The Flower and the Scorpion: Sexuality and Ritual in Early Nahua Culture
The Flower and the Scorpion: Sexuality and Ritual in Early Nahua Culture

The Flower and the Scorpion: Sexuality and Ritual in Early Nahua Culture

by Pete Sigal



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822351382
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 11/25/2011
Series: Latin America Otherwise Series
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

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Sexuality and Ritual in Early Nahua Culture

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-5138-2

Chapter One


A mid-sixteenth-century rendition of the Nahua temazcal, a steam bath (figure 1), depicts a relatively minor structure, but it signifies both the difficulties that Spaniards had understanding Nahua sexual activity and the ambiguities involved in writing about Nahua sexuality when the Nahuas did not have a category that one can translate as "sex" or "sexuality"; the image of the temazcal thus serves as an icon for the thesis of this book. Reproduced in a codex written under the auspices of Franciscan friars and copied from a prototype produced by a Nahua painter-writer, the image foregrounds the many layers of interpretation modern scholars must use to derive meaning from such a source.

Tlazolteotl, whose image appears above the small door to the steam bath, and who is the most important goddess discussed in this book, guarded the temazcal, a place intended to cure individuals but one that many Catholic priests argued fomented sexual sin by allowing for secret sexual liaisons. Tlazolteotl, the "deity of trash," guarded the steam bath because she, along with a series of related fertility goddesses, controlled the process in which individuals cleansed themselves, both metaphorically, through ritual, and literally, through washing one's body. The Nahuas did not distinguish between the metaphorical and literal cleanings, because when one cleaned oneself, one also kept at bay all of the other things signified by the term tlazolli, which I translate here as "trash." As we will see, it is precisely this tlazolli that allows me to analyze colonial Nahua sexuality. Furthermore, the difficulties of translating tlazolli and of understanding the social significance of Tlazolteotl form the core problematics of this book.

Nahuas did not have a category that a modern scholar can responsibly equate with all the things that are meant when one uses the category "sexuality." By analyzing Nahua fertility rituals as they existed at the time of the conquest and discussing the changes in the structures of these rituals through the early colonial years, I will show that neither the sexual taxonomies developed by colonial society nor those later promoted by modern Western peoples can capture the history of sexuality of the Nahuas.

The paradoxical question faced by all scholars studying sexuality who deal with non-Western or premodern societies is, how does one write a history of sexuality for a society that did not have sex? As others have shown, once a scholar exits the modern Western world, the parameters that define "sexuality" immediately change. One then faces a definitional conundrum reflected in the challenges confronted in this book; I do not wish to replicate the concept of sexuality as defined in the modern West, but neither do I wish to suggest that Nahua notions of the sexual are so esoteric that we cannot ever understand them.

Building upon this concept, this book argues that modern researchers of sexuality, following Michel Foucault, have placed far too much emphasis on the ability of the Roman Catholic sacrament of confession to change the ways in which individuals conceived of themselves and their behaviors. Reading and analyzing all of the available sources, and not only Spanish clerical documents, allow me to argue that this assumption is incorrect. The process of cultural assimilation and appropriation lasted much longer, was slow and inconsistent, and in fact is not yet complete.

The Flower and the Scorpion

Tlazolteotl was one of many fertility deities, and the flower and the scorpion are two representations of sexuality. As we will see, all of the gods and the "natural world" linked to concepts of fertility, and its corollary, waste. Nahua cosmology was a complex amalgam of different concepts in which deities had the ability to transform themselves into virtually anything, and humans and animals under certain circumstances could become gods. Underlying this structure was a particular set of beliefs about the interconnections among the earth, the heavens, and the land of the dead.

Sources vary on the events that led to the division between these three realms, but for my purposes what is most important is that the mythology alludes to a set of powerful deities that asserted a feminine earth and a masculine sky but also allowed them to change genders and identities in order to access relevant levels of the cosmos. The actual substances that made up these gods could be exchanged when the god willed it.

The deities most important to this book had particular qualities that linked them most closely with fertility (Tlazolteotl, Teteo Innan, Toci, Xochiquetzal, Chicomecoatl, Chalchiuhtlicue, Tlaltecuhtli) or warfare (Tezcatlipoca). The deities linked with fertility are most often deemed "female," but we will see that such a gendered identification is deeply flawed. Moreover, while most of the deities linked with warfare are deemed "male," Tezcatplioca's male "identity" is generally overstated. Also important for my purposes are the ambiguously gendered "supernatural" figures linked with death (cihuateteo and tzitzimime).

The gods, in addition to having qualities that linked them to a broader and shared Nahua cosmological universe, were connected with the altepetl, the local Nahua city-state. Hence, for example, Tezcatlipoca (a powerful warrior god worshiped throughout the Nahua universe) was the patron god of Texcoco. Other gods too were patrons of some of the subdivisions of the city-states. Religion, thus, much as in early modern Europe, had both local variants and universal narratives.

