Courtesans and Carnal Commerce

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

Diego Rivera was clearly fascinated by the riches of the Aztec market at Tlaltelolco. His mural, painted in 1944-1945, visible today on the second floor of the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City, glories in the vibrancy of an imperial economy. Vendors hawk while merchants bicker, counting with upright fingers. Nearby, slave-traders examine the teeth of human stock. Tortillas are there, too, close to belly-up frogs. Dogs, deer, iguana, and fish lie in good order or, like a fat little xolo dog, they mewl and squirm—all soon to be purchased, cooked, and eaten.

Figure 1.  Prostitute in the Market of Tlatelolco, Diego Rivera, 1944-1945, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City (photograph by S. Houston).

Figure 1. Prostitute in the Market of Tlatelolco, Diego Rivera, 1944-1945, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City (photograph by S. Houston).

The most arresting figure, however, is a woman in white (Figure 1). Central to the composition, she hikes her skirt and invites the attention of several leering men. One of them, to upper left, looks like a Rockefeller! At Rivera’s coy insistence, we are all voyeurs. Almost alone in the murals, the woman’s body faces the viewer. Her bright red lipstick, elaborate costume, and long loose hair, described and illustrated in Aztec sources, heighten the wanton allure. Never one for the nuance, Rivera surrounds the lady with an aureole of calla lilies, likely to be Rivera’s coded image for female privates (his portrait of Natasha Zakólkowa Gelman, painted a year earlier, in 1943, uses the same framing device).

Rivera’s lady is, of course, an Aztec prostitute or āhuiyani, someone who gives pleasure but in debased or self-indulgent ways, a “flower woman” (Karttunen 1983:8; McCafferty and McCafferty 2009:198). She “lives in wickedness….she goes about in gaudy dress, drunk, besotted,” “shamelessly, presumptuously, conspicuously washed and combed”; she “sells her body” and “paints her face…her hair falls loose”; she goes “about…in the market place,” “places herself at the market, adorns herself at the market place” (Sahagún 1950-1982 [Book 10]:12, 13, 55, 89). Yet, the stern judgment in these phrases from the Florentine Codex—its main promoter was, after all, a Franciscan—does not offer a complete picture, for such women performed openly in sacred dances with warriors (Sahagún 1950-1982 [Book 2]:93, 98-99, 102, 110; see also Durán 1971:435, in a somewhat opaque source that may refer to more elevated “kept women” who had their own “guardians or duennas”).

Figure 2. Prostitutes in the Florentine Codex, Book 10, f39v.

Figure 2. Prostitutes in the Florentine Codex, Book 10, f39v.

The “harlot” could also comfort a sacrificial captive. She “caressed him….made him forget his sorrows. And when the time came for the bathed one to die, the harlot took everything…[t]hat which he wore he placed upon her; that which he had when he had been living in the likeness of another, had walked with his head high…had gone in high esteem” (Sahagún 1950-1982 [Book 2]:155). A peculiarity, drawn to my attention by Karl Taube, is that depictions of young and older harlots in the Florentine Codex show them standing on water, grasping flowers in one hand and, curiously, the glyph for water in the other (Figure 2). It is possible but, on reflection, unlikely that this sign merely reinforces the first letter in āhuiyani (from ā-tl, “water”). Underfoot, gripped in the hand, the symbols hint at deeper and more complex meaning.

For a Mayanist, this evidence raises an obvious question. Did such women exist in the Classic period? And, if so, what ambivalences, if any, surround such commercialization of the female body? Most treatments of female identity among the ancient or Colonial Maya do not mention prostitutes (e.g., Joyce 2000) or allude to them in secondary citations (Ardren 2008:8). One source does describe the prostitute in Yucatan but as a being “constructed as an ethnic outsider and an enemy” and, in the Books of Chilam Balam, a figure whose very label is an insult to be thrown at others (Sigal 2000:68, 223).

Yet the early dictionaries refer widely to such figures. For a rapid cull of terms:

Colonial Tzendal (Ara 1986:319, 504): Most terms relate to adultery or fornication but also, when postfixed by xichoc (“man”), to sodomy.

putañero                                lav
putañear                                lael

Colonial Tzotzil (Laughlin 1988, I:221, 253, 263-264): roots based on sexual penetration (kob) and, perhaps, scourging (maj) and “lust” (mul), with the added nuance of concubinage.

whore                                    ‘ix ta majel; kobvan; majavil ‘antz
whoremaster                        mulavil xinch’ok

Colonial Yukatek (Bolles 2001): associated with agouti or hares (tzub), the latter a well-known attribute of the Moon Goddess and a symbol of procreation. For tzub, the meaning is quite explicit: “la muger mala de su cuerpo ora sea publica ora no…Ah con tzubul: puta que ella se comvida y vende” (Bolles 2001); ya’om ties to pregnancy.

manceba (concubine)           tzub
mala mujer de su cuerpo     ya’om
puta pública                           ix kakbach

