Young Folk's History of Mexico - Frederick Ober

A Glance at the Aztec at Home

Indians, Columbus called the first men of the new world that met his sight in the Bahamas, and "Indians" they have remained to this day. Not only has the name been applied to those red men of the West India Islands, but to the whole race inhabiting North, South, and Central America.

Did it ever occur to you that there might be a difference among these Indians, as to color, size, nature and acquirements! Has it ever been brought forcibly to your mind that there is as great a difference between the Indians of the North and those of the South as between the varied families of the white race? The Irish and English are not as dissimilar as the Indians of the United States and those of Mexico. The Northern Indians are nomads, wild rovers by nature, possessing few of the arts of civilization; the Southern Indians (as has been remarked in the opening chapters), were fixed to the soil, and had many acquirements to entitle them to high respect. Those Indians, at the time of their discovery by the Spaniards, were remarkably well-formed, of good height, with black eyes and hair, rather narrow foreheads, straight, shapely limbs and remarkable for their endurance.

If allowed to live out the natural term of their years they generally arrived at a good old age. They were very moderate in eating, but indulged in strong drinks frequently to excess. They were patient and long-suffering, enduring hardships without murmuring, and suffering even death without complaint. They were (and so are their descendants at the present day) generous, grateful for kindness, nor distrustful by nature. "They were by nature taciturn, serious and austere, and showed more anxiety to punish crimes than to reward virtues;" yet were joyous on occasions, and even hilarious. They were not indolent, laziness even being considered by them a vice. Finally, they were courageous, being more affected by superstition than cowardice. To conclude, says the ancient historian, "the character of the Mexicans, like that of every other nation, is a mixture of good and bad; but the bad is easy to be corrected by a proper education, as has frequently been demonstrated by experience."

In regard to the state of civilization amongst the Mexicans, when they were found by the Spaniards, he says, "it was much superior to that of the Spaniards themselves when they were first known to the Phoenicians, that of the Gauls when first known to the Greeks, or that of the Germans and Britons when first known to the Romans." Of this let the future pages speak in evidence.

Dress of the Mexicans

Though the very earliest people of Mexico went entirely naked, or partially covered by the skins of wild beasts, they gradually adopted a decent garb as they grew more civilized. The year that the Aztecs first wore garments of cotton is pictured in their annals. The men wore invariably the breech-cloth, and a mantle made of a square piece of cloth about four feet in length; in addition to this, in winter, they wore a sort of sack, with holes for the head and for the arms, reaching below the hips. The rich wore a greater number of and larger mantles, and fringed the ends, besides adorning themselves with jewelry. The dress of the women was the same as we may see worn in portions of Mexico and Yucatan. It consisted of two articles, the cueitl, a sort of petticoat, reaching from the waist to near the ankles, and the uipil  or chemise, with very short sleeves, or without any at all, which covered the upper part of the body and thighs. On going out of doors they drew on a larger uipil, that descended lower, or perhaps an elegant mantle. Both sexes, especially of the better classes, wore sandals, made of maguey fibre or deer skins; but probably knew not the use of stockings. The Aztecs wore their hair long and hanging down their back, sometimes twisting it with black thread, as do many Indian women at the present day. Other tribes partially shaved their heads, and others braided their hair, some left a ridge and some left a single scalp-lock. The Aztec women painted their faces in various colors, red, yellow or black, dyed their feet black, and cleaned and painted their teeth with the crimson cochineal. Both men and women had a passion for ornaments; gold, silver and precious stones for the king and the nobility; bone, stone or copper for the plebeians, in the shape of bracelets, anklets, armlets, and rings for the ears, nose, fingers and lower lip. But no subject could wear the same dress or ornament as his king, the penalty was death! The nobles wore in their lips the chalchihuite, or native emerald, while the poorer classes thrust eagle-claws and fish-bones through holes bored in their ears, lips, and nose.

[Illustration] from History of Mexico by Frederick Ober


The king possessed the greatest variety of mantles of cotton, so finely made as to resemble silk, and wore a different one for every occasion. We can hardly believe that he never wore any dress a second time, as many have pretended. His sandals had golden soles and were ornamented with precious stones; the royal crown was a band of gold rising to a point in front, and sometimes ornamented with the long feathers of the quetzal, or royal trogon. Besides feather tassels garnished with gold, worn upon the crown of the head, the king sometimes wore chin ornaments of crystal and precious stones, or golden crescents suspended from his under lip. In one account given of the visit of Nezahualcoyotl to the unfortunate King Chimalpopoca, imprisoned in a cage, we read that the king gave the young prince his emerald lip ornament at parting. The great lords bored holes in their noses and wore some kind of precious stones, one on each side. They wore strings of gems about their necks, bracelets of mosaic work, and greaves of thin plates of gold on their legs below the knees. Sometimes they carried a small golden flag in their hand, ornamented with a tuft of brilliant feathers, and wore upon the head a rich-plumed bird with its beak in front and its wings hanging over their temples.

