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Aztec rattlesnake, Codex Magliabecchiano

Rattlesnake

The rattlesnake, unique to the Americas, has always had profound symbolic and religious associations in Mesoamerican culture. Its name in both Nahuatl and Yucatec Mayan languages means ‘leader’ or ‘lord’ of the serpents: for the Mexica (see the Florentine Codex, Book 11) this was tecuhtlacozauhqui (combining ‘lord’ and ‘yellow’), for the Maya ahau can or simply tzabcan - literally ‘rattle snake’. (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: The Aztec day sign Snake - illustration for Mexicolore by Felipe Dávalos
Pic 1: The Aztec day sign Snake - illustration for Mexicolore by Felipe Dávalos (Click on image to enlarge)

Over a century ago the distinguished German scholar Eduard Seler included a detailed study of the creature in his work on animal iconography in ancient Mexican and Maya manuscripts. He noted that Snake is the fifth in the sequence of twenty day or calendar signs for both Aztecs (pic 1) and Maya, that when depicting this day sign scribes showed a clear preference for drawing rattlesnakes, and that artists demonstrated a certain randomness in the codices: sometimes the rattles themselves were shown, but other times they were omitted.

Pic 2: José Díaz Bolio with some of his popular books
Pic 2: José Díaz Bolio with some of his popular books (Click on image to enlarge)

In the mid-20th century a Mexican anthropologist and poet, José Díaz Bolio, dedicated many years of his life to promoting the idea that ALL pre-invasion Mesoamerican cultures ‘based their religion, arts, architecture, mathematics, geometry, and chronology, indeed much of their cosmology, on the sacred Crotalus simus (formerly C. durissus)’ (Reiserer) by publishing several well-illustrated and popular books on the subject, such as The Rattlesnake School and Why the Rattlesnake in Mayan Civilisation (pic 2). Some have even tried to attribute the growth of a rattlesnake cult in the region to his efforts.

Pic 3: Illustration by Miguel Covarrubias from ‘Indian Art of Mexico & Central America’ (1957)
Pic 3: Illustration by Miguel Covarrubias from ‘Indian Art of Mexico & Central America’ (1957) (Click on image to enlarge)

Ironically, if by ‘cult’ we mean ‘a system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure’ this is precisely what did exist throughout ancient Mesoamerica, dedicated to the Plumed Serpent deity, known to the Aztecs as Quetzalcóatl and to the Yucatec Maya as Kukulkan (kan having a double meaning of snake and the sacred number four). Eminent scholars have for decades traced links between this universally popular god and icons such as the Maya vision serpent and the Aztec xiuhcóatl or cloud/fire-serpent. At Teotihuacan, images of precious (quetzal-plumed) rattlesnakes frame scenes of human sacrifice and adorn the temple of Quetzalcóatl himself.
Following the example of Professor Michael Coe, Miguel Covarrubias, writing in the 1950s, suggested: ‘The cloud dragon or sky serpent, one of the principal art motifs of the Classic cultures, could have developed from an altered profile version of an early [Olmec] jaguar mask’ (pic 3), evolving later into the plumed serpent.

Pic 4: Tomás Filsinger’s annotated illustration of the outer ring of fire-serpents on the Aztec Sunstone
Pic 4: Tomás Filsinger’s annotated illustration of the outer ring of fire-serpents on the Aztec Sunstone (Click on image to enlarge)

However, whilst several writers have claimed that the two xiuhcóatls that sweep down on either side of the famous Aztec Sunstone monument (pic 4) are rattlesnakes, others are more cautious, suggesting that they are in fact composite figures, with attributes and features taken symbolically from different realms of the animal kingdom. Gordon Brotherston, to give just one example, suggests in his classic Feather Crown that the two fire-serpents ‘emerge from insect or crustacean tails and culminate in caiman heads’. What’s more, one has only to study the coiled Aztec stone rattlesnake in the British Museum’s Mexico Gallery (pic 9) to be reminded of just how skilful the Mexica artists were - when they wanted to be - in depicting with superb accuracy representatives of the natural and living world around them. In Reiserer’s words, the Aztecs ‘carefully studied their crotaline [rattlesnake] subjects...’

Pic 5: Rainstick imagery: Tlaloc, Codex Ixtlilxochitl (top L), Maya rain/lightning sticks (top centre), modern reconstruction (top R), Tlaloc, Codex Vaticanus B (bottom)
Pic 5: Rainstick imagery: Tlaloc, Codex Ixtlilxochitl (top L), Maya rain/lightning sticks (top centre), modern reconstruction (top R), Tlaloc, Codex Vaticanus B (bottom) (Click on image to enlarge)

Significantly, the two fantastic creatures that ring the Sunstone have been called ‘fire-serpents’ as they bear a strong resemblance to imagery of fire and the fire god Xiuhtecuhtli. In this vein Esther Pasztory (Aztec Art) believes that they represent the burning rays of the sun during the dry season. The rattlesnake, on the other hand, has been conclusively shown by Susan Milbrath to be associated with the rainy and planting seasons (during which they are much more active): this gives support to the idea that sacred rainstick/rainmakers, seen in codex imagery held by Tlaloc and other Mesoamerican rain deities (pic 5) bear carved rattlesnakes (Seler suggests they may also depict lightning, closely linked to rainstorms).

