Various servants of gods held an important place in Tenochtitlan’s life, even though their importance is tended to be often overplayed by the later-day records of Spanish conquerors. Like anywhere around the globe at those times, Mesoamerica seemed to be superstitious and religiously pious, but to a reasonable extent.
The priestly college in Tenochtitlan was a complicated organization, involving strict hierarchy and scrupulous rules. Two High Priests, Quetzalcoatl Totec Tlamacazqui and Quetzalcoatl Tlaloc Tlamacazqui resided on the top of the Great Pyramid and were equal in position, both offspring of noble families, both serving important deities to whom the temples on the top of the Great Pyramid in the Ceremonial Center of Tenochtitlan were dedicated – Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc. The word tlamacazqui roughly means ‘giver of things’ or, in other words, ‘priest’. The two High Priests’ duties varied according to dry and rainy seasons.
To be elected to such offices one has to lead an exemplary life, and have “…a pure, compassionate heart…”. A priest, especially a high priest, could not be vindictive but must be compassionate, esteemed, devout and gods-fearing. Tenochtitlan’s ruler, tlatoani, along with cihuacoatl, his head adviser and the high judge, in cooperation with other members of the royal council would be the ones to elect the next High Priest. Thus the elevated servant of gods would receive a new name that came along with the new title – Quetzalcoatl Tlamacazqui of either Huitzilopochtli or Tlaloc
Down the priestly hierarchy, after both High Priests, came Mexicatl Teohuatzin, whose duties seemed to be generally administrative. A highly influential figure, Mexicatl Teohuatzin would appear as a general overseer of ceremonies and rituals conducted by various priesthoods around the city, an important dignitary inferior only to the two High Priests. Among Mexicatl Teohuatzin’s vast responsibilities was included administration of calmecac, the prestigious school of the Ceremonial Enclosure.
Two officially elected assistants, Huitznahua Teohuatzin and Tecpan Teohuatzin aided Mexicatl Teohuatzin in the actual administration of priestly orders themselves. Huitznahua Teohuatzin was responsible mainly for rituals and other sacred procedures, while Tecpan Teohuatzin administered the educational aspects. In addition, both supervised and performed administrative duties over the temples’ owned lands-teopantlalli, conducted election of deities’ impersonators-ixpitla – people who were chosen to wear various deities’ masks and costumes on designated ceremonies, sometimes to be sacrificed afterwards with great pomp and honor. Sometimes they wore masks and costumes themselves, attending festivals and worship activities all around the city.
Next on the ladder of priestly order came Tlenamacac or Fire Priests, who were responsible for the actual act of human sacrifice. Although other priests might have been asked to assist in the process, only Fire Priests were allowed to hold the flint knife in order to extract the heart out of the victim’s chest.
Fire Priests were not expected to pay attention to various earthly matters such as well prepared food, clean clothing or even personal grooming. Their matted hair was reported to testify to their bloody activities, unwashed and uncombed along with their unwashed limbs and wear. Years of daily self-sacrifice might have even affected the clarity of their speech, with their tongues being pierced often and in no merciful way in order to offer of their own blood to various deities. The rest of the gods’ servants were reported to be well groomed and particularly eloquent of speech.
In addition to the priests serving inside the city, there were Tlamacaztequihuaque, or Warrior Priests, who as a rule accompanied military units on their campaigns, marching together with warriors into battles, carrying relevant deities’ effigies and even taking an active part in warfare at times. They were the ones to make the immediate sacrifice of certain prisoners among the captured enemy, succor wounded or dying, see fallen warriors into their new beginnings and attend to other spiritual matters. Warrior Priests were also the ones to settle disputes when it came to claiming a captured enemy if the deed was done with no witnesses and several warriors claimed the achievement. These servants of gods wore armored costume tlahuiztli colored in black and white in imitation of a night star-studded sky, and conical hat of design that may appear somewhat foreign to the region of Central Mexico.
Cihuatlamacazqui, female priests, were not as common or as influential as their male colleagues, however there were such positions in Tenochtitlan’s priestly hierarchy and such priestess commanded admiration and respect. Their responsibilities included teaching girls who attended both calmecac and various telpochcalli schools. Besides, Tenochtitlan priestesses conducted rituals dedicated to various female deities, although they were not allowed to officiate in the sacrifice process on important celebrations honoring their goddesses. To become a priestess was a great honor, a way to elevate one’s position if one came from a common background. A girl who served as a priestess was later on eligible to marry into noble families, bringing along nothing but honor to her prospective spouse.
In addition, in every school throughout the city there were Tlamatini or teacher-priests (‘knower of things’, the word ‘mati’ being a root-word for ‘to know’). Such wise men were supposed to lead truly exemplary lives. Responsible for city’s youth’s education while possessing exceptional writing skills and in charge of vast libraries of books, teacher-priests represented tradition and the whole way of life, expected to guide, and to be a good example and companion. A tlamatini was knowledgeable not only in earthly matters but in the realm of the dead as well.
