During the course of the sixteenth century, the Aztec (or Mexica) city of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco (present-day Mexico City) was transformed from a sweet-smelling lacustrine city into a foul one, the direct result of the Spanish invasion (1519–21). This article reconstructs both the sources of odors and culturally situated ideas about smell among the city’s Nahuatl-speaking residents. They are opposed to the ideas about smell held by settler colonists, derived from the framework of Hippocratic medicine. These imported ideas about acceptable smells (like those of urban slaughterhouses) and dangerous smells (swamps) came to have disastrous consequences as they played out in the unique environment of the Basin of Mexico.
From the first appearance of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco in European records in the early sixteen century, the odors of the Aztec (or Mexica) city now known as Mexico City aroused the interests of the conquistadors. They contrasted the fragrance coming from the well-tended surrounding lakes to the stench from the sacrifices at the central temples (Cortés 1969: 50; Díaz del Castillo 2008: 156). They filtered their perceptions through their own cultural lenses to make sense of the strange new world they encountered. Their reactions to the odors—delight in the pleasantly fragrant city, horror in rank sacrificial residues—provided the basic road map for the actions they would take over the course of the Spanish invasion (1519–21) and subsequent decades, proof positive of what Constance Classen, David Howes, and Anthony Synnott (1994: 3) have posited: “Odors are invested with cultural values and employed by societies as a means of and model for defining and interacting with the world.”
However, the smellscape of longtime residents of the island of Mexico, comprising the āltepētl (city-states) of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco and part of one of the largest urban complexes in the world in 1500, has received scant attention, despite the city’s long historiography and the proposition that smellscapes guided the ways people interacted with one another and their environment. This historic smellscape, as I construe it, has three facets. The first is the “odor profile” of a place, that is, the identifiable odors produced by the environment and human activity, which often can be reconstructed using historical sources. The second is the values attached to those odors, making them “smells.” Odors have no meanings in and of themselves, whereas smells are the product of a specific interpretive community (Engen 1991: 117). Among the Nahua, like their Spanish counterparts, smells were seen to have effects on the human constitution, and thus these generated a third facet of the smellscape: their socially held idea of positive or beneficial smells, which provided an impetus for them to create or maintain a positive-smelling environment. A smellscape can be thought of as the olfactory analog to a landscape, which is the ideational perception of a piece of land, whose parameters (be they poetic or visual) and reception are culturally determined, and whose desired form pushes human agents toward its realization. Unlike the landscape, where the cognitive source is vision, the smellscape is olfactory and thus is shaped by different cognitive features, as I explore below. But like the landscape, the smellscape also has agency, shaping a community’s interactions with one another and with the spaces around them in the quest for ideal states. In this article, I attempt to reconstruct the odor profile of the pre-Hispanic city as well as how those odors might have been interpreted (as smells) by the city’s urban residents. I use both pictorial and textual source material in an attempt to grapple with the extremely limited archive of this evanescent sensorial experience. Despite the fleeting nature of individual odors, I propose that the smellscape would have been a powerful source of collective identity for the residents of the island who shared a habituation to the smells around them.
In the decades following the Spanish invasion, the city’s odor profile changed dramatically. One feature of high-impact colonization was the rapid imposition of European urban principles, which led to an entirely transformed odor profile for the city: an indigenous smellscape was displaced by a Spanish one. As the commemoration of the invasion leads us to think afresh about the events of those years and their consequences, this article draws attention to the importance of the smellscape as an element in collective identification and to its flip side, alienation. Documenting its dramatic transformation in the two decades following the invasion and beyond allows me to propose that our understanding of the rather generically painted “trauma” of indigenous peoples can be brought to sharper focus by understanding a short-term, and devastating, experience of the city’s vast indigenous population: sensory alienation. In addition, the long-term effect of the imposition of a European smellscape has ecological consequences that persist today.
The Odor Profile of Tenochtitlan
Period maps help in the difficult reconstruction of the probable sources of odor in the pre-Hispanic city (such as markets); the foundational work by historians of ecology allows us to understand the city’s unusual lacustrine environment, the source of much of its very particular odor profile (Palerm 1973; Rojas Rabiela, Strauss, and Lameiras 1974). The city sat in a shallow inland sea comprised of different lakes, whose distinctions were clear in the dry season. A series of causeways and dikes mostly built under Mexica rulers in the fifteenth century controlled water levels within this inland sea. These barriers protected the city from flooding during the rainy season. They also separated the salty waters of Lake Tetzcoco to the east from the sweeter waters of the Laguna of Mexico to the west and cordoned off the sweet waters of the lakes of Chalco and Xochimilco in the south. The lagunas and lakes had different smell profiles. Francisco López de Gómara (1964: 159) reported that “the lake on which Mexico is situated is, although it seems to be one, is really two, very different from each other, for one [Lake Tetzcoco] is saline, bitter and stinking, and has no fish in it, while the other [the Laguna of Mexico] is of sweet water and does have fish, although they are very small.”
