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The Aztec Warrior of Mexico: Warfare in the Great City of Tenochtitlan

Updated on December 12, 2011

I have written this article after reading Inga Clendinnen's book, The Cost of Courage in Aztec Society, which is a wonderfully researched anthropological and historical book about Aztec society before the Europeans arrived, particularly the religious and spiritual significance of the cult of the warrior.

Aztec Jaguar Warrior, an important and successful class of warrior.
Aztec Jaguar Warrior, an important and successful class of warrior. | Source

The Cost of Courage in Aztec Society

Most of use know about the Aztecs as the Great Rulers of Mexico.

We've heard that they have pyramids, that the waged battles in the area, they held bloody human sacrifices and ate the flesh of their enemies. They covered everything in gold, and their influence can be seen in Mexican culture even today. In this article, I will focus on the cult of the Warrior in the hopes that you'll learn that the Aztec warrior and war rituals, as well as their bloody human sacrifices and cannibalism, were not just primal urges being manifested so that their enemies may fear them, but that they were part of a complex spiritual belief system that sought to dramatize the natural processes of nature.

The Aztecs strongly associated the human body with the soil, water, sun, and vegetation. They believed that a constant state of warfare was necessary in order to provide victims for human sacrifice in order to feed the insatiable Earth and Sun dieties with human flesh.

A mural of what the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan is believed to have looked like.
A mural of what the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan is believed to have looked like. | Source

The Aztec warrior was venerated by society.

He was educated from a pre-pubescent age in warfare. Battle involved a highly complex form of fighting that aimed to stun enemies with a large paddle. Once stunned, the warrior could bring the victim back to the city to be ritually sacrificed in a religious ceremony. The Aztecs invited foreign representatives from other cities to come watch these violent displays as a warning of their power.

Besides receiving the respect of their countrymen and their equivalent of a large paycheck, no other part of the sacrifice ceremony was focused directly on the warrior.

The captive's body became a microcosm of the Earth.

His heart was associated with the heat of the sun and the source of all life, his blood with nourishing rain and water, his bone with seed, and his flesh with vegetation. During the sacrifice, the victim's heart was removed and offered to the sun, the blood was speared over idyllic statues in the city, the flesh was the consumed, and the warrior who captured that particular victim wore his skin as a cloak. This sounds pretty gruesome, but wearing the victims skin was likened to the husk of a seed, which must be pierced through and thrown off so that new life may flourish.

Reconstruction of the busy Aztec Market
Reconstruction of the busy Aztec Market | Source


The family of the captor were given the priviledge of eating some of the victim's flesh. When they did, they mixed it with dried maize, a tribute to their recognition that human flesh is made of the same medium as the maize-- they are simply as different points in the cycle. The interesting thing about this is that the captor did not participate in eating the victim's flesh. It was an accepted fact that he too, would eventually be taken as a prisoner in battle and sacrificed in another city. It was therefore a dark experience to become a successful warrior, as the final end was not veneration and celebration: it was a surrender back to the elements.

Aztec Corn Goddess
Aztec Corn Goddess | Source

The Aztec's Interpretation of Nature

While all agricultural societies practice rituals that correlate with the biological cycles that give them sustenance, the Aztecs’ quite literal and violent interpretation of nature is unique and noteworthy.

Their creation myths also reflect a bloody view of the world: that the Earth was a monster that was torn apart and then refused to bring forth fruit until fed with human flesh, and that the first people were made of a dough of ground bones and blood. The afterlife lead the deceased on a four year journey to the underworld, during which they would gradually lose all personhood and dissolve into nothingness. The Aztec’s miserable beginnings, in which they were chased from many communities and finally settled on an unwanted island, followed by their rapid rise to greatness and the ruling over millions of people of diverse cultures may have led to their fatalistic and violent worldview.

Clendinnen states that the Aztecs peceived the universe in layers, and that the Earth layer, the one available to human senses, was unstable and constantly changing. She asserts that in the ritual of war, killing, and eating the captives’ flesh, the Aztecs sought to make the human status as uncertain as the natural order, thereby enabling themselves to survive within it.

Map of Tenochtitlan over the modern streets of Mexico City
Map of Tenochtitlan over the modern streets of Mexico City | Source


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    • stephaniedas profile image

      Stephanie Das 16 months ago from Miami, US

      Hi- Sorry for such a late reply, but I was off subpages for a long time. No, never heard of the mellified man, who is it?

    • poetryman6969 profile image

      poetryman6969 3 years ago

      Sometimes it seems like an astonishing amount of cannibalism used to exist. Have you ever heard of the mellified man?

    • stephaniedas profile image

      Stephanie Das 5 years ago from Miami, US

      @A.A.Zavala- that sounds like a fascinating hub. I will try to find it on your page. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

    • A.A. Zavala profile image

      Augustine A Zavala 5 years ago from Texas

      Fascinating! I wrote a hub about a conquistadors last moments in Tenochtitlan, and his encounter with jaguar and eagle warriors. I have always been fascinated by their society and demise. Thank you for sharing.

    • stephaniedas profile image

      Stephanie Das 6 years ago from Miami, US

      @kittythedreamer- I'm glad you left the comment. Yes, it is pretty gruesome and it does seem quite primitive in a way, but its also sort of beautiful in a strange way. Once you get past the grossness of the blood and the skin, it has its own charm, what with equating the body with a plant and all.

      @Carcro- I agree, we have it good today! They are a fascinating culture to study. Thanks for the comment and vote!

    • carcro profile image

      Paul Cronin 6 years ago from Winnipeg

      Excellent hub on the Aztecs, i really learned a lot from this very interesting hub. I'm so glad we live in these modern times, i would hate to have a job back in those times. Thanks for sharing, voted UP!

    • kittythedreamer profile image

      Nicole Canfield 6 years ago from Summerland

      Wow. Voted up and interesting. I didn't know a lot of this info about the Aztecs. Pretty gruesome...I began finding myself saying, yeah that makes sense, but then when it got to the way the Aztecs viewed creation and the world I was thinking, "oh, nevermind"...haha. Definitely primitive and primal people. Connected to nature but sort of rejected it at the same time. Thanks so much. Wonderfully written and intriguing.