Historical fiction and the Great League of the Iroquois

13 July 2014

I am happy to announce the release of another new book

The Peacekeeper

The after-story of the Great Peacemaker’s legend is not clear. Some versions refer to his disappearance briefly, off-handedly, stating that after bringing the Law of the Great Peace to the people, he went back to the Sky World.

Other versions do not mention his departure at all, concentrating on the events of the First Gathering and the elaborate set of laws he had given the people on this opportunity.

What is clear and agreed upon by all versions of the story is the fact that he did not participate in the government he created, did not sit among the fifty representatives he went to such great pains to guide and direct.

The names of the original fifty became titles, to be passed to each office’s successor and become his to use for the time the man would be expected to hold his position—a lifetime in many cases. These important dignitaries could be replaced by the Clan Mothers of the towns they represented, but there was no limited time for them to officiate if they did so in a satisfactory manner. Thus, the man who was chosen to replace Hionhwatha assumed the name of this great man, and the man who was honored to officiate as the Head of the Great Council was to be called Tadodaho as long he stayed in the office. And so on.

Yet, the Peacemaker’s name was not passed down through the generations. He was clearly not among the original fifty who had formed the first Great Council. A clear indication that he did not remain to see the confederacy of his creation functioning, blossoming as the years passed.

But where did he go?

Wyandot, or Wendat, people from across Lake Ontario—the Great Sparkling Water—or Crooked Tongues as they were honored to be called by the other side of the lake, his original people, were reported to have a confederacy as well. They were four nations of similar-sounding languages, and their union seemed to be of the same nature, maybe on a smaller scale, but not by much. There is no clear evidence as to the time their union might have been formed, not like with the Five Nations, thanks to the solar eclipse and the many recorded versions of the story, but we do know that such a union did exist.

So he might have died, or disappeared, but he also might have gone to his former people, to do for them what he had done for their enemies? It would be strange if, after declaring his intentions of bringing all peoples under the shade of the Great Tree of Peace, he would not have tried to do so starting with his own ‘Crooked Tongues.’

And even if he failed, as, historically, we know that there was no peace between the League of the Five Nations and the Wyandot (Huron) from the other side, he might have tried to do that at least, to attempt to unite his former people into a similar sort of a union.

With the Great Peace established, new laws delivered, and important agreements reached, Two Rivers and Tekeni could now sit back and enjoy the fruits of their work, watching the union of Five Nations alive and kicking, functioning, maintaining the Peacemaker’s wonderful vision. Or so they thought…

Tekeni had never trusted the power-hungry Tadodaho, now the Head of the Great Council. Yet, Two Rivers dismissed such warnings lightly, too lightly for Tekeni’s peace of mind. The devious man was up to something. Tekeni’s gut instincts screamed danger, but the Peacemaker kept waving his hand in dismissal, claiming that everything was under control.

And then, the Crooked Tongues entered the scene…

An excerpt from “The Peacekeeper”, The Peacemaker Series, book #4

She said nothing, her palm pressing his shoulder, giving warmth, but not enough of it. Nothing would fill the void the incredible man from across the Great Sparkling Water would leave when gone, back to the Great Spirits he clearly belonged to. He was their messenger, the temporary guest here.

“He didn’t finish his work, you know.” He felt silly, like a complaining child, whining about things he couldn’t have. “He said five nations was just a beginning. He went to see Long Tails from the west, somewhere upon the shores of another Great Lake. We barely hear of these people, but the People of the Mountains knew, and they told him. So he went there. Like in the good old times, but alone. I was busy organizing the Second Gathering.” It was easier to keep talking, it kept his grief in some sort of control. “And the Crooked Tongues, of course. He wanted to have them as a part of our union. He invited their delegation, but it was not enough, he said. Not a pitiful delegation from one or two towns. He wanted to go there in the summer, to organize them like he did with our people. Then we could talk to them properly, he said.”

Sighing, he smiled at the memory, not a happy smile.

“He said he did not believe I would like to come. I told him, damn right, I would never cross the Great Sparkling Water again, not if I could help it. But I would have now, you know? If it was the way to save him, to make him change his mind, I would be sailing our Sparkling Water before the sun was to kiss the treetops of the eastern side of it.”

The pressure of the gentle palm was gone.

“He wanted to go and organize the Crooked Tongues?” she asked, suddenly excited.

“Yes, he did.”

“Alone?”

“I suppose so.”

She coiled into her previous position again, pressing her knees with her arms, but not sobbing now, deep in thought.

