Ancient Maya War And Warriors

Ritualized skirmishes evolved into large scale warfare

Rollout vase photos courtesy of Justin Kerr


It was the custom among them to pledge what they possessed to each other; upon collection and payment they began to quarrel and attack each other.

Frey Diego de Landa


They never had peace, especially when the cultivation (of milpas) was over, and their greatest desire was to seize important men to sacrifice, because the greater the quality of the victim, the more acceptable their service to the gods. 

Alfred Tozzer


War was the way you got gifts for the gods and kept the universe running.

Linda Schele

Purpose and Objectives

In the Early period, warfare was practiced as a confrontation between spiritual forces, primarily involving the capture and sacrifice of royal captives. Most valued were captives of high rank. The sacrifice of royal blood was the ultimate gift to the gods. Rather than “battles” between large forces, warfare initially amounted to raids and attacks to take captives. In the inscriptions, what was important was the captive’s name, title and who captured him. A large part of ceremonial warfare amounted to capturing not only a worthy sacrificial victim but also the patron banner of the polity, the ruler’s god-bundle which containing the relics of his deified ancestors, his palanquin and war paraphernalia. All of these sacred items increased the power and prestige of the victor and his lineage. It also brought economic benefits to the community that fueled the emerging elite and contributed to the massing of both commoner and slave labor for construction projects. 

According to archaeologist Dr. Arthur Demarest, warfare in the Middle-to-Late Classic was about status and charisma. It helped to define who the royals and elite were and how much power they had with the gods. This was important because knowing who the gods favored provided a means for resolving dynastic succession, it opened trade routes, reinforced the status of elites by providing them with prized possessions such as quetzal, obsidian and jade and it bolstered the victor’s access to tribute labor. Dr. Demerest says, “In this period they did not ruin the enemy’s fields, or take a chance on harming its population because this brought no prestige. The necessary pact between humans and gods was sealed by the bloodletting of rulers.”

Other possible benefits included the acquisition of tribute from subject polities, boundary maintenance, the establishment of warlords which fostered elites and ranking, opportunities for public rituals and spectacles. It legitimized the ruler’s power in dealing with the gods.


Early Maya warfare (Preclassic and first centuries of the Early Classic), pitted the leaders of communities, their noble followers and a reasonable complement of commoner militia against one another on well-known battlefields and on known and planned occasions. I think that Maya warfare had some clear-cut rules of conduct during this early phase of the civilization… The primary tactic was the raid or brief battle aimed at surprise attack and quick defeat rather than total conquest or subjugation.

David Freidel (Archaeologist)

Maya artworks show warriors marching behind battle standards—tall poles with large shields attached to the tops, decorated and edged with bright featherwork. (Much larger than those shown here and above). The fighting itself amounted to free-for-alls where the principal lords and warriors, decked out to represent supernatural forces, engaged each other in close-order combat. The sounds of the battlefield came from conchs, rattles, wooden trumpets, wood and turtle carapace drums, whistles and frantic shouting.



In the Preclassic period, most polities weren’t large enough to maintain standing armies, so the rulers assembled able-bodied men and boys and armed them with brine-hardened cotton armor, wooden helmets, short stabbing darts, wooden axes with obsidian blades anchored along the sides, spears, axes and slings. It wasn’t until the Postclassic that the Maya used bows and arrows. 


Generally, wars were fought during the dry season, mostly because men would be available after the harvest and before the planting. Aside from agricultural needs, the rainy season with extensive flooding and muddy paths would have made it difficult, at times impossible. The Nacom (chief warlord) presided over an annual festival in the month of Pax (Mid-May). Rites were performed and he was treated as a god and  he discussed military matters with the ruler and other members of the court.

A Significant Shift

According to inscriptions at a variety of sites, on January 31, 378 an emissary from Teotihuacan in Central Mexico called Siyaj K’ahk’ (Born Of Fire) arrived at El Peru/Waka’. On the same day, Tikal’s ruler, Chak Tok Ich’aak (Great Jaguar Claw) “entered the water.” He and his entire lineage were killed and  replaced by a new male line drawn from the ruling house at Teotihuacan. Foremost among them was a high nobleman from Teotihuacan named Spearthrower Owl. This event marks the beginning of major changes in Maya society, among them the purpose, strategy and scale of warfare. 

The shift was from the modest scale taking of royal captives for sacrifice to the creation and maintenance of city-states through the acquisition of tribute (bounty and labor) from subject polities, the expansion of trade routes, and in the case of the Snake Kings of Calakmul, the establishment of allies to encircle Tikal, their bitter enemy, through marriage alliances. From then on, the “Peten Wars” ratcheted up involving many thousands of warriors in a single battle. 

After decades of the Calakmul kings building alliances, on August 3, 695 the current ruler, Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ (Fiery Claw) led his allies into an enormous battle against the Tikal king, Jasaw Chan K’awiil. In a major twist, Yich’aak K’ahk’ was defeated.

