General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 16 Oct 2019/11 Dog
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Drawings of examples of Maya headdresses

Bird feathers used in Aztec and Maya headdresses

This short article was generously written for us by Professor Frances Berdan, a member of our Panel of Experts, originally in answer to a question from a school pupil: ‘Did the Maya and Aztecs take feathers for headdresses from other birds [other than quetzals]?’ As we already have two answers to this question uploaded (follow links below), we feel this particular piece deserves inclusion in our ‘Aztec Artefacts’ section. It relates to both Mexica and Maya. The main image (right) shows examples from Maya art of ‘some of the exuberant headdresses worn by [Maya] kings and nobles’...

Pic 1: A selection of feather headdresses given in tribute annually to the Mexica state, from the Codex Mendoza
Pic 1: A selection of feather headdresses given in tribute annually to the Mexica state, from the Codex Mendoza (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.
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 [follow link below]. 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 2: ‘Cueçalpatzactli’ and ‘Cacalpatzactli’ headdresses depicted in ‘Primeros Memoriales’, fol. 76v (detail)
Pic 2: ‘Cueçalpatzactli’ and ‘Cacalpatzactli’ headdresses depicted in ‘Primeros Memoriales’, fol. 76v (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

A close look at this framework 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) in codices such as the Matrícula de Tributos, Codex Mendoza [see pic 1], Primeros Memoriales [see pic 2], and the Florentine Codex.
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).

Pic 3: Feathers were a key part of the tribute paid by the province of Soconusco. Over 2,400 bundles of assorted feathers were part of the tribute, along with 160 full bird skins and 800 bundles of quetzal tail feathers. Codex Mendoza fol 47r (detail)
Pic 3: Feathers were a key part of the tribute paid by the province of Soconusco. Over 2,400 bundles of assorted feathers were part of the tribute, along with 160 full bird skins and 800 bundles of quetzal tail feathers. Codex Mendoza fol 47r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

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 image: drawing scanned from our own copy of The Everyday Life of the Maya by Ralph Whitlock, B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1976, p. 46
• Pix 1 & 3: images from the Codex Mendoza scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark 1938 facsimile edition, London (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford)
• Pic 2: Image scanned from our own copy of Primeros Memoriales by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, Facsimile Edition, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 1993.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Oct 01st 2019

The original question, received from a school in 2015

A lengthier answer to the same question...

‘Moctezuma’s Headdress’ - an update 2018

Vienna’s Mesoamerican Featherworks

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