General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 18 Mar 2019/7 Flint
Text Size:

Search the Site (type in white box):

Article more suitable for mature students

Sacred birds, flowers and Day Lords

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to Patricia Gabriel: I have just discovered this wonderful site after unsuccessfully trawling the internet for hours trying to find out about the bird and flower symbols for the 13 day Lords in the 13/20 Aztec calendar. I would like to find out which birds represent which of the 13 day lords and how these are pictured. I would like to understand the first page of the Codex Fejervary-Mayer, which shows birds for the 13 day lords and plants for the 4 directions. Thank you very much if you can help me with this. (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Page 1, Codex Fejérváry-Mayer. EAST is at the top.
Page 1, Codex Fejérváry-Mayer. EAST is at the top. (Click on image to enlarge)

Here we can only scratch the surface of what Professor Gordon Brotherston calls ‘perhaps the Fourth World’s most celebrated page’. We will borrow heartily from his reading of this fascinating title page of the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer - one of the best preserved of the few pre-Columbian codices to have survived. The original is housed in the World Museum Liverpool (read more in our Places to Visit section - link below).

Pic 2: Trader in canoe, with backpack and sacred bird, Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, p. 39
Pic 2: Trader in canoe, with backpack and sacred bird, Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, p. 39 (Click on image to enlarge)

The design of the title page is a magnificent map, a ‘quatrefoil’ or four-leaf in shape, dividing into 4 quarters, each linked to a quarter of the ancient 260-day ritual calendar or tonalamatl (each quarter-leaf shows 65 days as dots along the ‘board’, a bit like squares in a Ludo game). But this is but one of the ‘levels’ of reading of this page. The fourfold flower also corresponds to the fundamental Náhuatl term for empire, stretching out to the four corners of the Aztec world... By then adding the centre, we are looking at a ‘quincunx’ shape (also found in nature), basic to understanding how the Aztecs viewed their world: with their capital Tenochtitlan firmly in the middle (you can see this clearly in the title page of the Codex Mendoza).

Pic 3: 4 sacred trees in evolutionary sequence, Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, p.1
Pic 3: 4 sacred trees in evolutionary sequence, Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, p.1 (Click on image to enlarge)

The two famous title pages share the same overall design and ‘spirit’, albeit with fascinating parallels. Here (main picture), flowing towards the centre (a plaza placed between a stepped pyramid - East is at the top, with the sun rising over the steps - and a temple platform - West is at the bottom, with a crescent moon hanging from a temple platform) are 4 diagonal streams of blood, pointing to and separating the 4 quarters, each feeding a different sacred tree. One reading of these streams is as flows of support to and tribute from the corners of the empire, and the birds can be interpreted as collectors and feeders on provincial produce.

Pic 4: The 13 Quecholli (read anti-clockwise from bottom left), Codex Borgia, p. 71
Pic 4: The 13 Quecholli (read anti-clockwise from bottom left), Codex Borgia, p. 71 (Click on image to enlarge)

Shown in the centre here is the first of the 9 Night Lords, Xiuhtecuhtli, Fire Lord; the other 8 stand in pairs on either side of 4 dual-headed trees. The birds perching on the trees, like the 4 flying in at the corners with year signs on their backs, are sacred Quecholli, representatives of the 13 fate-bearers, each linked to the 13 sacred numbers in the ritual calendar (13 rounds of 20 signs making 260 days). Each bird’s character and lifestyle (habitat, diet, song, type and time of flight, plumage, whether edible or not, or domestic...) influenced human lives through their tonalli or soul. An every-day example of this is given on another page in the same codex, where a pochteca (trader) is shown, with his load-carrier’s back basket and a sacred bird above (look at Picture 2).

Each of the 13 Quecholli was associated with one of the 13 divine Heroes (Patricia calls them day lords) who helped to create the ancient Mesoamerican world. Here they are together:-
1. Huiztilin (humming-bird) - Xiuhtecuhtli (fire lord)
2. Quetzalhuiztilin (green humming-bird) - Tlaltecuhtli (earth lord)
3. Huactli (hawk) - Chalchiuhtlicue (jade skirt)
4. Zolin (quail) - Tonatiuh (sun)
5. Cuauhtli (eagle) - Tonaleque (workers)
6. Chicuatli (screech owl) - Mictlantecuhtli (lord of the land of the dead)
7. Papalotl (butterfly) - Tonacatecuhtli (flesh lord)
8. Tlotli (hawk eagle) - Tlaloc (rain god)
9. Huexolotl (turkey) - Quetzalcóatl (feathered serpent)
10. Tecolotl (owl) - Tezcatlipoca (smoking mirror)
11. Alotl (macaw) - Yohualtecuhtli (night lord)
12. Quetzal (quetzal) - Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (dawn house lord)
13. Toznene (parrot) - Ometecuhtli (lord of duality)
For images of these, the best source is the Codex Borgia; see them in Picture 4 alongside the sun and moon

The 4 sacred birds perched on the trees are:-
Quetzal (East)
Humming-bird (West)
Parrot (South)
Hawk (North).

One way to ‘read’ the 4 diagonal trees is to see them (Picture 3) as a sequence of different and developing tree types increasing in complexity reading from top left, anti-clockwise):-
1. Binary root, trunk and trees, silent bird
2. Triple root, spiral vine, bird
3. Snake root, thorny trunk, antennae
4. Mammal leg root, maize plant.
Notice that the last evolutionary stage is the animal/human/maize plant: maize has traditionally taken on anthropomorphic value in Mesoamerican mythology.

Sources (and thanks to):-
• Painted Books from Mexico by Gordon Brotherston, British Museum Press, 1995
• Book of the Fourth World by Gordon Brotherston, Cambridge University Press, 1992
Images scanned from our copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, Graz, Austria, 1971 and from ‘The Codex Borgia, a Full-Color Restoration of the Ancient Mexican Manuscript’ by Gisele Díaz and Alan Rodgers, Dover Publications, 1993

Liverpool is the home of this precious codex

Comment button

Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: Yes, 4 was essentially good, while 5 in many ways represented ‘excess’ to the Mexica. We’re planning an article on the relationship between these two numbers - it’s intriguing...!