From the feasts of Tenochtitlan Royal Enclosure to the kitchens of the commoner-folk

11 February 2018 Comments (0)

Between the grand feasts consumed by the Mexica rulers in Tenochtitlan Palace and the daily meals the last of the commoners living by the wharves or the marketplace hastily devoured, the flow of the edible goods entering the island city had to be maintained and regulated on a daily basis, made sure to be supplied with no failures.

To do that, the agricultural effort in the form of chinampas, floating fields, all around the island-city was developed and then improved to perfection, while the mainland goods were hastened to Tenochtitlan through various trading routes.

The four main crops of the Mexican Valley were of an equal importance: centli maize, etl beans, chia (chian means oily in Nahuatl) and huauhtli amaranth. Due to certain religious aspect connected to the amaranth, the Spanish conquerors tried to outlaw its cultivation, because on several ceremonies statues of deities made of amaranth seeds glued with honey were worshiped and consumed after the proper rites

In an island-city such as Tenochtitlan, with a limited space and an obvious urban crowdedness, people of lower walks of life cultivated various basic necessities in small yards besides their houses, growing staples such as chia and beans, but going to markets to purchase maize, meat or fish.

According to various primary sources, fish and other lake offerings were abound, prepared and cooked in various ways. Frogs, reptiles such as iguanas, ants and their eggs, maguey worms that even today are considered a delicacy; water shrimp, salamander-axolotl, flies and aquatic larvae aneneztli. Poor urban people and peasants gathered a substance called tecuitlatl that floated in the lake and which the later-day chronicles described as cheesy but not badly tasting. Wrapped in tortillas, such mash had a strong slightly bitter taste.

Among the most appreciated delicacies, the well-off citizens of Tenochtitlan were reported to enjoy tamales stuffed with meat, snails and fruit, frogs in chili sauce, white fish from the west of the country with chilli and tomato, or salamander-axolotl seasoned with ground pepper and yellow nugget, a treat for those times.

Some meat was grown inside the city, but to a limited extent. Treats such as deer, rabbits, hares, peccaries or birds like pheasants, doves and various waterfowl were brought in by traders, sold on the marketplace to be consumed by the wealthier dwellers of Tenochtitlan who could afford to buy food. The only two domesticated animals were hairless dogs-xoloitzcuintli bred especially for the kitchen pot, vegetarian animals, easy to maintain; and turkeys-huehxolot. Turkey meat seemed to be appreciated more that dog meat due to its taste and smoothness. Some chronicles claim that a clever host might serve a dish coated by the slices of turkey but hiding the bulk of the cheaper dog meat underneath.

Some sources claim that the meal times were announced daily by drumming or blowing conch-shells from the tops of the neighborhood’s temples-teocalli. Others say that the people were responsible for breaking their own working routines according to the position of the sun.

Generally, the time of the traditional breakfast was reported to be held at mid-morning, a frugal meal for ordinary people, consisted of a couple of tortillas with beans and often a spicy salsa. At the end of the work day, a man could spoil himself with tamales bought on the marketplace, or proceed home for an evening meal of a gruel, lake fish or poultry accompanied by tortillas.

Banquets at the Palace or homes of the aristocracy was a different matter. An imperial meal could start at midday and last for a very long time, consisted of many courses and an entertainment services in between, ending with an invigorating chocolate-drink (xocolatl) and a clay pipe filled with vanilla flavored snuff or scented woods. Such meals could consume endless amount of maize, beans and amaranth, 80 to 100 turkeys, a dozen dogs and about 20 loads of cocoa beans to begin with. On special events they could also include peyote (peyotl), hallucinogenic mushrooms teonanacatl (literally translating as mushroom of gods) and other such rare substances. Only the royalty and high aristocracy, and less often especially wealthy pochteca-traders could afford holding such events.

An excerpt from “Heart of the Battle”, The Aztec Chronicles, book three

“Just look at this procession!”

The people who brought them there were bearing upon them again, followed by servants with trays. Not a small army like that of the imperial women, but promising nevertheless, the aroma of the trays spreading, overwhelming, the most delicious of smells. Their stomachs responded in a loud manner, which made them burst into a renewed bout of snickering.

“You can read paintings, yes? Those things they draw in folded papers?” he asked after they had been directed to the mats in another alcove at the shadow of wide parapet, a low table placed between them and the contents of the trays laden upon it, making their mouths drool.

Necalli was busy grabbing the nearest tamale, hot and dripping, full of delicious stuffing, meat and something else spicy. Dunking it in a nearby bowl of thick sauce, he shoved it into his mouth in its entirety, devouring it in one bite.

“Sort of, yes,” he mumbled through his full mouth. “Don’t like to do that. Only when forced. When the priests shove your face into those books, you can’t do much but to read the glyphs and decipher their meaning. Why?” Miztli busied himself with scanning the contents of the smaller plates, laden with slices of meat and pieces of avocado spread on a bed of tortilla, begging to be grabbed. But for the letter, he would have attacked those as well.

