Café con Nawatl: A photograph of an actual Macuahuitl

While doing research for the makwawitl (macuahuitl, macana) episode of my youtube series, I came across a lot of really interesting information that I thought was worth examining further. One of the things that I came across was the catalog of the Royal Armory of Madrid, Spain. In particular, a page illustrated by an Italian artist depicting a makwawitl and another Mesoamerican weapon known as a tepoztopilli. The tepoztopilli is basically a lance or a spear, although it wasn’t really intended to be thrown. Next to these two pieces of weaponry are two shields. The shields are interesting, because neither one is Mesoamerican. In fact, both of them appear to be Turkish shields.

Page from the Armory catalog

I mentioned this page because I also came across a French etching made from a fascinating photograph. This etching shows a set of Samurai armor, holding the same makwawitl from the catalog of Madrid, and one of the Turkish shields from that same page. It appears that somebody put together a display, and I guess they must have thought that these items looked exotic enough to go together. So we ended up with a display consisting of Japanese Samurai armor wielding a Turkish shield and holding a Mesoamerican makwawitl.

French etching showing mismatched weaponry

I made it my mission to find the actual photograph that the etching was based on. Luckily, I was able to do exactly that when I came across a book called Guerreros Aztecas by a man named Marco Antonio Obregon. On page 96 you can see two photographs, both featuring Samurai armor (which kind of looks jumbled together itself). One of them is holding the tepoztopilli from the armory catalog and one of the Turkish shields. The other set of armor is holding the makwawitl from the catalog along with the other Turkish shield. If you’ll notice, the makwawitl is really, really long. In fact it’s bigger than any makwawitl that I’ve ever seen. It extends far beyond the frame of the photograph.

Photographs from “Guerreros Aztecas”

As an experiment, I took the illustration from the catalog and laid it over the photograph in order to get a better idea of just how big this makwawitl was. It is massive! In fact, the handle itself is over a foot long, and the bladed section is another three and a half to four feet in length. I thought this was really interesting. I went searching through my book “Aztec Warfare” by Ross Hassig, and he mentioned something that I found helpful. He states “some swords…” (he calls the makwawitl swords), “…had thongs through which the user could put his hand to secure the weapon in battle.”

drawing from the armory catalog superimposed over the photograph.

basically, some of the makwawitl had a leather strap that you would slide your hand through and hold on to the handle just in case it got knocked out. This meant that you didn’t lose it while you were on the battlefield as it was still attached to your wrist. He continues “the two handed variety is described as being about four inches wide and as tall as a man.” So there you have it. This photograph likely depicts a two handed makwawitl. We owe a debt of gratitude to whoever it was that just haphazardly threw these weapons together to make this display and took a photograph. Because now we have what is possibly the only photograph of an actual two handed makwawitl. Sadly, the only authentic example of an Makwawitl was destroyed in 1884 when the Royal Armory caught fire. This photo is all we will ever have.

(Chicano/Nawa/Mazewalli) Archaeologist, filmmaker, and founder of the Chimalli institute of Mesoamerican Arts. Professor of C/S at Colegio Chicano del Pueblo.

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