From this plain and sober statement of the costume and ornaments of the higher classes, collected from a great number of writers, it will be seen that the Aztecs were something more than the "barbarians" some historians would have us believe them to have been.

Soon after the birth of a child, the diviners were consulted as to its fortune, and a name was given it, taken from the symbol of the day of its birth. Thus, if it was born on the day of the flower, it was called Xochitl, with a proper prefix. One of the Tlascallan chiefs bore the name of Citlalpopoca, "Smoking Star," because he was born at the time of the appearance of a comet. On the fifth day of the little one's life its parents gave a great entertainment, and made presents to all their guests. The father fashioned a miniature bow and arrows, if he was a military man, and the child was a boy; if it was a girl, they made a little garment, a spindle and instruments for weaving. These were buried in certain places—the instruments of war in the fields, those for the little girl in the house, under the stone for grinding corn. The babe was taken to the middle of the court and bathed, its nurse making a little speech to it as she undressed it, as follows: "My child, the gods, Ometeudli  and Omecltuatl, lords of heaven, have sent thee to this dismal and calamitous world. Receive this water which is to give thee life; and, bathing and rubbing its limbs, she continued: "Where art thou, ill-fortune? In what limb art thou hid? Go far from this child." She then dressed and laid him in the cradle, Cozolli, praying Joalticitl, the goddess of cradles, to warm and guard him in her bosom, and Joalteuctli, god of the night, to make him sleep."

Early in life the Mexican children were taught useful lessons in modesty, religion and industry. At five years of age they were either delivered to the priests, to be educated in the seminaries, or their education commenced at home. The Mexican paintings show us the various steps taken in the bringing up of the children. One goes to the war, with his father, to learn the use of arms and to be courageous; another carries a small pack upon his back to market with his father; the little girls are early taught to spin and weave.

They abhorred a lie, and the child that told one had its lips pricked with a thorn of the aloe; if it persisted in lying, its lip was slightly split. Girls were instructed to remain at home, and if prone to walk about, their feet were tied. These Aztec fathers understood the beneficial effect of a "dose of birch," and in one of the paintings is a representation of a loving parent holding a rod over his son's back. If the boys were very refractory they were held over the smoke of burning paper until nearly suffocated. They were obliged at all times to sleep upon a hard bed, a mat spread on the floor, and to eat the plainest food.

At the seminaries, the priests seem to have had it all their own way with the boys, pricking them with aloes-thorns and throwing firebrands at their heads if they were disobedient. It was not all a pastime, going to school in those days. Corporal punishment, as the Aztecs understood it, meant something more than a few strokes of a ferule! In one of the paintings we see a naughty boy of twelve, bound hand and foot; and a bad girl was obliged to rise in the night and sweep the house—no great task, by the way, as the houses of the poorer classes consisted of only a single room. Between thirteen and fifteen, the boys brought wood from the mountains, made trips across the lakes in canoes, and supplied the family with fish; the girls ground corn, did the cooking and weaving.

Schools were established for children of either sex; they were always kept apart; they were hardly allowed to speak to one another. In the colleges, the boys and girls received chiefly religious instruction, were taught to sweep the temples, to gather wood for sacrifice, to clean and replenish the censers, and above all to fear and reverence the idols. When they left the seminaries it was either to be married or to go into the army. If a young collegiate did not then choose a wife it fared hard with him, should he desire one later, for hardly a girl would even look at him!

The maidens who attended the female seminaries were chiefly daughters of nobles and princes. They were strictly guarded and watched over by vestal priestesses; and old men prowled about the outside of the building to keep off the boys. There were no evening serenades nor moonlight rambles for the young ladies of those seminaries, for if a girl was detected in even looking at a young man she was severely punished; and if she should presume to go to walk with him, her feet were tied together and pricked with sharp thorns! Death, even, was the penalty for the infraction of some of the rules. There, the young ladies learned how to spin and weave mantles, and to make the beautiful feather-work; they, too, were obliged to sweep the temples and to tend the sacred fires. They were made to bathe often and to give great attention to personal cleanliness, to be skillful and tidy in domestic affairs. Both sexes were taught to hold their tongue in the presence of their elders, to answer them with reverence, and to be modest in their behavior.