(My novel, Jaguar Wind And Waves, depicts this momentous event).

Postclassic Period (950-1539 AD)

There is evidence of constant warfare in Northern Yucatan among competing city-states throughout these years. The Spaniards reported that Maya armies were large during important campaigns, numbering in the thousands, but they were not maintained very long because they were logistically sustained through temporary appropriations of food and materials from unhappy peasant villagers. And those city-states were then governed by royal families, likely including other elites, rather than individual rulers.

The information provided here derives largely from a collection of scholarly opinions and interpretations. Warfare among the ancient Maya is one of the many cultural practices that changed over time and from place to place. The benefit of collected research and discussion is that it gives us a “taste” of what it was like. In that, we can consider the past as we shape the future.


Green Band Raid on Ahktuunal, Guatemala
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 35-36 )

Across the plaza at the base of the Great Turtle temple, a similar fate had befallen the Mother of the underlord, members of his council and court including their wives, even his steward. They and the most holy jaguar prophet who speaks to the people on behalf of the ruler and prognosticates for him were also being stripped, bound and tied together. Wherever the green band raiders were from, they apparently needed slaves—probably for construction projects—and a hot-blood for their master’s altar. 

Above the chain of captives, the zapote beams of the Holy House of Lord Turtle were engulfed in roaring flames. Tall, red-and-green feather standards on both sides of the doorway burst into flames sending an explosion of sparks into the smoke and fog. With the exception of the residence and the lineage house behind it—where Thunder Flute and Pech were taking cover—all the structures of the central district, the shrines, temples and other structures made of perishable materials, were going up in flames. 

The Green Bands brought their looted items to the center of the plaza and dumped them into baskets and onto nets, mats, and blankets, ripping open the tied bundles and spilling out their contents for their leader to inspect. Thunder Flute signed to Pech that he wanted a count of the raiders, including those not in the plaza. In turn, Pech signed an order to an assistant at the back of the Flower House and the message was passed on. Thunder Flute signed again, saying that if the raiders all come together in the plaza, we will attack. If not, they would “target and track” them when they leave. Again, the message was passed. Thunder Flute watched a while longer, then signed again to Pech. Why are they not talking? Pech shook his head and signed back. No one was talking, not a word passed between them.

After parading his prize in front of the warriors, the Owl leader tied the underlord’s neck-cord to the great stone turtle at the base of the temple. The goods being brought into the plaza were more bountiful and precious than Thunder Flute would have thought possible. They overturned a crate filled with ceramic and carved stone turtles packed in dried pine needles. Another contained the hides of deer, peccary, and ocelot. Two of the raiders labored over a large wooden crocodile. With his foot on the back of his neck, he pried out the obsidian eyes with his knife and broke off two rows of shell that served as its teeth. The rest he left, turning his attention to a prickly armadillo goblet offered by a young warrior. When another held out a ceramic censer in the shape of a turtle, he swatted it down and it smashed against the pavement. Thunder Flute noticed that any object carrying the likeness of a turtle—painted, molded, or incised—was either rejected or destroyed. 

From a heavy basket, one of the raiders dumped a number of green stones onto a blanket. Thunder Flute wanted to get a closer look so he motioned for Pech to stay where he was while he went around to the back of the residence. Crossing to the council house under the cover of streaming black smoke, he crouched behind a stairway and watched as three of the raiders examined the green stones with their leader. Thunder Flute counted six hand-sized ceremonial celts, at least ten equally long belt danglers, two jade tubes as long as a finger, four jade earflares shaped like flowers, a dark greenstone the size of a fist and scores of jade bead necklaces. When an assistant held one up with the bulbous head of the sun god at the bottom, the leader snatched it out of his hand and stuffed it into his already bulging pouch. From another warrior, he snatched a jade turtle shell the size of a fist, a magnificent piece with three red spots painted on the carapace. With great force, he hurled it down the plaza. Thunder Flute gasped as it hit the pavement and rolled into the smoke.  

After dumping some thorny oyster shells, red shell beads, and shell perforators onto a blanket, a warrior with a jagged scar down one arm gathered the ends and slung it onto his back. His brother warriors gathered up the other goods and the leader followed, all the while looking to see if there would be any resistance. There was none. Along the way, he stepped onto the back of a fallen Ahktuunal guard and struck a victory pose with his axe held high. Several of his men imitated the gesture, and together they howled like coyotes.

Thunder Flute took advantage of the distraction. He ran behind the retaining wall to where Pech was watching. Beside him, an assistant pointed to the temple of the Great Turtle. Through the smoke, high on the third terrace and hiding behind a fallen censer stand, a scout was signing: god bundle burned—six guards down. Warriors gone.

Gather their weapons, Thunder Flute signed. Return to the canoes. He whispered in Pech’s ear, “I want a man on the far side of the council house—to see where they will go. The leader threw a jade turtle down the plaza, a big one. I want it.”  


For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller


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