Lady Six Monkey: The Great Warrior Queen of the Mixtecs

Far too often, the stories of great women—or perhaps more accurately, great writers, politicians, scientists, and leaders who simply happen to be women—have been lost, forgotten, or otherwise written out of history. All of us have a duty to help reclaim these stories… to bring these voices back into the open.

With that in mind, I wanted to share the story of a remarkable woman, whose story really deserves to be better known. She was Lady Six Monkey (Mixtec: Ñuñuu Dzico-Coo-Yodzo), a great warrior queen of the Mixtec people of southern Mexico who was born into the royal house of the Mixtec city of Jaltepec in 1073. Lady Six Monkey was a formidable empire builder who played a pivotal role in the history of the Mixtecs.

The warrior queen Lady Six Monkey in her element, leading an attack and capturing prisoners of war

And believe me, Six Monkey lived in a dangerous time. In 963, a century before Six Monkey was born, a clash of dynastic politics had ripped the Mixtec world apart, culminating in a ferocious war known as the “War of Heaven.” Whole cities were annihilated, and whole royal dynasties wiped out. The conflict led to a major restructuring of Mixtec power politics, with a number of new centers rising out of the ashes. One was a new kingdom centered around the city of Tilantongo, another was a neighboring kingdom based at Jaltepec—Lady Six Monkey’s hometown. Between these two kingdoms was the smaller kingdom based in Huachino. In the War of Heaven’s aftermath, Huachino was one of the last of the older, classical kingdoms left standing. It was much reduced in power, and struggled to hold its own against the new kingdoms rising around it, but its royal house was still one of the most ancient, venerable lineages in the region. Six Monkey’s story played out against a backdrop of these feuding, rival kingdoms that sought to seize ultimate power in a Mixtec-style Game of Thrones involving communities across La Mixteca.

And for a while, no one played this game better than Lady Six Monkey.

A quick word about Mixtec naming conventions. Mixtecs took their names from their date of their birth. This name consisted of a numeral from 1 – 13 and one of 20 day glyphs (e.g. crocodile, house, monkey, etc.). A rough modern equivalent for us would be naming a child “Four July” or “Twenty-five December.” This system features frequently-repeating names that were applied regardless of gender, which sometimes confuses modern readers. As a result, most modern writers preface the name with the word “Lord” or “Lady,” or at times use the ♂ or ♀ symbol to add clarity. Because there were only a finite number of names available, Mixtecs were given a more specific, personal name when they came of age. Once given, these “nicknames” generally were used for the remainder of a person’s life, but as we will see with Lady Six Monkey, they could be changed in response to extraordinary circumstances.

* * *

The Mixtecs in Ancient Mexico

The Mixtecs (or Ñuù Savi in their own language, meaning “Rain People”) have long been recognized as one of Mexico’s largest, and most fascinating indigenous groups, but they are not widely known today (they briefly flared into the public consciousness due to the Oscar-winning film Roma—the maid Cleo and her co-worker Adela are Mixtecs, and speak together in Mixtec over the course of the film).

Their ancestral homeland, La Mixteca, is in the western part of the modern Mexican state of Oaxaca. In ancient times, this region was one of the wealthiest and densely populated in ancient Mexico. Mixtec cities never rose to the size of the Aztecs’ great imperial centers of Central Mexico; but even so, these cities were still quite large by global standards of the time—on the eve of the Spanish conquest, the great Mixtec cities of Yanhuitlán, Coixtlahuaca, and Tututepec were all comparable in size to London.

The Mixtecs never organized themselves into a single, great Mixtec “empire.” Instead, the region was dotted with a number of smaller kingdoms that jockeyed for political power, trade routes, resources, and farmland. In this way they were somewhat like the ancient Maya… or in a European context, like classical Greece or Renaissance Italy. In lieu of a central power, the Mixtec kingdoms engaged in a complex web of alliances cemented by dynastic marriages that remained fairly stable across centuries.