“What?”

“Wait. Let me think!”

“Think about what, Kahontsi?”

“I think I may have a solution. But you won’t like it.”

“There is no solution.”

“Maybe there is.” Her eyes shone at him like two bright stars, their excitement barely contained. “Like the test of the falls, eh? It was wild, but was worth a try. And we did it. And it worked.”

He felt his own excitement beginning to stir. “Tell me.”

Atenaha, the Seed Game that even the deities played

15 June 2014

So, you are a man and had a busy day behind you. Not something as demanding as trailing along with your peers on a hunting expedition – such enterprise could take days – but just a regular daily activity, clearing a new field at the demand of your Clan Mothers, or chopping firewood, or working on a construction of a new longhouse. Enough activity to make you tired physically but not mentally; not enough to make you sneak into your longhouse’s compartment to catch a good nap on one of the lower banks.

As the Father Sun would be rolling down, progressing toward his resting place, you might get start enjoying this well deserved rest, engaging in throwing games with your equally tired but restless peers. After all, you all have already completed your chores, washed in the nearby stream and ate the warmed meal prepared by the women of your family in the morning. So it might be the time to have some idle fun.

Atenaha – a seed game – required little accessories and not much preparation or skill. Like dice it was a game of luck, mainly, to pass an idle afternoon. With blanket, folded and thoroughly smoothed, acting like a game-board, eight small wooden, or carved out of elk horn, disks, burned or blackened on one side each, and a pile of seeds or beans, forty in amount , you and your friends were set to go.

The first player would grab the stones, shake them thoroughly, then throw, making sure none slipped between his palms while mixing them vigorously (such misfortune could see the player losing his round no matter what his throw brought).

The array of the dice upon the blanket would determine the players’ achievement per round. If the stones spread out displaying their blackened sides, all eight of them, you would whoop with joy and earn twenty points, sweeping twenty seeds/beans out of the central pot and into your private stockpiles. This was the luckiest throw.

Still, if your discs would spread on the blanket all displaying their unpainted sides, you would probably not be heard complaining. Ten points such throw would earn you is not likely to see you desperate.

Seven painted/unpainted sides would give you four points, and six would still see you collecting two seeds out of the pot. Nothing to boast about, but not the total failure, either. Any less than that – five painted as opposed to three unpainted, or the other way around, and so on – would earn you nothing, but the loss of your round. Not the end of the world, but you might still get thoroughly angered.

So at this stage the players would be fully engaged, enjoying themselves, most probably ignoring the ominous glances of the passing-by ever-busy Clans Mothers – the elderly women who ran the council of each longhouse and who were bound to frown on such idle pastime. Yet, the players would be too busy for that now, using one hand to throw, and the other to hide their winnings. In many versions of the game a lucky throw would earn the participants another round ahead of his peers.

And so the game would continue until the pot with the seeds empties. By this point some would have hoarded high piles of beans, while the others would sport smaller heaps, or nothing at all. A player without earnings could continue but usually not for long.

Because at this point the game changes.

If before each earned point was compensated out of the central pot of seeds, now it would have to come out of the piles owed by the fellow players. So if you had nothing left but it was your turn to throw and you were lucky enough to earn a point or two, you would be off for a passable re-start.

But if it was someone else’s turn, you would be very likely kicked out of the game the moment your companion earned even the minimal amount of points, because everyone was required to cache in. For example, a throw of all-whites – worthy of ten points as you remember – would require the remaining players, say three of them, to give the lucky winner each three or four seeds. If you have nothing to give, you were out. But the game would go on. Also if you had two seeds instead of the required three, out you would go as well, bankrupted, with what you had left behind divided between the rest of the players.

This is the point when the game turns into a race against one another, with the ultimate victor being the person who remained in possession of all seeds.

The end of the game.

Time to collect the bets, if anything was wagered against the victory, to go home and store your newly acquired goods. Or to engage in a new round of game. Like anywhere else around the globe, the People of the Longhouse (the Iroquois) were fond of gambling.

An excerpt from “The Peacekeeper”, The Peacemaker Series, book #4.

Are you going to fall asleep on us, you vigorous player?”

His companions’ laughter made Hainteroh concentrate.

“Didn’t notice it was my turn.” Collecting the marked stones, he smoothed the surface of the folded blanket, making sure it was ready for his throw.

“Of course you didn’t notice. When one is staring into thin air the way you were, one is prone to missing the goings-on. What were you dreaming about?”

“Nothing. Nothing out of the ordinary.”

