Aztec warriors were one of the keys to the success of the Aztec Empire. Over the course of 200 years, the Aztecs went from being the nobodies of Central Mexico to the most dominant power in the region, with a capital city on par with any in the world. Like any expansionist state, they leaned heavily on their warriors to make this happen. And, like in other military societies, those who proved good soldiers were rewarded with status and wealth.
The Telpochcalli, or House of the Youth
Unless they were the son of a merchant or was tapped for the priesthood, every Aztec boy trained to be a warrior. In a practice stinkingly similar to ancient Sparta, Aztec boys left home at a young age (usually at 13) and moved into the telpochcalli, or “House of the Youth.” This system began in the mid-1400s, under the reign of Moctezuma I, and, over time, every farming village and every urban neighborhood came to have their own telpochcalli.
Unlike the Spartan experience, however, Aztec boys don’t seem to have been physically punished or tested from the moment they walked into the door of their warrior school. They began tutelage by performing chores, such as fetching firewood and sweeping. Then, in the evenings, the students sang, talked, and generally enjoyed themselves.
As Aztec boys aged, though, the intensity was ratcheted up. As they exited their tweenage and entered their teenage years, students fighting one another in exercises meant to increase their skill and ability. Older teens, likely 17-19, would even accompany the Aztec army to battle, so they could learn from real world experience.
Like all other aspects of life in this time period (not Aztecs, but the whole world), religion also played at least a small part in the telpochcalli experience. These schools had a patron god, named Tezcatlipoca. Interestingly, this god also occasionally went by the names Yoatl, meaning “the warrior,” and Telpcohtli, meaning the “young man.” This religious tradition could be where the name for the schools originated.
From this grueling experience, Aztec boys were shaped into young warriors. Through this process, the Aztec Empire could furnish itself with more or less professional soldiers, in a time when their neighbors could not. This gave Aztec armies and their warriors a decided advantage on the battlefield.
Aztec Warrior Societies and Military Ranks
Once out of the telpochcalli, Aztec warriors entered the ranks of the Aztec military. Here, they had a chance to distinguish themselves in battle.
Even commoners who displayed exceptional courage and skill could rise up the ranks of Aztec society. The key to winning these victories, both on the battlefield and the social ladder, was to capture, rather than kill, enemy combatants.
In Aztec warfare, capturing the enemy was the goal, those battlefield casualties certainly happened. Many of these captured combatants were later sacrificed, as the Aztecs believed that making gifts of blood to the god Huitzilopochtli would ensure the continuation of their world.
There were several different ranks that Aztec warriors could hope to achieve in their careers. The most vaunted, however, were the Eagle Warriors, the Jaguar Warriors, the Otomies, and the Shorn Ones.
Aztec Eagle Warriors
In Aztec society, the eagle and jaguar were symbols of bravery. When the world began (in Aztec mythology, this was known as the Fifth Sun), these two creatures became in flames. From this trail, the eagle emerged singed (giving them their distinct dark feathers) and the jaguar bearing his distinctive spots, but neither were worse for the wear.
The importance of the eagle as a symbol of bravery is best illustrated by the elite military corps known as the Eagle Warriors, or Eagle Knights in some texts.
The ranks of the Aztec Eagle Warriors were filled with nobility as well as commoners who proved their worth in battle. Playing the role of infantrymen in the Aztec army, eagle warriors were one of the keys to Aztec military successes throughout Mesoamerica.
To become an eagle warrior, one had to do more than just display bravery – war is a results driven business after all. Though the figures vary, it appears that soldiers wishing to earn the rank of eagle warrior had to capture a certain number of enemy combatants. The numbers given by these various sources range from four to 20, with some adding in the proviso that an Aztec warrior had to capture enemies in two consecutive battles (at least). No matter what the actual number was, this just goes to show the skill level needed to achieve this rank.
