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Click to see Tec's summary for kids Article unlikely to be of interest to younger children Professor Townsend is the author of many books on Native Americans

‘The view from the metate’ - women and the Aztec world

Camilla Townsend, Professor of History at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, gave this paper at ‘Moctezuma’s Feast’, a special study session at the British Museum (21/11/09). She has generously allowed us to publish it here, and we have, with her approval, added illustrations to accompany it. We quickly get to feel something of the essence of life for Mexica women...

Pic 1: ‘Adjoining houses’, Florentine Codex Book 11
Pic 1: ‘Adjoining houses’, Florentine Codex Book 11 (Click on image to enlarge)

If you had visited Tenochtitlan in the sixteenth century, you would eventually have stepped from one of the thousands of sunlit courtyards into one of the surrounding calli, windowless adobe rooms whose doorways always opened onto the flower-filled patios. If you had found the house where the newest baby girl in town cried lustily and her mother lay exhausted from her labor, you would have heard the midwife intoning this prayer:

Thou wilt be in the heart of the home, thou wilt go nowhere,
thou wilt never become a wanderer,
thou becomest the banked fire, the hearthstones.

Then the midwife took the infant’s umbilical cord and buried it carefully metlatitlan tlecuilnacazco (“beside the metate, the grinding stone, at the corner of the hearth”).

Pic 2: ‘The cook’, Florentine Codex Book 10
Pic 2: ‘The cook’, Florentine Codex Book 10 (Click on image to enlarge)

If a young girl who had been allowed to help at the birth now rose from her knees and walked toward the outdoors and the light, hungrily wolfing the tortilla she had been too perturbed to eat for the last few hours, you would have heard one of her elders reprimand her sharply, telling her to sit back down near the metate while she ate, lest she tempt the gods to have her end up as the consort of a man who would take her far from home, where she would be alone among strangers, the wanderer in the midwife’s prayers.

Mexica (or Aztec) women were by definition the guardians (even the personification) of the grinding stone, the hearth, the home. It was their sacred duty to obtain the corn, grind it endlessly, prepare the living dough, pat out the tortillas, keep the fires lit and the stewpots full. They offered the food they made to their families and to the gods. If they did not fulfill their cosmic duty, they were failures as women, and thus as human beings.

Pic 3: The Mexica ‘calpolli’, or parish community, Florentine Codex Book 2
Pic 3: The Mexica ‘calpolli’, or parish community, Florentine Codex Book 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

I think most of us believe we know what this means, more or less. We think we have heard it before. That barefoot women belong in the kitchen does not strike us as a particularly new concept. In fact, however, the Mexica women themselves seem to have understood their role as anything but constraining. They felt empowered. I would say that they knew what they were about, those women. In an era without restaurants, day care centers or cleaning services, when men had no recourses other than their womenfolk, no one could overlook the importance of women’s work.

The Aztec cal-li, or house, the adobe room opening onto a courtyard, wasn’t just a place to sleep. It was the essential building block of Mexica society. Several rectangular calli ranged around a four-sided courtyard formed a household. A collection of households formed a cal-polli, literally a “great house,” what we would call a parish or ward or district, and a collection of these, nearly always in multiples of four, formed a town or city-state. All the various towns together constituted the known world with its four directions. The scholar Louise Burkhart has elegantly said, “One could see the Mexica house as a model of the cosmos, writ small, but perhaps it would be better to see the Mexica cosmos as a house writ large.”

Pic 4: Cleaning sacred places, Codex Telleriano-Remensis
Pic 4: Cleaning sacred places, Codex Telleriano-Remensis (Click on image to enlarge)

In the Mexica imagination, we must understand, the universe was a dangerous place. They themselves had arrived as hungry wanderers from the north towards the end of the thirteenth century, and within about a hundred years had risen to dominate others throughout the Central Valley of Mexico and beyond. But they had not forgotten their recent sense of vulnerability—and they feared the restlessness of those whom they governed. Much as in ancient Greece, the volatile gods had to be appeased, and in earthly life, order had to be maintained, creation constantly reasserted in opposition to potential disintegration. The women swept and cleaned. They kept the family altars to the gods, their houses and the towns at large in order, constantly and vigilantly holding chaos at bay. For several hours a day their hands were busy twisting wild unformed tufts of cotton into yarn or else weaving textiles that told stories of the wider cosmos, in this way driving vulnerability and nakedness away.

