"I cannot sleep unless I am surrounded by books."


Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Meaning of Amoxcalli

I’ve been getting a few questions on how to pronounce and spell my blog name AmoXcalli so I decided to give a little Aztec/Mexica culture lesson 101 from the indigenous point of view.

An Aztec book showing the folds

The Aztec people were called the Mexica before the Spanish Conquest. The name Azteca was given to them by the Spanish conquistadores. From what I’ve been told by my family and fellow Aztec dancers is that as the Spanish were coming over a mountain and they pointed and asked the indigenous people who the people were that lived over that mountain. The people said, the Azteca – meaning the feather workers who lived there, the Spanish took it to mean the people as a whole and the name stuck. We call ourselves the Mexica, which is pronounced Meh shee ka. The letter X in Nahuatl (the Mexica language at the time of the conquest and still in use by over a million people in Mexico today) is also soft, almost like a whisper. Ssh. So if you’re saying flower Xochitl – you say Sho sheetl – the l at the end kind of get thrown to the back of your throat.

Aztec pictographs for the days on the calendar

Nahuatl is an accentuated language, where the emphasis occurs on the adjacent syllable of the last syllable. Nahuatl is what is called a Uto-Aztecan language. The majority of speakers live in central Mexico, particularly in Puebla, Veracruz, Hildago, San Luis Potosi, Guerrero, Mexico (state), El Distrito Federal, Tlaxcala, Morelos and Oaxaca, and also in El Salvador. There are smaller numbers of Nahuatl speakers throughout the rest of Mexico, and in parts of the USA. There are numerous dialects of Nahuatl.

One of the few existing Aztec codices

Classical Nahuatl was the language of the Mexica people, also called the Aztec Empire and was used as a lingua franca in much of Mesoamerica from the 7th century AD until the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. The modern dialects of Nahuatl spoken in the Valley of Mexico are closest to Classical Nahuatl.

An Amate tree

Nahuatl was originally written in pictograph script and was often carved on stone or painted into books made of Amatl paper. Amatl paper was made from the bark of the amate tree and is still made in the traditional way today in various parts of Mexico. The Spanish called these books Codices or Codex and they destroyed most during the Conquest. The books were considered sacred and were filled with histories, knowledge of herbal medicine, astronomy, ritual, surgery and so much more that is lost forever. The books were folded accordion style and were read back to front, right to left. Sometimes they were written on animal skin, but usually with the Amatl paper. A book was called Amox (ah mosh) and a house was called Calli. Together Amoxcalli means library or literally book house.

This gives you a good idea of the detail within a codex and a sense of what we've lost.

Whole libraries were burnt to the ground and almost every codex or book destroyed during the Conquest. The few that remain are stored in museums in other countries like other important historical things from that era. For example, Montezuma's quetzal feather headdress resides in a museum in Austria. Aztec dancers like myself and other Mexicans have been protesting for years to have it and the codices returned to Mexico.

This is the Aztec pictograph for Amoxcalli.


Cloudscome said...

Thank you for this! You ought to put a permanent link to this explanation in your sidebar. Everyone ought to learn this history! It is a shame, what we don't even know we lost.

Gina MarySol Ruiz said...

You're welcome! That's a great idea and I will set that up soon.


am0x said...

Hi Gina
Being Amox my last name, it has always a common question to explain it's origins. Having been born in Veracruz, Mexico, this seems to be the most plausible explanation.
As a curious thing, I've seen it as a last name in the US too, but no connection seems to exist.