The Aztec civilization flourished from the 14th to 16th century. Living in what is now known as Mexico, the Aztecs had a small empire of city-states in the area around Mexico City. They were a Mesoamerican culture with many artistic and cultural achievements. While they are best known in popular culture for their vengeful deities and tradition of human sacrifice, the Aztecs had a rich culture that included distinct styles of painting, sculpture, and ceramics. An aspect of Aztec culture that is not often discussed is their repressive sexuality which was downright Victorian in its prudishness. The Aztec empire fell in the 16th century at the hand of Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors. Nevertheless, the Aztecs held deep beliefs when it came to sexuality.
16. Homosexuality Carried the Death Penalty
Homosexuality was deeply despised in the Aztec empire when it was acknowledged at all. The punishments were extraordinarily severe and cruel for anyone found to be engaging in homosexual activity. Lesbians were killed with a garrote wire. “Active” or penetrating homosexuals were murdered through impalement while the receiving partner died through the extraction of the entrails through the anus.
Even heterosexual sodomy was punishable by hanging. There are at least some references to both sodomy and cross-dressing male prostitutes in Aztec writings. While at least one deity, Xochipilli, was associated with homosexuality, the existence of homosexuals and homosexual behavior seemed to be primarily denied by Aztec society. Parallels to this behavior can be found in modern-day Iran when former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed there were no gays in Iran.
It is interesting to note that receptive partners in homosexual relationships relieved an arguably crueler punishment. This concept mirrors Roman culture, where the penetrating partners were considered socially acceptable, but the receiving partners were looked on as effeminate and immoral. Aztecs had rigid expectations of masculinity and respected aggressive and “macho” behavior. Any behavior that would make a man behave or appear more like a woman would devalue his role in Aztec society.
The Aztecs had numerous deities, some of whom governed the realms of sex and vice. The gods who ruled over sexuality were often thought to bring misfortune and back luck to any who prayed to them or angered them through their behavior. The Ahuiateteo was a group of five deities who all oversaw the realm of sex, and all five were also associated with misfortune and disease. The connection to disease is particularly impressive with what we now know of sexually transmitted infections.
Ixcuiname and Chicomecoatl were two goddesses, depicted as females, who were associated with sin, lust, and infidelity. Given the Aztec tendency towards punishing only women for adultery, it is unsurprising that the gods of infidelity were depicted as women. Chicomecoatl was associated with sex, but even more strongly with childbirth and fertility.
The name of the sex pantheon, Ahuiateteo, actually gave rise to the Náhuatl (Aztec) word for prostitute: Ahuienime. Interestingly, it appears the word literally translated to “bringer of joy,” but colonial Catholics translated the word into more negative connotations and described the Aztec prostitutes as evil creatures. Given that so much of our knowledge of the Aztecs was written through a colonial Catholic lens, it is difficult to truly understand how the Aztecs themselves viewed the Ahuienime and Ahuiateteo.
Throughout history, there are countless examples of cultures in which powerful men were allowed to take myriad wives. Genghis Khan had over 50 wives. The Prophet Muhammad of Islam had several wives. The Aztec Empire followed suit, with mighty men allowed to take multiple wives. This method was the only form of polygamy tolerated by the Aztecs, with lower-class men and all women prohibited from having multiple partners or spouses.
As with the cultures described above, the Aztecs typically recognized one wife as the “true” wife afforded full status while the additional wives were relegated to a status closer to that of a concubine. With Genghis Khan, he had one true wife whose children he recognized as his heirs, while the additional wives’ children were not recognized as his “true” issue for inheritance purposes.
In the Aztec Empire, having multiple wives was strongly associated with great wealth. Women were the exclusive weavers of cloth, which was highly prized and used as currency. A man with numerous weavers in his household would have a great deal more wealth than a lower-class man with only one weaving wife. The Aztec leader Motecuzoma had hundreds of wives, all of whom would have been continuously generating wealth for his household.
13. Pregnant Women Were Encouraged To Keep Having Sex
Aztecs of all social classes employed midwives throughout their pregnancies for the health of both the woman and baby. The midwives, known as tlamatlquiticitl, were there to shepherd women through the divine influences that could impact pregnancy in the beliefs of the Aztecs. The Aztecs believed numerous celestial events, including solar eclipses, could have profound impacts on both pregnancy and the health and status of the baby.
The tlamatlquiticitl encouraged Aztec women to continue engaging in sexual activity with their husbands up until the seventh month of pregnancy. It appears the Aztecs associated sexual activity with the vigor of the child. The Spanish friar Bernardino de Sahagun described the Aztec belief in the Florentine Codex, saying, “Because if she abstained entirely from the carnal act, the baby would be born sickly and weak.”