“Can you… would you…” He tried to think of how to put it, or rather to avoid asking at all. How to read her note without anyone else peeking in it? Impossible. He could not recognize one single glyph. He didn’t even know what they called this kind of painting, not until coming to Tenochtitlan, until entering their school. How could one paint one’s words and in a way so the others could decipher those, guess their meaning?

“What are you mumbling there about?” Necalli’s eyes were upon him, his hand, in the process of reaching for another tamale, waving idly, lingering. “What about those books?”

“Can you show me how to read them? How to recognize those paintings, those glyphs? I mean, this note, I don’t know what’s in it, and I need to… I must…”

He didn’t dare to take his eyes away from the loaded plates, but after a heartbeat, the silence became annoying, wearing on his nerves. A fleeting glance confirmed what he suspected. The calmecac boy was staring at him, his eyes unbecomingly round, although his mouth was close, holding its contents but apparently forgetting to keep chewing them.

“You don’t know how to read glyphs?” It came out in an awkward mumble, forcing the speaker to swallow too much, not a properly chewed mass. “I mean, you can’t read that tiny note?”

Miztli felt like springing to his feet and running out and away. To reexamine the contents of the trays became a necessity.

Priestly Career

11 January 2018 Comments (0)

Various servants of gods held an important place in Tenochtitlan’s life, even though their importance is tended to be often overplayed by the later-day records of Spanish conquerors. Like anywhere around the globe at those times, Mesoamerica seemed to be superstitious and religiously pious, but to a reasonable extent.

The priestly college in Tenochtitlan was a complicated organization, involving strict hierarchy and scrupulous rules. Two High Priests, Quetzalcoatl Totec Tlamacazqui and Quetzalcoatl Tlaloc Tlamacazqui resided on the top of the Great Pyramid and were equal in position, both offspring of noble families, both serving important deities to whom the temples on the top of the Great Pyramid in the Ceremonial Center of Tenochtitlan were dedicated – Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc. The word tlamacazqui roughly means ‘giver of things’ or, in other words, ‘priest’. The two High Priests’ duties varied according to dry and rainy seasons.

To be elected to such offices one has to lead an exemplary life, and have “…a pure, compassionate heart…”. A priest, especially a high priest, could not be vindictive but must be compassionate, esteemed, devout and gods-fearing. Tenochtitlan’s ruler, tlatoani, along with cihuacoatl, his head adviser and the high judge, in cooperation with other members of the royal council would be the ones to elect the next High Priest. Thus the elevated servant of gods would receive a new name that came along with the new title – Quetzalcoatl Tlamacazqui of either Huitzilopochtli or Tlaloc

Down the priestly hierarchy, after both High Priests, came Mexicatl Teohuatzin, whose duties seemed to be generally administrative. A highly influential figure, Mexicatl Teohuatzin would appear as a general overseer of ceremonies and rituals conducted by various priesthoods around the city, an important dignitary inferior only to the two High Priests. Among Mexicatl Teohuatzin’s vast responsibilities was included administration of calmecac, the prestigious school of the Ceremonial Enclosure.

Two officially elected assistants, Huitznahua Teohuatzin and Tecpan Teohuatzin aided Mexicatl Teohuatzin in the actual administration of priestly orders themselves. Huitznahua Teohuatzin was responsible mainly for rituals and other sacred procedures, while Tecpan Teohuatzin administered the educational aspects. In addition, both supervised and performed administrative duties over the temples’ owned lands-teopantlalli, conducted election of deities’ impersonators-ixpitla – people who were chosen to wear various deities’ masks and costumes on designated ceremonies, sometimes to be sacrificed afterwards with great pomp and honor. Sometimes they wore masks and costumes themselves, attending festivals and worship activities all around the city.

Next on the ladder of priestly order came Tlenamacac or Fire Priests, who were responsible for the actual act of human sacrifice. Although other priests might have been asked to assist in the process, only Fire Priests were allowed to hold the flint knife in order to extract the heart out of the victim’s chest.

Fire Priests were not expected to pay attention to various earthly matters such as well prepared food, clean clothing or even personal grooming. Their matted hair was reported to testify to their bloody activities, unwashed and uncombed along with their unwashed limbs and wear. Years of daily self-sacrifice might have even affected the clarity of their speech, with their tongues being pierced often and in no merciful way in order to offer of their own blood to various deities. The rest of the gods’ servants were reported to be well groomed and particularly eloquent of speech.

In addition to the priests serving inside the city, there were Tlamacaztequihuaque, or Warrior Priests, who as a rule accompanied military units on their campaigns, marching together with warriors into battles, carrying relevant deities’ effigies and even taking an active part in warfare at times. They were the ones to make the immediate sacrifice of certain prisoners among the captured enemy, succor wounded or dying, see fallen warriors into their new beginnings and attend to other spiritual matters. Warrior Priests were also the ones to settle disputes when it came to claiming a captured enemy if the deed was done with no witnesses and several warriors claimed the achievement. These servants of gods wore armored costume tlahuiztli colored in black and white in imitation of a night star-studded sky, and conical hat of design that may appear somewhat foreign to the region of Central Mexico.

