The power of pre-hispanic Mexica women


Ilancuéitl, Atotoztli and Tecuichpo, were fundamental pieces in the political and territorial alliances to maintain the Mexican power.

Although women did not usually have an equal role in pre-Hispanic Mexico in the central area, there is a record of some who stood out for maintaining balance, political cohesion and even exercising decisions to protect their peoples.

To talk about these powerful women, Infobae interviewed Clementina Battcock (she came from Argentina to live in Mexico 20 years ago), a doctor in History from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, a member of the National System of Researchers, level I, and a research professor at the Directorate of Historical Studies of the National Institute of Anthropology and History.

“It is true that the study on pre-Hispanic women of lineage shows various complexities and countless approaches, including the one that presents them only as companions of the ruler and mothers of his children . However, I consider that the female presence implies more than a complementary figure of the ruler ”, reflected the researcher.

 Clementina Battcock (came from Argentina to live in Mexico 20 years ago), doctor in History from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, member of the National System of Researchers Photo: (Inah)

Clementina Battcock (came from Argentina to live in Mexico 20 years ago), a doctor in History from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, member of the National System of Researchers Photo: (Inah)

The women were key pieces in the defense of the communities, surely they went to battle when it was necessary and they also trained in weapons to be able to carry out the effective defense, explained Battcock.

“With this, the passive and relegated image of women is broken by one that is more active, brave, but which depended on the context, a context consistent with their performance and training in weapons. For this reason, it is perhaps understandable that they participated in this way to defend their group at any cost ”, added the historian.

The essential role of women in forging alliances and transmitting rights and obligations to their descendants, helping the identification and existence of a group.

It is not a novelty that the pre-Hispanic society of central Mexico has been led by men who received the authority to rule through divinity and the lineage of their ancestors. In addition to this, the role of the noble woman (often implicit in this choice) was decisive, since that famous lineage derived from her and was deposited in her descendants.

Noble women had a fundamental role in education and lineage Photo: (Codex Mendoza)

Noble women had a fundamental role in education and lineage Photo: (Codex Mendoza)

The participation and presence of women was a constant in acts of extreme conflict and tension, sometimes as a reason for disagreements, even wars or collusions, and in others as an element to resolve them.

Ilancuéitl and Atotoztli

Most sources of Mexica tradition indicate that Acamapichtli, the first ruler of Tenochtitlán, was born to a Mexica father and a Culhua mother, that is, he was the grandson by maternal affiliation of the tlahtoani of Culhuacán and the son of a Mexica who remained in this place, possibly since the stay of those in Tizapan-Culhuacán, a wandering stage of such a group, the researcher also related.

“These data underline the relevance of the alliance between Mexica and Culhuacanos through common descent and, nevertheless, they do not explain the insistence that Acamapichtli was chosen to govern; However, everything seems to indicate that the lineage of the wife Ilancuéitl was the most valuable, since she conferred on her husband the right to rule, so she was a key woman for the founding and maintenance of the Mexican ruling line. Clamentina added.

Acamapichtli and Ilancuéitl Photo: (Codex Xólotl, plate III)

Acamapichtli and Ilancuéitl Photo: (Codex Xólotl, plate III)

About Ilancuéitl there are other versions that allude to the role of mother and wife of Acamapichtli, while her name, on many occasions, is equivalent to that of Atotoztli.

It has also been indicated that both Ilancuéitl and Atotoztli were related as mother-in-law and daughter-in-law and that, in addition, they were sisters. Perhaps this apparent confusion of names and functions responded to a single cause: the woman represented as coming from a noble origin and as the creator of lineage; the multiple and incongruous references around Ilancuéitl-Atotoztli present serious problems of interpretation since it is possible that the variety in the information has responded to the different creations made a posteriori of the same tradition; that is to say, it was built from a present in which the connection of the renowned Toltec or Culhuacan past was necessary.

Despite this, the descriptions of Ilancuéitl as “older sister” allude to the very meaning of her name (the literal translation would be “old woman’s skirt”) and to the pictographic representations in which her advanced age is clearly observed; For this reason, her importance as a mother and creator is still notorious.

It is time to assume that the representation of any of the Atotoztli is highly relevant for political considerations on Mexica history, just as those of Ilancuéitl are for Coatlinchan, since this woman is mentioned as the wife of one of the rulers of that center. , but her story is part of the tragedy, as her husband is murdered and she flees in search of the shelter of her son to her place of origin: Culhuacán.

