Macuahuitl - The Wooden Sword of Aztec Warriors

The Fearsome Close-Quarter Combat Weapon of the Aztecs

Macahuitl Reproductions
Macahuitl Reproductions. Eduardo Montalvo

The macuahuitl (alternately spelled maquahuitl and in the Taino language known as the macana) is arguably the best-known piece of weaponry used by the Aztecs. When the Europeans arrived on the North American continent in the 16th century, they sent back reports on a wide variety of weapons and military gear used by the indigenous people. That included both defensive tools such as armors, shields, and helmets; and offensive tools such as bows and arrows, spear throwers (also known as atlatls), darts, spears, slings, and clubs.

But according to those records, the most fearsome of all of these was the macuahuitl: the Aztec sword.

Aztec "Sword"?

The macuahuitl wasn't really a sword, being neither of metal nor curved--the weapon was a sort of wooden staff similar in shape to a cricket bat but with sharp cutting edges. Macuahuitl is a Nahua (Aztec language) term which means "Hand stick or wood"; the closest similar European weapon might be a broadsword.

Macuahuitls were typically made of a plank of oak or pine between 50 centimeters and 1 meter (~ 1.6-3.2 feet) long. The overall shape was a narrow handle with a wider rectangular paddle on the top, about 7.5-10 cm (3-4 inches) wide. The dangerous part of the macana was made up of sharp pieces of obsidian (volcanic glass) protruding from its edges. Both edges were carved with a slot into which was fitted a row of very sharp rectangular obsidian blades of about 2.5-5 cm (1-2 in) long and spaced along the length of the paddle.

The long edges were set in the paddle with some sort of natural adhesive, perhaps bitumen or chicle.

Shock and Awe

The earliest macuahuitls were small enough to be wielded with one hand; later versions had to be held with two hands, not unlike a broadsword. According to Aztec military strategy, once the archers and slingers came too close to the enemy or ran out of projectiles, they would withdraw and warriors carrying shock weapons, such as macuahuitl, would step forward and begin hand-to-hand close-quarter combat.

Historic documents report the macana was wielded with short, chopping movements; old stories were reported to the 19th-century explorer John G. Bourke by an informant at Taos (New Mexico) who assured him that he knew of the macuahuitl and that "a man's head could be cut off with this weapon". Bourke also reported that people on the Upper Missouri also had a version of the macana, "a sort of tomahawk with long, sharp teeth of steel."

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. Apparently, the Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus was quite taken with the macana and arranged for one to be collected and taken back to Spain. Several of the Spanish chroniclers such as Bernal Diaz described macana attacks on horsemen, in which the horses were nearly beheaded.

Nuestra Señora de la Macana

Nuestra Señora de la Macana (Our Lady of the Aztec War Club) is one of several icons of the Virgin Mary in New Spain, the most famous of which is the Virgin of Guadalupe. This Lady of the Macana refers to a carving of the Virgin Mary made in Toledo, Spain as Nuestra Señora de Sagrario.

The carving was brought to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1598 for the Franciscan order established there. After the Great Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the statue was carried to the San Francisco del Convento Grande in Mexico City, where it was renamed.

According to the story, in the early 1670s, the gravely ill 10-year-old daughter of the Spanish colonial governor of New Mexico said the statue warned her about the coming revolt of the indigenous people. The pueblo people had a lot to complain about: the Spanish had strenuously and violently suppressed the religion and social customs. On August 10, 1680, the pueblo people revolted, burning down the churches and killing 21 of the 32 Franciscan monks and more than 380 Spanish soldiers and settlers from nearby villages. The Spanish were evicted from New Mexico, fleeing to Mexico and taking the Virgin of Sagrario with them, and the Pueblo people remained independent until 1696: but that's another story.

 

Birth of a Virgin Story

Among the weapons used during the August 10th attack were macanas, and the carving of the Virgin itself was attacked with a macana, "with such fury and rage to have shattered the image and destroyed the harmonious beauty of her face" (according to a Franciscan monk cited in Katzew) but it left only a shallow scar at the top of her forehead.

The Virgin of the Macana became a popular saint's image throughout New Spain in the second half of the 18th century, engendering several paintings of the Virgin, four of which survive. The paintings have the Virgin typically surrounded by battle scenes with Indians bearing macanas and Spanish soldiers wielding cannonballs, a group of monks praying to the Virgin, and occasionally an image of the inciting devil. The virgin has a scar on her forehead and she is holding one or several macuahuitl. One of those paintings is currently on display in the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe.

Katzew argues that the rise in the Virgin of the Macana's importance as a symbol so long after the Pueblo Revolt was because the Bourbon crown had begun a series of reforms in the Spanish missions leading to the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767 and the decreasing importance of all Catholic monk orders. The Virgin of Macana was thus, says Katzew, an image of a "lost utopia of spiritual care".

Origins of the Aztec "Sword"

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

Only one example of a macuahuitl is known to have survived the Spanish invasion, and it was located in the Royal Armory in Madrid until the building was destroyed by a fire in 1849. Now only a drawing of it exists. Many portrayals of Aztec-period macuahuitl exist in surviving books (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.

Bourke JG. 1890. Vesper Hours of the Stone Age. American Anthropologist 3(1):55-64.

Feest C. 2014. The people of Calicut: objects, texts, and images in the Age of Proto-Ethnography. Boletim do Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi Ciências Humanas 9:287-303.

Katzew I. 2003. The virgin of the Macana: Emblem of a Franciscan predicament in new Spain. Colonial Latin American Review 12(2):169-198.

Katzew I. 1998. La Virgen de la Macana. Emblema de una coyuntura franciscana. Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas 72:39-70.

Obregón MAC. 2006. The macuahuitl: an innovative weapon of the Late Post-Classic in Mesoamerica. Arms & Armour 3(2):127-148.

Smith ME. 2013. The Aztecs. 3rd edition. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Van Tuerenhout DR. 2005. The Aztecs. New Perspectives. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO Inc.