Women in Aztec civilization

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A woman performing a recreation of the traditional Aztec fire dance.
Chalchiuhtlicue was the river and ocean goddess, who also presided over Aztec wedding ceremonies. She is usually shown wearing jade; here she holds spinning and weaving tools (image from the Codex Rios).
Statue of a kneeling woman, possibly a goddess (1300 to 1521 CE).

Women in Aztec civilization had a certain degree of acknowledged equality with men, and enjoyed relative independence in matters such as paid work. Aztec civilization saw the rise of a military culture, however, that was closed to women and made their role more subordinate to men.

Marriage[edit]

Aztec marriage practices were similar to those of other Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Mayans. Aztecs married at a later age, during their late teens and early twenties, whereas in Mayan culture it was not unusual for marriages to be arranged by parents for a son and daughter who were still children. Aztec marriages were initiated by the parents of the potential groom. After consulting with the extended kinship group, the parents would approach a professional matchmaker (ah atanzah), who would approach the potential bride's family. The parents of the young woman would advise the matchmaker whether or not they accepted the proposal.[1]

The marriage celebration was a four-day event, and the wedding ceremony took place on the first day. The bride would wear fine robes. Her kinswomen would decorate her arms and legs with red feathers, and paint her face with a paste containing small shimmering crystals. The ceremony would take place at the house of the groom's parents. A fire would be lit in the hearth. Incense would be burned as an offering to the gods. The groom's parents would give presents (robes and mantles) to the bride's parents. The ritual for finalizing the marriage involved the matchmaker tying the groom's cape to the bride's skirt, then the groom's mother would give the bride and groom each four mouthfuls of tamales. Four days of feasting followed the ceremony.[2]

Marriages among Aztec nobles were usually arranged for the purpose of political, military or economic alliances, such as Cosijoeza married Ahuitzotl's daughter to seal the alliance between the Aztecs and the Zapotecs in 1496.[3] Aztec kings reportedly had dozens of wives and many children. However, polygamy was only a practice among the nobles of Aztec civilization; the majority of the population practiced monogamy.[4]

Pregnancy and childbirth[edit]

Women delivering a baby were attended by a midwife. The midwife would lead prayers during the woman's labour to the goddess of childbirth, Tlazolteotl. A sedative drink made of herbs and grasses would be prepared by the midwife and given to the woman in labour, and a warm stone would also be laid on the pregnant woman's belly to ease her pain.[5] When the baby was born, the midwife would make a series of battle cries, praising the mother who had fought through her labour to deliver the baby. Aztec culture under the warrior class associated giving birth with the capture of a prisoner, and dying in childbirth was equated with dying in battle.[6]

Umbilical cords were preserved. When a son reached adulthood, he would carry his to a distant battlefield and bury it, whereas a daughter buried hers next to the family's hearth.[7]

Women and Aztec religion and mythology[edit]

Women and work outside the home[edit]

Women had a number of professions in Aztec civilization, including priest, doctor, sorcerer.[8] Women were predominantly recognized in their communities as professional weavers and craft producers. They were regarded as true artisans with prestige and control over their own work and the income it generated, and women belonged to the artisans' guilds.[9]

Images in Aztec codices, ceramics and sculptures display the elaborate and colourful designs of Aztec weavers. There were regional textile specialties, with associated graphic designs. Most designs were geometric, with some regions specializing in textiles with animal and plant images. Cotton was generally used, and dyes came from blue clays, yellow ochres, and red came from insects living in nopal cacti. Purple was derived from the sea snail Purpura patula, related to the Mediterranean Murex mollusc, from which the ancient Phoenicians derived purple dye used for royal robes.[10]

Women mainly worked inside the home, spinning and weaving thread from cotton, henepen or maquey agave. They used a handheld drop spindle, then wove cloth using a loom that they strapped to their backs and held in their laps. Women also spent hours grinding maize between stones to make flour. They were responsible for tending turkeys and dogs that were raised for meat. Extra cloth, vegetables or other items were taken by women to the nearest market to be sold or bartered for a needed item.[11]

Spanish rule[edit]

Illustration of an Aztec woman blowing on maize (corn) before putting it into the cooking pot, so that it will not fear the fire. From a late 16th-century Florentine Aztec codex.

The Spanish conquest of Aztec territories decimated much of the indigenous population, through warfare and by bringing new diseases, such as smallpox, for which the Aztecs had no immunities. The population that did survive these threats was confronted by other profound attacks upon their culture in the form of Spanish institutions such as the Roman Catholic religion.

