, cooking, and weaving. Interestingly, childcare was not considered a particularly female activity. Women were responsible for educating their daughters, and men were responsible for training their sons (Picture 2).

Pic 3: A ceramic spindle whorl lies near the hand of an Aztec woman, placed there at her death in Xaltocan, Mexico
Pic 3: A ceramic spindle whorl lies near the hand of an Aztec woman, placed there at her death in Xaltocan, Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

Men and women’s economic roles were marked at birth. In the ceremony for the newborn infant, a baby girl was presented with the implements for her future female labor: a broom, a reed basket containing unspun fiber, a spindle for spinning thread, and a small bowl to support the spindle. Baby boys were also given the things that they would use as adults: the tools of a craftsman or the shield and arrows of a warrior. In accordance with the different roles expected of men and women, the umbilical cord of a newborn boy was given to a warrior to bury in some distant battlefield. The umbilical cord of a newborn girl was buried inside the house, beside the grinding stone and the hearth, where a woman would spend many hours each day, grinding maize and making tortillas (Picture 3).

Pic 4: ‘Con las manos en la masa...’: kneading dough for tortillas, Michoacán, Mexico, 1980s
Pic 4: ‘Con las manos en la masa...’: kneading dough for tortillas, Michoacán, Mexico, 1980s (Click on image to enlarge)

Women in the Aztec Economy
Primary among a woman’s domestic duties was providing food and clothing to her family. Women spent long hours transforming dried maize into nutritious foods. They combined maize kernels with water and mineral lime, brought the mixture to a boil, and allowed it to cool overnight. This softened the maize, loosened the hulls from the kernels, and enriched the diet by releasing the niacin (vitamin B12) in the maize and adding calcium to the food. Women ground the treated maize to a fine dough, increasing the digestibility of the maize and therefore the food energy that the maize provided to the body. The dough was patted into thin cakes (tortillas) and cooked on a ceramic griddle, or it was mixed with water and boiled to make a thin gruel (atole), or it was wrapped in corn husks and steamed to make maize dumplings (tamales). These maize dishes were flavored with many different sauces using mixtures of beans, tomatoes, avocados, tomatillos, chili, squash, diced cactus pads (spines removed!), wild greens, mushrooms, ground squash seeds, waterfowl, fish, rabbits, gophers, frogs, tadpoles, turkeys and dogs. The sauces contributed protein and vitamins A and C to the diet. Preparing these foods was time-consuming. In twentieth-century Mexico, a woman using a stone mano and metate required about six hours a day grinding enough maize to supply her family’s daily meals (Picture 4).

Pic 5: Ceramic spindle whorls with sun and flower motifs from Xaltocan, Mexico
Pic 5: Ceramic spindle whorls with sun and flower motifs from Xaltocan, Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec women also wove cloth. They worked with two different fibers. One was ichtli fiber extracted from the leaves of the maguey plant. Maguey was a local plant, well suited to the thin soils, seasonal droughts, and frequent frosts in the Basin of Mexico. The maguey leaves were cut, soaked, and scraped to separate the flesh of the leaf from the fiber. The fiber was then washed and spun into thread using a spindle weighted with a ceramic spindle whorl (Picture 5).
Cotton was the other fiber used for cloth. It could not be grown in high mountain valleys like the Basin of Mexico; it was brought by trade or tribute from nearby temperate regions or more distant lowlands.
Both fibers were woven into cloth using a back strap loom. Back strap looms were little more than sets of sticks used to hold and manipulate warp threads during weaving. A belt connecting the loom to the weaver allowed the weaver to tighten and relax the warp threads as needed. Using these looms, Aztec women produced textiles with complex gauze and brocade designs. Embroidered or painted designs could be added after the cloth had been completed. Many designs had complex symbolic meanings which enhanced the value of the cloth. The looms produced rectangular pieces of cloth that could serve as capes and loincloths for men and skirts and over blouses for the women with little further tailoring.