Crucial to the system were canals. Some cut into the lake bed, and others ran through the city. During the rainy season they allowed waters flooding into the Basin from the western hills to sluice through the city into lower-lying Lake Tetzcoco to the east. Many features of the system are documented in the Mapa Uppsala, a map of the city created ca. 1537–42 by indigenous artists (fig. 1). Oriented with the west at top, the map enlarges the island city dramatically in relation to the surrounding lakes. Despite this cartographic distortion, it is highly precise in documenting many of the man-made features that allowed the island residents to coexist with the seasonal fluctuations of the surrounding lakes. The map shows the two major dikes, both named for rulers, Ahuitzotl and Nezahualcoyotl, that protected the city from saltwater floods, as well as the major canals cutting through the city. Many of these water-roads continued into the lake bed, where intensely colored blue pigment was used to show the system of passages that had been dredged out of the lake bed. During the dry season, these deep-cut canals allowed canoes to continue to travel from outlying agricultural zones to provision the city; their maintenance was part of the tribute obligations of Basin residents.
Bodies of sweet water lay to the south and west of the city, and their cleanliness was a continued preoccupation of the urban community. Human waste was carefully collected daily (for use as fertilizer and mordants) and thus was kept out of the lakes and the canals that traversed the city (Becerril and Jiménez 2007; Harvey 1981). Agriculture employing chināmitl (raised beds, or chinampas) was practiced intensively in the sweet water lakes of Chalco and Xochimilco, and it produced its own odors. To make chināmitl, organic matter from the bottom of a lake was piled into raised beds, and the borders of these muddy beds were secured by small trees (chināmitl means “fence” to describe the anchoring arbor). Rich with microscopic bacteria that were breaking down organic matter, chināmitl were odiferous.
As in other lacustrine environments, odors from the surrounding lakes varied, waning and waxing with the seasons. When water levels fell during the dry months of November through April, the edges of the shallow lakes would revert to swamps, shown on the Mapa Uppsala in the reedy littoral, and potent swamp odors would fill the air. In particularly dry years, dust from the lake bed would become airborne. One of the common Nahuatl words to describe strong smells was potōni. From it comes potōnqui, which means both “strong-smelling thing” and “dry dust,” perhaps deriving from the cycles of the lake, of which the residents of the region were keenly aware (Karttunen 1983: 203–4; Molina  1970: 83v).
Odors from two enormous tiānquiztli (markets, corrupted to tianguis) on the urbanized island would have permeated the streets around. The great tiānquiztli of Tenochtitlan was admiringly described by Cortés (1969: 62–64); praised in the 1555 narrative of Francisco Cervantes de Salazar (1953: 58), this immense market contained the products that “the earth brings forth,” and among its fragrant wonders were “aji [chile], beans, Persian pears [avocados], guavas, mameyes, zapotes, camotes, gícamas, cacmites, mesquites, tunas, gilotes, xocotes, and other fruits of this nature.” A map created of this same tiānquiztli, likely a copy from a late sixteenth-century original, shows its careful organization well after the invasion (fig. 2). The tiānquiztli is shown divided into eight rectangular sections, and each section is separated by passageways that lead to the hexagonal fountain at the market’s center (Mundy 2015: 84–94). Each of the blocks is carefully divided into stalls, and words and small images in each show that sellers of similar goods were grouped together, also noted in conquistador accounts. The images of products for sale give us a more precise estimation of the odors of the market. Oriented with the south at top, the map shows the most odorific zones as falling along the market’s south and eastern edges, that is, to the top and left-hand sides of the map. At the middle-left edge, a plant with a prominent root and the word quilnamacaque, “vegetable vendor,” is set adjacent to a stall with two cups, showing the frothing technique for the cacao drinks, labeled hatlaq∼tzali (ātlaquetzalli), for the “foamy chocolate” sold there. Above are the meat and fish merchants (michnamacaque), and the smell of their wares would have filled the air around. Above the fish sellers are the tobacco sellers, and at the upper center the sellers of ducks and waterfowl would have set out their wares. From the southwest corner of the market, or the upper-right edge of the map, would emanate the smell of chiles, the spicy capsicum, that were grown in dozens of varieties. The distinct smells of cooking foods would have also permeated the city at large—the basic foodstuff, the tortilla, was cooked over a griddle heated by a small wood fire, and the quotidian miasma of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco, as in small Mexican towns today, was the odor of wood smoke and toasty maize as well as roasted chiles.
A concentrated but intense source of odor would have come from the city’s central Templo Mayor, where the blood of sacrificial victims was left on altars and temple façades, and sometimes body parts were displayed as trophies or human skins were cached. On entering one of the temple complexes, Bernal Díaz del Castillo (2008: 178) recounted the smell: “The walls were so clotted with blood,” he wrote, “and the soil so bathed with it that in the slaughterhouses of Spain there is not such another stench.” Archeologists have revealed that the processing of humans and animals to prepare them to be cached or displayed also took place here (Chávez Balderas 2017). The nodes of main markets and temples are mapped in figure 3, which reveals how these odor centers were distributed in the city. Their locations, along with the chināmitl zones to the south and west, suggest that island residents could orient themselves in the densely populated city by its odors alone.
