In the Mexica Capital, women composing poetry were not uncommon, if less famous than their fellow contemporary noblemen poets. Sahagun in his “Florentine Codex” presents us with a glyph that is thought to be depicting Nahua noblewomen composing songs, still among the plethora of beautiful, rich, gently flowing poetry produced in pre-contact Nahuatl few seem to be attributed to women, even if some of the surviving songs of unknown authors present an obviously female point of view.
Thus, the famous 15th century poetess Macuilxochitzin seems to make an exception.
Many famous pre-contact writers of noble birth such as Nezahualcoyotl, the most distinguished ruler of Texcoco, produced wonderfully eloquent verses reflecting on the beauty of the surrounding world, seeking its meaning, wrestling with the philosophical aspects of life. The renowned Texcocan library and other such establishments throughout the Mexican Valley abounded with literary works of this kind.
Not so were the poems of Macuilxochitzin.
I raise my chants, I, Macuilxochitl, With them, I cheer the Giver of Life, Let the dance begin! Where does it exist in some way, to the house of Him Are the songs carried? Or only here are your flowers? Let the dance begin!
The offspring of one of Tenochtitlan’s undisputed founders, legendary Tlacaelel who is often called the “architect of the Aztec Empire” and whose contribution to the unparallel raise of Tenochtitlan no historian ever contested, the famous poetess might have been exposed to the politics and grand strategies of her powerful city-state and its inner dealings from her childhood, fascinated by those.
Only one of her works seemed to survive the violent conquest when most of the Nahuatl-written books and libraries burned throughout the entire Mexica Valley at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition – the verse inspired by Axayacatl, the sixth ruler of Tenochtitlan and a renowned warrior and leader according to all accounts. His exploits in the Toluca Valley between 1474 and 1478 gave the renowned poetess an inspiration to produce a poetic verse that referred not only to the glory of warring heroes but also covered the broader political picture as well as the religious aspect of warfare, giving us an interesting insight into the mindset of her people and times.
He makes offerings of flowers and feathers to the Giver of Life. He puts the eagle shields on the arms of his men, there where he war rages, in the midst of he plain. As our songs, As our flowers, Thus you, warrior of the shaven head, Gives pleasure to the Giver of Life. The flowers of the eagle Remain in your hands, Lord Axayacatl. With divine flowers, With flowers of war, Is covered, With this becomes intoxicated, He who is on our side.
Not much is known about this lady’s private life aside from the allegation that she was the seventh child and a second daughter of the famous Head Adviser Tlacaelel by one of his numerous wives cited by the chronicle Alvarado Tezozomoc. Her name MacuilXochiTzin translates as Lady Five Flower (macuilli-five, xochitl-flower, tzin – a honorary addition equivalent to the word ‘lord/lady’). Incidentally, Macuilxochitl is also the name of the deity response for fine arts of music, dance and singing, aside from being a date on the traditional calendar, day five of the month/trecena called ‘flower’. So either the lady poetess was born on this day and just grew living up to her given name, or she might have assumed this alias later on, upon discovering her true call and thus honoring the deity that was related to her craft.
Having undoubtedly grown in the luxury of the aristocratic surroundings, having the Head Adviser, the second most powerful man in the raising and expending Mexica Capital, she must have received a good thorough education. Girls fortunate to be born into aristocratic families were sent to calmecac, the prestigious school of the Ceremonial Center reserved for the offspring of nobility with a few exceptions of overly gifted commoners.
While boys spent there considerable part of their adolescent years, leaving the comforts of their family houses for the rigors of thorough training and education, girls of the aristocratic families were reported to attend calmecac for usually only one year, trained in finer arts than just useful skills of weaving and cooking their more common contemporaries were taught in commoner schools throughout the city. Reading and drawing glyphs must have been a part of calmecac pupils’ education, males as females, as much as rituals, mathematics, oratory, and several other necessary skills for a new generation of future leaders and governors to command.
It is probable that Macuilxochitzin was among gifted students who specialized in huehuetlahtolli, a form of Nahuatl called ‘an old/ancient language’ (huehuetl-old, tlahtolli-language), which usually meant literary language that only the highest of society presumably could use. Thus she provides us with invaluable peek into her times, the only pre-contact source, untainted by the Spanish conquest that was yet in the far enough future to threaten the life of the Mexica Capital. Other primary sources by indigenous and non-indigenous chronicles, extensive important records and documents, are dating the post-conquest time, the 16th and 17th centuries, when all institutions of the Mexican Valley were already changed into lack of recognition, destroyed most of them. However, Macuilxochitzin’s words reach us all the way from the 15th century, when no other continents and their ships neared the Americas’ shores.
