General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 24 Sep 2018/1 House
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Article suitable for older students

Professor Alan R. Sandstrom

Question for August 2018

Is it true that you could be killed for cutting down a tree? Asked by Cranborne Primary School. Chosen and answered by Professor Alan R. Sandstrom.

Pic 1: One of Mexico’s most famous trees, the ancient and colossal Tree of Tule, outside the city of Oaxaca
Pic 1: One of Mexico’s most famous trees, the ancient and colossal Tree of Tule, outside the city of Oaxaca (Click on image to enlarge)

This is an intriguing question that reveals connections between the ancient, pre-Hispanic Aztecs and people living today who continue to speak the Aztec language, Nahuatl. One of the best sources on the question of the role of trees in Aztec culture is an article entitled “Trees and Wood in Life and Death,” by Doris Heyden, a renowned expert on Mesoamerican peoples. She reports that trees were considered by the ancients to be alive and sacred and that they were associated with the creation of life.

Pic 2: Infants who died at an early age being fed by a tree; Codex Vaticanus 3738 fol. 3v., detail
Pic 2: Infants who died at an early age being fed by a tree; Codex Vaticanus 3738 fol. 3v., detail (Click on image to enlarge)

After the earth was destroyed by flood, two Aztec deities, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, turned themselves into trees and lifted up the sky. When Aztec artists portrayed the universe, they painted sacred trees at the four corners supporting the sky. If an Aztec baby died, it went to a special place where it nursed on the branches of the milk tree (pic 2). Trees care for people as a mother does for her baby.

Pic 3: Tribute from the province of Quahuacan included 1,200 loads of firewood, large wooden beams, large planks and pillars every 80 days; Codex Mendoza, fol. 32r, detail
Pic 3: Tribute from the province of Quahuacan included 1,200 loads of firewood, large wooden beams, large planks and pillars every 80 days; Codex Mendoza, fol. 32r, detail  (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztec priests organized elaborate rituals around the cutting of a sacred tree. People used wood as a building material, for carving statues of the deities, in the manufacture of musical instruments, as the source of sacred paper and copal incense, and to build fires for cooking food. Not surprisingly, Aztec elites demanded that conquered people supply them with enormous amounts of wood as tribute payment (pic 3).

Pic 4: Wood gathering, Florentine Codex Book XI
Pic 4: Wood gathering, Florentine Codex Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

Trees were felled by special wood cutters who followed strict ritual procedures. “When they planned to chop down a tree, they first said a prayer to Quetzalcoatl, asking his permission to perform this act, and stating that they would place this wood where it would be venerated by the people. The woodsmen refer to the forest as belonging to the god...” (Heyden 1994:44).

Pic 5: Blood seeps from a tree trunk, cut by a deity (left); Codex Borgia pl. 19, detail
Pic 5: Blood seeps from a tree trunk, cut by a deity (left); Codex Borgia pl. 19, detail (Click on image to enlarge)

It is easy to see that the Aztecs were very respectful of trees and that they associated them with the gods (pic 5). However, I have found no evidence that abusing a tree or treating it disrespectfully would lead authorities to have a person killed.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 2: image from the Codex Vaticanus 3738 scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1979
• Pix 3 & 4: images from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 5: image from the Codex Borgia scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1976

Read Professor Sandstrom’s fuller answer in ‘Flora and Fauna’

Professor Alan R. Sandstrom has answered 3 questions altogether:

What happened to the Aztec gods after the conquest?

Do you know the names of all the Aztec gods?

Is it true that you could be killed for cutting down a tree?

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