This story and many like it are the foundations of the Mexica society that glorify honor in war and made it a vital part of religion and culture.
Huitzilopochtli chases away the night each morning so that the people may prosper, and he is aided by the souls of fallen warriors that have fought their way through Mictlan and returned in the bodies of hummingbirds to continue protecting their people. With a lore like this, how could one not admire the culture one has been born and bred into?
Therefore, the people fulfilled their duties religiously in order to keep their gods content and willing to continue protecting them. Huitzilopochtli, as we talked about previously, is the main culprit behind the persistent trope of the Mexica being blood thirsty and cannibalistic. His sustenance was the blood and hearts of warriors, after all. We know now that there was much more grey area here than we thought, but the truth mains that human sacrifices were direly needed to feed him
And how does one continually keep a god bathed in blood? By building the fiercest and most disciplined army the Americas had ever seen. An army so deeply devoted that frequently they agreed to xochiyaoyotl, Flower Wars, where one side agreed to their capture explicitly for being sacrificed, because this was the greatest good their bodies could ever do- nourish the war god that protected their family for centuries.
Xochiyaoyotl were odd for a number of reasons. Not only were they agreed upon combat for the benefit of all the Empire, they were designed in a way to prevent full scale war and tensions and it worked! ... Usually.
In 1376 CE, one of these flower conquests turned into all out war with the Chalca which didn't really end too well for them.
This aside, the aim of the xochiyaoyotl was only to take enough warriors to sate the gods, nothing more.
Right? We take only what we need, right? The Mexica were not a wasteful people, we know that. They were humble and they shunned waste! Well, the people, yes. Anyone half awake today knows that we, the people, and they, the leaders, have two wildly different agendas.
Flowers Wars, unsurprisingly, also served to prune the military might of city-states and tribes that may have revolted, rebelled, or attempted to ally together. *chorus of "Called it!" from the readership, I know I know*
A break for a question! Remember folks, you can always ask me anything. I'll get to them ASAP.
@anarchiv asks: do you happen to know if there is any archaeological evidence for woman soldiers / mercenaries / ...in the Aztec civilisation?
And the answer is sadly, no, at least none I'm aware of. There is La Malinche, a slave girl sold to Hernan Cortes who became an instrument in the downfall of the empire and my namesake, Citlali, a captive princess, but otherwise no. I will look tho!
This brings me to another point: The Mexica did not exactly practice subtly in their warfare. While spies, known as quimichtin or mice, did exist to infiltrate the enemy, there are no explicit recountings of assassins or mercenaries within the Mexica ranks.
In fact, when a slight or grievance was felt by the leaders, a diplomatic envoy was the first line of offense in dealing with the enemy. Not war drums, no theatrics, just a diplomat and their warning of what was following them
And what was in the wake of a failed diplomatic mission? An army 200,000 warriors strong.
Unlike the Spartans, a similar culture in a lot of ways, the Mexica felt no need for a full time standing army. War was not a job. Farming, hunting, smithing, forging weapons, those were jobs. War was who the Mexica were at their core and when the call came, they laid down their tools for armor and spears to answer and march into battle.
So lets go over the structure of the army a little bit. At the top we have the tlatoani, roughly translated to English as the King. Now he wasn't a KING king, but he was the ruler of his specific city-state within the Empire.
The last ruler of Tenochtitlan was Cuauhtemoc, a cousin of Montezuma that ascended to the throne in the middle of the Spanish invasion. Mexica tlatoani lead their people from the ground, meaning they threw themselves into combat with the rest of their soldiers.
Tlatoani were unafraid of death. They were death themselves, for one could not become ruler if he had not demonstrated his command of the battlefield. Cuauhtemoc was captured by Hernan Cortes' men after 80 days of total war and having no more warriors nor allies to rely on, but was spared only to be later tortured in interrogation for a fabled treasure and then executed for plotting to slaughter their Spanish captives.
As an aside for @anarchiv : During this 80 day siege, the only remaining allies left of the empire was the city-state Tlatelolco. The ensuing battle is one of the extremely few accounts of women joining the fight- their bodies found in a mass grave alongside the male warriors wearing armor and buried with weapons. Perhaps there are more accounts somewhere... 🛡️
Beneath the tlatoani was his second in command, the cihuacoatl. They were joined by the four highest ranking nobles and warriors to create the war cabinet, the tlacochcalcatl, tlaccetacatl, tillancalqui, and etzhuanhuanco. Often times these were noble birthed soldiers who had the titled passed down by their fathers, but it was possible for a commoner to claw their way to the top with enough living captives dragged in from the battle field.