But they weren’t just good, they looked good doing it. Like any elite military body throughout history, the Aztec eagle warriors wore special uniforms to denote their rank. Over their bodies, they wore clothing that had eagle feathers sewn into it (feather working was a high Aztec art) to mimic the plumage of eagles. Over their heads, they wore a helmet designed to look like a screeching eagle, with their faces visible through the open beak.
Off the battlefield, eagle warriors also participated in religious duties. In many areas of the Aztec Empire, temples existed that were connected to warrior societies like the eagle warriors.
Though only one such temple remains, in what is now Malincalo, Mexico, at the height of the Aztec Empire The House of the Eagle stood within the sacred of Tenochtitlan. Within this temple, eagle warriors assisted Aztec priests with religious, sometimes even giving small portions of their own blood as a sacrifice.
Aztec Jaguar Warriors
On the same tier as the eagle warriors within the Aztec army, the Aztec jaguar warriors had an equally fearsome reputation to their avian-clad colleagues.
Writing in Mexico City after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, Diego Durán recorded what he learned about this warrior society from the older Mexica residents of the city:
“They [the jaguar warriors] were the men whom the sovereigns most loved and esteemed, the men who obtained most privileges and prerogatives. To them the kings granted most generous favors, adorning them with brilliant, splendid weapons and insignias… When one of these knights performed a great feat in war, capturing or slaying, he obtained these distinctions. As soon as the warrior returned to the court, the king was informed of the brave deed of the knight, who was brought before him. After manifesting his appreciation, the king dubbed him a knight and gave him his honor… The hair on the top of his head was parted in two, and a red cord wrapped around it; in the same cord was attached an ornament of green, blue and red feathers… and a red tassel.”
Unlike many sources would like you to believe, the uniforms of the jaguar warriors did not use a bit of jaguar skins, fur, or pelts. But they did have feathers! Similar to the equipment of the eagle warriors, the uniforms of the jaguar warriors were decorated with elaborate feather work, designed to look like a jaguar.
Along with the rank of eagle warrior, the jaguar knights were occupied the highest warrior society that peasants could hope to work their way into. Once there, however, these veteran warriors enjoyed special privileges, which included:
- Land from the empire
- Ability to imbibe a Mesoamerican alcohol called pulque
- Dining at the imperial palace
- Having multiple concubines
- Wearing ornate jewelry denied to peasants
Once you were a jaguar warrior, you’d really made it.
Otomies and the Shorn Ones
Above the eagle and jaguar warriors, the otomies and shorn ones constituted the highest warrior societies within the Aztec military. Just like any other warrior class, you had to earn your way into these two societies through martial valor.
To enter into the rank of the otomies, an Aztec warrior had to make five or six captures in battle. The otomies carried the most famous of Aztec weapons, the maquahuitl, the Aztec version of a sword, and a shield decorated with four crescent patterns on its front. They were also given large banners to carry into battle, called xopilli. To finish off the look, they bound their hair with a red ribbon.
Though there is some debate among historians, it seems like only the Aztec nobles could enter this warrior class. A highly hierarchical society, the powers that were may have been weary of allowing commoners to rise through the ranks and wrest control from their kin, disrupting the precarious balance of power at the top of the Aztec state.
To enter into the highest of Aztec warrior societies, the shorn ones, Aztec warriors had to not only take many captive, but also perform 20 heroic deeds. While it isn’t quite clear what constituted such a deed, it must have been a doozy of a feat, given the high number of enemy soldiers they had to capture to become a shorn one.
Once in this vaunted position, warriors had their heads completely shaved except for a small bit of hair over their left ear that they braided with a red ribbon. This unique hairstyle gave the shorn ones their name.
When they went into battle, the shorn ones would also painted half their face blue and the other half red or yellow. For clothing, it seems they wore a loincloth, with a shirt woven from maguey fibers.