The Interpretation of Smell
Odors lie at the base of the smellscape, but they also involve the culturally grounded interpretation of those odors as smells. “To a human being,” the psychologist Trygg Engen (1991: 117) wrote, “the meaning of an odor is determined by its environmental associations, whether they be a person, an event, an object.” As social animals, human beings do not attach meanings to odors in a vacuum—their interpretation, whether they are masculine or feminine, desirable or not, along with hedonic judgments about them, is mostly culturally determined. Reactions to odors are culturally specific to this day: the odor of durian fruit, described by some as akin to rotting flesh, is savored by others. Moreover, odors perceived as benign may actually smell less strong than those perceived as toxic (Distel et al. 1999). In the case of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco’s residents, vocabulary and images—in their iconography and use of pigment—help reconstruct their interpretations of odors as smells.
Nahuatl vocabulary expresses hedonic judgments: potōni meant “to smell strong” or “bad,” whereas good smells were described by ahhuiāya, “to be fragrant” (Karttunen 1983: 6, 203; Molina  1970: 9v). To smell something was ihnecui, and at its root was an unattested verb ihī, “to breathe” (Karttunen 1983: 99). Words containing it were frequently translated by the Franciscan Alonso de Molina in negative terms: ihyāya, “to stink,” and the related ihyāca, “something foul or stinking,” and ihyācxihuitl, “stinking plant or grass” (Karttunen 1983: 102). But since the latter is the Nahuatl term for the fragrant night jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum), the translation of ihyāya into “stink,” a Spanish (and English) “bad” smell category, may reflect Spanish judgments, a by-product of the culturally relative nature of smell. Instead, in a Nahua context, ihyāya seemed to mark strong odors rather than bad ones.
Certain powerful odors were important, and their nature as smells was bound up in the ways the Nahua of the sixteenth century conceived of the body (López Austin 1984).1 They associated many of the odors of animate beings with the ihīyotl (breath, respiration), an internal animating force that entered a body upon birth and was present through one’s lifetime, with greater force in some than others. It is part of the complex of words related to the unattested verb ihī. Jill Leslie McKeever Furst (1995: 141, 156) describes ihīyotl as “wind, light, and odor,” but she also points out that one’s ihīyotl could have a powerful odor, manifesting as flatulence. Alfredo López Austin (1984, 1:260) described the ihīyotl as like “a luminous gas that had properties that could influence other beings,” either for good or for harm. Some smells, in other words, were perceptible extensions of the human body.
Powerful smells indexed a powerful ihīyotl, and one possessor was the indigenous priest. The Codex Mendoza, created in Mexico City around 1545 as a guide to Mexica history and lifeways for a Spanish audience, dedicates the top register of one of its pages (fol. 63r) to the ritual practices of indigenous priests (fig. 4). The text identifies the men as alfaqui mayores (a Spanish term for an Islamic cleric, derived from Arabic) to describe the teōpixqueh (god-keepers). Three of them are shown across the page; the one at the left is accompanied by a smaller-sized novice. The three teōpixqueh have long hair, tied at the nape of the neck, and the area around their ears is painted bright red. The leftmost one, who wears over his loincloth the white short-sleeved jerkin of priests, holds an identifying accouterment: a decorated bag used to carry incense, which he burns in the long-handled ceramic vessel held in his extended right hand, with leaf-like plumes extending upward into the text. These distinct forms may have been meant to show the particular smell of the copal incense, not just generic smoke: Élodie Dupey García (2017: 135–42) has argued that similar volutes in pre-Hispanic codices were specifically meant to show the odor of the burnt offerings, as the smoke carried it to its intended deity recipient.
If the imagery of the first priest underscores emanations that produce odors, that of the second and third does the same with sounds and sights. The figure at the center raises his rubber-tipped mallets to play the teponāztli (drum), set in front of him, as small brilliant turquoise scrolls emerge from his mouth, indicating song. As the figure at the right looks out to see the night sky that hovers above him, his sight is indicated by a small, disembodied eye connected to his face with a dotted line, showing a bodily connection to the stars themselves, which were thought of, and represented as, the eyes of the sky. This iconography suggests that the Mexica saw sight, like smell, to be extromissive, extending beyond the limits of the body. Overall, the image emphasizes sensory emissions, be they the fragrance of burnt copal, the sound of song, or the outward beam of the eye. While other pages of the Codex Mendoza show authority figures (e.g., the ruler) emitting sound scrolls, this page is singular in attaching so many markers of the senses to one class of people, the priests, making clear that some of their status (an elevated one, as we know from other sources) derived from the sensory surfeit they produced.
This surfeit included their powerful smell, an index of ihīyotl. The Codex Mendoza artists used a dark pigment to paint the priest’s skin, consistent with other manuscripts. But the pigment they used is a rich brownish purple that includes carbon black, clearly a pigment of some complexity. It is meant to represent the unguent used to color a priest’s skin black, which also was composed of carbon black. As Jeanette Favrot Peterson (2012: 64) has argued, black skin signified “acute shamanic vision, centeredness, and sovereignty.” The priest’s black skin color was accompanied by an intense odor, which is most evidently signaled by the red area around the ears: the blood from self-sacrifice that was left to congeal in the unwashed hair. Díaz del Castillo (2008: 182) would describe the hair as “clotted with blood.” That powerful smells could be indicators of a supernaturally powerful ihīyotl is suggested by the deity Tezcatlipoca, one of the supreme deities of the Nahua pantheon, whose black aspect (Black Tezcatlipoca) shared the skin color of the priest. Tezcatlipoca had as his animal double, or nāhualli, a skunk (Sahagún 1950–63: bk. 5, chap. 9, 171).
