Women of Discord – the power of women in Aztec society
Women held an extraordinary position in Aztec society. Through their connection to the earth through childbirth, they were believed to wield primal forces which gave them both access to awesome power and the potential for catastrophic disruption. This devastating duality of female power is embodied by the Women of Discord, figures in mythical history who possessed extraordinary power, and were essential to the development of the Aztec state, but were also often troublemakers and dissidents.
These were women like the goddess Coyolxauhqui and the sorceror Malinalxoch, sisters of the god of war Huitzilopochtli, who both led rebellions against his authority during the Aztec migration. Or Chalchiuhnenetzin, who supposedly murdered her lovers and used their skeletons to make statues, leading to a rift between the cities of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco. Or Avenci, the very first ‘Woman of Discord’, who was sacrificed by the Aztecs to mark their settlement in the Valley of Mexico. Her brutal death provoked war between the Aztecs and her people, driving the former towards the eventual site of their famous capital: Tenochtitlan.
Such women are important symbols, and many are well-known in Aztec history, but what is often overlooked is the significance of such histories and beliefs to the lives of ‘real’ women. In Tenochtitlan, women possessed tangible rights – to inherit, to divorce, to work, and to appeal to the law – but the connection to the fertile earth which brought them respect and influence was also potentially disruptive.
Sixteenth-century sources emphasise the destructive potential of women’s speech and the ways in which they were capable of goading others into disobedience. While ‘bad’ men were idle and passive, ‘bad’ women were disorderly and troublesome. According to the great ethnographic corpus of the Florentine Codex, the ‘bad mother…causes disregard of conventions…expounds nonconformity’. A ‘bad grandmother’ leads ‘others into darkeness’, sets ‘a bad example’. A woman born on the day One Eagle was ‘of evil tongue, vile-mouthed, inhuman in speech – big mouthed, of biting words. Her great joy, her great pleasure, was evil speaking’. Women’s connection to the earth was awe-inspiring, but also potentially corrupting. What it was not, however, was disempowering.
‘Women of Discord’ are not unique to Aztec culture. The fear of women’s ‘disruptive’ fertility and sexuality is ubiquitous in history, particularly at times where they were connected to the secure inheritance of power and property. The past is littered with examples of the suppression of women and the control of their sexuality, often justified on religious grounds.
But while Christian women were punished for Eve’s primal sin through the pain of childbirth, their desire criminalised, and their independence quelled, the Aztecs celebrated female authority and sexuality, at least in moderation. Rather than seeing women’s fertility as purely a resource to be controlled – a primal force to be repressed – the Aztecs respected women’s connection to the earth, even while they treated it with caution.
All Aztec women were potentially ‘Women of Discord’. And the way they were treated in Aztec society challenges some of our assumptions about the ways in which femininity and fertility can be seen as disruptive, without necessarily debasing women or depriving them of individual agency. Aztec women may have been objects of apprehension, but women with ‘anger in the spirit’ were seen as vital in Tenochtitlan, both in myth and in reality.
Main image depicts Coyolxauhqui