General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 19 Nov 2019/6 Lizard
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Selection of Aztec battle standards/banners from the Codex Mendoza

Were war banners sacred or utilitarian?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Donald Gaddis: I’ve been researching Aztec military insignia and was wondering if battle standards had a sacred character (like the Roman eagle) or were strictly utilitarian? If you could point me to any sources I should consult I would very much appreciate it. Thanks for your time.

Pic 1: Detail from Adam Hook’s illustration of an Aztec battle line, showing the ‘tlecocomoctli’ banner
Pic 1: Detail from Adam Hook’s illustration of an Aztec battle line, showing the ‘tlecocomoctli’ banner (Click on image to enlarge)

It seems they were highly functional. Over to John Pohl, a world authority on pre-Hispanic military matters. The following comes from his excellent, accessible and generously-illustrated book Aztec Warrior AD1325-1521 (Osprey Publishing, 2001):-

The large ornaments or banners secured to the shoulders and backs of high ranking soldiers and officers were essential to coordinating troop movements. They had to be fairly light weight so they were created by artisans from wicker covered in cloth sewn with hundreds of feathers. According to [the] Codex Mendoza, the quaxolotl banner [main picture, bottom] was umbrella-like in shape and was produced in yellow, blue and green. The top was ornamented with the head of a dog called Xolotl whose ears had been ripped off according to a legend.

Pic 2: Aztec army officers, Codex Mendoza folio 67 (detail); the ‘pamitl’ signal banner is third from the left
Pic 2: Aztec army officers, Codex Mendoza folio 67 (detail); the ‘pamitl’ signal banner is third from the left (Click on image to enlarge)

The tlecocomoctli banner [pic 1] was supposed to represent a headdress ignited by fire. This example appears in Sahagún’s ‘Primeros Memoriales’. The banner worn by the huiznahuatl captain whose name meant ‘thorn speech’ is a variation of the most basic signal flag or pamitl... [pic 2, third from left]. The papalotl insignia [main picture, top row, middle] was meant to represent a butterfly...

Nowhere was the strategic significance of such banners more graphically illustrated than during the battle of Otumba. After they had succeeded in escaping a death trap in Tenochtitlan, Cortés led his troops north around Lake Xaltocan to Otumba located near the ancient ruins of Teotihuacan. Crossing a broad open plain, he was suddenly surrounded by an army of over 10,000 Aztecs. Exhausted and outnumbered, Cortés could do little but make a last stand. Soon he began to realise that the troops were being coordinated by a signal unit under the command of the Cihuacóatl or Snake Woman priest. Cortés boldly mounted his horse, charged through the oncoming Army and cut down the Cihuacóatl. The effect was devastating. Not only were the Aztec troops demoralised by this desperate gamble, but they appear to have been unable to any more effective movement than to withdraw in total confusion. Later the Tlaxcaltecas presented the principal signal banner called the xopilli or ‘claw’ device to Cortés in honour of his heroism.

Picture sources:-
• Main picture: images taken from folios 24 (top 3) and 30 (bottom) of the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford), scanned from our own copy of the 1938 James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London
• Pic 1: image courtesy of Osprey Publishing
• Pic 2: from folio 67 of the Codex Mendoza (as above)

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