The Mixtecs were noted for being accomplished, brilliant artists. Mixtec pottery was particularly prized, as were Mixtec mosaics, painting and above all, gold work. In fact, at the time of the Spanish conquest, Mixtec artists and artisans had developed the essential iconography, design conventions and artistic techniques—the basic artistic lingua franca—that was used from central Mexico to Costa Rica. So valuable were Mixtec craftsmen that when the Aztecs conquered the region in the 1400s, Mixtec artists were taken as captives to serve in the imperial workshops of Aztec Tenochtitlán, in conditions not unlike the Murano glass workers in Renaissance Venice.

Mixtec gold work

By the time the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, much of La Mixteca had been conquered by the Aztecs, with the major exception of coastal Mixtec kingdom of Tututepec. This kingdom successfully defeated the Aztecs in several battles and created an expansionist empire of own—and had even begun the process of re-conquering Mixtec territory from the Aztecs at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Tututepec remained independent until 1522, when it was conquered by Pedro de Alvarado.

Mixtec Writing and History

Today, the Mixtecs are most widely known for their advance writing system, which used to record history in a series of books, annotated maps, and similar documents. Eight ancient history books have survived, detailing battles, marriages, and political intrigue going back to at least the 10th century—more than 500 years before the arrival of the Spaniards. This unbroken, 1,000-year span of history is unique among the people of the Western Hemisphere.

The books are made of long strips of deerskin, which were coated with a thin layer of plaster to create a paintable surface, and folded accordion-style to create discrete pages. Scribes then filled these pages with hieroglyphic, picture writing painted in an assortment of bold colors. While these history books can certainly be read as-is, they also were designed to serve as storyboards to guide historical performances. For these performances, a cantor would recite the historical account in the form of epic poetry, to the accompaniment of music and dancing.

The Codex Zouche-Nuttall, a Mixtec book of history now held at the British Museum

The story of Lady Six Monkey is told in greatest detail in the Codex Selden, a manuscript located today in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. It was commissioned by the royal family of Jaltepec, Six Monkey’s hometown and original base of power, and tells her story with all the local pride one would expect. But such was Six Monkey’s importance that she appears in many of the other manuscripts, which helps fill in the details of her remarkable life.

* * *

New Beginnings: Lady Six Monkey’s Mother and the Rise of a New Dynasty

By the year 1040 of the common era, a generation before Lady Six Monkey was born, the Mixtec kingdom of Jaltepec had fallen into crisis. Jaltepec commanded a strategic location in the Nochixtlán valley, giving it control of water resources and access to trade routes, and over time it had become wealthy. But after a hundred years of growing prosperity and influence, its last ruler had died without an heir, and the royal succession was thrown into chaos.

At this point, Lord Eight Wind from the city of Suchixtlán stepped into the picture. Eight Wind was an elder statesman who commanded great authority in La Mixteca. He had shrewdly built up a web of alliances which were held together with armed force… and skillfully-made dynastic marriages involving his children. And he knew an opportunity when he saw it.

In a bold move, Eight Wind used his influence to install his daughter Lady Nine Wind as Jaltepec’s ruling queen. The Codex Selden depicts her entrance into the city in full splendor, showing Lady Nine Wind as a dynastic founder, offering tobacco in an elaborate ceremony in Jaltepec’s main plaza.

To secure his daughter’s future, Eight Wind went on to arrange a marriage with Lord Ten Eagle of neighboring kingdom of Tilantongo—a kingdom that had long had a love-hate relationship with its eastern neighbor. Clearly, Eight Wind had hoped to strengthen relationships between these two emerging powers, and to cement his own family at the center of it. What’s curious about this wedding is the vast power differential between Lady Nine Wind and her new husband—in the history books’ depiction of the wedding ceremonies, she is enthroned as the central figure on the wedding platform, while the groom Ten Eagle is seated on a small side cushion that only lightly touches the edge of the main platform. In the lingo of an earlier time, it seems that clear that Lord Ten Eagle had “married up.”

