Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Aztec Advice for my Children

Yeah, yeah, I know. The ancient Aztecs are, perhaps, not the first source that comes to mind as role models for parenting advice. Most people are acquainted with the Aztecs, or Mexica, as the Bad Guys from the story of the Conquest, and the primary image seems to be of them gleefully ripping out millions of still-beating hearts in gory, gruesome sacrifices.

The truth, of course, is far more complex. The Aztecs actually had an amazing society that was, in many respects, far superior (yes, I know it is subjective) to the European societies of the same era. Their legal system was impressive, they were the first society in the world that we know of to provide universal education for boys and girls (it wasn't until the 20th century that the US made educating girls a legal requirement), and their poetry and literature is some of the richest, most beautiful ever written.

Before any formal schooling, Mexica children were taught by their parents. Parents concentrated on teaching character, but the children also had many chores around the house. Boys learned to carry water and wood, and girls were taught to weave. The most important part of the early education, however, was learning the principle of self-control. This is some of the counsel that they gave their children:

Listen now, because I want to tell you how you will know to have worth in this world, how to come before god so that he will be merciful to you. For this I tell you that those who weep and afflict themselves and sigh and pray, who day and night seek his will with all their hearts, who sweep the streets and clean their homes and prepare the places where god is served with sacrifices and offerings, and those who are careful to offer incense to god—those who do this will enter into the presence of god and will become his friends, and receive mercy from him, and he will open up to you his heart, to give you riches and honor and prosperity, but this is because our god finds it good to be merciful, and not because you deserve it.

The only important thing is to become a friend of god—god who is everywhere, invisible and untouchable, the one who gives you a heart and a body. Watch that you do not slip off the path, be careful that you are not presumptuous. Watch that you do not think of yourself more highly than you should, but do not despise yourself either, and do not let your heart be troubled. Rather, be humble in your heart and have hope in god…

The second thing that you must note is to have peace with everyone. Do not be disrespectful to anyone. Respect everyone, and do not offend others. … Do not act as if you know everything. Be humble regardless of what others say of you, and do not answer back, even if they insult you. … Be patient and humble yourselves, for god sees you and he will respond on your behalf. Be humble with everyone and you will find mercy with god and he will honor you and lift you up.

The third thing that you must take care to note is not to waste the time that god gives you in this world. Do not waste the day or the night, because it is necessary, just as maintaining the body is. At all times sigh and pray to god, ask him for the things that you need. Occupy yourselves in doing things that will benefit you day and night—do not misuse or waste the time. Anyone who does all these things will find great good for himself and will live a long time on the earth.

A similar admonition, directed specifically to the daughters, states:

Here you are, my beloved little daughter, my necklace of fine stones...you are my blood, made in my image. You have been sent to earth by our lord, the owner of all, who created all people, who invented humanity. Now that you can see for yourself, realize this: don’t be vain or go through life without direction…listen, I have done all I can to make you understand that you are noble. See yourself as a precious thing, even when you are only a little woman….Be careful not to dishonor yourself…and as long as you live on the earth, you will truly be a beloved lady.

I apologize for the choppy translation--it was done quickly and not revised. If you are interested in more of this, I recommend anything by Miguel Leon-Portilla, Jacques Soustelle's classic on Daily Life of the Aztecs, Angel de Garibay's work on Aztec literature, and of course, Sahagun, with my usual apologies regarding accent marks.

No comments: