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Mexicolore contributor José Luis de Rojas

Marriage Alliances in Ancient Mesoamerica

We are sincerely grateful to Dr. José Luis de Rojas, Professor of Anthropology, Department of History of the Americas, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, for writing specially for us this introductory essay on the key role played by marriage alliances in ancient Mesoamerica in the exercise of political power.

Pic 1: Page 24 of the Codex Nuttall (British Museum, London) showing several couples with thwir calendrical names and some toponyms
Pic 1: Page 24 of the Codex Nuttall (British Museum, London) showing several couples with thwir calendrical names and some toponyms (Click on image to enlarge)

Only a precious few pre-Hispanic codices have been passed down to us. Amongst these, the group of surviving Mixtec codices is a good indicator of the interest which Mesoamericans showed in marriage alliances, especially those of their rulers. The Codex Nuttall (pic 1) or the Vindobonensis provide good examples of genealogies that include the names of the protagonists and their places of birth. That interest endured throughout the colonial period in other codices and in documents written in the Latin alphabet. Whilst we lack Central Mexican pre-Hispanic sources, we have plenty of genealogical data in chronicles that document the role of marriage alliances in the exercise of political power.

Pic 2: Fragment of the Codex García Granados (National Library of Anthropology and History, Mexico City) showing the mexica dynasty forming a genealogical nopal with the Spanish Imperial shield in the upper part
Pic 2: Fragment of the Codex García Granados (National Library of Anthropology and History, Mexico City) showing the mexica dynasty forming a genealogical nopal with the Spanish Imperial shield in the upper part (Click on image to enlarge)

Examples include the Crónica Mexicayotl, attributed to Hernando Alvarado Tezozomoc with the collaboration of Domingo de San Antón Muñón Chimalpahin Quauhtlehuanitzin, both active towards the end of the 16th century and beginning of the 17th, and that magnificent example of cultural fusion, the ‘family prickly-pear cactus (tree)’ found in the Codex García Granados (pic 2). More recently, thanks to the deciphering of Maya writing, we have enough information on the practice of marriage alliances among the Classic Maya to constitute a veritable ‘forest of kings’, to quote the title of a now classic book by Schele and Freidel.

Pic 3: Scheme of marital relationships between Texcoco and Teotihuacan (Carrasco 1974)
Pic 3: Scheme of marital relationships between Texcoco and Teotihuacan (Carrasco 1974) (Click on image to enlarge)

The élites endeavoured to ensure their descendancy from past rulers both via maternal and paternal bloodlines. Indeed, protocols had been established to control both present inheritances and future marriages. In fact, a kind of royal wife exchange system existed between different lineages, leading inevitably to marriages between some close relatives. This has been well documented both for the Mixtec by Spores (1974) and for links between Texcoco and Teotihuacan by Carrasco (1974) (pic 3). The Teotihuacan wife of the lord of Texcoco was herself also Texcocan, and the son of the lord of Texcoco who married a Teotihuacana was himself Teotihuacan. At least, that was in theory, though the vagaries of descendancy could complicate things…

Pic 4: The entire Codex Baranda (National Library of Anthropology and History, Mexico City) containing information similar to that of the Codex Nuttall, but in a colonial period format
Pic 4: The entire Codex Baranda (National Library of Anthropology and History, Mexico City) containing information similar to that of the Codex Nuttall, but in a colonial period format (Click on image to enlarge)

There is one thing that certainly makes our work complicated in this field: a major advantage to those seeking marriage alliances was polygamy – far superior to monogamy. Without limits to the number of wives they could take, lords could marry as many times as they saw fit. It goes without saying that this multiplicity of wives meant that future husbands belonged automatically to two lineages. An alliance was consolidated if the wife chosen by a lord already belonged to his lineage; mothers of course were very important, given that the father was the same for all the offspring.

