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Mexicolore contributor Louise Burkhart

Nahua Moral Philosophy

We are greatly indebted to Louise Burkhart, Professor of Anthropology at The University at Albany, State University of New York (USA), for this wise, profound and insightful introduction to the moral codes and teachings of the Mexica (Aztec) people, written specially for Mexicolore.

Pic 1: The “virtuous daughter” is a diligent weaver. Florentine Codex Book 10, f. 2r.
Pic 1: The “virtuous daughter” is a diligent weaver. Florentine Codex Book 10, f. 2r. (Click on image to enlarge)

Early colonial documents about Nahua civilization preserve much information about moral philosophy: what Nahuas considered good and bad behavior, how people should live, and the results of moral or immoral acts. These issues were extremely important in the dialogue between Nahuas and the Roman Catholic friars who sought to convert them to Christianity. Christian moral philosophy centered around rules such as the Ten Commandments, ideas about sin and its punishment, and belief in heaven and hell. Although Nahuas and European Christians agreed in many ways about what constituted bad behavior—from disobedience and laziness to adultery and murder—their reasons for avoiding these acts were quite different. Nahuas acted morally not to show love and respect for God, or to avoid being punished in the afterlife, but to follow the models set by their ancestors, to maintain a good reputation, and to ensure the health and well-being of themselves and their loved ones during their lives on earth.

Pic 2: Sweeping, to clear away ‘tlazolli’, or “filth,” was an act of religious devotion as well as housekeeping. Primeros Memoriales, f. 255v.
Pic 2: Sweeping, to clear away ‘tlazolli’, or “filth,” was an act of religious devotion as well as housekeeping. Primeros Memoriales, f. 255v. (Click on image to enlarge)

The Nahuas had a concept of sin, tlatlacolli, which the Catholic missionaries adopted when they wanted to translate their own terms, Spanish pecado or Latin peccatum. Tlatlacolli comes from a verb meaning “to damage” or “to break” things. It referred to mistakes and misdeeds but did not have the sense of personal moral responsibility, an affront to God that induces guilt in the offender, that the Christian idea carried. Tlatlacolli was closely related to the idea of tlazolli, or “filth”: both damage and dirt undermined the maintenance of social and cosmic order. When people did bad, disorderly, dirty things, they were, in a sense, asking for trouble. They were inviting dangerous cosmic forces into their homes and even their bodies, leading to further loss of order. They or family members might become ill; they might lose their home and become destitute, raggedy wanderers; they might commit a serious crime and be executed or sold into slavery.

Pic 3: Men drink pulque from the “Two Rabbit” bowl. Two Rabbit was a major pulque deity. Birth on the day sign Two Rabbit predisposed a person to drunkenness. Florentine Codex Book 4, f. 13v
Pic 3: Men drink pulque from the “Two Rabbit” bowl. Two Rabbit was a major pulque deity. Birth on the day sign Two Rabbit predisposed a person to drunkenness. Florentine Codex Book 4, f. 13v (Click on image to enlarge)

The pre-Columbian gods did not set down moral commandments that people had to obey, nor did they serve as moral paragons [models of perfection] whom people should try to imitate. However, they were involved in the moral system. There were gods associated with morally problematic behaviors, such as the 400 rabbit gods, most prominently Two Rabbit (Ome Tochtli), who governed drunkenness. The Cihuateteo, the deified women who died in their first childbirth and resided in the western sky, carried an air of sexual immorality, as such deaths were thought to result from excessive sexual intercourse during pregnancy. The sun god and the rain gods liked morally pure people to join them in their respective paradises, and could, for that reason, engineer such persons’ untimely deaths. The sun claimed new companions by causing them to die in battle. The rain gods would cause their favored ones to drown, be struck by lightning, or die from a disease believed to be related to water, such as leprosy or gout. A less exemplary person would live a longer life, then pass on to the ordinary underworld, Mictlan, which was rather bleak and boring but was not a place of punishment.

Pic 4: 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
Pic 4: 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)

Wily Tezcatlipoca, one of the most important deities, was particularly involved in human morality. His female counterpart in the moral domain was Tlazolteotl, “Filth Deity,” who carried a broom for sweeping away dirt. These gods could incite people to commit moral misdeeds, and then inflict diseases or other misfortunes on them as punishment. Nahuas often blamed illnesses on the displeasure of some deity. But Tezcatlipoca and Tlazolteotl also offered a purification ritual that somewhat resembled the Roman Catholic sacrament of confession. In front of a priest of Tlazolteotl, the penitent would tell Tezcatlipoca all of his or her tlatlacolli. Then, dressed only in a paper skirt decorated with Tlazolteotl’s characteristic unspun cotton design, the person went in the night to do penance at a crossroads shrine of the Cihuateteo. At the end of the ritual, the person returned home naked, leaving the skirt—and by extension his or her moral impurities—at the crossroads. Unlike the Catholic rite, this ritual could be performed only once in a person’s lifeitme.