Intense smell indexed elevated social status and extended to rulers. The Codex Ixtlilxochitl, a manuscript painted in the 1580s by indigenous artists, includes a portrait of the ruler of Tetzcoco, Nezahualpilli (1464–1515) (fig. 5). In his right hand is a bouquet made of both flowers and brightly colored feathers; the pale yellow flowers might be the yōllohxōchitl, significant for both their distinctive heart-like shape and fragrant odor (Peterson 1993: 85–87). Much attention has been paid to the way that Nezahualpilli’s dress amplified his particular social identity, but the image tells us as well that the scent of flowers also composed the ruler. As with priests, the presence of the ruler extended beyond the limits of his skin, permeating the air around him, allowing him to be known even in darkness and in silence, when other sense organs could not function.
Like contemporary Europeans, the Nahua saw smells, including those of the ihīyotl, as having the ability to penetrate other bodies. Thus, ingesting the smells of flowers, as Dominican Diego Durán (1971: 238) wrote, brought the Nahua “happiness and delight . . . in smelling any kind of flower, whether it have an agreeable or displeasing scent, as long as it is a flower.” Certainly, accounts of illness usually identify filth or pollution (often the result of errant human action) as the cause, rather than noxious smells entering the body; thus, medicines for curing diseases were usually applied to the skin or ingested (Sahagún 1950–63: bk. 10, chap. 28). But certain smells could enter the body, and curers harnessed their tonic effects in using the smoke of tobacco and other plants to cure headaches.
This very rudimentary framework shows some features of how the Nahua interpreted odors, thereby making them into smells. Powerful odors were not necessarily “bad” smells, perhaps because odors could index the supernatural and offered evidence of a powerful ihīyotl. Within the Nahua smellscape, certain odors produced by a healthy ecosystem would have been tagged as positive, like the pungent odor of a healthy chināmitl or the seasonal desiccation of the swamps, or perhaps habituation would have meant that they were imperceptible, their perceptual absence itself a part of the smellscape (Distel et al. 1999). While the sources are far from definitive on all the contours of meaning attached to odors, we can appreciate how concepts such as the ihīyotl had an impact on the smellscape, as did the shared habituation to the odors produced by the distinct environment of the Basin.
Rooted by Smell
While the values attached to odors are culturally determined, neurologists and psychologists have proved the special connection between odor and memory. Engen (1991: 6) underscored how resistant odor memories are to change: “A long-term odor memory can be established with only one exposure. An episode is tagged in memory with whatever odor happens to be present. And then, like a bad habit, this odor connection is difficult to unlearn and forget.” Scientists are now coming to understand the value of smell memory to trigger a positive psychological response (“comfort smelling”) in no small measure because smells can offer a connection to familiar places and to one’s past—in fact, the recognizable odor of a place is a key factor in making it familiar (Herz 2016). Research has shown that people who lose their sense of smell (anosmia) often describe feeling unmoored and frequently face depression (Doty et al. 1997; Van Toller 1999). And new research is looking at the ways that changing odor profile of a place can be part of trauma (Moulton 2015).
Given the obdurate nature of smell, it is a deep but largely unrecognized part collective identification and collective memory (Classen 1992; Herz 2016). Smell is particularly important to urban dwellers, where a concentrated population leads to an intensity and diversity of odors unlike those of rural areas. Cities have particular odor profiles, as any world traveler knows, and residents living within the microculture of a city tend to interpret smells in similar ways, given the human brain’s predilection to habituate to familiar and shared odors. This has implications for the urban populace: collective assessment of smells offered urban residents a means of social cohesion.
In the case of pre-Hispanic Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco, the collective assessment of urban smell would have provided the city’s residents an important pillar (in addition to shared locale) of what it meant to be members of the urban island’s community; indeed, given that different ethnic groups (e.g., the Otomí) also occupied the urban island along with the Nahuatl-speaking Mexica, who themselves were divided between Tenochca and Tlatelolca, the shared assessment of the city’s smell may have been one of the few elements that transcended ethnic divisions. As such, the “communal smellscape” offered an olfactory parallel to spectacular (and thus ocular) urban events, such as the monthly (veintena) rituals staged in and around the island and the triumphant display of military captives at the close of a successful battle. In short, the collective assessment of smells offered urban residents a means of social cohesion, not unlike the processions, parades, masques, bullfights, and riots that have long been understood to help consolidate and define the multiethnic and polyglot communities across the early modern Habsburg Empire (Verbeek and van Campen 2013).
The Quickly Changing Smellscape
The war of the Spanish invasion changed everything. The once life-giving lake was now fetid, its powerful smells linked to the waves of indigenous death. An indigenous representation of these new urban odors appears in the Florentine Codex, a great encyclopedia compiled by the Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagún in the 1570s in the monastery of Santiago in Tlatelolco. It drew on the work of indigenous Nahuatl-speaking writers and artists, and it offers an account of the war of conquest in book 12, the final volume of the work. Among its writers and painters were some of the great indigenous intellectuals of New Spain, a number trilingual in Latin, Spanish, and Nahuatl, and in their work we find some of the evidence of sensory alienation that the invasion visited on the city.
