General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 4 Jun 2020/9 Wind
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Two images from the Florentine Codex: One-Death was a good day to be an Aztec slave

One-Death: great day to be an Aztec slave!

If you’ve rummaged round our website looking for information on Mexica (Aztec) slaves, you will hopefully by now have a) found some good information and b) discovered that slavery in Tenochtitlan wasn’t at all like its counterpart in ancient Rome or Athens. The Aztecs were nothing if not superstitious and fatalistic, and here’s a gem from the Florentine Codex to back this up, relating to slaves and the ritual calendar... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: One of a sequence of illustrations relating to the day One-Death; Florentine Codex Book IV
Pic 1: One of a sequence of illustrations relating to the day One-Death; Florentine Codex Book IV (Click on image to enlarge)

Chapter 9 of Book IV of the Codex is dedicated to ‘the sixth sign, called One Death, and of the good fortune belonging to it. It was said to be the day sign of Tezcatlipoca. And many were the offerings and blood sacrifices with which they did him honour. And each person provided much pleasure to the slaves...’ (Emphasis added). In fact it was ‘said to be a good day sign, but also somewhat bad’ (being dedicated to Tezcalitpoca, this is hardly surprising!). But from the point of view of a Mexica slave, it was good news all round...
Incidentally, any child born on a day One-Death, noble or commoner, was due to ‘prosper and be rich’, and (s)he was given a Tezcatlipoca-related name, such as Miquiz (Death) or Yaotl (Warrior).
One-Death was Slaves Day! Slave owners had the duty not only to remove any slave’s wooden collar for that day, but also to grant them very special treatment: ‘Then they soaped them and bathed them, and made much of and flattered them. They showed them great esteem, because, so they thought, they were his [Tezcatlipoca’s] likenesses and representatives: his beloved sons.

Pic 2: The fate of a youth who should mistreat a Mexica slave on Aztec Slaves Day...
Pic 2: The fate of a youth who should mistreat a Mexica slave on Aztec Slaves Day... (Click on image to enlarge)

‘It was said that they were like the blue cotingas, the trupials, the precious birds of Tezcatlipoca. And those who owned slaves warned and on threat of death ordered their children, youths, and growing sons, commanding them sternly and rigorously, not to chide, deal vainly with, nor strike the slaves...’
Woe and death to anyone who should break these rules. He would be dealt ‘misery and affliction’. He would be struck and beaten, ‘pursued from one place to another’, symbolically he would have to wear the slave’s wooden collar. Worse, he would take on the slave’s status lock, stock and barrel. ‘He would be ceremonially bathed; he would die in sacrifice as a bathed victim. And it was said “He will die sacrificed as a war captive. They will cook him in an olla [large pot] and eat him”’ (pic 2).

Pic 3: One-Death: ‘[Tezcatlipoca] showed compassion and gave it as a gift to the one who sought him diligently and who went about weeping and sighing for his sake...’ Florentine Codex, Book IV
Pic 3: One-Death: ‘[Tezcatlipoca] showed compassion and gave it as a gift to the one who sought him diligently and who went about weeping and sighing for his sake...’ Florentine Codex, Book IV (Click on image to enlarge)

It was the ultimate reversal of roles, a warning to all Aztec citizens to respect slaves, and NOT to devalue and waste their own privileges, becoming vain. It parallels the case of a slave trying to escape from the market: if anyone other than the slave’s owner or son should attempt to apprehend the escaping slave, that person would HIMSELF be condemned to slave status. Half the chapter on One-Death appears to relate to the fate of the youth who should mistreat a slave on this day, since the youth had clearly ‘brought on himself’ his ‘deserts’, his ‘great sin and wrong’. It also gives a strong insight into the temperament of Tezcatlipoca, who could grant every person, rich or poor, a good or a bad fate in an instant.
The winner? The ordinary Mexica slave:-
’And in this manner poor slaves achieved glory and honour. For it came to pass that if some poor slave, mocked, beaten, and made to suffer, still escaped, he became rich and wealthy. This same one bought slaves and prospered, governed, and was ruler of all...’

Picture sources:-
• All 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. NOTE: the main image at the top of the page is a compilation of two illustrations in the Codex.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on May 15th 2020

emoticon Q. Which great film (from 1983) would an Aztec slave LOVE to have watched on the eve of One-Death?
A. ‘Trading Places’!

‘Freedom: run for it!’

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