Pic 5: A person born on the day sign One Jaguar would turn out immoral and unlucky, but could counteract this fate by leading a very virtuous, penitential life. Florentine Codex Book 4, f. 6v.
Pic 5: A person born on the day sign One Jaguar would turn out immoral and unlucky, but could counteract this fate by leading a very virtuous, penitential life. Florentine Codex Book 4, f. 6v. (Click on image to enlarge)

A person’s birth date in the 260-day calendar influenced his or her character and fate, predisposing some people to virtue and others to vice. However, this does not mean Nahuas thought they had no self-control or free will. The effects of a poor day sign, such as One Jaguar, could be counteracted by a diligent and penitential lifestyle: making lots of offerings, getting up at night to worship the gods, fasting, working hard, and upholding strict standards of cleanliness and order. Indeed, such a style of life benefitted even those blessed with auspicious day signs. In general, to live properly on earth involved a delicate balancing act. The earth was seen as a “slippery” place, and everyone had to be careful not to slip and fall into bad behavior or ill fortune. However, life on earth was its own reward, not preparation for an afterlife, and people sought fulfillment in in their friendships, love and family lives, and enjoyment of food, music, and other sensory pleasures.

Pic 6: A drunk young woman, a thief, and a pair of adulterers are shown executed for their immoral acts. Codex Mendoza, f. 71r.
Pic 6: A drunk young woman, a thief, and a pair of adulterers are shown executed for their immoral acts. Codex Mendoza, f. 71r. (Click on image to enlarge)

When Nahuatl texts mention bad behaviors, the three offenses most typically named are theft, drunkenness, and adultery. All three were punishable by death. Thieves went about at night, invading people’s homes and transgressing boundaries of class if they violated the sumptuary laws that restricted luxury goods to members of the nobility. Some were sorcerers, casting a magical sleep that rendered people helpless while their homes were ransacked. Consumption of pulque, the alcoholic beverage, was required during certain rituals but otherwise was off-limits to all except the elderly—whose maturity protected them from its ill effects while the drinking offered some relief from their aches and pains. Sexual morality in general was not as strict as what Catholic priests sought to impose, with moderation, rather than abstinence, being the ideal. However, the marital bond was sacrosanct. Marital infidelity invited forces of filth and disorder into the home—manifested, for example, in mice gnawing on adulterers’ clothing and sleeping mats, or turkey chicks dropping dead from exposure to their tlazolli (filth).

Pic 7: A mother prickes her daughter with a maguey thorn to punish disobedience. Codex Mendoza, f. 59r
Pic 7: A mother prickes her daughter with a maguey thorn to punish disobedience. Codex Mendoza, f. 59r (Click on image to enlarge)

Nahua parents put a lot of effort into raising children who would be industrious and respectful. From the time they were four years old, children were expected to help around the house and start learning the tasks appropriate to their gender and future economic activities. For girls, this meant learning how to prepare food and how to make cloth. For boys, it meant fetching water and firewood and, eventually, learning their father’s trade. To punish lazy or disobedient children, parents would prick them with thorns, hit them with sticks, or make them inhale the smoke from burning chile peppers. This may seem abusive, but it shows how important Nahuas thought proper behavior was. They didn’t want their children to be at risk of becoming immoral people. Bad habits in childhood would lead to even worse results in adulthood. A boy who spent too much time playing games was likely to become a thief or a vagabond.

Pic 8: A midwife makes a speech to a newborn baby while the mother watches. Florentine Codex Book 6, f. 175v.
Pic 8: A midwife makes a speech to a newborn baby while the mother watches. Florentine Codex Book 6, f. 175v. (Click on image to enlarge)

More than thorns or sticks, Nahua parents relied on the power of their tongues. As soon as a baby was born, parents and other elders started talking to her or him, making speeches about the precarious nature of life on earth, the best way to live, and the consequences of bad actions. Young people sat through such speeches at various points in their lives until they were themselves married with children of their own to bring up—and make speeches to. Rulers also made speeches to their subjects. This style of talking, called huehuetlatolli or “old man talk,” made a positive impression on Europeans who learned enough Nahuatl to appreciate it. Andrés de Olmos and Bernardino de Sahagún, Franciscan friars who studied Nahua culture, collected these speeches as early as the 1530s and 1540s. Olmos’s collection was published by Fray Juan Bautista in 1600, while Sahagún’s became the sixth book, and one of the longest, in his 12-book encyclopedia of Nahua civilization. Alonso de Zorita, a Spanish judge who wanted to show King Philip II of Spain how civilized his Mexican subjects really were, included a Spanish translation of one of Olmos’s speeches in a report he wrote for the king.