The first indication came with the Spanish harquebuses, a novel weapon whose noxious smoke “stupefied [tēīxihuinti] and robbed one of one’s senses” (Sahagún 1950–63: bk. 12, chap. 15, 38). A parallel dislocation is found in the illustrations—illuminated may be a better word than illustrated to describe the role of pictures in the Florentine Codex, given that the images form a kind of supplementary stream of information, not always in concert with the text. On one page, the Mexica artist illustrates the events of early July 1520, when the city’s residents were able to repel the Spanish invaders from the capital, following the famous Noche Triste (fig. 6). While Spaniards moved eastward to regroup, the Mexica started the cleanup job at home. Unlike other scenes in the book, this one features not the marquee players, such as Cortés, Alvarado, and Motēuczōma, but the mācēhualtin, or common people. On the bottom register Mexica men in their low-slung canoes traverse the lake to pick up the corpses left in the wake of the battle. At left, a pile of bodies is seen filling the boat. In the reeds in the foreground, two more face-down corpses lie at center, and a still-bridled dead horse appears at the left. The figure in one canoe pulls an entire body from the swamp, the legs of the corpse foreshortened above. This corpse, albeit whole, is shocking within the terms of Nahua imagery: rarely are figures, including the ones in this image, rendered in anything other than a profile view. In this case, the artist offers a back view, upside down. The head and face, the site of one’s social identity, are invisible. At center a hand unattached to an owner emerges from the water, and to the left a face-up body awaits collection. A dead indigenous woman is pictured at the lower right, with her distinctive “horned” hairstyle intact in death. In the upper third, on a spit of solid land, two Mexica men carry yet another corpse, and in this part of the image the corpses are all identifiable as Spaniards, bearded and dressed in tunics and pants, as contrasted with the loincloths and cloaks of indigenous men.
The composition and figural form are part of the meaning of the work, and here the foreground is filled with scattered and poorly visible figures, rendered largely with broken frame lines. Visual continuity is disrupted by the sharp upward forms of the reeds that grew at the edges of the lake. The foreground conveys the chaos of what has just occurred and the decomposition under way, as the lines themselves fail to demarcate the boundary that constitutes the body’s integrity. In rendering fragments of the body, the image challenges the viewer to piece the body parts back together, or even connect them to an origin, creating a sense of dislocation similar to that created by the war.
The corpses shown in the image were a main source for new odors that beset the city during the thirteen months following July 1520, odors that would have had no precedent for its residents. The bodies of enemy combatants were looted and despoiled, and the text, amplifying the image, suggests they were left out to decompose (Sahagún 1950–63: bk. 12, chap. 25, 69–70). Even the smell emitted by the toppled ruler Motēuczōma’s body was alien. After he died, along with the Tlatelolco ruler Itzquauhtzin, the latter was taken back to Tlatelolco, where “his body was burned very honorably”; however, “the body of Motēuczōma lay sizzling, and it smelled foul [tzohyāya] as it burned” (chap. 23, 63–64).2
The odors would only intensify after Cortés broke the pipes of the aqueduct that carried freshwater from Chapultepec during his siege of May–August 1521, leaving residents with only scant groundwater to drink; they would have had little access to wood needed for cremations, so the smell of even more decomposing bodies added to the city’s changing odor profile. When, during the final days before Cuauhtemōc’s capitulation, Cortés made incursions into the battered capital, he was so overwhelmed by its smell that he pulled his men out of the city at the end of each day, “because we could not suffer the bad odor of the dead that had laid out on those streets, which was the most pestilential thing in the world. So we returned to camp” (Cortés 1969: 160). The Nahua Anales de Tlatelolco reports that, at the capitulation, “many people were fallen so that the warriors ran one on top of another, the water was filled to the brim with bodies, it was only thus that people could save themselves” (Tena 2004: 116–17). The surviving inhabitants of the urban island who streamed out to find food and refuge in neighboring cities left behind a city whose smell was unlike anything they had known barely thirteen months before.
Changing Smells in the Postconquest City
After Cortés’s 1519 arrival, his reaction to the city’s smells served as a kind of road map in this strange, foreign capital. His admiration was repeatedly directed to the water management systems of the Basin of Mexico (Cortés 1969: 65–66), but the admiring tone did not extend to the city’s temples. While Cortés does not note the temples’ smell, Díaz del Castillo’s vivid recall of the smells in the later writings (he finished his manuscript in 1568) testifies to their impermeability. It is also the by-product of changing interpretations of smells. During the sixteenth century, as Amara Solari (2016) has written, a trope of “the stench of idolatry” gained traction among Spanish writers in the Americas. Interpreting the powerful odors of indigenous ritual spaces and priests as idolatrous smells was one way that European settler colonists marked indigenous practice and pushed indigenous difference from the zone of rhetoric to an embodied response. “Abhorrence of smells,” writes Alain Corbin (1986: 5) “produces its own form of social power.” If Nahua priests were unified by their distinctive odor, Díaz del Castillo and his fellow conquistadors found a similar unifying force in their reactions to the smell. When odor became interpreted as the stench of pagan idolatry, it added another measure of justification for the destruction of the city’s shrines and another element of unity among Christian Spaniards. And it made the work of the war dogs, as they hunted down and mauled the odiferous priests to death, just that much easier (Varner and Varner 1983).
