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The Aztec Midwife

[ mexika.org ] via NatGeo

Much of what is known of Aztec society comes from a book written by Bernardino de Sahagún, a Spanish friar living near what is now Mexico City. During the second part of the 16th century, Sahagún compiled a vast compendium on Aztec customs, entitled the General History of the Things of New Spain. The lavishly illustrated manuscript, whose three volumes are now kept in Florence, Italy, dealt in its sixth book with the complex methods and rituals of Aztec childbirth.

Central to Aztec obstetrics, the General History explains, was the tlamatlquiticitl, or midwife. While noblewomen could expect to be cared for by a midwifery team, women lower down the social scale would also have access to the services of this key figure in Aztec society, who would monitor the pregnancy.

The tlamatlquiticitl paid regular visits to the pregnant woman in her home, where she would conduct gynecological examinations. If there was anything untoward, “she put the pregnant girl in a bath and pressed her belly to turn the baby if it was in the wrong position, moving it from one part to another.”

When acquired in 1947 for the collection at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., this statue of a goddess giving birth (above) was widely believed to be a pre-Columbian artifact representing Tlazolteotl, a complex Aztec goddess. An Earth deity, she also ruled over the areas of love, fertility, and lust. She displayed a cruel streak, causing madness among some mortals. But in her role as a childbirth deity, known as “the great woman in labor,” she showed a kinder aspect. Today some scholars believe this statue is a fake and more likely dates to the 19th century. Whatever the provenance, this figure did secure a place in history: Hollywood history. It was used as the model for the golden idol, which Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones retrieves in the opening sequence of the 1981 blockbuster movie Raiders of the Lost Ark.

In the case of a first-time mother, the midwife would also advise her on diet and other habits, such as making sure the water was not too hot when taking baths. She would recommend her charge to continue having sex until the seventh month of pregnancy “because if she abstained entirely from the carnal act, the baby would be born sickly and weak.”

A mentor and wise confidante, the tlamatlquiticitl would prevent the future mother from lifting excess weight that could endanger the fetus, as well as recommending her “to avoid sorrow, anger and surprises so as not to miscarry or damage the baby.”

As the birth approached, the midwife would stay in the woman’s home for four or five days to prepare the mother-to-be. The orderliness and cleanliness of Aztec society observed by the Spanish since their arrival featured strongly in childbirth customs, too. The woman’s body, her hair, and the birthing room were all thoroughly cleaned. The tlamatlquiticitl would then prepare a steam bath in the temazcal—a kind of sauna with a low roof, located just outside the home—using special smoke-free firewood and aromatic plants. This would help the woman relax while the midwife checked the fetus’s condition. Aztec skill with herbal medicine did much to reduce the trauma and pain of childbirth. Once the contractions started, a woman might be given tea made of cioapatli, an herb “that had the virtue of impelling or pushing the baby out.” If, in spite of this, the woman was still in pain and not dilating, “they gave her half a finger of the tail of the animal called tlacuatzin. Then she would give birth easily.”

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Kurly Tlapoyawa is an archaeologist, author, and ethnohistorian. His research focuses primarily on the interaction between Mesoamerica, Western Mexico, and the American Southwest. Kurly has lectured at UNLV, University of Houston, and Yale University on topics related to Mesoamerica. His recent book, “Our Slippery Earth: Nawa Philosophy in the Modern Age” was published in 2017. In addition to his work in Archaeology and Ethnohistory, Kurly is a professional stuntman with over 35 credits to his name.

Follow Kurly on twitter @KurlyTlapoyawa

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