It could be that these words express a purely colonial preoccupation, a priestly concern for rooting out vice and controlling sexuality. By that view, little prostitution existed before the Spaniards. Such words merely reflected the prurience of missionary minds. But this cannot be the whole story. Speaking of young men, not long after the Conquest, Diego de Landa refers to the wide use of prostitutes: “bad public women”…“who happen to ply this trade among this people, although they received pay for it, were besieged by such a great number of young men, that they were harassed to death” (Tozzer 1941:125). Possibly, as some suggest for the Aztec evidence, the Colonial sources conflated a more accepted Pre-Columbian practice of marketable sex with later versions seen in negative light (Arvey 1988; McCafferty and McCafferty 2009:200). As to price, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, writing of Nicaragua, records that the going rate for such acts was 8 to 10 beans of chocolate (Tozzer 1941: 95fn417). To put this in perspective, buying a slave was only 10 times that much (ibid). In all likelihood, sex work was a lucrative business throughout Mesoamerica.

Figure 3.  SE-SI Scene, Chiik Nahb Structure Sub 1-4 (drawing by Simon Martin, Proyecto Arqueológico Calakmul, Ramón Carrasco, Director).

Figure 3. SE-SI Scene, Chiik Nahb Structure Sub 1-4 (drawing by Simon Martin, Proyecto Arqueológico Calakmul, Ramón Carrasco, Director).

For the Maya, a key piece of evidence came to light with the discovery of the Chiik Nahb murals at Calakmul, most of which date to the 7th century AD (Carrasco Vargas and Cordeiro Baqueiro 2012; Martin 2012). Concerned with trade, these paintings appear within what must have been a market facility built at the height of competition between the great cities of Calakmul and Tikal (Carrasco Vargas and Cordeiro Baqueiro 2012:Figure 2; for the standard source on this conflict, see Martin and Grube 2000:104-111). The viewer wonders at the erotic beauty of the serving ladies, their body paint, their jade jewelry. The women pour drinks, offer atole while dressed, at times, in diaphanous clothing that reveals breasts, areola, and plump thighs (Figure 3).

Figure 4. Vending lady (drawing by Karl Taube, after Dieseldorff 1926:pl. 8, no. 28).

Figure 4. Vending lady (drawing by Karl Taube, after Dieseldorff 1926:pl. 8, no. 28).

It is difficult to avoid the sense that the woman offer hospitality and welcome accommodation or participate in marketing, but in subtly sexualized ways. Karl Taube has noted similar trading ladies in figurines from the Alta Verapaz, also bejeweled, gowns slung low, hair carefully coiffed (Figure 4; Houston et al. 2006:110, fig. 3.4). Vending women have been seen, too, in other traditions of Lowland Maya figurines (Halperin 2014:fig. 3.36). Many wear hats, perhaps to show that they came from far distances, but possibly to protect a delicate complexion. They both are and are not a standard vendor, involved in trade yet outfitted in ways that appear anomalous.

Unfortunately, the glyphs associated with the principal lady in the Calakmul paintings, the “Lady in Blue,” resist easy decipherment (Martin 2012:78-79). A more overt example of “good time gals,” from a bowl dating to about AD 600 may connect to a term for “water-place,” IX-HA’?-NAL (Figure 5, Coe 1978:pl. 11; Houston et al. 2006:fig. 5.18). These women, certain to be goddesses, service older deities. They stroke their sides, fan faces or hold up mirrors while the men daub their mouths or faces. Most carry exactly the same name—a token of shared identity?—or use a sparse description, IX, “female.” The watery attribute of Aztec prostitutes seems more than a coincidence. It may reflect some widespread notion of “watery women” or “women of watery locales” whose sexual behavior differed, in unsettling, less controllable ways, from that of other ladies.

Figure 5. Supernatural ladies of pleasure (K530, photograph © Justin Kerr, Coe 1978:pl. 11).

Figure 5. Supernatural ladies of pleasure (K530, photograph © Justin Kerr, Coe 1978:pl. 11).

Another term occurs with paramours of God L on the celebrated “Princeton Vase” (K511, Coe 1978:pl. 1). Repainted in parts, their glyphic labels involve two securely deciphered signs, IX, “lady,” and NAAH, “building”—the finale female, just by God L, is described as one of “five” (HO’) such women, quite a harem. The less clear sign is the head variant of the number “two.” It could read CHA’, suggesting a homophone for “metate,” cha’, thus linking the ladies to a gendered place, a “house of grinding stones.” But there is another possibility. The head variant has a human fist, fingers obscured, atop the head of a youth or young woman. The fist corresponds exactly to the glyph for OCH, “enter” (Stuart 1998:fig. 8) and may spell out a term for “entered” (“penetrated”?) lady. Thus, by this second analysis: IX-OCH-‘Female’-NAAH, “lady of the entered/penetrated-female house”…or “brothel.” Still, it is unclear how this would relate to a semblant deity name on Palenque’s Tablet of Temple XIV:C9.