Their renewed laughter did not make him angry, not like it would have only a few seasons earlier, in his previous life, when unimportant things had mattered. Back then he would have challenged anyone who dared to laugh or tease him, especially in front of his peers. Today he just shrugged, shaking the stones briefly, throwing them over the smooth surface, watching the marks, his heartbeat not quickening. The outcome of the game did not matter either, any more than their amusement with his wandering attention did.

“Your throw.” Indifferently, he pushed the stones toward the man to his left, collecting the dry seeds out of a large bowl, the four seeds that his throw had earned him.

“Don’t you care if you win or lose?” asked one of the others, a tall man with a spectacular scar running down his left cheek. “You will fall asleep on us for real in the end.”

Hainteroh shrugged. “No, I don’t.”

“What do you care about?”

“Other things.”

“Like what?”

He stifled a yawn. “Important things.”

The stones landed upon the folded blanket again, some rolling outside it, some slowing among the wrinkles. Two painted, six unpainted. The man beside him cursed. His stack of seeds was meager, and the addition of only two more did nothing to encourage his spirit.

“So what are the important things you do care about?” insisted the man with the scar.

Hainteroh fixed his gaze on the rolling pebbles, the throw of a youth to his left forceful, making the stones scatter outside the blanket.

“Same as yours.”

“How do you know what I deem important?” The man was watching him, challenging, not about to give up.

“I don’t.” He shrugged again, not feeling threatened. “For myself, I want to kill as many of the filthy lowlifes from across the Great Sparkling Water as I can.” He met his interrogator’s gaze. “I want to burn down their towns and villages and make them suffer for real.” Shrugging again, he narrowed his eyes. “Don’t you want that, too?”

The youth’s curse distracted them as the stones came to a halt, displaying five painted against three unpainted sides. No seeds were to be collected for such a throw.

“Bad turn.” The fourth player grabbed the throwing stones. “But it’s your fault. You don’t toss the poor stones with such violence. One needs to give them proper time to mix between your palms, to feel your warmth. That will reassure them, make them feel calm and unthreatened. Then they will roll and try to do their best for you.” As they listened to the pleasantly monotonous rustling, the man grinned in a slightly condescending manner. “As for the enemy from across our Sparkling Water, you all may need to gather your patience and hold onto your temper as best you can.” A glance shot at Hainteroh was openly amused. “Which won’t be easy for some of you, young hotheads that you are.”

“What do you mean?” He didn’t watch the pebbles as they spread upon the blanket, in a neat pattern, as though prearranged, but the gasps of the others told him the throw was good, maybe too good.

The Maple Ceremony

2 June 2014

Haudenosaunee People (Iroquois nations) did not spare on festivals and thanksgiving events, ready to celebrate the beginning of each season or each new agricultural undertaking, ready to thank the Great Spirits for their generosity and their good will.

The winters were harsh, difficult to endure, especially for the people used to spend their time outdoors. Although having plenty of venting holes, one above each fireplace that dotted long corridors, longhouses could grow suffocating in the closed, smoke-filled air, when every opening was shut tight against the frequency of the blizzards, forcing people to huddle inside. The smoke spread around, stinging people’s eyes and making them cough. No wonder that with the coming of spring, many would plunge into the joys of the outside life, eager to celebrate the rebirth of the world with a beautiful Maple Ceremony.

The Maple Moon fell around the first month of the spring – early to mid March – in time for the maple trees to give plenty of the wonderful sap for the people to enjoy (Haudenosaunee people lived according to the lunar calendar, counting 13 moons of 28 days each). Some claim that the Maple Ceremony was the first official ceremony of the year, the one to start the new cycle of seasons (although the Midwinter Ceremony is more likely to contest for such title), because the returning and raising sap relayed the Great Spirits’ continues benevolence, showed that the kind deities were not tired watching over their creations, not disappointed and not aloof. Pine, hemlock, elm and basswood were esteemed; the maple trees were revered.

So, through the Maple Moon people would pour out in groups, armed with knives and carrying wooden containers, or sometimes, baskets and jars. Each tree would be cut reverently, carefully, as to not to wound the generous forest dweller, but only to let the sap trickle. The maple trees were not to be harmed. The cut needed to be two or three fingers deep and, at least, a palm long. Otherwise, the sap would be difficult to collect. Then a flat stick would be driven into the gush, directing the sticky flow into containers and tabs, collecting the sweetish liquid.

