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Professor Davíd Carrasco

Was it true that the Aztecs believed that by wearing masks they took on extra powers? asked Loseley Fields Primary School. Read what Professor Davíd Carrasco had to say.

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Mexicolore contributor Professor Elizabeth P. Benson

Especial Birds in the Americas

We are privileged and delighted to upload this learned article specially written for us by Professor Elizabeth P. Benson, former Director of Pre-Columbian Studies and Curator for the Pre-Columbian Collection, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC and a scholar known for her extensive contributions over a long career to the study of pre-Columbian art, in particular that of Mesoamerica and the Andes.

Pic 1: The Resplendent Quetzal
Pic 1: The Resplendent Quetzal (Click on image to enlarge)

Birds have been important in art, ritual, and folklore in the Americas for more than three millennia. Remarkable birds are found all over the world, but some extraordinary ones live in the Neotropics. Many of these birds have relatives elsewhere - parrots and their kin, eagles, water birds - but some exceptional birds exist only in the New World, mostly around the Equator. These include the hummingbird, the macaw, and the quetzal.
The Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) has been called the world’s most beautiful bird. The male’s green wings and tail have a glittering sheen; the inner, white part of the tail is short, but the green tail plumes are about three feet long; the breast is red. There are several species of quetzal, but only the Resplendent Quetzal has a very long tail train, and this bird exists only in a small area. Its preferred habitat is the treetops of highland cloud forest from southern Mexico down into Costa Rica. The birds often nest in tree holes in the canopy, and the male, who helps the female to incubate the eggs, may have difficulty fitting its plumes into the hollow space.

Pic 2: Reconstruction painting of the North Wall of Room 2, Bonampak, Mexico, by Heather Hurst and Leonard Ashby
Pic 2: Reconstruction painting of the North Wall of Room 2, Bonampak, Mexico, by Heather Hurst and Leonard Ashby (Click on image to enlarge)

In the past, the Resplendent Quetzal was probably found most often in moist forests of Guatemala, where it was greatly valued by the ancient Maya and by peoples in other places - Maya contemporaries in the city of Teotihuacan and later Aztecs in central Mexico, for examples. The long tail feathers were prominent in the headdresses of rulers, as seen in a mural at the Maya site of Bonampak in Mexico (pic 2); the quetzal’s body, wing, and short tail feathers were also used. In Pre-Columbian times, feathers were widely used in garments for people of high status and for objects with religious and political significance.

Pic 3: Codex Mendoza, detail of page 46r showing four bundles of ‘quetzalli’
Pic 3: Codex Mendoza, detail of page 46r showing four bundles of ‘quetzalli’ (Click on image to enlarge)

The manuscript Codex Mendoza, of the Aztec period, lists feathers among the items that the Aztecs collected as tribute from conquered tribes, and, in some instances, quetzal feathers are specified (pic 3). For example, “800 bundles of long, rich, green feathers called quetzalli” was one entry in the codex. The trade and tribute of feathers must have been an important activity virtually everywhere in the high civilizations of the Americas. Sculpture and painting show that not only headdresses of kings but also their capes, garments, fans, and banners could be embellished with feathers, usually tied into cloth. Even shields and spears of important warriors were feathered.
Today, the Guatemalan currency is called the quetzal, the bird appears on the national flag, and the region where it was most common is known as Quetzaltenango, ‘Place of the Quetzal,’ though. now the cloud forest is being destroyed, and there are said to be no longer quetzals in Quetzaltenango.

Pic 4: Gold feather, probably a pin. North coast of Peru. Dumbarton Oaks.
Pic 4: Gold feather, probably a pin. North coast of Peru. Dumbarton Oaks. (Click on image to enlarge)

Birds and separated feathers were frequent motifs in the art. Feathers were not only used; they were imitated in other materials. A feather may appear as a motif woven in a textile. There are also gold, silver, or copper “feathers,“ like this hammered gold one from Peru (pic 4).

Some feather art has been preserved and found, but much of it was destroyed by heavy rains and forest dampness. Mexico, Central America, and eastern South America have generally moist climates with dense vegetation. This is good for birds but not for feather preservation. Some feather-work is known only in painting and sculpture. Some is known because impressions of feathers occur on other materials in burials and caches. Important South American cultures, however, developed on the west coast, which is mostly desert. Sea birds of the Pacific Ocean are found there, and, where there are rivers, some land birds, including members of the parrot family, appear; some birds were kept in aviaries, but most colorful feathers were probably brought in. Many feathered objects, preserved by desert conditions, have been excavated there.

