Notes and Communications:

Eyewitness Descriptions of Mesoamerican Swords

Recent scholarship on Book of Mormon warfare suggests that the Mesoamerican weapon the macuahuitl fits the criteria for the Book of Mormon “sword.”1 Recent critics of this position have argued that the comparison is faulty. The macuahuitl, they argue, was merely a club studded with obsidian.2 “Such flexible interpretations,” insists one recent critic, “suggest a lack of methodological rigor on the part of those already certain of the Book of Mormon’s ancient historicity.”3 It is noteworthy that early Chroniclers of Mesoamerican culture such as Duran4 and Clavijero5 unashamedly describe this weapon as a sword. Modern Mesoamerican historians commonly use similar terminology.6 In order to shed additional light on the issue I have provided extracts from Spanish accounts of those who encountered this weapon in battle. As these examples clearly demonstrate, these witnesses almost universally describe the macuahuitl as a “sword” and in some cases these same witnesses distinguish between several kinds of swords.

The Admiral thanked God for having shown him in a moment samples of all the goods of that country without exertion or exposing his men to any danger. He ordered such things to be taken as he judged most handsome and valuable, such as . . . long wooden swords with a groove on each side where the edge should be, in which the cutting edges of flint were fixed with thread and bitumen (these swords cut naked men as if they were of steel).7

Many bands of Indians came along the coast from the town of Champoton, as it is called, wearing cotton armour to the knees, and carrying bows and arrows, lances and shields, swords which appeared to be two-handed, slings and stones.8

Then they attacked us hand to hand, some with lances and some shooting arrows, and others with their two-handed cutting swords.9

They were carrying their usual weapons: bows, arrows, lances of various sizes, some of which were as large as ours; shields, swords single and double handed, and slings and stones.10

Then they attacked us with their two-handed cutting swords.11

When we met the enemy bands and companies, . . . they were armed with large bows and arrows, spears and shields, swords like our two-handed swords, and slings and stones.12

They carried two-handed swords, shields, lances, and feather plumes. Their swords, which were as long as broadswords, were made of flint which cut worse than a knife, and the blades were so set than one could neither break them nor pull them out.13

They put up so good a defence that they wounded some of our horses with their swords and lances.14

These Indians put up a good fight with their arrows and fire-hardened darts, and did wonders with their two-handed swords.15

But the passage was very difficult, for the Indians’ shooting was extremely good, and they did us great damage with their spears and broadswords.16

We did not dare break our formations, however, for any of our soldiers who was bold enough to break ranks and pursue their swordmen or captains was immediately wounded and in great danger.17

While we were at grips with this great army and their dreadful broadswords, many of the most powerful among the enemy seem to have decided to capture a horse. They began with a furious attack, and laid hands on a good mare well trained both for sport and battle. Her rider, Pedro de Moron, was a fine horseman; and as he charged with three other horsemen into enemy ranks—they had been instructed to charge together for mutual support—some of them seized his lance so that he could not use it, and others slashed at him with their broadswords, wounding him severely, Then they slashed at his mare, cutting her head at the neck so that it only hung by the skin. The mare fell dead, and if his mounted comrades had not come to Moron’s rescue, he would probably have been killed also.18

Their swordsmen and spearmen pressed us hard, and closed with us bravely, shouting and yelling as they came.19

Their charging swordsmen were repelled by stout thrusts from our swords, and did not close in on us so often as in the previous battle.20

Then their swordsmen made a sudden attack on the fourth side, in the positive certainty that they would be able to carry off some of our men for sacrifice. But God provided otherwise.21

Cortes gave them a mild answer. . . .”When I remember seeing us surrounded by so many companies of the enemy, and watching the play of their broadswords at such close quarters, even now I am terrified. When they killed the mare with a single sword-stroke we were defeated and lost, and at that same moment I was more aware of your matchless courage than ever before.”22

Montezuma had two houses stocked with every sort of weapon; many of them were richly adorned with gold and precious stones. There were shields large and small, and a sort of broadsword, and two-handed swords set with flint blades that cut much better than our swords.23