Later on, the collected sap would be boiled in clay vessels, to be used as sweetener and energizer, in all sort of cooking and sometimes, as a medicine to fortify aching stomachs. Sometimes the sap might have even been fermented and used as intoxicant according to Arthur C. Parker, who admits to only one source mentioning such use through the years of his research.

After many days of such happy activity, a Maple Sugar Festival was held in order to thank the Creators. People would perform sacred dances and the faith-keepers would give thanksgiving speeches, burning tobacco, letting its fragrant smoke rise to the world of the Sky Spirits, carrying people’s gratitude to the creators of this earthly world.

The faith-keepers were respectable people of the society, entrusted with many aspects of spiritual representation, organizing and conducting ceremonies, but these were not their primary duties. There was no equivalent of the priest title among the Five Nations. When it came to private lives, everyone thanked the Creators the way he or she felt fit, with no outside intervention or guidance, unless specifically asked for.

An excerpt from “The Great Law of Peace”, The Peacemaker Series, book #3.

“So tell me, sister,” the girl smiled, revealing a row of large, even teeth. “How long were you forced to live among the savages of the Flint?”

“Two moons.” Frowning, Onheda took the flat stick off the gash in the maple tree, making sure that not a drop of the precious sap was still seeping. Satisfied, she cleaned the stick and measured the amount of the collected liquid in her jar.

“Two moons is a long time to survive without being adopted,” commented the girl, shooting a gaze full of curiosity at Onheda. She bent to pick a greenish strawberry that hid among the bushes and eyed it dubiously before giving it a hesitant bite. “How did you manage to get away?”

“I slipped out in the middle of the night.” Absently, Onheda caressed the cut bark, muttering a silent prayer, thanking the old tree for being so generous. Pine, hemlock, elm and basswood were honored, highly esteemed, but the maple trees were the special gift of the Right-Handed Twin himself. Its returning and raising sap let people know that the new span of seasons had truly begun, with the Great Spirits’ blessing, benevolence, and goodwill.

The eyes of her companion did not stir, sparkling with expectation. The girl’s name was Hanowa, and she was a funny, restless, sweet little thing. “Weren’t you afraid to make the matters truly bad for you by running away?”

Onheda raised her eyebrows. “They didn’t seem to take it badly. It’s not like their entire warriors’ force was chasing me all the way to our lands.”

The girl giggled. “That would be a sight I could do without. And surely you, too.” Her eyes sparkled again. “But how did you manage to live there for so long without being adopted?”

“Oh, well…” She fought the urge to tell the stupid fox to mind her own business, proceeding toward the next maple tree, instead. “It was their fault, actually. They took their time. I thought I was adopted, and then, all of a sudden, that annoying women from that longhouse I lived at told me I was not actually adopted, demanding that I do things to make it happen.” Onheda snorted. “Such an annoying ground snake she was!”

“What did she want you to do?”

“Well, all sorts of things. She said I was not adapting well. She wanted me to be nice to people. But I was nice, I was! Not to all of them, but to some.” She shrugged. “They were all right, all things considered. But not all of them.”

“There are quite a few Flint people’s women in Onondaga Town,” said the girl thoughtfully, fishing a long knife from the basket she carried. “But our clan has none, so you are lucky, I say. There was this young man – a very good-looking boy at that – but he fell in love with a girl from the nearby village, and when the Grandmother of her longhouse agreed, he went to live there.”

The girl laughed. “To the deep disappointment of more than a few cute-looking foxes from all over the town, I say. He was truly good-looking and nice. I would have fallen for him myself had he not been from our longhouse.” Another bout of laughter. “I bet you would be running back to your High Springs if he were still there. You must hate them all really badly, to take such a terrible risk like running away.”

Taking the knife from her chatty companion, Onheda frowned, studying the tree.

“I don’t hate them all. I met good Flint People, too. In fact, I have a really good friend among them.” She studied the bark closely, looking for signs. “He was captured too, and he lived among the Crooked Tongues, imagine that. He ran away too, and now he is back in his Little Falls.”

But maybe not anymore, she thought hopefully, her stomach twisting. Maybe he is on his way here, he and the Crooked Tongues man, rowing against the current, hurrying to visit her people, to bring them the message of the Great Peace, hurrying to find her like he promised. What would he do when he heard that she was not at Jikonsahseh’s? Would he be disappointed? Hurt? She hoped he would.

“Among the Crooked Tongues?” cried out the girl, aghast. “Oh, Mighty Spirits! I would take my own life if captured by those savages.”

“They are no savages,” said Onheda returning her attention to the tree she was scanning. “Didn’t you hear about the Messenger?”

