The Florentine Codex is a Native American collection of writing that originated within the Aztec culture. This cluster gives a glimpse of what life was like prior to the Conquest of Mexico in 1519 (fought between Hernán Cortés alongside his Spanish followers and Montezuma alongside his Aztec followers). Throughout this time, there were three basic genres of literature: oratory, song, and narrative. The Florentine Codex is categorized as an oratory. Oratories are ritual speeches, in which the exact wording is memorized as it is passed from generation to generation.
During this time childbirth was highly prioritized. Soon after a woman was aware of her pregnancy, a midwife was chosen by the families of both the mother and father. Two selections from the Florentine Codex, “The Midwife Addresses the Woman Who Has Died in Childbirth,” and “The Midwife Addresses the Newly Delivered Woman,” illustrate different spiritual prayers that were performed after childbirth depending on the state of the mother.
In “The Midwife Addresses the Woman Who Has Died in Childbirth,” the midwife praises the mother. The Aztecs believed that a woman became a god upon dying during childbirth, hence the importance of her to be praised. The midwife first calls to the mother describing her as, “Precious feather, child, Eagle woman, dear one, Dove, darling daughter.” (lines 1-3) The second and third stanzas continue with praise and rejoice, insinuating that this is a joyous and honorable occasion. However, the midwife takes a turn aside devotion and questions, “Was this your wish?” (line 31) Promptly correcting herself the midwife affirms, “No, you were summoned, you were called.” (line 31) Because of that remark, it is clear that the Aztecs believed in a much greater and higher power. This piece ends with the midwife asking the woman to not forget her loved ones. She leaves the woman with a task to speak on her loved ones’ behalf to their “Lord” exclaiming, “Pray to him for us! Call to him for us! This is the end, We leave the rest to you.” (lines 44-47)
In “The Midwife Addresses the Newly Delivered Woman,” the midwife sends a different message to the mother. The midwife starts with expressing what great strength the mother has in order to have made it through the delivery. Towards the middle of this selection the midwife sends warnings to the mother advising her, “Do not consider yourself worthy of it [the child].” (line 13) If the mother were to generate an easy-going and prideful lifestyle, their “Lord” could take her life, or her baby’s life for that matter. Simply put, never take anything or anyone for granted. Just as something can be given, it can be taken away.
A major theme and/or value in this work is belief of a higher power. Both pieces clarified that absolute control was at the hand of a superior power. Another is strength. The mothers who died during childbirth were compared to great fallen warriors, in which the delivery was perceived to be a battle. Lastly humility; bluntly expressed in the second piece, shows the great value humility held in the Aztec culture.
Although the Aztec people and these practices prevailed thousands of years ago, we can find similarities in a variety of cultures today. Members affiliated with religious organizations such as, Catholics, Christians, Methodists, and Presbyterians engage in christening ceremonies. In short, during a christening ceremony, a baby is brought forth in front of the congregation to be prayed upon by the “Father” (if Catholic), or Pastor in hopes of the baby becoming a follower of Jesus. Unlike the Aztecs, the babies are the priority of praise rather than the mothers. Some religions today do however praise mothers in a sense by celebrating Mother’s Day.
● Discussion Questions:
1. Why do you believe the Aztec people highly prioritized childbirth?
2. If women were perceived as honorable and warrior-like during childbirth, why was there a grave gap between the superiority of men and women?
3. Today, do we still consider women as “warriors,” so to speak, by possessing the ability to bear child(ren)?