Pic 5: Macaw and toucan feather headdress, Munduruku people, Brazil; Peabody Museum, Harvard University
Pic 5: Macaw and toucan feather headdress, Munduruku people, Brazil; Peabody Museum, Harvard University (Click on image to enlarge)

Feathers are still widely used in the damp interior lowlands of South America for hair ornaments, headdresses, and other accessories used on ritual occasions (pic 5). “Feathers make us beautiful,” say the Cashinahua of southeastern Peru.

Important in the feather trade and status displays of the past were feathers of the parrot family, which is found over a large part of the world at approximate tropical latitudes. Their bright colors - blue of sky and water, yellow of sun, green of vegetation, red of blood - could be symbolic, and the fact that these birds usually use words would surely give them special significance. The seventeen macaw species in this family, found over wide areas of Latin America and only there, provide feathers that are still used by certain Indian groups.

Pic 6: the Scarlet Macaw
Pic 6: the Scarlet Macaw (Click on image to enlarge)

Miniature objects are sometimes found as offerings in ancient burials in the Andes. A feathered tunic (a special-occasion garment for important men) from southern Peru is about 35 cm (14”) each side and has a neck slit indicated by a blue feather; the garment was not made to be worn, even by a child. The feathers on one side are those of the Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao) and the Blue-and-yellow Macaw (Ara ararauna), while the other side has feathers from the same macaws as well as green feathers from the Mealy Parrot (Amazona farinosa) (pic 7).

Pic 7: Miniature feathered tunic. Dumbarton Oaks.
Pic 7: Miniature feathered tunic. Dumbarton Oaks. (Click on image to enlarge)

Hummingbirds (pic 8) are a family of more than 320 species of small birds (including the smallest known bird, a Cuban hummingbird, 6 cm [2 ½”] long, top of head to tip of tail). They, too, exist only in the New World, mostly around the Equator. With rapidly vibrating wingbeats, hummingbirds move instantly straight up, straight down, sideways, backwards, or upside down. They are the only birds that can hover for long, as they do when they feed on nectar and insects in flowers. (They are important pollen- and seed-distributors.) Some species make long migrations. In order to have energy to burn for all this activity, a hummingbird eats at least half its weight daily. (Think of that ratio in human terms.) Hummingbirds have the highest energy output per unit of weight of any warm-blooded creature.

Pic 8: A colour plate illustration from Ernst Haeckel’s ‘Kunstformen der Natur’ (1899), showing a variety of hummingbirds
Pic 8: A colour plate illustration from Ernst Haeckel’s ‘Kunstformen der Natur’ (1899), showing a variety of hummingbirds (Click on image to enlarge)

These birds have inspired a great deal of folklore. A hummingbird can appear as a good-luck charm or as a kind of aphrodisiac or magic love token. In the Maya area, a young man or woman may carry a dead hummingbird, often hidden, to attract a lover. In folk medicine, a hummingbird beak may be used by a curer to extract sickness - or to extract an insect from a human ear. The Incas believed that older men should eat a species of hummingbird that would revive them. A hummingbird can also be eaten as a cure for epilepsy.

Pic 9: Scene from a Tikal vase with an anthropomorph hummingbird facing an enthroned ruler
Pic 9: Scene from a Tikal vase with an anthropomorph hummingbird facing an enthroned ruler (Click on image to enlarge)

Hummingbirds sometimes have an association with ancestors that seems to be shown on a Classic Maya vase from the splendid site of Tikal, Guatemala, where a seated figure facing a king is depicted as a human being with a hummingbird beak (pic 9). This practice of showing a creature with a human body and a bird or animal head and other animal attributes was common in Pre-Columbian art and can be interpreted in various ways.

Some hummingbird species go into a state of torpor, which seems like hibernation. When they awaken, they seem to be reborn. “It rejuvenates itself,” wrote the Spaniard Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, who, after the conquest of the Aztec, produced a long and useful text on the Aztec world. For the Aztec, a hummingbird was the spirit of a dead Aztec warrior. In modern Maya lore, hummingbirds can be the souls of lovers.

Pic 10: Hummingbird eating nectar. Florentine Codex, Book 11, Fig. 62
Pic 10: Hummingbird eating nectar. Florentine Codex, Book 11, Fig. 62 (Click on image to enlarge)

Some of the healing and reviving association of hummingbirds may come from the fact that their feathers, in shadow, may look dull, but, when the birds fly into sunlight, they sparkle with iridescence. The bird has Sun associations. The Aztec tribal god was Huitzilopochtli, which can be translated ‘Hummingbird on the Left [of the Sun’s Path].’ His mother was Coatlicue, who was made pregnant by a ball of feathers, likely hummingbird feathers. Huitzilopochtli is rarely portrayed, but he was known as a warrior and a Sun god. The iridescent feathers of hummingbirds contribute to its Sun association. Many of the bird names evoke gleaming light: Golden-crowned Emerald, Glittering-bellied Emerald, and Sparkling-tailed Woodstar are some of them.