Cihuatlamacazqui, female priests, were not as common or as influential as their male colleagues, however there were such positions in Tenochtitlan’s priestly hierarchy and such priestess commanded admiration and respect. Their responsibilities included teaching girls who attended both calmecac and various telpochcalli schools. Besides, Tenochtitlan priestesses conducted rituals dedicated to various female deities, although they were not allowed to officiate in the sacrifice process on important celebrations honoring their goddesses. To become a priestess was a great honor, a way to elevate one’s position if one came from a common background. A girl who served as a priestess was later on eligible to marry into noble families, bringing along nothing but honor to her prospective spouse.

In addition, in every school throughout the city there were Tlamatini or teacher-priests (‘knower of things’, the word ‘mati’ being a root-word for ‘to know’). Such wise men were supposed to lead truly exemplary lives. Responsible for city’s youth’s education while possessing exceptional writing skills and in charge of vast libraries of books, teacher-priests represented tradition and the whole way of life, expected to guide, and to be a good example and companion. A tlamatini was knowledgeable not only in earthly matters but in the realm of the dead as well.

On the whole, most priests filled their respectable offices for their entire lives, allowed to marry and have a family, but generally expected to lead a humble, exemplary life. Priestesses, on the other hand, served for no more than several years, leaving their honorific position, usually to marry and build a family.

The daily life of divine servants was reported to be filled with rituals in their temples, maintenance of sacred fires in the designated braziers, upkeep of facilities for self-sacrifice designed for the visitors’ use, and other tasks including keeping an appropriate level of cleanliness and burning incense in generous amounts. Prayers and penance were conducted several times a day, and once through each night. Novices and freshly initiated young priests went out daily to gather firewood and other sort of decorative branches, traveling to the mainland and bringing the required materials on their backs. No slave labor seemed to be employed in the temples.

At midnight or when “… the night was divided at two…” principle priests bathed, while the rest of the temples’ servants got up and prayed. At different intervals, everyone was expected to observe the rite of fasting, touching not even water to allay one’s thirst. Generally young novices were given food at midday, while older priests ate at midnight. No chili or salt was eaten, nor any luxurious foods.

On more global level, each temple or group of temples had lands and labor belonging to it, to manage, administer its costs and income, order and supervise construction works and undertakings, and teach in local schools in the vicinity of their temples. The educational aspect of special priests-teachers’ duties was not limited to novices-tlamacazton destined for future position of priesthood. In most schools, priests, along with veteran warriors, taught all pupils – future warriors and craftsmen as well as priestly apprentices – everything that there was to learn about deities, rituals, calendars and astronomy, managed schools’ personnel and cared for books and other written collections.

An excerpt from “Heart of the Battle”, The Aztec Chronicles, book three

Diving into an unimpressive adobe hut that was used for storing the temple’s supplies, she discovered that it was eerily empty, staffed with appliances aplenty, high piles that threatened to topple over. Only after much poking around and hesitant coughing, a young apprentice appeared, a boy of about her own age, skinny and hunched-shouldered, in the fashion that reminded her of Patli in a way, another one to be trained as a priest if accepted. Briefly, she wondered when that would happen.

“I was sent to bring more copal for the incense burner, and another such device as well.”

He eyed her dubiously. “Who are you?”

“The Honorable Priestess sent me.”

His face twisted in a telling grimace. “Who else would have?” His shrug held the same obvious contempt. “But you are not from calmecac, are you? What are you doing out there in the temple?”

She gulped. “Yes, I am. I am from calmecac. Now I am. I mean, I’m new here, only from the day before…” But it was annoying, this stuttering. She drew herself together, gathering the last of her dignity. “There is a great ceremony going on out there and I need to bring the things I mentioned. Will you help me find those or will I have to do it all by myself?”

That came out well enough to have the slouching piece of work straighten, his haughty expression wavering ever so slightly. For another heartbeat, he eyed her narrowly, then turned around. “Help yourself, commoner girl. The jar of copal is over there. As for another tlecomitl, I wish you luck in finding this. They are always in short supply, first to be snatched before every ceremony.” In another heartbeat, he was gone, dissolving in the darkness behind the stone partition.

Chantli stifled a colorful curse. By the time she found the jar full of sticky incense, a huge vessel she didn’t relish carrying all the way up the stairs, she was near tears, certain that it was taking her too long and that the priestess was already angered or disappointed into dismissing her for good. The apprentice hovered nearby again.

“You must help me find another burner!” she tossed toward his reappearing figure. “I will tell on you if you won’t.”

He eyed her with his eyebrows raised high, his face too slim, adorned with pimples. Even in the semidarkness, it was easy to see that. “You are full of orders and threats, new girl.”

“There is an important ceremony out there that even the Emperor is supposed to attend!” she cried out, exasperated. “How can you just refuse to help?”/

“I’m not refusing. I told you where everything is.”