Pic 6: Chile seller in an Aztec market. The baskets of wares behind this seller suggest that she is a specialized retailer and not just a vender of her own produce. Florentine Codex Bk. 10
Pic 6: Chile seller in an Aztec market. The baskets of wares behind this seller suggest that she is a specialized retailer and not just a vender of her own produce. Florentine Codex Bk. 10 (Click on image to enlarge)

Sixteenth-century documents show that Aztec women were also vendors and merchants in local and regional markets where they sold a range of goods: farm produce, wild herbs, salt, torches, firewood, prepared foods, and textiles (Picture 6). Some merchant women became wealthy. Women, along with men, served as marketplace administrators. As administrators, they were responsible for seeing that goods were sold at fair prices and for assigning assessments of tribute and war provisions to vendors on behalf of the ruler. War provisions consisted of finely ground toasted maize and chía seeds (pinolli), dried maize dough, and toasted tortillas. When war was declared, women prepared these foods to support the army as it marched to battle.

Pic 7: An Aztec sweat bath, presided over by Tlazolteotl, the goddess of purification and curing.  Her mouth is smeared with the filth of sins consumed during confessions. Codex Magliabechiano folio 77r
Pic 7: An Aztec sweat bath, presided over by Tlazolteotl, the goddess of purification and curing. Her mouth is smeared with the filth of sins consumed during confessions. Codex Magliabechiano folio 77r (Click on image to enlarge)

Women were also healers and midwives. They treated disease and promoted childbirth with herbal medicines, massage therapy, and sweat bath treatments. Biochemist Bernard Ortiz de Montellano has analyzed the pharmacological effectiveness of many of the plants that Aztec women used as medicine. He concludes that 85% of them produced the physiological effects sought by Aztec curers. Sixty-percent would be considered effective treatments according to Western bio-medical standards.
Both men and women visited sweat baths to cure disease, but sweat baths were particularly associated with women (Picture 7). Women received regular sweat baths before and after childbirth to ensure successful reproduction. Sweat baths were dark, warm, moist enclosures that like women’s wombs nurtured the proper maturation of the fetus. Wombs were regarded as analogous to jars, earth ovens, kilns, sweat baths, and caves in that they were all dark, moist containers which, when heated (by the sun, by fire, or by the male role in sexual intercourse), could transform raw materials into finished products such as children, steamed tamales, roasted meat and maguey hearts, fired ceramic pots, charcoal, and slaked lime. Women, then, were associated with the generative power of the dark, moist, fertile earth.

Pic 8: A diviner determines the prognosis of an illness by casting maize kernels. Codex Magliabechiano folio 78r
Pic 8: A diviner determines the prognosis of an illness by casting maize kernels. Codex Magliabechiano folio 78r (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec healers analyzed the causes and the prognosis of illnesses through various types of divination (Picture 8). In Mesoamerica today, the proper interpretation of divination requires dialogue between the client and the diviner. The client supplies information on his or her personal affairs and the diviner uses this knowledge to translate the divination into wise answers and useful advice. Thus, divination, like psychological counseling, may have provided the client with advice on family affairs and inter-household relationships and improved the client’s ability to manage these affairs productively.

Pic 9: An Aztec ‘xicolli’ - a rare item of original clothing, found as part of Ofrenda 102, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
Pic 9: An Aztec ‘xicolli’ - a rare item of original clothing, found as part of Ofrenda 102, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

The food, clothing and health care provided by women were essential to the success of both Aztec families and the empire. Food, clothing and curing enhanced human survival and made possible population growth. The population of the Valley of Mexico increased ten-fold in the centuries leading up to the Aztec empire, and this dense population made it possible to assemble a large labor force to construct raised chinampa fields in the southern Basin of Mexico which supplied food to the urban population of Tenochtitlan. Dense populations also enabled Aztec rulers to field large armies, able to defeat enemy forces and insure the success of the Aztec tribute-based economy.
In addition, the cloth woven by Aztec women was an important means of organizing economic and political relations in Aztec society. The Aztec tribute lists indicate that the empire was financed by the more than 240,000 pieces of cloth collected in tribute by the Aztec Empire annually. The Aztec emperor redistributed this cloth to government officials, priests, craft specialists, warriors, and other faithful servants of the state, ensuring their loyalty (Picture 9). Women’s work had an impact far beyond their homes.

