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5-08-2015, 20:42

Aztec Society and Family

In the complex social system of the ancient Aztec world, class, familial duties, and roles were strictly defined. Laws governed what members of different classes and different genders could wear and do. Failure to follow this social system could result in serious punishment or even death.


The highest class in ancient Aztec society was the pipiltin, or nobles. The pipiltin included military and government leaders, high priests, and lords. They owned land and received tribute from the lower classes. The status of nobility was passed on through family lineage.

Aztec Beauty and Hygiene

Cleanliness and looks were very important to the Aztecs. Many bathed at least once a day, using certain fruits and roots as a kind of soap. Women wore perfume and applied yellow makeup to their face and limbs. The makeup was made from either yellow clay or axin, a substance made from insects.

Hairstyles were also a sign of class, age, or trade. Most male commoners wore their hair short with

short bangs. Some priests wore their hair long and tied back in a white ribbon. Men of different trades had distinct hairstyles. Women had many different hairstyles as well. Mothers, for example, wore their long hair tied back in a ponytail. The loose ends were pinned up at the top, making a tuft of hair at the crown of the head. Some also dyed their hair using the herb xiuhquilitl or mud, giving it a purple shine.

many servants. They were also allowed to eat certain foods commoners were not allowed to eat.


Below the nobility were the commoners, called the macehualtin. This class included the rest of the free people living in Aztec society, such as the merchants, peasant farmers, and artisans. The macehualtin worked for the nobility, attending to their palaces, farming their lands, and fighting in their wars. They paid taxes in the form of tribute to the tlatoani and belonged to a calpulli, which owned communal land that was passed on from one generation to the next.

Commoners could only wear clothing made from fibers rougher than cotton, such as maguey, yucca, or palm. Male commoners had to tie their capes at the shoulder, while nobles tied them in the middle of the chest. And the capes worn by commoners had to stop at the knees, while nobles could wear this garment to their ankles.

Social rank also existed within the commoner class. Merchants and highly skilled artisans were above the peasant farmers. Although commoners could become very wealthy, they could never join the noble class. Sometimes nobility would marry commoners. The couple’s children inherited the noble status from the noble parent.



One way historians now know and understand Aztec culture is through studying Aztec codices. Codices were made before and after the Spanish arrived, but none survived the conquest. The Spanish burned them, believing they contained anti-Christian content. The codices made after the conquest recorded important information about Aztec practices and culture.

The Codex Mendoza is one important codex created 20 years after the Spanish conquest. It was commissioned by the first Spanish Viceroy of the conquered empire, between the years 1535 and 1550. It contains three sections. The first section details an account of the rulers of Tenochtitlan. The second section lists the tributes given to the capital from more than 400 towns. The third section recorded Aztec life.


A ball game, called ollama, was played in large ball courts in Aztec cities. The game was filled with Aztec symbolism. The courts were shaped like a capital I and faced either north-south or east-west. Stone walls defined the sides of the court, and each side had a stone ring. The game used a small, hard rubber ball. The court symbolized the heavens; the ball was a symbol of the sun, moon, or stars; and the rings represented the sunrise or sunset. Players wore padding and tried to hit the ball through the rings using their elbows, hips, or knees. It was a violent game, and players were likely to be seriously injured or killed. The game also had ritual significance, and players were sometimes sacrificed.


At the bottom in social rank were the landless serfs, or mayeque, and slaves, or tlacotin. The landless serfs were free people who did not own land and did not belong to a calpulli. The mayeque were bound to the noble’s land where they worked as tenant farmers, fishermen, or artisans. They paid the noble for use of his land with a portion of their harvest, catch, or goods created.

Slaves also served their owners and did not own land, but they were not free. They became slaves for several reasons. For some, slavery was a punishment for a crime, such as theft. Others became slaves due to unpaid debts, and still others were captured during war. During times of extreme hardship, such as a drought or famine, parents sold their children into slavery. Slavery was a temporary position though, and freedom could be bought back at a later time. Slave owners were required to feed and clothe their slaves, and slaves had to work for their masters for no pay. Slaves could marry, and their children were born free.