“That isn’t helping! This jar is too big to drag it in its entirety in order to put a few drops of it into my tlecomitl, and I can see no other burners here. Only a mess that should have been tidied but wasn’t!”

On her feet again, she felt her hands planting themselves on her hips, her anger prevailing, rising against her better judgment. This youth was so annoyingly inept, so obtuse with no better reason than his idleness or antagonism toward her common origins, which was simply not fair. She needed to bring the things she was charged with!

“If that jar breaks while I carry it up the temple’s stairs, I promise you I’ll make a huge scene out of it. They’ll be sick from my stories about you and your unhelpfulness. Even if it gets me thrown out of school, I’ll do it. Trust me on that!”

This time, he rolled his eyes while blowing the air through his nose, disgustingly loud. “All right, all right. You are such a pest, worse than a buzzing mosquito. A poisonous one!”

Mocuilxochitzin – the most famous poetess of Tenochtitlan

31 December 2017 Comments (5)

In the Mexica Capital, women composing poetry were not uncommon, if less famous than their fellow contemporary noblemen poets. Sahagun in his “Florentine Codex” presents us with a glyph that is thought to be depicting Nahua noblewomen composing songs, still among the plethora of beautiful, rich, gently flowing poetry produced in pre-contact Nahuatl few seem to be attributed to women, even if some of the surviving songs of unknown authors present an obviously female point of view.

Thus, the famous 15th century poetess Macuilxochitzin seems to make an exception.

Many famous pre-contact writers of noble birth such as Nezahualcoyotl, the most distinguished ruler of Texcoco, produced wonderfully eloquent verses reflecting on the beauty of the surrounding world, seeking its meaning, wrestling with the philosophical aspects of life. The renowned Texcocan library and other such establishments throughout the Mexican Valley abounded with literary works of this kind.

Not so were the poems of Macuilxochitzin.

I raise my chants, I, Macuilxochitl, With them, I cheer the Giver of Life, Let the dance begin! Where does it exist in some way, to the house of Him Are the songs carried? Or only here are your flowers? Let the dance begin!

The offspring of one of Tenochtitlan’s undisputed founders, legendary Tlacaelel who is often called the “architect of the Aztec Empire” and whose contribution to the unparallel raise of Tenochtitlan no historian ever contested, the famous poetess might have been exposed to the politics and grand strategies of her powerful city-state and its inner dealings from her childhood, fascinated by those.

Only one of her works seemed to survive the violent conquest when most of the Nahuatl-written books and libraries burned throughout the entire Mexica Valley at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition – the verse inspired by Axayacatl, the sixth ruler of Tenochtitlan and a renowned warrior and leader according to all accounts. His exploits in the Toluca Valley between 1474 and 1478 gave the renowned poetess an inspiration to produce a poetic verse that referred not only to the glory of warring heroes but also covered the broader political picture as well as the religious aspect of warfare, giving us an interesting insight into the mindset of her people and times.

He makes offerings of flowers and feathers to the Giver of Life. He puts the eagle shields on the arms of his men, there where he war rages, in the midst of he plain. As our songs, As our flowers, Thus you, warrior of the shaven head, Gives pleasure to the Giver of Life. The flowers of the eagle Remain in your hands, Lord Axayacatl. With divine flowers, With flowers of war, Is covered, With this becomes intoxicated, He who is on our side.

Not much is known about this lady’s private life aside from the allegation that she was the seventh child and a second daughter of the famous Head Adviser Tlacaelel by one of his numerous wives cited by the chronicle Alvarado Tezozomoc. Her name MacuilXochiTzin translates as Lady Five Flower (macuilli-five, xochitl-flower, tzin – a honorary addition equivalent to the word ‘lord/lady’). Incidentally, Macuilxochitl is also the name of the deity response for fine arts of music, dance and singing, aside from being a date on the traditional calendar, day five of the month/trecena called ‘flower’. So either the lady poetess was born on this day and just grew living up to her given name, or she might have assumed this alias later on, upon discovering her true call and thus honoring the deity that was related to her craft.

Having undoubtedly grown in the luxury of the aristocratic surroundings, having the Head Adviser, the second most powerful man in the raising and expending Mexica Capital, she must have received a good thorough education. Girls fortunate to be born into aristocratic families were sent to calmecac, the prestigious school of the Ceremonial Center reserved for the offspring of nobility with a few exceptions of overly gifted commoners.

While boys spent there considerable part of their adolescent years, leaving the comforts of their family houses for the rigors of thorough training and education, girls of the aristocratic families were reported to attend calmecac for usually only one year, trained in finer arts than just useful skills of weaving and cooking their more common contemporaries were taught in commoner schools throughout the city. Reading and drawing glyphs must have been a part of calmecac pupils’ education, males as females, as much as rituals, mathematics, oratory, and several other necessary skills for a new generation of future leaders and governors to command.