The city’s odor profile upended the expectations of Spanish invaders of what a city should smell like, with sacred spaces smelling overwhelmingly of blood, not incense, and the rest of the city smelling pleasant, not fetid like the European cities they knew. From birth, most had been habituated to the odors of European cities, which would strike modern noses as repellant, with raw sewage in streets and waterways. Peter Burke (2014: 45) has offered a brief catalog of the elements of the European urban smellscape: “urine, excrement, rotting fruit and fish, and decaying corpses, especially in time of plague.”
Most important, when Cortés (1969: 160) wrote of the city’s pleasant odors, he was mentally ticking off his most feared enemy: dangerous odors, “the most pestilential thing in the world.” In identifying smells as disease-producing, Cortés revealed his adherence to a main tenant of Hippocratic medicine, which ascribed a crucial role to air and water in determining the human constitution, such that foul air could contaminate the human body, causing sometimes fatal illness (Siraisi 1990). Ironically, it was Cortés’s siege that would unleash the maleficent odors he encountered upon its capitulation.
Such an understanding of harmful odors arrived in Spain via the ideas of the influential Greek physician Galen (AD 129–c. 200/c. 216). Galen had expanded on the porousness of the body, writing of the damage that could occur not only though ingesting “strong smelling” water but also by breathing in “foul air” or “miasmas” (quoted in Jouanna 2012: 130). When discussing fevers, he suggested they were triggered by “a slight impetus from the ambient air,” which had been “polluted by putrefied odors” (130). The sources that Galen identified of those “putrefied odors” were indeed terrible ones: a mass of cadavers that had not been cremated or fumes from swamps (130). For Europeans in the early modern period, strong smells were blamed for those fearful outbreaks of the plague, which brought swift and unpredictable death in its wake. Marsilio Ficino (1481), a Renaissance medical writer whose works enjoyed wide popularity, wrote a volume specifically devoted to the plague, and in this he reiterated cautions about foul airs. Galenic ideas circulated widely in Spain by the end of the fifteenth century, among both educated physicians and folk healers (Earle 2012: 32–36), and later, through Francisco Vallés’s Controversiarum medicarum et philosophicarum (1556), which discusses the idea of vapors as transmitting disease. To the Spanish invaders, smells had agency, particularly as encountered by the porous human body. Once they became aware of the epidemics scourging indigenous allies and friends alike, they would have quickly realized that whatever miasmas were present were selective ones, killing only indigenous residents and leaving European combatants largely untouched.
Cortés’s obdurate memory of a sweet-smelling city may have been one factor in his largely inscrutable election of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco, rather than Coyoacan, as the capital of New Spain. During the subsequent decades, settler colonists were able to impose their smellscape, both actively and passively, by introducing new economies and by neglecting the city’s lacustrine infrastructure. For instance, the smell of the market was permeated by something new: the smell of meat. Most of the products depicted on the market map in figure 2 are indigenous ones, showing the perdurability of the city’s culinary and material culture. But one square is occupied by the nacanamacaque (meat sellers), whose icon is the bent leg of a ruminant, the deeply cleft hoof suggesting cattle rather than native deer. Introduced European livestock—cattle, sheep, and goats—would bring dramatic changes to the city’s odor profile during the century, indexing enormous ecological shifts happening across New Spain. The introduction of alien ruminants into formerly untouched grasslands quickly resulted in a “plague of sheep,” as Elinor G. Melville (1994) called it. Spanish settler colonists saw it in a much rosier light: a cheap supply of meat for urban dwellers. The diets of native peoples, before the conquest mostly vegetarian, adjusted to take advantage of once-luxurious now-cheap meat (Acuña 1986: 193).
By the 1530s the odors of meat culture began to pervade the city, as a main slaughterhouse and a rastro, where meat was distributed, were set up on the main plaza, not far from where the Templo Mayor had stood the previous decade. Unlike the odor-producing node of the temples, however, odors were spread throughout the city by the use of canals as sewers, made clear in a 16 May 1542 Spanish cabildo (city council) directive that ordered the butchers to refrain from dumping animal blood in the street or pitching the wastes into the main canal that ran along the south side of the plaza (Bejarano 1889, 4:282–83). Soon, a new site was chosen only a few blocks to the south along the Ixtapalapa canal, where the slaughterhouse and rastro would remain into the nineteenth century (Castera and López 1785). The maintenance of clean canals was a thing of the past.
Part of the new Spanish smellscape were the tanneries, where hides from sheep, pigs, and cattle were converted into leather, used for shoes, war gear, and tack. Tanning uses strong chemicals, including acidic tannins, to break down the chemical bonds within the hide, making it supple and decay resistant. The odors produced are intense. Tanneries seem to have been scattered through the city, although always near canals where wastes were dumped. For some, like the tannery established 6 June 1542 on the city’s west edge, the adjacent canal, flowing to the east, would have carried waste into and through the city (Bejarano 1889, 4:287). The city government tried to control tannery odors by controlling their location—a number seem to have been clustered near the slaughterhouse. By 1549 the wastes and odors emitted by tanneries in one area were so severe that the cabildo took the extreme step of relocating them (Bejarano 1889, 5:3–4 [7 Sept. 1543], 263 [8 Jul. 1549]). By the century’s end, the city government attempted to ban tanneries in the city proper (Bejarano 1889, 12:306–7 [20 Sept. 1596]). This measure notwithstanding, the location of tanneries and the city’s main slaughterhouse at its southern edge made this area particularly foul smelling.