The Rise of the Aztecs, Part XII, The New Emperor

7 April 2014

Ten years after the fall of the Tepanec Empire saw the Triple Alliance evolving rapidly, growing by leaps and bounds, with Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan, the partners of the famous alliance, cooperating readily when needed, while maintaining their city-states’ independence, developing each into its own direction.

Texcoco, the Acolhua Capital, flourished, growing into what our modern-day historians sometimes tend to call “The Athens of the Western World”; the refined, influential city-state, famous for its extensive collection of arts, huge library, cultivation of artists and “people of culture”.

Anahuac

Nezahualcoyotl himself was reported to be a renowned engineer, poet, lawmaker, credited with many personally feats of engineering, from the wonders of his “summer palace” in Texcotzingo – a dry hill completely transformed by stone aqueducts carrying fresh water to nourish huge botanical gardens, complex of palaces, baths, temples, and other wonders of engineering ; to designing of Tenochtitlan’s dike, a huge project of levee that separated the brackish waters of Texcoco Lake from the spring-fed drinkable ones, keeping the frequent flooding of the island-city in check as well.

Tlacopan, the representative of the defeated Tepanecs, kept quiet and docile, satisfied with its smaller role of a junior partner, participating in the alliance’s wars, not put out with its smaller share of the spoils (one fifth of the tribute went to Tlacopan as opposed to the two fifths the Mexicas and the Acolhua received).

Tenochtitlan, the leading partner of the Triple Alliance, flourished more than the others! Their drive to move forward, not curbed by hostile powers or overlords anymore, burst unrestrained, pushing the island-city up the regional map, unstoppable now.

Lead by energetic forceful leaders like Tlacaelel, Tenochtitlan blossomed from the mediocre city-state into a true capital, bursting with building projects aplenty, owner of growing collection of provinces, coping well with its newly gained status and the flow of tribute and manpower.

Anahuac

Tlacaelel’s extensive reforms, social, financial and religious ones, while probably angering some influential people, made this quick transformation possible. For some reason, this prominent, undoubtedly very powerful and outstanding man, had preferred to rule behind the scenes, as he retained his powerful position of the second most influential man of Tenochtitlan until the end of his life, for many more decades to come, serving as the Head Adviser to three emperors in succession, pushing his reforms and making sure his laws remained solid and unwavering, to support the world of clear Mexica domination he was busy ensuring. The Empire of his creation was to spread and hold on for nearly another century, shattered by the Spanish invasion in 1521 and the lethal diseases they brought along. But for the outbreak of small pox that, reportedly, wiped out up to ninety percent of Tenochtitlan’s population alone, the history of the Americas might have looked different today.

An excerpt from “Below the Highlands”, The Triple Alliance Trilogy, book #3

Tlacaelel is working hard to keep our relationship with the towns of the Highlands at peace.” Their hostess seemed to be trying to divert the conversation in safer directions. “He is a great friend of your father and your emperor. As long as he is in power, nothing will ruin our altepetls’ relationship.”

“The Highlands are not looking for trouble. If something happens, it will not be their fault.”

Coatl felt the lightness of his mood evaporating. What would he do if something happened and a war broke? What would Father do? And his brother?

“Tlacaelel will not let anything happen,” repeated his woman stubbornly, her amusement gone. “There will be no war between Huexotzinco and Tenochtitlan, or Texcoco.”

“He has enemies,” said Citlalli quietly. “I hear people talk, in Tlacopan and here. He makes many changes, creates new laws, pushes on radical reforms. Even the priests are angry with him for promoting one new god above the other old ones. Many are unhappy with his way of doing things.”

“Those are the things that need to be done,” cried out their hostess, obviously having a hard time restraining herself from jumping to her feet. “He creates a new world, because the old one is not good anymore. It cannot evolve without radical changes, and people should be grateful for all the work he does instead of criticizing his every step, looking through eyes clouded with jealousy and their own small prejudices. They cannot see beyond the tips of their noses, while he sees to enormous distances, like an eagle.” Her cheeks burning with red again, she glared at them, obviously upset. “He is working so hard, giving everything he has for the future of this altepetl. While all they can do is criticize and lament the passing of the good old times, and the old ways of doing things. Hearing them, one can think it was so very good for Tenochtitlan to exist under Tezozomoc’s crushing paw.”

Coatl glanced at Citlalli, trying to warn her not to argue.

“The Adviser is not always right,” said the girl mildly, ignoring his stare. “He is changing too many things, and he doesn’t have respect for the old ways.”