Another version indicates that Ilancuéitl was originally from Coatlichan and that he was even a ruler by right. Possibly, this relationship could mean that Coatlincha n had an equivalent status with Culhuacán, that is, that both seats of power represented the place of origin of legitimacy and that, probably, several cities throughout pre-Hispanic history shared this dignity; Ilancuéitl was related to Azcapotzalco from the Acamapichtli government.

The Argentine-Mexican academic explained that from then on they maintained a significant bond in which the main activity carried out by the Tenochcas in the service of Azcapotzalco was military. The Mexica needed a “war chief” who would serve Azcapotzalco but who had strong ties with the main Culhuas and for this they used the marriage alliance as a strategy within such a complex political arena.

Fragment of plate 3 of the Codex Xolotl that shows the marriage of Huetzin from Coatlinchán with Atotoztli from Colhuacan;  down you see part of his offspring

Fragment of plate 3 of the Codex Xolotl that shows the marriage of Huetzin from Coatlinchán with Atotoztli from Colhuacan; down you see part of his offspring

In the Codex García Granados, Ilancuéitl can be seen as the wife of Tezozomoc the Elder, founder of the Azcapotzalco dynasty, and as the mother of Tezozomoc the Younger. In the same document, the rulers of Tenochtitlan appear as descendants of the Azcapotzalco lineage, while Ilancuéitl retains its generating/founding position of the Mexican rulers, but temporarily locating further back.

“In this regard, we believe that the Ilancuéitl that appears represented in the García Granados Codex is perhaps another Ilancuéitl and not that of Acamapichtli. In this sense, we think it is important to point out that with this female figure the Azcapotzalca and Tenochca dynasty began, thus being a woman who founded and inaugurated lineages ”.

Another problem around Ilancuéitl is the existence of an “other”, that is to say, a man named Ilancuéitl, who was the ruler of one of the cities of the Chalco-Amecam eca confederation. This other Ilancuéitl is actually a sexual inversion of his female counterpart that alludes to the Ilancuéitl woman, who has several children, but is sometimes described in the sources as sterile , so that a woman who cannot have children could to be equated to a man.

The representation of a party Photo: (Durán Codex)

The representation of a party Photo: (Durán Codex)

Although this situation was ritually solved when passing between the legs of Ilancuéitl to the children that Acamapichtli had with his concubines; Thanks to the symbolic act of childbirth, she gave them a new mother and a past to vindicate. They had a particular exercise of power as lineage founders, at the same time that they were associated with the political legitimacy of these groups since they were necessary for the maintenance of any family lineage.

“ The representations of two prominent women in the Nahua narrative of the Mesoamerican Postclassic, Atotoztli and Ilancueitl, require us to pause and reflect on two main questions: the first refers to how the pre-Hispanic woman was represented, not only from the essential Hispanic perspective , but also from the possibilities that the indigenous traditions themselves pose; the second, and in relation to the above, addresses how it has been represented in different contexts and temporalities, that is, not only from different cultural perspectives but from unequal historical situations ”, reflected the historian.

As they are women heirs to an ancestral lineage, various centers sought to be related to them through a marriage alliance. On these attempts, the sources are rich in versions that present them, on the one hand, as a source of tension and conflict and, on the other hand, as the founding metaphor of a recognized lineage.

Tecuichpo, a woman who helped "spin, legitimize and renew" the succession of the last Mexican rulers and who, upon their death, acted as the heir to that power Photo: (Inah)

Tecuichpo, a woman who helped “spin, legitimize and renew” the succession of the last Mexican rulers and who, upon their death, acted as the heir to that power Photo: (Inah)


The role of status women can be observed in the early years of the Spanish conquest, specifically in the eldest daughter of Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin, with Tecuichpo, a woman who helped to “spin, legitimize and renew” the succession of the last Mexican rulers and that, upon their death, she acted as the heir to that power, hence the interest of some Spaniards in making her his wife, said Clementina.

However, it is to reflect that it has been the domestic and regulated image of the woman of central Mexico that seems to transcend and impose itself in the studies that deal with them.

“For this reason, I propose that it is essential to think about them from overlapping and constant contexts: tension and predominance, circumstances that led them to carry out necessary activities in particular contexts, such as during the absence of men for reasons of war, when they had to demonstrate a character strong, ”she pointed out.

