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Naming Patterns in Preconquest Mexica Society

Anastasia Kalyuta, Russian Museum of Ethnography, Summer Fellow 2010

One's name is an important part of a person's social identity, generally containing information about the gender and social position of its bearer. Naming patterns may also reflect basic cosmological notions and the social structure of the society in question. However, the study of pre-conquest Aztec naming patterns poses serious challenges for scholars, because the surviving early colonial testimonies concerning them are quite contradictory. To resolve these contradictions, I scrutinized group of 12 early colonial sources from the Basin of Mexico dating to the mid-sixteenth–early seventeenth centuries, creating thereby samples of male and of female names. The examined sources included both pictorial codices and written documents in Nahuatl and Spanish based on lost pictorial evidence and oral traditions. The survey yielded a total of 796 names and titles, including those of supernatural beings (male and female deities). For the analysis, each name from two gender-divided samples was examined regarding its etymology, formal status of the person (supernatural/human), and the social position of its bearer. The results of this examination are presented in Tables 1 and 2, each table showing the predominant types of names, first for men and second for women.

However, one restriction should be kept in mind: except for three early colonial censuses from the present states of Morelos and Puebla and the north-eastern portion of the Basin of Mexico, all the examined sources deal with the Aztec elite, in particular with ruling dynasties. Commoners rarely appear in these sources, and when they do, their names are almost never mentioned. The few exceptions were made for servants and personal slaves of rulers who formed part of their retinue. It is also noteworthy that the above-mentioned sources yielded four times more male names than female ones (637 against 159), even collapsing possible variants of the same name. This fact is explained by the very nature of the sources used for these samples. Most of them record the history of particular city-states from their founding to the colonial period. Thus, these records usually focus on local rulership, which in pre-conquest Aztec society was predominantly the men's sphere. There are only eight cases of female rulers for the entire pre-conquest history of the Basin of Mexico. Generally in both pictorial and written sources women figure as connecting elements in the royal genealogies: mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, or concubines of a ruler or his closest male relatives. In 65 cases the names of noble women are omitted, although their positions in the genealogical network are precisely indicated, as well as the names of their fathers, husbands, and sons. Also, males are much more active protagonists in myths than female personages, who often play roles as their companions. Except for four cases, men are referred to by war, civil, or priestly titles, and even in those four cases women bear the titles which originally belonged to their male counterparts. At the same time, except for one case from the northeastern portion of the Basin of Mexico, only women have so-called birth order names, which, judging by the existing evidence, do reflect their real birth order. It is also remarkable that in contrast with men's names, no female name having an explicit calendrical character, for instance 4 Flint or 1 Snake, was recorded. Finally it is important to stress the predominance of women's names with symbolic referents to gender, including elements such as xochitlflower, cihuatlwoman, coatlsnake, cueitlskirt, and nenetlvulva, as well as symbols related to the early stages of maize growth and development, vegetation, and green/blue colors. This tendency likely reflects a general cosmological association of women with germination, sexual intercourse, and fertility. According to an Aztec myth recorded in the Codex Magliabechiano, flowers themselves were created from a piece of the vulva of the fertility goddess Xochiquetzal, cut by a bat, a messenger of the death god Mictlantecuhtli. At the same time, it is therefore curious to note several cases in which rulers and noble warriors bear names of earth/fertility goddesses such as Tlazoteotl, Ixcuinan, and Itztlapapalotl.

Table 1: Aztec Male Names
Name TypesFrequency
Total 637
Calendar name of the 260-day cycle 23
Animal/bird name not related to the 260-day cycle 427
Plant and flowers name not related to the 260-day cycle, including those that contain the element xochitl flower 26
Name-Title 54
Name designating particular insignia 39
Name of particular male deity 44
Name of particular female deity 9
Name of uncertain meaning 13
Table 2: Aztec Female Names
Name TypesFrequency
Total 159
Name containing element xochitl flower 43
Name containing element cihuatl woman 19
Name containing element cueitl skirt 11
Name containing element miahuatl cornstalk 10
Name containing element xillotl tender ear of green maize 9
Name containing elements xiuh turquoise, grass-colored, and matlalli deep green/deep blue 11
Name containing element coatl snake 8
Birth order names 8
Name containing element nenetl vulva 5
Name-title 4
Names of uncertain meaning 31