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Mexicolore contributor Dr. Anastasia Kalyuta

Nomen est omen: Pre-Hispanic Nahua Naming Patterns

We’re sincerely grateful, once more, to Dr. Anastasia Kalyuta, Researcher at the Russian Museum of Ethnography, St. Petersburg, Russian Federation, for this illuminating and comprehensive study of traditional Mexica (Aztec) naming patterns, which continued well into the colonial period in Mexico...

Pic 1: An Aztec soothsayer (bottom) advises a mother on a suitable name for her baby, Florentine Codex Book 4
Pic 1: An Aztec soothsayer (bottom) advises a mother on a suitable name for her baby, Florentine Codex Book 4 (Click on image to enlarge)

The long history of the human race has never known any society in which individuals weren’t identified by a personal name, single word or less frequently combinations of words used primarily to distinguish one person from another. For millennia personal names successfully replaced any written ID for the greater part of the world population, who had no documents in the modern sense of the word. Even today a personal name is often so closely linked to an individual that it forms an essential part of his or her identity. Any change of personal name sometimes brings about a drastic change in one’s identity. And what can we say about the still popular belief that one’s personal name can strongly impact one’s character, talents, tastes, profession and even fortune? However, the principles of name giving are remarkably different worldwide and every culture has its own set of principles and established practices surrounding this important ritual. What can we say about Nahua names in this context?

Pic 2: Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (the Venus star) from the Codex Borgia
Pic 2: Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (the Venus star) from the Codex Borgia (Click on image to enlarge)

Historical records of the early colonial period give us an abundance of lengthy, sophisticated male and female names, often unpronounceable to the modern ear due to the ‘agglutinative’ structure of the Nahuatl language, in which different parts of words are literally glued together to form really startling compounds, as for example Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli – “the lord of the house of dawn”, a metaphorical name for the Morning Star (pic 2) or Ixtlilcuechaonacatzin – “venerable person of darkened face”, the name of a real historical figure, the half-brother of Motecuhzoma II (the Montezuma of English literary tradition). However, the guiding principles and practices of name-giving in pre-Hispanic Nahua culture aren’t completely clear to us because of the contradictions in and vagueness of the primary sources. The earliest and most detailed testimony about Nahua name-giving practices belongs to Fray Toribio de Benavente Motolinia, one of the first 12 Franciscan monks who arrived in Mexico as early as 1523 (just two years after the Conquest) to baptize and indoctrinate Indians. In his book Memoriales o el Libro de Oro, part of his larger and later lost work composed in 1527-1541, Motolinia describes traditional Nahua birth and name-giving ceremonies:-

Pic 3: Ritual bathing and name giving of a new born baby, Codex Mendoza
Pic 3: Ritual bathing and name giving of a new born baby, Codex Mendoza (Click on image to enlarge)

‘All new-born children received the name of their birth day such as One Flower, or Two Rabbit, etc. They were named on the seventh day after their birth... If it was a boy they put in his hand an arrow and if it was a girl they gave her a spindle whorl and weaving stick [pic 3]. Within three months they presented the baby to the temple of the devil and gave him an additional name. The event was also feasted and the baby was reminded of the name of the deity ruling on the day of his birth. And they had a thousand superstitions and auguries associated with the names of these demons relating to the lot of the baby which were falsely supposed to befall him during his life... And the children of lords and nobles received a third name relating to [their] rank or occupation, some when they were small children, some when they were young people and some when they became adults’ [Motolinia 1996:164-164].