Tecuichpo Photo: (Inah)Tecuichpo Photo: (Inah)

For the Mesoamerican peoples, women were fundamental members of the nobility, “they played an essential role in maintaining the dynastic lines, they had an important religious participation and they held interesting titles of honor and origin”; It could be argued that one way to create political, social, economic and cultural links was through a system of matrimonial alliances, in which family groups from a dominant center were united with other families of different lordships, strengthening such an institution the relationships of power established between them.

The Xólotl Codex gives an account of the participation of Chichimec women in moments of particular importance, such as the settlement in the Basin of Mexico.

The daughters of Xólotl

For its part, the Tlotzin Map illustrates women during the migration stage and highlights their activities focused on reproduction, feeding the group and caring for their offspring.

Although it has been proposed that female representations were fundamental to understand the traits contained in the genealogies narrated by these documents, their roles within the ruling elites of grandmothers, wives, mothers, daughters or concubines, were shaped by being key subjects in the alliances between different lineages of central Mexico, which gave rise to a consanguineous descent that could ensure the political and cultural permanence of a group.

Atotoztli Photo: (Inah)

Atotoztli Photo: (Inah)

The daughters of Xólotl became that perfect link to interact with three groups: the Tepanecs, the Otomi and the Acolhuas who later came to request a place of settlement.

To the former, Xólotl gave his eldest daughter, the latter the youngest, and the third the daughter of a Toltec nobleman to found three political centers: Azcapotzalco, Xaltocan, and Coatlinchan, respectively.

This first great alliance was substantive to understand the dispositions of the allied factions of the Chichimecas and those of the Toltec groups that allied themselves in order to increase their strength and defend the lands propitious for the reproduction of their people; As expected, it was not long before an atmosphere of competition and tension was created in the Basin of Mexico.

Tlotzin and his wife Photo: (Codex Xólotl)

Tlotzin and his wife Photo: (Codex Xólotl)

The trigger was that “unfinished” alliance of Xólotl with the Acolhuas that, although it did not leave them without establishment, denied them to be directly related to the Chichimeca lineage that the aforementioned leader held, it was for this reason that the Acolhuas claimed Culhuacán for themselves, center that was close to them because they were related to this royal family since their arrival.

Once this center was obtained, they planned that Huetzin, future heir of Coatlinchan, would rule there; According to this version, Xólotl’s answer was affirmative, but the Culhuacan nobles did not agree, since they had already appointed a member of their lineage to occupy the position of ruler, so when Huetzin arrived they did not allow him to enter the city and dispatched him back.

Xólotl and his wife Tomiyauh Photo: (Codex Xólotl)

Xólotl and his wife Tomiyauh Photo: (Codex Xólotl)

When Xólotl found out about such an affront, he sent his son Nopaltzin to solve this painful situation through war, an event in which Xólotl’s son was the winner and reinstated Huetzin, who asked to marry a Culhua woman named Atotoztli ( that is to say “water bird”).

From then on, Atotoztli took a fundamental political position in the fight for the legitimacy of the Culhuacan lineage and in the fight to govern this center.

She became the cause of the war, the “woman of discord” and, at the same time, the mediator woman, capable of achieving unity and representing the opposition, “a source of power but also of chaos, a threat to the orderly progression of the world and absolutely necessary for its maintenance ”.

Ilancueitl on plate 3 of the Codex Xolotl, in a remote connection with Achitometl as his father Photo: (Codex Xolotl)

Ilancueitl on plate 3 of the Codex Xolotl, in a remote connection with Achitometl as his father Photo: (Codex Xolotl)

The power of the inherited lineage and its political performance

Women in the main Nahua groups were founders of the political relations of the basin of Mexico in the late postclassic period. His performance in kinship networks is key to understanding the regulation of Mesoamerican political negotiation practices.

Only through the precise analysis of their representation can access to the power mechanisms that were activated in the Basin, perhaps until the consolidation of the Mexica hegemony, even with all the difficulties that criticism of sources and the very determination of its different sources present. registration origins and intentions.

“ The difference between circulation and distribution, between reproduction and descent, seems to me key, conceptually, historically and politically ; Furthermore, both differences are an effect of ‘culture’ and ‘history’, they emphasize and found that: the variability of kinship, its ‘logistic’ meaning; more than biological, its value as a political strategy rather than as a ‘natural’ structure; or family ”, stressed the researcher from UNAM.


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