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Aztec women offering maize, Florentine Codex Book 2

‘What was the Aztecs’ most prized possession?’

A 9-year-old girl from Manor Fields Primary School in Hertfordshire asked our visiting Aztecs teaching team at the end of 2011 a simple but intriguing question: ‘What was the Aztecs’ most prized possession?’ We thought it was worth passing this round the members of our esteemed Panel of Experts on the Aztecs, expecting just a handful to take the time to respond. In the event we were thrilled that over 40 scholars - two-thirds of our current Panel - sent back their suggestions. Their answers are, of course, as thought-provoking as the question itself, and we are deeply grateful to them all for sharing their wisdom. We invite others to write in with their own ideas... (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore).

Pic 1: Maize, jade and quetzal feathers: the three most prized possessions of the Mexica?
Pic 1: Maize, jade and quetzal feathers: the three most prized possessions of the Mexica? (Click on image to enlarge)

Of course, in itself it begs several (more) questions: what do we mean by ‘possession’? What do terms such as value, prized, precious really mean? Do we include symbolic and metaphysical concepts? Should we not draw distinctions between gender, class and status, even generation? Some respondents provided one-word answers, others gave multiple answers and/or wrote two or three paragraphs! We had fun collating the results and we’re delighted to share them with you here...

The three (equal) front runners by far, we should say at the start, were MAIZE, JADE and QUETZAL feathers, mentioned a total of 24 times...

Pic 2: Maize flows from a ceremonial jar held by Tlaloc, god of rain (British Museum)
Pic 2: Maize flows from a ceremonial jar held by Tlaloc, god of rain (British Museum) (Click on image to enlarge)

Eight panellists - Davíd Carrasco, Stephanie Wood, Leonardo López Luján, Alfredo López Austín, Katarzyna Mikulska, Cecelia Klein, Guilhem Olivier, Michael Heinrich - singled out maize (‘so important that in some myths, humans themselves are made out of corn. So their great gift or possession from the gods is “corn” - DC), though their replies ranged from a single corn cob (LLL), through staple crops in general (ALA) to the mythical story of Huemac, ruler of Tollan, who played the ballgame against the rain deities (Tlaloque), betting as a prize in chalchihuitl in quetzalli: whilst literally this phrase means ‘jade and quetzal feathers’, metaphorically it means ‘rain (drops) and maize (leaves)’. Huemac won, but, failing to grasp the symbolic meaning of the prize, he demanded the precious jade and feathers. The Tlaloque gave them to him but withheld in return rain and good maize crops, unleashing a deadly four-year famine. A parable on the true meaning of wealth and value! (GO, KM-D).

Pic 3: Maize: at the heart of Mexica culture; exhibition on maize, Museo de Culturas Populares, Mexico City, 1983
Pic 3: Maize: at the heart of Mexica culture; exhibition on maize, Museo de Culturas Populares, Mexico City, 1983 (Click on image to enlarge)

Several - Vania Smith-Oka, Alfredo López Austin, Stephanie Wood, Elizabeth Baquedano - mentioned maize in a wider context of the importance of land generally (VS-O), the whole fertility complex including land, water and sunlight (SW), gods and religion (EB), and in particular the ‘family’ of rain-related deities - principally Tláloc - to whom vast amounts of time and effort were dedicated, since without good harvests the Mexica would have been limited to surviving through warfare and trade (ALA).

Pic 4: A newborn is compared to a precious jade: detail from mural by Regina Raúll, ‘Paisaje Mexica’ (1964), National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 4: A newborn is compared to a precious jade: detail from mural by Regina Raúll, ‘Paisaje Mexica’ (1964), National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Jade - chalchihuitl - was highlighted by Davíd Carrasco, Susan Gillespie, Michael Coe, Kristaan Villela, Joyce Marcus, Cecelia Klein, Guilhem Olivier, Patrick Lesbre and Esther Pasztory. SG stressed the equal value placed on jade and quetzal feathers (often mentioned together as the most ‘precious things’ in Aztec life), noting, along with Camilla Townsend, that the Aztecs compared a child to be born to a precious jade, a precious quetzal feather.

Pic 5: Quetzal and cotinga feathers adorn the (replica of the) famous ‘headdress of Moctezuma’, Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 5: Quetzal and cotinga feathers adorn the (replica of the) famous ‘headdress of Moctezuma’, Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City  (Click on image to enlarge)

The largest single group of respondents - Elizabeth Benson, Esther Pasztory, Patrick Lesbre, Karl Taube, Guilhem Olivier, Patricia Anawalt, Bernard de Montellano, Kristaan Villela, Susan Gillespie and Davíd Carrasco - opted for quetzal feathers - ‘those magnificent, graceful plumes that shimmer and shine as each passing breeze catches their magnificent array of colors’ (PA), specifically (KT) the (two) long emerald green tail feathers of the male quetzal bird native to the Maya region, just one of which was said to be worth two slaves (PL). For a nobleman, a feather headdress would have been the ultimate precious possession (whilst for a commoner, it might have been his best cloak or cape) (BdeM).