Pic 4: ‘The established social hierarchy’ - pre-Hispanic figures on display, Anahuacalli Museum of Diego Rivera, Mexico City
Pic 4: ‘The established social hierarchy’ - pre-Hispanic figures on display, Anahuacalli Museum of Diego Rivera, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Thus, we can assume from Motolinia’s work that: 1) naming patterns in pre-Hispanic Nahua society emphasized the social rank of a person and therefore reflected the established social hierarchy; 2) name-giving was inseparable from the notion of “person” itself as an entity composed of several elements which determined each individual’s character and fortune. One of them was tonalli, a term derived from the verb tona - “to be warm”, to shine” alluding to the Sun, the essential and utmost imporant source of life-giving energy for all human beings (Karttunen 1992: 245). Every new-born child received this energy during the naming ceremony described by Motolinia and depicted in the Codex Mendoza. The word tonalli also means “fortune” and “day sign” in the traditional divinatory calendar tonalpohualli (Wimmer A. Dictionnaire de la langue nahuatl classique - link below). Tonalli was in fact that “birthday name sign” which according to Motolinia every new-born child received in the first instance as a verbal and symbolical expression of his or her fortune. We will therefore refer to it here as day-sign name.

Pic 5: A section from the ‘tonalpohualli’ divinatory calendar, Codex Borgia
Pic 5: A section from the ‘tonalpohualli’ divinatory calendar, Codex Borgia (Click on image to enlarge)

The tonalpohualli (literally “day count”) was a 260-day ritual cycle consisting of 20 symbolic emblems which could be animals, plants or objects/phenomena related to the powers and influence of a particular deity and 13-day period, called trecena by the Spanish; each day carried its own numerical coefficient from 1 to 13. So, the 20 day emblems interacted with 13-day cycles and it was the combination of numerical coefficient and day emblem that gave each day its specific sign and character (pic 5). For example, the day Mahtlactli Cipactli (Ten Crocodile) was prosperous in every respect, because the crocodile was the animal double of the god Tonacatecuhtli, Creator of the Universe and human race (Sahagun 1969 Book 4:57). Thus a child born on such a happy day and named after it Ten Crocodile was expected to have a successful life. However, not all the day signs of the tonalpohualli were as favourable, many being associated with negative forces that could cause the new-born tremendous misfortunes: serious diseases, deformities, ill-luck in business and personal matters, a propensity to alcoholism, drug consumption, and antisocial behavior, poverty, slavery and finally a shameful death in the public square for crimes or on a sacrificial stone.

Pic 6: The goddess Chicomecoatl (Seven Snake)
Pic 6: The goddess Chicomecoatl (Seven Snake) (Click on image to enlarge)

Because it was the day-sign name from the tonalpohualli calendar which determined the character and future destiny of every new-born, loving parents paid special attention to its choice. If the child had the misfortune to be born under an unhappy day sign, they obviously tried to postpone the naming ceremony until a more fortunate day sign featured. This precaution probably explains Motolinia’s testimony that the naming ceremony only took place on the seventh day after the birth. However, we should remember that 7 was a sacred number for the Aztecs, strongly associated with fertility and therefore the power of life. The main goddess of food crops was called Chicomecoatl – Seven Snake (pic 6).

As for the second name given within three months of the child’s birth in a temple, the facts are less clear. Motolinia doesn’t explain into which kind of temple the child was brought, neither has he provided us with many details about this additional (nick)name given to the child.

Pic 7: Calpulli temple in the Florentine Codex
Pic 7: Calpulli temple in the Florentine Codex (Click on image to enlarge)

Thanks to evidence from a parallel source, the General History of the Things of New Spain by another Franciscan and Motolinia’s younger contemporary Bernardino de Sahagun, we can deduce that it might have been in a calpolco – the community temple, where the child was born. In his huge work Sahagun describes many ceremonies carried out on behalf of new-born children in these community temples, and name-giving could have been one of them (Sahagun 1951 Book2:165-179). Community temples were dedicated to different deities; originally these were the protective spirits of nomadic groups who later formed settled communities of agriculturalists and traders. After the transition to settled life each of these protective spirits became a calpulteotl, the patron god or goddess of the newly-formed community (pic 7). As Nahua deities had not one but many names reflecting different aspects of their powers, provenance and specific characteristics, it would be logical to suppose that during this second name-giving ceremony the new-born member of the community was also given one of the secondary names associated with its divine protector. Therefore, we can conclude that such names as Cuauhtemoc (“Descending Eagle”), the metaphorical definition of the Sun god Tonatiuh at the moment of sunset, Nappatecuhtli (“The Lord of the Four [Directions]”), the avatar of the rain god Tlaloc, and Nezahualpilli (“Fasting Prince”), one of the infinite incarnations of the ever-present god Tezcatlipoca, belong to the category of names given to children in community temples three months after their birth.