Lady Nine Grass’s ascension to the throne of Jaltepec. At number 22 she is shown as the founder of a new dynasty, and at number 23 she is shown getting married.

All seemed to go well for a few years, and in due course the new royal family produced their first child, a boy. In rapid succession Lady Nine Wind gave birth to two more sons.

But something was not right.

For reasons that are not clear, in 1073 the three princes were taken to the city of Chalcatongo, a place of royal burials and the home of the powerful Oracle of the Dead, Lady Nine Grass. There, the three boys were sacrificed. We don’t know the reason, but it seems to have been with the understanding and support of Lady Nine Wind. But in that same year, a new royal child was born there: Lady Six Monkey. Unlike her brothers, Lady Six Monkey was blessed by the Oracle of the Dead, and formally named the heir to Jaltepec’s throne. As a further sign of support, the Oracle provided Six Monkey with a priestly tutor who went on to serve as an advisor to the royal family. This was the beginning of an important alliance that would shape Six Monkey’s rise to power.

Tilantongo and Jaltepec at War

For the next few years, relations between Tilantongo and Jaltepec remained relatively calm. There is even some indication that the young Lady Six Monkey was intended to marry the young ruler of Tilantongo, a boy-king named Lord Two Rain.

But again, something was not right.

By 1081, it is clear that the royal wedding between the young rulers of Tilantongo and Jaltepec was off, although the reasons and the timing were never spelled out. While the dynastic match made sense on paper, as a way to further integrate the families of these two rising powers, it is clear that there was an inherent tension underlying the process. For one, it has to be noted that Tilantongo’s ruling dynasty was on precarious grounds—no polity that has to crown a six-year-old boy as ruler is politically healthy. But also, this particular marriage would set up another generation where the ruler of Tilantongo would rank “beneath” that of Jaltepec, a situation that no doubt rankled the boy king.

Whatever the cause, the broken alliance was sparking a political crisis.

In 1081, Lord Two Rain conducted a religious ceremony to consult with the spirit of the deceased Lord Eight Wind (who had placed his daughter on the throne of Jaltepec some 40 years earlier). The boy king apparently received the deceased patriarch’s blessing to attack the kingdom of Jaltepec, overthrow its ruling dynasty, and rewrite the political map. Lord Two Rain activated his web of alliances and gathered an army, and selected one of his royal kinsmen to lead an invasion.

What followed was not just a major defeat, but a complete humiliation.

Lady Six Monkey’s father took command of Jaltepec’s forces. He swiftly checked the Tilantongo invasion force, and went on to lead a counter-attack that completely overwhelmed Tilantongo’s army. The Tilantongo captain was captured, and brought back to Jaltepec to be sacrificed as a prisoner of war.

At a stroke, Tilantongo’s political position collapsed. Its ruler was still a child, who had shown himself to be militarily inept and bereft of the gods’ blessings. Given the hit to Two Rain’s standing on the world stage, it was clear that it would be difficult to secure a different wedding match for him. Worse, the attack transformed Jaltepec from a middling rival to an implacable enemy. As she watched her father beat back the invaders, the young Lady Six Monkey was filled with growing hatred; nearly every other political action of her life was taken to further squeeze Tilantongo.

A Fateful Marriage

A year after Tilantongo’s failed invasion, Lady Six Monkey began to take control of her destiny. Under advice from a trusted priest, she traveled in secret to Chalcatongo, the home of her benefactress the Oracle Lady Nine Grass. There she petitioned the oracle for help in formally nullifying her marriage contract with Two Rain, and selecting a husband more to her choosing.

In response, the oracle Lady Nine Grass called for a congress that was attended by representatives from most of the local kingdoms, including a young nobleman from Tilantongo named Lord Eight Deer. Eight Deer’s participation in this conference is a bit of an enigma—he was likely there to advocate for Tilantongo’s position, but some writers have speculated that he hoped to present himself as a potential suitor for Lady Six Monkey.