Then they described the weapons which the Mexicans used: . . . flint-edged two-handed swords.24

At a difficult pass they attacked us with their broadswords, killing two of our soldiers and one horse, and wounding almost all the rest.25

And the dogs fought back furiously, dealing us wounds and death with their lances and their two-handed swords.26

The Tlascalans became like very lions. With their swords, their two-handed blades, and other weapons which they had just captured, they fought most valiantly and well.27

Some of their captains carried scythe-like lances made from the swords they had captured from us during the slaughter on the causeway; others had long straight gleaming lances, which were also made from captured swords. Then there were archers and warriors with double-headed javelins, and with slings and stones, and their two-handed swords.28

The soldier Olea had been badly wounded by three sword-cuts and was losing blood.29

The ensigns waved their banners and standards, and all carried bows and arrows, two-handed swords, javelins, and spear-throwers. Some also had double-edged swords and long or short lances.30

The Mexicans had erected many barricades and ramparts, so that it was impossible to cross except by swimming. Whenever an attempt was made hosts of warriors were waiting for our men with arrows and slings and their various kinds of swords and lances.31

Many Indians were attacking us, with swords captured when Cortes was defeated or with flint-edged broadswords, trying to prevent us from rescuing the launch.32

They had likewise long Swords, which they used with both Hands, as we do our Scimitars or Falchions, made of Wood, in which they fixed sharp Flints.33

As the Spaniards tried to capture one of them to find out where they were from, the Indians with two blows of their swords killed two horses, and also wounded two Spaniards, and so defended themselves that not one of them was taken alive.34

The marqués ordered all the arms taken out of the arsenal we have mentioned, which were bows and arrows, spears and slings, and wooden swords with flint blades. There were about five-hundred cartloads, and he had them burned.35

This Indian gave us signs of a place with many islands where there were caravels and men like ourselves, except they had large ears, and he said they had swords and shields, and that there were many other provinces there.36

Two horsemen who had gone on in front of me perceived several Indians wearing the feathers which they are accustomed to wear in time of war, together with swords and shields.37

They had neither arrows, darts nor stones with which to resist us, and they were fighting against our allies armed with swords and shields.38

They used . . . cudgels and swords and a great many bows and arrows. . . . One Indian at a single stroke cut open the whole neck of Cristóbal de Olid’s horse, killing the horse. The Indian on the other side slashed at the second horseman and the blow cut through the horse’s pastern, whereupon this horse also fell dead.39

As soon as this sentry gave the alarm, they all ran out with their weapons to cut us off, following us with great fury, shooting arrows, spears and stones, and wounding us with their swords. Here many Spaniards fell, some dead and some wounded, and others without any injury who fainted away from fright.40

They have swords that are like broadswords, but their hilts are not quite so long and are three fingers wide; they are made of wood with grooves into which they fit hard stones blades which cut like a Tolosa blade. One Indian I saw in combat with a mounted horseman struck the horse in the chest, cutting through to the inside and killing the horse on the spot. On the same day I saw another Indian give a horse a sword thrust in the neck that laid the horse dead at his feet.41

In another part they cut the stones for knives and swords, which is something very interesting to see, and they also make swords and shields.42

The foremost horsemen met with fifteen Indians armed with swords. . . . In this fight the Indians slew two of their horses, as the Spaniards do witness, at two blows they cut off a horse[‘s] head, bridle and all.43

In their houses [i.e., armories] was great store of all kind of munitions which they use in their wars; as bows, arrows, slings, lances, darts, clubs, swords and bucklers, and gallant targets. . . . Their swords are made of wood, and the edge thereof is flint stone, inclosed . . . into a staff, with a certain kind of glue which is made of a root called zacole and Teuxalli.44

With their swords they cut spears, yea, and a horse neck at a blow, and make dents into iron, which seemeth a thing unprofitable and incredible.45

Notes 1. John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1985), 262–63; William J. Hamblin and A. Brent Merrill, “Swords in the Book of Mormon,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 329–51; John L. Sorenson, “Viva Zapato! Hurray for the Shoe!” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6/1 (1994): 324–31; William J. Hamblin, “An Apologist for the Critics: Brent Lee Metcalfe’s Assumptions and Methodologies,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6/1 (1994): 481–83.