It is probable that Macuilxochitzin was among gifted students who specialized in huehuetlahtolli, a form of Nahuatl called ‘an old/ancient language’ (huehuetl-old, tlahtolli-language), which usually meant literary language that only the highest of society presumably could use. Thus she provides us with invaluable peek into her times, the only pre-contact source, untainted by the Spanish conquest that was yet in the far enough future to threaten the life of the Mexica Capital. Other primary sources by indigenous and non-indigenous chronicles, extensive important records and documents, are dating the post-conquest time, the 16th and 17th centuries, when all institutions of the Mexican Valley were already changed into lack of recognition, destroyed most of them. However, Macuilxochitzin’s words reach us all the way from the 15th century, when no other continents and their ships neared the Americas’ shores.

Axayacatl puts the eagle shields on the arms of his men, there where the war rages, in the midst of the plain… The flowers of the eagle remain in your hands, Lord Axayacatl… On every side Axayacatl made conquests, in Matlatzinco, in Malinalco, in Ocuilan…

Her account of the famous duel between the invincible Tenochtitlan ruler and the renowned Otomi warrior that sealed the campaign in the Toluca Valley and beyond it like most dramatic accord, adding the fertile southwest to the growing Triple Alliance’s empire, are not matching most of the late-day primary sources. According to Macuilxochitzin, the Otomi warrior who had wounded Axayacatl in the leg so severely the Tenochtitlan ruler limped for the rest of his life, was decreed to be freed by Axayacatl after women came to plead for his life.

There in Xiquipilco brave Axayácatl Wounded in the leg by an Otomi, his name was Tlílatl. That one went in search of his women, He said to them, “Prepare a breechcloth and a cape. Give these to your man.” And Axayacatl called out: “Bring the Otomi who wounded me in the leg.” The Otomi was afraid, he said “Now truly they will kill me.” Then he brought a large piece of wood and a deerskin. With these he bowed before Axayacatl He was full of fear, the otomi But them his women made supplication for him to Axayacatl…

Others (Duran, Tezozomoc, Clavigero, Torquemada) have each his own version, as varying from each other as from what Macuilxochitzin have reported. Some say (Francisco Clavijero) that the Otomi leader was taken prisoner, brought to Tenochtitlan and sacrificed with plenty of honors and pomp. Others (Diego Duran, Juan Torquemada) claim that the man managed to fight his way out and away in the melee of the battle, while the Aztec ruler was tended to, wounded beyond the ability to chase his enemy. Some say (Alvarado Tezozomoc) that the famous duel was not commenced at the battle for Tollocan at all but took place a few years later, then when the Triple Alliance’s forces came to conquer Xiquipilco itself.

Macuilxochitzin’s only surviving song can be found in “Cantares Mexicanos” – an impressive collection of Nahuatl songs available in the National Library of Mexico-city, translated to both Spanish and English as well.

An excerpt from “Valley of Shadows”, The Aztec Chronicles, book #6.

“What was that all about?” breathed Chantli, stirring back to life once again. “Who was this woman?”

“She is the Head Adviser’s sister, one of his sisters,” said Necalli, shrugging in his turn and not disclosing the fact that he had no idea who this woman was until not very long ago himself. “She is the legendary First Head Adviser’s, the old Tlacaelel’s favorite daughter. From his favorite concubine, or so they say. A renowned poetess, famous for her songs.”

“Macuilxochitzin?” cried out Chantli, wide-eyed.

Now it was his turn to stare. “You know her?”

“Her poems. Of course! They are beautiful. We were reciting one of those only a few dawns ago, in one of the morning classes. ‘He makes offerings of flowers and feathers to the Giver of Life; he puts the eagle shields on the arms of the men, there where the war rages in the middle of the plain; as our songs, as our flowers, thus you, warrior of the shaven head, give pleasure to the Giver of Life’.” Her cheeks colored in a darker hue as her smile flashed almost guiltily. “I was thinking of you when we were singing this.”

He felt his stomach tightening in a pleasant knot. “You were?”

“Who is this pompous turkey?” demanded the Fire Girl, done with yet another indignant staring it seemed, and as always with the worst of timing. What other glorious words of heroic songs was Chantli associating with him? “Why is she interested in my sister?”

Necalli forced his eyes off Chantli’s nicely glowing cheeks, her gaze avoiding his now, sliding over the cobblestones.

“We told you who she is, and anyway, what’s your thing with your sister now? Why did you have to harass the Head Adviser and make him mad? It was the stupidest thing to do. That man will not listen to you or your sister anymore, whatever any of you wish to tell him!”

“He didn’t listen to us before as well.” This time, the Fire Girl merely shrugged, curiously not offended by his spirited admonition. “My sister already talked to him back in the Palace. We overheard them, I and Ahuitzotl.”


“Not long ago. Just before we found Miztli. And the annoying Adviser. Not the head one,” she added, as though after a thought. “The Emperor’s filthy brother Tizoc.”

“Tizoctzin,” corrected her Chantli, shooting a quick glance around. “So Miztli was brought to the Palace in the end?”

“Of course. Where do you want the Emperor to question him? On the marketplace?”