There are those who have said that these people were savages, who have called them barbarians. Let the reader judge if barbarians would take such jealous care of their children, if they would instruct them so judiciously. Let the reader form his opinion of them from their acts and discourses; let him reflect upon the following good advice given by parents to their children. As rendered by the early historians, it is too long to be produced here in full, fragments only can be given:

"My son," said the Mexican father, "we know not how long heaven will grant to us the enjoyment of that precious gem we possess in thee; but, however short the period, endeavor to live exactly, praying God continually to assist thee! Mock not, my son, the aged or the imperfect. Scorn not him whom you shall see fall into some folly or transgression, nor make him reproaches; but restrain thyself, and beware lest thou fall into the same error which offends thee in another. Go not where thou art not called, nor interfere in that which does not concern thee. Endeavor to manifest thy good breeding in all thy words and actions. In conversation do not lay thy hands upon another, nor speak too much, nor interrupt or disturb another's discourse. When any one discourses with thee, hear him attentively, and hold thyself in an easy attitude; neither playing with thy feet nor putting thy mantle to thy mouth, nor spitting too often, nor looking about you here and there. When thou art at table do not eat voraciously, nor show thy displeasure if anything displeases thee. If any one comes unexpectedly to dinner with thee share with him what thou hast, and when any person is entertained by thee do not fix thy looks upon him. When anything is given thee accept it with tokens of gratitude; if the present is great, do not become vain or fond of it; if small, do not despise it or be provoked. If thou becomest rich, do not grow insolent, nor scorn the poor; for those very gods who deny riches to others in order to give them to thee, offended by thy pride, will take from thee to give to others.

"Never tell a falsehood, because a lie is a heinous sin. Speak ill of nobody. Be not dissolute, because, thereby thou wilt incense the gods, and they will cover thee with infamy. Steal not, nor give thyself up to gaming; other wise thou wilt be a disgrace to thy parents, whom thou oughtest rather to honor, for the education they have given thee. If thou wilt be virtuous, thy example will put the wicked to shame.

"No more, my son; enough has been said in discharge of the duties of a father. With these counsels I wish to fortify thy mind. Refuse them not, nor act in contradiction to them; for on them thy life and all of thy happiness depend."

Now, this is not the language of a savage, nor—making allowance for the embellishment it may have received at the hands of the chronicler—is this the speech of one insensible to the higher duties of life. What a paradox is here before us, when we compare the moral with the religious life of this people!

Let us see how the Mexican mother advised her daughter, when the time came for her to leave her: "My daughter, I have endeavored to bring thee up with greatest possible care, and thy father has wrought and polished thee like an emerald, that thou mayest appear in the eves of men a jewel of virtue. Strive always to be good, for otherwise who will have thee for a wife; thou will be rejected by every one. Life is a thorny, laborious path, and it is necessary to exert all our powers to obtain the goods which the gods are willing to yield to us; we must not, therefore, be lazy or negligent, but diligent in everything. Be orderly, and take pains to manage the economy of thy house. Wherever thou goest, go with modesty and composure, without hurrying thy steps, or laughing with those whom thou meetest, nor casting thy eyes thoughtlessly first to one side and then to the other. Employ thyself diligently in spinning and weaving, in sewing and embroidering; for by these acts thou wilt gain esteem.

"In whatever thou doest encourage not evil thoughts, but attend solely to the service of the gods, and the giving of comfort to thy parents. If thy father or thy mother calls thee, do not stay to be called twice, but go instantly to know their pleasure.

"Keep not company with dissolute, lying, or idle women; otherwise they infallibly infect thee by their example. Attend upon thy family, and do not go on slight occasions out of the house, nor be seen wandering through the streets, or in the market-place; for in such places thou kill meet thy ruin. Remember, that vice, like a poisonous herb, brings death to those who taste it; and when it once harbors in the mind it is difficult to expel it.

"Enter not without some urgent motive into another's house, that nothing may be either said or thought injurious to thy honor; but if thou enterest into the house of thy relations, salute them with respect, and do not remain idle, but immediately take up a spindle to spin, or do any other thing that occurs.

