This page is largely based on Jim Esler’s “Meet the Aztecs” web page and Cronofus’s “A Simple Guide to an Aztec Wargaming Army”.
Plus various other sources.
I suggest you also look at my Shields page for more examples of shield designs.
Aztec warriors were from one of three distinct groups: common (non-noble) warriors, noble warriors and priestly warriors. The vast majority were common warriors. Most of these guys wore only a loincloth and carried a plain shield with a white field and blue rim.
With some minor exceptions, only nobles were cotton armour and only experienced nobles wore fancy feather suits. So the proportion of feather suits in an Aztec army was low. Cronofus analysed the tribute list in Codex Mendoza for the numbers of suits of each type commonly associated with warriors. Some suits such as god suits are omitted from this list, as they are almost unique.
|Warrior||2 Captive – Cuextecatl||252||37.89%|
|3 Captive – Papalotl||41||6.17%|
|4 Captive – Ocelotl||29||4.36%|
|5 Captive – Xopoli/Otomi||23||3.46%|
|6 Captive – Cuachique|
|4 Captive – Cuextecatl Cicitlallo|
|5 Captive – Momoyactli||121||18.20%|
|6 Captive – Coyote||63||9.47%|
|Green Bird (Quetzal banner)||1||0.15%|
(1) The Cuecalpatzactli suit was the warrior version of elite Quetzalpatzactli
(2) The Quetzalpatzactli suit appears to be the elite version of the Cuecalpatzactli)
Noble warriors and Priests earned the right to wear different suits as they captured more prisoners in battle.
Successful commoners could advance in the warrior hierarchy but they still didn’t get to wear feathers (Cronofus). Instead commoners wore animal skins.
Commanders of formations could wear the suits of the fighting warriors or, if sufficient high level, might have a costume unique to themselves.
Low level noble warriors – those with zero, one or two captives – were called “youths” (Cronofus).
The table above highlights another key point. Warrior priests probably formed a significant minority of an Aztec army.
Let’s start at the bottom of the rung …
Common Warrior – Novice Warrior – No Captives
The commoners in Aztec society were called Macehualtin. They were grouped into Calpolli; you can think of them as clans and/or quarters of the city. Calpolli were called upon to provide a unit for the army. Such a unit would comprise a lot of novices, some veterans, and a sprinkling of suit wearing captains.
A novice warrior had taken no captives in battle. They stayed a novice until they took a captive. Novices carried a weapon, had a plain shield, wore only a breechcloth, and had a single long lock of hair at the back of the head.
All novice warriors would have the tlahuauitectli (whitewashed) shield or, less commonly, painted yellow. The larger shields have either a blue, red or white border. Calpolli may have had different border colours on the shields. The most common shield colours were a white field with a blue border.
Few, if any, Aztec warriors painted their faces – in stark contrast to their opponents (Heath, 1999). Yellow with red stripes is a possibility.
This guy is actually a farmer, but I suspect his costume is typical for clan warriors.
Note: If you do want specifically Otomi tribesmen then they differed from the Mexica by having their hair clipped short (Duran, 1964, note 60).
Relevant Osprey plates:
- E2 Aztec Peasant Levy (Wise, 1980)
- I think it highly unlikely that a peasant would have this nice feathered shield.
- B2 Aztec soldier (Pohl, 1991)
- C3 Triple Alliance Soldier (Pohl, 1991)
- E1 Aztec Archer (Wise, 1980)
Noble Warrior Ranks 1-7
The Codex Mendoza lists seven ranks for warriors.
All noble warriors tied their hair in knots at the top of their heads, tied with a red bow (Cronofus). Tequihau four captive warriors adopted the temillotl (stone pillar) hair style; this was a column of hair on top of the head. The tequihuaque had a similar style with the hair to the side called tzotzocolli.
Rank 1 Warrior – One Captive
A warrior who had taken one captive was allowed to wear cotton armour. He still carried a plain shield like the novices.
Any cotton quilted armour is depicted as natural unbleached white – a “dirty white”. (Jim Esler also suggests a pale drab green, although I’ve only seen Texcalans wearing this colour). Armour was tied with red leather ties, usually on the back, sometimes on the front (Cronofus). Red leather was also sometimes used for hems at the neck and arm holes; if not red, then the hem would be the same colour as the armour, i.e. dirty white.
It is possible that some one captive warriors carried patterned shields. The shield design of the Captor of Colhuacan from Codex Mendoza is also used by Suit Wearers.
The next guy is actually a Colhua captive, however, the Mexica had a close link with Colhuacan so I assume they may have used the same shields as well.
Rank 2 Warrior – Two Captives – Cuextecatl
A two captive warrior had a Cuextecatl suit and shield. These were Huaxtec style, with a full bodysuit with a pointed conical, and shield pattern matching the suit. The red suit was decorated with short black parallel lines (similar to equal signs) called hawk scratches.
Variations on the Huaxtec uniform are found in many colours throughout the Codex Mendoza:
- blue, red, yellow, green and white
In the following patterns:
- Solid colours.
- Decorated with short black parallel lines (similar to equal signs) called hawk scratches, e.g. 2 captive warrior in red suit.
- Starry sky, e.g. 4 captive Warrior Priest. This uniform is found in the ethnography section of the Codex Mendoza, and is the basis of Plate C2 Mexica Warrior Priest (Pohl, 1991).
Some, but not all, suit wearers dressed in the Huaxtec style had a shield that matched the suit pattern for example:
This shield appears in a tribute list of the Codex Mendoza next to a Huaxtec suit of a similar blue with darker blue hawk scratches (the parallel lines).
Rank 3 Warrior – Three Captives – Papalotl
A three-captive warrior sported a papalotl (butterfly backbanner).