Though neither class seems have participated in affairs of the state outside of the battlefield, the most celebrated these elite Aztec warriors were given rooms within the imperial palace. In a life filled with danger, this wasn’t a bad place to rest one’s head.
The Macuahuitl, the Dangerous Obsidian Swords of Aztec Warriors
The weapon of choice for elite Aztec warriors, the macuahuitl was one bad mamajama. Seriously.
Even though it doesn’t look like it would be as strong or powerful as an iron sword from the Old World, the Spanish conquistadors constantly wrote about how the macuahuitl could cut the head off of a horse with one powerful blow. Despite being made of wood and obsidian, it seems these Aztec swords had the upper hand on their European cousins.
The macuahuitl came in two varieties: one handed and two handed. The smaller one handed version measured roughly 3 to 4 inches wide and a little over 3 feet long. It’s said the two handed macuahuitl’s were around 4 inches wide and as tall as a man. Imagine the skill needed to wield that!
To construct these dangerous weapons, Aztec artisans made the body of the sword from sturdy wood, typically oak, and then carved grooved along the outer edge. In these groves, they placed sharpened obsidian blades.
In some instances, the obsidian blades were placed tightly next to one another, creating a smooth, consistent cutting surface. On others, weapon makers left gaps between the blades, giving them an almost serrated quality. To keep these obsidian blades in place, artisans used bitumen and turtle dung glue as adhesives.
The macuahuitl proved so effective in battle, that even Spanish conquistadors admitted they were better than European swords. Apparently, try as they might, the Spaniards couldn’t get the obsidian blades to break! And admitting they were inferior, in any way, was not something the conquistadors usually did.
The Armor Worn by Aztec Warriors
The armor that Aztec warriors donned in battle mostly covered their torso, protecting their core far more than their limbs. The main piece of Aztec armor, ichcahuipilli, was made from quilted cotton.
Widely used across central Mexico, this armor proved far more protective than it might sound. Fashioned by using leather to sew two layers of unspun cotton between an outer shell of cloth, ichcahuipilli could deflect arrows and spears in battle.
This contrasts sharply with our vision of the Eurasian knights and soldiers of the same time period. These Old World warriors clad themselves head-to-toe in suits of iron. But, when we put this into the context of Aztec battle this difference makes a lot more sense.
The goal of Aztec warriors was not to kill, but to capture prisoners. Given that dying in battle was not the biggest fear of these warriors, they could design the Aztecs could design their armor to be lighter and less burdensome on the battlefield.
Over this quilted cotton armor, Aztec warriors wore a war suit (tlahuiztli), covering their armor as well as their arms and legs. This provided a small layer of protection from the nicks and cuts they were likely to sustain from an enemy combatant. These suits also varied in quality, with the most elite warriors decorating them with eagle feathers and other tropes common to the Aztec nobility.
Sources on Aztec Warriors
- Camilla Townsend, Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 77
- Susan Toby Evans, Ancient Mexico and Central America: Archaeology and Culture History (London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd., 2008), 257, 298
- Townsend, Fifth Sun, 77
- David Carrasco and Scott Sessions, Daily Life of the Aztecs: People of the Sun and Earth (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998), 171
- Aztecs: A History, 170
- Wu Mingren, “The Infamous Eagle Warriors: Elite Infantrymen of the Aztec Empire,” ancient-origins.net
- Carrasco and Sessions, Daily Life of the Aztecs, 146
- “Mexica jaguar warriors did NOT wear jaguar skins,” mexicolore.co.uk
- “The Aztec Warrior: Rank and Warrior Societies,” historyonthenet.com
- Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, Handbook to Life in the Aztec World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 103
- Ross Hasig, Aztec Warfare Imperial Expansion and Political Control (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988), 46
- Hasig, Aztec Warfare Imperial Expansion and Political Control, 83
- Hasig, Aztec Warfare Imperial Expansion and Political Control, 83-85
- Hasig, Aztec Warfare Imperial Expansion and Political Control, 88