Travel and Culture

Essay: The Role of Women in Aztec Society

In archaeological writing… women have been viewed as almost interchangeable, engaged in universally predictable roles (Classen & Joyce, 1997, p. 2).

During my time living in Belize I had the privilege of studying with top archaeologist, Jaime Awe. Below is an essay I wrote in 2008 touching on central themes that I am still fascinated by, Central American history, religion, culture and gender.

Throughout history there has been a tendency for the societal value of women to be underestimated, misrepresented, and worse, ignored. “Historically, Europeans believed that Native women served as mere drudges and breeders just like their own wives, mothers and daughters” (Pette, 2007, p. 1). Although traditionally portrayed as submissive and inferior, evidence shows that in many societies women and men held equally important roles. This essay will discuss the role of women within the Aztec empire, which began with the Chichimec migration into the Mexico Valley Basin in 1300 AD and continued until the invasion of the Spanish, led by H. Cortez, in 1520 AD. A critical examination of women and gender roles in Aztec mythology, religion and society leads to the conclusion that they played a vital role in countless areas of Aztec life, complementary in numerous ways to the roles of men.

Research into Aztec women began in the early 1950’s with the premise that they occupied a prominent role in society and religion. This theory remained largely uncontested until the 1970’s and the onset of a new feminist movement within academia. As a result of innovative methodology and a fundamental shift in thinking, there was a radical reinterpretation of many of the classic works focusing on the role of Aztec women, “The effect was to highlight subordination, devaluation, and exploitation as the daily experience of ordinary woman” (McCaa, 2000, p. 1). The 1980’s brought a fusion of these two, seemingly opposing, views. These new theories proposed that Aztec women and men performed complementary roles, whilst simultaneously recognising that women often remained subordinate to men in many realms.

The role of the feminine in Aztec mythology clearly reflects the significance of women in Aztec society. Throughout Aztec religion there is a strong emphasis on the duality of the masculine and feminine. The idea of an ultimate dual totality existed in many Pre-Aztec mythologies including those of the Olmec and Toltec. This concept of totality had a strong influence on Aztec religion. “A historical account of the Aztec creation story clearly illustrates how women’s involvement in the pre-Columbian world was viewed as a necessity” (Rogers, 2007, p. 3). The Aztecs believed that before the beginning of the world there existed both primordial masculine and feminine creative forces. These forces, known as the masculine Ometecuhtli, which translates as ‘Authority’, and the feminine Omecihuatl, which translates as ‘Origin’ were collectively known as Ometeotl “Dual Divinity”, the bisexual creator God. The supreme couple were thought to have given birth to the four Tezcatlipocas, the four quarters of the Aztec region. The Codex Borbonicus shows a depiction of the supreme couple sat facing each other, a sign of equality, within a rectangular enclosure surrounded by calendrical glyphs (Fig. 1). The image suggests a duality arising from equally necessary generative forces. Rogers suggests, “Constructing their beliefs around the idea that both men and women were involved in the creation of the universe leads one to believe that the balance of gender roles were viewed as essential components in well-ordered Aztec community” (Rogers, 2007, p. 4)

Fig. 1 One of the central pages of the Codex Boronicus, showing the creator God and Goddesses, Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl. (Townsend, 1992, p. 117)

Scores of deities evolved to influence the cosmos that resulted from the Creation, many of them androgynous showing the significance of both male and female roles in religion. Many Gods had male and female natures, both essential. An example of one such deity is ‘Death’, known as Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl, male and female respectively. Another androgynous deity, Tlaloc, the God of Rain, is also Chalchiuhtlicue, Goddess of Lakes and Rivers. Such conceptualisations of the Divine promote, as well as reflect, a belief that genders are inseparable and complementary instead of divorced and oppositional.