Pic 11: Drawing from a Moche bottle. A warrior carrying weapons has a hawk on one side, two hummingbirds on the other. Drawing by Donna McClelland
Pic 11: Drawing from a Moche bottle. A warrior carrying weapons has a hawk on one side, two hummingbirds on the other. Drawing by Donna McClelland (Click on image to enlarge)

Widespread association with warriors seems odd for small hummingbirds, but they protect their territory aggressively, and they dive-bomb and outmaneuver eagles, hawks, and owls. Also, hummingbird beaks look like weapons; this is evident in names such as Sword-billed Hummingbird, Lancebill, Sabrewing, and Helmet-crest. In folklore, a hummingbird is sometimes paired with a hawk or eagle - the hawk is the “transformation of the hummingbird” in terms of movements of the Sun. In earlier Moche scenes from the coast of Peru, both hummingbirds and hawks carry weapons and fly close to warriors (pic 11). Sometimes they are warriors with human bodies and bird wings and beaks. An eagle or hawk is a universal and obvious choice to symbolize a warrior.

Pic 12: Aztec eagle-warrior sculpture. Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico City
Pic 12: Aztec eagle-warrior sculpture. Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Eagle Warriors and Jaguar Warriors were the Aztec military orders. Eagle warriors (pic 12) can be shown wearing feathers on their garments, headdresses, and staffs. Feathers appear also on other beings in Aztec art. The god Quetzalcoatl, ‘Feathered Serpent,’ can be portrayed as a serpent with a feathered body and a human face. In myth, an eagle landing on a cactus marked the place where, at the end of their migration, the Aztecs were to build their city. The landing eagle is seen on the Mexican flag today.

Pic 13: Aztec eagle sculpture. Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City
Pic 13: Aztec eagle sculpture. Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Eagles were important to the Aztecs, as they have been in Europe, where they are often royal symbols. Species are usually different in the eastern and western hemispheres; the Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), however, is slightly different in the Old World and the New, but it is the same species all around the mountainous northern part of the globe. The brown color of the Golden Eagle is explained in Aztec lore: It flew into a fire in an effort to become the Sun. In the Codex Mendoza, a live, brown eagle is sometimes on the tribute list. The Harpy Eagle (Harpia harpyja) is strictly a New World bird; ranging from Mexico through much of South America. Handsome and powerful, it is called “the world’s heaviest and most formidable bird of prey”. One can feel its power, its mystique, even when it is seen caged in a zoo. To watch it soaring and gliding is an extraordinary experience of its power.

Pic 14: A male Andean condor flies over a Chilean glacier
Pic 14: A male Andean condor flies over a Chilean glacier (Click on image to enlarge)

In flight, vultures are comparable to eagles. Both birds ride air currents, and they look alike in the air. The large, strong-winged Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus) can fly from the high Andes to the sea. Like eagles, the vulture family is widespread. These bare-headed, bare-necked birds are not handsome. The appearance of the King Vulture (Sarcoramphus papa), found in forests from Mexico to Argentina, has been described as bizarre; it has a purple, red, and yellow head that is mottled, wattled, and wrinkled.

Pic 15: Man holding a vulture. Detail from a  Maya vase
Pic 15: Man holding a vulture. Detail from a Maya vase (Click on image to enlarge)

Vultures have been called masters of two disciplines: soaring and sanitation. They are valued in Latin America as transformers, because, in rural areas, they clean the landscape; they eat animal remains and exude them as a white substance. In some Maya folklore, they are “masons” because they produce “white plaster.”

Pic 16: Pelican. Florentine Codex, Book 11,  Fig. 83
Pic 16: Pelican. Florentine Codex, Book 11, Fig. 83 (Click on image to enlarge)

Many peoples in ancient Latin America lived near the sea, and sea birds and shore birds were significant. The sea is associated not only with fish and food but also with death, including that of the Sun, which from many viewing points sinks into the sea at nightfall. Sea birds may have evoked the journey to the underworld that most New World peoples believed in. Some sea birds - cormorants, for example - dive deep into the sea. Sahagún discovered an Aztec belief that the pelican “sinks” people, and he gives more space to the pelican than to any other bird (but he did not draw it well; its beak is much longer than that of its drawing).