Pic 6: Precious feathers, greenstones, embroidered capes, fine jewellery, foodstuffs, rubber balls and other items feature in one of the tribute lists contained in the Codex Mendoza, folio 46
Pic 6: Precious feathers, greenstones, embroidered capes, fine jewellery, foodstuffs, rubber balls and other items feature in one of the tribute lists contained in the Codex Mendoza, folio 46 (Click on image to enlarge)

Significantly (PL), in a summary of valuable items reserved for rulers compiled for Sahagún (Primeros Memoriales, chapter III, para 14) precious bird feathers came top of the list ahead of jade and turquoise, followed by cocoa beans, foodstuffs (chía seeds, beans, amaranth), cotton (for elaborate garments), fine gourds (for drinking chocolate) and fine woods (for sacred drums). Gold and silver featured later, illustrating the profoundly different approaches of the Aztecs and the Spanish towards placing value on things. In this regard, Joyce Marcus and Felipe Fernández-Armesto stressed that tribute items from distant lands - from food and clothing to rare commodities such as rubber, turquoise, cacao, marine coral and many more (JM) - were without doubt highly valued by the Mexica of Tenochtitlan, and without them the great city would not have survived (FF-A).

Pic 7: Model of Aztec ceramic mask half covered with turquoise mosaic pieces (‘tesserae’); National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 7: Model of Aztec ceramic mask half covered with turquoise mosaic pieces (‘tesserae’); National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Following close behind jade, in terms of rare commodities so valued by the Mexica, turquoise was chosen by five Panellists - Colin McEwan, Cecelia Klein, Joyce Marcus, Esther Pasztory and Caroline Cartwright - who emphasized that ‘its blue-green colour represent[ed] the symbolic relationship to water and fertility as well as linking to Xiuhcóatl, the “turquoise serpent” - [so] important in mythology’. ‘Turquoise became revered as a powerful substance and a turquoise diadem was worn by Aztec rulers to show their power representing the health and well-being of their people’ (CMcE - read Dr. McEwan’s expanded answer on this via the link below).

Pic 8: The symbolic connections between ‘heart’, ‘blood’ and the sacred chocolate drink were drawn out in the Florentine Codex (Book 6)
Pic 8: The symbolic connections between ‘heart’, ‘blood’ and the sacred chocolate drink were drawn out in the Florentine Codex (Book 6) (Click on image to enlarge)

Indeed, Eleanor Wake argued that it was precisely the power wielded by the Mexica élite over their subjects and the lands and peoples they subjugated which was their most prized possession. ‘This does not mean that they “owned”, or “possessed”, those lands and peoples, in the Western sense of the word (this was a concept introduced by the Spaniards), but that they controlled them and their product to their own benefit. This was achieved primarily on the basis of antiquity of rights, whether invented or real. The Mexica, historically the most recent to settle in the area they came to control, cleverly claimed such rights by marrying into the ancient Toltec bloodline and adopting and manipulating the legacy of power which that group had exercised in the past. Those that resisted were subjugated by other means, usually military conquest. Thus, in later times, the Toltec bloodline would also fall into the category of prized possession.’

Pic 9: Reconstruction of the centre of Tenochtitlan (Templo Mayor on left) by Ignacio Marquina
Pic 9: Reconstruction of the centre of Tenochtitlan (Templo Mayor on left) by Ignacio Marquina (Click on image to enlarge)

Both Anthony Aveni and Manuel Aguilar-Moreno considered human blood itself to be ‘the most precious offering that they could give to the gods: with the energy of the blood they could nourish the gods and help them to continue providing life and fertility to the world...’ (MA-M), ‘for it was the blood of sacrifice that bonded the Aztecs to their deities’ (AA). Central to the physical and spiritual world of the Aztecs as a people, connecting them to their most important deities and representing their most important beliefs (Penny Bateman), stood the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan, and within it, ‘the idol of Huitzilopochtli that was whisked away from the Templo Mayor just prior to the final defeat at the hands of the Spaniards and said to be hidden in a cave near Tula, Hidalgo’ (Richard Diehl).