In Aztec religion female deities frequently represent fundamental aspects of life, primarily the earth and fertility. Such deities include Toci (Our Grandmother), Teteoinnan (Mother of the Deities), Tonantzin (Honoured Mother), Coatlique (Serpent Skirt), Itzapapalotl (Obsidian Butterfly), Tlaltechuhtli (Earth Lord or Lady), Tlazolteotl (Sacred Filth Eater) and Ilamatecuhtli (Old Mother Deity). Aztec sculptors often portrayed Earth Deities with smiling upturned faces, symbolising the upturned face of the earth, facing the sky. Townsend notes that Aztec representations of Earth Deities are “often in squatting, parturition positions” (Townsend, 1992, p. 140) . Another common feature of Earth Deities is the presence of decorative skulls and cross bones skirts, with clawed hands and feet (Fig. 2). The presence of these symbols represents the idea that the feminine Earth was not only “the giver of life; it was also the eventual receiver of life, the devourer of all that grows or walks on its surface” again highlighting the importance of the feminine, without which there would be no existence.

Fig. 2 A Jade sculpture of the Earth Deity Tlazoteotl. Note the upturned face, a characteristic of many depictions of Earth Deities. (Townsend, 1992, p. 140)

Of the many the Goddesses of the Aztec pantheon, Coatlique is one of the most revered. Coatlique, also known as the ‘Earth Goddess’ and ‘Birth Mother’, is the mother of Huitzilopochtli, the sacrosanct divinity of the Aztec people and feared Warrior God. There are many versions of the myth surrounding Huitzilopochtli’s birth, although most follow the same basic story. Legend states that Coalitque was sweeping the shrine at the top of Coateptl, Serpent Mountain, when a ball of feathers fell from the sky. Coatlique placed them in her bosom so she could continue sweeping. Later she found that the feathers had fallen into her womb and impregnated her, leading to the conception of Huitzilopochtli. Coatlique’s daughter, Coyolxauhqui, and her four hundred sons learnt of the pregnancy and were deeply ashamed. A plan was conspired to visit the mountain and kill their mother. However, at the last moment Coyolxuahqui ran ahead to inform Huitzilopochtli, still within the womb, of the impending attack. As the attackers approached the Mountain, with Coyolxuahqui at the forefront, Huitzilopochtli was suddenly born as a fully armed invincible warrior. He mistakenly decapitated Coyolxuahqui and threw her head into the sky where it can be seen as the moon, then scattered his four hundred brothers in all directions to become the stars. Variations on the story state that Coatlique was so overcome with grief that she halted the killing of her other children and then placed the head of Coyolxuahqui into the sky as the moon. A depiction of the dismembered Coyolxuahqui was discovered at the base of the Temple Mayor (Fig. 3), the main temple in Tenochtitlan which was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc, where it was placed as a forbidding sign to enemies. The discovery of the Coyolxuahqui Stone has been quoted as “one of the most important archaeological finds of all time” (Coe & Koontz, 2002, p. 216). It is clear that Coyolxuahqui and Huitzilopochtli were both extremely prominent Deities in the Aztec world. Coatlique is the mother of another important deity, Tezcatilopoca, the Sun God. She cannibalises the Sun, Tezcatilopoca, each evening and births Him again each morning.

Fig. 3 The Coyolxuahqui Stone; Colossal Stone Relief of the dismembered Goddess Coyolxuahqui discovered at the base of the Temple Mayor, Tenochtitlan. (Coe & Koontz, 2002, p. 219)

Statues of Coatlique depict her as a frightening character (Fig. 4). Her head is severed from her neck and in its place two rattlesnake’s rise, meeting to form her face. She wears a necklace of human hearts and severed hands with a skull for a centrepiece, symbolising the blood she requires to give birth to her son, the Sun God, each night. Her role as mother of three major Gods in Aztec mythology clearly shows her value both as a mother and a female.

