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some time ago I asked a question about the use of feathers in armor and
got a large number of replies. So first of all, thanks to everyone who was
interested and helped with some information. (BTW, googling for feather
armor only gets you to lots of role-playing sites...)
Many people pointed out the decorative use of feathers (for example, by
Prussian Huzzars), but the use of feathers as a functional component was
more difficult to nail down.
Most of the answers concerned the use of feathers by the Aztecs,
however, it was not so easy to find out whether this was just decoration
After some digging through mails and references, I was pointed to the book
"Aztec warfare" by R. Hassig. An indeed, in it I found some information
about the use of feathers in armor. Here are the most relevant parts from
"The war suit (tlahuiztli suit) encased not only the torso but the arms
and legs as well in long sleeves and leggings... These suits were not
padded but were worn overthe cotton armor... Despite appearing like
animal skins, the suits of noble warriors were made of feathers sewn to a
backing fabric. ... The feathered garments were finer and of higher
status. The slick surface of the feathers may have offered greater
protection than would skins, especially against glancing blows, and
depending on the backing, these suits were probably lighter and cooler.
Over their cotton armor some warriors ... wore feather tunics (ehuatl)...
The tunic was fashioned of cloth over which feathers were set in rows. It
had a hanging border of feathers and it resisted lances, arrows and even
swords . "
from R. Hassig, "Aztec Warfare", p. 88
 is Anonymous Conquerer 1963:169; Duran, 1967 "Historia de las Indias
de Nueva Espana"
Shields were also covered with feathers:
"One shield ... was made of stout reeds covered with gold and the back was
lined with jaguar skin. The lower part of the shield was decorated with a
feather fringe that hung down more than a palma (0.209 meters). The
hanging border of feathers was a common feature , and, though appearing
fragile, it afforded additional protection to the user's legs . Such
feather fringes could easily stop a spent projectile and deflect others,
and the feature predates the Aztecs, being depicted in murals at the
classic site of Cacaxtlan, at Teotihuacan, and among the classic Maya.
They were probably intended primarily fpr protection against projectiles
and not against clubs or swords."
from R. Hassig, "Aztec Warfare", p. 86
Reference  is T.D. Sullivan, "The Arms and Insignia of the
So it seems that, yes, Aztecs did use feathers in their armors as means of
In addition to the Aztecs, it was pointed out to me that
feathered helmets, insignia and
standards were an integral part of the Hawaiian culture of warfare, particularly
from the Proto-Historic Period onward.
"Ali`i were distinguished from the common people by their access to a variety of
status goods and insigÂnia, such as the magnificent feather cloaks, capes, and
helmets, and the chiefly neck ornament, the lei niho palaoa."
Patrick Vinton Kirch. 1997 (page 6. See also page 307) Feathered Gods and
Fishhooks: An Introduction to Hawaiian Archaeology and Prehistory. University of
Hawaii Press, Honolulu, Hawaii ISBN 0-8248-1938-1
"As Captain Cook's men learned from personal experience, the feathered capes and
helmets were "battle apparel." The cape might be worn over the shoulders, but in
battle it was pulled around the left side of the body and held forward with the
left hand to snag a thrust from a dagger or the point of a thrown spear. In this
position the right arm was exposed and free to wield a weapon. Feathers were
black, white, red, yellow, green, and the long rust-red and black feathers of
the fighting cock. These were tied over a light netting of cord in a great
variety of designs. In battle, the brilliant capes helped warriors identify and
rally to their chiefs. Helmets made of strong, light weight basketry protected
the head from the impact of stones shot from slings."
Herb Kawainui Kane. 1997 (page 46) Ancient Hawaii. The Kawainui Press, South
Kona, Hawaii ISBN 0943357-02-0
So, to conclude: Feathers were used as body armor, and even in a
functional way, not just for decoration.
(Although it would be nice to find out how good they really
were - anyone involved in experimemntal archeology interested?)
Once again, thanks to everyone who helped with answering this question
(and sorry for the long delay in answering).
Priv.-Doz. Dr. Martin BÃker
Institut fÃr Werkstoffe
Langer Kamp 8