From here, we have four prestigious rankings of warriors: Jaguar ("ocēlōtl"), Eagle ("cuacuauhtin"), otontin, and cuauhchique.
Jaguar and Eagle warriors were soldiers of either noble or common birth that had captures anywhere between 4 and 12 (accounts vary) live! enemy warriors for sacrifice. They were exalted as heroes and decorated in either feathered suits (Eagle) or the skins of slain jaguars, and placed at the front of the battle to terrify their enemies.
There's no clear difference between Jaguar or Eagle warriors other than their outfits. My guess is that this comes down to the deity the warrior wishes to glorify.
Huitzilopochtli, the war god, was frequently represented by the eagle while Tezcatlipoca, the god of destruction, was represented by the jaguar. It makes sense that they would find themselves on the battle field, guiding their warriors to victory.
Otontin were the level just above Jaguar or Eagle warriors but little literature exists of them, while the Cuauhchique were the elite of the elite. At this point one was considered a full time warrior and had completed no less than 20 "feats of bravery" and captured more than two dozen live enemies for sacrifice. They were given access to the tlatoani's palace, a House order, could drink pulque publicly, and have many concubines.
As for dress, the higher ranked of a warrior you were, the more flamboyant your garb could be. The Cuauhchique had shields of gold, wore ornate feathers and jewelry, specially made weapons of fine materials, and colorful capes of regional textile. At all times, they were highly visible to the enemy, but what did they care? They were the greatest warriors alive steered by their gods themselves and if they fell, they would return as hummingbirds and resume their fight.
Alrighty, we're back!
Now, beneath these elite warriors we had the bulk of the corps, the regular warriors who were no less fearsome. 400 men were the minimum per ward or neighborhood, who were lead by their own senior warriors and marched beneath a standard of up to 8,000 men per division. At 25 divisions, its estimated that more 200,000 warriors could be mobilized for a large scale campaign.
Ahead of these troops were priests, bearing the images of Huitzilopochtli, and scouts with yellow painted faces and conch shell trumpets to announce their arrival and frighten their enemies.
Besides men, each ward brought food- maize, beans, and salt that was toted along by baggage carriers which were often junior warriors or even young boys who were not yet fighters.
When camp was necessary, the elites slept beneath simple reed mat huts while the ordinary troops slept beneath the stars.
These boys that were often baggage carriers, scouts, or even battle assistants who ran in carrying rope to help tie up captives, came from one of the schools that each child was sorted into as young as 5 years old. Noble and very talented children went to calmecac to become priests or priestesses, while commoner children attended telpochcalli where the girls learned song, dance, and essential life skills while the boys learned how to fight and kill.
Besides strategy, each boy learned to fight with a variety of weapons. One of the most well known of these was the Maquahuitl.
Part club, part cricket bat, part saw, and all pain, a maquahuitl could be either single or two handed, short or tall as a man. Its body was made up of wood and its edges were lined with a punishing row of obsidian shards. It was said a strong warriors could hack off a horses' head with a single blow using a maquahuitl!
Bows and arrows, poisoned darts from blowguns, and slingshots made of maguey fibers were also used by the Mexica warriors. However, you would not catch a warrior picking up stones from the field to use, oh no. They came well prepared with a satchel full of specially prepared clay balls with spikes, or stone and obsidian specially shaped and polished to get the best distance and inflict maximum injury. It was said these slings could kill a Spanish invader even with all his metal armor.
What about the Aztecs? What kind of armor did they wear? The simplest of all the armor was quilted cotton double or tripled up and soaked in a salty brine that was then allowed to dry so that the salt crystallized and added some rigidity and strength. Higher end armor added a tunic over that for extra protection. This was enough to resist slashing, jabbing, and obsidian edged weapons, their only real concern prior to 1520.
As for helmets? Heavily decorated and reserved for officers.
There was no real uniform, but rather rigid rules regarding detailing and ornamentation- the same rules in the cities applied in the battlefield. Commoners did not dare wear anything flashy, while the best of the best wore animal skins, gold and precious stone jewelry, tall feathered caps, and brightly colored woven capes. Commoners wore their salty tunics, loin clothes, and all wore fearsome war paint.
