Cover Image : Bas relief of Itzcoatl at the Jardin de la Triple Alianza (Garden of the Triple Alliance) in México city. Find the garden at Calle de Filomeno Mata, corner of Tacuba, Centro Histórico, Cuauhtémoc, 06000 CDMX.
I have been drawn to the quelites of México ever since I was exposed to the word “papaloquelite” in a book by Josefina Howard.
This curiosity was further piqued by the statement of another author….. (Now I am going on a tangent – historically speaking – for a little while. If your interest is the tianguis then scroll down to the image of the Chalco disk and start from there)
It is recorded that the mother of the Emperor Itzcoatl (1) had sold quilitl (2) in the tianquiztli (3) at Atzcapotzalco (4) (Evans, 2008, p465).
- variants – Itzcoatzin, Itzcouatl, Itzcohuatl.
- Quelite in Spanish. Quelites, generally speaking, are edible herbs that have been wildcrafted or collected from cultivated fields. These plants may be harvested for their leaves, stems, roots, flowers or flower buds. Quelites are considered to be a food of “low social status” although they are regaining popularity as México rediscovers its roots.
- “marketplace” – although the word used these days is “tianguis” – A tianguis is an open-air market or bazaar that is traditionally held on certain market days in a town or city neighbourhood in Mexico and Central America.
- Founded in the 12th century with an Aztec name meaning ‘Anthill’ because of the great number of its inhabitants. Also spelt Azcapotzalco. Once an independent city, Atzcapotzalco administratively became part of the Federal District in the early 20th century and is within the Mexico City metropolitan area.
Now bear with me for a little while because I want to investigate Itzcoatls mother. The names of some of Acamapichtlis wives are known; particularly those of noble birth whose marriages were likely arranged to cement political alliances or used in an attempt to legitimise nobility via linkage to Toltec ancestry but I am interested in the woman who sold herbs at the market. What was her name? I may already have it but have just missed the connection. The lives of women in Aztec society is not really well documented.
Itzcoatl was the son of the first tlatoani (1) Acamapichtli (2) and a comely slave woman from Atzcapotzalco to whom Acamapichtli “took a fancy” (Gingerich 1988).
- Tlatoani “great speaker”. The leader of the people, in essence a king or emperor (although neither word adequately conveys the true meaning). A tlatoani could be “deposed” by the people as was the case with Moctezuma Xocoyotzin (c. 1466 – 29 June 1520) who was reportedly stoned to death by his own people due to his actions in attempting to pacify his people and accept the Spanish. There are several versions of this story and this one, the one in which he is killed by his own people, is contested as Spanish propaganda.
- Acamapichtli – Classical Nahuatl: meaning “Handful of reeds”. Acamapichtli was not a native of Tenochtitlan. He was the son of a prominent Mexica warrior who had married into a noble family of Culhuacan. His father, Opochtli Iztahuatzin, was a Mexica leader, while his mother Atotoztli I was the daughter of the King Coxcoxtli and sister of King Huehue Acamapichtli. He also had ties to the Acolhua of Coatlinchan.
According to the Historia Mexicana (1), Acamapichtli, the first Mexica tlatoani who was inaugurated in 1367 AD, had only 8 sons and one daughter (though the Mexica chiefs had supplied him with 9 wives). The first and eldest of these children was Itzcoatl (2).
- of Domingo Francisco de San Antón Muñón Chimalpahin Cuauhtlehuanitzin (usually referred to simply as Chimalpahin or Chimalpain) was a Nahua annalist from Chalco. This Nahuatl work was compiled in the early seventeenth century, and is based on testimony from Indigenous persons. It covers the years 1589 AD through 1615 AD, but also deals with events before the Conquest and supplies lists of Indigenous kings and lords and Spanish viceroys, archbishops of Mexico and inquisitors.
- Acamapichtli’s first wife (Ilancuéitl ) bore him no children, so he took another wife, Tezcatlan Miyahuatzin. She was the mother of Huitzilíhuitl, who succeeded to the throne after the death of his father. Another son of Acamapichtli, Itzcóatl, also became tlatoani in 1427. He was the son of a beautiful slave Acamapichtli had bought in the market of Azcapotzalco. She was of noble birth, but had been captured and enslaved. (see below)
There seems to be no doubt that Itzcoatl was a bastard son of a woman that Acamapichtli had “on the side” rather than from an “official” wife. Who this woman was however is interpreted differently according to the source/author. She is described variously as “unknown”, a “peasant”, a “slave”, a “concubine” or of “noble birth”. Various descriptions of Itzcoatl include…..
- There are some notable exceptions to the general rule of the children of concubine being of lesser status. The 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 (1) at a market and was of meagre status.