Pic 5: The Genealogía Zolin, a Tlaxcalan codex showing a 14-person family tree; four of the individuals are women
Pic 5: The Genealogía Zolin, a Tlaxcalan codex showing a 14-person family tree; four of the individuals are women (Click on image to enlarge)

The mothers’ birthplace is of prime importance, and linked to it is the question of hierarchies. Not all wives held the same rank – something that would determine the aspirations of the offspring. Amongst the wives of a lord would be those from a more important lineage, from an equivalent one, and from an inferior one. As a result, alliances would surface that were between equals, between higher and lower ranks and vice versa: Carrasco (1984) characterised these respectively as ‘isogamous’, ‘hypergamous’ and ‘hypogamous’ marriages.

Pic 6: Page 14 from the Codex Selden (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford), a Mixtec codex in which several marriage alliances feature
Pic 6: Page 14 from the Codex Selden (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford), a Mixtec codex in which several marriage alliances feature (Click on image to enlarge)

An administrative system thus evolved in which the lords had family ties with their predecessors, with their peers, and with their dependents, something that was repeated at different levels, probably affecting the number of wives and the spread of circles from which they came. In general, a local lord could aspire to take a wife from the lineage of the lord immediately above him, and exchanged wives with lords immediately below him, forming a kind of promotional ladder on which no-one could jump a rung. That’s not to say one couldn’t move up (and probably down) the ladder.

Pic 7: Statue of the founding of Tenochtitlan, Mexico City, by Carlos Marquina
Pic 7: Statue of the founding of Tenochtitlan, Mexico City, by Carlos Marquina (Click on image to enlarge)

A case in point would be the evolution of the Mexica themselves: after establishing themselves in the valley of Mexico and founding the city of Tenochtitlan, their tlahtoani received a wife from the lord of Culhuacan. As time went by and his importance increased, the Tenochca tlahtoani Huitzilihuitl took a wife from the lineage of Azcapotzalco, daughter of Tezozomoc, the most important lord of his time, with whom they gave birth to the next ruler Chimalpopoca, said by historical sources to have been much loved by his grandfather. Thus we can see that whoever was destined to rule each place was always the son born from the principal wife, and descendant of the dominant lineage. Not the oldest, nor the firstborn, but the son of the wife with the most powerful father.

Pic 8: Another fragment of the Codex García Granados (National Library of Anthropology and History, Mexico City), placed immediately before the Genealogical Nopal and showing the Lords of Azcapotzalco and the places dependent on it
Pic 8: Another fragment of the Codex García Granados (National Library of Anthropology and History, Mexico City), placed immediately before the Genealogical Nopal and showing the Lords of Azcapotzalco and the places dependent on it (Click on image to enlarge)

The example from Tenochtitlan is linked to another important subject. The death of Tezozomoc led to a fierce struggle for succession which was eventually won by Maxtla. At the same time the successor on the death of Chimalpopoca was Itzcoatl, who led a rebellion ending the power of the Tepanecs of Azcapotzalco, replaced by the Triple Alliance between Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Tlacopan. At the time of the arrival of the Spanish, the predominance of Tenochtitlan was clear. Of course Itzcoatl did not belong to the lineage of Azcapotzalco. For our purposes the fundamental consequence was the change in the hierarchy of ladies. Those that belonged to the lineage of Azcapotzalco, who were the principal wives and whose children were destined to succeed their parents, lost their roles – if not their very lives – and the place of privilege passed to the families of Texcoco and Tenochtitlan, already widely related.

