The Boyhood of Montezuma

The Training of an Aztec Leader

The education of Montezuma II, a future Tlatoani ( Great Speaker) of the Aztecs of Mexico, was designed to make him both a priest and a warrior.

Montezuma was five years old when he was sent to a religious calmecac school to begin his priest’s training. There was much to learn. Montezuma needed to know how to read and interpret the Teoamoxtli, the sacred painted book of fate from which forecasts of the future were made. Montezuma also had to be acquainted with the mysteries and magic of the complex rites in the Aztec religion.

Montezuma the Trainee Priest Learns Hard Lessons

The calmecac at the temple which the future Tlatoani attended made no concessions towards his high rank. Along with all the other boys, who were usually the sons of princes or nobles, he learned plain, hard living. For a start, he had to learn how to obey the will of the temple god without question and be properly humble and self-controlled. Montezuma swept out the temple precinct, slept on bare stone floors and lived on two tortilla cakes and a cup of water a day.

Later, the boys went out on a night journey to gather materials to make the black paint worn by Aztec priests. This paint was made of the roasted, ground bodies of scorpions and insects, mixed with the leaves of special plants and burned rubber.

Montezuma probably remained at the calmecac school for priests for two years. After that, he embarked on his training as a warrior.

Montezuma Receives a Warrior’s Education

By contrast to the temple school, the military school was comparative luxury. Instead of bare stone floors to sleep on, Montezuma was given a grass-mat bed and was allowed to cover himself at night with a thin cotton blanket. Nevertheless, the military training was very hard going.

Montezuma learned how to fight in battle, although the weapons he and the other boys used in combat were not the deadly weapons employed in real war. The wooden clubs and spears they fought with had the immensely dangerous obsidian blades and spikes removed.

Military training also included experience in enduring the freezing cold that often descended on the high mountain country of Mexico, so the boys wore nothing but a loincloth and a net cloak.

They soon got a taste of real fighting expeditions, for it was only on rare occasions that the Aztec armies were not at war somewhere in Mexico. It was on these expeditions that Montezuma saw how real war was conducted and how the Aztec generals sent out spies and reconnaissance parties to discover the enemy’s positions and the best place for an attack.

Into Battle

Like all the boys at the military school, Montezuma longed to become a Master of Cuts – soldiers who captured at least three prisoners in war and so provided the human sacrifices that were regularly offered to the Aztec gods. Montezuma did, in fact, achieve this status by the time he was eighteen years old. He was then permitted to wear the leather ear plugs, eagle feather headband and fringed tufted hairstyle of a fully-fledged warrior.

Like all Aztec boys, Montezuma had his head shaved when he was a young boy. Then at the age of ten, he grew a single tuft of hair at the back of his head. This tuft was removed after he had taken his first prisoner in battle, and when he had taken three more prisoners, he was allowed to wear a single lock of hair over his right ear.

Taking Part in a Harvest Festival

However, the military school was not all lessons, hardship and fighting. There were many festivals in which the young warriors could take part. At the harvest festival, the feast of the god Xocotlhuetzi held in late August, Montezuma and the other boys decorated themselves with the crane feathers of warriors and competed with each other in climbing the grease-covered poles that stood in the temple courtyard..

The pole was about forty feet high and was covered in black oil. The idea was to be the first to seize the golden crown from the image of Xocotihuetzi planted at the top of the pole.
Qualifying for Human Sacrifice

One year, it seems, Montezuma triumphed, grabbing the golden crown before any of the other contestants could beat him to it. This success made Montezuma eligible to take part in the sacrifice of prisoners that followed.

The prisoners were painted red and yellow and covered on parts of their bodies with the feathers of white eagles. A log fire was lit in a long, stone-lined pit and when the flames had taken sufficient hold, the prisoners were thrown in. They were usually still alive when the Aztec priests pulled them out with copper hooks attached to poles.

Montezuma was one of the young Aztecs who held down the prisoners’ limbs while the high priest of Xocotihuetzi cut out their hearts.

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