An Eagle warrior (left) depicted holding a machahuitl (a wooden sword with obsidian blades) in the Florentine Codex.

The Infamous Eagle Warriors: Elite Infantrymen of the Aztec Empire

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The eagle warriors, or eagle knights as they are sometimes known, were a group of elite infantrymen in the army of the Aztec Empire. Those who belonged in this warrior society were either members of the nobility or commoners who had distinguished themselves on the battlefield.

In the Nahuatl / Aztec language, the eagle warriors were known as cuāuhtli. Together with the jaguar warriors, who were known as the ocēlōtl, the two warrior societies were collectively known as the cuauhtlocelotl (meaning ‘eagle-jaguar warriors’). The eagle and jaguar warriors are said to have formed the largest elite warrior society in the Aztec army.

Selecting Warriors of the Sun

In Aztec mythology, the eagle was regarded as a symbol of the sun, hence the eagle warriors were the warriors of the sun. Members of this warrior society dressed like eagles, adorning themselves with eagle feathers, and wearing headgear with an eagle head on it. This headgear had an open beak from which the warrior could look out. Images of eagle warriors can be seen in several artifacts and features, most notably in statues made by the Aztecs and in pictures found inside codices made by the Spanish.

Every Aztec male had to undergo basic military training. The progress of each student was constantly tested by the local temples, and those who displayed exceptional talent were shortlisted to undergo further training that would turn them into eagle warriors. The majority of the boys chosen to be part of this warrior society came from the nobility, though commoners who displayed exceptional talent were also selected.

The entrance into the inner chamber of the Eagle Warriors Temple in Malinalco.

The entrance into the inner chamber of the Eagle Warriors Temple in Malinalco. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Capturing The Enemy

Training alone was not enough to make an eagle warrior out of an Aztec soldier. In order to join the ranks of the eagle warriors, the soldiers had to prove their worth on the field of battle. In the case of the Aztecs, this meant capturing enemy warriors so that they could be used as human sacrifices.

One source states that an Aztec had to capture four enemies before he could become an eagle warrior. Another claims that the number was 12 or more, with an added condition that these captives were taken in two consecutive battles. Yet another source claims that 20 was the number of enemy warriors an Aztec warrior had to seize in order to become an eagle warrior.

To aid them in their task of capturing enemies alive, the Aztec warriors were mainly equipped with weapons designed to stun, rather than to kill their enemies, and the eagle warriors were no exception. The eagle warriors’ arsenal of weapons included bows, spears, daggers, slings, atlatls (a type of spear thrower), and machahuitls (a weapon that consists of obsidian blades sent in a wooden paddle). For protection, the eagle warriors wore a type of quilted cotton armor, and carried a round shield that was brightly colored and adorned with feathers and leather straps, in addition to their eagle headresses.

Social Status

Outside of the battlefield, the eagle warriors enjoyed a high status in Aztec society. For example, amongst other things, members of this warrior society had the privilege of wearing fine jewelry and costumes in public, were allowed to wear cotton and sandals in the royal palaces, and were given the right to keep mistresses.

Additionally, land was given to the eagle warriors. This land was tax-free, and whatever profit that was made on it belonged to the warrior. Furthermore, the grant was for life, and could be passed down to the warrior’s heirs. Although considered full-time warriors, the eagle warriors were allowed to be involved in politics as well.

A statue of an eagle warrior found during excavation of the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan.

A statue of an eagle warrior found during excavation of the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan. ( CC BY SA 2.0 )

Finally, it may be pointed out that whilst the eagle warriors belonged to a high ranking warrior society in the Aztec army, they were not exactly on the top of the hierarchy. There were two other warrior societies that were more prestigious than that of the eagle warriors. Naturally, more valor on the battlefield was required for those who aspired to join its ranks. These were the otontin (Otomies) and the  cuauhchicqueh (meaning ‘Shorn Ones’).

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