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An Aztec housewife wielding a broom, from ‘Primeros Memoriales’

‘The Power of Brooms’

We’re delighted to present here an abridged version of the section entitled ‘The Power of Brooms’ in the chapter ‘Mexica Women on the Home Front’ by Professor Louise Burkhart, in the classic 1997 book Indian Women of Early Mexico (eds. Schroeder, Wood and Haskett).

Pic 1: A Mexica woman holds a broom or feather fan: details from Codex Telleriano-Remensis fol. 30r
Pic 1: A Mexica woman holds a broom or feather fan: details from Codex Telleriano-Remensis fol. 30r (Click on image to enlarge)

For Mexica priests, sweeping was an essential service at the houses of the gods. A priest sweeping a temple precinct is obviously performing a ritual of purification, but must such an act be divorced from its ‘practical’ application in the home before it becomes a ritual? A housewife, rising before dawn to sweep away the night’s debris, surely saw herself as an actor in the regeneration of order, dividing day from night and protecting her family from dangerous forces. Housekeeping activities that were highly patterned, surrounded by taboos, and linked to gods and important religious concepts can be considered ritual acts.

Pic 2: A ‘toy’ Aztec shield with a bow and four miniature arrows, alongside a small spindle and whorl and miniature reed broom
Pic 2: A ‘toy’ Aztec shield with a bow and four miniature arrows, alongside a small spindle and whorl and miniature reed broom (Click on image to enlarge)

Although both men and women could, and did, sweep, in the domestic context the act was more closely associated with females. Baby girls were given small brooms, while baby boys were presented with a small shield and arrows (pic 2). In the Codex Mendoza, the twelve-year-old girl is the child shown sweeping, at her mother’s behest; the two males who are shown sweeping elsewhere in the codex are both priests.

Pic 3: Tlazolteotl; Florentine Codex Book 1
Pic 3: Tlazolteotl; Florentine Codex Book 1 (Click on image to enlarge)

Gods as well as mortals swept. Quetzalcoatl, god of wind, swept the roads for the rain gods. He was, it may be noted, a deity of priestly rather than warrior character; sweeping was more properly the province of divine females. Coatlicue conceived Huitzilopochtli, the Mexicas’ patron deity, while sweeping. Chimalman was sweeping when she became pregnant with Quetzalcoatl. The closely related deities Tlazolteotl, ‘Filth Deity’, and Toci, ‘Our Grandmother’ (also called Teteo Innan, ‘Mother of the Gods’, and Yaocihuatl, ‘Enemy Woman’), carried brooms; Toci bore a shield as well. Picture 3 is the depiction of Tlazolteotl a native artist painted for Sahagún. During Toci’s festival, Ochpaniztli, ‘Sweeping the Roads’ (see picture 7L), the roads were indeed swept, as were the houses, baths and courtyards. Toci was represented by a bundle of straw - as if she were a broom - and mock battles were performed using inverted brooms as weapons instead of swords.

Pic 4: The straw broom, called a ‘tlachpanoni’ in Nahuatl, as a ‘weapon’...
Pic 4: The straw broom, called a ‘tlachpanoni’ in Nahuatl, as a ‘weapon’... (Click on image to enlarge)

The broom was a weapon: it was the housewife’s defines against invading dirt and disorder, peripheral forces that, like the enemies of the state, threatened the maintenance of order and centrality. The broom was an object of power, ambivalent because it purified but was itself a carrier of filth. The author of the Códice carolino, concerned about persisting ‘idolatries’, wrote that old women left their brooms outside lest the dirt carried by the brooms introduce discord into the house. One further ‘superstition’ is noted: a man wishing to seduce a woman could collect the straws that fell from her broom when she swept. Once he had twenty straws (a full ‘count’ in the vigesimal system), he could turn the broom’s power against its owner and force her to comply with his desires.
During the nemontemi, the five unnamed days at the end of the year, people especially feared disorder, as, for example, in the form of quarrels, illness, and falls. And they dared not expose themselves to brooms. If a woman wished to clean the dust from her home, she had to blow it away using a fan (see picture 1), turkey feathers, or a mantle.

