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A sunflower

Sunflower

Not many people are aware that the beautiful common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) - the state flower of Kansas - is native to Mexico (and was probably domesticated there as far back as 2600 BCE); even fewer will be aware that for the Mexica (Aztecs) it was a symbol and metaphor for war, a key offering to the war god Huitzilopochtli, and was depicted on the shields of several important deities... (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Pre-Hispanic sun/flower motifs: ceramic spindle whorls from Xaltocan (top); stamp from Azcapotzalco (bottokm left); Mexica stone sculpture (bottom right)
Pic 1: Pre-Hispanic sun/flower motifs: ceramic spindle whorls from Xaltocan (top); stamp from Azcapotzalco (bottokm left); Mexica stone sculpture (bottom right) (Click on image to enlarge)

Known in Spanish as girasol or mirasol, the sunflower has long been used in Mexico - like so many other indigenous plants - as an ornamental flower, as a food source (the seeds can be eaten fresh or ground up and mixed into the traditional thin porridge-like beverage known as atole), as medicine, and as a sacred symbol.

Centuries-old dried remains of sunflower seed-containing fruits have been discovered in offerings at the main Aztec Templo Mayor site in Mexico City - evidence for the plant’s sacred importance to the Mexica people.

Pic 2: Sunflower illustrations in the medicinal herbal of F. Hernández, Book 1
Pic 2: Sunflower illustrations in the medicinal herbal of F. Hernández, Book 1 (Click on image to enlarge)

Just as the flower has two names in Spain, it has in Mexico too: both the Mexica centuries ago and the Nahua today (descendants of the Aztecs) refer to the flower in two ways:-
chimalacatl (‘shield-reed’), and
chimalxochitl (‘shield-flower’)
These names, a physical description, two illustrations (pic 2), and confirmation that the flower was an American ‘original’, was cultivated in fields, was consumed by local people, and was used to ‘soothe the chest’ and treat burns or stings, are found in the medicinal herbal compiled in 1615 by Francisco Hernández, court physician to King Felipe II of Spain.

Pic 3: Flowers as banquet gifts (notice the sunflower in the centre), Florentine Codex Book 9
Pic 3: Flowers as banquet gifts (notice the sunflower in the centre), Florentine Codex Book 9 (Click on image to enlarge)

Another highly authoritative work of the 16th century, Sahagún’s encyclopedic Florentine Codex, not only includes the same names but also gives a key insight into the ritual use and symbolism of the sunflower, particularly amongst Mexica nobility and the merchant class. Merchants played a vital role in keeping the elite of Tenochtitlan supplied with luxury goods from all over the Aztec empire, and consequently formed a privileged and wealthy sub-class, forever keen to display their riches. There was no better way to do this than through holding lavish banquets, on favourable days in the calendar (such as 1-Alligator or 7-Monkey). Interestingly, these feasts, whilst splendid and opulent, were in part intended to ‘acknowledge’ and honour the poor and the old in their community. They were also opportunities to cement bonds between merchants (who often had to fight their way through hostile foreign territories) and high-ranking warriors, who were always invited, along with members of the nobility. The close affinity felt between merchants and the officer class was clearly evident in the banquets themselves...

Pic 4: Tobacco tube and sunflower: gifts for nobles with military associations... Florentine Codex Book 9
Pic 4: Tobacco tube and sunflower: gifts for nobles with military associations... Florentine Codex Book 9 (Click on image to enlarge)

Sahagún’s informants list four key ingredients on offer to guests at merchants’ banquets: ‘the flowers, the tobacco, the food, the chocolate’ (the latter would have been a ritually frothed drink at the end of the feast). The Codex spells out the role of each of these in turn, starting with tobacco...
First [the tobacco server] offered [the guest] the tobacco tube. He said: ‘My beloved noble, here is thy cane of tobacco.’ Then [the guest] took it up; he placed it between his fingers to smoke it. This denoted the spear thrower or the spear; war equipment; valor. And the bowl for tobacco tubes stood for the shield, wherefore he bore it in his left hand. He went holding it only by its rim, to carry it. He laid it before... the general... all the lords... indeed all who were invited.

Pic 5: Sunflower (Florentine Codex Book 9) with pre-Hispanic stamp with flower design from Texcoco
Pic 5: Sunflower (Florentine Codex Book 9) with pre-Hispanic stamp with flower design from Texcoco (Click on image to enlarge)

And then they followed with the flowers. To carry them one held in his right hand the ‘shield flower’ [sunflower], and there in his left he grasped the ‘stick flower’ [quauhxochitl]. For this reason did he hold [the ‘shield flower’] in his right hand: the one to whom the flowers were offered stood facing the flower server, and so he took the ‘shield flower’ in his left hand and he took the ‘stick flower’ from him with his right hand [See pic 4]. The ‘shield flower’ represented a shield. And then they followed with the food...