Seeing Chantli’s eyes sparkling, Necalli brought his arm up before they dove into bickering over the possibilities of other locations where it was appropriate to report to the Emperor. Chantli was no Axolin or Ahuitzotl, but her patience had its limits as well.

Reinforcements from the Otomi north

31 October 2017 Comments (0)

While Axayacatl was busy recruiting his army, which in as giant an island city as Tenochtitlan was not an easy or a short process, the independent city-states of the Toluca Valley weren’t idle as well. Not only Tenantzinco sought alliances outside of its immediate surroundings. The altepetl‘s of Tollocan and Matlatzinco had ideas of their own.

To the north of the Toluca ValleyOtomi people, who generally inhabited the Toluca Valley along with their Matlatzinca neighbors, coexisting there since the times of the legendary Toltecs, or maybe even prior to those. The Mexica considered the Otomi to be fierce, skillful warriors, if not highly civilized or otherwise worthy, according to Sahagun, Duran and Torquemada to name a few. In the latter-day Tenochtitlan, there was a special combat unit called Otomitl, where the Mexica warriors of special valor were expected to display great fits of courage worthy of elite fighters, their peers Eagle and Jaguar warriors.

Yet, besides their reputation on the battlefield, the Otomi people were considered to be barbaric, less civilized than their Mexico Valley peers, prone to be compared to the legendary Chichimecs, the ferocious invaders who were said to destroy the Toltecs some centuries ago. As a matter of fact, Mexica themselves admitted to having such origins in their own lineage, however civilized they claimed to become later on, claiming Toltec ancestry as well. Clearly influenced by traditional Mexica narrative, Sahagun, in his “General History of Things in New Spain” (Codex Florentine) says: “…some Chichimec people, such as the Otomi,… knowing agriculture, living in settled communities, and having a religion devoted to the worship of the Moon…”

Until 1474, the Otomi settlements from northern Toluca Valley seemed to be more interested in their western neighbors, the Purepecha/Tarascans, fighting off occasional advances of this organized and strong regional power. However, with the conflict in the southern part of the valley brewing, they seemed to become more involved in their southern neighbors’ affairs as well.

B’otzanga, or Tlilcuetzpalin, as the man was known in the Nahuatl-recorded history (both words mean Black Lizard in different tongues) was reported to be a war leader of Xiquipilco, an influential Otomi settlement in the mountainous northwest. Clearly an ambitious warriors’ leader, the man was reported to bring considerable reinforcements to the Tollocan and Matlatzinco’s assembled armies. Today, he is still remembered among the modern-day Otomi as a national hero, even though other sources claim that his famous duel with Axayacatl happened later on, when the victorious Mexica invaded his native mountains of the northwest. In any case, a spectacular battle and a duel of two worthy war leaders was imminent, awaited probably by both the Mexica ruler and the Otomi warlord, if the spying activities in both regions were as widespread as reported.

In the meanwhile, Tenochtitlan, busy with its war preparations which, when it came to a faraway campaign, usually took up to eight days to organize without paralyzing the giant city’s daily life, faced an annoyingly rebellious lack of tribute payment from none other than their troublesome neighbors, the newly conquered Tlatelolco. A tribute which the formerly independent altepetl was to deliver once every four moons was reported to be paid only partly, without due eagerness and goodwill. According to Duran, “… eighty days later, when the first payment of tribute was due, the Tlatelolcans did not bring slaves as they had been instructed… they excused themselves, saying that they had been unable to obtain them…”/p>

The reaction of Tenochtitlan was neither lenient nor violent. Busy with his war preparations, Axayacatl did not seem to be tempted to bring his newly gathered warriors’ force to the neighboring city in order to punish it. Instead, he decreed that “…the noblemen of this city are no longer to wear splendid mantles… they must use maguey cloaks, like people of low rank…”; Duran says that Tenochtitlan went as far as prohibiting Tlatelolcan nobles from wearing jewelry, or maybe even sandals, detained from certain appearances in public offices and places – “… like women, they were to stay at their houses until eighty days after their second payment had passed…”

That served to bring Tlatelolco back to its senses and not to be late with any further payments. Codex Mendoza, on the other hand, while going into great detail, listing every item of tribute that was to be delivered each fourth moon, does not mention any trouble in the initial payment.

An excerpt from “Morning Star”, The Aztec Chronicles, book #5.

The man nodded with surprising acceptance. “We’ll go and look there all the same. Maybe they are still around, lingering nearby.” His wide shoulders lifted briefly, decisively. “The maps and the tales of our courageous villager should reach your emperor before he sets out. They are good and extensive and they may influence your redoubtable ruler’s plans. I wonder if that boy learned something even more interesting while staying in the vicinity of the renowned Otomi leader who has no business sticking his nose into those lowlanders’ affairs.”

Necalli couldn’t help it. “Tlilcuetzalin?” It was difficult not to remember the Emperor’s reaction to the word of some fierce Chichimec or Otomi coming to join the enemy Tenochtitlan was about to engage in fighting, the unbecoming agitation he never expected to see on the Tenochtitlan ruler’s face. And that ominously spectacular name, TlilCuetzalin, Black Lizard.