Behind the scenes, Six Monkey worked with the Oracle to propose a new match, and together they announced their decision. At the conference’s end, the Oracle Lady Nine Grass announced that Lady Six Monkey would marry Lord Eleven Wind… the ruler of the small, but venerable kingdom of Huachino.

There must have been gasps in the conference rooms.

With one stroke, Lady Nine Grass and Lady Six Monkey had completely upended Mixtec politics. This was a second marriage for Lord Eleven Wind—he already had at least two sons. More to the point, it forged a new alliance corridor linking Huachino and Jaltepec, creating a powerful joint kingdom right on Tilantongo’s border. Plus, it fused together the wealth and dynamic energy of a rising kingdom with the high status and exalted bloodline of an ancient kingdom.

Tilantongo’s humiliation was complete. And worse, it suddenly found itself surrounded by dangerous foes who were united against it.

As a side note, in the immediate aftermath of the conference at Chalcatongo, Lord Eight Deer of Tilantongo left the region to take control of a new kingdom to the south… the coastal kingdom of Tututepec. It is not clear if the Oracle Lady Nine Grass offered this new opportunity as recompense, or if she ordered him to Tututepec simply to send a pesky rival away. Nevertheless, he was forced to withdraw.

The power of Lady Six Monkey in making this happen is vividly laid out in the Codex Selden. In Mixtec writing, there is a standard convention used when a person is speaking to another—the speaker is shown with a curlicue symbol next to his or her mouth. It is assumed that all others facing the speaker are receiving the message. But in the scene shown in the Codex Selden, the scribe is very specific… the Oracle Lady Nine Grass is speaking, and there is an unbroken line of curlicues that goes over Lord Eleven Wind, and directly to his fiancée Lady Six Monkey. Depicted graphically, the two women are literally talking over his head, and making their plans as if he’s not really in the room.

Lady Nine Grass of Chalcatongo conferring with Lady Six Monkey, over the head of Six Monkey’s husband.

Lady Six Monkey was still relatively young, so the wedding did not take place immediately… it seems that all the players were content to have a long engagement while they consolidated power. But in due time the marriage was celebrated with all the expected royal splendor. During the festivities, the couple took part in a round dance, with the oracle Lady Nine Grass and several other divine avatars encircling the pair, signaling divine favor.

The only thing left was for Lady Six Monkey to be formally welcomed in her husband’s city of Huachino and crowned as ruling queen. But of course, things did not go as predicted.

Lady Six Monkey at War

In 1090, Six Monkey made preparations to make a grand entrance into Huachino to be formally installed. But first, she made the rounds of the kingdom, receiving homage from her subjects and establishing her public presence in her lands. The Oracle Lady Nine Grass had sent priests to accompany her as part of the royal procession, reinforcing the gods’ divine benevolence… and Chalcatongo’s political support.

Along the way, things got ugly. The Lords Six lizard and Two Alligator, rulers from two subject towns, publicly insulted the new queen. They barred her from entering their cities, and prepared for war to destroy her and the nascent Jaltepec-Huachino alliance.

In this first test to her royal authority, Lady Six Monkey sprang into action—decisive action was to become her calling card. She knew her position was precarious and her resources few. Therefore, she quickly led the bridal procession to Chalcatongo, to meet again with the Oracle Lady Nine Grass, her benefactor and patron. The Oracle quickly summoned Chalcatongo’s military forces, and personally provided Lady Six Monkey with the arms and armor to lead the troops into battle herself.

Lady Six Monkey (far right) receiving arms and soldiers from the oracular queen, Lady Nine Grass

Choosing to rely on speed and stealth, Six Monkey quickly moved against the rebel lords. In a series of rapid-fire engagements, Six Monkey caught the rebel lords off guard, isolating them from each other and crushing their forces in battle. She then went on to successfully attack each of the rebels’ strongholds. It was a complete success. Both rebel cities were sacked, and Six Monkey personally captured both the rebel leaders and marched them back to Jaltepec in humiliation.