Pic 10: The earth goddess Cihuacoatl/Coatlicue, stone statue, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 10: The earth goddess Cihuacoatl/Coatlicue, stone statue, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Women and Religion
Female deities controlled many of the elements that sustained human life. Perhaps the most powerful, Cihuacoatl/Coatlicue, the earth goddess, was paradoxically a goddess of both life and death (Picture 10). As the earth, Cihuacoatl gave birth each morning to the sun, the source of energy for all living things, but Cihuacoatl also devoured the sun each night, marking its death. The earth was the dark repository of dead bodies, but rotting flesh and dry bone within the earth created a rich humus that nurtured further life.
Four goddesses provided the staples of commoner existence: Chalchiuhtlicue, the goddess of lakes and rivers, Chicomecoatl, the maize goddess, Mayahuel, the maguey goddess, and Huixtocihuatl, the goddess of salt. These goddesses were particularly venerated by commoners, who were fishermen, farmers, and salt makers (Pictures 11 and 12).

Pic 11: (left) Chalchiuhtlicue, the goddess of lakes and rivers, stone statue, British Museum; (right) Chicomecoatl, the goddess of maize, stone statue, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 11: (left) Chalchiuhtlicue, the goddess of lakes and rivers, stone statue, British Museum; (right) Chicomecoatl, the goddess of maize, stone statue, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Teteo innan/Toci, the goddess of healing, was also worshipped by commoners, who gathered the herbal remedies gathered from the fields and forests. She was the patron of healers, midwives, and diviners. Xochiquetzal, the goddess of sensuality, feasting, fine craftsmanship and sexual pleasure (Figure 11), was the patron of weavers, embroiderers, silversmiths, and sculptors. These goddesses stand in contrast with the male gods who were the focus of state religion: Huitzilopochtli, Tlaloc, Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl, and Xipe Totec.
Aztec women worshipped both the gods and goddesses. In their homes, women saw that the proper offerings were made to gods and goddesses at the household altar: they urged their sons and daughters to rise early, offer the gods food and incense at household altars, and sweep the house, an act of ritual purification. Archaeologists have found small ceramic figurines in Aztec houses which may have served as god figures on household altars. In rural Aztec houses, there are as many as three female figurines for each male figurine, suggesting that household rituals were primarily concerned with subsistence production and health, which were under control of Aztec goddesses.

Pic 12: (left) Mayahuel, the goddess of the maguey and pulque emerges from a maguey plant, Codex  Fejérváry-Mayer, p. 28; (right) Huixtocihuatl, the goddess of salt, Primeros Memoriales folio 264r
Pic 12: (left) Mayahuel, the goddess of the maguey and pulque emerges from a maguey plant, Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, p. 28; (right) Huixtocihuatl, the goddess of salt, Primeros Memoriales folio 264r (Click on image to enlarge)

Following the principle of gender complementarity, temples were staffed by both male and female priests. Some girls in their infancy were dedicated to serve in the temples by their parents. When these girls were older, they entered into religious service. Most stayed for only a year or two and then left to marry, but a few women continued as priestesses for their entire lives. These older priestesses supervised the younger women just entering service. At household altars and in state temples, then, the religious acts of Aztec women honored the gods and helped to maintain cosmic order.

Women and the Aztec State
Despite the many areas of gender equality in Aztec culture, gender hierarchy was emphasized in the mythology, ritual, and art sponsored by the Aztec state. One myth, in particular, the story of the birth of the Aztecs’ patron deity, Huitzilopochtli, emphasized that powerful women were enemies of the Aztec people, destined for defeat.

Pic 13: Ceramic figurines representing Xochiquetzal, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 13: Ceramic figurines representing Xochiquetzal, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Huitzilopochtli was conceived while his earth-goddess mother performed religious service at a shrine at the top of Snake Mountain. Because the goddess’ pregnancy shamed her daughter, the moon, and her other children, the stars, they decided to kill her. But as they reached the summit of Snake Mountain, Huitzilopochti leapt from his mother’s womb fully armed. He attacked his sister and her dismembered body fell to the base of the mountain (Picture 14). Huitzilopochtli then attacked his brothers, and they scattered across the heavens leaving Huitzilopochtli, the Aztecs’ solar deity, in uncontested possession of the celestial field. Coyolxauhqui’s defeat by Huitzilopochtli symbolized the primordial victory of light and cosmic order over darkness and chaos, a drama that was repeated each morning at sunrise.

