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Chonchayotl - annual mock battle between Aztec students, Florentine Codex Book 2

Class struggle: Chonchayotl - an annual mock battle between Mexica/Aztec students

In the UK every year some freshmen university students undergo quite painful initiation rites - but at least they don’t take it out later on their seniors. Not so in Aztec times! Once a year Mexica student cadets seemingly tried to seek revenge on their élite fellows - and lecturers - in a mock battle. Not only was it physically harsh but colleges could be ransacked too; and all sanctioned by the State... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Chonchayotl, Florentine Codex Book 2
Pic 1: Chonchayotl, Florentine Codex Book 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

At first glance, this annual fracas - held on the third day of the sixteenth month, at the end of the festival called Panquetzaliztli - seems to be another case of rather gratuitous Mexica ritual warfare, pitting young male students from the two types of Aztec school (élite calmecac and commoner telpochcalli) against each other in a display of intercollegiate rivalry. Moreover, the event is only mentioned in two (sixteenth century) sources, Sahagún’s Florentine Codex and Primeros Memoriales.
The presence of a strange figure called Chonchayotl (pic 1), however, shows that this ritual had firm religious underpinnings. Sahagún describes this ixiptla character (a human chosen to represent a deity) using words like ‘wild’, ‘dishevelled’, ‘bloody’ and ‘frightful’. He was on the side of the élite student priests, and, as can be read in the Nahuatl text (pic 2, arrowed) he represented Huitzilopochtli, to whom the festival of Panquetzaliztli was dedicated.
At midday the fighting began, and ‘verily they harmed each other...’

Pic 2: A reference (arrowed) to Chonchayotl as ‘ixiptla’ of Huitzilopochtli; ‘Primeros Memoriales’, fol. 252v (detail)
Pic 2: A reference (arrowed) to Chonchayotl as ‘ixiptla’ of Huitzilopochtli; ‘Primeros Memoriales’, fol. 252v (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

If the commoner students caught an offering priest ‘they rubbed him with ground up maguey thorns; much did he burn’. Likewise, if a student was caught by the priests ‘they bled his ears with a maguey thorn, and his shoulders, his breast, his thighs. Indeed they made him cry out.
’And if the priests chased the youths into the [college building], they looted it; they stole all the reed mats, the [furniture]... And if they found horizontal [teponaztli] drums, ground [huehuetl] drums, they took away all.
’And if the youths chased the offering priests into the calmecac, they also robbed them; they removed things from them. They took away all the mats, the shell trumpets, the seats with backs.’
Then they dispersed.
Various scholars have offered sociological interpretations for this ‘celebration’:-

Pic 3: ‘If one of the young warriors was captured, the priests made cuts on his ears, his arms, his chest and his thighs with agave thorns...’ Florentine Codex Book 2, detail
Pic 3: ‘If one of the young warriors was captured, the priests made cuts on his ears, his arms, his chest and his thighs with agave thorns...’ Florentine Codex Book 2, detail (Click on image to enlarge)

• As a way to achieve ‘greater social cohesion’ and ‘an opportunity for social reversal in which students would battle one another and get their teachers involved’ (Schwaller)
• As a letting-off of steam and an outpouring of resentment on the part of cadet students in a festival in which ‘warriors-in-training fought hard against the impersonator of the god they were bound to serve and against the priests who shaped his image’ (Harris)
• As ‘pseudo-combat containing a large share of play... Once a year the duality of the educational system, a reflection of a social competition, found its expression in the form of a game. The punishments inflicted on the young men who fell into the hands of their “adversaries” are significant... Here each side applied its own norms to the other. The action was not an innocent one. In symbolic terms, to pierce the ears, the chest or the thighs of a young man was to confer on him de facto the status of a young priest. Conversely, the nettle punishment, when applied to a young calmecac student, made of him an apprentice-warrior. Just beneath the surface is the outline of a veritable battle where the essential objective was to capture the other party, the adversary’ (Duverger).

• Schwaller, John F. (2019), The Fifteenth Month: Aztec History in the Rituals of Panquetzaliztli, University of Oklahoma Press
• Harris, Max (2000) Aztecs, Moors, and Christians: Festivals of Reconquest in Mexico and Spain, University of Texas Press
• Duverger, Christian & Scott Walker, R. (1984) ‘Aztecs and Games’, Diogenes 01, vol. 32, 125, pp. 24-47
Florentine Codex - General History of the Things of New Spain by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, Book 2 - The Ceremonies, translated and edited by Arthur J. O. Anderson & Charles E. Dibble, School of American Research and the University of Utah, 1981.

Pictures sources:-
• Main, pix 1 & 3: images 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 2: Image scanned from our own copy of Primeros Memoriales by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, Facsimile Edition, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 1993.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jan 26th 2020

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