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which Mexica god was the protector of slaves?
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Aztec slave market, Florentine Codex Book 9

Slave: ‘To secure your freedom, tread on poo...!’ Eh??

Years ago (first link below) we reported on the one chance Mexica (Aztec) slaves were given to escape their condition: they were freed instantly if they could make a run for it from the slave markets at Azcapotzalco or Tlatelolco and reach the safety of the ruler’s palace without getting caught by the slave’s owner or his son (if anyone else got involved by stopping the slave, they automatically became slaves themselves, and the slave was freed!). We missed a small but crucial and intriguing fact: that the fleeing slave had, after exiting the market area, to step ritually in human excrement. What could be the explanation...? (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Family of collared Aztec slaves; Florentine Codex Book 7
Pic 1: Family of collared Aztec slaves; Florentine Codex Book 7 (Click on image to enlarge)

The answer lies in what Alfredo López Austin refers to as the interconnections between ‘concepts about the human body and social stratification’. Before exploring this, we need to place the Aztec approach to ‘slavery’ in some kind of wider context. Scholars agree that, in the words of Jacques Soustelle, ‘Mexican servitude was quite unlike the accepted notion of slavery’.
López Austin defines a Mexica tlacotli (plural tlatlacotin) as ‘an individual obliged to serve others by virtue of a contract or a penalty imposed on him by law... Being a tlacotli was usually temporary, since the legal relationship could end with payment of the debt that had caused the subjection. In this sense tlatlacoliztli - the situation of the tlacotli - could be compared to a condition of personal pledge, in which the debtor guaranteed with his own person the payment of a debt and in the meanwhile worked for his creditor.’ Some scholars label this a form of ‘contractual indentured servitude’.

Pic 2: Two Mexica officers present to a Mexica constable a provincial ruler condemned to death for permitting an attack on Aztec merchants; following the captive is his wife and son, in slaves’ fetters. Codex Mendoza fol. 66r (detail)
Pic 2: Two Mexica officers present to a Mexica constable a provincial ruler condemned to death for permitting an attack on Aztec merchants; following the captive is his wife and son, in slaves’ fetters. Codex Mendoza fol. 66r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

This was the most numerous class of ‘ordinary’ slave, a free man or woman who - to use a modern euphemism - might have fallen on hard times and had voluntarily entered into slavery. A formal ceremony took place - with elders as witnesses - to mark the change of legal status; in exchange for formally surrendering his/her responsibilities, this secured the individual access to protection by law and to basic human rights: to housing, food, clothing and fair treatment. Such slaves could not normally be sold without their own agreement, and could regain their freedom on the death of their master or on payment of their debt. Moreover, they could ‘possess goods, save money, buy land and houses and even slaves for their own service... all children were born free, including those both of whose parents were slaves. No inherited shame was attached to this state’ (Soustelle).
Others were condemned to slavery as punishment for a crime.
Yet another category of slave consisted of prisoners of war: their fate was made worse by the fact that they could be sold and/or offered for sacrifice. However, unlike warriors captured in battle (who were usually sacrificed shortly after being brought to Tenochtitlan), civilians - like the mother and son in picture 2 - could join the ranks of tlatlacotin as political prisoners.

Pic 3: Collared slaves: the wife and son of a condemned provincial ruler (see pic 2 for details)
Pic 3: Collared slaves: the wife and son of a condemned provincial ruler (see pic 2 for details) (Click on image to enlarge)

The images of slaves in the codices overwhelmingly show the ‘collared’ variety, presumably as this was the simplest visual representation of general slave status; but we know that in real life ‘ordinary’ slaves were graded, and in the carrying out of their daily tasks they did not wear a heavy wooden collar (quauhcozcatl) with its metre-long wooden rod - these were, after all, designed to mark them out and punish them publicly, to hinder their escape, and to permit chaining several slaves together.
Day to day they were relatively safe from hardship of any kind BUT they ran the serious risk of being demoted to ‘collared slave’ status. This could result from persistent attempts to escape, laziness, disobedience or incompetence, and the slave had to be formally admonished three times in front of witnesses by his/her owner. ‘The penalty was imposed by a judicial sentence that allowed creditors to transfer their ownership without consulting the persons sentenced and could have them destined to a sacrificial death’ (López Austin).
If he did not improve, in Soustelle’s words ‘his master had the right to put a heavy wooden collar on his neck and lead him to the market to be sold’ (see main picture, above).