Once home, Six Monkey arranged a large public ceremony. Standing in for head priest, she sacrificed Lord Two Alligator to the gods by cutting his heart from his chest.

Lady Six Monkey waging war, capturing enemies and leading them to Jaltepec for sacrifice.

Buoyed by her success, Six Monkey resumed her royal tour of the kingdom, receiving praise at every stop for her quick-thinking and military prowess. At last she made a triumphant entry to Huachino, where she received an ecstatic welcome. In a cunning bit of political theater, she marched the last of the rebel lords before her, and to the cheers of the crowd presented the captive to her new husband as a wedding gift. The rebel was subsequently sacrificed in a grand festival at Huachino’s main plaza.

A high priest from Chalcatongo helped oversee the coronation festival, which lasted many days. As part of the festivities, this priest bestowed a great, and rare honor on Lady Six Monkey—given her brilliant success in battle, he presented her with a quechquemitl (an upper garment worn by women) decorated with the Mixtec glyphs for war. He then turned, addressed the crowd and decreed that her personal name would henceforth be “War Blouse” or “War Shirt.” The name stuck, and every subsequent depiction of Six Monkey shows her wearing this fearsome garment.

She was not yet 20.

Moves and Counter Moves

Flushed with success, Six Monkey and her new husband settled in to royal life in Huachino. It seems that from the beginning, they had a bold vision for the future—the creation of a large and expansive kingdom that transcended the poisonous, petty politics of La Mixteca and would come to dominate the entire region. This new kingdom would enforce its rule by military might, but also gain legitimacy from its exalted royal bloodline and the divine support sanctioned by the powerful oracle of Chalcatongo. In their first few years, everything seemed attainable. In 1092, two years after her triumphant entrance to Huachino, Six Monkey gave birth to a son, Lord Four Wind. Her second son was born three years later in 1095. The royal family seemed secure.

But of course, Six Monkey and her husband were wary. Neighboring Tilantongo had been weakened and humiliated, but it remained a potentially dangerous adversary… and one that might be driven by a sense of loss and desperation to lash out.

We see echoes of the political intrigue between these two rivals that boiled just under the surface, but very few specifics. But one curious incident suggest that things were happening behind the scenes. In 1096, the ill-fated Lord Two Rain of Tilantongo, the last ruler of the family’s founding dynasty, seems to have killed himself. The records are maddeningly unclear about why this happened, although his short reign was marked with reversals and calamities. Curiously, one scene showing his death and funeral rites features the priest Lord Seven Vulture, who seems to have been the same counselor that first advised Lady Six Monkey to go in secret to Chalcatongo to seek the oracle’s help in selecting a husband. Was there a connection?

Whether or not Six Monkey had any direct or indirect involvement in Two Rain’s death, she clearly hoped to benefit from it. His passing left the throne of Tilantongo vacant, further destabilizing this neighboring rival and perhaps providing an opening for a friendly (if not subordinate) ruler to be installed.

Modern day interpretations of what Lady Six Monkey (center) and Lady Nine Grass (left) would look like in full regalia.

This may have been Six Monkey’s hope, but events quickly spiraled out of her control. Other actors had also sensed an opportunity.

Lord Eight Deer, the Tilantongo noble who had left the fateful conference in Chalcatongo to take control of the southern new kingdom of Tututepec, sprang into action. Lord Two Rain’s death gave him a chance to return to Tilantongo, seize the throne, and use it as a power base to at last avenge the humiliations of the past decade.

What followed was a whirlwind series of political chess moves. Lord Eight Deer decided to build a new alliance with Toltec nobles in Central Mexico, building up trade alliances and providing military support for engagements in the north. He was ultimately successful in his negotiations, and his Toltec allies declared Lord Eight Deer a tecuhtli or lineage head in the Toltec tradition.