The main point is that these women are unlikely to be spouses. A plausible view is that they traffic in generous reception and consumption, with more than a hint of physical favors to come. Two ideas arise. The first is that, at Calakmul the Lady in Blue embodied, if not a real historical person, then the essence of gracious hospitality. Or, as a bolder suggestion and a nod to the eroticism of the murals, she operated as an exemplary or deified procuress, patronized rather than punished by the state, a facilitator who attracted other kinds of business. She labored, it seems, away from direct male supervision; she took charge. There was no partner, no husband. In one image, a young woman, a mere drab, perhaps a unique depiction of a Maya slave, served as her assistant (Figure 2). The Florentine Codex says of the procuress: “She is of a house…She induces, seduces with words, incites with others. Adroit of language, skilled of speech, she is a fraud…She receives guests. She secures recompense, payment from others. She robs one—she constantly robs one” (Sahagún 1950-1982 [Book 10]:94). However, if present at Calakmul, such a woman discharged a role of dignity and importance.

What to make of the scenes at Calakmul? According to a recent, cross-cultural review, compensated or venal sex tends to divide by practitioner, ranging from streetwalkers and occupants of brothels to “well-educated and often financially secure” courtesans (Harnett and Dawdy 2013:43). Eroticized entertainment did not always lead to consummation. As an exalted outlier, the geisha or geiko of Japan seldom—at least in the ideal—consorted sexually with clients, especially after the system began to coalesce in the 18th century (Downer 2006:223). Whatever the status, sex workers left archaeological signatures in the form of cells or “cribs,” characteristic forms of consumption, such as “alcohol and luxury food consumption…in binge economies,” and, “in the case of high-end prostitutes, an investment in wearable wealth” (Harnett and Dawdy 2013:46). Indeed, a sexual purpose may explain the buildings with tightly packed, benched rooms near sweatbaths at Piedras Negras (e.g., Structure O-3; Child 2006:fig. 4.23; also Houston et al. 2006:117, fig. 3.13). Globally, the cultural impact was great. An entire volume of comparative scholarship extols the arts of the courtesan, from music to poetry and dance (Feldman and Gordon 2006).

Prostitution has been described as the “oldest profession” and as the “oddest,” an “illicit commerce in which it is the labor performed, rather than goods or distribution system, that is the object of state control” (Harnett and Dawdy 2013:43). Yet how “illicit” was such commerce? In Roman Pompeii, prostitution was quite “licit” if heavily exploitative (McGinn 2004:261-262). At the least, there is evidence of ambivalence. In Edo Japan, various shogun or city officials tried to restrict the “floating world,” the demi-monde of sex workers, musicians, and actors, to sectors like Yoshiwara, near modern-day Asukasa in Tokyo (Screech 1999:53). But this was not because of disdain for sex. The most likely reason was curtailment of possible places for intrigue or periodic anxiety that the values of the “floating world” would soften society.

Figure 6. A courtesan with pulque or enema jar? (Princeton Art Museum, Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund 2005-65 a-b, K8489, photograph © Justin Kerr).

Figure 6. A courtesan with pulque or enema jar? (Princeton Art Museum, Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund 2005-65 a-b, K8489, photograph © Justin Kerr).

More the point, the “Lady in Blue” raises basic matters of identification. Scholars often refer to “noble” ladies or “idealized elite” women and goddesses in imagery of the Classic Maya period. This applies to Jaina figurines, too (O’Neil 2012:409). But what if an entire category of Maya society has been overlooked? As Michael Coe observes, the females participating in enema rituals could have been ladies of pleasure (personal communication, 2014). Consider the fully-modeled container at the Princeton Art Museum, with its flower-markings, elaborate dress, and loudly painted lips and forehead (Figure 6). Or the Early Classic scene on an enema pot from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (#1993.441) and tapaderas on Early Classic food bowls (K1550, K189). Then there is the image, from the Princeton Art Museum, of an elaborately dressed woman giving an enema to a trader (Figure 7). Could “elite” ornament or jewelry only have been the commissions of dynastic figures and other nobles? Or, consistent with cross-cultural data, were some baubles ordered in quantity by courtesans?

Sex work has its own history. As one example from archaic Greece, the high-status hetaira—the most polished of courtesans—was probably fashioned under the impetus of aristocratic males, who sought to redefine their own masculinity by interaction with such females (Kurke 1997). Through women’s bodies and, tragically, through their abuse, men worked out what it meant to be men (Glazebrook and Henry 2011:9). Perhaps this same aestheticized redefinition of roles affected the “pretty ladies” of the Classic period.

Figure 7. Enema scene with traders (The Princeton Art Museum, Princeton, NJ PUMA# y1998-451, K1550, photograph © Justin Kerr).

Figure 7. Enema scene with traders (The Princeton Art Museum, Princeton, NJ PUMA# y1998-451, K1550, photograph © Justin Kerr).

The curious feature of the Calakmul evidence is its contrast with Rome, which was less involved in direct control of sex work and accorded it some degree of “autonomy” (McGinn 2004:263). If correctly identified, the practices shown there and elsewhere bear the heavy impress of polity. The building in which the murals were found can only have been a royal commission, involving painters and scribes of the highest and most inventive attainment. This was no casual commerce but a systematic use of female bodies for dynastic advancement.

Acknowledgements: Mike Coe, Simon Martin, and Karl Taube were most helpful with comments

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