Fig. 4 A statue of the terrifying Coatlique, “Serpent Skirt” (Coe & MacNeish, 1991, p. 213)

Maize, one of the staple foods of the Aztec empire, therefore of great significance, was also portrayed in feminine terms. It was represented by three particularly important deities, Xilonen, Chicomecoatl and Cinteotl. Xilonen or ‘young maize’ was “portrayed as an adolescent girl with the first tender corn of the rainy season harvest on her headdress” (Townsend, 1992, p. 115). Chicomecoatl known as ‘Heart of the Earth’ and ‘Seven Serpent’ represented dried seed corn, harvested and dried for the next year. Cinteotl “sacred maize-ear” was the term given to corn eaten after the harvest. Three times each year, three chosen Corn Maidens visited the temple of Chicomecoatl to express human gratitude for maize. Only once in her life could a woman enjoy the honour of being a corn maiden. Each maiden had their hair cut to symbolise the three stages of growing corn. To represent young maize, one maiden had her hair cut short – above her ears. To represent flourishing corn, one maiden had shoulder length hair. Finally, to represent mature corn, one maiden had long hair pulled into a bun. On their first visit to the temple the three maidens laid newly sprouted ears of corn, on the second they laid half grown ears of corn and on the third and final visit the carried seven full ears of corn wrapped in scarlet cloth.

Some view the association of the feminine with maize, one of the most fundamental elements in Aztec life, as a clear indication of the worth of women. Another interpretation of the association between maize and women is that of domestic oppression. It was the role of Aztec women to complete the majority of domestic tasks. “In the maize-based economies of Mesoamerica, women spent up to six hours a day grinding the corn by hand on stone boards, or metates, to prepare the household’s food” (Prescott, 1992 p. 3 ) Many view this as a clear sign of gender inequality in Aztec society.

It is important to recognise that although women were often confined to daily domestic chores, many women were offered the opportunity to educate themselves and contribute to society as more than mere domestic slaves. As a result of the belief in complementary gender roles and the necessity of gender parallelism, Aztec women were able to participate in many religious practices through which they could gain elevated social status. When a girl was twenty days old parents could take them to a chosen Calmecac, a seminary that was usually attached to a specific temple. Here the parents would pay the Priests for their child’s education with gifts of loincloths, cloaks and food. Prayers would then be offered to the deity that the child would serve. The child would then be taken back to the parental dwelling until she reached the age of five when she was returned to the temple to begin training as a priestess. As a sign of acceptance into the Calmecac, incisions into the skin were made. A girl would “have small totemic cuts made on her hips and above her nipples” (Sessions, 1998, p. 93) Religion was a pervasive force in all aspects of Aztec life, a force in which women occupied a space separate from, but very much complementary to, that of their male counterparts.

Women also played distinct yet complementary roles in many other areas of society. In contrast to societies where male children are thought of as more valuable than their female siblings, Aztec children of both genders were highly treasured. A ritual that demonstrates the importance of both males and females is the Aztec naming ceremony, which Kellogg argues has an “essentially equivalent and parallel nature” (McCaa, 2000, p. 13). This notion, however, has been criticised by those who interpret the naming ceremony in a different way. McCaa observes that “an alternative reading highlights the contrasts between specific semantic and cultural differences for boys and girls and the implicit inequality in how males and females were named. Male names individualize the person while female names on the whole seem to simply describe birth rank” (McCaa, 2000, p. 14). Despite the semantic differences of the naming ceremony the parallels shown in other rituals for males and females seem to suggest the introduction of distinct, yet equally important roles at an early age.

Gender differentiation began almost immediately after birth. Many gender specific rituals were performed by the midwife in the week after birth. On the forth day after birth a bathing ritual was performed. If the child was female symbols of domesticity, such as spindles and brooms, were placed under the tub of ceremonial water. If the child was male the midwife hung typically masculine symbols such as spears and shields above the water. The final process in this ritual was the burial of the umbilical cord, “the midwife buried a boy’s cord in a battlefield but she buried a girl’s cord underneath her parents’ house” (Pette, 2007, p. 9) reinforcing the expected roles of each gender, the male as a warrior and the female as housekeeper.

