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Mexicolore contributor Renee McGarry

Grasshopper

We are most grateful to Renee McGarry, doctoral candidate in art history at the City University of New York Graduate Center, for writing this fourth in a series of short introductory pieces on key creatures and wildlife in the Aztec world. Renee’s dissertation, Exotic Contact: Flora and Fauna in Mexica (Aztec) Visual Culture, considers how plants and animals are represented in Aztec sculpture and painted books.

Pic 1: Mexica sculpture of a grasshopper, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 1: Mexica sculpture of a grasshopper, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Grasshoppers are amazing little insects, and part of what makes them so remarkable is their ability to transform in an instant. The Aztec were well aware of this ability, and, in some ways, this made the bugs a perfect fit in Aztec cosmology.

Pic 2: The glyph for Chapultepec Hill, showing abundant water supply; Codex Telleriano-Remensis f45v
Pic 2: The glyph for Chapultepec Hill, showing abundant water supply; Codex Telleriano-Remensis f45v (Click on image to enlarge)

The hillsides surrounding the watery capital of Tenochtitlan were quite literally crawling with grasshoppers, particularly during the rainy season (summer) when they began to mate. In locations such as Chapultepec (Grasshopper Hill), male grasshoppers rubbed their legs against their wings and made a chirping sound that resonated throughout central Mexico. Once impregnated, the female laid dozens of eggs that hatched during the onset of the warmer, rainy weather.

Pic 3: Detail from the Codex Boturini (f18) showing the Aztec arrival at Chapultepec (L) and the remains today of the aqueduct at Calle Izazaga, Chapultepec (R)
Pic 3: Detail from the Codex Boturini (f18) showing the Aztec arrival at Chapultepec (L) and the remains today of the aqueduct at Calle Izazaga, Chapultepec (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

The timing of the grasshopper hatching may account for its association with water and fertility. This affiliation may also explain the name of Chapultepec Hill, which looms large over the city, and was filled with springs that served as a source of water (via aqueducts) for the urban population, housed reservoirs for fish, and stored an additional water supply. The symbolic and historical presence of the hill also solidified the grasshopper in Aztec cultural memory and mythology. (It was an important geographical marker for the Toltecs, a power in Central Mexico at a time before the Aztec, approximately 800-1000 CE.)

Pic 4: ‘Chapulines’ on sale in the market of Tepoztlan
Pic 4: ‘Chapulines’ on sale in the market of Tepoztlan (Click on image to enlarge)

In addition to their symbolic and historical importance, the Aztec also ate grasshoppers, cooking them on clay cooking surfaces with lots of spices. (We can still see this practice today in Mexico, particularly in the state of Oaxaca where carts selling chapulines fill the streets.) This fascinated early colonial chroniclers, as did the fact that many regions sent the insects as tribute items to Tenochtitlan.

Like most plants and animals in the Aztec world, grasshoppers had a negative side, too. And, unlike many plants and animals, this negative side wasn’t just symbolic. Grasshoppers really could change overnight.

Pic 5: Detail from f32r of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis, showing the widespread famine of 1454 (Year 1-Rabbit)
Pic 5: Detail from f32r of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis, showing the widespread famine of 1454 (Year 1-Rabbit) (Click on image to enlarge)

When, under specific conditions, grasshoppers became gregarious and swarmed, they transformed into locusts and destroy crops in the region. For an agricultural people dependent on crops to feed a large urban population, swarms often lead to malnutrition, famine, and death. We see evidence in documents that cite the locust plagues in the years preceding 1554. Locusts destroyed Aztec crops, causing nearly natural disaster, and it too many years to recover.

Pic 6: Grasshoppers, Florentine Codex Book XI
Pic 6: Grasshoppers, Florentine Codex Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

The ability of the grasshopper to change overnight highlights both the capricious nature of the gods, particularly those associated with agricultural abundance, and the importance of the dual nature of animals in the Aztec worldview. The grasshopper could bring fertility and imperial success upon the Aztec, but the locust could only wreak destruction on the empire. These were, essentially, two sides of the same coin, two forms of the same insect, one with a devastating impact and the other with abundant offerings.

Picture sources:-
• Pix 1 and 3r: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pix 2 and 5: images from the Codex Telleriano-Remensis scanned from our copy of the facsimile edition by Eloise Quiñones Keber, University of Texas Press, 1995
• Pic 3l: image scanned from private copy of hand-drawn facsimile of the Codex Boturini
• Pic 4: photo from Wikipedia (Chapulines)
• Pic 6: image from the Florentine Codex scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jun 05th 2011

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