Books have been invaluable sources of information for
centuries. For those who study the colonial era, the Aztec codices are some of
the only resources about Aztec culture. Some contain the Aztec language, called
Nahuatl, and almost all display a marked difference from contemporary European
texts in their heavy use of images rather than words to convey meaning.
This limited edition facsimile of the Codice
Veitia, published in 1986,details the Aztec calendar and ceremonies.
The original 1755 manuscript resides in the Royal Palace of Madrid, and was
itself made by copying an older codex called the Codex Ixtlilxóchitl (1550).
Where do babies come from? The Aztec answer: the 13th heaven, the highest heaven of all. It was called Omeyocan which in Nahuatl means “the place of duality.” In Omeyocan a female god and a male god – or perhaps one god with dual forms – shaped and made each baby’s soul.
La última escena de “La Creación del Quinto Sol”. Aquí, en el panel superior, Quetzalcoatl sopla sobre Tonatiuh, el sol, para ponerlo en su viaje diario a través de los cielos. Por debajo, el primer atardecer del sol, en la cual Tonatiuh esta tragado por Tlaltecuhtli, la Teotl de la Tierra, y al final, la primera salida de la luna, en la cual Tecciztecatl, el Teotl de la luna, se eleva en el cielo y se viste de trapos por las Tzitzitmime.
The last scene from “The Creation of the Fifth Sun.” Here, in the top panel, Quetzalcoatl blows on Tonatiuh, the sun, to set him on his daily journey through the heavens. Below, the first sunset, in which Tonatiuh is swallowed by Tlaltecuhtli, the Teotl of the Earth, and the first moonrise, in which Tecciztecatl, the Teotl of the moon, rises into the sky, and is dressed in rags by the Tzitzitmime.
The majority of information on the pre-Columbian peoples comes from the reports of the Spanish conquest. These accounts must be taken with caution, given that the accusation of sodomy was used to justify the conquest, along with other accusations real or invented, such as human sacrifice, cannibalism, or idolatry.
The first peoples with whom the Spanish came in contact on the American continent were the Mayans, who were tolerant of homosexuality.
For the Mayan aristocracy, at least, pubescent homosexuality was preferable to premarital heterosexuality. Parents would provide their sons with male slaves to satisfy their sexual needs, while premarital heterosexual encounters were discouraged. Adult homosexuality was also condoned, and the Maya were known to hold large private sexual parties which included homosexuality.
The Aztecs on the other hand were not surprisingly puritanical and although they celebrated public rituals with remnants of erotic content, they were perhaps more ruthless than the Spanish even, in suppressing private vice.
Aztecs placed a high premium on “manly”, “assertive” behavior, and a corresponding stigma on “submissive” behavior. When conquered people were not sacrificed on temple altars, the males of conquered nations were often demoted to the status of women. The penalties for male homosexual intercourse were severe. Mexica law punished sodomy with the gallows, impalement for the active homosexual, extraction of the entrails through the anal orifice for the passive homosexual, and death by garrote for the lesbians. In Tenochtitlan, they hanged homosexuals. In nearby Texcoco, the active partner was “bound to a stake, completely covered with ashes and so left to die; the entrails of the passive agent were drawn out through his anus, he was then covered with ashes, and wood being added, the pile was ignited.
The existence of lesbianism is testified to by the Nahuatl word "patlacheh”, which designates a woman who carries out masculine activities, including the penetration of other women, as revealed in the General history of the matters of New Spain by Bernardino de Sahagún.
In spite of the puritanism of the Mexica, the sexual customs of the people conquered by the Aztec Empire varied to a great extent. For example, Bernal Díaz del Castillo speaks of homosexuality among the ruling classes, prostitution of young people, and cross-dressing in the area of Veracruz. The yauyos had prostitution houses full of men with painted faces and women’s clothing.
There was a general tolerance of homosexuality and transgenderism among Ancient Mesoamerica, but this harmony was disrupted by Christian conquerors, who forced their ways upon the indigenous peoples, turning homosexuality from a celebrated status to one of shame and death.