Despite the differentiation in gender roles, women were by no means considered inferior, Aztec society shaped productive citizens of both sexes. The concept of the ‘flowery death’ is a clear demonstration of the Aztec belief in gender parallelism. “The ‘flowery death’, or death while taking prisoners for the sacrificial knife, was a fitting end to a noble life and assured eternity in the highest heaven, a reward also promised to women who died in childbirth” (Prescott, 1992, p. 1) A direct comparison is drawn between the death of a noble warrior and the death of a woman in childbirth, not only inferring the nobility of a woman in childbirth, but also suggesting that both roles, mother and warrior, held equal esteem in the eyes of Aztec society.

Another indication of the importance of women in Aztec society is found in laws concerning inheritance and descent. Susan Kellogg has illustrated that “under the Aztec system of descent, men and women were entitled to their own and inherited property as well as enjoy social status based on kinship and lineages” (Kellogg, 1995, p. 96). Aztec women inherited their own property which they could then pass onto their heirs. All children, regardless of gender inherited equal shares of both parents’ estates, although the eldest son was responsible dividing the properties within the family. There was no joint ownership of land between husband and wife; each owned whatever they had inherited from their lineage. “If the husband died before his wife, which was frequently the case among the warring Aztecs, his widow inherited nothing; his estate was divided equally among all his children. Her estate, if she died, was administered the same” (Pette, 2007, p. 7). The financial independence of women is a clear sign of their empowerment and equality within Aztec society. “Feminine independence brought about by monetary affairs and kinship ties also facilitated access for women to acquire skills necessary for various occupations and specialized trades”. (Rogers, 2007 p. 2)

Images from Aztec codices suggest that women were avid members of the market and merchant trades. Friar Bernardino de Sahagún, cited by Kellogg, observes in the early 1500s that the “success [of the Aztec woman] would be her dealings around the marketplace [and] in the place[s] of business” (Kellogg, 1995, p. 126). Women were taught to spin and weave at an early age, fundamental skills for the Aztec woman who was expected to be proficient in domestic tasks. Originally, women wove and worked only for their families, but as the Aztec empire increased, local rulers began to demand tribute (taxes). This ‘tribute’ was largely demanded in the form of cloth, manufactured almost exclusively by women. In a society which placed such a high emphasis on tribute, a woman’s ability to produce high quality textiles was paramount.

Evidence suggests that women were able to sell their produce at the local market; any income derived remaining legally hers. “Each woman had her own stall where she offered rugs, cloaks, embroideries, pieces of jewellery, corn and avocadoes from her fields, tortillas from her oven, or whatever she made to passers-by, male and female” (Pette, 2007, p. 8) It appears that although both men and women held stalls at the market, he majority of merchants at the market were female. The range of goods available at the principal market Tlatelolco, which could attract up to 25,000 people on a daily basis, deeply impressed the Spaniard Invaders. Cited by Townsend, Bernal Diaz describes the scene he encountered on approaching the market at Tlatelolco, “We were astounded at the number of people and the quantity of merchandise… we had never seen such a thing before” (Townsend, 1992, p. 174). Women played a necessary role as merchants indicating that they, like men, took part in essential tasks that “not only sustained their families’ position in society but also acquired social status for themselves as individuals” (Rogers, 2007 p. 3)

Despite the evidence suggesting gender parallelism within Aztec society, many are still critical of the idea that complementary roles existed for women and men. Rodriguez and Shadow (cited in MaCaa 2000 pg 1) insist that “the oppression of Aztec women was great. The evidence for this thesis is even stronger in the countryside, where the position of women was decidedly subordinate”. Women in the city of Tenochtitlan were offered many social opportunities that women in the surrounding countryside were denied. The Book of Tributes, documenting a census of Aztec households, shows women “almost invariably under the dominion of males- fathers, husbands, brothers, sons-in-law, more distant relatives, and even strangers…household structures also defined women as subordinate and dependent in myriad ways throughout the female life course” (McCaa, 2000, p. 18). Kellogg, however, argues that “parallelism and symmetry were fundamental features of gender relations and those complementary elements “outweighed” hierarchical relations” (Kellogg, 1995, p. 564)

One factor to be considered when examining the role of women in Aztec society is that evidence supporting the complementary roles of women and men focuses “on Tenochtitlan and near-by cities while the countryside, where probably nine-tenths of Aztec women resided, is ignored” (Kellogg 1997:125 cited in (McCaa, 2000 p. 2). Therefore it is important to recognise that the role of women in Aztec society may have been substantially different depending on their location, urban or rural.

