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Aztec pelican hunting

Pelican crossing - not to be missed!

The Florentine Codex contains a wealth of Aztec folklore; the examples it contains reveal aspects of Aztec daily life at different levels - daily work, superstitions, and sacred/ritual numbers and shapes... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

The picture comes from Book 11 of the Florentine Codex, titled ‘Earthly Things’. It describes the daily lives of, among others, the ‘water folk’ who made their living from catching fish, birds and other creatures of Lake Texcoco. In this example, local people speak of the dangers of hunting the ‘atotolin’ (literally ‘water-turkey’) or white American pelican.

According to the text:-

’It is the ruler, the leader of all the birds... This pelican does not nest anywhere in the reeds; it always lives there in the middle of the water, and it is said that it is the heart of the lagoon because it lives in the middle.

’Also it sinks people. To sink them it only summons the wind; it sings, it cries out. It sinks them only when they try to catch it. To catch it they stalk it two, three or four days. But if they fail to catch it by the third day, on the fourth day the water folk prepare themselves and then assemble and steel themselves to go forth to die. For this is the custom of the water folk.

‘For this pelican, after four days, sits awaiting the water folk; it rests on the water’s surface; it sits looking at them. For if they fail to catch it in four days, by sunset, when the fifth sounds, the water folk thus know it is a sign that they will die; for they who have failed to catch it have been tried.

’And this pelican when they have failed to shoot it by the sunset of the fourth day, then calls out, cries out like a crane; it summons the wind to sink the people. Thereupon the water foams; thereupon the water birds cry out exceedingly; they arrange themselves as it were in rows on the surface of the water: they beat [their wings]. All the fish well up. And the water folk can no longer help themselves, although they try hard to pole [their boats]. Their arms are simply numbed; it is as if someone pulls them down. So there the water folk die; there the boat sinks...

‘And when the pelican can be caught... they quickly, firmly grasp its bill; then they cast it into the boat. There they quickly disembowel it [while] it still lives. They disembowel it with a dart [with] three points at its head, called ‘minacachalli’.

’Then they take it, whereupon they cut open its gizzard. Within is a precious green stone [jade]; and if not a green stone, various precious feathers are there within, in its gizzard. And if they do not find a precious stone or a feather, [but] only a piece of charcoal appears there, this becomes a sign that the hunter will die. But for him who finds, who takes from it, a precious stone or feather, it becomes a sign that he always will be able to take, to capture, the various birds or fish; he will prosper...

What will the pelican’s chest reveal?
What will the pelican’s chest reveal? (Click on image to enlarge)

‘These water folk consider it their mirror. For there they see what each is to merit in their profession as water folk.’

Sources for images and information

Florentine Codex, Book XI - images scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994

Florentine Codex, translated/edited by Charles E Dibble and Arthur J O Anderson, School of American Research & University of Utah, 1974

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