While sex during pregnancy has no bearing on the health of the child, we do know now that sex during pregnancy is safe and healthy for the woman. In fact, research indicates that the release of oxytocin during sex as well as the semen’s softening effect on the cervix can actually help to induce labor. The Aztecs were truly ahead of their time in encouraging healthy sexual activity during pregnancy.
12. Concubines Were Forced To Be Celibate After Giving Birth
While the Aztecs focused on the importance of having sex during pregnancy, they believed it was imperative not to have sex after the delivery. In fact, celibacy was required of the concubines of noblemen after birth. It appears they were expected to remain celibate from their lord for years after the birth of their children. Given that the relationship between many concubines and their lords was likely not consensual, perhaps this was a blessing in disguise for the concubines.
The children of concubines were not afforded the same status as those born by the “true” wives of high-ranking men, but they were still provided a much higher rank than the children of ordinary men and women. This pattern has been mirrored through many cultures including the Mongol empire, where Genghis Khan’s real wife was the only woman whose heirs were recognized.
There are some notable exceptions to the general rule of the children of concubine being of lesser status. Emperor Itzcoatl was the son of the very first Aztec Emperor Acamapichtli. Interestingly, Itzcoatl was not born to the faithful wife of Acamapichtli, but rather a peasant who served as a concubine. It is reported that Itzcoatl’s mother sold vegetables at a market and was of meager status.
11. Prostitutes Served A Ritualistic Role In Aztec Society
Prostitutes, known as ahuianime, served an important role in Aztec society. Ahuianime were associated with the goddess Xochiquetzal and served ritualistic functions. Unfortunately, much of the contemporary writing on the Aztec prostitutes were from the perspective of Catholic colonizers who viewed the Aztecs only from their own monogamous, patriarchal and Catholic perspective.
In the Florentine Codex, friar Bernardino de Sahagun said that the priestesses would offer themselves to young men as a reward after a battle. They were also trained in art and music and would entertain and pleasure men before they were delivered to the gods in human sacrifice. Given the importance of human sacrifice in Aztec culture, the prostitutes also doubtlessly served an essential role in the Aztec civilization that the Catholic colonizers were not able to understand or appreciate.
The ahuianime would have been easy to recognize. While all Aztec women wore their hair up, the ahuianime always wore theirs down. They were also the only women allowed to wear perfume and apply paint to their faces. The Florentine Codex also claims that the ahuianime also painted their teeth, chewed gum and wore jewelry. Unfortunately, Sahagun described the ahuianime as evil and immoral and did not put forth the effort to understand how they served Aztec culture.
10. Adultery Was Punishable By Death — Especially For Women
As with countless cultures throughout the ages, including our own, male sexuality is far less regulated, legislated and shamed than female sexuality. This notion held true for the Aztec Empire as well. Men, or at least those of high status, were afforded the opportunity for multiple wives, while poor men and women would have suffered legal consequences for doing so. The appearance of Aztec women was also highly regulated, with only the ritual prostitutes being allowed to wear their hair down, paint their faces and wear jewelry.
An aspect of Aztec culture that bore enormous ramifications for women was the role of punishment for infidelity. While high-ranking men were allowed to take multiple wives and low-status men were generally acknowledged to have affairs, women would have been forced to pay an incredible price for any marital infidelity. While low-ranking men may have been beaten, had their heads shaved, or other corporal punishment the punishment for women was death.
Both men and women of all classes were expected to be virgins upon marriage, but as with other cultures, only women were traditionally examined to have their virginity verified. The hymen as proof of celibacy was a standard used in Aztec culture alongside numerous European cultures. Women disproportionately suffered punishment for lack of chastity due to the lack of being able to prove that men had engaged in premarital sex.
The Aztecs frowned upon masturbation and punished anyone who was caught engaging in such behavior. Author Gary Jennings, in his book Aztec, described the attitudes surrounding masturbation in Aztec culture as well as the punishment. Jennings stated that men found engaging in masturbation would have ground chili peppers rubbed on their genitals. It is not clear how strictly this prohibition was enforced, nor who was responsible for administering the punishment. One also wonders if it applied to both sexes, or if female masturbation was even acknowledged in Aztec culture.
The active ingredient in chili peppers, capsaicin, causes burning and tingling sensations that can range from irritating to excruciating depending on the concentration of the chemical. Capsaicin can be refined and concentrated into a weaponized form, which is the active ingredient in pepper spray. Anyone who has rubbed their eye after chopping up a jalapeño pepper understands just how nasty this punishment could have been.
