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Mexicolore contributor Alan Sandstrom

Trees

In response to a thoughtful question from a pupil in an English primary school (‘Is it true you could be killed for cutting down a tree?’), our good friend and Panel of Experts member Professor Alan Sandstrom has written this illuminating article on the sacred place of trees in the worldview of the Mexica, and of the Nahua people today...

Pic 1: A huge Ceiba tree at Amatlan. At its base is a spring where ritual specialists dedicate offerings to Apanchanej, the water dweller spirit
Pic 1: A huge Ceiba tree at Amatlan. At its base is a spring where ritual specialists dedicate offerings to Apanchanej, the water dweller spirit (Click on image to enlarge)

This is an intriguing question that reveals connections between the ancient, pre-Hispanic Aztecs and people living today who continue to speak the Aztec language, Nahuatl. One of the best sources on the question of the role of trees in Aztec culture is an article entitled “Trees and Wood in Life and Death,” by Doris Heyden, a renowned expert on Mesoamerican peoples. She reports that trees were considered by the ancients to be alive and sacred and that they were associated with the creation of life.

Pic 2: Infants who died at an early age being fed by a tree; Codex Vaticanus 3738 fol. 3v., detail
Pic 2: Infants who died at an early age being fed by a tree; Codex Vaticanus 3738 fol. 3v., detail (Click on image to enlarge)

After the earth was destroyed by flood, two Aztec deities, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, turned themselves into trees and lifted up the sky. When Aztec artists portrayed the universe, they painted sacred trees at the four corners supporting the sky. If an Aztec baby died, it went to a special place where it nursed on the branches of the milk tree (pic 2). Trees care for people as a mother does for her baby.

Pic 3: Tribute from the province of Quahuacan included 1,200 loads of firewood, large wooden beams, large planks and pillars every 80 days; Codex Mendoza, fol. 32r, detail
Pic 3: Tribute from the province of Quahuacan included 1,200 loads of firewood, large wooden beams, large planks and pillars every 80 days; Codex Mendoza, fol. 32r, detail  (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztec priests organized elaborate rituals around the cutting of a sacred tree. People used wood as a building material, for carving statues of the deities, in the manufacture of musical instruments, as the source of sacred paper and copal incense, and to build fires for cooking food. Not surprisingly, Aztec elites demanded that conquered people supply them with enormous amounts of wood as tribute payment (pic 3).

Pic 4: Wood gathering, Florentine Codex Book XI
Pic 4: Wood gathering, Florentine Codex Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

Trees were felled by special wood cutters who followed strict ritual procedures. “When they planned to chop down a tree, they first said a prayer to Quetzalcoatl, asking his permission to perform this act, and stating that they would place this wood where it would be venerated by the people. The woodsmen refer to the forest as belonging to the god...” (Heyden 1994:44).
It is easy to see that the Aztecs were very respectful of trees and that they associated them with the gods (pic 5).

Pic 5: Blood seeps from a tree trunk, cut by a deity (left); Codex Borgia pl. 19, detail
Pic 5: Blood seeps from a tree trunk, cut by a deity (left); Codex Borgia pl. 19, detail (Click on image to enlarge)

However, I have found no evidence that abusing a tree or treating it disrespectfully would lead authorities to have a person killed. None of the experts I consulted could say for sure whether the Aztecs punished tree abusers with such a sentence of death. There certainly were a number of crimes among the Aztecs that called for capital punishment, but as far as I know, tree cutting was not generally one of them. However, if the tree belonged to the emperor or was somehow connected to a sacred location, it is possible that cutting it down without permission would bring grave consequences.

Pic 6: A family of modern-day musical instrument makers near Toluca carve out reproductions of Aztec vertical war drums
Pic 6: A family of modern-day musical instrument makers near Toluca carve out reproductions of Aztec vertical war drums (Click on image to enlarge)

The Nahua people of today who share many cultural features of the Aztecs, have interesting beliefs regarding the uses of trees. First, it must be said that they cut down trees all of the time. They employ precious tropical hardwood to make frames and planks for their houses, tables and benches for furniture, handles for tools, musical instruments (pic 6), troughs (or tubs) for washing clothes and cooking, and many other uses. They also cut small trees and branches to fuel cooking fires that are rarely extinguished.