The majority of written sources of historical evidence have been obtained from documents composed by the Spanish Invaders, men, who would have had a biased view of women and the significance of their roles based on their pre-existing European cultural and religious beliefs. In Europe, women were often thought of as inferior and submissive and this view is likely to have influenced the way in which Aztec women were viewed by the Spanish. Domestic skills such as weaving may have been interpreted by the Europeans as unimportant, whereas within Aztec society they were of great value. “Whereas the archaeological record is relatively thin, the colonial written documentation is relatively plentiful” this inevitably leads to a certain amount of bias. “Central Mexican historical texts are particularly rife with problems: they are narrow in focus, lack historical depth, typically derive from (and thus reflect upon) life in the urban capitals (thereby saying little about life in the hinterland), and are invariably male-centred and Eurocentric”. (Klein, 2001, p. 7) We cannot assume that Pre-Hispanic societies ranked and viewed gender and gender roles in the same way that we do.

To conclude, evidence from both archaeological finds and ethno histories indicate that women played important roles in Aztec society. Mythology shows a clear belief in the duality of genders. “The acculturated concepts of cosmic dualism, gender parallelism and reciprocity allowed Aztec women to be considered essential components of society, making them valued in all aspects of the Aztec social world” (Rogers, 2007 p. 4). Women were considered neither superior nor inferior to men, rather as a necessary part of a functioning society. These beliefs allowed women to hold esteemed roles as mothers, priestesses, merchants, weavers, midwife, healers and housekeepers. Whilst many of these roles are considered inferior in other societies, they were considered noble and indispensable by the Aztecs. The view that women held distinct, yet complementary roles within society has been criticized by those who state that Aztec women lived a life of oppression. To gain an accurate portrayal of the role of all Aztec women, further research needs to be conducted into the life of those women in rural areas, who may not have had the privileges of women in urban areas. It also has to be considered that ethno historical sources were often male centred, Eurocentric and may not give a true reflection of life for women. We therefore “can only ‘envision’ the past, whether individually or culturally, but we cannot definitively ‘recover’ it.” (Klein, 2001, p. 11). Despite the methodological limitations it is clear that many women, particularly those in the urban areas of the Mexico Valley, held prominent roles within society. Complementary gender relations were frequently articulated through, thought, language, social status, religion and action in which males and females were thought of and played different yet parallel and equally indispensable roles.

Bibliography

Classen, & Joyce. (1997). Women in the Ancient Americas; Archaeologists, Gender and the Making of Prehistory. In Joyce, & Classen, Women in Prehistory (pp. 1-17). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Coe, M., & Koontz, R. (2002). Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs. London: Thames & Hudson.

Coe, M., & MacNeish, R. (1991). Mysteries of the Ancient Americas- The New World before Columbus. London: Readers Digest Association.

Kellogg, S. (1995). Law and the Transformation of Aztec Culture, 1500-1700. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Klein, C. F. (2001). Gender in Pre-Hispanic America. Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

McCaa, R. (2000). The Geometry of Gender among the Aztecs: “Earthly Names” Marriage and the Household. University of Minnesota. Department of History.

Pette, G. E. (2007). Aztec Women. Retrieved from http://home.insightbb.com/~danae_cassandra/undergrad/aztec_women.pdf.

Prescott, W. H. (1992). History of the Conquest of Mexico, The Aztecs.

Rogers, R. C. (2007). The Resilience of Aztec Women: A Case Study of Modern Aztec Myths. Journal of Humanities & Social Sciences , Volume 1, Issue 2.

Sessions. (1998). The Aztecs, People of the Sun and Earth. Westport: Greenwood Press.

Townsend, R. F. (1992). The Aztecs. London: Thames and Hudson.

Weaver, M. (1993). The Aztecs, Maya, and Their Predecessors. (San Diego CA): Academic Press.

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