Other Indigenous cultures in North America, specifically some Native American tribes, used ground chili peppers to cause mild numbing to prolong sexual performance and enhance their enjoyment. It is said that some Spanish colonizers even tried this after learning of it, much to the judgment of the Catholic priests accompanying them on their voyages.
Human sacrifice was a core component of the religious practices of the Aztec Empire. Ritual sacrifice was practiced on both men and women to appease their various deities. Women sacrifices faced a particularly brutal fate as they were given none of the rewards of male sacrifices before their death. In fact, their “reward” before death was really additional punishment through rape.
Female sacrificial victims to the mother goddess Toci would be given to a tlatoani, translated as a ruler or king. That gifting allowed the ruler to use the woman however he wanted. It is widely understood that this meant the woman would be used as a sex object by the ruler before her death. When one compares this fate to the gifting of four wives and pampering of male victims before dying, this treatment stands out as especially egregious. Women paid a steep price in the Aztec religion.
The actual killing of female sacrificial victims was also especially brutal. After a period of being raped by the tlatoani, the woman would be flayed alive. Her skin would then be worn by a male priest impersonating the goddess Toci, who is represented in contemporary Aztec artwork as wearing human skin from sacrificial victims.
7. Male Sacrifices Were Gifted Wives Before Execution
Human sacrifice stood at the core of Aztec religion. Men were called upon to serve as avatars of the god Tezcatlipoca, the god of time, before being ritually murdered. These men served as avatars known as ixptla for a year before their ritual sacrifice. In the last month of the year before their sacrifice, the avatars were gifted four women to take as wives.
The four women would not only create wealth for the avatar during the last month of his life through weaving but they also undoubtedly served as sex objects to make the last month of the avatar’s experience more enjoyable. It is not clear what status these women helped after the man’s sacrifice and if they were able to remarry later.
Women served a genuinely terrible role both as sacrifices themselves and in gifts to male sacrifices. They were victims of rape no matter which position they served, as the female sacrifices were “given” to a male ruler for sexual use before their ritual murder. It would appear no element of the Aztec religion offered women a role that would save them from sexual assault. Even the ritualistic part of women in the Aztec religion was that of the prostitute, submitting themselves to warriors after battle.
6. The Aztecs Gave Women As Gifts To The Conquistadors
The primary role of women in Aztec society was as weavers, and subsequently as generators of wealth. The cloth was highly valued and used as currency, and women were the only people who wove it. Women were accordingly viewed as tantamount to property, being “gifted” in both ritual sacrifices and between high-ranking males as gestures of friendship or alliance.
This habit of “gifting” women continued when the Spanish colonizers arrived in Mexico. A Spanish chronicler noted that Aztec rulers took, “absolutely whichever woman they wanted, and they were given to them as men of power. Moreover, following this usage, many daughters of the rulers were given to the Spaniards, so that they would leave descendants there, in case this should go away from this land.” The Aztecs were tragically wise in this decision, as the Spanish colonizers did ultimately destroy their Empire within a century of their arrival.
When the famous colonizer Cortes arrived, he and his men were “given” twenty women including a wealthy noblewoman of high status who served as a diplomat between the Spanish and the Aztec. Given the state of women at the time, there are no writings or accounts of how women felt about being gifted between men or what role, if any, consent played in these giftings.
5. Aztecs Used Professional Matchmakers To Arrange Marriages
Marriage was an extremely formal affair for all classes in Aztec society. People did not directly approach or make offers of marriage to each other; instead, they followed a highly detailed set of customs carried out by professional matchmakers called ah atanzah. The Aztecs married later in life compared to different Mesoamerican cultures, with many not marrying until their late teens or even early twenties, at a time when other cultures often had arranged marriages in childhood.
The parents of potential grooms were traditionally the initiators of marriage proceeds with the ah atanzah. After consulting with the intended groom’s extended family, or kinship clan, they would ask a professional matchmaker. The matchmaker would then approach the intended bride’s family and make the offer of marriage. Brides were expected to be virgins upon marriage, but both sexes were supposed to remain celibate until marriage.
If the marriage offer was accepted, a wedding feast would follow. The traditional Aztec feast was a four-day event with the official wedding on the first day and various feasts and customs following after. Some of the traditions included the bride’s mother giving the couple mouthfuls of tamales, lighting a hearth and offering burned incense to various deities, and tying the groom’s cape to the bride’s skirt as a gesture of unity.
