General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Nov 2017/5 Eagle
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Dr. Arnd Adje Both

Question for December 2009

Why did many Aztec musical instruments have animal designs on them? Asked by Redriff Primary School. Chosen and answered by Dr. Arnd Adje Both.

Ceramic Aztec musical instruments, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Ceramic Aztec musical instruments, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztecs lived in a beautiful, natural environment: all around the capital Tenochtitlan was pure nature: first the great lake of the Valley of Mexico, then forest covered mountains with valleys and rivers, and further away deserts to the north, tropical lowlands to the south and east, and the oceans. Many animals lived in the Aztec world, birds, snakes, deer, wild cats such as the ocelot and the jaguar, and so on. Each animal had a particular meaning and when an animal is shown on a musical instrument it gives us an idea about its use. Certain animals, such as rattle snakes, eagles or the jaguar were sacred, as the Aztecs believed that they represented gods.

Teponaztli drum with owl carving, British Museum
Teponaztli drum with owl carving, British Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

Some musical instruments of the Aztecs, such as the drums ( huehuetl and the teponaztli) and many flutes, were made in the form of birds or had bird motifs. Birds were closely related with music, as the sound of the birds was considered a kind of music (today, we also say that birds ’sing’). The god of music, Xochipilli, could also appear as a sacred bird, the quetzalcoxcoxtli. Small whistles with the head of this mythological animal were found at the Great Ballcourt of Tenochtitlan. The instruments produce a sound similar to the cry of an eagle, and this sound was considered the voice of the god. Thus, the Aztecs could communicate with their gods through music, and the sound of the animals helped in establishing contact.

Picture sources:-
• Ceramic instruments: photo by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore
• Teponaztli: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore

Dr. Arnd Adje Both has answered 2 questions altogether:

Why did many Aztec musical instruments have animal designs on them?

How did they decide what to make their musical instruments out of?

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