Pic 9: Genealogía de los príncipes Mexicanos (National Library of France, Paris); the fragment shows the marriage of the son of Itzcoatl and the daughter of Motecuhzoma I and their offspring
Pic 9: Genealogía de los príncipes Mexicanos (National Library of France, Paris); the fragment shows the marriage of the son of Itzcoatl and the daughter of Motecuhzoma I and their offspring (Click on image to enlarge)

Again, the example of Tenochtitlan is a good one: Itzcoatl married off his son Tezozomoc to the daughter of his nephew Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina (son of Huitzilihuitl), her name being Huitzilxochitzin. Itzcoatl was succeeded precisely by Motecuhzoma, following whose death the next three tlahtoque were three sons of this couple, grandsons of a tlahtoani on both father’s and mother’s sides. I believe that the person rightfully destined to the succession was Tezozomoc, who was to die before his cousin - who governed for 29 years and who was already over 40 when he came to power, with the succession passing to his sons. The adjustment wasn’t just limited to Tenochtitlan, and the succession wasn’t always clear-cut. When Nezahualpilli of Texcoco died in 1515, he left three sons, all from a Tenochca mother. Motecuhzoma chose Cacamatzin, to the fury of the other two. And when Cacamatzin died in 1520 and Coanacochtzin, the third in line, was appointed after him, Ixtlilxochitl allied himself with the Spanish and years later became lord of Texcoco with the support of Hernán Cortés.

Pic 10: Page 36 of the Codex Vindobonensis, another Mixtec codex containing the names and birth places of key protagonists
Pic 10: Page 36 of the Codex Vindobonensis, another Mixtec codex containing the names and birth places of key protagonists (Click on image to enlarge)

In other parts of the empire Mexica wives were given pride of place, altering the hierarchies of the court harems. This raises an issue worthy of a soap opera: how did the royal wives adapt to the changes in these hierarchies? It wasn’t just a case of the principal wife losing her status and having to defer to another who had previously been below her: the hopes and expectations of succession changed as well. Having offspring was important – though in general one or two was sufficient. Having several wives didn’t necessarily correlate with higher numbers of children. And a new wife might appear at any time and alter things again. Incorporation into the empire generally meant the appearance of marriage alliances, whether or not through conquest. The lords of Mesoamerica came to consist of one great family.

Pic 11: (L) The Dynasty of Palenque - history of descent from the founder to Chan-Bahlum II; (R) the three descent lines in Palenque’s Dynasty. From ‘A Forest of Kings’
Pic 11: (L) The Dynasty of Palenque - history of descent from the founder to Chan-Bahlum II; (R) the three descent lines in Palenque’s Dynasty. From ‘A Forest of Kings’ (Click on image to enlarge)

And a family with an enduring lineage. If our first evidence comes from Classic period Maya inscriptions, by the time the Spanish arrived they had spent centuries marrying amongst themselves, which leads us to ask: can we establish some kind of ethnic identity? The élite was a family unto themselves, whilst common subjects almost belonged to another world. And if we talk about ethnic identities, we might wonder about language. What (kind of) language(s) were spoken in the harems? If the offspring grew up in multilingual households, they were probably well prepared for living their lives using different languages.

Pic 12: King of Palenque Pacal’s sarcophagus and the portraits of his ancestors: drawing by M.G. Robertson. From ‘A Forest of Kings’
Pic 12: King of Palenque Pacal’s sarcophagus and the portraits of his ancestors: drawing by M.G. Robertson. From ‘A Forest of Kings’ (Click on image to enlarge)

What is clear is that power revolved around local lords, who maintained alliances with neighbours near and far; in times of change, such as successions, these alliances could easily change themselves, forming as they did part of a single unified system.

References:-
• Carrasco, Pedro
1974: ‘Sucesión y alianzas en la dinastía teotihuacana’. Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl 11: 235-241
1984: ‘Royal Marriages in Ancient Mexico’. In Herbert R. Harvey & Hanns J. Prem, eds. Explorations in Ethnohistory 41-81. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque
• Spores, Ronald
1974: ‘Marital Alliances in the Political Integration of Mixtec Kingdoms’. American Anthropologist 76, 3: 297-311.

Picture sources:-
• All images kindly supplied by José Luis de Rojas and presumed to be in the public domain, with the exception of:-
• Pic 3: taken from Carrasco, 1974 (see above)
• Pic 7: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pix 11 & 12: images scanned from Schele, Linda and Freidel, David, 1990: A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya, William Morrow & Co., New York.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Sep 03rd 2020

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