Both the Aztec three captive warrior and his most recent conquest have the same shield design. This style of shield is the most common shield illustrated for the lower class of warrior.
The Codex Mendoza depicts three suit colours with this backbanner:
- Solid blue;
- Green with red from the arms to the wrists and from the knees to the ankles; and
- White with red from the arms to the wrists and from the knees to the ankles.
Rank 4 Warrior – Four Captives – Ocelotl
A warrior with four or more captives joined the Tequihua (Knights of the Sun) (Cronofus). Tequihua only advanced further in rank if they captured enemy from the harder opponents, e.g. Huexotzinco, Tlaxcala, Atlixco etc. Tequihau adopted the temillotl (stone pillar) hair style; this was a column of hair on top of the head (Cronofus). Tied with a red bow, as usual.
A four captive warrior was allowed to wear the Ocelotl suit. Ocelotl suits are one of the more frequently illustrated types.
I follow Cronofus and call this the Ocelotl suit to distinguish these suit wearers from the Jaguar Military Order. Cronofus and Pohl (1991) believe that the Ocelotl suit wearers who had captured four captives were different to the Military order of Jaguar knights recruited from the nobles.
According to Jim Esler, Ocelotl suit wearers fought in their own separate units (Jim Esler: Meet the Aztecs).
The next one lacks the normal headress, but has the tail and spots.
Possible Ocelotl suit colours:
- Blue with black spots (Plate B1 Triple Alliance Jaguar Warrior, Pohl, 1991) – 75% of those in the Codex Mendoza.
- Yellow with black spots (Plate D2 Aztec Jaguar Warrior, Wise, 1980)
- Red with black spots (Codex Mendoza).
- Possibly orange with black spots (Juan de Tovar, Florentine Codex and Codex Magliabechiano all have figures having orange with black spots, which could either be orange, a different shade of red or perhaps yellow or even actual Jaguar skin – I don’t know.)
- White with black spots (Tribute list from Codex Mendoza)
Wise (1980) says the shield colours were fixed except the border around the shield could vary (he says usually it was yellow), however, as you can see from the illustrations above Jaguars come with all types of shield patterns so the usual variety would be fine.
Relevant Osprey plates
- D2 Aztec Jaguar Warrior (Wise, 1980)
- B1 Triple Alliance Jaguar Warrior (Pohl, 1991)
Rank 5-6 Warrior – Five or Six Captives – Otomi
A four captive warrior that took a fifth captive from one of the harder opponents, e.g. Huexotzinco, Tlaxcala, Atlixco etc, got promoted to the Otomi. This is a rank, not to be confused with the ethic group called Otomi. The plural is Otontin.
The distinctive feature is the hair – variations on the ethnic Otomi style – or in the case of the guy illustrated a cross between the ethnic Otomi and the Aztec veterans. The Otontin wore a bodysuit and had a xopilli (clawback backbanner). The Codex Mendoza shows red, green and blue uniforms worn in conjunction with this backbanner.
Otomi warriors seemed to use a variety of shields. The illustration shown (from the Codex Mendoza) is a variant of the quetzalcuexyochimalli (“Quetzal feather Huaxtec shield”) but with blue waves ending in yellow discs instead of normal nose-moons.
The Otomi formed their own units (Heath, 1999; Jim Esler: Meet the Aztecs).
Rank 7 Warrior Seven Captives – Cuachicqueh
Once a warrior got to seven captives, with the last three from the the harder opponents, e.g. Huexotzinco, Tlaxcala, Atlixco etc, he could join the Cuachicqueh (‘Shorn Ones’).
Cuachicqueh were distinguished by their Mohawk hairstyle. Some, perhaps all, had the yellow cotton suit and the citlalpamitl (star backbanner) of the guy illustrated (Pohl, 1991; Jim Esler: Meet the Aztecs), although Heath has some Cuachicqueh in breechclout without the suit. The guy illustrated also has a necklace of white shells.
The shield illustrated (from Codex Mendosa) is often associated with the Cuachicqueh, but is not unique to them – it also appears in Codex Mendosa next to a blue suit with claw backbanner (Otontin?) and a yellow suit with umbrella backbanner (Captain?). One of the two Cuachic figures in Heath (1999) has this shield, and the other has a simple woven cane shield.
They had a Heron feather glued to their temple (Heath, 1999). They also are likely to have painted their heads; if painted they would have used one of two possible schemes:
- In the colours of the war god Painal – vertically divided, half blue and half yellow (or red).
- Black on top of head, and possibly the neck as well.
The Cuachicqueh formed their own units (Heath, 1999; Jim Esler: Meet the Aztecs). Amongst other things they formed the rear guard when the army was retreating.
Relevant Osprey plates:
- C1 Mexica Cuahchic (Pohl, 1991).
Priest Warrior Ranks 1-6
All priests were distinguished by hair style and red patches of paint on each side other their heads. Some may have painted horizontal and vertical stripes on their faces.
In contrast to the noble warriors, all warrior priests left their hair long, bound at the neck with a white tie (Cronofus).
Rank 1 Priest – One Captive
Rank 2 Priest – Two Captives
Rank 3 Priest – Three Captives
Rank 4 Priest – Four Captives – Cicitlallo Cuextecatl
Starry sky, e.g. 4 captive Warrior Priest. This uniform is found in the ethnography section of the Codex Mendoza, and is the basis of Plate C2 Mexica Warrior Priest (Pohl, 1991).
This is the shield of the 4 captive Warrior Priest mentioned above. The Priest wears a black suit and Huaxtec hat, both with white dots like the shield. (see Pohl, 1991, Plate C2 Mexica Warrior Priest ).