Pic 10: Display of facsimile pre-Hispanic codices (drawn by Dinorah Lejarazu) on display in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 10: Display of facsimile pre-Hispanic codices (drawn by Dinorah Lejarazu) on display in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Four panellists - James Maffie, Cecilia Rossell, Katarzyna Mikulska and Michael Heinrich - focused on the collective religious/cultural traditions inherited by the Aztecs, symbolized by the sacred bundles and codices of the Mexica, and embodied in part by the legendary semi-divine Toltec leader Quetzalcóatl (MH). The extent to which the Aztecs could legitimately be called ‘Children of the Plumed Serpent’ is today open to question, but that they idolized past heroes and rulers and recorded their deeds and conquests in their pictorial books is in no doubt. According to tradition their manuscripts ‘contain the whole knowledge which the gods gave to the people, before the gods left the people. The aim was that the people could be guided by the codices in their actions. The metaphorical name of the codices was “in tlilli in tlapalli”, which means “the black, the coloured”, refering to the colours used in codices: black for line-drawing, the other for colouring. But, the main metaphorical meaning is “wisdom” and “knowledge”, and it is also the name of the divine, non-human place where Quetzalcoatl went after his life... [So although] “wisdom” is something which belongs to the divine world, to the deities... they made it possible for humans to learn something of their destinies through their books, called codices’ (KM-D).

Pic 11: Journeying Aztec leaders carry sacred bundles; Codex Boturini, fol. 4 (detail)
Pic 11: Journeying Aztec leaders carry sacred bundles; Codex Boturini, fol. 4 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

The codices fell generally into two genres: historical narratives and divinatory almanacs - ‘books of the days’ and the deities that presided over them. ‘With the former they could remember their past and with the latter they could foretell their future, and with the guidance of both they could live their present’ (CR). Other symbols of divine power brought with them by the wandering Aztec tribe included small green and blue stones, black stone mirrors, jaguar and eagle claws, sharp spines, feathers, and other precious things (CR). Some of these can be seen slung over their backs in sacred bundles (tlaquimilolli). This term (“something wrapped or bundled”) ‘derives from “quimiloa” meaning both “to tie or wrap up something in a piece of fabric or blanket” and “to put a shroud on a dead person, or to wrap someone in a blanket, or to dress someone.” Sacred bundles consisted of power-charged objects or relics associated with a divinity wrapped in pieces of fabric. They were receptacles of divine power and materializations of divine presence. They served as instruments for communicating with the “gods” and as symbols of political power and authority. In their migration to Tenochtitlan from Aztlan, sacred bundles helped the Aztecs find their way to the Valley of Mexico’ (JM).

Pic 12: Aztec household shrine ceramic figurines
Pic 12: Aztec household shrine ceramic figurines (Click on image to enlarge)

Extending this concept of divine relics to today’s Nahua communities, Alan Sandstrom offers ‘the wooden box filled with paper images of the seed spirits. The box is placed on the household altar and offerings are set before it when the help of the spirits is sought.’ Michael Smith drew attention to the ‘clay figurines of people, gods, and animals used by women for ceremonies of curing or honoring the gods. These were important tasks, and each women probably had her own collection of small figurines that she guarded carefully.’

Pic 13: Aztec family celebrating the feast of  ‘The Eating of Tamales Stuffed with Amaranth Greens’, Florentine Codex, Book 2
Pic 13: Aztec family celebrating the feast of ‘The Eating of Tamales Stuffed with Amaranth Greens’, Florentine Codex, Book 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

Of course traditions were and still are passed down not just through sacred artefacts but by word of mouth and deed via family customs. In this sense Camilla Townsend, John Bierhorst, Caroline Dodds Pennock and Elizabeth Baquedano placed equal emphasis on the value of (giving birth to [JB]) children and grandchildren (CT), but also of husband and wife (CDP) and family in general (EB). ‘Each generation conceived of themselves as the connecting link between the past and the future. All of one’s efforts were dedicated to ensuring the welfare of the community’s future, and that meant the children’ (CT). ‘The Aztecs not only loved their partners, but also relied on them for their success and prosperity. It was only when an Aztec got married that they became a full adult, capable of paying tribute, making a living, and setting up their own household. So, their family was central not only to their happiness, but also to their wealth and success’ (CDP).

Pic 14: Illustration of the traditional ‘petate’ by Felipe Dávalos
Pic 14: Illustration of the traditional ‘petate’ by Felipe Dávalos (Click on image to enlarge)

The fact that the Aztecs celebrated an annual thanksgiving festival, blessing cherished household tools and giving thanks to everyone and everything important around them, shows that they shared - and expressed - a profound appreciation for their world and for life itself. This extended from children’s playthings (Elizabeth Graham) to each Aztec’s reed mat bed, the petlatl (petate in modern Mexican Spanish) (John Schwaller): ‘He, or she, spent 1/3 of their time sleeping on it. We know that they had a series of prayers asking blessings on their mat to protect them while they slept, and upon awakening they were careful to see that it was clean and dry before rolling it up for the day’.