According to Nahua cosmology humans came upon the earth, created by the gods after several attempts. These humans needed to respect the gods by performing ritual ceremonies designed to move time forward and thus allow for the continued survival of the deities. These humans had bodies made up of a variety of substances that could be exchanged at particular (ritually important) moments. Moreover, the human body always maintained a very close connection to both the natural world and the world of the gods. Hence a Nahua could not view the human body in isolation from the existence of the gods or from the centrality of plants, animals, and the earth. And humans could also alter their bodies, though only in ritually appropriate ways, and only with the support of the gods.


As one of the signs of sex, flowers proliferate in the descriptions of the gods and rituals. The flower held central importance to Nahua constructions of their world, so much so that the great Nahuatl scholar of the twentieth century, Miguel Léon-Portilla, made the flower the primary metaphor for all life forces. A bit more conservatively, the linguist Frances Kartunnen maintains that xochitl, flower, when used as a modifier, signified something precious, and that, when paired with the term for song, referred to poetry. It is clear that, whatever the limits of the use of the flower as a symbol or metaphor, it referred to something of great importance to the Nahuas. While the flower will remain partially unknowable, an entity that exceeds our ability to understand Nahua discourse in a foreign cultural framework, I will show that it primarily related to intimate connections with others and itself signified fertility in all of its forms.

In the early sixteenth century, the Franciscan friar Alonso de Molina created the first comprehensive Nahuatl-Spanish dictionary, in which he had the following definitions linked to xoch, the Nahuatl root for flower:

Xochitl. flower

Xochtia. to utter witticisms or make people laugh

Xochuia. to enchant, bewitch, or seduce a woman

In Molina's definitions of flower, only the third has possible sexual meaning (and even there one can suggest many other derivations for the term). Yet the flower signified ritualized fertility: ceremonial rites in which the fertile nature of human coupling extended outward to all of the natural and supernatural universe. Further, virtually any time ceremonial sexual activity took place, the flower signified the presence of sexual desires.

As one example, the flower in a Nahuatl song discovered in the middle of the sixteenth century links directly with sex:

    Please do not stick your hand in my skirts,
    Little boy,
    Little Axayacatl.
    Perhaps I am painted,
    My little hand is itching,
    Again and again
    You want to seize my breast,
    Even my heart.

    Now perhaps you will ruin my body painting.
    You will lie watching
    The coming of the green quechol bird flower.
    I will put you inside of me.
    Your chin lies there.
    I will rock you in my arms.

    It is a quetzal popcorn flower,
    A flamingo raven flower.
    You lie on your flower-strewn mat.
    It lies there inside ... no longer.

In 1479 nobles from Chalco, a city-state conquered by the Mexica in 1464, went to their conquering city to perform this song, titled simply chalca cihuacuicatl, "The Chalca Woman's Song." Axayacatl, the Mexica leader, received the people from Chalco, and he liked the song that the men and women performed, at least according to our one source describing the reception of this performance.

The erotic joking of "The Chalca Woman's Song" suggests something about the sexual imaginings of the Nahua peoples on the eve of the Spanish conquest. The flower signified body parts, sexual acts, and noble sexual performances. The selection above suggests flirtation, sexual humor, intercourse, and erotic tenderness. Though it does not at first seem to hide anything, there is much hidden meaning: linguistic tricks, erotic puns, and a variety of connections between sexual desire and the manipulation of masculinity, and between warfare and sexual subjugation.

But here we begin with the flower. The first line referring to xochitl states explicitly that Axayacatl watches the "quechol bird flower" as the Chalca woman places Axayacatl's penis inside of her. Immediately following this event, she provides Axayacatl with tenderness, rocking him in her arms, perhaps during intercourse, or perhaps following it, as she will remind him that it no longer "lies there inside." Before she does so, though, she says much about flowers: his penis is a "quetzal popcorn flower, a flamingo raven flower," and the place where they engage in intercourse is strewn with flowers. Here the flower refers to the nobleman's endowment and perhaps to the place where nobles perform sexual acts.

Of course such an interpretation is far too literal, but this particular songwriter, and presumably, if Chimalpahin's discussion of reception is correct, the nobles of Tenochtitlan and Chalco (together quite representative of the worldviews of the nobles in the basin of Mexico), believed the flower signified something related to the sexual seduction of the emperor. In fact, this seduction was not a discrete historical event, but rather a ritual intended to emulate power, violence, fertility, and a discourse of noble eroticism and desire. The mention of the flower, repeated in many of the rituals, aimed to make the audience members think about the proper role of nobles in maintaining and enhancing the fertility of the universe.