It was the solemn duty of new fathers to inform the priests of the day and the time of birth. The priests would in turn consult the Tonalamatl, a sort-of almanac, which was structured around the 260-day year. It was very important to know what astrological sign the baby was born beneath. Based on the astrological sign, priests would give them an appropriate name. In addition, the astrological sign would be used to try to predict the baby’s fortune.
One of the worst epidemics in human history, a sixteenth-century pestilence that devastated Mexico’s native population, may have been caused by a deadly form of salmonella from Europe, a pair of studies suggest.
In one study, researchers say they have recovered DNA of the stomach bacterium from burials in Mexico linked to a 1540s epidemic that killed up to 80% of the country’s native inhabitants. The team reports its findings in a preprint posted on the bioRxiv server on 8 February1.
This is potentially the first genetic evidence of the pathogen that caused the massive decline in native populations after European colonization, says Hannes Schroeder, an ancient-DNA researcher at the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen who was not involved in the work. “It’s a super-cool study.”
Dead bodies and ditches
In 1519, when forces led by Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés arrived in Mexico, the native population was estimated at about 25 million. A century later, after a Spanish victory and a series of epidemics, numbers had plunged to around 1 million.
The largest of these disease outbreaks were known as cocoliztli (from the word for ‘pestilence’ in Nahuatl, the Aztec language). Two major cocoliztli, beginning in 1545 and 1576, killed an estimated 7 million to 18 million people living in Mexico’s highland regions.
“In the cities and large towns, big ditches were dug, and from morning to sunset the priests did nothing else but carry the dead bodies and throw them into the ditches,” noted a Franciscan historian who witnessed the 1576 outbreak.
There has been little consensus on the cause of cocoliztli — although measles, smallpox and typhus have all been mooted. In 2002, researchers at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City proposed that a viral haemorrhagic fever, exacerbated by a catastrophic drought, was behind the carnage2. They compared the magnitude of the 1545 outbreak to that of the Black Death in fourteenth-century Europe.
In an attempt to settle the question, a team led by evolutionary geneticist Johannes Krause at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, extracted and sequenced DNA from the teeth of 29 people buried in the Oaxacan highlands of southern Mexico. All but five were linked to a cocoliztli that researchers think ran from 1545 to 1550.
Ancient bacterial DNA recovered from several of the people matched that of Salmonella, based on comparisons with a database of more than 2,700 modern bacterial genomes.
Further sequencing of short, damaged DNA fragments from the remains allowed the team to reconstruct two genomes of a Salmonella enterica strain known as Paratyphi C. Today, this bacterium causes enteric fever, a typhus-like illness, that occurs mostly in developing countries. If left untreated, it kills 10–15% of infected people.
It’s perfectly reasonable that the bacterium could have caused this epidemic, says Schroeder. “They make a really good case.” But María Ávila-Arcos, an evolutionary geneticist at UNAM, isn’t convinced. She notes that some people suggest that a virus caused the cocoliztli, and that wouldn’t have been picked up by the team’s method.
The question of origin
Krause and his colleagues’ proposal is helped by another study posted on bioRxiv last week, which raises the possibility that Salmonella Paratyphi C arrived in Mexico from Europe3.
A team led by Mark Achtman, a microbiologist at the University of Warwick in Coventry, UK, collected and sequenced the genome of the bacterial strain from the remains of a young woman buried around 1200 in a cemetery in Trondheim, Norway. It is the earliest evidence for the now-rare Salmonella strain, and proof that it was circulating in Europe, according to the study. (Both teams declined to comment on their research because their papers have been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal.)
“Really, what we’d like to do is look at both strains together,” says Hendrik Poinar, an evolutionary biologist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada. And if more ancient genomes can be collected from Europe and the Americas, it should be possible to find out more conclusively whether deadly pathogens such as Salmonella arrived in the New World from Europe.
