General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 24 Nov 2017/9 Rain
Text Size:

Search the Site (type in white box):

Article suitable for older students

Why wear headdresses?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Harrison Briers: My son is currently in Year 3 studying The Aztecs. We are carrying out a home-project. Harrison would like to know why the Aztecs wore headdresses - is this something you can help with? (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Model of Moctezuma II in his magnificent quetzal-and-cotinga-feathered headdress, by George Stuart
Model of Moctezuma II in his magnificent quetzal-and-cotinga-feathered headdress, by George Stuart (Click on image to enlarge)

Headdresses were not worn by ‘your average Aztec’. They were generally only worn by members of the ruling class, warriors, priests and - by extension - gods and goddesses. Essentially, the Aztec ‘élite’ wanted to ‘dress to impress’, to show (off) their status to the rest of society, and to show their connections with the world of the sacred. How could so much come from a simple feather?

Model of an Aztec Jaguar Warrior with headdress by George Stuart
Model of an Aztec Jaguar Warrior with headdress by George Stuart (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztecs were one of the few great civilisations around the world that treasured and greatly valued feather headdresses: and most prized of all were the finest adornments crafted from the beautiful - and rare - turquoise-green and blue feathers of the Quetzal and Cotinga birds, from the distant lowland rainforests of Central America. Part of the answer too comes from the simple fact that a bird can do what no human can do - fly, and soar up towards the Sun God himself, Tonatiuh. No wonder one of the greatest Aztec gods of all was the Creator God Quetzalcóatl, ‘The Feathered Serpent’, with the power to move freely through sky, earth and underworld...

Recreation of Moctezuma II in full emperor’s costume by Michael Heralda
Recreation of Moctezuma II in full emperor’s costume by Michael Heralda (Click on image to enlarge)

A good summary of the meaning of all this comes from the classic book Daily LIfe of the Aztecs by Jacques Soustelle, where he writes that the peoples of ancient Mesoamerica have ‘since the remotest antiquity’:-

...literally worshipped feathers - the long, splendid green plumes of the quetzal, the red and yellow of the parrots. They formed one of the most important articles to be delivered up to the tax-collectors under the Aztec empire. The huge feather-ornaments, together with the jewels of gold and turquoise, raised the warrior, the dignitary and the emperor high above ordinary humanity. On the one side, in its simplicity Mexican costume touched the classical antiquity of the white-robed Mediterraneans; on the other, the Redskin world of the American native, but with a delicacy unknown to the rude inhabitants of the prairie.

Stone figure of Quetzalcóatl in the British Museum, and a drawing of Quetzalcóatl as the Wind God, from the Codex Borgia
Stone figure of Quetzalcóatl in the British Museum, and a drawing of Quetzalcóatl as the Wind God, from the Codex Borgia (Click on image to enlarge)

We have a precise idea, from bas-reliefs and manuscripts, of the magnificent ornaments that could make a man something greater than a man, almost a divine being, hieratic [linked to the world of gods] and filled with splendour. When, to the hollow scream of conches, the beat of gongs and the harsh cry of trumpets, there suddenly appeared to the people crowded on the central square the emperor, rigid beneath the gold and turquoise diadem, amidst the briliance of green plumes, while the armour, the emblems and the banners of the great men formed a mosaic of a thousand colours around him, who would not have thought that here was the chosen of Tezcatlipoca, ‘the ruler of the world’, ‘the father and mother of the people’? In that society, with its very marked graduations, ornaments and jewels, gold and feathers, were the symbols of power and of the ability to govern.

Picture sources:-
• Models by George Stuart courtesy of Leroy Becker, Gallery of Historical Figures
• Recreation of Moctezuma II courtesy of Michael Heralda
• Stone figure of Quetzalcóatl by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Illustration of Quetzalcóatl as the Wind God by Miguel Covarrubias, scanned from ‘The Aztecs: People of the Sun’ (Norman, USA, 1958)

‘Ultimate headgear’

Read more about ‘The Plumed Serpent’

Comment button

Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: That’s what we’re here for! Glad it’s going well...