Pic 8: Mexica military titles in the Codex Mendoza
Pic 8: Mexica military titles in the Codex Mendoza (Click on image to enlarge)

The third category of “names” mentioned by Motolinia consists more of rather honorific titles or designations of important positions rather than “personal names” in the strict sense of the word. Not for nothing were they given exclusively to the children of rulers and nobles, often when they were already adolescents or even adults ready to succeed their parents or when they had already taken up the position in the military, civil or priestly hierarchy associated with this title (pic 8). Unfortunately we don’t know much about the Nahua pre-Hispanic system of titles how it operated. However, we do know that among rulers, higher nobility and especially high-ranking priests, an honorific title was often incorporated into the personal name of its bearer and sometimes even replaced it in daily use from the moment of they ascended the throne or took office. That’s why they are so often erroneously mistaken for individuals’ real names. There’s a parallel here with the continuing European practice of giving particular titles to the heir of the throne in lieu of using the person’s name. If we see mention of “the Prince of Wales” we hardly need an explanation as to who is being referred to. There are also interesting parallels here with pre-Hispanic Mexico. The legendary Toltec ruler Huemac before ascending the throne had the enigmatic title Atecpanecatl Teuctli - “Lord Dweller of the Water Palace” (Wimmer A., Dictionnaire - link below). In the year 1340 a ruler in the southeastern province of Chalco died without any male heirs and his daughter Xiuhtoztzin succeeded him. She also took her father’s title Tlailotlacteuctli - “Lord of the Tlailotlacas” (an ethnic group of Mixtec origin)” as an essental part of her own official royal name (Chimalpahin 2003:1:219).

Pic 9: First page of the Codex Huexotzinco - one of the key sources of data for the present names survey
Pic 9: First page of the Codex Huexotzinco - one of the key sources of data for the present names survey (Click on image to enlarge)

A careful survey of other early colonial sources, especially censuses, genealogical and historical records of different Nahua city-states generally confirms Motolinia’s testimony. However, the picture we have obtained as a result is more complex and reveals a greater diversity in pre-Hispanic Nahua naming patterns, which essentially survived the Conquest and subsequent Christianization for at least a century.
In the course of undertaking this survey we established 4 different gender- and class-divided samples of Nahua personal names: 1) the names and titles of male nobles of the Basin of Mexico; 2) the names of noble women of the same region; 3) the names of male commoners of the Basin of Mexico derived from such early colonial censuses as the Codex Vergara; 4) the names of commoners from the city-state of Huexotzinco (pic 9) in the nearby Puebla region (Alva Ixtlilxochitl F. 1985; Alvarado Tezozomoc H. 2001; Alvarado Tezozomoc H. 2012; Chimalpahin D.F. 2003; Bierhorst J. 1992; El Códice Vergara 2011; Matrícula de Huexotzinco 1974; Sahagún B. 1997). This choice is explained by our desire to have comparative materials from the neighboring regions to make our survey more comprehensive and precise. In total we found 852 personal names with a notable predominance of male (694) over female (158). It’s noteworthy that women even from the highest social level are less frequently mentioned by name than men of the same social position in genealogies, historical records and censuses. In the former group of sources they can be simply called “daughter of N” or “spouse of X”, etc. and in the latter (for example in the Codex Vergara from the territory of the former Acolhuacan domain dating from 1543-1543) they sometimes bear only their Christian names. The names thus gathered can be classified according to the following categories:-