- Quilitl are referred to as “vegetables” in this definition. https://historycollection.com/facts-about-how-the-aztec-culture-handled-their-desires/16/
- The Wiki entry on Iztcoatl has this to say…….Itzcoatl was the natural son of tlàtoāni Acamapichtli and an unknown Tepanec woman from Azcapotzalco. Aguilar-Moreno, Manuel (2007). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Itzcoatl
- The Wiki entry on Acamapichtli is somewhat contradictory and has this to say…….Another son of Acamapichtli, Itzcóatl, also became tlatoani in 1427. He was the son of a beautiful slave Acamapichtli had bought in the market of Azcapotzalco. She was of noble birth, but had been captured and enslaved. So she’s gone from being an unknown Tepanec woman to one who is presumably well known as the circumstances regarding the nobility of her birth are mentioned. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acamapichtli
The “slave” issue is however brought up regularly….
- Itzcoatl (b. ca. 1380; d. 1440), Aztec ruler from 1426 to 1440. Itzcoatl (“Obsidian Serpent”), fourth Mexica ruler or tlatoani (“speaker”), was the son of Acamapichtli, the first tlatoani, and a slave woman. https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/itzcoatl-c-1380-1440
- The mestizo historian Chimalpahin is especially informative; according to his Historia mexicana, Acamapichtli, the first Mexica tlatoani “speaker” who was inaugurated in 1367, had only 8 sons and one daughter-though the Mexica chiefs had supplied him with 9 wives. The first and eldest of these children was Itzcoatl, who, though born of an Azcapotzalco slave woman to whom Acamapichtli took a fancy (Gingerich 1988)
Itzcoatl was a notable historic figure who was responsible for throwing off the yoke of Tepanec rule and laying the foundations of the Triple Alliance which eventually created what we now know as the Aztec empire. During his reign (1427-1440) occurred the Tepanec war which confirmed Mexica ambitions in the Valley of México. After the defeat of Azcapotzalco in 1428 and the fall of Xochimilco in 1430 Itzcoatl commissioned the construction of causeways south across the lake to Coyoacan and southwest to Culhuacan on the Itzapalapa peninsula. This created a land route from Tenochtitlan to Xochimilco via Coyoacan. Xochimilco then became a major agricultural supplier for the glowing jewel that was Tenochtitlan.
The images above were created by the artist Tomás Filsinger. Tomás was born in Mexico City in 1953. He studied Graphic Design at the Universidad Iberoamericana and in the early 1980’s he emigrated to the US of A in order to obtain a Masters degree from the UCLA Department of Film and Television. He financed part of his career making stained glass windows and for his Masters thesis his challenge was to make an animated short of the artist who designed/sculpted the Aztec Calendar, for which he had to create some maps of Tenochtitlan. This has resulted in some truly beautiful imagery and very real depictions of how Tenochtitlan would have appeared at its height.
Regardless of the provenance of Itzcoatl’s mother we are drawn back to the markets……
A tianguis is an open-air market, specifically an itinerant market which springs up in a certain place for just one day of the week. The word tianguis comes from the Nahuatl “tianquiztli” which means marketplace. It differs from a “mercado” in that the mercado has its own building and functions every day whereas a tianguis is set up in the street or a park for one day of the week. In some areas, a tianguis may be referred to as a “mercado sobre ruedas” (market on wheels).
The Cultural Significance of the Tianquiztli
For the Azteca/Mexica the Tianquiztli is a cultural tradition so important that it has continued unbroken to the present day in virtually every part of Mexico. The tianquiztli today is more commonly known in Mexico as the weekly tianguis. In ancient times the tianguis was considered to be an obligation to ensure that every village had the supplies it needed. It took place every five days and it was a source of great entertainment for everyone involved.
Google earth Images of Tianguis in the CDMX
These images go some way to demonstrate how large the tianguis can sprawl.
A map has recently been uploaded to Twitter that shows the tianguis in the CDMX (1). There are many.
- Ciudad de México
The Pleiades (also known as The Seven Sisters, Matariki, and Messier 45) is an open star cluster containing middle-aged, hot B-type stars in the north-west of the constellation Taurus. It is among the star clusters nearest to Earth. The Pleiades are a prominent sight in winter in the Northern Hemisphere, and are easily visible out to mid-Southern latitudes. They have been known since antiquity to cultures all around the world. The Pleiades were known to the Aztecs as Tianquiztli which means “marketplace” (1).
- Or alternatively….. For the Aztec the Pleiades were called Tianquiztli, which means the “gathering place,” and was considered an important sign of the continuation of life: on midnight every 52 years it appeared directly overhead and assured the ancient Americans that the world would not come to an end. The Aztecs perform a special religious ceremony called the Dance of the New Fire once every 52 years to ensure the movement of the cosmos and the rebirth of the sun, this also supplies an alternative name for the Pleiades, “fire drill”. https://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/ask-experts/did-the-aztecs-know-of-different-star-constellations-to-the-ones-we-see-today
The “fire drill” name for the constellation is contentious.
“Yohualtecuhtli, the Lord of the Night, Yacahuitzli, has arrived! How will his labor go? How will the night pass and the dawn come?”
