The ancient Aztecs of central Mexico appear to have been extremely puritanical towards sex and, for that matter, towards women in general. Aztec (or more properly, Mexica) society was a male-dominated warrior aristocracy, and according to the no-doubt somewhat biased Roman Catholic monks who collected the sole first-person accounts of Mexica life, women played almost no role in government and civil matters.
However, recognition of the undeniable power and mystery of the female was not absent in a people who worshipped more than 1600 separate deities. Ometeotl, the supreme creator in the Mesoamerican pantheon, in fact, possessed a dual nature—both male and female—and it was the constant tension within this dualistic concept that gave birth to all the other gods and goddesses, as well as everything and everyone in the Aztec world.
As in all primitive societies, the Aztecs also worshipped a goddess we may certainly call the Earth Mother. Terrifying yet alluring, bountiful and omni-present, the complex and contradictory ideas of birth and death, healing, romance and regeneration were encompassed by an amalgam of female deities that were all considered aspects of the eternal female. Tonantzin ("Our Holy Mother") was literally The Earth, from which issued forth food in the form of the Aztec staple, maize. Toci ("Our Grandmother") was the great healer who attended the infirm. Yohualticitl was the "The Midwife of the Night." Mictecacihuatl was "The Lady of the Dead" who presided over Mictlan, the Land of the Dead, with her consort Mictlantecuhtli. Coatlicue ("She of the Serpent Skirt") symbolized fecundity as well as death and regeneration. In spite of giving birth to both the fire god and the moon goddess and the stars as well as over 400 sons (20 times 20—to the Aztec mind, innumerable), Coatlicue was considered by the Aztecs to be a virgin (a strong plea for the concept of duality) and was extremely interesting therefore to the Catholic Conquistadors, who tended to compare her to the Virgin Mary.
And then of course there is Xochiquetzal (shak i KAY tsal), the flower queen, who is most reminiscent of Venus or Eve, a beautiful creature said to be the lover of Quetzalcoatl who was also the mother of twins (remember, Aztec duality) and the patroness of pregnancy and childbirth.
But the aspect of femininity, I believe, that is most revealing of the Aztec attitude towards sexuality and the role of woman in society must be Tlazolteotl (tla sol TE otl), "the Filth Eater."
Here is woman as hag, as harridan, as primordial witch capable of both bringing insanity (through venereal disease) and curing it (with medicine), of inspiring sexual misconduct and, not so surprisingly, absolving it. Tlazolteotl is both the earth mother and goddess of fertility, the patron of physicians and the cruel, disease-bringing goddess of insanity.
In the extant Aztec (or more properly Mexica) codices, Tlazolteotl the Filth Eater is portrayed in the squatting position Aztec women used to give birth, often defecating unceremoniously. Excrement was symbolic of sexual lust for the Aztecs, and one may imagine with what vigor the Spanish monks of the New World examined this original concept.
Perhaps mirroring Mexica amazement at the protean nature of femininity, Tlazolteotl was considered an aspect of the moon and thus had four phases of existence: first as brilliant adolescent, cruel, unreliable, and yet absolutely delightful; then as young woman, sensual and adventuresome, though of dubious morality. It was in her third phase (corresponding perhaps also to menstruation and childbirth) that the witch goddess was able to absorb the evils committed by mankind and purify the soul IF the sinner had made a proper and honest confession to a priest. The confession, however, could only be made once, so it was usually late in life—beyond the years of sexual temptation—that a man sought redemption from the priest of Tlazolteotl. This aspect of the goddess also gave blessings to married life and apparently brought peace and fertility to the home. The third, forgiving, phase was comparatively short-lived and it was inevitably replaced by the monstrous disease-ridden creature who destroyed her lovers, stole wealth, and punished sexual excess.
The Aztecs evolved one of their more sinister customs in the name of Tlazolteotl: they forced girls into service as prostitutes in the barracks of young soldiers still in training. After they had been sufficiently "soiled" they were killed and their bodies were dumped unceremoniously into the marshes of Lake Texcoco where they became food for the birds, who of course aspired to the heavens.
It has been posited that Tlazolteotl represented a sort of Freudian fear of femininity in this extremely male-dominated society, as if—somewhere in the back of their minds— Aztec men dreaded the havoc their wives and sisters might wreak if they ever overcame their subservient roles in the culture. Their dualistic minds evolved a goddess both life-giving and cruel, the bringer of insanity yet provider of forgiveness.
One thing is certain: if Aztec thought can be understood only in terms of duality, an incapacity to reason in singularities, the multi-faceted aspects of Tlazolteotl stand as an important synthesis by ancient man (and woman): the collective Aztec mind related such disparate facts as birth, evolution, death, resurrection, water, plants, woman, and fertility to the moon.
And then they called it god.
The dust and the garbage
The works of the flesh
Were caused by Tlazolteotl,
She light them.
Tlazolteotl fomented them
And only she discharged.
She purified, she relieved
She washed, She bathed.
—The Codex Vaticanus B, Vatican Library, Rome
Feathered Serpent and Smoking Mirror—the Gods and Cultures of Ancient Mexico,C.A. Burland and Werner Forman,
G.E. Putnam's Sons,
Orbis Publishing Limited, London 1975
Aztec Thought and Culture,
A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind,
Miguel León-Portilla, translated from the Spanish by Jack Emory Davis, University of Oklahoma Press : Norman, 1963
Pre-Columbian Literatures of Mexico
Miguel León-Portilla, Translated from the Spanish by Grace Lobanov and the author, University of Oklahoma Press: Norman and London, 1969.
The Flayed God—The Mythology of Mesoamerica
Rebecca H. Markman & Peter T. Markman,
The Toltecs Until the Fall of Tula
, Nigel Davis, 1977
Quetzalcóatl and Guadalupe
, trans by B. Keen (1976)
On Mexico and the Aztecs:
An Aztec father advises his son
Bernardino de Sahagun
Human Sacrifice and the Aztecs
Ometeotl, beyond time and space
Talk like an Aztec
Tlazolteotl, the Filth Eater
What points its finger at the sky?
Below the Line