Do you remember in the beginning, when I mentioned diplomatic envoys, Flower Wars, thinning of military might to keep control, and the question of how the hell did the Empire fall to a bunch of scraggly ass Spaniards? Here's where it all comes together.
For all their might, dedication, and ferocity, the Mexica never practiced all out, total war. Their strategies did not include massacres and genocide, because they were not wasteful people. They needed subjects, remember?
They needed their outlying city-states and allies for tributes: gold, leather, maize, cocoa, copper, obsidian, cloth, cotton, shells, rubber, salt, exotic feathers, military service, and sacrifices. Why lay waste to people that could be toiling away for you? It was far more effective to quarter their forces, kidnap and scatter their children, kidnap the relics of their gods and install your own above them in order to exert total control.
This was how the Empire grew to be the size that it was. By capturing the enemy's warriors and main temple but largely leaving the leadership and civilians intact, they were able to flesh out an Empire of millions.
Of course, this strategy is also what eventually helped to lead to their downfall. Of course a captured people were prone to rebellions and revolts, and eventually the Empire was spread thin squashing them and regaining control.
In 1479 CE, the Tarascans, their long time enemies, destroyed an army of 32,000 over two campaigns near the city-state of Taximaloyan. By the time the Spanish arrived just 40 years later, it was to a people that had suffered serious setbacks by defeats at quelling rebellions and sickness contracted by contact with northern tribes who by then had already been exposed to European disease. It was estimated that nearly a million people had succumbed to illness by 1519, leaving the Empire weak.
Many- in fact most- people today who say they are descended from the ethnically Aztec peoples are most likely to be Tlaxcalan, if not one of the other surviving tribes. We know this because of Spanish Codices that tell us the Tlaxcalan, another long time enemy of the Mexica who were seeking vengeance and dominion, allied themselves with the Spanish invaders in order to once and for all destroy the Empire.
How did the Spanish- short of stature, ill, and malnourished- take down the Mexica warriors? They had help in the form of the tribes and city-states left partially torn apart and weakened by their Mexica lords. They sought justice and freedom for themselves and were promised it by Hernan Cortes, but the people did not know total war. They did not see their own doom.
After helping them to sack Tenochtitlan, the Spanish turned on their allies as well and slaughtered them.
In the end, the undoing of the Mexica Empire was precisely what had made them great to begin with. Their strategies, while highly effective, left a gap to be manipulated by unforseen outside forces. By 1521, the Empire was in ruins and the Spanish had won the land. In the time that has passed since, a minuscule 498 years, our culture and knowledge has been nearly completely eradicated. Most of us from Mexico have no idea of our origins, so if we wanna say we're Mexica? Whose to say we arent?
Lets wrap up!
*The Mexica Culture is stepped in honor through war- not death, not victory, War.
*Flower Wars were both ceremonial and military strategy
*The greater the warrior, the more they looked like Elton John on stage
*Slingshots kill fascist pigs
*Every Empire is flawed
*The Aztecs were colonizers too 🤷
Thanks so much for your attention! If you can spare it please tip the writer! Funds go towards waging war against the Spanish!
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@star Loved this thread! I would tip but I, too, am spread too thin.
The mention of smithing copper axes caught me by surprise - I had thought that indigenous america had no metalworking other than gold and silver. Were they smelting copper out of ore? Is there any sense how close were they to developing bronze?
@pineappleface @star bronze is an alloy of copper and tin. Tin is not found in the Americas in any mineable quantities that I know of, and certainly not of the sort of easily accessible ore like that found in Afghanistan and Cornwall, the location of the tin that powered the European and Middle Eastern bronze ages. Copper however was far more wide spread in the Americas, and could be cold pounded into axes or more often, used to make ornaments and jewelry.
I do wish to add that there are wildly conflicting reports about bronze in the region. Bronze artifacts have been found, and there are small tin deposits in west Mexico, but there's no actual evidence of whether these artifacts were made by the Mexica themselves or traded for. There have been slag deposits found and one possible smelting furnace but I cannot stress enough how completely and thoroughly the Spanished wrecked the place.
there is also a northwestern Indigenous tradition, a shaming ceremony, involving the breaking of a copper shield.
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