Exploring the Aztec feast of Tlaxochimako / Mikailiwitl

Tlaxochimako (offering of flowers) is the 8th month of the Mexikah calendar system. It was also known as Mikailwitl or Mikailwitontli (the small feast of the dead.) Like most of the other months in the Mexikah calendar system, Tlaxochimako lasted 20 days, and concluded with a large feast to commemorate the passing of the month (The final month, Nemontemi only lasts 5 days). This year, the 8th through 27th of August take place during Tlaxochimaco.

The feast was characterized by the collection of flowers from nearby mountains, which were then fashioned into garlands and used to adorn the idols of the various Teteoh. As with most other feasts, the festivities included sumptuous meals which were painstakingly prepared the night before, and a day filled with music, song, and dance. This feast is notable for one dance in particular in which the city’s sex workers, known as the awianime (ahuianime), danced with high ranking warriors (more about this below).

Along with the gathering of flowers, a large tree was cut down and brought into the city. This tree was stripped of its branches, decorated with paper vestments, and erected in the central plaza of Witzilopochtli. It was known as the Xokotl pole. Dances were performed around the pole.

As previously mentioned, this feast was also known as “the small feast of the dead,” and honored the children who had recently passed away. Offerings of chocolate, candles, seed, and food were made to the deceased children. In time, this celebration (along with the following monthly feast of Wey Mikailwitl which honored dead adults) were morphed into the modern-day “Dia de Muertos.” Diego Duran makes the following observation in his Book of the Gods and Rites and The Ancient Calendar.

“I have already mentioned that the first reason for the name Feast of the Little Dead was due to the offerings made for deceased children. I wish to refer to something I have seen take place on the Day of Allhallows and on the Day of the Faithful Departed. In some towns, offerings are made on Allhallows, and further offerings take place on the Day of the Faithful Departed. When I asked why offerings were made on the Day of Allhallows, I was told that this was in honor of the children, it being an ancient custom which had survived. I inquired whether offerings were also made on the Day of the Faithful Departed, and the answer was, “yes, in honor of adults.” I was sorry to hear these things because I saw clearly that the Feast of the Little Dead and [the Feast] of the Adults were still being celebrated. On the first I saw people offering chocolate, candles, fowl, fruit, great quantities of seed, and food. On the next day I saw the same being done. Though this feast fell In August, I suspect that if it is an evil simulation (which I do not dare affirm) the pagan festival has been passed to the Feast of Allhallows in order to cover up the ancient ceremony.” — Book of the Gods and Rites and The Ancient Calendar, Page 442

Duran’s observation is important, because it reveals that embedding the traditions of Mikailwitl and Wey Mikailwitl into the Catholic holidays of Allhallows and Day of the Faithful Departed was a survival strategy employed by the Indigenous people themselves, not a plan concocted by Catholic priests. The process of combining older rituals into another religion is known as Syncretism, and is intended to help ease religious conversion. While Catholic priests often employed syncretism as a strategy of conversion in the “New World,” this is not what happened with the festivals of Mikailwitl and Wey Mikailwitl. This subversive act of resistance was intended to fool the Catholic priests into thinking the Mesoamericans had, indeed, submitted to Christianity.

More information regarding Mikailwitl/Mikailwitontli can be found in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis, which states the following:

“During this feast they made offerings to the dead, placing food and drink on their tombs, which they did for four years. for they believed that during all this time the souls had not yet gone to their place of rest, according to their belief. And thus they buried them dressed with all their clothing and shod, for they believed that until they arrived at the place where the souls went at the end of the four years, they had much toil, cold, and weariness because they had to go through places full of snow and thorns. And that is why when an important person died they also killed and buried a slave at the same time, so that he could serve him. The Mixtec, Zapotec, and Mixe people honored their dead in a way almost like the Spaniards, for they built a tomb covered in black and placed much food around it. The way of burying the dead was just like ours. the feet of the dead pointed toward the east. And after the bodies had been eaten away, they un-earthed the bones from the tomb and put them in ossuaries made of mortar in the patios of their temples. This was [done by] the Mixtecs and Zapotecs, for the Mexicans did not bury them but cremated the bones: and the Mexicans took this practice from the Otomi people, or Chichimecs, who are the most ancient inhabitants of this land.” — Codex Telleriano-Remensis folio 2r.

For a more detailed look at this feast, here is the complete description taken from chapter 28 of Book 2 of the Florentine Codex, which was written by Nawa informants working together with Fray Bernardino de Sahagun. It describes the month of Tlaxochimako as follows:

“It also was of twenty days.

