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Colour drawing of a Mexican bottle gourd by Felipe Dávalos

Bottle gourd

A bottle gourd is a - usually quite large - hard-shelled fruit that grows on a vine. Sometimes called a calabash, its technical name is Lagenaria siceraria. It can be harvested whilst still young and eaten as a vegetable, or harvested mature to be dried and used as a utensil. Thought to be one of the first crops cultivated by American Indians, bottle gourds were cultivated in today’s Mexico as early as 8,000 BCE, probably more for use as a container than for a food. (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: A ubiquitous bottle gourd hangs in the centre of a simple rural dwelling (model house, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City)
Pic 1: A ubiquitous bottle gourd hangs in the centre of a simple rural dwelling (model house, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City) (Click on image to enlarge)

Still widely in use today in Mesoamerica, its common name in Mexican Spanish is bule or guaje. Its uses, according to the shape and size of the gourd can include: bowl, scoop, colander, ladle, spoon, shaker (maraca) and... water bottle. Liquids keep cool and fresh inside; the stopper is traditionally the end of a dried out maize (corn) cob. For all but the last two uses, the gourd needs to be cut horizontally, and then dried outside in the sun. If used as a bowl, the gourd should comfortably and conveniently fit in the palm of one hand.
The Mexican Spanish word guaje comes from the Nahuatl huaxin, a generic term for a gourd tree, which also gave its name to places such as Oaxtepec (On the Hill of Gourd Trees), mentioned in the Codex Mendoza, and to the region known today as La Huasteca (from huaxtecatl, a person from Huaxtlan, Place of Abundance of Gourd Trees.)

Pic 2: A Tarascan high priest addresses a group of nobles; he carries a large, painted bottle gourd on his back as a symbol of his authority. ‘Relación de Michoacán’, fol. 41 (detail)
Pic 2: A Tarascan high priest addresses a group of nobles; he carries a large, painted bottle gourd on his back as a symbol of his authority. ‘Relación de Michoacán’, fol. 41 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Painting gourds has been a traditional art form for centuries in Mexico. Iconography in codices (picture 2), murals and temples indicates that painted gourds were used in a range of rituals and ceremonies. ‘Today lacquer working is still practiced in a few regions. Implements, techniques, and even basic ingredients have changed little in hundreds of years, and the gourd continues to play a vital role...
’First, the gourd must be cleaned and prepared for use. This is a long and laborious procedure. Harvested in October or November, the fruit is left to dry out completely, then cut down the middle and placed in water until the insides rot. The seeds are planted and the gourd itself is scraped until only the hard rind remains. A second period of drying follows, for even the smallest degree of moisture will affect the lacquer.’ (Sayer, 1977: 60-62)

Pic 3: Lacquer painted bottle gourd from Chiapa de Corzo, Mexico; note that the central wavy gold line indicates where the top half comes off...
Pic 3: Lacquer painted bottle gourd from Chiapa de Corzo, Mexico; note that the central wavy gold line indicates where the top half comes off... (Click on image to enlarge)

Much patience and attention to detail are required at every stage. Any roughness in the gourd must be removed with stone scrapers. An oily paste of toasted and ground chia seeds, or the fat of the aje insect, is used initially to line the gourd, followed by coatings of fine brown earth, powdered minerals and pigments. After days of sun drying, smoothing, re-layering and polishing, the lacquered gourd is ready for painting. Today, floral and animal designs are popular, all hand painted using the artist’s finger, or a fine animal hair brush.

Sources:-
• Keoke, Emory Dean & Porterfield, Kay Marie Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World, Facts on File, New York, 2002
• Santamaría, Francisco J. Diccionario de Mejicanismos, Editorial Porrúa, 3rd. ed., Mexico DF, 1978
• Sayer, Chloe Crafts of Mexico Aldus Books, London, 1977
• Vela, Enrique ‘El Calabazo y la Calabaza’, Arqueología Mexicana, Edición Especial no. 36, October 2010, 38-39.

Image sources:-
• Main: illustration made specially for Mexicolore by Felipe Dávalos
• Pic 1: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 2: Image from Relación de las ceremonias y ritos y población y gobernación de los indios de la provincia de Mechuacan (Edited by Moises Franco Mendoza) scanned from our own copy of the El Colegio de Michoacan facsimile edition, Mexico, n.d.
• Pic 3: photo downloaded from https://www.mexican-folk-art-guide.com/mexican-lacquerware.html#.YCuT0i2caqk.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Feb 16th 2021

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