Pic 15: Metate, loom, digging stick: illustrations by Felipe Dávalos; obsidian blades, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
Pic 15: Metate, loom, digging stick: illustrations by Felipe Dávalos; obsidian blades, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

An Aztec woman and an Aztec man naturally valued different domestic artefacts, each one of which was absolutely central to their existence and role in life: for a (commoner) woman it was her metate (grinding stone) (Frances Berdan, Stephanie Wood, Michael Smith) - ‘Metates were large and expensive items that lasted for many years, and women spent several hours a day grinding corn (and other foods) on the metate. Loss of a metate would be a real disaster for a farm family’ (MS) and her loom (Elizabeth Graham) - ‘portable so women could get together in the shade of trees in their gardens to weave and discuss family matters, current affairs, or gossip’. For a (commoner) man it was his digging stick and other work tools (Michael Smith, Stephanie Wood, Elizabeth Graham), including his collection of obsidian blades: ‘All farmers needed a coa (digging stick), and individuals made their own to match their height. Each one was probably slightly different. Obsidian blades were used in household tasks and in craft activities (woodworking and other tasks). They were shiny and sharp, and had to be purchased in the market. Men probably had a small bundle where they kept their blades, somewhere high and out of the reach of children (who could cut themselves deeply if not careful with a blade)’ (MS).

Pic 16: Aztec wooden mask (possibly representing Xiuhtecuhtli) covered with turquoise mosaic, British Museum
Pic 16: Aztec wooden mask (possibly representing Xiuhtecuhtli) covered with turquoise mosaic, British Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec farmers were part-time warriors, and to be skilled in war was an undoubted source of pride and status (John Bierhorst) - ”All lords throughout Anahuac [the world] were rich, they knew war” (Florentine Codex, Cantares Mexicanos). Indeed the feathered warrior costume given to him by the ruler for his bravery would have been a treasured possession (Frances Berdan). At the top of the social scale, ‘the most valuable things that the ruler and the elites had in their possession were probably deity costumes and masks, which allowed the wearer to represent the supernatural whose costume it was, and be empowered by it. These items could be inherited or taken by force from conquered enemies, and they could be given to someone else of importance. For example, Moteuczoma II sent four god costumes to Cortés after the latter had landed in Veracruz; his hope was that Cortés would turn around and agree to leave. He didn’t, of course.’ The most precious masks were made of turquoise - according to Sahagún ‘the property, the lot of the god’ and ‘much esteemed’ (Cecelia Klein).

Pic 17: Status and social level in pre-Hispanic Mexico; display, Diego Rivera ‘Anahuacalli’ Museum, Mexico City
Pic 17: Status and social level in pre-Hispanic Mexico; display, Diego Rivera ‘Anahuacalli’ Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

We end with those intangible qualities that underwrote physical artefacts - beauty (Davíd Carrasco), honour (‘In a strict moral society, without money, honour might mean a good life, as well as rewards, symbols of valor [jade, a warrior outfit]...’ (Eric Taladoire) and status and reputation (Frances Berdan, Ross Hassig). ‘For a commoner man, membership in his calpolli, or neighborhood, was what gave him rights to land. Without land, unless he became a priest or merchant (organized like medieval guilds so outsiders could not enter easily), a man was left with only the humblest of occupations and few good prospects in life. For a commoner woman, a good reputation was needed for a good marriage and her fate was tied to her husband’s. For nobles, kin ties were the basis of political ties, and being highly connected to the leaders gave one access to lands and wealth. But failing in your obligations could mean being deprived of those lands and wealth. So while wealth was sought after by both commoners and nobles, to different degrees, in all cases it depended on living up to the obligations of their respective statuses. So status and reputation was the font of all things and probably the most valued in Aztec society’ (RH).

Pic 18: Mexica woman holding flowers, Florentine Codex Book 2
Pic 18: Mexica woman holding flowers, Florentine Codex Book 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

But we feel the last word should go to Patrick Johansson, who turned the idea of possession on its head, whilst offering his own answer to the question:-
’I think that the most prized possession of the Aztecs is the idea that nothing could be possessed (according to the Western meaning of the word). The Nahuatl verb used to indicate “possession” (to have): (tla)pia, actually means “to keep” something which belongs to all. In that context the ephemeral beauty of flowers was probably their most prized item...’

OUR WARM THANKS TO YOU ALL!

Picture sources:-
• Main pic & pix 8, 13 & 18: images scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro facsimile edition of the Florentine Codex, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 1: photos of maize and jade by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore, photo of quetzal courtesy Steve Bird
• Pix 2 & 16: photos courtesy and © The Trustees of the British Museum
• Pix 3, 4, 5, 7, 10, 15 (blades) & 17: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 6: 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 9: image scanned from our own copy of Arquitectura Prehispánica by Ignacio Marquina, INAH/SEP, Mexico, 1951, p.197
• Pic 11: image scanned from hand-drawn facsimile edition of the Codex Boturini (private collection)
• Pic 12: photo courtesy Werner-Forman Archive
• Pix 14 & 15: illustrations by Felipe Dávalos commissioned by Mexicolore

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jul 24th 2011

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