Aztecs married in their late teens or early twenties. Matchmakers and parents arranged the marriages between young men and women. Nobles often married to create alliances or for profit. The bride was ceremonially bathed and covered with red feathers; her face was painted in glittering crushed pyrite, a gold-colored mineral. Four days of feasting followed the marriage ceremony, and elders counseled the bride and groom.

Once married, the husband and wife had clearly defined roles. The man was the head of the family, but women were regarded as equals. While men worked in their trades, women held mostly domestic roles. They could not speak publicly or have the careers men had, but they did have a level of independence. Female commoners wove cloth to sell at the market and to be given for their family’s tribute. A wife ground maize for five to six hours a day to feed her family. She cleaned the home and took care of the family’s animals, among many other duties. Noblewomen had a much different life, with servants to do the many things a commoner wife would do to run the household. Nobles had time for many leisure activities.

Motherhood was a woman’s most valued role in Aztec society. Parents were dedicated to rearing their children properly. Children were raised to respect their elders and their religion, have good manners, and become productive citizens. By the age of three or four, children were given specific chores within the household. Between eight and ten years old, children learned different crafts, such as pottery, metalwork, and basketry. Aztec parents could punish misbehaving children harshly. In the Codex Mendoza, different punishments were listed.

Newborn Ceremony

Childbirth was a very special event in Aztec life. If a mother died during childbirth, she was honored as a warrior for fighting a good battle during the delivery. Babies were treated as weary travelers who had just arrived into the world. The midwife gave formal speeches while cleaning the baby. A boy’s umbilical cord was later taken by a warrior to be buried on a battlefield, and a girl’s cord was buried near the hearth in a family’s home. Family and visitors came to see the child, sometimes visiting for up to 20 days after the birth. To provide the child with a good start in life, a soothsayer would assign an astronomically favorable day for the child’s naming ritual. The naming ritual, conducted by the midwife, ended the newborn ceremonies. A feast was held at the end of the ceremony, and the child’s parents gave gifts to the visiting family.


Education was a very important part of Aztec life, and both boys and girls attended school. Aztec children were promised to schools as infants but did not begin school until later. Children typically began school between the ages of six and nine, but sometimes formal education began as late as 15 years old.1 There were two kinds of schools,

Aztec boys and girls learned a number of different household chores, including weaving cloth, grinding maize, and loading and steering a canoe.


Language, and Dance

Poetry, language, and dance constituted an important part of Aztec education. Metaphors were essential in formal public speaking. Ritual ceremonies, songs, and dances were filled with metaphors, some so complex that instruction was necessary in order to understand what was being shown or explained. All members of Aztec society took part in different ceremonies. Understanding how to dance, sing ritual songs, and interpret ceremonies was a vital part of daily life.

and in each boys and girls were separated to reinforce gender and social differences.

One kind of school was the telpochcalli, for commoner boys and girls. Each calpulli had its own telpochcalli, so there might be many of these schools in one city. Children learned history, basic moral and religious values, ritual dancing and singing, and the language arts, including public speaking skills. The boys’ instruction included military training, while the girls learned how to participate in religious ceremonies and traditions in which adult women served. Memorization was an important skill to have. Rhythmic language and drumbeats helped students learn poetic language and songs.

The second type of school was for the children of nobility—the calmecac. Sometimes the brightest commoner students were specially chosen to attend these schools as well. In each city there was only one calmecac for boys and another for girls. Students were trained for military, religious,

or political leadership roles. It was a very strict atmosphere, similar to a military academy. Students learned how the Aztec calendar worked and about the many religious festivals and ceremonies. They also learned reading, astronomy, history, math, architecture, agriculture, basic law, and warfare.


The written form of Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs, consisted of hieroglyphics and other symbols. Scribes worked for palaces, law courts, temples, schools, and trading centers. They wrote on folding amatl paper manuscripts and used numbers, figures, date signs, and hieroglyphics. They wrote historical records, tribute lists, calendars, laws, and descriptions of professions and daily life. This writing was also used on monuments and sculptures. By the time the Spanish arrived or soon after, much of Aztec culture and history was written with this system in codices, such as the Codex Mendoza. These records preserved important information about how Aztec society and its government worked in the time before the Spanish conquest.