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An Encounter Between Warring Cultures: The Spanish and the Aztecs

Spanish Conquest, 1519

Spanish Conquest, 1519

The Aztec and Iberian warring cultures share both similarities and differences. The similarities, however, where glossed over for a long time in order to better show the striking differences between these two cultures—one “civilized,” the other “barbaric.” Not much can be known about Aztec warring culture before the conquest, but what little is known seems to revolve around the Aztec’s ritualistic and religious ceremonies. The Spanish warring culture, however, can best be understood within the context of their Muslim/Christian background. A glaring similarity between these two cultures is the heavy reliance on religious beliefs and practices as the motivation for engaging in battle.

Aztec warring culture from the 1420’s on was very much ritualistic. Aztec society was built upon strict hierarchies among males in particular, who could only prove their worth through engaging in warfare. From as early as age ten, Aztec boys were sent to a “House of Youth” for training in some form of masculine trade, but all were expected to participate in warfare at some point. The end result was hoped to be a fierce warrior able to engage an opponent of his own rank. This opponent, however, was not to be killed. He was to be taken alive for sacrifice to the Aztec gods. The sacrificial component of Aztec culture, among other things, is what the Spanish used to justify their claim that the natives were barbaric. It was more complex than that, though. The bloody and often gruesome sacrificial ritual was steeped in religious beliefs and used as a way to keep recalcitrant tributaries terrified of them.

The vast Aztec Empire.

The vast Aztec Empire.

The Aztecs often times fought wars where the sole purpose was the taking of captives for ritual sacrifice. These were called the “Flowery Wars.” Then came the spectacle that placed fear in all the subjects of the Aztec empire—the “Feast of the Flaying Men.” Here was a chance for Aztec warriors to perform for the gods while at the same time offer a terrifying performance for all Aztec civilian society to see. What these two rituals can show is that rather than using warfare merely as a way to conquer, the Aztecs were quite methodical about warfare and practiced it with the intentions of achieving other outcomes—the appeasement of the gods, a working hierarchy among males, and a way to secure tribute form other indigenous tribes by using warfare as a fear tactic.

Feast of Flaying Men.

Feast of Flaying Men.

Feast of Flaying Men

Here is a bloody ritual that needs some explanation. As stated before, the Aztecs engaged in warfare mainly to capture sacrificial victims. Afterward, the captives were taken back, alive. They were fed, their wounds healed, and actually lived with their captors for some time before being sacrificed. The Aztecs took the sacrifice ritual seriously and would be shamed if they were to offer a weak or injured victim to their gods as a sacrifice. So the sacrificial victim had to be in good health.

The ritual itself was rather gruesome, though. After a lengthy performance where the victim had the opportunity to fight, for the last time, his captor, he was led up to the sacrificial stone where his heart was ripped out of his chest. Afterwards, the victims body was divided among the Aztec captor's family and, yes, it was eaten in a ritual that was meant to symbolize empathy for the victim. This may be difficult to understand through our 21st century, sanitized senses, but remember that these were different times.

The Spanish Warring Style

By contrast, the Spanish warfare culture operated with the intention of securing different outcomes, yet still with religious beliefs as a major motivator. The belief that the Spanish were exceptional and had the Christian god on their side, for example, was perhaps one of the biggest motivations for engaging in warfare with the Aztecs. With Spain’s final victory at Granada in the Reconquest (1492), in which the Spanish defeated the Muslims and eradicated them from the Iberian Peninsula, a strong sense of religious superiority seemed to propel them in their conquest of the New World. That being said, while their major motivator was religious superiority, the best desired outcome for the Spanish was the expansion of Christianity—in the form of new conquered lands—under the Spanish Crown. Despite any violence and force used by the Spanish, their warfare practices were deemed “civil” in comparison to Aztec warfare. Clearly there was a double standard.

Where a real comparison can be made is in these two warfare cultures, the Spanish and the Aztec, coming together in a war of their own. Given the fact that these two cultures desired different results from their warfare methods it can only be expected that their intentions were different, as well. Clearly the Aztecs entered into warfare with a different end to their game—that of capture and ritual sacrifice for the opposition. The Spanish, however, had no intention of taking any captives alive when it came to warfare. Their sole intention was to eradicate infidels just like they did with the Muslims and Jews on the Iberian Peninsula. That is not to say, however, that their intention was to kill any and all Aztecs—only those opposing them when engaged in warfare. Essentially, the Aztecs and Spanish engaged in warfare while playing with two different sets of rules.

This encounter with different warring styles absolutely helped shape the outcome of the conquest and colonization of Mesoamerica. For the Aztecs, a display of power included actions such as inviting the enemy into their city and bestowing gifts of gold and treasures to them. The Spanish saw this as a sign of weakness and took full advantage of it. With miscommunications like this all along the way the Spanish easily defeated the Aztecs and secured for themselves a prominent spot on the hierarchy of might within the Aztec’s own definitions of power. It has been speculated that Moctezuma, for example, saw the Spaniards as “gods.” Given his consequent actions towards the Spaniards, one can conclude that this may very well have been the case. With the Aztecs stigmatized by the belief that mere mortals had been pit against virtual gods who played by their own rules, it is not too difficult to accept the inevitable outcome of defeat and conquest by the Spanish.

The Spanish Conquest of Tenochtitlan.

The Spanish Conquest of Tenochtitlan.


Clendinnen, Inga. “The Cost of Courage in Aztec Society,” Past & Present, No. 107 (May, 1985), pp. 44-89

Clendinnen, Inga. “Fierce and Unnatural Cruelty: Cortes and the Conquest of Mexico,” New World Encounters. (Berkely: University of California Press)

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Keen, Benjamin, Keith Haynes. “The Hispanic Background,” A History of Latin America.” (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company)

Please Comment and Vote Up!

spond741 on May 09, 2013:

Love this post, and also love Moomin!

spond741 on May 09, 2013:

So happy to support your organization.

Marion Reads from Canada on March 18, 2013:

I find it interesting that Cortes and his Spaniards felt so abhorred by the human sacrifice, yet they massacred the Aztecs (who were many times unarmed) with slash and smash tactics.

emmaspeaks (author) from Kansas City on March 17, 2013:

Thank you, Marion! Most people don't even take the differences into account. I hope this article sheds a little light on that.

Marion Reads from Canada on March 16, 2013:

I enjoyed your essay on the warring cultures of the Aztecs and the Spanish. It was an articulate comparison of their similarities and differences.

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