A guest post from Enrique Ortiz, an artist, painter, and web designer, a man who knows way too much about anything Mexica-Aztec related, a man who would not miss a single archeological conference in the Temple Mayor museum.
Enrique is a talented painter and I promise to link to his works later on, when his beautifully detailed and historrically accurate paintings will be properly water-marked and protected (soon, as he promised). He is also one of the founders of In Tlilli In Tlapalli – pre-hispanic blog where you can read many more fascinating articles by him, and other knowledgeable, well-versed in history people.
Weapons in the Mexica period
We all know about the military reach of the powerful Aztec civilization, whose armies dominated more than 500 different cities in the states of Tabasco, Veracruz, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Edo, just to name a few, reaching out beyond even the current Mexican borders, colonizing parts of Guatemala.
But if you wondered how those Aztec legions were armed and what weapons they used, you will find your answers in this article because today I will write about the weaponry used by the Mexica warriors.
The instruments of war are always divided into offensive and defensive.
This article will talk mainly about the offensive weapons, although I would like to mention the defensive weapons such as chimalli – a shield, which was made out of wood, reinforced with reeds, sisal fiber, then covered with leather. Also ichcahuipilli, a padded cotton armor, hardened with salt water, or made out of sisal.
Among the offensive weapons of combat first comes the ever popular macuahuitl – the obsidian sword, which consisted of a pine stick inlaid with razor-sharp obsidian. It is said that macuahuitl could cut an arm or a head without a problem, but if it was the first blow, as, colliding with a shield or another wooden item, the obsidian blade could broke or became damaged. Even by accounts of Bernal Diaz del Castillo, we know that there was a version of this weapon used to be handled with two hands (the Hispanic version of the European bastard sword). A couple of photographs taken in the late nineteenth century confirm this observation, showing a very long macuahuitl located in the Royal Armoury of Madrid which was destroyed with many other pieces when a fire occurred inside the compound previously mentioned.
Spears/javelins were also quite popular weapons used by the Aztec warriors. A great diversity of those weapons ranged from javelins, favored by light troop and called teputzopilli, to heavy lances. These were very characteristic to various Mexican civilizations, because the tip of the spear had also been inlaid with obsidian slabs. No doubt those weapons was used mainly in close combat. If in America had been existed contingents of pikemen or spearmen, Europe would certainly have used a Mexican teputzopilli.
Closely related to spears was atlatl. This weapon consisted of a piece of wood with two handles for fingers, which worked as an extension of the warrior’s arm. Using the atlatl, its owner would achieve more accuracy and cover greater distance (current experiments establish that had a range of 100 to 150 m with the ability to impale a man). The wood it was made of, was pine, due to its durability and lightness.
Atlatl and spear were linked with the ruling class of Tenochtitlan, as well as with the gods. There were numerous representations of Tezcatlipoca and Huitzilopochtli handling atlatl in one hand, and the other holding the darts to use. Ceremonial atlatls were primarily decorative, not intended to use in battle. They were inlaid with turquoise, jade, bone, gold and endless precious materials.
Another, but a less popular weapon, were a bow and arrows (made of one piece and not as the Mongolian composite bows, made out of different materials for the added strength and propulsion shooting). The arrowheads could be made from obsidian, bone, or charred wood. It is noteworthy that the primary function of this weapon was the hunt, like the blowpipe, therefore its use in a battle was not as extensive as this of atlatl or macuahuitl. Bow and arrows were valued differently among peoples of ancient Mexico. For example, the Tarascan were famous archers, inflicting heavy defeats on other nations with their use of metallurgy and their mastery of archery. For Chichimeca nomadic groups, living mainly by hunting, the bow was essential in their lifestyle.
A basic part of the arsenal of a commoner warrior would be a sling, woven from sisal or other plant fibers. In chronicles of anonymous conquistadors, the Spanish squadrons referred to groups of slingers among the Mexica forces. The ammunition was usually river rocks or slabs of stone, carved with angles to increase the impact, and the damage. Today in some populations of Mexico there are still people who know how to make these slings with one sisal cord, using it for hunting, although this traditional craft is getting closer to extinction with each passing day.
I hope this brief overview of the Mexican weaponry was of an interest. Although there is not quite enough information on this subject, it is logical that there is much more than reflected in this limited space. For example, it is interesting to note (albeit briefly) that wooden mallets barbed some obsidian were used, along with axes and copper weapons (the latter probably brought from faraway kingdom of Michoacán). Just look and you are invited to begin your own investigation into the rich culture of the people who had inhabited this country called Mexico before the Spanish arrived.
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Cheers and good night