On the whole, most priests filled their respectable offices for their entire lives, allowed to marry and have a family, but generally expected to lead a humble, exemplary life. Priestesses, on the other hand, served for no more than several years, leaving their honorific position, usually to marry and build a family.
The daily life of divine servants was reported to be filled with rituals in their temples, maintenance of sacred fires in the designated braziers, upkeep of facilities for self-sacrifice designed for the visitors’ use, and other tasks including keeping an appropriate level of cleanliness and burning incense in generous amounts. Prayers and penance were conducted several times a day, and once through each night. Novices and freshly initiated young priests went out daily to gather firewood and other sort of decorative branches, traveling to the mainland and bringing the required materials on their backs. No slave labor seemed to be employed in the temples.
At midnight or when “… the night was divided at two…” principle priests bathed, while the rest of the temples’ servants got up and prayed. At different intervals, everyone was expected to observe the rite of fasting, touching not even water to allay one’s thirst. Generally young novices were given food at midday, while older priests ate at midnight. No chili or salt was eaten, nor any luxurious foods.
On more global level, each temple or group of temples had lands and labor belonging to it, to manage, administer its costs and income, order and supervise construction works and undertakings, and teach in local schools in the vicinity of their temples. The educational aspect of special priests-teachers’ duties was not limited to novices-tlamacazton destined for future position of priesthood. In most schools, priests, along with veteran warriors, taught all pupils – future warriors and craftsmen as well as priestly apprentices – everything that there was to learn about deities, rituals, calendars and astronomy, managed schools’ personnel and cared for books and other written collections.
An excerpt from “Heart of the Battle”, The Aztec Chronicles, book three
Diving into an unimpressive adobe hut that was used for storing the temple’s supplies, she discovered that it was eerily empty, staffed with appliances aplenty, high piles that threatened to topple over. Only after much poking around and hesitant coughing, a young apprentice appeared, a boy of about her own age, skinny and hunched-shouldered, in the fashion that reminded her of Patli in a way, another one to be trained as a priest if accepted. Briefly, she wondered when that would happen.
“I was sent to bring more copal for the incense burner, and another such device as well.”
He eyed her dubiously. “Who are you?”
“The Honorable Priestess sent me.”
His face twisted in a telling grimace. “Who else would have?” His shrug held the same obvious contempt. “But you are not from calmecac, are you? What are you doing out there in the temple?”
She gulped. “Yes, I am. I am from calmecac. Now I am. I mean, I’m new here, only from the day before…” But it was annoying, this stuttering. She drew herself together, gathering the last of her dignity. “There is a great ceremony going on out there and I need to bring the things I mentioned. Will you help me find those or will I have to do it all by myself?”
That came out well enough to have the slouching piece of work straighten, his haughty expression wavering ever so slightly. For another heartbeat, he eyed her narrowly, then turned around. “Help yourself, commoner girl. The jar of copal is over there. As for another tlecomitl, I wish you luck in finding this. They are always in short supply, first to be snatched before every ceremony.” In another heartbeat, he was gone, dissolving in the darkness behind the stone partition.
Chantli stifled a colorful curse. By the time she found the jar full of sticky incense, a huge vessel she didn’t relish carrying all the way up the stairs, she was near tears, certain that it was taking her too long and that the priestess was already angered or disappointed into dismissing her for good. The apprentice hovered nearby again.
“You must help me find another burner!” she tossed toward his reappearing figure. “I will tell on you if you won’t.”
He eyed her with his eyebrows raised high, his face too slim, adorned with pimples. Even in the semidarkness, it was easy to see that. “You are full of orders and threats, new girl.”
“There is an important ceremony out there that even the Emperor is supposed to attend!” she cried out, exasperated. “How can you just refuse to help?”/
“I’m not refusing. I told you where everything is.”
“That isn’t helping! This jar is too big to drag it in its entirety in order to put a few drops of it into my tlecomitl, and I can see no other burners here. Only a mess that should have been tidied but wasn’t!”
On her feet again, she felt her hands planting themselves on her hips, her anger prevailing, rising against her better judgment. This youth was so annoyingly inept, so obtuse with no better reason than his idleness or antagonism toward her common origins, which was simply not fair. She needed to bring the things she was charged with!
“If that jar breaks while I carry it up the temple’s stairs, I promise you I’ll make a huge scene out of it. They’ll be sick from my stories about you and your unhelpfulness. Even if it gets me thrown out of school, I’ll do it. Trust me on that!”
This time, he rolled his eyes while blowing the air through his nose, disgustingly loud. “All right, all right. You are such a pest, worse than a buzzing mosquito. A poisonous one!”