Axayacatl puts the eagle shields on the arms of his men, there where the war rages, in the midst of the plain… The flowers of the eagle remain in your hands, Lord Axayacatl… On every side Axayacatl made conquests, in Matlatzinco, in Malinalco, in Ocuilan…
Her account of the famous duel between the invincible Tenochtitlan ruler and the renowned Otomi warrior that sealed the campaign in the Toluca Valley and beyond it like most dramatic accord, adding the fertile southwest to the growing Triple Alliance’s empire, are not matching most of the late-day primary sources. According to Macuilxochitzin, the Otomi warrior who had wounded Axayacatl in the leg so severely the Tenochtitlan ruler limped for the rest of his life, was decreed to be freed by Axayacatl after women came to plead for his life.
There in Xiquipilco brave Axayácatl Wounded in the leg by an Otomi, his name was Tlílatl. That one went in search of his women, He said to them, “Prepare a breechcloth and a cape. Give these to your man.” And Axayacatl called out: “Bring the Otomi who wounded me in the leg.” The Otomi was afraid, he said “Now truly they will kill me.” Then he brought a large piece of wood and a deerskin. With these he bowed before Axayacatl He was full of fear, the otomi But them his women made supplication for him to Axayacatl…
Others (Duran, Tezozomoc, Clavigero, Torquemada) have each his own version, as varying from each other as from what Macuilxochitzin have reported. Some say (Francisco Clavijero) that the Otomi leader was taken prisoner, brought to Tenochtitlan and sacrificed with plenty of honors and pomp. Others (Diego Duran, Juan Torquemada) claim that the man managed to fight his way out and away in the melee of the battle, while the Aztec ruler was tended to, wounded beyond the ability to chase his enemy. Some say (Alvarado Tezozomoc) that the famous duel was not commenced at the battle for Tollocan at all but took place a few years later, then when the Triple Alliance’s forces came to conquer Xiquipilco itself.
Macuilxochitzin’s only surviving song can be found in “Cantares Mexicanos” – an impressive collection of Nahuatl songs available in the National Library of Mexico-city, translated to both Spanish and English as well.
An excerpt from “Valley of Shadows”, The Aztec Chronicles, book #6.
“What was that all about?” breathed Chantli, stirring back to life once again. “Who was this woman?”
“She is the Head Adviser’s sister, one of his sisters,” said Necalli, shrugging in his turn and not disclosing the fact that he had no idea who this woman was until not very long ago himself. “She is the legendary First Head Adviser’s, the old Tlacaelel’s favorite daughter. From his favorite concubine, or so they say. A renowned poetess, famous for her songs.”
“Macuilxochitzin?” cried out Chantli, wide-eyed.
Now it was his turn to stare. “You know her?”
“Her poems. Of course! They are beautiful. We were reciting one of those only a few dawns ago, in one of the morning classes. ‘He makes offerings of flowers and feathers to the Giver of Life; he puts the eagle shields on the arms of the men, there where the war rages in the middle of the plain; as our songs, as our flowers, thus you, warrior of the shaven head, give pleasure to the Giver of Life’.” Her cheeks colored in a darker hue as her smile flashed almost guiltily. “I was thinking of you when we were singing this.”
He felt his stomach tightening in a pleasant knot. “You were?”
“Who is this pompous turkey?” demanded the Fire Girl, done with yet another indignant staring it seemed, and as always with the worst of timing. What other glorious words of heroic songs was Chantli associating with him? “Why is she interested in my sister?”
Necalli forced his eyes off Chantli’s nicely glowing cheeks, her gaze avoiding his now, sliding over the cobblestones.
“We told you who she is, and anyway, what’s your thing with your sister now? Why did you have to harass the Head Adviser and make him mad? It was the stupidest thing to do. That man will not listen to you or your sister anymore, whatever any of you wish to tell him!”
“He didn’t listen to us before as well.” This time, the Fire Girl merely shrugged, curiously not offended by his spirited admonition. “My sister already talked to him back in the Palace. We overheard them, I and Ahuitzotl.”
“Not long ago. Just before we found Miztli. And the annoying Adviser. Not the head one,” she added, as though after a thought. “The Emperor’s filthy brother Tizoc.”
“Tizoctzin,” corrected her Chantli, shooting a quick glance around. “So Miztli was brought to the Palace in the end?”
“Of course. Where do you want the Emperor to question him? On the marketplace?”
Seeing Chantli’s eyes sparkling, Necalli brought his arm up before they dove into bickering over the possibilities of other locations where it was appropriate to report to the Emperor. Chantli was no Axolin or Ahuitzotl, but her patience had its limits as well.