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Dr. Ross Hassig

Question for August 2013

How did a warrior put on the skin of an eagle if the bird was smaller than he was? Asked by Edgewood Primary School. Chosen and answered by Dr. Ross Hassig.

Spanish v Aztecs: Codex Duran fol. 30a
Spanish v Aztecs: Codex Duran fol. 30a (Click on image to enlarge)

Although eagle warriors were one of the knightly orders among the Aztecs, the suits they wore just looked like eagles. They were not actually made out of eagle skins. The point of the suits was two-fold. First, they indicated the warrior status of the wearer, and second, the suit was meant to protect the wearer. All Aztec warriors engaged in hand to hand combat wore armor made of quilted cotton. It was usually an inch or two of raw cotton quilted between two pieces of cotton cloth, and in the form of a jerkin, so it protected the trunk of the wearer’s body which was most vulnerable to injuries. If the body cavity was punctured, say by an arrow, the medicine of the day could not treat it adequately if any of those organs, such as the stomach or intestines, were pierced and the man would sicken and die, hence the importance of protecting that part of the body. The arms and legs were not armored.

An artist’s impression of Aztec cotton body armour
An artist’s impression of Aztec cotton body armour (Click on image to enlarge)

In an earlier civilization, at Teotihuacan, full body armor was used in the fifth through seventh centuries, but combat then did not involve the swords and thrusting spears used by the later Aztecs, so the point was full protection without as much need for agility. After Teotihuacan, nobody used full body armor because more hand-to-hand weapons were used and it would slow the wearer down. Also, cotton couldn’t grow in the climate of central Mexico and it had to be imported from more tropical coastal regions, which made it very expensive. Anyway, the eagle suits covered the limbs, but did not especially protect them. The eagle suits, like most of the other warriors suits, were made out of cloth - undoubtedly cotton, although none have survived to be examined - and then covered with whatever was appropriate to the wearer, appropriately colored feathers in the case of eagle warriors, though not likely with actual eagle feathers, most of which would be too large and inflexible for the suits.

Picture sources:-
• Main picture: scanned from our own copy of Códice Durán - Historia de las Indias de Nueva España e Islas de Tierra Firme, Arrendedora Internacional, Mexico City, 1990
• Aztec body armour: illustration by Adam Hook, courtesy of Osprey Publishing.

Dr. Ross Hassig has answered 4 questions altogether:

When the Aztecs went to war, did they use any [special] tactics?

Did the Aztecs believe in going to war BEFORE they reached and settled in Tenochtitlan?

Why did Aztec shields have patterns on them?

How did a warrior put on the skin of an eagle if the bird was smaller than he was?

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