“Oh yes, that’s the man. So now you know his name as well. Interesting.” The smile twisting the Texcocan’s lips held nothing but amusement this time. “I bet the Tenochtitlan emperor’s wish to be on his way tripled after your news. No wonder he looked agitated, that one. Loves spectacular ends to spectacular battles, that emperor of yours. But Tlilcuetzalin, or B’otzanga as he is known among his own people, is no Moquihuixtli of Tlatelolco, far from it. He will give your emperor a decent battle and a challenging hand-to-hand if they get to it. Remember my words, YoloNecalli. It might be a battle worthy of watching, its outcome not as certain as the one we managed to glimpse back in Tlatelolco.”

A gesture of the wide palm invited Necalli to leave the comforts of the shade the Great Pyramid provided. Fascinated, Necalli followed obediently. “Who is this man?” he asked, remembering the royal hand-to-hand upon the top of the Tlatelolco main pyramid, the glimpses he managed to snatch while keeping an eye on Moquihuixtli’s exquisite chief wife on behalf of this same man of Texcoco, saving the lady from the worst aspects of conquest.

“The Otomi leader from the western valleys?” His companion grinned without much mirth. “Oh, he is a renowned warrior and Axayacatl must have heard about him as well. Your villager friend’s news surely took the sleep out of Tenochtitlan ruler’s eyes. He won’t rest now and he will hurry his advance toward the west more ardently than before. Predictable that.” The frown came suddenly, replacing the amusement. “Botzanga is a great warrior and a skillful leader, a ruthless man of great merit, very sharp, very perceptive. I hope ItzMiztli did not come too close while spying after this one. He is not skilled enough yet to handle such a man. I would rest easier if it was he himself who came here to tell us the news of this man’s forces joining the Tollocans. One doesn’t go tracing a jaguar on its path, daring to follow its actual footprints, without proper training and skill.”

Necalli’s stomach twisted uneasily. “You think he managed to come close to such a man? How? It should be difficult, shouldn’t it? He is not a noble pilli and this Otomi leader must be a noble in his lands.” He tried to remember what they had been taught about the mysterious Chichimecs, the fiercest warriors and the wildest people with no scruples and no morals.

Military career

29 September 2017 Comments (0)

Youths just out of school – both calmecac and telpochcalli yet mostly from the prestigious calmecac – used to be picked by veterans as yaotelpochtli or shield-bearers. Their duty was to carry their veteran’s military equipment, spare weaponry and clothes, keep an eye on his war prisoners if he managed to capture such and other gained enemy possessions; and learn.

In return, the veteran was to put an eye on the youth he agreed to take along on the campaign while his charge went into his first battle, supervise his actual progress and practical learning. It was imperative to enjoy such real-time training after years of theoretical study in school or upon training grounds back home. Not every student of common origins could hope for such assistance in starting his military life.

Those parents who could afford it would approach veteran warriors on their sons’ behalf, offering food, drink and various gifts while asking to keep an eye on the young warrior, to help him along and teach. Thus youths of the richer families received better chances to succeed; or even to survive.

It was an accepted practice when on campaign for veterans to take care of the youths in general, not only the shield-bearers they agreed to accept, to teach them every practical aspect of warfare, including how to take a captive. If lucky, the young man would manage to capture his first war prisoner unaided. When it happened, one was safe to assume that his military career began with a smooth ascend, manifested in the permission to cut his school-style ear-long hair that would signify his elevation into the rank of telpochyahqui – ‘leading youth’ and tlamani – ‘captor’.

If the youth was assisted, his hairstyle upon his return would be altered only partly, with his ear-long hair shortened on his left side, but remained untouched on the right side – not a full honor of a true captor, but not a shameful manifestation either.

The youth who had failed to take a captive after going to war three or four times, would be called cuexpalchicacpol – ‘a youth with a baby lock’ – a shameful distinction. The young man who failed to take captives after that, assisted or unassisted, would have his head shaved and would be declared unsuitable for possible military promotion.

Of course, this was true of only those who aspired to lead or belong to one of the most prominent military orders. The bulk of the army was consisted of simple warriors who were not required or expected to achieve anything of the sort, having been drafted upon a need but not guided properly as noble youths were. Those who did it in spite of such lack of advantage were promoted accordingly, even helped to climb military ladder. The military leaders were always on the lookout for talented warriors, and for a commoner man the battlefield was the best of avenues to try and better one’s life.

As mentioned before, rank was achieved primary by taking captives and it reflected in a person’s dress as well as in his hairstyle. Valor on the battlefield was rewarded readily – with honors, insignia, armor, valuables and finally – land and a permanent minor nobility status.

