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First published: October 2000

The Aztecs: Ambivalence and Beauty

by Michael Sones 


Aztec Cosmos
Aztec Cosmos
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The Aztecs were also known as the Tenocha or the Mexica and the name Mexico comes from this. They were the dominant peoples of Central America at the time of the Spanish conquest in the early 1500s. Read The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz for an absolutely gripping account of this by a conquistador who was there.

The center of Aztec culture was the city of Tenochtitlan [Teh-noche-TEE-tlahn- 'place of the prickly pear cactus'] in the Valley of Mexico. This was on the location of the present day site of Mexico City. It is estimated that at the time of the Spanish conquest Tenochtitlan had in the region of 200,000-300,000 people and it was apparently a beautiful sight. It would have been larger than any European city of the time. It contained more than forty finely decorated pyramids, large residential areas, and six major canals which acted as transport routes along which the inhabitants traveled by canoes.


Family life was important to the Aztecs. When babies were born the delivery was assisted by a midwife. Midwives were highly regarded professionals. As Aztec women married when they were as young as fifteen the first birth was often to a teenage girl of a young age. The midwife would cut the umbilical cord, wash the baby, and then offer a prayer to Chalchiuhtlicue ["Jade-Her-Skirt"]. Baby boys were told that life was difficult and full of suffering and that they were likely to die in battle or as sacrifices. The umbilical cord of boys was given to warriors to be buried on the battlefields. Boys were educated at home by their fathers until they were about ten when they started school. The umbilical cord of girls was buried by the hearth. The domestic role was seen as the most important part of a woman's life. The women generally stayed within the home and cooked and made clothing. When girl babies were born they were told by the assisting midwife that they were to the house as the heart was to the body. Girls stayed in the home with their mothers and began their "training" when they were four. By the age of twelve they were accomplished weavers. The women dressed in wraparound skirts and sleeveless blouses. Women often coloured their faces in a pale yellow ochre powder to enhance their attractiveness.

Montezuma-Aztec Indian
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A man could have one main wife but a number of secondary wives. It was important to Aztec women, like women everywhere, to be thought to be beautiful. Mature, married Aztec women typically wore their hair in two horn-like tufts while younger women often wore it straight and long sometimes down to the waist. Like the Egyptians cleanliness was valued as was a pleasant scent. Women used to wear garlands of pleasant smelling flowers around their necks. Aztec women were not to put red on their mouths and were to keep clean and wash if they wanted their husbands to continue to love them. Most Aztec women did not wear make-up but some women accompanied warriors and these wore a yellow ochre and dyed their teeth red. Aztec women decorated themselves with jewelry including shell, clay, precious metals, and feathers. The ideal Aztec woman was not too thin and young women were told not to have early babies because of what it would do to their figures! Aztec women were supposed to be modest in their sexual conduct though there were prostitutes within the culture. Female adultery was punishable by death.

The Aztecs loved flowers and 'Flowers-and-song' was their name for poetry, art and symbolism. Some of their poetry is emotionally very expressive and one of their preoccupations was how transitory and impermanent life is-perhaps just like a dream or a flower which blossoms to fade.

Judging by aspects of their art the Aztecs were, as many cultures have been, very ambivalent in their views of women. There is a ten foot diameter circular sculpture from the temple of Huitzilopochtli in Tenochtitlan which illustrates this. It depicts the body of a naked woman (Coyolxauhqui) which has been dismembered. This was the sister of Huitzilopochtli who, with her sons, planned to kill him when he was born. He emerged from the womb of his mother full sized and armed for war. He chased away his nephews and decapitated his sister. This mythic story graphically represents sibling rivalry, warnings to the enemies of the Aztecs what will happen to them, and the attractive and frightening power of women.

Coatlicue-serpent skirted mother of the war-godCoaticlue is the name of the serpent-skirted mother of the war-god. A statue shows her with twin rattlesnake heads and a necklace of human hands and hearts. She could transform herself into a beautiful woman which would then lead men to their deaths.

Many goddesses of ancient people were associated with beauty, sexuality and war. Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, took the god of war as her lover. Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of love and sexuality, was also very warlike. This association reveals a psychological truth which is that the attractiveness of female beauty is often connected with, but does not cause, conflict between men. This is also true in much of the animal world where there is conflict between male animals over sexual access to females. [Beauty, Sex, and War]

The Aztecs were great lovers of poetry, flowers, and chocolate which was a favorite drink of the Aztec nobility. It was made by drying cacao beans, roasting them over a fire, pounding them to a paste and mixing them with water. Other spices including chili, pimento and vanilla were often added to it. It was thought to have both medicinal properties and to be an aphrodisiac. There was a famous gathering of Aztec wise men and poets about 1490 when they met to discuss the true meaning of poetry. It took place at the house of lord Tecayehuatzin, prince of Huexotzinco. The poets and wise men lay on mats and were served tobacco and foaming mugs of chocolate by servants while they discussed the true meaning of flowers-and-song which is what the Aztecs called poetry.

Statue with flayed skineOne Aztec metaphor for blood can be translated as 'flower'. Dead warriors spilled their blood to feed the gods and became eagle men who flew into the sun Xipe Totec, the god of spring. Spring was greeted by sacrificing impersonators of Xipe Totec. These sacrificial victims would be skinned and the skin then worn by the worshippers. This apparently repeated the cycle of the husk of corn about to ripen and the earth being renewed with vegetation.

Through what we call their myths it is possible to see how these people tried to deal with their ambivalent feelings about both the beauty and bounty of their environment and its potential to wreak havoc and cause trauma. We find their practice of human sacrifice quite horrific yet it is quite possible to see how these myths and ritualized practices may have originated as a result of the impact on the minds of the peoples being subjected to both the violent forces of nature-jaguars, hurricanes, fiery rain (possibly volcanoes), floods, earthquakes and drought as well as the beauty and bounty of nature.

One view of ritual sacrifice is that it is a way of binding tension and conflict within a community so

Aztec Calendar
Aztec Calendar
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that the anger within a community is displaced onto the sacrificial victims thereby stopping the community from tearing itself apart.

Drought and other natural disasters could bring famine. The gods gave their blood to the world. In order to keep the world going and the spring rains falling man had to give blood back. From the point of view of modern psychology an understanding of how what we call trauma and post traumatic stress disorder leads to interesting speculations on some of the more horrific aspects of MesoAmerican ritual practices.

There would have been significant morbidity among the early inhabitants of this region due to human helplessness in the face of the powerful and destructive forces of nature such as earthquakes, volcanoes, drought, floods, and hurricanes. Fearsome predators like the jaguar, puma, or poisonous snakes would also have taken a significant toll. These myths and religion seem to function as attempts to master and control this anxiety and yet, at the same time, are a reenactment and repetition of the trauma.


The photos above are copyright Edgar Martin del Campo and used with his kind permission.

Statues of Aztec warriors

There is a good selection of books about the Aztecs here.


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