Friday, June 24, 2005

Daily life among the Aztecs, continued

I recently wrote about visiting a Walmart superstore. What gets bought and sold, and how it is bought and sold, tells us something about ourselves, or the ancient Nahuatl, or anyone.

Off and on I've been reading the Florentine Codex, a document commissioned by Bernardino de Sahagún soon after the conquest of Mexico. He learned to speak Nahautl and got native informants to tell him all about Aztec life. He translated it into Spanish, and the Nahuatl version has also--astonishingly--survived. In a way I trust his Spanish translation more than the modern English translation of the Nahuatl, because he was closer to his informants and could ask them questions to resolve uncertainties. But it's interesting to look at both.

I've already mentioned that the Aztecs have some things in common with us, like sacrificial mass death believed to be necessary for the world to prosper. But in other ways, they were a little different, and the differences are not necessarily all to Walmart's advantage.

Certainly the Aztecs give Walmart a run for their money in the diversity of stuff department.

What follows is another of Sahagun's lists (much abbreviated), this one the ordinary buying and selling aspect of everyday life. It fascinates me, and hopefully will not bore and drive away all my readers. It's based on the English translation of the Nahuatl, with occasional recourse to Sahagún's Spanish.

It's a list of people who sell things, with a little about what they sell. This list, unlike the previous one I put up, does not seem to be in any kind of meaningful order. A grab-bag of vendors. But we learn something about what the Aztecs cared about.

Each thing sold had its separate vendor. Obviously Walmart would have rendered the Aztec market obsolete pretty quick.

OK. First on the list is the seller of cotton capes, (presumably, blankets used as cloaks.) We get homespun advice along with the list. We should watch out for capes treated with maize flour, or with glue, evidently done to make them seem more substantial.
Next: cocoa bean vendors. The best cocoa beans are those sold separately, by region, from as far away as Guatemala. Watch out for seeds that look like cocoa beans, but aren't.
Corn merchants. The best maize is that which is sold separately, by color, kind, hardness, and region. Aztecs didn't like stuff all mixed together, at least not if intended to defraud buyers.
Bean merchants. The best beans were those all of the same color. Mixed beans, not so good.
Amaranth seed sales were separate from other grains. Oddly enough, although amaranths are chenopods, the Aztecs considered a seed from the Mexican prickly poppy to also be an amaranth. Prickly poppies are poisonous, but I don't know about the seeds.
Chía seed sellers.

Chili pepper vendors are described as selling "mild red chilis, broad chilis, hot green chilis, yellow chilis...smoked chilis, small chilis, tree chilis, thin chilis, and those like beetles." Plus many other kinds, listed by season and use, as well as appearance. Much like a Mexican market today.
Squash seed sellers.

Tortilla sellers. Now these folks are important, and they are given a good deal of space here. They sell not only the flat basic tortilla, but all manner of what we would call tamales and tacos, some made with meat, including rabbits, gophers, and tadpoles, some made with eggs, fruits and vegetables, some made with honey and flowers. Every shape, size, and flavor is described. I got kinda hungry--excluding the tadpole thing.

Castilian wheat bread sellers have a much shorter section, as befits a new and untested food.
More cape sellers, this time of agave fiber (highland Mexico was often cold. Cloaks were important). Then sandal makers. Sandals seem to in general have been made of woven plant fibers, with leather straps.
(Maguey fiber stuff today, much as in Sahagún's time. If you got cold enough, you might wear a cloak made of such material.)
agave fiber stuff
Agave syrup sellers--I'd guess this is the maguey sap used to make pulque, a rural beer.
Cotton merchants. Basketmakers. Vendors of rabbit skins. Vendors of gourd bowls. Paper sellers, including maguey fiber paper and "Castilian" paper. Lime (the chemical) merchants.

Fruit and vegetable sellers. These important folks also sell tamales, obviously pre-prepared, made of the same fruits or vegetables for sale. Fast food for the Nahuatl. The fruit and veggie list is impressive, and includes some stuff the editors can't identify, and things we don't eat much now, like prickly pear cactus fruits.

Fish sellers. They sell shrimp, fish, oysters, turtles, big fish, little fish, eels, fish eggs, water worms, worm tamales, wormshit, and "worm flowers". It is unclear what worm excrement and worm flowers are, or even what the worm in question is. Also sold are tamales made of "water flies."

Meat sellers. The vendors are expected to personally either hunt or raise their products, which include turkey, venison, rabbit, hare, duck, crane, goose, mallard, quail, eagle, opossum, plus, by Sahagún's time, the Castilian animals. Watch out for meat vendors selling dog meat.

Wood sellers. Pottery sellers. Griddle makers. Salt vendors. Egg vendors. Obsidian vendors (with a reasonable description of the art of obsidian flaking). Medicinal herb sellers (huge list.) Reed mat sellers. Necklace sellers. Vendors of mirrors. Needles. Rubber. Brooms. Glue. Liquidambar, Tobacco pipes.

Vendors of tar, which was bitumen gathered from beaches, and smoked with tobacco, or chewed as chicle. Either way it could give you a headache. Chicle chewing was only for unmarried girls--grown women could chew chicle but if they did they were thought ill of. Men who chewed chicle were thought to be gay. Aztecs, like Americans, did not esteem homosexuals.

The "mountain chicle" vendor sold a plant substance that, unlike tar, did not give users headaches. Mountain chicle would be like chicle or chewing gum today.

Bag sellers. Sash sellers. Feather merchants, mentioned in my previous Sahagún post. Herb sellers, not medicinal, but from the descriptions, what we would consider salad greens. Atole vendors--atole would be a kind of cooked grits, but with more adventurous flavors than we would use in grits. Atole is still widely eaten in Mexico. "Fine chocolate" sellers, different from cocoa bean sellers. Chalk sellers. Saltpeter vendors.

Next in the list of vendors are what we might consider an oddity at Walmart, namely, procuresses. These women, who maintain their own establishments, are said here to be notorious for being verbally adroit at attracting guests. You are warned that they may rob you.
Next comes women who sell themselves, streetwalkers who "walk painted in the market place." They "walk back and forth along the road, circling constantly." Prostitutes are said to be proud and evil.

The Aztecs had a sex industry, like us, and disapproved of it, like us, more or less in proportion to the degree in which it flourished.

Last on this list is the tobacco merchant. Tobacco makes your head spin, aids digestion, and dispels fatigue.

Florentine Codex drawing of a prostitute. There is a lot of symbolism going on here that the native artists did not explain to Sahagún, or put into the Nahuatl account.

Aztec prostitute

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