General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 4 Aug 2020/5 House
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Artist’s impression of Aztec (Mexica) friends greeting each other by holding arms

Physical contact in greetings

British custom has traditionally discouraged physical contact when greeting - at most, a polite handshake. In warmer Latin societies (including Mexico) the opposite is the case - multiple kisses and an embrace are the norm. But what about in Mesoamerica before the Spanish invasion? Evidence on this is scarce, to say the least, but there are a few clues in the literature suggesting that limited touching, showing deep mutual respect and reverence, was de rigeur. We focus here on Mexica/Aztec culture, with its highly regulated moral codes covering dress, hairstyles, posture, gestures and... touching. (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Aztec grandchildren grasp the arms of their grandparents: Codex Mendoza, fol. 71r
Pic 1: Aztec grandchildren grasp the arms of their grandparents: Codex Mendoza, fol. 71r (Click on image to enlarge)

The most formal of Aztec greetings was kissing the earth: a noble would bend the knees, bow - head remaining close to the ground - scoop up earth in the hand and raise it to the mouth. This was known as tlalcualiztli or ‘eating of the earth’. This appears to have been reserved for the welcoming of distinguished visitors to a community. We have it reported that when Cortés tried to hug Motecuhzoma, he was prevented from doing so by the ruler’s nobles... the idea was that no-one should touch, nor look at, the ruler of the known world. Bowing of course allowed you to avoid direct visual as well as physical contact. (The lowering of the head was also a part of Aztec upbringing: maidens were taught not to look directly at someone who might greet them in the street - if they did, they received a sharp pinch from their elderly female chaperone!)
Illustrations of touching in the Florentine and Mendoza Codices are limited to contexts of caring for children, punishments, healing, and captures and other battlefield encounters. However the last folio of the Codex Mendoza contains an interesting exception: grandchildren are shown holding the arms of their aged grandparents (pic 1) - apparently in a loving, respectful and supportive gesture (grandparents who had reached the ripe old age of 70 were allowed to get drunk - perhaps to celebrate their productive lives, culminating in their dignified senior status).

Pic 2: Holding arms: ‘Safe home...’
Pic 2: Holding arms: ‘Safe home...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

What of the rest of society? The sources we have do suggest that two people of the same social status would entwine arms in a courteous gesture of reciprocal support, particularly common when welcoming a guest into one’s home (see main picture). Interestingly, the Florentine Codex contains references to verbal Mexica greetings. Whether between nobles or commoners, standard, formalised, reverential phrases all included expressions of wanting to give assistance to and of caring for the wellbeing of the other person. As well as the all-important ‘You have tired yourself in coming’ - fatigue was associated with body and soul becoming unbalanced and being liable to illness - the host would show concern lest the guest should fall or hurt themselves - and in so doing perhaps suffer a fright, something that could easily, in Aztec belief, trigger the temporary departure of the tonalli, the spirit force in the head. This surely explains the importance of physically and respectfully taking the guest’s arm and accompanying them safely to their destination and place of rest...

Pic 3: Ceramic figurines from the Tumbas de Tiro culture, Classic Period, Colima, West Mexico
Pic 3: Ceramic figurines from the Tumbas de Tiro culture, Classic Period, Colima, West Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

Were the Mexica obsessed with such formalities? Whilst behavioural codes were extensive and profound, let’s not imagine that their lives were entirely controlled and emotionless. Ceramic images of every-day life (albeit not Aztec in this case) clearly show couples showing warmth and tenderness by putting their arms around each other (pic 3). It’s a small world...

Special thanks to Professors Frances Berdan and Alfredo López Austín (personal communications). Additional recommended source: Historia de la Vida Cotidiana en México. Vol. I: Mesoamérica y los Ambitos Indígenas de la Nueva España, ed. Pablo Escalante Gonzalbo, Colegio de México/Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico, 2004.

Picture sources:-
• Main picture and pic 2: illustration by Steve Radzi (mayavision.com), specially commissioned by Mexicolore
• Pic 1: image from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, Waterlow, London, 1938
• Pic 3: public domain.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Dec 08th 2019

Traditional Nahuatl greetings

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