This prayer was traditionally offered around sundown, as a particular constellation called mamalhuaztli, the Fire Drill, rose from the east into the darkening sky. You may be wondering exactly what constellation mamalhuaztli is, as its rise was the traditional signal to perform this rite. About the fire drill constellation. It’s Orion’s Belt, clear as day if you look at the evidence. The Pleiades couldn’t possibly be it. It’s a seven/six star cluster within Taurus and used as a reference point for the Fire Drill in the primary source material. Taurus itself couldn’t be it for these same reasons and the fact that its other noticeable stars aren’t in a straight line. The Cygnus idea makes little to no sense considering that Sahagun clearly states in book 7 of the Florentine that the constellation is near the Pleiades. Cygnus is NOWHERE near the Pleiades in the night’s sky (1).
Anthony Aveni has identified Tianquiztli as the Pleiades constellation and he is probably right. (Aveni 1983)
The fire drill ceremony
Every fifty-two years there was the great fear that fell upon all the nations of the empire when the sun set on the last day of the ‘century’ and no man could tell whether it would ever rise again.
The New Fire Ceremony, also known as the Binding of the Years Ceremony, was a ritual held every 52 years in the month of November on the completion of a full cycle of the Aztec solar year (xiuhmopilli). The purpose of it was none other than to renew the sun and ensure another 52-year cycle.
The ceremony was overseen by Xiuhtecuhtli, the Aztec god of fire. Preparation for the ceremony began with the extinguishing of all fires of any kind, from temples to household hearths. Next, a thorough cleaning operation was undertaken with the streets being swept, old hearth stones were thrown away along with old cooking utensils, old clothes and even idols were ceremoniously washed and cleansed. Pregnant women were locked in granaries and their faces were painted blue in the belief that they would not then turn into monsters during the night. Children also had their faces painted and were kept from sleeping to prevent them turning into mice.
Finally, as darkness fell, the populace stopped all activities, climbed the roofs of their homes and waited with a hushed silence and baited breath for what was to come. Then, just outside the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, high priests gathered at the summit of the sacred volcanic mountain south-east of Lake Tetzcoco, Mt. Uixachtecatl (also referred to as Huixachtlan or Citlaltepec and meaning ‘thorn tree place’, even if it is now called ‘Hill of the Star’). Here, on a platform visible to the whole city below, the priests waited until midnight and a precise alignment of the stars which would signal the ceremony could begin. When the Tianquiztli (the Pleiades) reached their zenith and the Yohualtecuhtli star shone brightly in the very centre of the night sky, this was the moment a human sacrifice was made. The High Priest, probably dressed as Xuihtecuhtli and wearing a turquoise mask, cut out the heart from the living victim and a fire was kindled in the empty chest cavity using the sacred firestick drill, the tlequauitl. If the fire burned brightly, then all was well and Xiuhtecuhtli had blessed the people with another sun. If the fire did not catch, then the Tzitzimime (1) would come without pity. These terrible monsters, armed with wickedly sharp knives, would roam the dark and sunless earth slashing and eating all humanity without exception. The world would end.
- for more information on the tzitzimime and their world ending exploits see Post Mayahuel and the Cenzton Totochtin.
After each ceremony, when the fire burned well within the victim’s chest, the flame was used to light a huge pyre so that all could see the success of the ceremony in the city below. Then the flames were transferred to Tenochtitlan where they were used to light the fire at the temple of Huitzilopochtli on the top of the Templo Mayor pyramid. Next, the fire at the city’s Fire Temple was lit and from there, runners, carrying their version of an Olympic torch, raced living fire throughout the city ensuring that all the fires of the city were, once again, lit. Following the successful ceremony, hearth stones were renewed and offered incense and quails in thanks. Then, after a suitably pious morning of fasting, there was a great deal of partying. The revellers wore new clothes, feasted on tzoalii (amaranth-seed and honey cakes)(1), and drank pulque.
- see Post Amaranth and the Tzoalli Heresy
- Aguilar-Moreno, Manuel (2007). Handbook to Life in the Aztec World. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-533083-0.
- Aveni, A. (1983). Skywatchers of Ancient Mexico. University of Texas Press : ISBN10 0292775784
- Cartwright, M. (2016, February 17). The Aztec New Fire Ceremony. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.worldhistory.org/article/866/the-aztec-new-fire-ceremony/
- Evans, Susan Toby : Ancient Mexico and Central America : “Archaeology and Culture History” 2nd Ed : 2008, Thames and Hudson : ISBN 978-0-500-28740-8
- Gingerich, Willard (1988). Three Nahuatl Hymns on the Mother Archetype: An Interpretive Commentary. Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos, 4(2), 191–244. doi:10.2307/1051822
- Mete, Silvia & Tomaino, Luca & Vecchio, Giovanni. (2013). Tianguis shaping ciudad. Informal street vending as a decisive element for economy, society and culture in Mexico. Planum. 26.
- McDermott, John (2000) Star Patterns on the Aztec Calendar Stone. Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada: https://ui.adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2000JRASC..94…56M
- Krupp, E.C. (1993, November). Second thoughts about the world’s end. Sky and Telescope, 86(5) Elson, C., & Smith, M. (2001). ARCHAEOLOGICAL DEPOSITS FROM THE AZTEC NEW FIRE CEREMONY. Ancient Mesoamerica, 12(2), 157-174. Retrieved July 9, 2021