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Maya rulers sport spectacular feather headdresses in the Bonampak murals

Ask the Experts: Maya and Aztec feather headdresses

Following on from the success of our long-serving ‘Ask the Experts’ service on the Aztecs, we’re extending it to the Maya. We’re most grateful to Frances Berdan, Professor of Anthropology, California State University San Bernardino (USA), for this first contribution, on feather headdresses. (Picture above: Maya rulers sport spectacular feather headdesses, part of the famous murals at Bonampak, Mexico).

Pic 1: Tribute is brought to a Maya ruler in the form of feathers and bundles. From a Classic Maya polychrome vase
Pic 1: Tribute is brought to a Maya ruler in the form of feathers and bundles. From a Classic Maya polychrome vase (Click on image to enlarge)

I think it’s safe to say that the Aztecs and Mayans used feathers from pretty much every bird in their diverse environments. They made spectacular adornments with these feathers, including feathered warriors’ costumes, back devices, fans, banners, and mosaic shields. They embellished textiles (especially cloaks and decorative hangings) with spun feathers. And yes, they made magnificent headdresses and other headgear from feathers.

Pic 2: An old anonymous photo on display today in Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology of a Mexican Indian family admiring the splendid replica of ‘Moctezuma’s headdress’ soon after it was put on public display
Pic 2: An old anonymous photo on display today in Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology of a Mexican Indian family admiring the splendid replica of ‘Moctezuma’s headdress’ soon after it was put on public display (Click on image to enlarge)

So what about those headdresses? These spectacular adornments were meant to shimmer and flow, and the tail feathers of the male resplendent quetzal achieved this effect perfectly. We have an actual example of this: the famous “Moctezuma’s headdress” in Vienna, Austria. The most obvious feature of this splendid object is its flowing mass of green quetzal feathers: there were originally about 500 of them. These feathers radiate out from a complex framework that sat on or above the wearer’s head (although probably not Motecuhzoma’s).

Pic 3: Detail of the fine replica of ‘Moctezuma’s headdress’ (original in Vienna, replica in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City)
Pic 3: Detail of the fine replica of ‘Moctezuma’s headdress’ (original in Vienna, replica in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City) (Click on image to enlarge)

A close look at this framework (see pic 3) reveals other kinds of feathers (as well as a great many gold pieces): blue feathers from the lovely cotinga, brown ones from the squirrel cuckoo, and red ones from the roseate spoonbill. We see illustrations of similar headdresses (called quetzalpatzactli by the Aztecs) in codices such as the Matrícula de Tributos, Codex Mendoza, Primeros Memoriales, and the Florentine Codex.

Pic 4: Detail from the Codex Mendoza (folio 23v) showing tributes of ‘fine rich feathers’ - part of warrior costumes supplied to the Aztecs from the provinces of their empire
Pic 4: Detail from the Codex Mendoza (folio 23v) showing tributes of ‘fine rich feathers’ - part of warrior costumes supplied to the Aztecs from the provinces of their empire (Click on image to enlarge)

These and other documents illustrate headdresses made from different feathers. For the long feathers on the headdresses, the wing and tail feathers of the scarlet macaw provided a red alternative to the quetzal’s green. This type of headdress was named after these flowing red plumes (cueçalpatzactli). Another headdress was named cacalpatzactli after its long black raven feathers. Still, whatever feathers were used as the “main event,” all of these headdresses were also adorned with rows of smaller colorful feathers, especially yellow (oriole or yellow parrot), black (raven), light blue (lovely cotinga), red (roseate spoonbill), and green (perhaps the green parakeet).

This answer could go on and on! Still, it is worth noting that these creative people made many types of headgear using an impressive variety of feathers, artistically choosing them for their color, size, and texture.

Picture sources:-
• Main pic: Bonampak Room 1 Structure 1. Image scanned from our copy of Ancient Maya Paintings of Bonampak Mexico, Supplementary Publication 46, Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1955. Painting (detail) by Antonio Tejeda
• Pic 1: Photo by and courtesy of Justin Kerr (Mayavision.com). K3203
• Pix 2 & 3: Photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 4: Image from the Codex Mendoza scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark 1938 facsimile edition, London.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 26th 2015

See other answers from our experts to the same question in our Aztecs section...

Read Professor Claudia Brittenham’s (much longer) answer to this question

‘Vienna’s Mesoamerican Featherworks’

Justin Kerr’s website Mayavase.com
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