The existence of Salmonella Paratyphi C in Norway 300 years before it appeared in Mexico doesn’t prove that Europeans spread enteric fever to native Mexicans, says Schroeder, but that hypothesis is reasonable. A small percentage of people infected with Salmonella Paratyphi C carry the bacterium without falling ill, so apparently healthy Spaniards could have infected Mexicans who lacked natural resistance.
Paratyphi C is transmitted through faecal material, and a collapse of social order during the Spanish conquest might have led to the poor sanitary conditions that are ripe for Salmonella spread, Krause and his team note in the paper.
Krause’s study offers a blueprint for identifying the pathogens behind ancient outbreaks, says Schroeder. His own team plans to look for ancient pathogens in Caribbean burial sites that seem to be linked to catastrophic outbreaks, and that were established after the Europeans arrived. “The idea that some of them might have been caused by Salmonella is now a distinct possibility,” he says.
The Aztec believed that eclipses could harm unborn babies and end pregnancies. The tzitzimitl – astral deities visible when the sun was in eclipse – were often benign figures. But when the sun was covered the tzitzimitl became monsters. Pregnant women stayed indoors during eclipses to prevent the tzitzimitl harming them or their unborn child.
The Spanish Conquistadors regularly expressed their respect of both native weaponry and armor. Bernal Díaz del Castillo gives us our most vivid descriptions of combat when engaging with Mesoamerican forces. For instance, this passage from the second time the Spanish and Tlaxcalans clashed:
When, therefore, the attack commenced, a real shower of arrows and stones was poured upon us; the whole ground was immediately covered with heaps of lances, whose points were provided with two edges, so very sharp that they pierced through every species of cuirass, and were particularly dangerous to the lower part of the body, which was in no way protected.
There’s really two aspects to both native and foreign arms and armor being demonstrated here. One thing to note is that the Spanish who accompanied Cortés were very rarely wearing anything resembling full-body steel armor. Spanish accounts confirm that the “infantry” would have had at least a sword and shield, but armament beyond that was up to the individual soldier to supply for themselves. The most common pieces of armor mentioned are helmets, gorgets, and cuirasses, though the presence of these were not universal to all soldiers, nor did the initial arms and armor of the Spanish always last through the rigors of the campaign. To quote Díaz del Castillo again, he remarks that when a group was traveling back to the Gulf coast to confront Narvaez:
We were altogether in want of defensive armour, and on that night many of us would have given all we possessed for a cuirass, helmet, or steel gorget.
Even the steel cuirasses of the Spanish were not always protection from Mesoamerican weaponry, as the first passage quoted indicates. Díaz del Castillo himself writes about one instance where his steel cuirass was pierced by an atl-atl dart, and he was saved from serious injury only by the cotton armor he had taken to wearing underneath it. Indeed, the Spanish often took to adopting some form of the quilted cotton ichcahuipilli, sometimes paired with a Spanish cuirass but sometimes not, because of the both the protection and comfort it afforded.
Whatever steel armor the Spanish could afford for themselves did provide a more effective defense, but rarely did it protect the whole body. Ross Hassig notes, in his Mexico and the Spanish Conquest:
Clubs and swords had their effect, but Spanish steel armor was proof against most Indian projectile, except perhaps darts cast from very close range. Indeed, Spanish wounds were typically limited to the limbs, face, neck, and other vulnerable areas unprotected by armor…
Those unprotected areas could find themselves very vulnerable given the rain of arrows that accompanied assaults, and reports of injuries and deaths from volleys of arrows (and sling stones) are not uncommon in Conquistador accounts. Hassig, however, points to an advantage in the missile weapons of the Spanish, noting their crossbows and harquebuses were most effective at close range, with the inaccurate latter weapon even more effective against closely masses troops, as Mesoamerican military doctrine at the time tended to provide. Nevertheless, we see native forces sometimes retreating back to a point where the guns of the Spanish were largely ineffective, but that the bows of the indigenous archers could rain arrows down on the Spanish at a much greater rate then the Spanish crossbows could reply. If the Spanish were unlucky, as in the case of the Cordoba expedition in a Maya town, the arrow/sling barrage could keep them pinned down until more Maya forces arrived and swamped the Spanish, resulting in the loss of about 50 of the 100 Spanish soldiers, including Cordoba himself later dying from injuries.
