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The Aztecs: A Tributary Empire (16)

Teaching Kids To Kill

How did children come to accept this system? What made little boys want to become warriors (or human sacrifices!)? What did parents think about a system that killed young sons on a spectacular scale?

What we know of Aztec childhood, like most of the rest of what we know about the Aztecs, refers to the period just before the Spanish arrived and things fell apart. And much of it comes from the Florentine Codex, and probably represents the world as seen from Tenochtítlan, even though most children lived in rural areas and most families were engaged in farming.

There seem to have been formal schools, operated by each calpólli under the name telpoch-cálli ("youth houses"), in which the sons of commoners learned the skills associated with their fathers' trade and also learned about warfare. For children of the nobility living in Tenochtítlan (and for commoners pledged to the priesthood), the calmécac were schools attached to temples and administered by priests. The calmécac provided more specialized training to boys from about twelve to fifteen. In both kinds of schools, and especially in later years of the empire, most of the training seems to have involved weapons handling, war chants, and other training for warfare.

The most promising of the child warriors were encouraged to become professionals, joining some of the orders of warriors after leaving the calpólli schools. Their training stressed that male prestige depended almost totally on male success in warfare. And to this end it celebrated hardship and "toughness."

The focus on toughness was even more visible among the professional warriors, for a traveling army lived off the land, taking what was needed from anyone, but priding themselves for sleeping directly on the ground, and eating coarse food. The young warriors (and warriors in training) engaged in rough play, including constant violent games and contests. Any sign of hanging back resulted in shaming: having one's head shaved in the case of small offences, being expelled from the warrior house (or even condemned to eternal commoner status) for more severe signs of cowardice.

Training young men to be violent provided the Aztecs with a formidable army, but one willing to engage in a great deal of in-group violence. The same young warriors happy to destroy a competing settlement were also amused by bashing each other or terrorizing citizens at home. Some engaged in protection rackets. Penal codes were designed to inflict severe punishments for drinking, adultery, theft, extortion and other offences. Among the most fascinating documents surviving from Aztec times are the huehueh-tlahtólli or "words of the elders," elegantly phrased words of advice continually emphasizing the importance of humility, self-control, and the etiquette of gracious living, the very virtues that the violent young warriors were inclined to ignore.

The most violent of the warriors were considered too dangerous to be accorded positions of authority, and were even prohibited from entering Tenochtítlan. They were given the name otómih (singular: otómitl), after the unconquerable Otomí tribe to the north that the Nahua considered consummately savage and violent.

An Aztec battle was not dependent on coordinated group action. Rather, once the signal to attack was given, each man was on his own. Warriors stormed the enemy settlement as fiercely as possible, capturing anyone who fled, and pillaging until the town surrendered (or sometimes as long afterward as there were goods to be extracted).

But what of Tlacahélel's "flowery wars," the ones conducted merely to gain sacrificial captives? The flowery wars, because of their specific goal and rather stylized character, had a number of special features. First, they were near at hand and did not have the conquest of territory or the winning of a tributary colony as a goal. Second, they were intended to involve only the best warriors and to be showy events. Third, as in other wars, the principal weapon was a flat club with obsidian blades mounted along the edges (called a macuáhuitl, Spanish macana). But since the point was to capture captives for sacrifice, at attempt was made to avoid breaking any bones or causing excessive bleeding, so the macáhuitl was wielded in such a way as to hit the opponent with the flat side and stun him or knock him over, rather than actually to rip off flesh or sever limbs. Fourth, warriors were clad in costumes that clearly showed their rank (based on their record for killing warriors in earlier battles), and it was considered undignified to attack warriors below you in rank. And finally, each warrior had a lock of longer hair, tied in a kind of pony tail. Seizing the pony tail was understood by all as constituting a capture. When a man had his pony tail seized in battle, he was, for practical purposes, dead from that moment on, destined to lose his heart on a sacrificial stone.

Running away, like any other desertion in war, was considered immensely dishonorable, subjecting the deserter to ostracism and violent attack, even from his own side.

Boy warriors fresh from school went along with more seasoned fighters, merely as observers and perhaps to carry a shield. In a second or third battle, teams of school-age warriors could gang up on an enemy warrior and potential captive and, if they were fortunate, drag him down, with the merit and body to be divided among them. Once they had killed a man as a team, they would go forth individually, like seasoned warriors, no longer cooperating with their peers, but rather now in competition with them to win captives.

What of girls? Unfortunately, our sources say less about them than about the boys. Like the boys, the girls too were taught battle songs, but they were not expected (or permitted) to become warriors and were only rarely sacrificed. Instead, childbirth was regarded as equivalent to battle, at least in theory. They were taught that dying in childbirth, exactly like dying on the battlefield or the sacrificial stone, was a glorious thing, leading to a comfortable afterlife followed by reincarnation as a beautiful butterfly, in contrast to ordinary people, whose afterlife was spent in a drear place where strong winds pelted a person with sand and sharp shards of broken obsidian.

Among the poetry preserved from the Aztec period is a touching midwife's song explaining to a newborn boy that his proper home is not of this earth, and that he has come here only to die by the sacrificial knife to feed the sun, after which he may move on to his true calling as a postmortal spirit. [Note 32] A girl's job was to give birth to such lads, and the more pain she suffered in doing so, the nobler she was being.


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