Pic 5: Enclosing a woman dead in childbirth, Florentine Codex Book 6
Pic 5: Enclosing a woman dead in childbirth, Florentine Codex Book 6 (Click on image to enlarge)

In their reckoning, women had to be as brave as men. They faced death every time they faced childbirth, when, like men going to war, they were charged with going out into the universe and seizing a living human soul to bring home. “This is our mortality,” prayed the midwife while a woman was in labor. “We who are women. It is our battle. It is at this time that our mother, Cihuacoatl, may exact the tribute of death.” If a woman died in the attempt to capture a soul, she faced the same honored afterlife as a man who died on the battlefield. (I sometimes think about how strange it must have seemed to these women, after the Spanish came, when they were told that giving birth was not an honor, not their greatest opportunity to show their valiant natures, but rather a hideous punishment meted out to them because of the misdeeds of an ancient grandmother.)

Pic 6: Model of Aztec house interior, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 6: Model of Aztec house interior, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

In the center of the calli, in the center of their calpolli, in the center of their universe, lay the fire of life, the hearth. And next to it lay the metlatl, the metate, the grinding stone. The goddess Cihuacoatl (“Serpent Woman”) had once pulverized on her own grinding stone the seeds to make the dough to make human flesh. Ever since, human women had knelt by their metates, making the tortillas that let life go on. Some people even believed that if a grinding stone broke while it was being pounded, either the woman or someone in her household would soon die. (The Mexica, being practical at the same time as they were religious undoubtedly took care to use only grinding stones in good repair.)

Pic 7: Offering maize, Florentine Codex Book 2
Pic 7: Offering maize, Florentine Codex Book 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

The maize itself, the corn, had divine qualities, and women did not forget this as they worked with it. Sometimes, they talked to the kernels as they poured them out, some saying sweetly that they wanted to warm the corn with their breath so it would not fear the heat of the fire, others simply expressing their gratitude for its goodness. If they spilled any, they gathered every kernel with great care, not because they couldn’t spare it, but because it showed a lack of respect to respond to such an accident in any other way.

The cooking pot had to be carefully tended, the ashes properly banked at day’s end, so the last spark would not die. Men were told never to dip directly into the pot, for if they did, they would lose future war captives. (Here one wonders if this were perhaps a convenient excuse to keep dirty fingers out.) A cook must keep tamales from sticking to the side of the pot. If a tamale got stuck nevertheless, no one could eat it: a woman who did might find that a future fetus would stick to her womb and be unable to come out, and she would be in danger of death. A man would find that his arrows would not fly forward in the heat of battle.

Pic 8: Offering food to the gods, festival of Toxcatl, Florentine Codex Book 2
Pic 8: Offering food to the gods, festival of Toxcatl, Florentine Codex Book 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

Nor was it just human life that women were charged with protecting by providing food in these prescribed ways. They were also to feed the gods. They regularly left food offerings at the family’s altar. (It was easy – later - to convert these altars into shrines to a particular saint or to the Virgin Mary, and the Spanish priests were often horrified to find bits of food at the statues’ feet). The annual calendar was full of regularly recurring religious celebrations; for each one the women knew exactly which dishes they were expected to cook. Some were savory and beloved treats; others were entirely unseasoned, serving as another kind of reminder. When a woman’s husband was away at war, it was her task to make tiny tortillas, some with turned up corners, others rounded like rolls. They were called “butterfly tortillas,” and, placed on the altars to the gods, they helped keep hope alive.

Pic 9: Market display, Florentine Codex Book 8
Pic 9: Market display, Florentine Codex Book 8 (Click on image to enlarge)

But for those of you who are unmoved by spiritual notions and symbolic importance, I turn now to the subject of the very literal or practical importance of women’s dedication to food preparation in the Aztec world. By all accounts, Spanish and indigenous, the great market at Tlatelolco was the engine of the city’s life, and an immense section sold foodstuffs. Hernando Cortés described it in a letter he wrote to his king:-

Pic 10: Detail of model of Tlatelolco market, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 10: Detail of model of Tlatelolco market, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

There is every sort of vegetable, especially onions, leeks, garlic, common cress and watercress, sorrel, teasels and artichokes; and there are many sorts of fruit, among which are cherries and plums like those in Spain. They sell honey, wax, and a syrup made from maize canes which is as sweet and syrupy as that made from the sugar cane. They also make syrup from a plant which in the islands is called maguey, which is much better than most syrups, and from this plant they also make sugar and wine, which they likewise sell.... They sell much earthenware, which for the most part is very good; there are both large and small pitchers, jugs, pots, tiles and many other sorts of vessel, of good clay and most of them glazed and painted. They sell maize both as grain and as bread and it is better both in appearance and in taste than any found in the islands of on the mainland. They sell chicken and fish pies, and much fresh and salted fish, as well as raw and cooked fish. They sell hen and goose eggs, and eggs of all the other birds I have mentioned, in great number, and they sell tortillas made from eggs...