When a youth took a captive without assistance, he would begin his ascendance up the military ladder. As mentioned before, one captive warranted the youth’s elevation into a rank of telpochyahqui – the leading youth and tlamani – the captor, and in exceptional cases, he might be even brought before Tenochtitlan ruler, the tlatoani himself. His face would be painted red ochre, while his temples would be anointed with yellow ochre and the tlatoani would present him with war garb to wear even in peaceful times. Sahagun says that this garb would consists of “…orange cap with a stripped border and scorpion design and two breechcloths, one carmine colored long edges, and the other of many colors…”. Codex Mendoza says that the garb consisted of “… mantle with flower design, called tiyahcauhtlatquitl – brave man’s equipment…”.

Upon taking his second captive, the warrior might be again admitted into the tlatoani’s presence, this time to be presented with a red-rimmed mantle.

For the third captive, a brave warrior would receive richly worked garment called ehecailacatzcozcatl – ‘jewel twisted by wind’ and tlepapalotlahuiztli – ‘fire butterfly device’, accompanied with a red-and-white feather tunic. At this point, the young warrior would become tiachcauh – ‘leader of youths’, and would be invited to reside in telpochcalli as an instructor, if he wished to do so, his status elevated.

For taking four captives, the warrior would be given arms device and ocelototec war garment – a mantle of two strips of black and orange with a border. His hair would be allowed to be cut like this of tequihuah – ‘veteran warrior’, and he would assume the title of a veteran as well. Such tequihuahqueh (plural for tequihuah) were those who were presented with honors, weapons and special insignia.

After the fourth captive the conditions for further advancement would change. From there, it depended on the quality of the captured enemy. Which would, of course, be different for different time periods. For example, in the later-day empire, the people called Huasteca and other coastal regions’ dwellers were held to be in a low esteem. Of those, one could capture ten more after his first four captive achievements and nothing would change, besides a few more insignificant honors and more solid status of yaotequihuah – ‘veteran warrior’.

However, if such veteran captured an enemy from places such as Huexotzinco beyond the eastern highlands, he would earn more promotions for his new feat of courage and daring, and would become cuauhyahcatl – ‘leader of a unit’. Tlatoani would present him with many gifts, a turquoise jewel for lip piercing, a headband with two turfs of eagle feathers and ornamented with silver flint knives, leather earplugs, bright-red netting cape, diagonally divided two colored cape and a leather cape – true reaches. In addition, such hero might be rewarded with land, promoted into the status of minor nobility, a hereditary title.

Taking another captive from difficult highlands regions was considered an awesome achievement, ensuring further promotions and lavish gifts. In Tenochtitlan it was paying off to be brave and daring, eager to do fits of courage on the battlefield, the surest way to ensure one’s statues and family’s future wellbeing.

The next article on the subject of organized warfare, will address the actual Mexica battle practices, tactics, strategies, sieges and more.

An excerpt from “Warrior Beast”, The Aztec Chronicles, book #4.

He ran his free hand through his somewhat ruffled lock of hair.

“Look, Fire Girl. I’ll tell our glorious commoner that you’ve been looking for him, yes, but…” His nostrils widened as he blew the air through them. “You know, you really shouldn’t run around and flaunt your interest in him that openly. What they are saying about you now is nothing compared to what they’ll be saying if you’ve been caught doing inappropriate things with him. And even if you don’t, your name can be slandered so easily now. Think about it.” His shoulders lifted lightly, as though reluctantly. “Good girls do not sneak into main parts of our calmecac in search of boys. Let alone commoners whose right to be here is questionable in the best of cases. Your nobility out there in the Palace would be appalled, and your noble fellow other student girls will have a field day spreading your bad name everywhere. Don’t you see it? It’s so obvious.”

He was looking at her sincerely, not admonishing or even patronizing. Still, his words hurt.

“He’ll be allowed to take me to be his woman after he is through with school.”

His laughter shook the air. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I’m not!” Unable not to, she stomped her foot, incensed with them all, this well-meaning youth included. “The Emperor gives him important missions even now when he is so young and still in school. When he is a warrior, he will be rewarded. He will become nobility like your friend’s father. Necalli told me about his father! He was not always a nobleman, not until he was rewarded for his bravery on the battlefield.”

“Yes, I know about Necalli’s father. He was never a villager from gods-forsaken fields, a peasant who couldn’t even read or write. Necalli’s father came from a respectable family of this city before he was rewarded with lands and noble titles.”

“So what?” She stomped her foot once again. “Miztli will be rewarded anyway. He is the bravest and the Emperor knows it. You just wait and see!”

To storm away felt childish, but she couldn’t help it. How dared they, her sister and this youth, and the others? How dared they berate him and say that he would never be a noble of this city, never would be allowed to claim her for himself. It was simply not true, it wasn’t! They didn’t understand or appreciate him, but she knew who he was. And the Tenochtitlan Emperor knew it too. And he wouldn’t be too snobbish or uptight to give a reward where a reward was due. Even the highest of rewards, yes. There must be plenty of lands to offer to the promising new leaders, plenty of titles to attach to those. But could she wait until it happened? What if it took him many summers and rainy seasons to achieve that imperial favor, the highest of rewards?

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