As early as 1529, the Spanish began coercively converting Aztecs to the Catholic religion. They focused on the Aztec nobility initially, to create an example for the other Aztecs to follow. Nobles such as Quetzalmacatzin, King of Amaquemecan (Chalco), were forced to choose one wife and abandon the others, to comply with the Christian institution of marriage, which meant monogamy. Aztec polygamous arrangements, with secondary wives and children, were not legally recognized by the Spanish, who considered such women and children illegitimate and disinherited from claims to ranks or property. This also tore apart the political and economic fabric of Aztec culture, since noble marriages were made with political and territorial claims in mind.[12]

Working demands became harsh for women after the Spanish arrived and the encomiendas were created. Aztec communities had already lost many men to war and epidemics, and the encomiendas meant that more men worked outside of their villages for the encomenderos. Traditional gender-based divisions of labour became irrelevant. Women no longer had men to do plowing, and were left to do all the agricultural tasks themselves, which included the planting and harvesting, as well as growing enough produce to meet the tribute demands of the encomiendas. Encomenderos and their Spanish retainers exploited Aztec women as weavers, often chaining them to looms, to meet demand for Aztec woven fabrics abroad.[13] Over several generations, many young women left the rural areas to work as domestic servants or as market vendors in the cities. By 17th century, Andean women were the majority of the market vendors in colonial cities such as La Paz (Bolivia), Cuzco (Peru), and Quito (Ecuador).[14]

Spanish culture would not allow for women to work autonomously outside the home, as Aztec women had done. Women were expected to make the raising of children their priority. Their independence as workers with paid occupations was ended by the Spanish, particularly in the textile work that had given Aztec women such esteem in their communities. When the Spanish eventually set up industrial textile mills, they had men working in the mills, not women.[15]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Phillips, Charles (2011). The Complete Illustrated History: Aztec & Maya. London: Hermes House. p. 351. ISBN 978-0-85723-680-7. 
  2. ^ Phillips, Charles (2011). The Complete Illustrated History: Aztec & Maya. London: Hermes House. p. 351. ISBN 978-0-85723-680-7. 
  3. ^ Hamnett, Brian R. (2006). A Concise History of Mexico. Cambridge University Press. p. 54. ISBN 978-0-521-61802-1. 
  4. ^ Beezley, William H. and Michael C. Meyer, eds. (2010). The Oxford History of Mexico. Oxford University Press. p. 67. ISBN 978-0-19-973198-5. 
  5. ^ Phillips, Charles (2011). The Complete Illustrated History: Aztec & Maya. London: Hermes House. p. 352. ISBN 978-0-85723-680-7. 
  6. ^ Powers, Karen Vieira (2005). Women in the Crucible of Conquest: The Gendered Genesis of Spanish American Society, 1500–1600. University of New Mexico Press. p. 60. ISBN 978-0-8263-3519-7. 
  7. ^ Phillips, Charles (2011). The Complete Illustrated History: Aztec & Maya. London: Hermes House. p. 352. ISBN 978-0-85723-680-7. 
  8. ^ Buffington, Robert and Lila Caimari, eds. (2009). Keen's Latin American Civilization: History Of Society, 1492 to the Present. Westview Press. p. 12. ISBN 978-0-8133-4408-9. 
  9. ^ Powers, Karen Vieira (2005). Women in the Crucible of Conquest: The Gendered Genesis of Spanish American Society, 1500–1600. University of New Mexico Press. p. 65. ISBN 978-0-8263-3519-7. 
  10. ^ Phillips, Charles (2011). The Complete Illustrated History: Aztec & Maya. London: Hermes House. pp. 446–7. ISBN 978-0-85723-680-7. 
  11. ^ Phillips, Charles (2011). The Complete Illustrated History: Aztec & Maya. London: Hermes House. pp. 446–7. ISBN 978-0-85723-680-7. 
  12. ^ Powers, Karen Vieira (2005). Women in the Crucible of Conquest: The Gendered Genesis of Spanish American Society, 1500–1600. University of New Mexico Press. pp. 59–61. ISBN 978-0-8263-3519-7. 
  13. ^ Powers, Karen Vieira (2005). Women in the Crucible of Conquest: The Gendered Genesis of Spanish American Society, 1500–1600. University of New Mexico Press. pp. 64–5. ISBN 978-0-8263-3519-7. 
  14. ^ Powers, Karen Vieira (2005). Women in the Crucible of Conquest: The Gendered Genesis of Spanish American Society, 1500–1600. University of New Mexico Press. p. 64. ISBN 978-0-8263-3519-7. 
  15. ^ Powers, Karen Vieira (2005). Women in the Crucible of Conquest: The Gendered Genesis of Spanish American Society, 1500–1600. University of New Mexico Press. pp. 59–65. ISBN 978-0-8263-3519-7.