Two days [before the feast] there was the seeking of flowers. There was scattering over the mountains when there was looking for every flower — various flowers, mountain flowers, dahlias, hummingbird flowers, mountain tagetes, ranunculus, bocconias, tiger lilies, plumerias, didymeas, forest magnolias, talaumas, earth plumerias, tagetes, lobelias, white water lilies, red water lilies, castalias. And when they had been gathered, when they had come bringing the flowers, when there had been coming bringing [them], when it was dawn, then they were strung together. There was stringing; they strung them. And when the flowers had been strung together, then they were twisted, they were wound [in garlands] — each indeed long, each very long, each thick, indeed thick. And when there had been the arranging, then carefully they were each set down; they were indeed handled with esteem, they were cared for with reverence.

Tezkatlipoka adorned with flowers. From the Codex Tudela folio 19r

And when this was done, all the common folk together fell to making tamales for themselves. In the evening they plucked turkey hens and [killed] dogs; also in the evening they singed them. Those were singed which would be required early in the morning.

There was confusion. There was indulging in sleeplessness; there was wakefulness. There was living for the feast day. It was as if each one was active; there was preoccupation on the part of each one so that there would be preparation.

And when the day broke, the priests thereupon each made offerings to Witzilopochtli; they adorned him with garlands of flowers; they placed flowers upon his head. And before him they kept spreading, they kept lining up, they kept placing in rows, they kept hanging in rows all the various flowers, the precious flowers, the gifts made as offerings. Thereupon flowers were offered all at the same time to all of the Teteoh, the images of the Teteoh. They were adorned with flowers, they were girt with {garlands of) flowers; flowers were placed upon their heads there in the temples.

Witzilopochtli adorned with flowers. From the Florentine Codex, Book 2 folio 60v

Thereupon all at the same time in all the houses in the homes of the stewards, in the homes of the great noblemen, and [in] each of the young men’s houses, they all laid them out [before the idols]; they all spread them out in people’s homes.

And when this was done, when they had been ornamented, then there was eating, there was drinking. Everywhere there was eating, there was celebration of the feast day.

And when midday came, then there were singing and dancing. Verily they ornamented all the youths, the masters of the youths, the leaders of the youths, the seasoned warriors, the shorn ones, the Otomi. There in the courtyard, in the courtyard of [the Temple of] Witzilopochtli, there was dancing.

The left side of the page shows wreaths of flowers and the Teteoh who were honored at this festival, while the right side shows children dancing around the Xokotl pole. From the Codex Borbonicus.

And those who led were the shorn ones, the great, brave warriors, each of whom was considered [equal to] a battle squadron, who did not hide themselves behind something in war; they who turned [the enemy] back, they who wheeled them around. Also the women danced — not one’s daughters [but] the courtesans, the pleasure girls. They went, each one, between [pairs of the men]; they each went grasped in their hands; they were grasped about the waist. They were all in line; they went all in line; they went winding to and fro. Nowhere did the line break; nowhere were hands loosed. They went in order.

And the singers, those who sang for them, those who beat the drums for them, who beat the ground drums for them, were quite apart, quite to one side. They were against a building, against a round altar [or pyramid]. And the altar was completely round, circular, like a spindle whorl. Against it, by it, stood [the musicians].

And as they danced, they did not keep leaping nor did they make great movements; they did not go making dance gestures; they did not go throwing themselves continually” about, they did not go dancing with arm movements, they did not continually bend their bodies, they did not continually go whirling themselves, they did not keep going from side to side, they did not keep turning their backs.

It was quite quietly, quite calmly, quite evenly that they went going, that they went dancing. Very much as a serpent goeth, as a serpent lieth, was the dance. None disturbed, none intruded, none encircled,’ none broke in.

And those who embraced the women were only the great, brave warriors. But those who were only masters of the youths did not embrace them.

And when there was an end to the dancing, there was only a little sun; already the sun was about to set. There was dispersing, there was going on the part of each one.

And everywhere in the houses, there was singing; there was singing in each one. They sang for their gods: perhaps Omakatl, or Chikome Koatl, or Ehekatl, or Koatl Xoxowki. Over here, over there, there was singing; song was widespread. Cries were widespread; cries were widespread as there was singing. The singing kept reechoing in a great din.

And only the revered old men and the revered old women drank pulque. And he who became really drunk cried out at people or boasted of his manly deeds.”

(Chicano/Nawa/Mazewalli) Archaeologist, filmmaker, and founder of the Chimalli institute of Mesoamerican Arts. Professor of C/S at Colegio Chicano del Pueblo.

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