Today I want to cover a topic called “The Flower Wars”. Admittedly, it sounds a lot like “Flower Power” and induces imaginations of flower decoration competitions and other harmless things. In fact, it’s almost the total opposite. Nowadays we would call it an euphemism. To project that understanding to former times and a very different culture however, is possibly a mistake.
Flower wars or xochiyaoyotl, as is the word in Nahuatl, were planned battles between the Aztec empire and long time enemies like be people from Tlaxcala. The foundation of those were sometimes fixed in formal contracts. Contrary to wars to invade other cities and afterwards forcing them to pay tribute, a flower war granted the regeneration of the enemy, so that after a time another flower war could be conducted.
The word xochiyaoyotl means exactly “flower war” on Nahuatl, being composed of Xochitl meaning flower and Yaoyotl, meaning war. (In Nahuatl, the endings of words gets cut off, when used in a combination, therefore Xochitl loses its -tl). That the word sounds like an euphemism for our modern ears is understandable, for Aztecs however it was very different. The Aztec poetry and its ways to express certain things is a fascinating field, which we will cover in a later post.
As to flower wars, there are many theories about why they originally came to existence.
One theory suggests, that it was a way to get captives/slaves, an human sacrificial resources. Another theory brings that one a bit further and adds, that it could have been a training program for younger soldiers. A third theory actually says, that those reasons were just pretexts of the Aztec Empire for enacting in such battles, to keep the enemies in a weak condition. The Durán Codex furthermore states, that the Flower Wars were established for mass sacrifice, which was needed due to a grave famine amongst the people. The main character in this theory, Tlacaelel, will be the topic of another post soon.
Even though the original reason isn’t sure, the course of events in a flower war were always the same and are very well known. Even though it were large armies that went to battle, only some fighters were fighting at the same time – in a controlled environment so to say. The strongest and most experienced fighters fought first against each other. Then gradually the least experienced fighters came to fight. Being cheered up by their fellow warriors, they fought as long as they were not too tired, always trying everything to make a captive. A captive meant another sacrifice for the city and glory for the warrior. It was his only way to climb some steps on the social ladder. After a time, the armies went back to their cities, having fresh material for the sacrifices. The captives weren’t very sad though. In the end, it was a most honorable way to die. Some warriors who were given the possibility to be free after another fight or a won ballgame (despite handicap), insisted on their sacrifice.
In modern times, we would call such a war something with ‘maneuver’. It’s basically the same. Just without flowers. And captives. And sacrifices.