Pic 10: Scene from the Codex Boturini (pp 21-22): The Culhuacan tlahtoani Coxcox (Pheasant) orders the Mexica to bring him the ears of Xochimilca. His name is indicated by the glyph depicting the bird’s head (2nd row, left). Codex Boturini facsimile
Pic 10: Scene from the Codex Boturini (pp 21-22): The Culhuacan tlahtoani Coxcox (Pheasant) orders the Mexica to bring him the ears of Xochimilca. His name is indicated by the glyph depicting the bird’s head (2nd row, left). Codex Boturini facsimile (Click on image to enlarge)

1. Day sign names from the tonalpohualli: in documents they often lack their numerical coefficient, reading simply Coatl (“Snake”), Cuetzpalli (“Lizard”), Cipac (“Alligator” or “Crocodile”) , Ehecatl (“Wind”), etc.
2. Euphemistic names of people and deities, such as Ixcozauqui (“Yellow Face”) - a popular term for the fire god Xiuhtecuhtli.
3. Senior name-titles, usually incorporating the word tecuhtli (“Lord”) or tiachcauh (“Elder brother”): in a broader sense referring to high-ranking warriors, eg Chichimecatecuhtli (“Lord of the Chichimecs”) or Temillotl Tiachcauh (“Elder Brother Stone Column”).
4. Names of plants, birds, insects, reptiles and animals outside the tonalpohualli like Xilaxochitl (“Calliandra Flower”), Tlohtli (“Hawk”), Ayotl (“Turtle”), Miztli (“Mountain Lion”), Azcatl (“Ant”) (pic 10).
5. Names of precious/sacred objects that play an important role in cult ceremonies, eg Macuextli (“Bracelet”), Xochicozcatl (“Flower Garland”).
6. Names related to warfare and human sacrifice symbolism in particular those including the concept of atl tlachinolli - “water-burnt land”, the cosmic war caused by the fusion of two natural elements, water and fire; Atletl (“Water-fire”), Cenyaotl (“One Enemy”), Malomitl (“Captive’s Bone”), etc.
7. Names with the possessive particles e and hua meaning “owner of something” eg, Coyohua (“Coyote owner”).
8. Pejorative names (probably teasing nicknames) like Xocuetl (“The Lame One”), Ixtepetla (“The Blind One”), Amintzin (“Diarrhea”).

Pic 11: ‘He of Atlixco’: part of the migration legend of the Aztecs is depicted in this image from the Codex Mexicanus. Atlixco is represented in glyph form (bottom left) as the Place of Water in the Valley’
Pic 11: ‘He of Atlixco’: part of the migration legend of the Aztecs is depicted in this image from the Codex Mexicanus. Atlixco is represented in glyph form (bottom left) as the Place of Water in the Valley’ (Click on image to enlarge)

9. Names derived from toponyms and ethnic groups such as Atlixcatl - “He of Atlixco” (pic 11), a city-state in the present state of Puebla.
10. Names referring to particular time units/periods/seasons eg Maxihuitl (“Five Years”), Xopantzin (“Venerable Raining Season”). Of special note in this category were names given to the children born on the days of the New Fire ceremony xiuhmolpilli – literally the binding of years, the beginning of a new 52-year-cycle, which for Nahuas has the same importance as the start of a new century for Europeans. Boys born on such important dates were named Molpilli (“The Bound One”), Xiuhtlalpilli (“Year Bundle”), Xiuhtli (“Year”). Girls received names such as Xiuhnenetl (“Year Doll/Vulva”), Xiuhcue (“Year Skirt”), Xiuhcoçol (“Year Cradle”) (Sahagún B. 1976 Book 7:49).
11. Birth order names which indicate the relative age of children in a family in respect to each other: Tiacapan (“The First Born”), Tlaco (“The Middle One”), Teicu (“The Younger One”) and Xoco (“The Youngest”) (Sahagún 1997:255).