If the Spanish were lucky, they could maintain a defensive formation and withdraw, using cavalry charges or artillery to break the lines of the opposing force. These are the tactics Cortés used in his clashes with the Tlaxcalans. No matter the defensive advantage of steel armor or the offensive advantages of crossbows, guns, and artillery on massed troops, the Spanish quite often found themselves having to maintain a defensive position and execute strategic withdrawals in the face of more numerous and better supplied foes who were quite capable of enacting grievous harm on them. Only with the alliance with native groups would the Spanish (and their allies) see a distinct military advantage. To quote Hassig again:
Thus, while the Spanish enjoyed greater firepower, which prevented their enemies from engaging them in organized formations, and although they could disrupt the enemy fron much more easily than could Mesoamerican armies, they were too few to exploit these breaches fully. If they joined forces with large Indian armies, however, these allies could exploit the breaches created by the Spaniards, while maintaining the integrity of their own units, because other Indian armies lacked the Spanish edge in arms and armor. Together they could wreak havoc on the enemy.
Ultimately, if we look at the clashes between Spanish and indigenous groups in Mesoamerica, neither guns, steel, or horses (or germs, for that matter), were decisive. While it is tempting to crudely lump the Aztecs into the “Stone Age,” while putting the Spanish further along some imaginary and arbitrary tech tree, we must keep in mind that the macuahuitl and tepoztopilli were not “crude” weapons, but the result of centuries of refinement and practical tests in Mesoamerican warfare. The Spanish rightly feared and respected those weapons. So to were the tactics of the Aztecs refined for the opponents they faced. Prior to the Spanish, the Aztecs had enjoyed a century of almost ubiquitous military victories, and though we can absolutely see how their tactics were thrown for stumble by the addition of never before seen weaponry like artillery and cavalry, particularly at early encounters like Otumba, this was an intelligent and adaptive war machine. By the time the Spanish licked their wounds from La Noche Triste and returned in force with the Tlaxcalans, the Aztecs had autochthonously invented cavalry counter-measures with pike-like spears and ensuring the chosen field of battle with marshy or strewn with stones. They had adopted tactics to blunt the guns and artillery of the Spanish with breastworks and zig-zag maneuvers.
Bottom line, both the Spanish and the Aztecs respected each other as deadly opponents.
Cuauhtémoc was the son of Emperor Ahuizotl of the Aztec Empire. He was born around 1495. Bad, bad timing. In 1502 his uncle (or possibly cousin) Moctezuma II became ruler of the empire. Cuauhtémoc was busy going to a school for elite boys, then being a warrior. After a period of fighting Aztec enemies and capturing some for sacrificing, he was named ruler of Tlatelolco, with the title cuauhtlatoani (“eagle ruler”) in 1515.
A heart-shaped box of chocolate is a sign of love, a symbol — and often tool — of romance, and an intrinsic part of Valentine’s Day.
From at least the time of the Aztecs, chocolate has been seen as an aphrodisiac. So it’s reasonable to assume that it has been connected to love’s dedicated day of celebration for many centuries. But, that isn’t the case.
The roots of Valentine’s Day are ancient but far from clear, and likely originated in the pagan Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia. Those Romans, though, exchanged not candies but whippings — part of a complicated fertility ritual that began with sacrificing a goat and dog.
This morphed into a tamer Christian feast day in A.D. 496, when Pope Gelasius I commemorated a martyred saint, Valentine. Or saints. In the third century, the Roman emperor Claudius II executed two men named Valentine on Feb. 14th, albeit in different years.