Pic 9: “You have become a rabbit” means that you are disobedient and not properly brought up. Florentine Codex Book 6, f. 209v.
Pic 9: “You have become a rabbit” means that you are disobedient and not properly brought up. Florentine Codex Book 6, f. 209v. (Click on image to enlarge)

These speeches are a treasure trove of moral philosophy, and show how people used vivid images and metaphors to create persuasive arguments. For example, a disobedient child might be warned not to turn into a rabbit or a deer, or to follow the road of the rabbit and the deer. These were timid prey animals who wandered about the countryside and were hunted for food. Their aimless travels contrasted with the centered, organized life of the proper person, who stayed home or traveled on straight paths for productive purposes. Rabbits were also associated with drunkenness, through the 400 rabbit gods; the day sign Deer was one of the signs associated with the deified women who died in childbirth, who were dangerous to children. Unlike the eagles and jaguars associated with valiant warriors, these were not animals that a Nahua would want to imitate or follow.

Pic 10: Moral danger was compared to rocky cliffs and raging rivers. Florentine Codex Book 6, 23v.
Pic 10: Moral danger was compared to rocky cliffs and raging rivers. Florentine Codex Book 6, 23v. (Click on image to enlarge)

As well as following the “road of the rabbit,” bad behavior could lead a person into caves and other dangerous places away from home. The phrase “already in someone else’s enclosure, already in someone else’s doorway” reminded a misbehaving person that he or she could be driven from home to seek shelter among strangers. Even scarier was the prospect of getting tangled in ropes and snares, or slipping off a cliff and falling into a raging torrent. These images are metaphors: behaving badly is “like” throwing oneself off a cliff—it’s dangerous and one can get hurt or killed. However, the effect could be literal: a wild, uncontrolled person just might become so deranged as to launch himself or herself over a cliff to drown or be broken on the rocks.

Pic 11: Wise advice is like a torch and a mirror, showing people how they should behave. Florentine Codex Book 6, f. 204r.
Pic 11: Wise advice is like a torch and a mirror, showing people how they should behave. Florentine Codex Book 6, f. 204r. (Click on image to enlarge)

To avoid such bad actions, young people were encouraged to follow the light, torch, mirror, or model set down by their elders, who, like sturdy trees, cast protective shadows to shelter others. They should seek the “middle good,” or a moderate lifestlye. While walking, they should go neither too slow nor too fast, neither looking down nor with their noses in the air. They should be polite to their elders, not eating until every more senior person was served, and being quick to assist with any necessary chores. These were models of orderly behavior that prepared a child for adulthood in a society that valued wise speech, hard work, and calm behavior. People who were angry and obnoxious, show-offs, blabbermouths, bullies, or braggarts were not appreciated.

Further reading:-
• Burkhart, Louise M. 1989. The Slippery Earth: Nahua-Christian Moral Dialogue in Sixteenth-Century Mexico. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. NOTE: Free PDF files of this work can be downloaded from Professor Burkhart’s faculty web page - follow link below...
• Sahagún, Bernardino de. 1950-1982. Florentine Codex, General History of the Things of New Spain. Translated by Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O. Anderson. Santa Fe, New Mexico: School of American Reesearch and the University of Utah. See especially Book 6.

Picture sources:-
Florentine Codex images are 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 Louise Burkhart)
Primeros Memoriales image is from Bernardino de Sahagún, Primeros Memoriales, Facsimile edition, photographed by Ferdinand Anders. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993 (supplied by Louise Burkhart)
Codex Mendoza images scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 17th 2012

Scroll down Professor Burkhart’s faculty web page to access PDF files for ‘The Slippery Earth’

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Mexicolore replies: We think this is simply a cloth or piece of clothing for the baby to wear in the cradle. The text reads: ‘When the midwife had arranged the baby, then she wrapped it in cloth. Then she took it into the house, where the cradle had been prepared...’ (The midwife then goes on to address the cradle itself, calling it the ‘mother of all of us... thou wilt strengthen it, for thou hast arms, thou hast a lap, even though it is true that our mother, our father... sent it.’) (Book 6, Chapter 38, Florentine Codex).