General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 23 Oct 2017/3 Deer
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Meeting of Aztecs and Spanish Conquistadores

Clean Aztecs, Stinky Spanish...

As the Conquistadors approached the Mexica (Aztec) capital the Aztecs covered the Spaniards with incense. The Spaniards took it as an honour, but the Aztecs just couldn’t stand the pong...! (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore and Katherine Ashenburg)

Pic 1: Chinampas today outside Mexico City
Pic 1: Chinampas today outside Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Many things about the Aztecs amazed the Conquistadors, like their super-fertile chinampas or ‘floating gardens’ (Pic 1), and the size of their great capital city (Pic 2). When in Europe roads were never swept and people just emptied their chamber pots into the streets, the Aztecs employed 1,000 cleaners to sweep and water their streets daily, built public loos in every neighbourhood, and carried human poo in canoes for use as fertilizer.

Pic 2: The great Mexica capital city of Tenochtitlan
Pic 2: The great Mexica capital city of Tenochtitlan (Click on image to enlarge)

While London was still drawing its drinking water from the polluted River Thames as late as 1854, the Aztecs supplied their capital with fresh water from the nearby hill of Chapultepec by means of TWO aqueducts. The sacred importance of water is clear from the Aztec word for ‘city’ - altepetl which means ‘water-mountain’ in Náhuatl.

Pic 3: For the Mexica being clean was cool!
Pic 3: For the Mexica being clean was cool! (Click on image to enlarge)

But probably nothing seemed more weird to the Spaniards than the Aztec attitude to personal hygiene. Simply, for the Aztecs being clean was COOL. One Conquistador reported, in a tone of wonder, that Moctezuma bathed twice a day. He did, but there was nothing extraordinary about that for an Aztec, since EVERYBODY ‘bathed often, and many of them every day’ in the rivers, lakes or pools.

Pic 4: The Aztec ‘soap-tree’ (LEFT) and ‘soap-plant’ (RIGHT)
Pic 4: The Aztec ‘soap-tree’ (LEFT) and ‘soap-plant’ (RIGHT) (Click on image to enlarge)

They didn’t have true soap but made up for it with the fruit of what the Spanish called the ‘soap-tree’, and the sticky root of the ‘soap-plant’; both gave a lather rich enough to wash body, hair and clothes with (Pic 4).

Pic 5: Aztec/Mexica steam bath, called ‘temazcal’
Pic 5: Aztec/Mexica steam bath, called ‘temazcal’ (Click on image to enlarge)

The Mexica also used deodorants, breath fresheners and ash to clean their teeth with (Spaniards of the time cleaned theirs with urine!) The Aztecs cleaned their bodies – and souls – in steam baths. An outside fire heated one of the walls via a small tunnel to red-hot, and the bather threw water on the hot wall, creating steam (Pic 5).

Pic 6: ‘Dress well, wash yourself and wash your clothes...’
Pic 6: ‘Dress well, wash yourself and wash your clothes...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec dads told their daughters: ’Wash your face, wash your hands, clean your mouth. Never make up your face nor paint it; never put red on your mouth to look beautiful. Make-up and paint are things that light women use - shameless creatures. If you want your husband to love you, dress well, wash yourself and wash your clothes.’ So there!

Pic 7: The Black Death
Pic 7: The Black Death (Click on image to enlarge)

Into this clean world, thundered the Spanish. The 16th century was a REALLY dirty time in Europe: ever since the Black Death, people avoided water and washing like the plague; and the Spanish in particular thought and taught that being dirty was a Christian Virtue.

Pic 8: Traditional Moorish baths
Pic 8: Traditional Moorish baths (Click on image to enlarge)

They hated and distrusted the well-washed ways of the Moors who had conquered their country. Arab Spain sparkled with water, whether in fountains, pools or bath-houses. One of the first things the Spaniards did when they later defeated the Arabs was to destroy the wonderful Moorish baths (Pic 8)...

And then, sadly, they never stopped destroying...

Learn more about the steam bath

Read the full article ‘Clean Aztecs, Stinky-poo Spanish’

Did the Aztecs invent the sauna?

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