2. Deanne G. Matheny, “Does the Shoe Fit? A Critique of the Limited Tehuantepec Geography,” in New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, ed. Brent Lee Metcalfe (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), 292–97.

3. Brent Lee Metcalfe, “Apologetic and Critical Assumptions about Book of Mormon Historicity,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 26/3 (Fall 1993): 161 n. 27.

4. Diego Durán, The History of the Indies of New Spain, trans. Doris Heyden (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994), 66, 76, 109, 135, 139, 150, 152–53, 171, 198, 279, 294, 323, 375, 378, 412, 428, 437, 441, 451, 519, 552–53; Diego Durán, Book of the Gods and Rites and the Ancient Calendar, trans. Doris Heyden and Fernando Horcasitas (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971), 124, 178–80, 234, 236.

5. The macuahuitl “was equivalent to the sword of the Old Continent”; Francesco S. Clavijero, The History of Mexico, trans. Charles Cullen, 3 vols. (Philadelphia: Budd and Bartram, 1804), 2:165.

6. Hubert H. Bancroft, Native Races [of the Pacific States], 5 vols. (San Francisco: Bancroft, 1883), 2:409–10; Philip Drucker, La Venta, Tabasco: A Study of Olmec Ceramics and Art (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1952): 202; Maurice Collis, Cortés and Montezuma (New York: Avon Books, 1954), 41, 91, 94, 97, 202; Jon M. White, Cortes and the Downfall of the Aztec Empire (New York: Caroll & Graf, 1971), 115; Ross Hassig, Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988), 33, 45, 50, 75, 80–86, 90, 92, 96, 101–2, 111, 116, 121, 143, 172, 290 n. 67; Ross Hassig, War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 7, 112–14, 122–23, 126–27, 137–39, 150–51, 153, 160, 162, 172–73, 177; Hugh Thomas, Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes and the Fall of Old Mexico (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 237.

7. Samuel E. Morison, Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (New York: Heritage Press, 1963), 327; in each quotation the mention of swords is italicized.

8. Bernal Diaz, The Conquest of New Spain, trans. J. M. Cohen (New York: Penguin Books, 1963), 22.

9. Ibid., 23.

10. Ibid., 29.

11. Ibid., 72.

12. Ibid., 75.

13. Ibid., 142–43.

14. Ibid., 143.

15. Ibid., 143.

16. Ibid., 144.

17. Ibid., 144–45.

18. Ibid., 145.

19. Ibid., 149.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid., 151–52.

22. Ibid., 158.

23. Ibid., 228.

24. Ibid., 180.

25. Ibid., 303.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid., 305.

28. Ibid., 341.

29. Ibid., 342.

30. Ibid., 355–56.

31. Ibid., 376.

32. Ibid., 385.

33. Antonio de Solí­s y Rivadeneyra, cited in Hassig, Aztec Warfare, 15.

34. Andrés de Tapia, in The Conquistadors: First-Person Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico, ed. Patricia de Fuentes (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), 29.

35. Ibid., 42.

36. Juan Dí­az, in The Conquistadors, 9.

37. Hernán Cortés, Second Letter, 30 October 1520, in Hernando Cortes: Five Letters 1519–1526, trans. J. Bayard Morris (1928; reprint, New York: Norton, 1991), 41.

38. Hernan Cortes, Third Letter, 15 May 1522, in Hernando Cortes, 224.

39. Francisco de Auguilar, in The Conquistadors, 139–40.

40. Ibid., 155.

41. The Anonymous Conquistador, in The Conquistadors, 169.

42. Ibid., 179.

43. Francisco Lopez de Gomara, The Pleasant Historie of the Conquest of the Weast [sic] India, trans. Thomas Nicholas (London: Bynneman, 1578), 114.

44. Ibid., 186–87.

45. Ibid., 187.