Pic 6: Madrid Codex, pp. 14-16 (facsimile edition). Note the loss of the rattles (p. 14, bottom left section) as the rattlesnake changes position reflecting the invisibility of the Pleiades during May. Note also the rain!
Pic 6: Madrid Codex, pp. 14-16 (facsimile edition). Note the loss of the rattles (p. 14, bottom left section) as the rattlesnake changes position reflecting the invisibility of the Pleiades during May. Note also the rain! (Click on image to enlarge)

It is Milbrath’s classic study Star Gods of the Maya which lifts this brief glimpse at rattlesnake symbolism onto a far higher plane, linking the creature with the constellation of the Pleiades, which disappear from the sky in May and reappear at dawn in June. Still today, this special group of stars gives farmers a sign to begin planting, just prior to the onset of rains; they also were observed in ancient times to tell the time at night. Crucially, the name for the Pleiades in the Yucatán, even today, is tzab or ‘rattlesnake’s rattle’. By studying in detail the Paris Codex (one of the four remaining pre-invasion Maya screenfold books), Milbrath argues that the Codex ‘confirms the association between the Pleiades and the rattlesnake in Postclassic times’, by showing a rattlesnake constellation clearly linked with the Pleiades.
Extraordinarily, she explains too how in the Madrid Codex (pp. 12-18), as the 260-day ritual calendar moves along the sequence, the changing position in the night sky of the Pleiades over the course of the planting cycle is reflected in the corresponding depiction of the rattlesnake, which ‘loses its rattles as a sign that the Pleiades have become invisible at dusk at the onset of the rainy season in May’ (see pic 6).

Pic 7: Quetzalcoatl sculpture, Museum of the Louvre, Paris
Pic 7: Quetzalcoatl sculpture, Museum of the Louvre, Paris (Click on image to enlarge)

What’s more, Milbrath suggests that ‘it is possible that Venus is also part of the image. The serpent’s rattle tail may show that the Pleiades are closely related with Venus in its manifestation as a feathered serpent... The rattles certainly represent the Pleiades, but the serpent might be the counterpart of Quetzalcoatl [pic 7]... Venus passing by the Pleiades is a sign associated with rain, for this occurs invariably from mid-March through mid-June. Rain appears as a background in the Madrid Codex serpent sequence [see pic 6, lower half] because the calendar relates to weather patterns presented in relation to observations of the Pleiades and possibly also of Venus.’ (Interestingly, Venus passes by the constellation of Scorpius - at the other side of the sky - at the beginning of the dry season, leading Milbrath to connect the Aztec fire serpent - see above - with this constellation, as a symbol of the dry season).

Pic 8: Rattlesnake; Florentine Codex Book XI
Pic 8: Rattlesnake; Florentine Codex Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

We begin to see now why the Mexica scribes gave the rattlesnake pride of place in the Florentine Codex: it opens Chapter 5 (‘which telleth of the various serpents, and of still other creatures which live on the ground’). The entry outlines the snake’s physical features, diet/eating habits, hunting skill, behavioural characteristics - with a special reference to its use of rattles as a sign of anger and as a marker of age (‘each year, one erupts’), movement along the ground, entrapment by humans (see the ‘Guess...’ entry at the top of this page!), even its medicinal qualities...
Clearly and rightly a creature that deserved and earned their respect!

Pic 9: Aztec coiled rattlesnake sculpture, British Museum
Pic 9: Aztec coiled rattlesnake sculpture, British Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

Sources:-
The Florentine Codex; Book XI - Earthly Things, translated by Charles E. Dibble and Arthurs J.O. Anderson, School of American Research and University of Utah, Santa Fe, 1963
Star Gods of the Maya: Astronomy in Art, Folklore, and Calendars by Susan Milbrath, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1999
Indian Art of Mexico & Central America by Miguel Covarrubias Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1957
Las Imágenes de Animales en los Manuscritos Mexicanos y Mayas by Eduard Seler [1909-10], translated from the German by Joachim von Mentz, Casa Juan Pablos, Mexico, 2008
Feather Crown: The Eighteen Feasts of the Mexica Year by Gordon Brotherston, British Museum Research Publications no. 154, 2005
• ‘Eclipse Imagery on the Aztec Calendar Stone’ by Susan Milbrath, Mexicon vol. XXXIX, Feb. 2017, pp. 16-26
• ‘Art and Rattlesnakes’ by Randall S. Reiserer, in Rattlesnakes of Arizona Eds. Gordon W. Schuett, Martin J. Feldner, Charles F. Smith & Randall S. Reiserer, vol. 1, ECO Wear & Publishing, 2016.

Pic 10: Rattlesnake, Codex Magliabecchiano, fol. 11 (detail)
Pic 10: Rattlesnake, Codex Magliabecchiano, fol. 11 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Image sources:-
• Main image & pic 10: images scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Magliabecchiano, Graz, 1970
• Pic 1: Illustration created for Mexicolore by and © Felipe Dávalos/Mexicolore
• Pic 2: images from the internet
• Pic 3: Illustration scanned from our own copy of Indian Art of Mexico & Central America by Miguel Covarrubias
• Pic 4: From The Aztec Cosmos - A Guide to the Poster and Sun Stone by Tomas J. Filsinger, Celestial Arts, Berkeley, 1984
• Pic 5: Image (top L) from the Codex Ixtlilxochitl scanned from our copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition (Graz, Austria, 1976); photo (top R) by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore; image (bottom) from the Codex Vaticanus B scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, 1972
• Pic 6: image from the Codex Madrid scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1967
• Pic 7: photos by and courtesy of Katarzyna Mikulska
• Pic 8: Image 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
• Pic 9: BM collection reference no. Am1849,0629.1; photo © Trustees of the British Museum.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jul 03rd 2019

emoticon Ode to a rattler (a Mexica limerick):-
When Tlaloc raised up his great rattlesnake
He boasted ‘all the mountains which that’ll shake’
The Plumed Serpent was sleeping
So the other gods went weeping:
’Don’t disturb us, for Quetzalcoatl’s sake...’

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