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Aztec jaguar warrior Codex Magliabecchiano fol 30r detail

Mexica jaguar warriors did NOT wear jaguar skins

It’s a logical - and tempting - assumption to make that Mexica (Aztec) jaguar knights would have worn real jaguar pelts into battle to show off their distinguished high rank, to absorb the spirit of the jaguar (THE most powerful creature in the Mesoamerican world), and to frighten enemy warriors. In reality, however, they didn’t: they would have worn feather-covered cloth costumes decorated with elaborate jaguar-skin motifs and designs. Why...? (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: A single brown jaguar warrior costume - sent annually in tribute from the province of Quauhnahuac. Codex Mendoza, fol. 24r (detail)
Pic 1: A single brown jaguar warrior costume - sent annually in tribute from the province of Quauhnahuac. Codex Mendoza, fol. 24r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

It all seems counter-intuitive, looking at those impressive pictures of jaguar warrior outfits sent every year to Tenochtitlan as tribute from provinces such as Acolhuacan, Petlacalco and Quauhnahuac (present-day Cuernavaca) (pic 1). What’s more, we know that the late post-classic Maya equivalent of jaguar warriors DID wear real animal skins - the Spanish friar Diego de Landa noted this at the time of the invasion: ‘Some... such as the lords and captains... went to war, clothed with feathers and skins of tigers and lions [jaguars and pumas] if they owned them’ (Sayer). Why would the Mexica not want to?
Esther Pasztory, in her classic work Aztec Art gives us an insightful answer: ‘The Aztecs associated animal pelts with their own nomadic origins; feather mosaic, by contrast, was the dress of civilised men.’
Confirmation also comes from Fray Diego Durán, a Dominican missionary in 16th century Mexico, who wrote:-
’Noble knights were dressed from head to foot in quilted armour covered with feathers, while the common men were given no feathers but wore the skins of different animals over the quilted material.’

Pic 2: Four-captive Aztec warrior dressed in jaguar costume. Codex Mendoza fol. 64r (detail)
Pic 2: Four-captive Aztec warrior dressed in jaguar costume. Codex Mendoza fol. 64r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

In their commentary on the Codex Mendoza, Frances Berdan and Patricia Rieff Anawalt raised precisely this point in discussing the jaguar outfit shown in Picture 2:-
’Was this particular costume created out of the skin of a jaguar, or was it made of feathers, as were the other colourful warrior suits? The evidence overwhelmingly indicates the latter.
’Jaguar costumes are listed in the tribute section of the Codex Mendoza in red, blue, and yellow. Since there is no reference to animal skins being dyed, feathers must have been used. Also there is evidence that other animal costumes were constructed of feathers: Primeros Memoriales depicts eight different styles of coyote warrior costumes, each explicitly described as being made of feathers’.

Pic 3: Examples of Aztec ‘tlahuiztli’ warrior costumes as part of a tribute list, Codex Mendoza, fol. 29r (detail)
Pic 3: Examples of Aztec ‘tlahuiztli’ warrior costumes as part of a tribute list, Codex Mendoza, fol. 29r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Rieff Anawalt, a world expert on Aztec costume, confirms in her seminal study Indian Clothing Before Cortés both the Nahuatl term for this unique, special-purpose, limb-encasing male warrior costume - tlahuiztli - and the fact that it was ‘constructed of feather-covered cloth, made in a variety of colours and styles’ (pic 3). Further evidence is provided by the narratives of the 16th century Anonymous Conqueror, who describes these limb-encasing costumes as ‘suits all of one piece and of a heavy cloth, which they tie at the back; these are covered with feathers of different colours and look very splendid’ (Sayer). The five most common colours (red, yellow, blue, green and black/white), as Pasztory suggests, may well have represented ‘the four cardinal directions and the fifth, the centre.’ And the use of feathers served a practical purpose too, providing extra warmth (Cordry).
Whereas both high-ranking Aztec and Maya warriors appear to have worn jaguar costumes in military and ceremonial contexts, Mixtec codices depict them only in the latter, in three styles - jaguar, puma and eagle. Pic 4 shows an example of a jaguar costume worn by a noble called 8-Flint that is totally limb-encasing. Rieff Anawalt concludes from the fact that the garments encase the entire body ‘at least portions of the garments were woven, man-made facsimiles of the actual skins.’
The birds chosen for their feathers to adorn costumes were generally the scarlet macaw, parrot (various), troupial, red spoonbill, blue cotinga, hummingbird and quetzal (Pasztory).

Pic 4: A Mixtec ceremonial jaguar costume. Codex Zouche-Nuttall pl. 32
Pic 4: A Mixtec ceremonial jaguar costume. Codex Zouche-Nuttall pl. 32 (Click on image to enlarge)

How were the feathers applied to clothing? Often by being sewn on ‘to make designs by overlapping the colours’ (Pasztory). For the Aztecs, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún adds gluing (‘pasting’) as well as the use of ‘thread and cord’ (Sayer).
What about the jaguar helmets? Again, part of the mystique suggests that Aztec jaguar warriors would have worn real jaguar heads as helmets; but no, these were almost invariably made of wood, and then decorated with feathers. Again, we have the evidence from the Anonymous Conqueror who wrote: ‘To defend the head they wear things like heads of serpents, or tigers or lions [jaguars or pumas], or wolves, and the man’s head lies inside the animal’s jaws as though it were devouring him. These heads are of wood covered on the outside with feathers or incrustations of gold or precious stones, and are something wonderful to behold’ (Sayer).

Pic 5: 40 jaguar pelts sent as annual tribute to Tenochtitlan from the province of Xoconochco. Codex Mendoza fol. 47r (detail)
Pic 5: 40 jaguar pelts sent as annual tribute to Tenochtitlan from the province of Xoconochco. Codex Mendoza fol. 47r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Finally, what happened to all those valuable jaguar pelts received by the Aztec emperor as annual tribute? (In fact, only one province is recorded in the Codex Mendoza as paying tribute in jaguar skins, Xoconochco on the Pacific coast - pic 5). These skins, called ocelloyeuatl in Nahuatl, ended up largely as coverings for the nobles’ high-backed chairs, though apparently they were also prized by shamans for their magical properties (Berdan & Rieff Anawalt).

Pic 6: Model of an Aztec jaguar warrior
Pic 6: Model of an Aztec jaguar warrior  (Click on image to enlarge)

Sources:-
The Codex Mendoza by Frances F. Berdan and Patricia Rieff Anawalt, vol. II (Description, Bibliography, Index), University of California Press, Oxford, 1992
Aztec Art by Esther Pasztory, Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York, 1983
Book of the Gods and Rites and the Ancient Calendar by Fray Diego Durán, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1971
Indian Clothing Before Cortés: Mesoamerican Costumes from the Codices by Patricia Rieff Anawalt, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1981
Mexican Costumes by Chloë Sayer, British Museum Publications, London, 1985
Mexican Indian Costumes by Donald and Dorothy Cordry, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1968.

Image sources:-
• Main pic: image scanned from the Codex Magliabecchiano, facsimile edition, ADEVA, Graz, Austria, 1970
• Images from the Codex Mendoza scanned from the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938
• Image from the Codex Zouche-Nuttall scanned from the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1987
• Photo of warrior model by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Mar 24th 2019

emoticon Q. How did the Aztec emperor order his élite warriors to economise when times were hard?
A. By telling them to tighten their pelts...!

Learn much more about the importance of the jaguar in ancient Mexico...

‘How did a warrior put on the skin of an eagle if the bird was smaller than he was?’

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