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Urrutia de Vergara Family Papers, folio 116, folder 18. San Diego State University

The ‘bottom’ line in codex writing

When we first saw this folio (no. 116, folder 18 - in the essay by Colston, see below), from the (undated) Urrutia de Vergara Family Papers held in the Special Collections Room of San Diego State University Library, we were struck by the highly unusual use of the glyph for a human ‘bottom’ as a PREfix at the start of a Nahua individual’s name (in the centre of the picture) - as opposed to its use as a SUFfix to name a person or a place, which was far more common. (The document is what’s called a ‘cadaster’, a legal land registry paper). We soon realised that this particular glyph has quite a colourful pedigree... (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Examples of the rebus principle
Pic 1: Examples of the rebus principle (Click on image to enlarge)

Nahuatl, both written and spoken, is what’s called an ‘agglutinative’ language, that is, it contains many words that are combinations of two or more shorter words ‘glued together’ to form new ones. Many languages around the world are agglutinative - English isn’t one of them. Yet we love using the idea of agglutination in linguistic puzzles, such as the ‘rebus’ principle, where ‘a pictographic symbol represents not the idea it depicts but the sound associated with that idea’ (Robinson). We’ve given the simplest possible example in Picture 1 (top), where the picture of a bean is used to represent the sound of the word ‘been’. In fact, the idea is ancient: Egyptian hieroglyphs are full of rebuses, and they were popular during the Middle Ages for representing heraldic names: Bishop Hugh Oldham, for example, used an an owl plus the letters ‘dom’ to depict ‘Oldham’ in his chantry in Exeter Cathedral (pic 1, bottom).

Pic 2: (Top left) the place glyph for the town of Mazatlan, Codex Mendoza, fol. 47 (detail); artist’s rendition (main)
Pic 2: (Top left) the place glyph for the town of Mazatlan, Codex Mendoza, fol. 47 (detail); artist’s rendition (main) (Click on image to enlarge)

A rebus is particularly useful in trying to convey an abstract idea: a common example in English is showing ‘belief’ by drawing a bee followed by a leaf (pic 1, centre). By combining word signs with syllabic signs, early Mesoamerican writing systems, just like Old World counterparts, employed exactly the same technique, that is, using symbols to convey spoken sounds. Our alphabetic writing is one form of such ‘phonetic writing’ systems. Words that often cannot easily be written are place names; but by using the rebus principle, the English city of Oxford, for example, could be ‘written’, and then ‘read’, by drawing an ox followed by a ford across a stream. Neat!
Mesoamerican codices or ‘pictorials’ contain many place name signs drawn using the rebus principle. Often, simplicity is the key. Being an agglutinative language, Nahuatl lends itself to the rebus treatment. ‘Many Nahuatl nouns are compounds, whether well established, familiar forms or combinations made freely on the spur of the moment’ (Lockhart). A simple example follows: the provincial town of Mazatlan features in the Codex Mendoza. It’s a classic case of two Nahuatl words combined: mazatl (‘deer’) and the ‘locative’ (place) suffix -tlan (‘abundance of’). To draw a deer is easy, but to represent the notion of abundance in a single miniature symbol isn’t. However the Nahuatl word for ‘teeth’, tlan(tli), SOUNDS very similar. By combining symbols of deer and teeth, a scribe could draw a glyph that any Nahuatl speaker would then read as Mazatlan, (Place of Many Deer) (pic 2). Clever!

Pic 3: Examples of place glyphs in the Codex Mendoza incorporating the human bottom glyph ‘tzin(tli)’
Pic 3: Examples of place glyphs in the Codex Mendoza incorporating the human bottom glyph ‘tzin(tli)’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Scholars have found over 700 examples of place, personal name and other phonetic signs in the Codex Mendoza, the commonest consisting precisely of locative suffixes such as the one above (Nicholson). Numerous amongst these is a category incorporating the glyph for a human bottom, or tzin(tli) in Nahuatl. We’ve put together 15 of them in picture 3. The reason? tzin(tli) SOUNDS very similar to the Nahuatl suffix -tzin, a special term with a variety of meanings, most of which are common. It’s a ‘reverential’ or ‘honorific’ term (Lockhart); it can be a diminutive, but which also denotes respect and affection (Robelo); it can mean base or foundation (Karttunen); it can even mean fear (Montemayor); and it also means ‘bum’! In terms of place names, it’s very commonly found with an additional locative suffix -co meaning ‘place’. Hence many place names in Nahuatl end in -tzinco.