Pic 11: Model of the great market at Tlatelolco, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 11: Model of the great market at Tlatelolco, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Needless to say, Cortés did not have all the details right: some of what he saw he did not recognize or understand, and in certain regards he was disposed to exaggerate, in order to impress his monarch. Nevertheless, his description and those of other conquistadors certainly give us a sense of the situation.

Scholars have long recognized both the mammoth size and obvious economic importance of the market. What we have been slower to realize is that women formed a large number of the purveyors. Nahuatl does not distinguish between “he” and “she”. There is only one form of the third person, whether plural or singular. Thus a pronoun used to refer to a tortilla seller or a pot vendor can be translated equally easily as “he” or “she.” It is only very recently that we have realized that it should probably be the latter.

Pic 12: ‘Griddles prevailed over cooking pots...’
Pic 12: ‘Griddles prevailed over cooking pots...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Archaeologists have recently calculated that griddles prevailed over cooking pots in urbanized areas like Tenochtitlan. This is eminently logical. Farmers tending fields close to home will almost always be fed out of a cooking pot. In a huge metropolis like Tenochtitlan, men may go far from home to buy and sell in the market, to participate in building or maintaining pyramids, palaces and other public works, or even to work regularly in any of the latter. And large armies (like that of the Aztecs) certainly carry many men far from their homes. If men can’t come home for dinner, they will need food wrapped in tortillas, or toasted maize. Thus, says one scholar, “women’s maize processing subsidized the urban economy and imperial expansion.”

Pic 13: The ubiquitous metate
Pic 13: The ubiquitous metate (Click on image to enlarge)

Certainly, in short, women’s work was valued. Furthermore, even if women were constrained as to their choice of work (they were, of course), it is not as if the men were much freer. Most of them carried on family traditions in artisan crafts—and virtually all of them were warriors, on call to fight for their people whenever needed. And that need was frequent. It was through hard labor and unceasing effort that the Aztecs rose to dominate their neighbors. A man did not have the luxury of saying to his peers, “But I do not want to fight” any more than a woman could say to her family, “I am tired of the sight of my metate.” In fact, he had less freedom to speak thus.

Pic 14: Mexica merchants, Florentine Codex Book 4
Pic 14: Mexica merchants, Florentine Codex Book 4 (Click on image to enlarge)

But now, very suddenly and without much warning, I am going to unsay much of what I have just said – not in order to irritate you, but in order to remind us that the truth is always more complicated than it first appears. Everything that I have said thus far is correct, fully attested by sources in the Nahuatl language. And yet. And yet there is another reality we are only beginning to glimpse in the sources we have available to us. We have long known that many households in Tenochtitlan were polygynous. Nobles and successful warriors and wealthy merchants were all welcome to take more than one wife and to have other concubines as well. What we are only beginning to understand is how this may have affected women’s lives and imaginations.

Pic 15: Aztec husband and wife, Florentine Codex Book 2
Pic 15: Aztec husband and wife, Florentine Codex Book 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

The Spanish friars and their indigenous aides (all men) who worked together to produce most of the Nahuatl texts we have were not the slightest bit interested in this question, and so it is hard to come to grips with it. Even in their works, however, one can read between the lines and guess. The scholar Inga Clendinnen has commented a bit wryly, “Metaphysical complementarity actually bred social inequality.” That is, masculinity and femininity may have been equally valued in a theoretical sense, but in moments of conflict, an angry husband could simply turn to a different wife; an angry wife had no such recourse. (She could refuse to make dinner, but it would make no difference.)