Pic 12: Fragment of the Matricula de Huexotzinco (f.483r/v), a census of this Nahua town made in 1560. The names of residents - eg Xiuhnel (Incapable One), Chicomacatl (Seven Reed), Xochhua (Flowers Owner) - are indicated by glyphs near their heads
Pic 12: Fragment of the Matricula de Huexotzinco (f.483r/v), a census of this Nahua town made in 1560. The names of residents - eg Xiuhnel (Incapable One), Chicomacatl (Seven Reed), Xochhua (Flowers Owner) - are indicated by glyphs near their heads (Click on image to enlarge)

As for the distribution of names, analysis of the samples revealed a strong correlation between a particular type of name and the social position of its bearer, as well as his/her gender. Usually high-ranking individuals, especially rulers of city-states and members of their courts, leaders of wards, military commanders, and priests had complex multi-component names composed of the following elements:-
1. Personal name consisting of two and more separate words, which sometimes formed a complete sentence, eg Motecuhzoma (“Frowning Lord”), derived from tecuhtli (lord) and the reflexive verb mozoma (to get angry, to frown) or Huitzilpopoca (literally “Smoking Hummingbird”), Itzcoatl (“Obsidian Snake”) (pic 12).
2. Title indicating their power over a certain ethnic group or residential unit, eg Chichimeca tecuhtli (“Lord of the Chichimecs”) or Huitznahuacatltlailotlac (“Chief of the Tlailotlacas of the Huitznahuac ward”) (Schroeder S. 1991:170; Chimalpahin D.F. 2003:1:277; Alvarado Tezozomoc H. 2001:517). In the case of priests this title indicated their affliation to a particular temple, eg Atempan teohuatzin (“Venerable God Keeper of Atempan Temple”) or their “specialization” in the cult of a specific deity (Sahagun B. 1997:82). So the priest of rain-god Tlaloc bore the title Epcoacuacuiltzin (“Venerable Tonsured Priest of the Mother-of-Pearl Serpent [ie Tlaloc]”) (Sahagun B. 1997:82). If a ruler performed both civil and religious functions in his city-state this was reflected in his title. So the ruler of Colhuacan, the ideologically important polity in the southeastern portion of the Basin of Mexico, had the title of Tecuhtlitlamacazqui (“Lord-Priest”) (Alvarado Tezozomoc H. 2012:87,167-69).
3. Honorific nickname which emphasized the supernatural powers or outstanding personal qualities of its bearer. So Motecuhzoma I of Tenochtitlan was known as Ilhuicamina - “He who Pierces the Sky with Arrows”, probably alluding to the numerous war campaigns of this ruler.

Pic 13: Atl Tlachinolli, Aztec water-and-fire or war symbol; drawing by Abel Mendoza
Pic 13: Atl Tlachinolli, Aztec water-and-fire or war symbol; drawing by Abel Mendoza (Click on image to enlarge)

It’s interesting that in the sources examined only nine pre-Hispanic rulers are mentioned by their day sign names, and one of them Ce Atl (Atonal) wasn’t Nahua but Mixtec, whose real name might have been Dzawindanda (Lehmann 1938:253). We should bear in mind here that day sign names of rulers and other persons of importance were deliberately omitted to protect them, for these names carried their tonalli (fate/destiny) which could be damaged or even destroyed through sorcery. At least one native historian Chimalpahin attributes the premature death of a once mighty ruler to an attack on his tonalli by his enemies (Chimalpahin 2003:2:317). We only know of one case in which the high-ranking Nahua son of Texcocan ruler Nezahualpilli used his birth order name – Tiacapan. A significant number of Nahua elite male names are related to the concept of sacred war atl tlachinolli (pic 13), of glorious death in battle and the ritual sacrifice of prisoners. We can put into this category not only such names as Apopoca (“Water Smokes”) but also the names of birds with beautiful and colourful feathering - eg Huitzil (Hummingbird), Quetzaltototl (Quetzal), Axoquentzin (Little Blue Heron), Atozquecholli (Water Yellow Spoonbill). These birds were believed to be reincarnations of the spirits of valiant and noble warriors who had died in combat or on the sacrificial stone. Such a death wasn’t an uncommon end for elite Nahua men, even for rulers and their closest relatives. Also Nahua nobles frequently had as personal names the names of birds of prey, eg Tecolotl (“Owl”), Yaocuixtli (“Combative Kite”), of venomous snakes (eg Teuctlacozauhqui - a specially venomous variety of rattlesnake) and of carnivore animals, eg Cuitlachtli (“Wolf”), Tecuani – a generic term for large felines, usually jaguars. Names of cultivated plants, particularly with beautiful flowers, were also common among the nobility, especially women.

