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A day in the life of an Aztec midwife - Kay Read

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The midwife Xoquauhtli has a difficult choice to make. She owes a debt to her patron Teteoinnan, the female warrior goddess at the center of the Aztec seasonal festival, who must be kept happy or she will bring bad luck. Xoquauhtli should participate in the festival today, but one of her patients could go into labor any minute. Kay Read outlines a day in the life of an Aztec midwife.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Kay Read
  • Director Cristina Neto, Aim Creative Studios
  • Narrator Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Producer Tom Knight, Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Composer André Aires
  • Sound Designer André Aires
  • Illustrator Cristina Neto
  • Storyboard Artist Vicente Nirō
  • Animation Cristina Neto, Mirta Brkulj
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Elizabeth Cox
  • Fact-checker Eden Girma
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A baby comes due during the autumnal festival of Ochpaniztli (“Sweeping the Roads”), which honored the changing of seasons from summer’s wet time of growing corn to the winter’s dry time of waging war.

Xoquauhtli, the midwife, has a particularly busy day ahead of her because she must go to Tenochtitlan’s Great Pyramid to participate in a ritual battle with other midwives in order to entertain and gladden her patroness, the goddess Teteoinnan; but she also must make very sure that this baby arrives safely, for birth is a perilous journey.

How can she do all that in one day; how can she manage to battle it out with her friends and midwives, safely deliver a baby, and (with luck) even attend the final sacrificial transformation of Teteoinnan at dawn the next day?

Our fictional midwife’s day took place in the fall of 1496 in the city of Tenochtitlan (Tĕn-nōch-TEET’-lan), capital of the Aztecs, now buried under Mexico City. This great metropolis (app. 300,000) was centered on an island in Lake Texcoco (Tĕsh-KŌ’-kō) where about 200,000 Mexica (Mĕ-SHEE’-ka) people lived. The huge, double-sided Great Temple (Templo Mayor) dominated the island’s religious center, its two sides unifying a yearly cycle of monthly rituals regulating the whole Mexica domain’s seasonal life. Steep stairs led up to a major deity’s house on each side. Tlaloc (TLA’-lōk), the rain god, lived on the north, the side corresponding with the rainy, summer months devoted to growing food provided by gods for human sustenance. Huitzilopochtli (Weet-zee-lō-PŌCHT’-lee), the Mexica’s war god, lived on the south, which was the side corresponding with winter’s dry months; during this period humans waged war in order to capture human food to sustain the gods. Twice a year, the equinoctial sun rose exactly between these two houses marking when one season switched to the other, shifting the gods’ responsibility for maintaining human well-being to humans’ responsibility for maintaining the gods’ well-being. To explore this city see: the Ancient History Encyclopedia, where one can find pages on Aztec civilization with links to the Templo Mayor and more; and check out Mexicolore, a rich site with good articles aimed at students and educators, many written by Aztec specialists.

One of the first priests to enter “New Spain,” Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, reported in his Florentine Codex that Xoquauhtli (Shō-KWOUT’-lee) was a real midwife. She, along with two other old but great women physicians, “pursued” other physicians and midwives in order to initiate the mock battle in honor of Teteoinnan (Tay-tay-yō-IN’-nan) (also called “Toci,” TŌ’-see). For this story, I borrowed her name and made her a bit younger. Sahagún also says that they made little distinction between physicians and midwives, although they had specialties.

Birth was the realm of women and was treated with great care because both mothers and their babies could easily die. Formal care and rites began in the seventh to eighth month of pregnancy with the midwife instructing both the expectant mother and those in attendance. She lectured them on proper care and the many, necessary precautions (like not chewing gum). The midwife also introduced the expectant mother to the sacred sweat bath governed by the goddess Yoalticitl (Yō-wal-TEE’-seetl (“Night Physician”).

Tobacco was used to dull the pain of and quicken the birth, while the herb cihuapatli (See-wa-PAT’-lee) helped expel the baby. An aztec person harbored multiple souls, each housed in a particular body part and each shaping in specific ways the health, personality, skills and luck defining one as an individual. The tonalli (tō-NA’-lee), located in the top of one’s head, was critical for regulating the body’s temperature; therefore, it needed to be warmed right after birth. The naming ceremony not only introduced the child into its family, it also fortified the child with a soul-like name acquired from the ceremony’s calendrical date. This child’s naming day, 7-monkey, was fortuitous because it meant her calendrical name could help her become a rich merchant. Sahagún spends fifteen chapters in Book 6 (pp.135-208) of his twelve volume Florentine Codex describing the whole birth process from the first time the parents spoke with the mother-to-be to the baby’s birth and its naming. Molly Bassett has written an article on Aztec birth, the tonalli, naming and more. Many libraries carry the Nahuatl-English version of Sahagún’s codex (1953-1982, University of Utah Press). The actual codex, originally written in Nahuatl-Spanish can be found here.

The existence of women warriors is a fascinating, but historically difficult topic. On the surface, women and men performed the traditional roles their sixteenth-century Spanish conquerors expected; but digging deeper, historians today have found that Mesoamerican gender roles could be less rigid. Historical texts and indigenous images depict women as warriors both in birth’s battles and armed in actual battles. Sahagún tells us that, if a woman died in childbirth, midwives, armed and howling accompanied her husband and others to protect her body for four nights from male warriors who would attack in order to steal her hair and middle finger; those parts would make them valiant if they could grab them. Upon death, the mother joined a group of fearsome, warrior goddesses called Mociuaquetzque (Mō-see-wa-KĔTZ’-kay). These “Women of Discord,” as Caroline Dodds-Pennock calls them, served as catalysts of change.

The festival of Ochpaniztli (Ōch-pa-NEEST’-lee) was the eleventh of an eighteen month-long ceremonial cycle spanning the year. Each month lasted twenty days. Teteoinnan’s ritual events lasted for a few days; two other corn goddesses had their own celebrations during this period. Ochpaniztli honored the shifting weather, the harvest period and the anticipation of war, which began in earnest later, after the crops had been brought in.

Our story ended with a sacrificially transformed Teteoinnan standing with the warrior-ruler of Tenochtitlan, Motecuhzuma (Mō-tĕ-cuh-ZOO’ma) as they presided over the induction of new warriors. As a warrior, a corn goddess and the patroness of childbirth, Teteoinnan supported the fruitful realization of bravery in the most powerful provider of all, war. War was more than a political enterprise, it was the most rudimentary, fecund activity possible for assuring fertility on all levels of life from corn and humans to the gods themselves.


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TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Kay Read
  • Director Cristina Neto, Aim Creative Studios
  • Narrator Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Producer Tom Knight, Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Composer André Aires
  • Sound Designer André Aires
  • Illustrator Cristina Neto
  • Storyboard Artist Vicente Nirō
  • Animation Cristina Neto, Mirta Brkulj
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Elizabeth Cox
  • Fact-checker Eden Girma
  • See more