The ‘Eagle Warrior’ from the Mexica (Aztec) Templo Mayor
By Dr. Maya Jiménez
Assistant Professor of Art History
Kingsborough Community College
City University of New York (CUNY)
Eagle Warrior is a life-sized ceramic sculpture made by Mexica (sometimes called Aztec) artists that shows a warrior dressed in an eagle costume. Made of terracotta, a type of earthenware known for its reddish color, the life-sized Eagle Warrior was originally painted and adorned with feathers and weapons. His outstretched wings and arms suggest a gesture of flight. This sculpture was discovered during excavations at the main Mexica temple, called the Templo Mayor. This temple was located in the ceremonial center of Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Mexica empire. The Templo Mayor consisted of a twin-towered stepped pyramid dedicated to Tlaloc, the god of Rain, and Huitzilopochtli, the patron god of the Mexica, usually associated with war and fire.
The sculpture was recovered at the House of the Eagles, the meeting place of eagle and jaguar warriors, two of the most prestigious of the Mexica military classes. The House of the Eagles was just beside to the Templo Mayor, and highlighted the association of the Mexica’s most important temple with warfare. The Templo Mayor itself symbolized warfare in its combination of Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli.
For the Mexica, the symbol for war was water and fire, called the atl-tlachinolli in Nahuatl, the language of the Mexica. A meeting space for eagle and jaguar warriors next to the Templo Mayor advertised the important role that the military classes played in Mexica culture more generally and in maintaining Mexica power over conquered peoples.
While the Mexica had no standing army, they did have elite warriors with extensive military and martial arts training who fought in “flowery wars,” a ritualistic form of warfare that consisted of capturing victims and sacrificing them to the gods.
Our understanding of the role of the eagle warriors is largely based on colonial sources (or written sources made after the Spanish conquest in 1521), including the Codex Mendoza, (c. 1541–42). This book documents pre-invasion Mexica culture but was commissioned by Antonio de Mendoza, the first viceroy of New Spain. It should be kept in mind though that the Codex Mendoza, while a critical historical document, is not politically nor culturally neutral. According to this source the goal of the eagle warrior was to capture the greatest number of captives, who would then be sacrificed to the Mexica gods. Warriors rose in rank according to the number of captives they acquired. This ranking system is documented in the Codex Mendoza, which illustrates the different military ranks and their corresponding war suits, determined by the number of captives.
In the second to last register, for example, the warrior in the red suit is credited for capturing two victims, while the jaguar warrior at the far right captured four. In the last register, the warrior at right is of the highest rank, yet he is dressed in civilian clothes, a reference to his aristocratic ancestry. While all warriors were equipped with shields and obsidian weapons, their war suits identified their military rank and social status.
Symbolism of the War Suit
Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, the war suit served a symbolic function, since it was believed that in dressing like an eagle or a jaguar, the warrior adopted the power and skill of their assigned animal, thus ensuring a more successful hunt. The symbolism of the war suit was further emphasized by its materiality, since most warriors, except for the nobility, wore suits made of animal skin. The eagle warrior not only acted like an eagle, but also literally resembled one.
In comparison to the warriors seen in codices, the Eagle Warrior may appear somewhat tame at first. Lacking the colors, patterns, and weapons of the warriors of the Codex Mendoza, the Eagle Warrior does not seem have the menacing appearance that these soldiers may have actually possessed. But we have to remember that the sculpture was originally painted and covered in feathers, and so it would have had a more life-like appearance when placed in the House of the Eagles.
The Eagle Warrior stood near the doorway of the House of the Eagles, likely functioning as a guardian figure. He stood atop a bench that was decorated with relief sculpture showing warriors as they advanced towards a ball (called a zacatapayolli) into which they placed bloodletting implements. Warriors would have pierced parts of their body, such as their tongue or ears, to let blood onto paper, which would then be burned. The blood was offered to the gods as an act of penance because the Mexica believed that the gods demanded blood in return for their creation of the world.
Another life-size terracotta figure stood at a second doorway in the House of the Eagles, but instead of showing an eagle warrior it is the god of the Underworld, Mictlantecuhtli. At almost six feet tall, the skeletal god is as imposing as the Eagle Warrior, if not more so. He leans slightly forward, his clawed hands raised and his mouth slightly open. Originally, hair or paper decorations would have been placed in the holes on top of his head. Like the Eagle Warrior, Mictlantecuhtli displays the same skill in firing terracotta on a large scale.
Though much of the original splendor of the armed Eagle Warrior has been lost, one can only imagine the imposing appearance of this sculpture hovering at the entrance as actual warriors gathered together. Both the sculpture of the Eagle Warrior and Mictlantecuhtli testify to the ways in which sculptures of warriors and gods played an active role in Mexica life.
Originally published by Smarthistory, 11.03.2019, under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.