Pic 14: Aztec noblewoman’s attire, including a beautiful ‘cueitl’ or skirt; Codex Primeros Memoriales, fol. 56r
Pic 14: Aztec noblewoman’s attire, including a beautiful ‘cueitl’ or skirt; Codex Primeros Memoriales, fol. 56r (Click on image to enlarge)

Here, one important circumstance should be kept in mind. The Classical Nahuatl language lacks any grammatical category for gender. It doesn’t even have the English equivalents of “he” or “she” among its pronouns, only the sexless yehuatl which can mean “he”, “she” or “it” depending on context. That’s why determining a historical individual’s gender can often turn into a real puzzle unless it’s explicitly stated in the text that this personage is male or female. However, pre-Hispanic names of Nahua women usually incorporate specific indicators of feminine gender. These words are: cihuatl (“woman”) (eg Ayauhcihuatl – “Misty Woman”, Cuauhcihuatl – “Eagle Woman”); cuei(tl) – “skirt” (pic 14) (eg Azcueitl – “White Heron Skirt”, Acxocuietl – “Reed Green Skirt”) and nene(tl) - “doll” and also euphemistically “vulva”, or female sexual organs (eg Chalchiuhnenetl – “Jadestone Vulva”, the famous or rather infamous chief wife of the Texcocan ruler Nezahualpilli, Cuauhnene – “Eagle Vulva). Also as already noted high-ranking Nahua women more frequently than men bore names incorporating the word xochitl (“flower”) either as the first or second part of their names: Amaxochitl – “Paper Flower”, Chalchiuhxochitl – “Jade Flower”, Coxxochtzin – “Venerable Pheasant Flower”, etc.

Pic 15: Myth about the origin of flowers in the Codex Magliabechiano (fol. 61v)
Pic 15: Myth about the origin of flowers in the Codex Magliabechiano (fol. 61v) (Click on image to enlarge)

It should be stressed that all these word-indicators of feminine gender are closely associated with Nahua traditional beliefs and concepts concerning fertility, procreation, and femininity. Women were considered indispensable participants in the process of the creation of new life in the Universe. According to a myth recorded by an anonymous commentator in the early colonial Codex Magliabechiano, all flowers on the earth were created from a piece of the vulva of the goddess of fertility, sexual desire and childbirth Xochiquetzal (pic 15). As in European cultures the wrap-around-skirt cueitl (pic 14) was more than just a piece of cloth. Joined formally with the word huipil (tunic-like blouse) in the phrase in huipil in cueitl it designated a fully-grown woman, ready for child-bearing and the heavy burden of domestic tasks. However, every rule has its exception. For some unknown reason one of the pre-Hispanic rulers of the province of Chalco in the south-eastern portion of the Basin of Mexico was called Ilancueitl (literally “Old Woman Skirt”), although nobody questions his manliness. The native historian Domingo Francisco Chimalpahin informs us that Ilancueitl Atlauhtecateuctli (“Lord of the Atlauhtecas”, a Chalcan ethnic group) succeeded his father in the year 2 House (1273), the same year in which he married the daughter of a Colhuacan noble, and that he died in 1290, leaving his domain to his son Itzcuauhtzin II (Chimalpahin D.F. 2003:1:155-57).

