General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 29 Nov 2020/5 Flower
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Huichol yarn painting showing the cultural importance of the deer

Deer

The common white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) is the larger of two deer species found throughout Mesoamerica and has been hunted in the region since the most ancient of times. In stark contrast to the plight of elephants and rhinos today, hunted purely for profit from their horns and tusks, in ancient Mexico deers’ antlers were just one useful by-product among several, starting with the meat itself... (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: A traditional bone deer imitator; a membrane covers one end
Pic 1: A traditional bone deer imitator; a membrane covers one end (Click on image to enlarge)

Deer meat was not only staple fare at a feast, it was a most esteemed food offering, for gods and ancestors. The hunt itself involved stalking by hunters who crept up, camouflaged in skins, luring deer by mimicking their mating cry, driving the animals into a net, catching them with nooses or snares, and spearing or shooting them with arrows. Speared deer are depicted in both Maya and Central Mexican codices. Successful hunts were celebrated with special rites. However, there were strict limits on the number of deer (and other large mammals) that could be killed: ‘When on a hunt, it was necessary to ask the gods for permission to kill an animal, and the number of “victims” had to be commensurate with the hunter’s needs, otherwise he would be punished’ (Pecci, 2007: 50). Even today, notes Benson, ‘modern hunters ask the underworld earth lords for permission to hunt’ (2001: 320).

Pic 2: A speared deer - sometimes depicted in codices without antlers, possibly, according to Seler, to represent a goddess in deer form
Pic 2: A speared deer - sometimes depicted in codices without antlers, possibly, according to Seler, to represent a goddess in deer form (Click on image to enlarge)

The hunting of deer was associated with war and with the sacrifice of human captives. The 14th month in the agricultural calendar, Quecholli, was dedicated to the Otomí god Mixcoatl, patron of hunters. In preparation, arrows and darts were made for use in the hunt and in war. ‘When they made the arrows, for a space of five days all took blood from the ears, and [with] the blood which they pressed out of them they anointed their own temples. They said that they did penances in order to go to hunt deer’ (Florentine Codex, Book 2). The emperor Moctezuma rewarded successful hunters of deer and coyotes with feather-bedecked capes and gifts of food and drink.

Pic 3: Annual tribute to the Aztecs in the form of 800 deerskins from Tepeacac province; Codex Mendoza, fol. 42r (detail)
Pic 3: Annual tribute to the Aztecs in the form of 800 deerskins from Tepeacac province; Codex Mendoza, fol. 42r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Capes themselves were often made of deerskin, the hide - and the fur of rabbits - being important animal by-products, ending in the hands of crafts people who turned them into sandals and luxury capes. The province of Tepe(y)acac was unique in the Aztec empire in only paying tribute to Tenochtitlan in the form of lime, deerskins and certain wood products. Each year some 800 deerskins were sent to the capital (pic 3); this cold, dry province (covering much of central and southern present-day Puebla state) was a key hunting region, where the local people worshipped Camaxtli, god of the hunt.
Sacred bundles, or tlaquimilolli - receptacles of divine power and materialisations of divine presence that served as instruments for communicating with the “gods” - were wrapped in deer hide. They were highly visual symbols of political (and divine) authority, proudly carried by the Mexica on their legendary journey from Aztlán to the basin of central Mexico.

Pic 4: A (female?) deer faces rain god Tlaloc; Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, pl. 26 (detail)
Pic 4: A (female?) deer faces rain god Tlaloc; Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, pl. 26 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

To the eminent late 19th century German scholar Eduard Seler, the deer was and is ‘a mythological animal par excellence’ (1909: 112). Seler associated deer with an army of celestial stars, fleeing East to West to escape the powerful Morning Star Venus. Many Mesoamerican origin myths feature the deer, a creature modern-day researchers pair with the sun, with drought - and with the vital need to end drought with the help of the rain and lightning deity Tlaloc. In the Yucatán today, rain rituals at a time of severe drought begin with a deer hunt (Benson), and López Austin reports an old saying from his home region of northern Mexico suggesting that when it rains heavily and yet the sun is shining, ‘a doe is giving birth’: in the remote past the deer ‘gave birth to the sun in a brief moment of liberation in which the aquatic, dark principles of her pregnant womb coexisted with the luminous, warm principles of new solar life’ (1996: 40).

Pic 5: An onyx deer-head sceptre, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (L); a deer-headed sceptre used by a deity in decapitation - Tonalamatl de Aubin pl. 19 (detail)
Pic 5: An onyx deer-head sceptre, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (L); a deer-headed sceptre used by a deity in decapitation - Tonalamatl de Aubin pl. 19 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

A version of a Mexica myth ‘tells how Mixcoatl, a sky and fire god - probably a stellar god - and a legendary hunter, shot with an arrow a two-headed deer who became a woman, was impregnated by Mixcoatl, and gave birth to the culture hero and god Quetzalcoatl. Mexica gods sometimes take deer form - Mixcoatl, for example - and in codices gods may carry a deer-headed sceptre; in the Tonalamatl Aubin, a codex, such a sceptre is shown being used to decapitate a sacrificial victim’ (Benson 2001: 321) (pic 5).
Does (female deer) are known to give birth with relative ease compared with other mammals and an Aztec recipe for aiding childbirth included burnt deerskin, in what de Montellano calls ‘a magical prescription using the principle of “like produces like”’ (1990: 21).