Pic 7: Stone figure of Tlaltecuhtli, the Aztec earth deity; note the hair, which represents trees, plants, crops and other living and growing things. Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
Pic 7: Stone figure of Tlaltecuhtli, the Aztec earth deity; note the hair, which represents trees, plants, crops and other living and growing things. Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

People today regard the earth as a living being that takes the form of a gigantic human body, with the soil its flesh, stones its bones, and water its blood. Trees are viewed as the hair on the earth’s head (pic 7) and just as the hair of a person contains a concentration of the powerful tonalli heat-soul, trees contain concentrations of the earth’s tonalli. Trees, then must be treated with care and dignity.

Pic 8: Sacred tree spirits, Codex Vindobonensis, fol. 50, detail
Pic 8: Sacred tree spirits, Codex Vindobonensis, fol. 50, detail (Click on image to enlarge)

Nahua of the Huasteca region of Mexico cut paper images of the earth spirit with a comb-like headdress that represents tree trunks emerging from the head. Neighboring Otomí people who share many cultural features with the Nahua make offerings to the Spirit of the Tree as part of their rituals. In sum, both the ancient Aztecs and the Nahua today view trees as important aspects of the sacred earth.

Pic 9: Nahua villagers in the Huasteca construct an altar dedicated to rain spirits part way up a perilously steep sacred mountain. The leafy arch on the right has been constructed over a table representing the earth’s surface
Pic 9: Nahua villagers in the Huasteca construct an altar dedicated to rain spirits part way up a perilously steep sacred mountain. The leafy arch on the right has been constructed over a table representing the earth’s surface (Click on image to enlarge)

Nahua religion today shares many features with ancient Aztec beliefs and rituals. The people view plants, animals, objects, and humans themselves as part of the sacred order. Spirit beings supply people with rain, seeds, sunlight, fertile earth, and all of the things that they need to live and prosper. In return, people must dedicate offerings of food, tobacco, cornmeal, copal incense, music, chanting, and dance to the spirits so that they will continue to provide what is needed for life.

Pic 10: Aztec farmers planting trees; Florentine Codex Book XI
Pic 10: Aztec farmers planting trees; Florentine Codex Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

Before taking water from a spring, for instance, women leave a small offering behind for apanchanej, the water dweller who dispenses the precious liquid (see pic 1 caption). After planting, men leave an offering for the earth because they have disturbed it through their digging. Men will cut down a tree if they need the wood, but before starting to do so they leave an offering to the tree to compensate the earth for the loss.

Pic 11: A felled tree trunk appears to resemble the human form; Florentine Codex Book XI
Pic 11: A felled tree trunk appears to resemble the human form; Florentine Codex Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

Failing to make such an offering may anger the earth who will send out dangerous wind spirits to cause disease and even death in the village. So in one sense, among people today, failure to show proper respect for trees can result in death. But rather than a legal proceeding, the death is said to be caused by disturbing the delicate balance between human beings and the deities on which they depend. Cutting down a tree for the Aztecs, just as for the indigenous people today, is an act with important religious implications.

Pic 12: Trees growing today near Tzintzuntzan, Michoacan
Pic 12: Trees growing today near Tzintzuntzan, Michoacan (Click on image to enlarge)

Reference:-
Heyden, Doris. 1994. Trees and Wood in Life and Death. In Chipping Away on Earth: Studies in Pre-Hispanic and Colonial Mexico in Honor of Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble. Eloise Quiñones Keber, ed. pp. 143-52: Labyrinthos.

Picture sources:-
• Pix 1 & 9: Photos by and courtesy of Alan Sandstrom
• Pic 2: image from the Codex Vaticanus 3738 scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1979
• Pix 3, 4, 10 & 11: 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: image from the Codex Borgia scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1976
• Pic 6: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolote
• Pic 8: image from the Codex Vindobonensis scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974
• Pic 12: photo by Iain Pearson/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 23rd 2018

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