Pic 6: Offerings of sunflowers and other flowers and tobacco tubes to Huitzilopochtli; Florentine Codex Book 9
Pic 6: Offerings of sunflowers and other flowers and tobacco tubes to Huitzilopochtli; Florentine Codex Book 9 (Click on image to enlarge)

In the following chapter of the book, Sahagún tells us that later the banquet host, accompanied by singers and drummers, performed a ritual debt-paying offering of sunflowers and tobacco tubes at the pyramid of Huitzilopochtli (see pic 6), where he laid ‘offerings of “shield flowers”, of necklaces [and] garlands of flowers. And there they laid an offering of two bowls for tobacco tubes on which they set the tubes of tobacco which lay burning.’ After a night of ceremony, the offerings - flowers, tobacco tubes and incense ashes - were buried ‘in the middle of the courtyard’ with prayers clearly suggesting that in return for such gifts to the gods ‘our children and grandchildren shall eat; they shall drink...’

Pic 7: Netzahualpilli, Codex Ixtlixochitl sheet 108r
Pic 7: Netzahualpilli, Codex Ixtlixochitl sheet 108r (Click on image to enlarge)

It wasn’t just banquet-sponsoring Aztec merchants who sported sunflowers. Rulers and nobles displayed jewelled sunflowers perhaps confirming their allegiance to Huitzilopochtli and the Sun. For instance, Netzahualpilli, ruler of Tetzcoco, is depicted in the Codex Ixtlixochitl holding a yellow and red sunflower bud and open sunflower in each hand (pic 7).
To this great poet-king (like his father Netzahualcóyotl), flowers of all kinds, omnipresent in Nahua songs and poems, were beautiful not just as physical adornments but also as metaphors that, in the words of Miguel León-Portilla, ‘permeate the space and time in which the Nahuas lived’; thus we find ‘jaguar-flowers’, ‘eagle-flowers’, ‘javelin-flowers’, ‘friendship-flowers’, ‘war-flowers’, ‘gold-flowers’, ‘bird-flowers’, and many more. The sunflower (‘shield-flower’), notes León-Portilla, is one of the few species of flower to be specifically named in Náhuatl poetry.

Pic 8: Huitzilopochtli, Tlaloc, Opochtli; Florentine Codex Book 1
Pic 8: Huitzilopochtli, Tlaloc, Opochtli; Florentine Codex Book 1 (Click on image to enlarge)

With its clear association with the sun itself, with the war god and with that most basic piece of military kit, the shield, it’s little wonder that the sunflower features clearly in the shield designs of several prominent Mexica deities, including Huitzilopochtli, Tlaloc and Opochtli (god of hunting and fishing) (see pic 8).

It’s quite possible the Spanish would have been initially unaware of the flower’s powerful symbolism when it was offered to them as a token of military alliance by the Tlaxcaltecans during the gruelling two-year campaign against the Aztecs (pic 9). Equally, it has been suggested that, in the years after the Conquest, the Spanish authorities may have suppressed the sunflower to avoid reawakening its religious and military connotations. This would indeed be a testament to its profoundly symbolic power in the culture of the Mexica...

Final note: It surely is significant that the geometric patterns of spiraling seeds on the heads of sunflowers is a beautiful example of that age-old form central to nature and the cosmos, the Golden Ratio based on the famous Fibonacci number sequence. It is a pattern that instils a sense of harmony, symmetry and peace in the mind of the viewer. Learn more below...

Pic 9: The sunflower features as a symbolic gift to the Spanish by the Tlaxcaltecans; Diego Durán ‘Historia de las Indias....’
Pic 9: The sunflower features as a symbolic gift to the Spanish by the Tlaxcaltecans; Diego Durán ‘Historia de las Indias....’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Sources:-
Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain (Fray Bernardino de Sahagún); Book 9 - The Merchants - translated with notes by Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J.O. Anderson, School of American Researach and University of Utah, Santa Fe, New Mexico 1959
Mitología y Simbolismo de la Flora en el México Prehispánico by Doris Heyden, UNAM, Mexico City, 1983
• ‘Las Flores en la Poesía Náhuatl’ by Miguel León-Portilla, {Arqueología Mexicana Vol XIII, no. 78, pp 42-45
• Internet articles below...

Picture sources:-
• Main picture: photo from Wikipedia (Helianthus annuus)
• Pic 1: top photo by and courtesy of Elizabeth Brumfiel; image of stamp, bottom left, scanned from our own copy of Sellos de Antiguo México by Jorge Enciso, Mexico City, 1947 (self-published); photo bottom right by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore
• Pic 2: images scanned from our own copy of Historia de las Plantas de Nueva España by Francisco Hernández, Vol. I, Imprenta Universitaria, Mexico City, 1942
• Pix 3, 4, 5(L), 6 and 8: 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(R): image scanned from our own copy of Sellos de Antiguo México by Jorge Enciso, Mexico City, 1947 (self-published)
• Pic 7: image from the Codex Ixtlilxochitl scanned from our copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition (Graz, Austria, 1976)
• Pic 9: image scanned from our own copy of Códice Durán - Historia de las Indias de Nueva España e Islas de Tierra Firme, Arrendedora Internacional, Mexico City, 1990.

With thanks to Igor Reesch in Croatia for his help in preparing this article

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Apr 01st 2015

More on the ritual smoking of the Mexica...

‘Sunflower as a pre-Columbian domesticate in Mexico’ - excellent academic article
‘Ancient Sunflower Fuels Debate About Agriculture in the Americas’ - further research
Examples of the Golden Ratio in nature...
Learn about Fibonacci numbers and Nature...
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