Pic 16: Motecuhoma I Ilhuicamina and Motecuhzoma II Xocoyotzin in the Florentine Codex
Pic 16: Motecuhoma I Ilhuicamina and Motecuhzoma II Xocoyotzin in the Florentine Codex (Click on image to enlarge)

Before the Conquest Nahuas had neither surnames, nor patronyms nor any other kind of family/lineage name. However, Nahua genealogies demonstrate a clear tendency to name grandson after grandfather or greatgrandson after greatgrandfather, especially if that ancestor was prosperous and successful in his life. According to Nahua beliefs the name of a successful ancestor enhanced the fortune/tonalli of his descendant (Sahagun B. 1969 Book 6:203). Thus we can observe that the same personal names may circulate in one ruling family through generations. The best known example is the constant use of the name Motecuhzoma in Mexica-Tenochca ruling lineage. Not only the fifth and ninth rulers of this dynasty had this name but also the legendary forefather of the Aztecs who ruled them when they still lived in Aztlan (pic 16). One of the sons of the warlike Ahuitzotl also bore this name (Alvarado Tezozomoc 2012:35,97,131,291). In one Chalcan ruling lineage the name Cacama (“Small Cob of Maize”) had almost the same popularity (Chimalpahin 2003:105-107, 117, 253). In dynastic lists rulers with the same name are distinguished by the addition of the definitive Huehue – literally “old, ancient” - to the name of an ancestor and Xocoyotl - “young” - to the name of a descendant, roughly the equivalent of Senior and Junior in modern English. However, in no case was a son named after his father. The same is true in respect of daughters and mothers.
As a rule all elite names are distinguished by the addition of the reverential compounding element tzin to their roots. Curiously this element actually has the sense of diminutive.

Pic 17: The Nahua names Ixpolihuitl and Xiunel can be read linked to individuals 1 and 6 in this detail from fol. 26v of the Codex Vergara
Pic 17: The Nahua names Ixpolihuitl and Xiunel can be read linked to individuals 1 and 6 in this detail from fol. 26v of the Codex Vergara (Click on image to enlarge)

In contrast with Nahua heriditary nobility, Nahua commoners or macehualtin rarely had more than one name. Men most frequently had day sign names from the tonalpohualli, but notably these names lack their respective numerical coeffiecient. Probably this is due to preventive measures against damage to one’s tonalli, which can only be harmed by knowing the complete day sign name. Other names of male commoners are designations of small animals, birds, insects and edible plants (eg Mimich - “Fish”, Zollin – “Quail”, Xicohtli – “Bee”, Xochicualli – “Fruit”). The theme of war is never far away and one of the most popular male names among commoners was Yaotl – “Enemy/Combat/War”. Some names are related to particular seasons: Xopan – “Rainy Season” - obviously indicating the time of year of this individual’s birth; others mark individual qualities, often negative and sounding like teasing nicknames (eg Ahuilama – “Lusty Old Woman”, Aoctlacuani – “Poor Eater”, Tlatoltzatzaca – “Chatter-box”). Another particularly interesting and quite widespread category of names among Nahua commoners are those we label pejorative, for their meaning is in no way flattering or pleasing to their bearers. In one village of the former Acolhuacan (Texcoco) kingdom we find side by side Icnonemitl – “Living Like an Orphan” and Coco(c) – “The Ill One, Afflicted”, Tlaocol – “Sad” and Ixpolihuitl – “Ruined” or “Disappeared” (El Códice Vergara 2011:f.3v, f.4r, f.26v, f. 27r). Together with Xiunel – “The Inept One” (pic 17) they make for some pretty miserable company!

Pic 18: An artist’s impression of an Aztec commoner family
Pic 18: An artist’s impression of an Aztec commoner family (Click on image to enlarge)

However, such pejorative names aren’t something unique to the pre-Hispanic Nahuas, they are found worldwide including among the ancestors of modern Europeans. The most likely reason for their existence wasn’t an unnatural hatred of parents towards their offspring but quite the contrary: their extreme love, care and intention to protect their children against evil powers. From ethnographic evidence gathered among the Indo-European, Semitic and Turkic peoples of Eurasia we know that names with negative and insulting meanings were often used in families where children died too frequently. In traditional societies such premature deaths were often attributed to the intervention of evil spirits, so despairing parents tried to repel them by giving unattractive names to their offspring. Such names might have a protective function by signaling to evil powers: “There’s no point in touching so wretched a being! Leave this child in peace!” Equally, of course, we can’t exclude the possibility that some of these names were actually sardonic nicknames given by “friendly” neighbors.
The repertoire of names for Nahua women-commoners is much more restricted. In some early colonial censuses like the Codex Vergara women are mentioned only by their Christian names. However, in most cases commoner women had nothing but their birth order names. Tiacapan (The Eldest), Tlaco (The Middle One), and Xocoyotl (The Youngest) tend to recur with tiresome monotony as if the intention was to stress the insignificance and low social status of their bearers.