Pic 4: The seal of the city of Tulancingo today (main), with place glyphs from the Codex Mendoza -
Pic 4: The seal of the city of Tulancingo today (main), with place glyphs from the Codex Mendoza -  (Click on image to enlarge)

Take the case of Tullantzinco/Tollantzinco. Like many such names, it has morphed gradually into Tulancingo (today the second largest city in the state of Hidalgo), with the Hispanicised -cingo replacing the Nahuatl -tzinco. Tollan/Tula is the name of the ancient Toltec capital. Tule is the name of the local sedge grass (traditionally used to make petate reed mats). -tzin is a reverential suffix; but as Macazaga points out, tzin(tli) also denotes ‘la mitad inferior de un cuerpo humano, que es la que toma asiento en la tierra’ and in this case symbolises literally the seat or foundation; Meza concurs, writing ‘Para los antiguos mexicanos era muy importante la base de todo lo existente, ya fuera concreto o abstracto, contenido en ideas filosóficas, o plasmado en construcciones arquitectónicas; la base firme es la que sostiene a toda una estructura... El cuerpo humano tiene su base, tzintli, donde se afirma la columna vertebral que es el eje de su estructura...’ Hence -tzin plays not just a phonetic role but also a metaphorical one. -co is the locative suffix stressing place. So the compound word means roughly ‘Place of Foundation Among Tules’ or ‘Important Place Where There Are Tules’.

Pic 5: The two examples of personal name glyphs incorporating the buttocks in the Urrutia de Vergara Family Papers document, above
Pic 5: The two examples of personal name glyphs incorporating the buttocks in the Urrutia de Vergara Family Papers document, above

At the same time, scholarly interpretations of place names can vary. Robelo, for instance, opts for -tzin denoting a diminutive, ie ‘Little Tullan’, arguing that the Nahua people added the diminutive in cases of ’pueblos nuevos, en memoria de otros que habían abandonado, o que tenían semejanza con aquellos.’ This is supported by Lockhart:-
’With place names, -tzinco has actual locative meaning and also is not reverential, but indicates a settlement named after another, usually being smaller than the parent community and sometimes close to it.’ Both scholars stress that the original and oldest meaning of this particular suffix was precisely as a diminutive.
However this debate is irrelevant to the main focus of this little article, which relates to the curious use of the human posterior glyph as a PREFIX in a personal name sign (pic 5, lower) as opposed to its ubiquitous use as a SUFFIX (pic 5, upper) - whether as part of a personal or a place name sign.
The individual named in the top of Picture 5 is called Cuauhtlehuanitzin. It consists of two glyphs: cuauhtli (eagle) and tzintli (human posterior) giving Cuauhtlitzin(tli), which is close to the sound of the glossed name Cuauhtlehuanitzin (‘Great Ascending Eagle’). The -tzintli operates phonetically - as a rebus - to convey the sound of the reverential suffix -tzin (‘great’).

Pic 6: The name Tzinpetlauhtocatzin, based on the glyph for a naked bottom - detail from main folio above
Pic 6: The name Tzinpetlauhtocatzin, based on the glyph for a naked bottom - detail from main folio above (Click on image to enlarge)

The name of the individual in the bottom half of Picture 5 is glossed as Tzinpetlauhtocatzin, ‘Great Illustrious One Who Shames Others’. Here, as Colston explains, tzintli conveys two phonetic messages to form a verb. One part is clearly a naked human bottom. ‘But in this case, it seems the scribe intended the naked state of the tzintli grapheme [sign] to convey the concept of nudity, thereby signifying petlaua (to be naked) which forms the second part of the verb construction. Two phonic messages are, then, conveyed by a single grapheme which, when joined, yield tzinpetlaua, a verb that has, among other meanings, “to put to shame”’.
This suggests that ‘the act of exposing an unclothed posterior to others was an expression of contempt, a pattern of behaviour that carries the same meaning in many cultures.’

