General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Sep 2017/9 Jaguar
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Aztec war symbol on a famous Mexica huehuetl war drum

The Aztec symbol for war

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Stephanie Ulloa: I wanted to know what the Aztec symbol for war is. I have seen so many variations I just want to make sure I have the right one. (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

An eagle perched on a prickly-pear cactus with an Aztec war symbol coming from its beak; stone sculpture, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
An eagle perched on a prickly-pear cactus with an Aztec war symbol coming from its beak; stone sculpture, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Good question. You can see the Mexica symbol for war on this famous vertical drum (huehuetl), though it might not be obvious straight away. It’s NOT to be confused with the better known Aztec shield symbol (chimalli) - that you can see in our ‘Aztec Artefacts’ section - nor the symbol for a battle victory (burning, toppled temple). Because the symbol for war was a paired metaphor (made up of two opposite terms that complement each other) to be spoken, it’s often shown as a speech sign in front of a mouth. Can you spot it coming from the jaguar warrior’s mouth carved here on the drum - and from the mouth of the eagle in the picture below?

‘Atl-tlachinolli’ - Aztec water-and-fire or war symbol; drawing by Abel Mendoza
‘Atl-tlachinolli’ - Aztec water-and-fire or war symbol; drawing by Abel Mendoza (Click on image to enlarge)

The symbol in the language of the Aztecs/Mexica (Náhuatl) was atl tlachinolli, meaning ‘water, burnt (or scorched) earth’. The metaphor, typically in Náhuatl, consists of two opposite elements (literally) - water and fire, forming two streams (in all likelihood one blue and one red) that join together to form one key idea (war). Each element is a source of energy and life-force but can also be one of destruction. Like the paired shrines to (rain god) Tlaloc and (war god) Huitzilopochtli atop the main temple of the Mexica and the reality of two ‘opposite’ seasons in the Aztec year (farming season and war season) they are classic examples of the importance of the concept of duality in Mexica thought and approach to life.

Some scholars believe the fire-and-water concept of war may be as old as the Early Classic Teotihuacán period, hundreds of years before the Aztec empire was built...

• You can explore the Aztec war symbol further by going to our features on the Morning Star god (Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli) and on the great war drum from Malinalco (follow the links below).

Picture sources:-
• Photos of the war drum and of the stone sculpture by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Drawing of ‘atl tlachinolli’ scanned from our copy of Burning Water’ by Laurette Séjourné, Thames and Hudson 1957

Aztec war drum

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