Pic 14: The dismembered Coyolxauhqui, stone sculpture, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
Pic 14: The dismembered Coyolxauhqui, stone sculpture, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Such narratives were part of a wider strategy devised by Aztec rulers to construct state power. The Aztec state sought to win the favor of its army by extolling the strength and valor of its male warriors and portraying women as disrupters of cosmic harmony and enemies of the Aztec people, destined for defeat. These beliefs were communicated in works of monumental art commissioned by the Aztec state.
Two of the best-known pieces of state-sponsored are monumental sculptures of the goddesses Coatlicue and Coyolxauhqui (Pictures 10 and 14). The female identity of both goddesses is unmistakable: both have exposed chests with breasts clearly evident. And both are depicted as the victims of violence. Coyolxauhqui’s limbs have been severed from her mostly naked body, and Coatlicue has been decapitated, her head replaced by two snakes representing two streams of blood surging from her neck. These female deities represent defeated foes of the Aztec people: Coyolxauhqui was the enemy of Huitzilopochtli and his mother; and Coatlicue was the patron deity of Xochimilco, a town that resisted Aztec rule.

Pic 15: Model of an elite eagle warrior, ceramic statue, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
Pic 15: Model of an elite eagle warrior, ceramic statue, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

These two sculptures are in a striking contrast to the large ceramic statue of an elite male eagle warrior found in a building near the Aztec Great Temple (Picture 15). This eagle warrior evokes the fate of soldiers slain in battle or sacrifice. Transported to the sky, the fallen soldier accompanied the sun during its triumphal rise from daybreak to high noon. Aztec women who died in childbirth also rose to the sky and accompanied the sun on its journey across the heavens (Picture 16). But, whereas fallen warriors accompanied the sun during its morning rise to the zenith, women who died in childbirth accompanied the sun during its afternoon descent/defeat. Moreover, women who died in childbirth periodically returned to earth as violent spirits (the cihuateteo) who haunted crossroads at night, possessed and paralyzed adults, and stole children. The negative image of the disruptive and predatory cihuateteo, carved in stone and set by lonely crossroads, served to heighten the nobility of their male counterparts, the eagle warriors.

Pic 16: Cihuateotl, a woman who died in childbirth, stone statue, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 16: Cihuateotl, a woman who died in childbirth, stone statue, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

To engage the loyalties of their male citizen-soldiers Aztec rulers endowed the role of the Aztec warrior with cosmic significance. In addition, rulers showered male warriors with material rewards including flashy items of dress and tribute cloth. Thus, the state decreed that cloth, woven by women and alienated from them through tribute payment, would become the personal wealth of men. In addition, successful warriors were given offices in the state’s military, judiciary, and administrative hierarchies. Thus, warfare in the Aztec state provided avenues of prestige, wealth, and power to men that were not available to women.

This then explains the principal characteristics of the Aztec gender system: gender hierarchy was promoted by Aztec rulers to reward the young men who formed the core of the Aztec army. Masculine strength and dominance were defined by their opposite, feminine weakness and submission. Shortly before Spanish conquest, gender hierarchy had begun to reshape the more egalitarian principle of gender complementarity. Gender hierarchy was a specific strategy intended to create a highly motivated military that enabled the ruler to dominate both his male and female subjects by force of arms.

NOTE: If anyone would like Professor Brumfiel’s references and bibliography to this article, please contact Mexicolore.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: Photo courtesy of the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History
• Pic 2: Image from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938
• Pic 3: Photo by Kristin De Lucia
• Pic 4: Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 5: Photo by Elizabeth Brumfiel
• Pic 6: Image from the Florentine Codex scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pix 7 & 8: Images from the Codex Maglabechiano scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1970
• Pic 9: Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 10: Photo by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore
• Pic 11: (L) Photo courtesy © The Trustees of the British Museum; (R) photo by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore
• Pic 12: (L) Image from the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1971; (R) Image from the Codex Primeros Memoriales, public domain
• Pic 13: Photos (L & R) by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore and (C) by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore
• Pix 14, 15 & 16: Photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Nov 20th 2011

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