Given the shifting balance of power in the city across the sixteenth century, as the growing Spanish population seized more of the city’s real estate as well as control of its development through the Spanish cabildo, which approved and often funded public works, the locales of non-Spanish ethnic groups could be mapped onto the newly ascendant smellscape, with the city’s indigenous zones housing more of the fetid industries. Spanish occupation radiated outward from the main plaza (Mier y Terán Rocha 2005), and within two decades of the city’s conquest the most noxious sources of odor had been banished from the plaza and pushed to its indigenous margins, with the worst of them heading south. The southern belt of the city was also where indigenous power was concentrated, as revealed by the Mapa Uppsala (fig. 1). It shows within the city the palaces of two powerful indigenous leaders and their families: one large palace glossed “casa d[e] Tapia,” home of don Andrés de Tapia Motelchīuhtzin, named ruler of the city in 1526, and another glossed “casa d[e] dõ Pablo,” which probably housed don Pablo Tlacātēcuhtli Xōchiquēntzin, the highest-ranking native official in the city between 1530 and 1536. Both palaces were erected in the southern zone of the city. By midcentury the city’s indigenous nodes—the great tiānquiztli and the tēcpan (the palace of the indigenous ruler)—were both in this southern belt. Censuses of indigenous tribute payers taken at the beginning of the seventeenth century correspondingly show the southern half of the city densely populated by indigenous peoples (Caso 1956). In fact, the decisions of the Spanish cabildo to allow foul industries and their waste to flow through the city’s southern half may have been specifically because these were the indigenous zones.
Certainly some elite Spaniards needed to tolerate these smells, as their palatial residences were concentrated along the east-west and north-south causeways (Mier y Terán Rocha 2005; Valero de García Lascuráin 1991). The highest elites, members of the Cortés family and the viceroy, lived around the main plaza, farther from the worst sources of odor, especially after the slaughterhouse was moved off the main plaza. So while no one was completely protected from odor, the increase of noxious odors in the city’s southern half meant that by 1543 indigenous neighborhoods smelled the worst.3
The Smell of Plague
Allowing the spread of this new smellscape was the Galenic framework that settler colonists carried with them to the Americas, which meant they saw more threat from the smells of the lakes than from tanneries and sewage in the streets, as it was lake miasmas that carried the threat of disease. In the 1530s the Spanish cabildo appealed to Sebastián Ramírez de Fuenleal, head of the Second Audiencia (1531–35), to allow more water to flow into the Laguna of Mexico, “to avoid the bad odor that happens when the laguna dries up” (Rojas Rabiela 1981: 99). In 1536, again, the cabildo noted the terrible smells coming from the surrounding laguna (Bejarano 1889, 4:12 [14 Mar. 1536]), and also of concern were odors coming from waste-filled properties (Bejarano 1889, 5:151 [6 Sept. 1546]). In 1552, four years after a major epidemic among indigenous peoples, it petitioned Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza for repairs on river courses feeding the lakes, “because when there is water, the bad odors that come off the lake cease” (Bejarano 1889, 6:75 [14 Nov. 1552]). That the Spanish cabildo made this last request for both the “security and health” of the city offers evidence that its members were thinking about smells within a Galenic framework. The waves of epidemic diseases sweeping through generation after generation of the city’s indigenous population—as they did with chilling frequency in 1520–21, 1545–48, 1563–64, and 1576–81—would have only reaffirmed settler colonists’ fears of miasmas (Gerhard 1986: 23).
By midcentury the Nahua were also interpreting epidemics within the theory of miasmas, indications that their smellscape was changing as well. In a 1555 testimony about the water systems of the Basin, Martín Suchipanecatl, an indigenous man, blamed the recent cocoliztli epidemic on the smell coming from the swamps (Pérez-Rocha 1996: 52). And in an account from Chimalhuacan, a lakeside town in the Basin of Mexico, the local corregidor (Spanish crown official) took down responses from town elders to the questions sent out by the crown in 1578. On the one that addressed the local “airs,” he reported that the residents were often sick “because of the excessive moisture there and because of the vapors from the laguna that lies nearby” (Bravo-García 2019: 119). Whether that was his interpretation of the environment or one he was hearing from his informants is not clear, but it is not surprising that a belief in the connection between disease and miasmas and “airs” should be percolating out from settler colonists to their indigenous neighbors. Such medical knowledge was part of the exchange of ideas happening in centers like the monastery of Santiago in Tlatelolco, where native intellectuals had access to European books imported into New Spain. These included vehicles for Galenic ideas, such as Vallés’s Controversiarum medicarum (Calero 1989: 152–53). One surviving edition of 1564 bears the firebrand of Tlatelolco’s library (Mathes 1985: 70). It was so heavily used that its original last page, which is about Galen, has been lost only to have been carefully replaced with a handwritten copy that survives in the volume to this day.4 Beyond such documented volumes, European medical treatises circulated widely in New Spain; Lori Boornazian Diel (2018: 57–73) suggests that native intellectuals frequently turned to European rationales to explain these new scourges.