Pic 4: The arraying of a slave by his master; Florentine Codex Book IX
Pic 4: The arraying of a slave by his master; Florentine Codex Book IX (Click on image to enlarge)

The market price for a slave varied substantially, from 20-40 cotton capes, according to his/her skills and appearance. If he should be wretched enough to be sold by three masters in a row, he could then be sold for human sacrifice (‘for the special purpose of representing gods’ [Durán]) - usually to a professional merchant or pochteca. Chapter 14 of the Florentine Codex spells out in grim detail the fate of these poor souls, called tlatlaaltiltin (‘bathed ones’ - having been ritually cleansed of their guilt). Just as a captive warrior would be accompanied by his captor, a bathed slave was accompanied by his owner up the steps of the temple-pyramid to be offered to Huitzilopochtli. Ironically, ‘the bathed ones went at the very last to die’; what’s more, his owner was accompanied by his wife (or another relative) as if to grant the bathed one extra importance. The slave was luxuriously dressed and arrayed (pic 4) and intoxicated with divine ‘obsidian medicine’ (teoctli - learn more below). Everything seems to indicate his complete apotheosis (elevation to divine status): he had de facto become divine, a ‘physical reflection of the gods’. This new special status is confirmed by the fact that symbolically the slave’s master, ‘for as long as he still lived on earth, always guarded his sacred reed box. There he kept what had been the array of his bathed slave, all his adornment...’ (Florentine Codex - see pic 5). Why should a disgraced slave achieve at the end this total reversal of status? Because he was now being called on (remember Durán’s words, above) to embody teotl or divine life force itself.

Pic 5: The array of a slain slave, Florentine Codex Book IX
Pic 5: The array of a slain slave, Florentine Codex Book IX (Click on image to enlarge)

To return now to our initial question, López Austin has shown that, in contrast to an Aztec noble, a slave ‘had suffered a physical diminution that explained, at least partially, his degree of subjugation... the parts harmed in the ordinary tlacotli were the tonalli and the teyolia’ (learn more about these in the link below). His heart was physically different to others’, ‘hot’ rather than ‘cold’. What’s more, ‘it may be supposed that contact with human waste supplemented something lacking in the lower part of the tlacotli’s body. [Significantly, the very word tlacotli means ‘The damaged one’]. The fact is that once contact was made, only cleanliness was lacking for him to recover his condition as a free man... The damages to the collared tlatlacotin were repaired when they stepped on excrement; their impurities were cleansed with the purification baths’ (emphasis added).

And in case you doubt the truth of the original story, Fray Durán gives the following description:-
It was decreed that if the slave could escape from his master in the tianguiz [market] after having entered it and could pass the limits of the market before his master caught him, having passed these limits, he could step upon human excrement and in this way become free. Thus soiled, he went to the purifiers of slaves, showed himself to them and said: ‘O Lords, I was a slave, and, according to what your laws decree, I fled today from the marketplace, from the hands of my master! I escaped like a bird from a cage and stepped upon the offal as is the law. And so I have come to you to purify me and to free me from my servitude’... The law praised him for his skill and enterprise and gave him complete freedom...

The Human Body and Ideology: Concepts of the Ancient Nahuas by Alfredo López Austin, translated by Thelma Ortiz de Montellano and Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, Vol. 1, University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, 1988, pp. 400-405
Book of the Gods and Rites and the Ancient Calendar by Fray Diego During, translated and edited by Fernando Horcasitas and Doris Heyden, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1971, pp. 279-286
The Florentine Codex Book 9 - The Merchants, translated by Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J.O. Anderson, University of Utah, Santa Fe, 1959, Chapter 14
The Essential Codex Mendoza by Frances F. Berdan and Patricia Rieff Anawalt, University of California Press, Los Angeles, 1997, p. 206
The Daily Life of the Aztecs by Jacques Soustelle, Stanford University Press, 1961, pp. 73-78.

Picture sources:-
• Illustrations 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
• Illustrations from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, Waterlow, 1938.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Mar 24th 2020

emoticon Q. How quickly did your status rise if you were a collared Aztec slave who managed to escape and tread on human poo?
A. Excrementially.

‘Freedom: run for it!’

‘What percentage of Aztec society were slaves?’

Read more on Aztec ‘slavery’ by Professor Elizabeth Graham

‘What exactly was ‘obsidian medicine’?’

‘Aztec Concepts of the Human Body (1)’

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