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What Was Hygiene Like In The Aztec Empire?

The Aztec, a collective of Mesoamericans who thrived from the 14th to the 16th centuries, were the inheritors of ancient cultural traditions from their Olmec, Mayan, and Toltec predecessors. Aztec hygiene practices reflected earlier practice, continuing a dedication to cleanliness and purity. 

When Spanish conquerors first encountered the Aztec peoples during the early 16th century, they were amazed by their techniques for keeping themselves and their surroundings clean. A stark contrast to European practices at the time, the Aztec empire went to great lengths to provide clean water to the masses, rid the air of perceived pollutants, and use natural ingredients to promote health and hygiene.

Interwoven with physical and spiritual concerns and considerations, Aztec personal hygiene exceeded expectations of contemporaries and modern observers alike. 

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  • They Had Intricate Canal Systems To Transport Clean Potable Water Around Communities

    They Had Intricate Canal Systems To Transport Clean Potable Water Around Communities
    Photo: Diego Duran / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Aztec peoples were aware of how important water was to all aspects of life, a consideration that contributed to the development of a canals system in the empire's major cities. In Tenochtitlan, for example, canals not only supplied residents with water, they were also built for movement. Conquistador Hernan Cortes commented that Tenochtitlan was big with wide and narrow streets alongside "half canals where they paddle their canoes." 

    Canals that brought fresh water for personal use were lined with plaster, matched by accompanying networks to remove human waste and other detritus. Cortes noted:

    Along one of the causeways to this great city run two aqueducts made of mortar. Each one is two paces wide and some six feet deep, and along one of them a stream with very good fresh water, as wide as man's body, flows into the heart of the city and from this they all drink. The other, which is empty, is used when they wish to clean the first canals.

    Canals and aqueducts effectively kept fresh and salt water separate, essential for both individual use and irrigation purposes.  

     

  • Many Aztec Homes Were Equipped With Steam Baths Called Temazcal

    Another benefit of the extensive water system in Aztec cities was the inclusion of baths in private homes. While most Aztecs took cold baths, they also participated in steam baths for ritual purposes.

    An Aztec temazcal was a steam lodge - an enclosure with no windows that featured a heated floor dashed with cold water - built in accordance with long-standing Mesoamerican practice. A temazcal was used for purification of the body after physical conflict to aid in healing, cure an illness, or serve as a site for women to bear children. 

    The goddess of the steam bath was Temazcalteci, a deity whose image was kept on display nearby. Tlazolteotl, the Filth Goddess, protected the entrance to the temazcal, overseeing the process by which people rid themselves of physical and spiritual grime. 

  • Aztecs Created Natural Soaps And Detergents From Several Local Plants

    Aztecs Created Natural Soaps And Detergents From Several Local Plants
    Photo: Florentine Codex/Gary Francisco Keller, artwork created under supervision of Bernardino de Sahagún between 1540-1585. / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Aztecs didn't have soap in the modern sense of the word, but they did embrace the cleansing properties of numerous plants. Roots and fruit from the copalxocotl, called the "soap tree" by the Spanish, produced a lather that could be used to clean the body and clothing alike. The xiuhamolli, also called the amolli, plant had similar properties.

    One additional plant, the amolli, was described as, "long and narrow like reeds. It has a shoot; its flower is white. It is a cleanser. The large, the thick [roots] remove one’s hair, make one bald; the small, the slender ones are cleansers, a soap. They wash, they cleanse, they remove the filth."

    The general population during the month of Atemoztli - the 16th month of the solar calendar during which the rains fell by the grace of Tlaloc - and merchants who were traveling for long periods of time often avoided bathing their hair, body, and clothing with the detergent-like natural byproducts as a sign of sacrifice and penance. Similarly, women didn't wash their faces while men were away fighting. The value of cleanliness was practical and ritualistic. Sacrificial prisoners were even given a bath before they met their end. 

  • They Used Perfumes And Deodorants To Eliminate Foul Odors

    They Used Perfumes And Deodorants To Eliminate Foul Odors
    Photo: Bernardino de Sahagún / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    According to the Badianus Manuscript, an herbal text from 1552, Aztecs had acute concern for underarm odor:

    When smelly and goaty, let him enter a very well prepared bath and there wash the armpits thoroughly; coming out let him also bathe; for this take the [pulverized] plants chiyavaxihuitl, a human and a dog's bone recently removed from the body, and the juice of all well smelling flowers and plants, with which the hircine odor will be dispelled.

    Aztecs also applied deodorants to keep body odor away, using ingredients like copal gum, amber oil, and balsam oil. Women wore perfume, presumably similar to the concoction applied to sick and injured individuals. To overcome "the fetid odor of the infirm," patients were anointed with a perfume made of flowers, pine needles, and fruit

    The Aztec burned incense as well, especially priests during religious rituals

  • A Clean Face And Clean Clothes Were Essential For Maintaining Purity And Finding A Husband

    A Clean Face And Clean Clothes Were Essential For Maintaining Purity And Finding A Husband
    Photo: Florentine Codex/Gary Francisco Keller, artwork created under supervision of Bernardino de Sahagún between 1540 and 1585 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Remaining clean and pure was the ideal way to find a husband, according to the Florentine Codex, a work by Spanish Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagun from the 16th century. As one of the few firsthand accounts of Aztec society, the Codex contains insights into cultural traditions in the Aztec world, including this guidance a father offers to his young daughter:

    [In the morning] wash your face, wash your hands, clean your mouth... Listen to me, child: Never make up your face nor paint it; never put red on your mouth to look beautiful. Make-up and paint are things that light women use - shameless creatures. If you want your husband to love you, dress well, wash yourself, and wash your clothes.

    According to Sahagun, courtesans - women who dressed and groomed herself "in order to please" - used makeup and perfumes, including "a yellow cream called axin, which gives her a dazzling complexion; and sometimes, being a loose, lost woman, she puts on rouge."

    In truth, women did often wear some makeup, although in moderation. The most common cosmetic was axin, a yellow mud of sorts spread on the skin. 

  • Health Care On The Front Lines Was Praised By Spanish Observers

    Health Care On The Front Lines Was Praised By Spanish Observers
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    According to a contemporary chronicle, "Aztec [field] surgeons tended to their wounded skillfully and healed them faster than did the Spanish surgeons."

    The care administered on the field carried over to everyday life. Priests and healers practicing surgeries and bloodletting rituals to promote health also distributed treatments made out of oils, herbs, and other natural products to heal cuts of all kinds.

    Aztec healers trained in using herbal remedies to treat everything from headaches to coughs to low-grade infections. For example, juice from the nopal cactus fruit  - the tuna - was used to reduce swelling, and bark from the ylin tree was mixed with wax, egg, and other herbs to treat inflammation and fever. 

    They used hair to suture cuts and scrapes, and Friar Bernardino de Sahagun described a casting process:

    The broken bones were carefully set and the limb placed between splints of wood, tied tightly with cord. A plaster then was applied to the break, composed of gum of the ocozotl tree and resin and feathers. The limb and the splints together were encased in a second covering of rubber-like gum.