Aztec Masculinity

Ed Hughes discusses masculine ideals in the Aztec ritual of gladiatorial combat.

Masculinity and Tlacaxipeualiztli: Masculine ideals in the Aztec ritual of gladiatorial combat

In this essay, I explore the idea that the festival of Tlacaxipeualiztli, specifically the gladiatorial combat, was a constructed display of masculine ideals.
Tlacaxipeualiztli, or the ‘Flaying of Men’, was an Aztec festival celebrating the god Xipe Totec, ‘Our Lord the Flayed One’, which occurred across the second and third months of the 365 day Aztec year. It was one of the largest festivals in terms of sacrifice, with Diego Durán claiming ‘at least sixty’ people were killed on the main feast day within the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. To summarise the festival briefly, the captives of Aztec warriors were sacrificed and their bodies flayed, before their skins were worn around Tenochtitlan for twenty days by the xipeme. The captor’s family then feasted upon the captive’s body, and the captor kept the femur as a trophy. The warriors were then adorned with rewards from the tlatoani. The sacrificing of victims falls into two categories: those who were killed in a ‘normal’ sacrificial setting (standard Aztec heart extraction); and those who performed the ‘gladiatorial sacrifice’ upon the temalacatl, the sacrificial stone.

Tlacaxipeualiztli was a very visual festival based upon the sacrifice of warrior captives, whereby the honour of the captive and his captor were intertwined, and the ritual of the festival held many masculine ideals. Tlacaxipeualiztli was the embodiment of Aztec masculine ideals, and was a constructed, visual and public depiction of masculinity within Tenochtitlan, in relation to the gladiatorial display and sacrifice. David Carrasco discusses the idea of a ‘ceremonial landscape’ within Tenochtitlan, and shows the festival as ‘ritualized perfection’. Jonathan Smith also argues that a ritual represents a ‘controlled environment’, where perfect scenarios can be achieved.
The sacrifice of warriors by gladiatorial combat is described by several sources. For example, José de Acosta, Bernardino de Sahagún and Durán all describe the festival to some degree of detail. Sahagún was a missionary friar, who was employed to study the Aztecs after the conquest, through interviews, in order to help to convert them, and therefore had an agenda whilst writing his Florentine Codex (finished c.1580). Diego Durán was also a man of the church and was ordered to construct a history of the Aztec people. His works, the ‘Book of the Gods and Rites’, the ‘Ancient Calendar’ and the ‘History of the Indies of New Spain’, completed c.1580, contain valuable information regarding Aztec lifestyle. Durán had a sympathetic and perceptive approach to his research and, like Sahagún, also created a detailed collection of work about the Aztecs.

The Gladiatorial Combat

Once it was his turn to be sacrificed, a captive drank pulque, and a priest ‘beheaded a quail’. The captive was made to climb upon the round stone before they tied the ‘sustenance rope’ around the waist of the captive. Once prepared, the captive had to fight two Aztec Eagle warriors and two Jaguar warriors who were armed with a ‘sword inlaid with blades’ and wore padded cotton armour. The aim of the Aztec warriors was to accurately and delicately cut or injure the captive in a process called ‘striping’. Inevitably, of course, the captive succumbed to injuries, as he fought against warriors with an advantage in terms of equipment. However, occasionally, some captives managed to defeat all the warriors, at which point a ‘left-handed’ warrior would be brought in to suitably injure the victim before the heart extraction could take place. The significance of this is that most warriors were right handed, and as such the general stance of a warrior would be to hold his shield in his left hand, and his weapon in his right. A left handed warrior would hold his weaponry the other way around. This would mean the shields of the captive and the left-handed warrior would be mirrored, leaving the captive less able to defend himself against attack. Eventually the captive was sufficiently ‘striped’, and would be held down by priests and sacrificed.
Being a visual and public display, Aztec beliefs about combat are clear. The act of ‘striping’ and the one-on-one fighting which occurred in this ritual mirrors the act of warfare on a ‘real’ battlefield. Masculinity in Aztec culture revolved around war and combat. However, whilst being a man meant being a warrior, being a warrior did not necessarily mean to be masculine. Women could also be considered warriors, at least metaphorically; by giving birth to a child a women had ‘fought a good battle, had become a brave warrior, had taken a captive, had captured a baby’. Both women and men could take captives and be warriors, and therefore this cannot be the defining factor between masculinity and femininity. The factor which defined masculinity in Aztec culture was the desire for an honourable death, won in battle or on the temalacatl. The ideal to die in such a way was instilled in boys from a young age. At birth, the midwife would say, ‘war is thy desert, thy task… perhaps thou wilt receive the gift… the flowered death by the obsidian knife’. This explicit expression of emotion shows the maintained importance in life of achieving an honourable death.