Pic 5: A large broom lies on the ground in the centre of this model of farmer’s house and patio, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 5: A large broom lies on the ground in the centre of this model of farmer’s house and patio, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

In the cosmic scheme of things, women, with their closer links to the earth and the night, were arbiters of disorder, of creation and disintegration, to a degree that men were not. Women, after all, processed unfinished materials into finished products: foodstuffs into meals, raw fibres into thread and cloth, sexual secretions into babies. A woman with a broom in her hands stood at the intersection of chaos and order: having a certain affinity with the powers that blew dust and debris into her tidy patio (see picture 5), she could also exert control over them and keep them at bay, maintaining the proper balance between her ordered centre and the disorderly periphery that threatened to engulf it.
Given these associations, it is not surprising that when men were at war, their wives and other female relations were especially diligent in sweeping.

Pic 6: Women wielding warrior weapons - broom and broadsword; details adapted from Codex Mendoza fol. 60r (L) and Tovar Manuscript fol. III (R)
Pic 6: Women wielding warrior weapons - broom and broadsword; details adapted from Codex Mendoza fol. 60r (L) and Tovar Manuscript fol. III (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

Durán’s description of a war with the Huaxtecs tells how the Mexica warriors’ wives swept not only at dawn but also at midnight, noon, and sunset: the four corners of the sun’s path. Warfare was ‘solar’ business: the war god Huitzilopochtli was identified with the sun; dead warriors went to the sun’s home. Would the sun, seeing the woman mark his passage by purifying her home space, reciprocate by granting her husband favours where he laboured on the field of battle? As her broom conquered dirt, would his sword conquer enemy soldiers?

Pic 7: The Aztec feast of Ochpaniztli, as recorded in the Tovar Codex (verso leaf 151) (L); a broom stands at the centre of this reconstructed Nahua farmer’s house, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 7: The Aztec feast of Ochpaniztli, as recorded in the Tovar Codex (verso leaf 151) (L); a broom stands at the centre of this reconstructed Nahua farmer’s house, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

In Fernando Alvarado Tezozomoc’s account of the war between the two Mexica cities Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco, in a last-ditch defence of Tlatelolco’s temple of Huitzilopochtli, a group of Tlatelolca women came to face the enemy... From the temple steps they throw not darts or spears but brooms. This is woman as arbiter of chaos, putting forth a final defence of centrality and order while at the same time marking the transition of power from one group of males to another. Whether the deeds of these women warriors were expected to deter the enemy or were entirely expressive, or, indeed, whether this episode actually occurred, is unknowable. However, the story is grounded in the role of women as broom-wielding guardians of the home front.

Source:-
• ‘Mexica Women on the Home Front: Housework and Religion in Aztec Mexico’ by Louise Burkhart, in Indian Women of Early Mexico edited by Susan Schroeder, Stephanie Wood and Robert Haskett, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman and London, 1997.

Picture sources:-
• Main picture: Image from Bernardino de Sahagún, Primeros Memoriales (fol. 255v), facsimile edition, photographed by Ferdinand Anders. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993 (supplied by Louise Burkhart)
• Pic 1: Image from the Codex Telleriano-Remensis scanned from our copy of the facsimile edition by Eloise Quiñones Keber, University of Texas Press, 1995
• Pix 2 & 5: Photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 3: Image 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
• Pic 4: Image scanned from Los Dioses Menores by Salvador Mateos Higuera (Mexico City, 1994)
• Pic 6 (L): Image adapted from the Codex Mendoza scanned from our copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938
• Pic 6 (R): Image adapted and scanned from our copy of the Manuscrit Tovar, ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1972
• Pic 7 (L): Image from Wikimedia Commons (original in the John Carter Brown Library, USA)
• Pic 7(R): Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on May 19th 2020

‘Nahua Moral Philosophy’ by Louise Burkhart

“‘The view from the metate’ - women and the Aztec world” by Camilla Townsend

‘Aztec Women: Capable Partners and Cosmic Enemies’ by Cecelia Klein

Itztlacoliuhqui, Aztec god of snow and ice, also carried a decorated straw broom

Learn about Aztec goddess Toci and her role in the Ochpaniztli festival

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