Pic 7: 6-Monkey leads conquests of other Mixtec communities; Codex Selden (Añute) pl. 8 (detail)
Pic 7: 6-Monkey leads conquests of other Mixtec communities; Codex Selden (Añute) pl. 8 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

No doubt about that! But this resonates with a little-known aspect of Aztec society, the ‘last resort’ use in warfare of women exposing themselves to the enemy in an attempt to shame, defy and mock them. This has been thoroughly documented by at least four leading scholars of the Mexica: Cecelia Klein, Louise Burkhart, Camilla Townsend and Lisa Sousa. ‘Mooning’ your enemy may have a long history - certainly going back at least to the Middle Ages in Europe - but, as Klein writes ‘For no other culture than the Aztec... have I found a story of naked, obscene women, who fight with their own body parts and excretions, having been sent into battle.’ And it goes beyond a simple ‘insulting gesture’.
Whilst there are records of individual female rulers and ruler/warriors - such as the famed Mixtec leader 6-Monkey who can be seen here (picture 7) carrying a shield and taking a captive - thanks to a couple of references in pre-invasion Nahua annals from Central Mexico, and the writings of chroniclers such as Durán and Tezozomoc, we now know that group involvement of women in battles, whilst rare, was ‘something culturally appropriate for their women to do in moments of extremity’ (Townsend).

Pic 8: Two Tepanec women warriors (bottom left) join battle against the Aztecs; Códice Durán, fol. 5a
Pic 8: Two Tepanec women warriors (bottom left) join battle against the Aztecs; Códice Durán, fol. 5a (Click on image to enlarge)

What were those two incidents prior to the Spanish invasion? ‘In 1428 two Tepanec women battled Mexica warriors alongside Tepanec men, and in 1473 Tlatelolcan women fought Mexica invaders’ (Sousa). Both instances were recorded pictorially in later chronicles. Picture 8 shows the first, picture 9 the second. In the 1473 war between the two rival Mexica cities Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco, the latter’s king ordered women to strip naked and to confront the enemy in what Burkhart calls a ‘last-ditch defense’. The women ‘carried shields and obsidian bladed clubs while loudly accusing the Aztecs of being cowards. As the obscene contingent advanced, other women - still dressed - turned around, flung up their skirts, and showed their buttocks to the enemy...’ (Klein). Apparently they also threw brooms, weaving battens and warping frames - ‘magical weapons, womanly counterparts to the darts and spears hurled by men’. Embodying the power of Tlazolteotl, deity of filth and childbirth, rather than directly emulating their male counterparts, the women instead ‘turn the full force of their womanhood against the invaders’ (Townsend).

Pic 9: Tlatelolcan women expose themselves and hurl domestic ‘weapons’ at their Mexica enemy; Códice Durán fol. 11a
Pic 9: Tlatelolcan women expose themselves and hurl domestic ‘weapons’ at their Mexica enemy; Códice Durán fol. 11a (Click on image to enlarge)

Virtually all these missiles have to be understood as ‘supremely feminine symbols, sweeping, spinning and weaving having been exclusively female tasks in prehispanic Central Mexico’ (Klein). The same tactics were employed in desperation by the last of Cuauhtémoc’s forces against the Spanish and their allies: Fray Diego Durán records women being ordered onto the rooftops: ‘Early in the morning, the women ascended to the flat roofs of the houses where they made signs of scorn to the Spaniards’. The women refused to surrender and apparently raised their skirts ‘so that they could give pursuit’ (Sousa).
In her in-depth study of Gender and War in Aztec Mexico, Klein suggests that part of the aggression in the women warriors was directed at protecting their menfolk, rather than contesting their power. Spindle whorls were ‘metaphorical shields’. Female organs were associated with shields, and childbirth itself was likened to fighting a battle.