The goddess Xochiquetzal climbed up and, covering him with her huipil, caused him to fail in his purpose [of chastity].... [Then a warrior watching this man said to him]:

"Are you not ashamed, ... because you have ruined things? For however long you live, ... you will be able to do nothing upon the earth, you will be able to achieve nothing. The commoners will call you 'Scorpion.'

—An incantation recorded in a Nahuatl-speaking community of Guerrero, New Spain, in 1629 by a Catholic priest

The story of Xochiquetzal and the man who became Scorpion suggests that the gods punished men for violations of chastity, and indeed that violations of particular sexual vows could lead one to stray down the wrong path—the path of excess. The incantation points to a story in which the goddess tricked a man who was preparing himself to fight for his community. Xochiquetzal's name ("Quetzal Flower") shows us the importance of the flower to this ceremony of commoners, a curing rite intended to coax the poison out of an individual stung by a scorpion.

More important to the structure of the story, as we shall see, was the historical power of the fertility goddesses Xochiquetzal and Tlazolteotl. In the early seventeenth century, when the Catholic priest Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón recorded this myth in his effort to suppress idolatry among indigenous people, Nahua commoners (probably about 90 percent of the Nahua population) believed strongly in the connection between fertility goddesses and their own lives. During that time they regularly invoked these goddesses in their testimonies in idolatry cases. Among other things, Xochiquetzal protected them from scorpion stings, while Tlazolteotl promoted the health of the mother and child during childbirth, and Chicomecoatl, another fertility goddess, aided men and women in achieving a successful harvest. In each case, Nahua thought connected these goddesses with sexual acts and imaginations.

The evidence related to the rituals performed by commoners indicates the persistence of distinctly Nahua ways of understanding sexual acts. After the Spanish conquest, the Spaniards prohibited the grand state ceremonies such as those that nobles had performed in Tenochtitlan. Catholic priests actively sought to coopt noble Nahua children, and, despite the ability of these children to maintain some semblance of a connection with Nahua tradition, the priests often succeeded in preventing them from leading traditional ceremonies. During the first generation after the conquest, the Spaniards actively and violently suppressed noble support for non-Catholic religiosity. But the documents suggest that the views of the bulk of the indigenous population did not change so radically that they would willingly give up their traditions.

How could the commoners and those nobles who did not adhere to Catholic religiosity continue to support the belief system in place at the time of the conquest? First, the Nahua religious system had a dynamic and adaptive structure, which could change, sometimes quite radically, depending on circumstance. Second, Nahua commoners, like nobles, could adapt Catholic ritual to meet some of their needs—and they could suggest the similarity of such ritual practices to preconquest concepts. Third, hidden rites, whether in caves or in churches when priests were not looking, could serve the function of maintaining religious practice and knowledge. Finally, commoners in particular could maintain small-scale ceremonies, in houses and fields, to continue to worship the deities most central to their daily survival.

In the scorpion story, the man went to the mountains to fast and, most important, refrain from any sexual activity. If he successfully maintained his vigil, the gods would give him the power to kill his enemies. Upon Xochiquetzal's successful seduction of the man, however, a warrior beheaded him and turned him into a scorpion. Thus the story signified the ability of the gods to give and take away the powers of humans and animals.

When a scorpion stung an individual, that person would go to a curer who would recount the story to him or her. The curer then would coax the scorpion's poison out of the individual by simulating sexual intercourse with that person, thus suggesting that the curer is Xochiquetzal, the body of the one stung just a conduit for the scorpion. The curer, as Xochiquetzal, then reminds the scorpion that, because he failed to maintain his vigil, he cannot kill this person.

People in Guerrero in 1629 faced scorpion stings on a somewhat regular basis, and they designed rites to control the power of the scorpions to kill them. The evidence suggests that, when sick, these commoners went to medical practitioners of various kinds as well as traditional shamans and Catholic priests. When they went to the traditional shamans and curers, these individuals invoked many Nahua gods and goddesses, including Xochiquetzal. Seventeenth-century commoners, who provided for most of their own sustenance through farming, worshiped those deities that had a direct effect on daily life; they linked these gods and goddesses to quotidian survival.


Excerpted from The FLOWER and the SCORPION by PETE SIGAL Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

About the Series ix

Illustrations xi

Acknowledgments xiii

Preface. The People, the Place, and the Time xv

1. The Bath 1

2. Trash 29

3. Sin 61

4. The Warrior Goddess 103

5. The Phallus and the Broom 139

6. The Homosexual 177

7. Sex 207

8. Mirrors 241

Appendix. The Chalca Woman's Song 255

Abbreviations 263

Notes 265

Bibliography 327

Index 353

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