Pic 6: Codex Borgia, pl. 53 (detail) showing Deer as icon par excellence
Pic 6: Codex Borgia, pl. 53 (detail) showing Deer as icon par excellence (Click on image to enlarge)

Many codices of course were painted on gesso-covered deerskin. The deer’s sacred importance is beautifully - even playfully - depicted in a multi-layered image in the Codex Borgia (pic 6). On a page itself made of deerskin the deity Xochipilli (Flower Prince) is depicted wearing a deerskin, holding a (deerskin) screenfold displaying a sequence of five of the Aztec day or calendar signs, one of which is Deer. Interestingly, (male?) Deer is number 7 in the cycle of 20 signs, next to (female?) Rabbit (8), both symbols of prey, speed, alertness and timidity.

Pic 7: Deers’ antlers have medicinal properties...
Pic 7: Deers’ antlers have medicinal properties... (Click on image to enlarge)

Finally, we return to the antlers. In many places in the natural world these often grow in the same annual cycle as agricultural crops; they also represent symbols of rebirth, since ‘the deer is thought to become young again when it has dropped its antlers; shortly afterward, the new antlers grow’ (Benson 2001: 320).
However, they were put to practical use too, in more ways than one. According to the Badianus Manuscript, a mid-16th century Aztec Herbal, commonly called ‘America’s Earliest Medical Book’, the Mexica remedy for treating epilepsy included the consumption of a bizarre mixture containing deer’s horns, tapping into the ancient notion that ‘the smell of burnt deer’s horns arrests the attacks of epilepsy’. Moreover, the ash from burnt stag hide was believed to help stem menstrual blood flow (de Montellano 1990: 21).

Pic 8: The sounds of nature: a tortoise-shell drum with deer’s antlers as beaters
Pic 8: The sounds of nature: a tortoise-shell drum with deer’s antlers as beaters (Click on image to enlarge)

There’s one other property that deers’ antlers possess: they’re brittle. Intimately wed to, knowledgeable of and dependent on the natural world around them, the Aztecs were past masters at imitating the sounds of animals, birds, reptiles, natural and even ‘underworld’ phenomena. One of the musical instruments we know they played - provided for them directly from nature - was the ayotl or tortoise-shell drum: tapping the shell, some researchers believe, was a way to imitate the sound of - and invoke - rain drops landing heavily on hard surfaces. Since the shell of a tortoise or turtle is also brittle, deers’ antlers made perfect drumsticks or beaters...

Pic 9: A woman plays an ‘ayotl’ and a man a hand drum; Codex Laud, pl. 34 (detail)
Pic 9: A woman plays an ‘ayotl’ and a man a hand drum; Codex Laud, pl. 34 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Both Central Mexican and Maya codices and murals contain images of the ayotl, accompanied by deers’ antlers as beaters (e.g., pic 9). And as if the poor creature hadn’t already provided humans with enough resources, we also know that leg bones of deer were used as rasps (scrapers) - learn more from the link below. NOTHING went to waste!

Pic 10: A rabbit carries the moon and a deer carries the sun; illustration based on the Codex Borgia, pl. 33
Pic 10: A rabbit carries the moon and a deer carries the sun; illustration based on the Codex Borgia, pl. 33 (Click on image to enlarge)

Sources/References:-
• Benson, Elizabeth P. (2001) ‘Deer’, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures, Ed. David Carrasco, vol. 1, pp. 320-321
• Bray, Warwick (1968) Everyday Life of the Aztecs, Dorset Press
The Florentine Codex Book 2 - The Ceremonies (1961), trans. Dibble & Anderson, University of Utah Press
• López Austin, Alfredo (1996) The Rabbit in the Moon: Mythology in the Mesoamerican Tradition, University of Utah Press
• Berdan, Frances & Rieff Anawalt, Patricia (1997) The Essential Codex Mendoza, University of California Press
• de Montellano, Bernard Ortiz (1990) Aztec Medicine, Health and Nutrition, Rutgers Press
• Pecci, Alessandra (2007) The World of the Aztecs in the Florentine Codex, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana/Mandragora srl, Florence
• Seler, Eduard (2008 [1909-10]) Las Imágenes de Animales en los Manuscritos Mexicanos y Mayas, translated from the German by Joachim von Mentz, Casa Juan Pablos, Mexico
• Taube, Karl and Miller, Mary (1993) The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya, Thames & Hudson Ltd., London.

Pic 11: The Aztec calendar or day sign for Deer, no. 7 in the cycle of 20
Pic 11: The Aztec calendar or day sign for Deer, no. 7 in the cycle of 20 (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture sources:-
• Main (traditional Huichol yarn painting, private collection), and pix 1, 5L, 7 & 8: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• pic 2: image scanned from Codex Borgia: A Full-Color Restoration of the Ancient Mexican Manuscript by Gisele Díaz and Alan Rodgers, Dover Publications, New York, 1993
• 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
• Pic 4: image scanned from our copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, Graz, Austria, 1971
• Pic 5R: image downloaded from the INAH 75th anniversary exhibition website https://codices.inah.gob.mx/pc/index.php
• Pic 6: Image from the Codex Borgia scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1976
• Pic 9: image scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Laud, Graz, Austria, 1966
• Pic 10: drawing (anonymous) scanned from The Rabbit on the Face of the Moon (see above)
• Pic 11: illustration by and © Felipe Dávalos/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Oct 19th 2020

See a staghorn sceptre in the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris

Learn more about the rasp...

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