One of the most popular drawings from the Florentine codex depicts three Aztec “eagle warriors”. In other articles on sea peoples (accessible here) I have already drawn some parallels between these “feathered costumes” of Americas, the ones of “sea peoples” as well as those of medieval hussars, whose origins lie in the Balkans. But this time something else caught my eye – their shields. Their heraldry bears some striking resemblance to shields of ancient Illyria and Sparta.
Florentine Codex IX – Aztec Warriors
The shield that first caught my eye is the one in the middle. It looks just like one of the most famous shields of the ancient world – Spartan shield with Lambda sign:
A warrior society – the rite of passage
There is another already known parallel between the Aztecs and the Spartans. Both societies had a rite of passage where young boys had to prove themselves in order to become warriors. The military culture was an important aspect of both civilizations.
And while everyone agrees that these similarities are a coincidence, it is a really interesting fact that they even had the same shields.
Curious why would Aztec warrior carry a Spartan shield I decided to check the other two symbols. And it looks like the Aztec warrior on the right has something that looks like an Illyrian shield:
*Note also the typical Illyrian feathered helmet, compared with the feathers of the Aztec warriors.
As for the “two birds” motive on the first shield on the left, I was not so lucky when it comes to Illyrian shield heraldry, but I did manage to find another famous Illyrian artifact – An iron age votive chariot from Glasinac near Sarajevo, Bosnia, and Herzegovina. Even though this is not a shield, the two birds symbol was obviously an important symbol for Illyrians, since this is a votive chariot.
The only similar (and older) example that I know of is this ring with ducks, that belonged to the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses IV, 153-1147 BC, now in Louvre, Paris.
A European influence?
Skeptics will say that this 16th-century manuscript has some influence of the first missionaries of the New World. And they could be right, but the motives to do something like that would still remain unclear. Besides, chances are slim that they would be familiar with Illyrian heraldry. Wikipedia article on Florentine codex images states the following:
“Many images show what looks like European influence, but a careful analysis shows that they were works of “tlacuilo – native scribe-painter.”
Illyrians, masters of the sea
If Aztec symbols are native designs, could they really come from ancient Illyria? Were Illyrians capable of sea travel? We know for certain that they were – at least from the late 4th century BC, when the first records of their piracy appear in ancient writings.
Illyrians were one of the dominant naval forces until the Roman Republic decided to put an end to their piracy, in the events known as Illyrian wars. Here is a drawing of their ship, from the same archaeological site that yielded the votive chariot with birds pictured above.
Also, in distant times Spartans had lived very close to Illyrian lands, as Herodotus informs us:
“Having been driven out from Istiaiotida by the Kadmeans, they lived in Pindos under the nation named Makedon…”
In conclusion, in forgotten times of bronze age, before Herodotus wrote the first history book, all three designs of the Aztec warrior shields may have existed on the east coast of Adriatic sea, on a stretch of just few hundred kilometers, in a nation of maritime people. These people had ruled the Adriatic sea and large parts of the Ionian sea without any doubts. They also had trade routes with the whole of the Mediterranean.
But were their vessels sea-worthy enough to reach the lands of Aztecs is another question, the one that will surely not be solved just with this simple heraldry comparison. So, to make it clear, I am not claiming that there was a connection. But I still see this as a very interesting curiosity that deserves to be shared with my readers.