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Flower war
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Flower war

A flower war (or flowery war) was the name given by the Aztec to a planned war, where the objective was not to kill enemies or conquer territory, but rather to capture as many prisoners as possible, who would then be sacrificed in religious ceremonies and maybe eaten. Sources like Juan Bautista de Pomar, state that small pieces of meat were ofered as gift to important people in exchange for presents, and slaves, but it was rarelly eaten, since they considered it has not value, instead it was replaced by turkey, or just thrown away.

These sacred wars were planned for both sides involved, not necessarily willingly. Sometimes the rulers of the cities at war were invited to the sacrifice of their own people. The city of Tlaxcala was spared conquest, but with the obligation of participate in the flowery war. Eventually, Tlaxcala allied with Hernán Cortés to defeat the Aztecs.

On account of this institution, Aztec warriors were trained to prefer capturing their enemies in battle, rather than killing. This behaviour has been cited as another reason for their civilizational defeat when opposed to Europeans; to the Aztecs' amazement, the Spanish conquistadors and their allies, actually tried to kill their enemies in battle. By the time the Aztecs had changed their tactics, it was too late.

The prisoners for sacrifice were well treated and well fed, since they were considered messengers to the gods. There were 18 festivities a year that required human sacrifice, but not all required prisoners. Most of the prisoners were sacrificed in the annual festivity to Huitzilopochtli where the priest opened their abdomens to get their hearts. The bravest of them were sent to the gladiatorial sacrifice in the anual festivity of Tezcatlipoca, where they were tied on one foot and given mock weapons (with cotton plumes instead of obsidian knives) to fight against a fully armed warrior. If they managed to survive seven warriors, they still had to fight against a left handed warrior. If the prisoner managed to survive, he was freed with honours.

There is a legend of a powerful Tlaxcaltec warrior called Tlahuicole: he was captured, but because of his fame as warrior, he was freed and then he fought with the Aztec in Michoacan, he received honors, but instead of returning to Tlaxcala he chose to die in sacrifice; there were eight days of celebrations in his honor, then he killed the first eight warriors. Still insisting on being sacrificed, he fought and wounded 20 more warriors before being defeated and sacrificed (taken from History of Tlaxcala, by Muños Camargo, 16th century).

The institution of the sacred war was created by Tlacaelel, when he reformed the Aztec religion. The Aztecs were the last of the Nahuatlaca tribes to arrive in the Anahuac valley and were initially despised by the others. Tlacaelel decided to changed that; he wanted to give a sense of purpose to the Aztec people. He reformed their religion so that the demand for sacrifices was constant and the honor and the welfare of a warrior was proportional to the number of prisoners he could take. This demanded a constant state of war, and was also a way to demonstrate Aztec power. In turn it became a method of political control. Tlacalelel built this institution over old Mesoamerican beliefs, incorporating the elements for the cult of the old Nahua god Tezcatlipoca into the cult of their local god Huitzilopochtli.

In all the Mesoamerican cultures, blood had a very important place, it was provided not only by human sacrifice, but also by self-sacrifice. Tlacaelel made changes so it became a constant necessity to offer blood to keep the sun moving in the sky after its daily battle; in a way the Aztecs considered it their duty to maintain the world.

For the Aztec warriors, providing blood for the gods was a sacred duty and it was a precious occupation. In the Aztec world, flowers and feathers were the most precious things, so the word "flower" was used as an descriptor for the activity of war. The blood flowing from a wound was described as a flower of war.

This is a fragment of a war poem:

Quetzalxochitl oo
Tlachinol xochitli
zan iyyo tonequimilol
yahoxochitl

Ohunteppilhuan
anchuaht amocelo
xi moquimilocan
ixtlahuac quitequi
yaoxochitl
Flowers of divine liquor
flowers of fire:
only they can be our garment:
flowers of war

O my friends, noble friends
you, eagles, tigers:
get dressed
he (the god) will cut them on the meadowland
flowers of war.

(anonymous poem from Romances de los señores de la Nueva España, Translated from Nahuatl by Angel Ma. Garibay)