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Penny Bateman

Question for December 2004

Were there any women warriors? Asked by Turnfurlong Junior School. Chosen and answered by Penny Bateman.

Group of women, from the Florentine Codex, Volume 12
Group of women, from the Florentine Codex, Volume 12

I think this is a good question. It makes us think about Aztec women and what they did. Did women train as warriors? We have to think about what evidence exists. Just after the Spanish defeated the Aztec army and rulers in the 16th century, there were many people, both Aztec and Spaniards writing about Aztec history and daily life.

Woman healer, from the Florentine Codex, Volume 12
Woman healer, from the Florentine Codex, Volume 12

When they wrote about girls, they described them training to become good mothers and managers of the home, taking part in dances and religious ceremonies. Some writers also mentioned other women activities such as midwifery and healing, and making beautifully woven and embroidered textiles.

Women selling herbs, from the Florentine Codex, Volume 12
Women selling herbs, from the Florentine Codex, Volume 12

We are told women sold produce in the market and some women belonging to merchant families became important traders. I don’t think any writer suggested girls were trained as warriors. Did women ever fight? All the books written by Aztec and Spanish writers in the 16th century show us that men were the fighters in battle and there are the famous groups of warriors such as the Eagle and Jaguar Knights, all shown as men. But there is at least one bit of information that suggests that women did fight when times were desperate.

From the Tovar Manuscript
From the Tovar Manuscript

The Anonymous Authors of Tlatelolco retold the Story of the Conquest in 1528. ‘Anonymous’ means we don’t know the names of these authors. Tlatelolco was the sister city of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. In this story the authors wrote, ‘the women of Tlatelolco joined in the fighting. They struck at the enemy and shot arrows at them; they tucked up their skirts and dressed in the regalia of war’. This described a time during the final attack of the Spanish. The Tlatelolcan people must have been in a terrible state with many people already dead including many warriors. The story shows just how desperate they were by saying even the women had to fight. That would make sense in such a grim situation. But as always one has to be a bit careful when reading history. Maybe the women did fight, or maybe the authors writing just wanted everyone reading to be sure they knew how terrible the situation was. In the 16th century in Spain and New Mexico, it would be extremely rare for women to fight in battle, so readers really would understand that things were bad.

an illustration by Irina Botcharova and Leonid Nepomniachi from the book ‘Pasajes de la Historia Volume 1’, published by Mexico Desconocido / Conaculta, Mexico
an illustration by Irina Botcharova and Leonid Nepomniachi from the book ‘Pasajes de la Historia Volume 1’, published by Mexico Desconocido / Conaculta, Mexico

Were Aztec women ever thought to be warriors?

It seems that they were. This was when women were giving birth. Writers in the 16th century tell us that the Aztecs thought the act of birth was like a battle. The new born child was described as a ‘captive’ and the mother as a warrior. This stresses how important fighting and capturing enemies were in Aztec society. In the Aztec empire as in the rest of world at the time, giving birth was dangerous to both the mother and newborn child. All too often, one, the other or both did not live. There was great joy and celebrations when there was a healthy newborn baby and well mother. When a mother died giving birth, she was said to be a warrior who died in battle.
When a man died in battle or as a sacrificial victim, he was considered a hero. Aztecs thought he was rewarded by becoming a kind of god, that travelled with the sun on its journey across the sky from dawn to midday. After fours years the dead warrior returned to earth to have an ideal life as a butterfly or hummingbird.

Sculpture of Cihuateteo from the Catalogue of the Aztecs Exhibition at the Royal Academy, London, 1993 (originally from Conaculta)
Sculpture of Cihuateteo from the Catalogue of the Aztecs Exhibition at the Royal Academy, London, 1993 (originally from Conaculta)

Women who died in childbirth, were also rewarded as dead warriors. They too accompanied the sun on its journey but this time from its position at midday down to where it set in the western sky. The Aztecs believed that after four years these dead women warriors also returned to earth, but they became frightening beings that haunted crossroads and tried to snatch babies and children. There are stone sculptures that show what Aztecs thought these supernatural beings looked like.

Sculpture of Cihuateteo from the Catalogue of the Aztecs Exhibition at the Royal Academy, London, 1993 (originally from Conaculta)
Sculpture of Cihuateteo from the Catalogue of the Aztecs Exhibition at the Royal Academy, London, 1993 (originally from Conaculta)

They are always shown with skull-like heads and clawed hands. They are called Cihuateteo.

Were women warriors in the Aztec’s ancient past?

We know about ancient Aztec history from archaeology, very rare books written before the Spanish arrived and histories written from memory after the Spanish conquest. Experts can use this information to find out a great deal about early Aztec life and events, but lots of information has been lost forever. From what we do know, it does not seem that early Aztec women were warriors. But the histories do talk about women leaders.
One of the most important names in early Aztec history, is Huitzilopochtli. He is described both as a great leader and as a god connected to the sun and war. The Great Temple (Templo Mayor) was dedicated to him and the rain god. When the Aztecs were still on their long journeys in search of a permanent home, Aztec histories tell us that Huitzilopochtli’s sister, Malinalxochitl, and a group of people loyal to her, split from the main Aztec group and eventually founded their own city. We don’t really know who this woman was or how or when this split took place. The story may be a simple version of a much more complicated event. But the story shows that Aztecs believed that women, at least in earlier times, could be powerful leaders.

from the Florentine Codex, Volume 3
from the Florentine Codex, Volume 3

Another Aztec historical and religious story is about a warrior goddess. Her name was Coyolxauhqui. She is described as being another sister of Huitzilopochtli. The story goes that Coyolxauhqui was furious with her mother, an earth goddess named Coatlicue, when she became pregnant with Huizilopochtli. Coyolxauhqui joined with her 400 brothers, the Centzon Huitznahua, to attack Coatlicue with the aim of killing her. Before this could happen, Huizilopochtli, was warned of the attack. The story relates that he sprang fully grown from his mother’s womb, armed with a club called a Fire Serpent (Xiuhcoatl). In the battle that followed, he defeated the Centzon Huitznahua and killed Coyolxauhqui, throwing her body down the hill where they fought. This story may symbolise some historical event in the ancient past. It also symbolises certain Aztec beliefs. Some researchers think that Coyolxauhqui represents the moon while the Centzon Huitznahua are the stars, defeated by the sun each morning. Others think Coyolxauqhui may be the milky way.

photo of the Coyolxauhqui stone by Ian Mursell
photo of the Coyolxauhqui stone by Ian Mursell

In 1978 a huge stone carving of Coyolxauqhui was found during the excavations of the Great Temple. She is shown with her head and limbs cut from her body.

She is naked except for symbols worn by warriors, such as bells, an eagle headdress, large ear ornaments and balls of feather down (which symbolise sacrifice). During Aztec times, religious leaders and victims would pass by this sculpture as they climbed the Temple on their way to sacrificial ceremonies.

More evidence

Historians and archaeologists are always discovering new information or re-thinking what old information really means. So the information here is certainly not the whole story. It is great there are web-sites like this and new books coming out all the time which help us to keep up to date with new discoveries.

Penny Bateman has answered 2 questions altogether:

Were there any women warriors?

Why did the Aztecs worship maize?

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