When thou art married respect thy husband, obey him and diligently do what he commands thee. Avoid incurring his displeasure, nor show thyself passionate or ill-natured; but receive him fondly to thy arms, even if he is poor and lives at thy expense. If he occasions thee any disgust let him not know thy displeasure at the time; but afterwards tell him with gentleness what vexed thee, that he may be won by thy mildness and offend thee no farther. Embrace, my daughter, the counsel which I give thee: I am already advanced in life and have had sufficient dealings with the world. I am thy mother. I wish that thou mayest live well. Fix my precepts in thy heart, for then thou wilt live happy. If, by not listening to me, or by neglecting my instructions, any misfortune befall thee, the fault will be thine, and the evil also.

"Enough, my child, may the gods prosper thee!"

No comment is necessary upon this advice. Setting aside the minor references to customs of the country and the gods, what better counsel could even a Christian mother offer to a beloved daughter than that of this Pagan?

The marriageable age was, for the young man, twenty to twenty-two; for the young woman, sixteen to eighteen. The astrologers were first consulted, and if all promised fair, the parents of the young man sent certain female solicitors to the girl's family asking their daughter of them. This first demand was always refused, no matter how rich and respectable the young man might be, as it would have been contrary to custom to do otherwise. A few days later the old women made a second demand, which the girl's parents finally acceded to. She was sent to the house of the bridegroom, if of noble birth, borne on a litter; if humble, carried on the back of a bridesmaid; in any case accompanied by a great company of friends and by music. After much good advice had been given them they both sat down upon a new mat in the centre of the nuptial chamber, and the priest performed the marriage ceremony by tying together a corner of the huepilli, or gown, of the bride and the mantle of the groom. They then offered copal, or incense gum, to their gods, and exchanged presents. At the wedding feast, which followed, they alternately fed one another and gave morsels to their guests. Four days they remained engaged in fasting and prayer, never leaving the room except to offer incense to their idols, certain old women watching with them. Two mats of rushes served them as couches, which had as charms against evil, feathers and a native emerald, the chalchzihuitl, and at their four corners were laid sharp spines of the aloe, with which they were to prick their ears and tongues, drawing blood in honor of the god of matrimony. After four days were passed, they dressed themselves in new garments and carried the mats, canes, and remaining eatables to the temple, as a present to the idols, concluding the ceremony by making presents to the guests, who adorned their hands and feet with red feathers.

In one district of Anahuac, a man wishing to marry presented himself before the priest, who cut off a lock of his hair in front of the idol, and pointed him out to the people as he descended the steps. They at once commenced shouting, "This man wishes to marry," and the first free woman the man met was obliged to become his wife.

In the Miztec country, after the garments had been tied together, the priest cut off a portion of their hair, and the man carried the woman about awhile on his back.

Though polygamy was permitted to the kings and nobles of Mexico, it is thought that they had but one legitimate wife; while the poorer people were generally faithful to one alone.

When death overtook the Mexican, his body was given in charge of certain men, who dressed it in the garb of the god who presided over the family of the deceased; if a man of war, that of Huitzilopochtli;  if he had been drowned, he was dressed in the habit of Tlaloc; while if he had died a drunkard, in that of Tezcatzoncatl, the god of wine! After placing a jug of water at his head, to serve him on his long Journey, they gave the deceased different slips of paper; the first was a passport "between the two mountains which fight together;" the second would enable him to go over "the road of the great serpent;" the third, through "the place of the fierce alligator," etc. They also burnt his weapons of war and some of his household goods, that the heat of the fire might protect him from the "cold of the terrible wind." They killed a techichi, or dumb dog, and, tying a string about its neck, buried or burned it with the remains of its master; this was to guide him over the deep river, Chiuhnahuapan, the "New Waters." After burning, the ashes were gathered in an earthen pot and buried.

At the death of a member of royalty great ceremonies were observed. The corpse was clothed in many garments of fine cotton, ornamented with gold, silver and gems, an emerald hung from the under lip and the face covered with a mask. A funeral pile was prepared of resinous and odorous wood, and the royal corpse placed upon it and burned, with the arms and ensigns of the late king. The only repulsive part of the ceremony was the sacrifice of slaves and some of the king's jesters, that he might have agreeable company to the other world. Sometimes, though rarely, they sacrificed some of his wives, and always the techichi, that little animal that was to act as a guide in dangerous places. The ashes of the king, together with the emerald that hung in his lip, were put into a box which contained some of his hair, cut at an early age, and at his death, and then deposited in the tomb. On the fourth, twentieth, fortieth, sixtieth, and eightieth day afterwards, they made sacrifice and offerings of eatables over the sepulchre, and on each yearly anniversary, for four years, they made offerings of quails, rabbits, flowers, and butterflies. Sometimes a great deal of gold or treasure was buried with a king or noble.