“But the old ways are not good enough! Can’t you see it?” exclaimed Tlacaelel’s woman. “Mexica people can’t be powerful or important as long as they behave like a small island. Tenochtitlan can’t be ruled by the council of the districts’ elders. It is not practical anymore.”

The Aztecs and the Atlatl

5 April 2014

I’m honored to present a guest post from , Spanish Bilingual Interpreter at American Translators Association, an expert on Mesoamerica and its various pre-contact nations and cultures.

The Aztecs and the Atlatl

As they fought their way across Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, Cortez and his Spaniards were harassed by showers of arrows and light spears. So heavy was the hail of weapons that one of the chronicles says “…the Mexicas furiously hurled their javelins. It was as if a layer of yellow cane was spread over the Spaniards…”

What the chronicle described as “javelins” were actually light spears thrown with a weapon new to the Europeans. A stick the length of a man’s arm, with a grip at one end and a hook to engage the spear at the other, these spear throwers were called atlatl in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs and their neighbors.

Most of our understanding of Aztec warfare comes from the chronicles of the Spanish and the documents written by the Aztec and their neighbors after they had been conquered. Like any other expanding power, the Aztec Empire engaged in wars of conquest, supported an elite class of noble warriors, and sent expeditions against neighboring states.

War was aimed at expansion, but at the same time it was also full of high drama and religious ritual. Elite warriors gained glory by capturing opponents for sacrifice, so hand weapons and close combat were emphasized.

The atlatl was an ancient and important weapon in the Americas when the Spanish arrived. Although different forms of atlatl were invented sometime in the Upper Paleolithic Ice Ages in both the Old and New Worlds, they had been replaced by bows and arrows in most places.

In modern times atlatl survived in a few places such as Australia, where the bow never arrived, and alongside the bow and arrow in the Arctic and parts of Latin America. In Europe and much of North America we know them only through archaeological finds.

The leverage of the long atlatl allowed a thrower to fling a light spear much farther and faster than by hand alone. Tipped with a sharp point of obsidian, bone, or hardened wood, these spears (usually called darts by atlatlists today) were dangerous weapons. It is frequently claimed that they would have penetrated metal armor.

This is not true, but most of the Spaniards would have worn lighter chain mail or leather and padded cotton armor similar to that of the Aztecs, and Garcilaso de la Vega, a veteran of Indian fights in Peru and Florida, complained that atlatl darts would pass clear through a man.

Nevertheless, we know a lot about atlatl, or spear throwers as they are also called. In a few recent societies, atlatl remained in use long enough to be observed by modern anthropologists.

The best known examples are some of the Inuit (Eskimo) groups in the Arctic, and the native peoples of Australia. Since modern guns have become available everywhere, there are now very few people who continue to use atlatls for hunting or because they wish to hold onto traditional ways.

The deity entwined with a snake on the British Museum atlatl could be Huitzilopochtli, a warrior deity, or Mixcoatl, a hunter god from the north, or one of several other gods in the complicated Aztec religion.

Although the Spanish explorers who met Aztecs and others using atlatls mentioned the weapons in their chronicles, their accounts of these unfamiliar weapons are brief and often unclear.

The atlatl itself was also an important symbol of warfare and magical power. Most of the important Aztec gods were sometimes shown holding atlatls or darts. Zelia Nuttall, who wrote the first important study of Mesoamerican atlatls, noted that atlatls are often shown with snake designs or associated with serpents.

Atlatls were also elaborately decorated with feathers, and associated with birds of prey, not too surprising for a weapon that threw a deadly feathered dart.

In any case, the few atlatls that survive from the Aztec and their neighbors are highly decorated.

The British Museum specimen is probably one of the gifts sent back to the king of Spain by Cortez, which then were passed around the royal houses of Europe. It is elaborately carved, and gorgeously gilded, a work of art fit for tribute to a king, or the weapon of a noble warrior. It is, however, perfectly usable, and we should not be surprised that fine weapons, symbols of power and religious war, were richly decorated. It seems likely that simpler models were used by most warriors, but we don’t know.

Major battles had apparently begun with a barrage of arrows and atlatl darts, before the warriors closed with macuahuitls – wooden swords edged with razor-sharp obsidian. It is quite likely that Aztec warfare was rather similar to the medieval warfare of contemporary Europe where noble knights fought hand to hand with swords and won glory and ransom, but peasant archers with bows and cross bows did most of the damage and actually decided the outcome of battles.

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