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Why no bears in Aztec mythology?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Joan Cline: Since bears - varieties of both black and Griz - are native to Northern Mexico and would seem to have thrived in the mountainous highlands I am hoping that you may be able to explain why they do not appear as one of the dominant species in Aztec mythology or calendar. Page 5 of Earthly Things, Book 11, of the Florentine Codex addresses their possible presence in a footnote to the definition of the word Cuitlachtli. (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Drawing of a ‘cuitlachtli’, Florentine Codex Book XI
Pic 1: Drawing of a ‘cuitlachtli’, Florentine Codex Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture 1 shows the cuitlachtli in the Florentine Codex. Commentators have offered different suggestions over the years as to its meaning: from grizzly bear to black bear to wolf. The text in the Codex itself reads:-
’It is of woolly, tangled, snarled fur, of dark, bushy tail. When it is already old, its tail is tingled. Everywhere its fur is matted. It is droplet-eared; round, broad of face, as if man-faced; thick, short of muzzle. Much does it wheeze; a great hisser is it. When it hisses to terrify one, it is as if a rainbow comes from its mouth. Very clever is it - a great stalker, a crouching spy. It stalks one; preys, hisses at one.’

Pic 2: Glyph for ‘cuitlachtli’ from the second of von Humboldt’s Manuscripts
Pic 2: Glyph for ‘cuitlachtli’ from the second of von Humboldt’s Manuscripts (Click on image to enlarge)

In his pioneering book Las Imagénes de Animales en los Manuscritos Mexicanos y Mayas (originally in German, written in 1909) Eduard Seler devotes a couple of pages to this mysterious creature, which he suggests was a warrior figure associated by the Mexica, along with the eagle and the jaguar, with the sun. It played a significant role during the feast of Xipe Totec, god of spring, fertility and vegetation. In the festival, a man imitating the beast was in charge of tying captured warriors to the round gladiatorial stone around which they had to fight. The only glyph for the animal that Seler could locate was this (pic 2) tiny drawing from one of Alexander von Humboldt’s manuscripts. Seler concludes that it is a nocturnal creature, and links its tail symbolically to the rope used to tie the warriors to the stone. He suggests it could be an oso de Michoacán or what today Mexicans call a ‘honey bear’.

Pic 3: Mexican Grizzlies (Ursus arctos nelsoni) at the Field Columbian Museum, 1919
Pic 3: Mexican Grizzlies (Ursus arctos nelsoni) at the Field Columbian Museum, 1919 (Click on image to enlarge)

In her entry on Fauna in the authoritative Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: an Encyclopaedia, Kitty Emery writes: ‘Bears, restricted to the highlands of Mexico, are represented by a single genus. Almost extinct in this area today, they may be the basis for the legendary Nahuatl monster cuetlachtli, a participant in the Mexican “gladiatorial sacrifice”.’ She adds, in a personal communication, a word of caution in this area: ‘taxonomic identifications of Mesoamerican fauna in iconography is notoriously tricky because the ancients often combined attributes of several creatures to depict emotions, characteristics, legends, and other things - they were less interested in representative art of whole creatures.’
So, it seems, ‘your guess is as good as ours’... We hope others may elucidate further.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: image 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 2: image scanned from Las Imagénes de Animales en los Manuscritos Mexicanos y Mayas by Eduard Seler, Casa Juan Pablos, Mexico City, 2004
• Pic 3: photo from Wikipedia (Mexican grizzly bear).

Mexican grizzly bear (Wikipedia)

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