The goddess Tlazolteotl governed the Aztec realm of childbirth. Midwives, in service of Tlazolteotl, would oversee all Aztec pregnancies and deliveries. They followed the guidance of their deity which included encouraging women to have sex until the seventh month of their pregnancy and avoiding celestial occurrences such as solar eclipses, which were believed to harm unborn children.
When the time came for delivery, Aztec mothers would be overseen by the midwives who would prepare sedative drinks brewed from herbs and place warm stones on the mother to ease her pain and cramping. Upon successful delivery, the midwife would raise several war cries to celebrate the mother’s accomplishment. The Aztecs viewed childbirth as women’s war and treated with similar respect to actual warfare.
Women who died in childbirth were mourned and honored in the same manner as fallen soldiers and afforded the same social status. Women who died in childbirth were also sometimes depicted as a form of vengeful spirit known as cihuateteo which were believed to stalk and prey on adults and abduct children. While women were afforded minimal status in Aztec society and were mostly treated as property, they were highly valued for their ability to give birth to future generations of Aztecs.
3. Umbilical Cords Were Preserved And Buried In Battlefields Or Underneath Hearths
The umbilical cords of newborn Aztecs were carefully preserved and saved for adulthood. Keeping the umbilical cord had profound cultural significance and was required for rituals at the passage into adulthood. When a baby was born, the midwife, known as a tlamatlquiticitl, would wash the baby and then remove the umbilical cord. The midwife would also stay with the mother for several days to ensure breastfeeding went well, as the Aztecs had no animals that could produce milk fit for infants.
If a female child were born, the umbilical cord would be buried under the hearth of the home. This practice was believed to make the child a good future wife and mother because the hearth is the center and lifeblood of the house. A book of Aztec sayings called Huehuetlatolli included a passage describing the custom, which encouraged girls to “be to the home what the heart is to the body.”
If a boy child was born, the umbilical was given to a male warrior, presumably in the infant’s extended familial group, to carry into foreign territory and bury in a battlefield. This method was believed to make the boy a strong warrior, which was vital to the Aztecs since the central value of a male Aztec child was his prowess in battle. Of male children, the Huehuetlatolli said, “Your trade and skill is war; your role is to give the sun the blood of your enemies to drink and feed the earth, Tlaltecuhtli, with the bodies of your enemies.”
2. Women Were Not Allowed To View Eclipses, Lest They Birth A Monster
The Aztecs believed that divine celestial events had a significant bearing on unborn children. In particular, they greatly feared the effects that solar eclipses would have on unborn children. The source of this belief was the Tzitzimitl, astral deities that were ordinarily harmless but turned into terrifying monsters when the sun disappeared during an eclipse. It was believed that women allowed to view the eclipse would come to be harmed by the Tzitzimitl who would turn their unborn children into monsters like themselves.
The Aztec midwives, known as tlamatlquiticitl, were responsible for ensuring the safety of pregnant women during events like eclipses. Any sign of cosmic disorder such as eclipses, comets or other strange events were taken as ill omens and a cause for pregnant women and their unborn children to be protected.
On a much more practical note to the modern mind, the tlamatlquiticitl also advised mothers, especially first-time mothers, on their health and diet. They also coached women on how to give birth, with the Aztec traditionally giving birth in a squatting position that allowed gravity to aid in the delivery. They also taught Aztec mothers how to breastfeed and ensured that the milk flowed adequately and that the infant learned how to latch on correctly.
1. Christian Conquistadors Forced Aztecs To Give Up Their Wives
When the Christian colonizers arrived from Spain in the 15th century, they brought the full force of their Catholic beliefs with them. Starting in 1529, the Catholics began converting Aztec nobility to Christendom with the aim of spreading it through the nobles to the lower classes. Part of the conversion included a demand to have only one wife, as polygamy was strictly outlawed under Christianity.
Under Christian law, any additional wife beyond the “primary” wife was an adulteress and immediately disinherited from the man’s family, and all children declared illegitimate. This forced monogamy had an immediate and disastrous effect on Aztec culture, as the many arranged marriages among nobility had forged alliances, concentrated wealth and settled disputes. It also left countless women with no legal or societal status.
Women who had woven cloth for their husbands before were now put to work by the Spanish in grueling conditions. The encomiendas were created, which was a Spanish labor system used in areas they colonized. The tradition of Aztec women as paid laborers was ended and men were put to work in cloth mills, ending the tradition of Aztec men as a warrior class. With the catastrophic changes to their culture and way of life, it is unsurprising that their Empire fell within a century of colonization.
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