Pic 16: Aztec women and child, Florentine Codex Book 4
Pic 16: Aztec women and child, Florentine Codex Book 4 (Click on image to enlarge)

Those many wives and concubines that had arrived as prisoners of war, or been turned over to the Mexica by their own people as a peace offering (in order to prevent a war with the Mexica, or end one precipitously) had the most to lament. For they had lost their chance to be mothers to heirs so to speak, to engender their people’s future. It wasn’t that their children would be enslaved. They wouldn’t be; the Aztecs did not practice that kind of slavery. But their children would not be the living legacy of the community; and they as mothers would not be honored for having made their people’s future possible. Looked at this way, the midwife’s prayer that the newborn baby never become a wanderer does not sound limiting, but protective. Looked at this way, the admonishment to the young woman that she eat her food crouching by the metate, not wandering all over the house, lest she tempt fate, seems like a much less silly superstition. For God help the woman who must leave her home to spend her time on earth as a dependent concubine in a stranger’s household and kingdom.

Pic 17: If only we could hear this Aztec woman’s song, while she throws maize into a pot... Florentine Codex Book 5
Pic 17: If only we could hear this Aztec woman’s song, while she throws maize into a pot... Florentine Codex Book 5 (Click on image to enlarge)

In the second half of the sixteenth century, some of the friars encouraged some of their indigenous aides to write down the songs their people sung, many of which had been in existence for generations. Of course, poems, lyrics, passed down orally shift generation by generation. In an ancient song clearly referring to the god of rain, for example, we suddenly come face to face with a reference to Jesus. By the 1570s, he had become part of the song in its latest form. Nevertheless, older traditions are clearly visible. There was a subgenre of song about concubines. Whether or not women ever sang them, we will never know. The one we have written down in greatest detail was definitely performed by men: they came from the conquered community of Chalco to protest their political status and request more autonomy. In a metaphor they knew their Aztec audience would understand, they likened their situation to that of a captured concubine. Whether or not any part of the song was composed by a woman, it clearly reflects aspects of women’s experiences well known to all.

Pic 18: The weaver, Florentine Codex Book 10
Pic 18: The weaver, Florentine Codex Book 10 (Click on image to enlarge)

Given our modern knowledge of the human psyche, the concubine of the song behaves as we might expect. She veers back and forth between two possibilities. On one hand, she tries desperately to please her new mate, celebrates her only source of power, her sexuality, attempts to look to the future; and on the other hand, she laments bitterly all that she has lost through warfare and will never have regain:-

This is his home. I am distraught. O mother, maybe I can spin. Maybe I even used to be able to weave – but it was all for naught. As a noble girl-child, I was spoken of in connection with my future marriage. It is infuriating. It is heartrending, here on earth. Sometimes I worry and fret. I consume myself in rage. In my desperation, I suddenly say, he, child, I would as soon die. Hey, mother, I am dying of sadness here in my life with a man. I can’t make the spindle dance. I can’t throw my weaver’s stick. You cheat me, my child.

Pic 19: ‘The cook’, Florentine Codex Book 10
Pic 19: ‘The cook’, Florentine Codex Book 10 (Click on image to enlarge)

Interestingly, it is not just her still-valued sexuality that the young woman reverts to, trying to remind herself that life still holds some joy. She also clings to cooking: working with dough becomes a profoundly comforting, eternal image:-

Xiqualquixti nonextamal in titlatohuani Axayacaton tla ce nimitzmanili neoc in noconeuh neoc noconeuh....

Hand me my softened maize, you who are king, little Axayacatl. Let me just pat a tortilla out for you. Hhhmhhhm, my child, hhhhmhhhhm, my child.

Such a woman had, despite the midwife’s prayers for her, been forced to leave her home, to become a wanderer. But the hearth and the metate were in another sense universal, and they could comfort her anywhere and everywhere that she might go.

Pic 20: Mexica noblewomen, Florentine Codex Book 10
Pic 20: Mexica noblewomen, Florentine Codex Book 10 (Click on image to enlarge)

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
• Image from the Codex Telleriano-Remensis scanned from our copy of the facsimile edition by Eloise Quiñones Keber, University of Texas Press, 1995
• Pix 6 and 10: photos by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore
• Pic 11: photo by Sean Sprague/Mexicolore
• Pix 12 and 13: illustrations drawn for Mexicolore by Felipe Dávalos

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Apr 15th 2010

‘Aztec Women: Capable Partners and Cosmic Enemies’ by Professor Elizabeth Brumfiel

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Mexicolore replies: Thank YOU, Professor Townsend. We’re delighted with this insightful contribution.