Pic 17: Pelicans on the island of Lobos de Tierra, in the sea off Peru
Pic 17: Pelicans on the island of Lobos de Tierra, in the sea off Peru (Click on image to enlarge)

This bird was also significant on the coast of Peru, where the Peruvian Pelican (Pelecanus thagus) is, along with the Guanay Cormorant (Phalacrocorax bougainvillii) and the Peruvian Booby (Sula variegata), a producer of guano, the fertilizer that is collected today and was probably used in the ancient past. Sea birds have importance all over the world. Some of them fly over great stretches of the oceanic world. Sea birds and migrating birds have special significance, for they disappear and reappear; they travel to other worlds.

Pic 18: Moche anthropomorphic owls. Linden-Museum, Stuttgart. Drawing by Donna McClelland
Pic 18: Moche anthropomorphic owls. Linden-Museum, Stuttgart. Drawing by Donna McClelland (Click on image to enlarge)

There are over a hundred species of owls in Latin America, and they look like Old World owls. Various owls appear in Pre-Columbian art: some are “horned,” some are not; some have more masklike faces than others. Their full face is different from those of other birds; the strange voice in the night is haunting. Owls are significant in many parts of the world. These nocturnal birds have been widely associated with mystery and power, with darkness and death, war and sacrifice.

A Moche deity with owl attributes is the chief warrior and sacrificer. He has a human body and sometimes wears armor, but he also has wings, an owl head, and often bird feet. A human-owl can also be dressed as a woman or as a priestly being. In New World folktales, a character may start out as a human and then, without explanation, be called an animal or a bird. It is usually not clear whether this is transformation, character description, or a reference to a world in which a creature can go back and forth between states of being.

Pic 19: Owl from a Moche dipper. Museo Larco, Lima. Drawing by Donna McClelland
Pic 19: Owl from a Moche dipper. Museo Larco, Lima. Drawing by Donna McClelland (Click on image to enlarge)

Some birds - owls, hummingbirds, eagles, vultures - were important symbols of meaning in life and the environment; others were rarely portrayed and seem to have been valued more for their feathers rather than for their symbolism. Some portrayals are realistic, some supernatural.

Birds have almost magical movement as they travel from one world to another. They can fly!

SOME RELATED READING:-
• Attenborough, Richard 1998 The Life of Birds. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
• Benson, Elizabeth P. 2012 The Worlds of the Moche on the North Coast of Peru. Austin: University of Texas Press.
• Berdan. Frances F., and Patricia Rieff Anawalt 1997 The Essential Codex Mendoza. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.
• Donnan, Christopher B., and Donna McClelland 1999 Moche Fineline Painting: Its Evolution and Its Artists. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.
• Evans, Susan Toby 2004 Ancient Mexico & Central America: Archaeology and Culture History. London: Thames & Hudson.
• Fought, John 1972 Chorti (Mayan) Texts 1. Sarah S. Fought, ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
• Hunt, Eva 1977 italicThe Transformation of the Hummingbird: Cultural Roots of a Zinacantecan Mythical Poem. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
• Maslow, Jonathan Evan 1986 Bird of Life, Bird of Death: A Naturalist’s Journey Through a Land of Political Turmoil. New York: Simon and Schuster.
• Reina, Ruben E., and Kenneth M. Kensinger, eds 1991. The Gift of Birds: Featherwork of Native South American Peoples. Philadelphia: The University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania.
• Sahagún, Fray Bernardino de 1963 {itlalicFlorentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain. Book 11, Earthly Things, Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O. Anderson, translators. Santa Fe, NM: The School of American Research and The University of Utah.
• Sharer. Robert J., and Loa Traxler 2004 The Ancient Maya 6th. ed. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
• Stone-Miller, Rebecca 1995 Art of the Andes from Chavín to Inca. London: Thames & Hudson.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: Courtesy Steve Bird/Birdseekers
• Pic 2: Courtesy the Bonampak Documentation Project. All rights reserved
• Pic 3: Image from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938
• Pix 4 & 7: Courtesy The Pre-Columbian Collection, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington
• Pix 5, 6, 8 & 14: Wikipedia
• Pix 9 & 15: Courtesy Justin Kerr
• Pix 10 & 16: 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
• Pix 11, 18 & 19: Courtesy Donald and Donna McClelland. Private collection
• Pix 12, 13 & 17: Photos by and courtesy of Elizabeth P. Benson

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Oct 30th 2012

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