General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 24 Mar 2019/13 Lizard
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Dr. Ross Hassig

Question for September 2012

Why did Aztec shields have patterns on them? Asked by Denmead School (Prep Dept.). Chosen and answered by Dr. Ross Hassig.

Aztec shield. Museum of Ethnology (Museum für Völkerkunde), Vienna, Austria
Aztec shield. Museum of Ethnology (Museum für Völkerkunde), Vienna, Austria (Click on image to enlarge)

There are at least four answers to that. In some cases, kings adopted designs that commemorated their great victories. There are only a few surviving Aztec shields, and those are the ones with elaborate featherwork. Some have geometric designs that probably had meaning to the owners, but are unknown to me. Others, including the most famous one, had more realistic designs. The best is the one of a creature with a water design on its back that is an ahuitzotl, which is an otter, and is also the name of the king who ruled before the historic Montezuma, although it is unclear whether that was his shield or merely commemorated him or his line. At one point in the Spanish conquest, a warrior was dressed in the garb of a war god to confront the Spaniards, and his shield undoubtely bore the insignia of that deity. But the most common reason for having a design was that each city, or if large, each calpolli or neighborhood within the city, marched as a unity and all those soldiers had shields with the symbols of their calpolli.

Picture source:-
Photo courtesy Museum of Ethnology (Museum für Völkerkunde), Vienna, Austria.

Learn more about the ‘chimallii’ (shield)...

‘What were Aztec shields made of?’

‘Did war shield symbols represent cities?’

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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