The Florentine Codex also shows traces of the impact of Galen, perhaps via the Vallés volume in the Tlatelolco library, as some fifty years had elapsed between the terrible events of 1519–21 and the narrative about them in book 12 of the codex. In showing corpses left out in the July sun, beginning to decompose in the shallow swamp (fig. 6), the artists brought together the two culprits that Galen identified as the cause of epidemic disease. The image may also have been inflected by empirical observations that lake smells were followed by disease, reflecting a deeper indigenous knowledge base about the lake systems. The lacustrine environment gave off powerful smells during times of environmental disruption, like the massive drought that gripped the Basin at the end of the 1530s. While contemporary observers, like Suchipanecatl, saw smell as the cause of epidemics, modern investigators construct the causal chain somewhat differently, setting the drought as the central phenomenon and relegating odor to an epiphenomenon. Drought led to famine, and as food supplies dwindled, weakened Basin residents became even more susceptible to the many imported diseases. Indeed, Rodolfo Acuña-Soto et al. (2002) have used tree ring data to link the “megadroughts” of Mexico’s sixteenth century and the “megadeath” that followed.
The Smellscape and the City’s Fate
The sweet smells of the city at contact made it attractive to Spanish conquistadors. But within their smellscape, the canal system was an open sewer, convenient to wash away the filth from slaughterhouses and tanneries. By the 1540s these urban arrivistes were habituating to the smells of its markets and foods, coming to value the smells and tastes of tobacco, chiles, and chocolate. These native plants in turn served as foci for collective rituals that defined settler colonists as vecinos (vested city residents) or, upon their return to Spain, indianos, that is, men who made their fortunes in the Americas. For the vecinos, however, their understanding of the smells of the lake as connected to pestilence was deep-seated and obdurate, and it would lead them to infrastructure projects that would prove catastrophic. The droughts of the 1530s gave way to terrible floods of 1555, 1604, 1607, and 1629, largely due to mismanagement of the Basin’s inland sea. By the 1630s, draining the lakes that comprised it would seem to eliminate the threat of both floods and miasmas; during the next three centuries this desagüe (drainage project) cost tens of thousands of indigenous lives as the lakes were drained and the dried out bed was converted to a massive city dump (Candiani 2014). Today, the draining of lakes is a main cause of the econightmare that the city, one of the largest conurbations in the world, faces: the twenty-first century megacity is alternately flooded and parched, with winds whipping into the air the dust from desiccated lake beds, a toxic potōnqui.
But to end with the legacy of the imposition of settler colonists’ smellscape is to neglect that of the city’s longtime residents, particularly the thousands who returned soon after the invasion to help rebuild and to reconstitute what they could of shattered lives and a shattered city. Vivid enough in their sense memory to be passed down to the next generations (who were probably habituated to the city’s new smellscape, but who would nonetheless record it in the Florentine Codex) was the smell of gunpowder that robbed one of one’s senses and the fetid smell from the body of a toppled ruler. If their once-verdant āltepētl, like other living entities, had had its distinctive and memorable ihīyotl, it was not recognizable by 1540. The research of contemporary scientists revealing the connections between familiar smellscapes and a sense of belonging allows us to better identify one of the particular traumas that Amerindian urban dwellers faced. Even those who were not uprooted were still dislocated: the habituated smellscape of their city—whose maintenance, through the careful husbanding of chināmitl and the dredging and cleaning of canals, provided the rationale for the collective labors that drew the city’s residents together—had vanished. After the invasion, Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco no longer smelled like home.
This article came out of papers delivered at the conference “Entangled Trajectories: Integrating Native American And European Histories,” organized by Ralph Bauer and Marcy Norton at George Washington University in 2015, and at the session “Exploring Early Modern Cities: The Urban Sensorium” during the 2016 meeting of the Renaissance Society of America, organized by Lisa Pon and Karen-edis Barzman. I thank the organizers as well as colleagues who provided valuable criticism and feedback, including my Fordham University colleagues Kathryn Heleniak, Jo Anna Isaak, Elizabeth Parker, Nina Rowe, and Maria Ruvoldt. Conversations with Nathalie Rochel (Fordham class of 2011) sparked my interest in smell. Paul Niell and Luis Peláez also read and commented, as did anonymous peer reviewers at Ethnohistory, whose criticisms helped me strengthen the argument. Any errors or evidentiary weaknesses are my own.
For a comparison to the Maya sensorium, see Houston, Stuart, and Taube 2006.
My translations here are adapted from the Anderson and Dibble translation in Sahagún 1950–63. As I understand the etymology, the Nahuatl word tzohyāya combines tzotl, meaning filth or excrement, with ihyāya, a word related to ihīyotl.
For a parallel offered by Lima, see Kole de Peralta 2019.
My thanks to Jose C. Guerrero, librarian at the Sutro Library of the J. Paul Leonard Library, San Francisco State University, for this information on the volume.