The entire construction of the gladiatorial sacrifice: the striping, the tying to the circular temalacatl and the individual combat, was designed to represent the masculine nature of male warrior-hood. However, the combat is different to standard warfare: the captive is upon a raised platform for example. Jonathan Smith discusses the idea of ritual concluding that it, ‘represents the creation of a controlled environment where the variables… may be displaced precisely’ and that, ‘ritual is a means of performing the way things ought to be in conscious tension’. David Carrasco describes the festival as a ‘dramatically controlled environment in which the spectators can perceive the perfect power of their warriors in a condensation and idealization of Aztec warfare’. By design, Tlacaxipeualiztli was a controlled environment. The dance like battle of the gladiatorial combat of Tlacaxipeualiztli was largely unrepresentative of ‘normal’ procedure: on the battlefield, the process for taking a captive was standardised, in that one would generally attempt to immobilise his enemy by a blow to the knee, and grab him by the hair, In Tlacaxipeualiztli, the very specific process of striping was used. In the festival, the only available death was via heart sacrifice, and not through confrontation with the warriors. Finally, in battle, both warriors had a relatively equal chance of victory, whereas the sacrificial victim faced an inevitable death.

The skill of handling weapons was a trait held by the most skilled and experienced of warriors, and therefore by the most masculine warriors. The primary route to promotion was the taking of captives: the more captives one took, the better warrior he was. Whilst killing someone in war did not cause doubt of a warrior’s ability, the killing of a captive in the gladiatorial combat would have shown a lack of warrior skill, and perhaps a lack of masculine ideals. Aztec warriors had to appear as skilled as possible within a limited time frame.

In terms of the captive, the position upon the stone was symbolic as a well as physical. Physically, he was higher than his attackers, in plain view of all the public onlookers. He commanded a powerful position, and this added to the achievement of the Aztec warriors who managed to ‘stripe’ him. The idea of retreat (without order or reason) was considered to be unmanly, even effeminate, by the Aztecs. The very nature of the gladiatorial combat removed this possibility. The round temalacatl meant that retreat from the Aztec warriors was impossible; attached to a central point on a round stone, the victim had limited movement around only the circumference and could therefore never move away from the fight.

Additionally, the striping was a process which publicly confirmed (or confirmed the lack of) both the captive’s masculinity and his captor’s. Caroline Dodds Pennock has argued that the ‘striping’ of the captive was ‘the greatest and most deadly expression of warrior masculinity’. Both the captor and the captive were considered to be of the same family, in that they were warriors, and would share the same fate to die on the temalacatl or in battle. Therefore, when the captor presented his captive to be ‘striped’, and watched his sacrifice through gladiatorial combat, he was watching his own ultimate fate and goal. In this way, the honour of the captive and captor was intertwined.
Of course, not all captives honoured this relationship and these men were exceptions to the ‘perfect ritual’: sometimes the performances were far from exemplary. Those who refused to fight essentially bypassed the symbolic combat on the temalacatl, prevented the Aztec warriors proving their skill and damaged their captor’s honour. This is not unexpected; the ability to face death on the battlefield was common, but not innate, and had to be taught. This explains the irregularities that could occur even within a constructed ritual. It also highlights the importance of the victim’s role in assuring a smooth process of ritual; according to Ray Kerkhove, ‘the sacrificial role entailed a great deal of social expectation and acquiescence’. The belief in the ideals of a masculine death on the temalacatl was the most important part of the construction. Dodds Pennock discusses the story of Tlahuicolli, claiming that it shows the fundamentals of masculinity are located within sacrificial death. Tlahuicolli lost his masculinity through a ‘cowardly display of homesickness’. He finally found redemption by climbing the pyramid at Tlatelolco, the sister city of Tenochtitlan, and casting himself down the steps. The controlled environment of the sacrifice which was constructed to present the absolute ideals of masculinity finishes with an act which can restore masculinity. Even if the captive resisted the gladiatorial combat, collapsed and cast himself on his back without a fight, he could still reclaim some masculinity by achieving the ideal death.
The social expectations of any man to be a warrior, and how to achieve masculinity, were instilled from birth. The gladiatorial combat upon the temalacatl represented the culmination of these ideals. The significance of Tlacaxipeualiztli is realised through a construction of perfection in skill, battle, and the honourable death, bringing to focus the ideals of masculinity in a public festival.