Eight Deer then returned to Tilantongo, where he was invested as new, founding ruler of the city’s second dynasty. With support from Tututepec and his new Toltec allies, Eight Deer was able to build an extensive network of alliances, which he used to subdue neighboring rivals and expand Tilantongo’s sphere of influence. Finally in 1098, he followed the example of Lady Six Monkey and sought divine favor by forging a lasting alliance with the Oracle of the Sun God at Achiutla. Within only a couple of years, Eight Deer had achieved the remarkable… he had linked Tilantongo with the most important Mixtec kingdom of the south, provided it with international alliances reaching into Central Mexico, and secured divine blessing from an important oracle.

Lady Six Monkey watched these developments with growing alarm. She realized the sudden reemergence of Tilantongo was a deadly threat to her plans, and prepared for action.

A Final Showdown

In the year 1100, Lady Six Monkey moved against Tilantongo, hoping to strike a blow against her rival before the Lord Eight Deer extended his power any further. An agent from Jaltepec-Huachino struck out against Eight Deer’s half-brother Lord Twelve Movement—one of Eight Deer’s most trusted and successful warleaders. One evening Twelve Movement was taking in a ritual steam bath. Six Monkey’s agent posed as an attendant, entered the dark chamber with a dagger hidden in a bundle of rushes… and at the moment Twelve Movement was most vulnerable, stabbed the warlord through the heart.

While Jaltepec-Huachino had existed in uneasy tension for many years, this was an open act of war.

Lady Six Monkey gathered up her forces and meant to strike a decisive blow before Lord Eight Deer could respond. Unfortunately, her legendary decisiveness and valor did not help her—Eight Deer was able to marshal his superior forces, and decisively crush her on the battlefield.

Lady Six Monkey and her husband Lord Eleven Wind chose to make their final stand in Huachino. But despite their valiant defense, they were no match for the combined forces of Eight Deer’s army. The city was overrun, and Six Monkey and Eleven Wind were captured.

Lord Eight Deer was in no mood to be merciful. Huachino was burned to the ground, and its ruins were never again inhabited. In a lurid public festival, Lady Six Monkey was marched into the main square and sacrificed to the gods—the same fate she had bestowed on her enemies many years before. As Eight Deer’s principal enemy, her execution was given pride of place in the victory celebrations, and her husband killed shortly thereafter.

She was just 27.

Modern reconstruction of Lady Six Monkey, in royal regalia.

In the aftermath, Six Monkey’s oldest son, the eight-year-old boy Four Wind, was taken back to Tilantongo as an honored hostage. The boy was brought up under the watchful eye of Eight Deer, and forced to serve as an aide-de-camp in later campaigns. Lady Six Monkey’s youngest son, now age five, was installed as a puppet ruler in Jaltepec.

Eight Deer went on to become the most powerful ruler La Mixteca had ever seen. Six Monkey’s dream of a powerful, pan-Mixtec kingdom had come true… but it was led by the royal family of Tilantongo, not that of Jaltepec.

Lady Six Monkey’s story had come to an end, but there was a bit of an epilogue. In 1115, her young son Four Wind had come of age. He never forgot Eight Deer’s murder of his family and plotted to avenge his mother in secret. He ultimately raised an army of his own, defeated Eight Deer in battle, and had the great warlord sacrificed to the gods. A few years later Four Wind married one of Eight Deer’s daughters, finally uniting the royal bloodlines of Jaltepec, Tilantongo, and Huachino.

* * *

Lady Six Monkey was a remarkable ruler from a dangerous age. Even though she ultimately went down in defeat, her actions marked clear turning points in Mixtec history. As a result, for more than 400 years, Six Monkey was remembered—she was venerated as a historical figure, and held an exalted position in Mixtec historical consciousness. The stories of Six Monkey’s meteoric rise to power, and subsequent clashes with Eight Deer, remained some of the most popular stories in the Mixtecs’ historical canon, providing lessons and inspiration across generations.

It is unfortunate this warrior queen is not better remembered today.

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