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Aztec Weapons and Warfare, the Macuahuitl

Macuahuitl, the Aztec Sword

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Aztec Warriors holding a macuahuitl, Florentine Codex

Aztec Warriors holding a macuahuitl, Florentine Codex

El Comandante

Aztec weaponry--the weapons and military gear of the Aztecs--included a wide array of defensive tools such as armors, shields, helmets; and offensive tools such as bows and arrows, spear throwers, darts, spears, slings, swords, and clubs. The best known of these is the macuahuitl: the Aztec sword.

Aztec "Swords": The Macuahuitl

What, for simplicity or lack of comparison, the Europeans called a "sword" was actually a sort of wooden staff, called macuahuitl, a Nahua term which means “Hand stick or wood”, and it bears no real similarity with the Western sword.

According to Aztec military strategy, once archers and slingers withdrew when they became too close to the enemy or ran out of projectiles, warriors carrying shock weapons, such as macuahuitl, would step forward and begin start a close-quarter combat.

These wooden staffs usually were made of a plank of oak or pine between 50 cm and 1 meter (~ 1.6-3.2 ft) long. The earliest macuahuitl was a one-handed weapon; later versions had to be held with two hands. In both versions, the shape was similar to a paddle, with a narrow handle and a larger part on top, about 3-4 inches wide. Along both edges were placed sharp obsidian blades of about 1 to 2 inches large. The sharp blades were kept together with some natural adhesive.

These weapons were probably not designed to kill, since the wooden blade would not have incurred any deep penetration into flesh. However, the Aztec/Mexica could inflict considerable damage on their enemies by using the macuahuitl to slash and cut. Direct accounts from Conquistadors Bernal Diaz del Castillo and Hernan Cortés claim that such weapons could severe a horse’s head. Furthermore, the sharp obsidian blades placed into the edge of the blade would have penetrated the tissues and fractured bones, preventing quick healing of the wound.

Origins of the Aztec "Sword"

It has been suggested that this type of weapon was not invented by the Aztec but was widespread among other groups of Central Mexico and possibly in other areas of Mesoamerica too. For the Postclassic period, the macuahuitl used known by the Tarascans, the Mixtecs and the Tlaxcaltecas, who were allies of the Spanish against the Mexica.

Only one example of macuahuitl is known to have survived the Spanish invasion, and it was located in the Royal Armory in Madrid until it was destroyed by a fire in 1849. Now only a drawing of it exists.

Many portrayals of Aztec period macuahuitl exist in codices such as the Codex Mendoza, the Florentine Codex, Telleriano Remensis and others.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Ten Things to Know about the Aztecs, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Obregón Cervera, Marco, 2006, “The macuahuitl: an Innovative Weapon of the Late-Postclassic in Mesoamerica, Arms and Armour, 3 (2): 127-148

Smith Michael, 2003, The Aztecs, Second Edition, Blackwell Publishing

Van Tuerenhout Dirk R., 2005, The Aztecs. New Perspectives, ABC-CLIO Inc. Santa Barbara, CA; Denver, CO and Oxford, England.

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