Pic 19: The New Fire ceremony in the early colonial Codex Borbonicus
Pic 19: The New Fire ceremony in the early colonial Codex Borbonicus (Click on image to enlarge)

The last aspect of pre-Hispanic Nahua naming patterns we want to stress is name change. In contrast to modern societies where a personal name is a generally stable component of human identity and in most of cases accompanies its bearer during his/her entire life, the Nahua could change their personal names in line with their changing social status. Usually the acquisition of higher status was accompanied by a complete or partial change of name. We have referred already to the inclusion of an honorific title into a personal name when a ruler ascended the throne. In the case of priests personal names were replaced directly by titles - to our knowledge the former don’t appear in any written source. Warriors, whatever their social background, could aspire to receive honorific titles, rights and the privileges of nobles by distinguishing themselves in battle or by taking important captives. The title or honorific nickname replaced the warrior’s personal name. The most poignant example comes from the reign of Motecuhzoma II during the last pre-Hispanic New Fire Ceremony in 1507 (pic 19). According to tradition the new fire for the entire Mexica state was to be lit on the breast of a sacrificed captive. Motecuhzoma II wanted this captive to have a name clearly associated with the ceremony (Sahagún B. 1976 Book.7:49). A warrior from Tlatelolco called simply Itzquin (“Dog”, one of the day sign names common among Nahua plebeians) had taken a captive whose name Xiuhtlamina (“He who Pierces a Year with Arrows”) did contain a clear allusion to the beginning of the 52-year cycle and hence to the New Fire ceremony. Itzquin was not only promoted and received gifts from the ruler but from then on he would be called Xiuhtlaminamani – “The Captor of Xiuhtlamina” (Sahagún B. 1976 Book 7:51).

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• Wimmer Alexis, 2006 Dictionnaire de la langue nahuatl classique. Available at the website: (link below...)

Picture sources:-
• Pix 1 & 7: 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
• Pix 2 & 5: Images scanned from our copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Borgia, Graz, Austria, 1976
• Pix 3 & 8: Images from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938
• Pic 4: Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 6: Photo by Anastasia Kalyuta
• Pic 9: Image from Wikimedia Commons ( - original held in the Library of Congress: see
• Pic 10: Private collection
• Pic 11: Image in public domain
• Pic 12: Image supplied by Anastasia Kalyuta
• Pic 13: Drawing of ‘atl tlachinolli’ scanned from our copy of Burning Water by Laurette Séjourné, Thames and Hudson 1957
• Pic 14: Image scanned from our own copy of Primeros Memoriales by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, facsimile edition, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1993
• Pic 15: Image scanned from our own copy of the Codex Magliabechiano, ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1970
• Pic 17: Image scanned from our own copy of El Códice Vergara, facsimile edition by Barbara J. Williams and Frederic Hicks, UNAM, Mexico, 2011
• Pic 18: Drawing by Alberto Beltrán scanned from our copy of The Sun Kingdom of the Aztecs by Victor von Hagen, 1958
• Pic 19: Image scanned from our own copy of the Codex Borbonicus, ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Apr 07th 2016

Alexis Wimmer’s ‘DICTIONNAIRE de la langue NAHUATL CLASSIQUE’
Pre-Cuauhtemoc Nahuatl Names (Calmecac Anahuac blog)
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Mexicolore replies: Yes, of course, but the author is quoting Motolinía, a Spanish Franciscan missionary. Christian missionaries were constantly banging on about the devil...!
Mexicolore replies: Thank you warmly, Anastasia, for taking time and trouble to answer this question so fully.