General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Sep 2017/9 Jaguar
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Aztec/Mexica victory symbol (shield and arrows), Codex Mendoza

Did war shield symbols represent cities?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Azcatll: Has anyone identified the symbols on the war shields as to which cities they represented? I know that the Tenochas had a war shield with what looked like 7 sea shells as represented on one of the codexes. (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

The emblem of Tenochtitlan with its powerful war glyph beneath, Codex Mendoza folio 2r (detail)
The emblem of Tenochtitlan with its powerful war glyph beneath, Codex Mendoza folio 2r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

No! This is because the designs on Aztec shields didn’t represent cities so much as - and this very loosely - warrior ranks, associated costume styles and individual tastes (Patricia Rieff Anawalt, a world expert on Mesoamerican costume and clothing, cautions that ‘no shield motif was firmly linked to a specific costume’). The shield (chimalli in Náhuatl) was a very personal - and highly valued - piece of a warrior’s equipment: indeed, Professor John Pohl has written that it represented the warrior’s soul, and would generally be burned at the funeral of a dead man.

The one you mention is, by contrast, less an image of a warrior’s battle shield and more a glyph or metaphor for war in general (though it’s not to be confused with the more elegant sacred war metaphor of ‘water and burnt earth’ - link below). It’s the ‘classic’ glyph that appears several times in the Codex Mendoza, accompanied by 4 bows. More than war, however, it represented the very imperial power of the Aztecs/Mexica, vested in their great capital city, Tenochtitlan. The 7 round objects on the shield (sometimes 8 are shown) are not sea shells but balls of down (ihuiteteyo in Náhuatl), that bore associations with death. Some scholars suggest this glyph is the ‘real Aztec “coat of arms”’: it appears in front of each of the 9 Aztec rulers in turn in the first (history) part of the Codex Mendoza.

Images from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark, London (1938) facsimile edition.

Info from:-
The Codex Mendoza by Frances F. Berdan and Patricia Rieff Anawalt, 4 vols., University of California Press, 1992
Aztec, Mixtec and Zapotec Armies by John M D Pohl, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, 1991.

Our feature on the ‘chimalli’

The Aztec metaphor for sacred war