Pic 10: The place glyph for Coquitzinco, Codex Mendoza fol. 33r (detail)
Pic 10: The place glyph for Coquitzinco, Codex Mendoza fol. 33r (detail)

Women’s buttocks acted as ‘biological substitutes for real war shields, intended to ‘absorb and thus neutralise dangerous objects’ (Klein).
Where does all this leave our mysterious Nahua protagonist with the rather special name Tzinpetlauhtocatzin, ‘Great Illustrious One Who Shames Others’ (no-one has yet traced his historical existence)? Luckily for him, his name was written non-phonetically - otherwise, as Colston points out, he would have ended up as ‘Great Illustrious Naked Posterior’, not exactly appropriate for ‘an individual of presumed high status’!

References/sources:-
• Burkhart, Louise (1997) ‘Mexica Women on the Home Front: Housework and Religion in Aztec Mexico’, chapter 1 in Indian Women of Early Mexico, eds. Susan Schroeder, Stephanie Wood, Robert Haskett, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman
• Colston, Stephen A. (1993) ‘People, Places and Pictures: Name Signs from a Corpus of Early Colonial Acolhua Cadastral Manuscripts’, essay no. 7 in Current Topics in Aztec Studies: Essays in Honour of Dr. H.B. Nicholson, San Diego Museum Papers 30
• Florescano, Dr. Enrique (ed.) (1988) Atlas Cultural de México: Lingüistica SEP/INAH, Mexico
• Karttunen, Frances E. (1983) An Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl, University of Texas Press
• Klein, Cecelia (1993) ‘The Shield Women: Resolution of an Aztec Gender Paradox’, essay no. 3 in Current Topics..., op cit
• ______ (1994) ‘Fighting with Femininity: Gender and War in Aztec Mexico’ Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl 24, 219-253
• Lockhart, James (2001) ‘Nahuatl as Written, Nahuatl Studies Series no. 6, Stanford University Press
• Macazaga Ordoño, Cesar (1979) Nombres Geográficos de México, Edit. Innovación SA, Mexico DF
• Meza Gutiérrez, Arturo (1994) Un recorrido por la toponimia jeroglífica mexicana, Publicaciones Artesanales Malinalli, Mexico
• Montemayor, Carlos (2007) Diccionario del Nahuatl en el Español de México, UNAM, Mexico DF
• Nicholson, H.B. (1973) ‘Phoneticisim in the Late Pre-Hispanic Central Mexican Writing Systems’ in Mesoamerican Writing Systems: A Conference at Dumbarton Oaks, Ed. Elizabeth P. Benson, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections, Washington DC
• Robelo, Cecilio (1904) Diccionario de Aztequismos, Cuernavaca, Mexico
• Robinson, Andrew (1995) The Story of Writing, Thames and Hudson Ltd., London
• Sousa, Lisa (2017) The Woman Who Turned Into a Jaguar, Stanford University Press
• Townsend, Camilla (2019) Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs, Stanford University Press.

Picture sources:-
• Main pic: Map from the Urrutia de Vergara Family Papers (1565-1769), folio 116, folder 18, volume 2, ref. MS-0533-18-116A, courtesy of and warm thanks to Special Collections and University Archives Library, San Diego State University, USA
• Pic 1: graphic (top) by Marino Riosa/Mexicolore; graphic (centre) by Debs Tyler/Mexicolore; illustration (bottom) from Wikipedia (Rebus)
• Pic 2: glyph (top left) from the Codex Mendoza - see below; main graphic scanned from Florescano (Ed.) (see above)
• Pic 3 pic 4 (top) & pic 10: images from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, Waterlow & Sons, London, 1938
• Pic 4: main graphic from Wikipedia (Tulancingo)
• Pix 5 & 6: images from Map from the Urrutia de Vergara Family Papers (see above)
• Pic 7: images from the Codex Selden (Añute) scanned from our own copy of the Alfonso Caso facsimile edition, Sociedad Mexicana de Antropologia, 1964
• Pix 8 & 9: images scanned from Códice Durán, Arrendadora Internacional edition, Mexico DF, 1990.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jun 23rd 2020

emoticon Mexicans may be amused to discover the likelihood that, as Carlos Montemayor explains in his Diccionario..., the root of the popular expletive chingar is the Nahuatl term tzinco. Cecilia Robelo recorded that, early in the 19th century, Mexican teachers would often threaten students with ‘Si no me das la lección te doy doce azotes en el zinco!’

“IN THE NEWS: ‘Tooth place’”

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