Patterns from Meso-American cultures
I came across something really interesting some time ago – butterfly patterns occurring in the architecture of the Meso-American cultures. However, there is a gruesome twist – they do not represent beauty or peace or harmony but instead represent warfare and bloodshed.
To get a feel of the patterns , an introduction to this unique civilisation on the other side of the world to India is in order.
Meso-America is a region and culture area in the Americas, extending approximately from central Mexico to Honduras and Nicaragua. A number of pre-Columbian societies, such as the Olmecs, Mayas, Aztecs and many others flourished before the Spanish colonization of the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries.
The region is peppered with the fascinating ruins of great cities such as Teotihuacan, Tikal, Tenochtitlán, Palenque, Chichen Itza and many others. Over time the peoples declined and by the seventeenth century these cultures had vanished or dispersed. The story of the discovery and excavation of these great cities, some of which are completely masked by thick forest, to the extent that you can travel through them and not realise that they are there, while others were still occupied over the centuries after their sack, makes fascinating reading.
The Meso-American cultures had a rich heritage. They had a pictorial script – this is one of only five regions in the World where writing originated independently. The Mayans had a number of calenders and an elaborate culture of astronomy. They had elaborate systems of water-irrigation. They also had pyramids but of the stepped kind.
These cultures represent the change of man’s lifestyle from hunter-gatherer to sedentary in the Americas. Corn or Maize, one of our major staple foods was discovered here.
It is interesting to note that Meso-Americans played a ballgame for over 3000 years. A modern version of the game, ulama, continues to be played in a few places. It was probably similar to volleyball, where the object is to keep the ball in play. In the most well-known version of the game, the players would strike the rubber ball (weighing 4 kg or more) with their hips, forearms, rackets, bats, or hand-stones. Over 1300 ball-courts of different sizes have been found throughout Meso-America.They resemble a modern day squash court in that they all feature long narrow alleys, with side-walls against which the balls could bounce. The game was played casually for simple recreation, perhaps by children and women too but it also had important ritual aspects. Major formal ballgames would be held as ritual events, often featuring human sacrifice.
The Aztec and Mayan cultures are clouded in our minds today due to their practice of human sacrifice. The Aztecs, in particular, were fearsome practitioners. In the Mayas, human sacrifice was reduced and more ritualistic. For a feel of the horror of human sacrifice, I would advise you to see Mel Gibson’s film “Apocalypto“. The film has raised many controversies but gives a graphic feel of Meso-American life.
There is no doubt that the Olmecs, Mayans, Aztecs, Toltecs, Mixtecs and the other cultures of Meso-America were great cultures. In some aspects, terrible, but definitely great.
Nature and wildlife are a recurrent theme in these cultures. Take the case of Teotihuacan – its murals depict many living organisms such as quetzals, jaguars, doves, fish, felines, serpents, shelled animals, shells, sea creatures, water lilies, and seeds. Flowers, shells, and feathers abound.
The butterfly was an especially popular motif – more than 45 works from sites throughout Puebla and Oaxaca in Meso-America include the butterfly in their compositions. The Courtyard Palace of the Quetzalpapalotl in the center of in Teotihuacan is one such example – thought to have been the royal residence of the city, the Palace of Quetzalpapalotl, the quetzal butterfly, it has a large, square patio, lined with columns decorated with bird and butterfly motifs.
The butterfly in Meso-American cultures appears to be symbolically associated with militaristic expansion. The butterfly symbol was worn by warriors as a pectoral or head ornament in Teotihuacan architecture and later carried over into the Chichen Itza culture also. Besides war and warriors, butterflies also represented fire, soul, death, travelers and hummingbirds.
Many Aztec Gods and Goddesses had animal features. In Teotihuacan, Itzapapalotl, the great Goddess, is a patroness of warfare; she assumes a butterfly guise and demands sacrifices, both locally and in distant lands.
Another minor deity – “Metztli”, ruler of the moon, is depicted as an old man with a giant seashell attached to his back which also sports a pair of colorful butterfly wings.
These then are the highly stylised butterfly wings found in the architecture of Aztecs and other cultures.
A-B. Clay flat Stamp with butterfly motif from Teotihuacan.
C. Hieroglyphic from the town of Ocuilán, representing a caterpillar with the head of a butterfly.
D-F. Clay flat Stamp with butterfly motif from Azcapotzalco.
G. Incomplete stamp with a butterfly motif containing complex wing patterns from Teotihuacan.
H-I. Clay flat stamp with butterfly motif from Azcapotzalco.
Mexico, which forms part of Meso-America and whose flora is shared with other Meso-American countries, has a rich and wonderful diversity of Lepidoptera (see Mariposas Mexicanas and Nelson Dobb’s web-site).
An interesting book, unfortunately inaccessible to us being in Spanish, has been written by Dr. Carlos Beutelspache, a Mexican lepidopterist, who has documented the multifarious ways that butterflies and moths were woven into ancient Mexican Cultures. These range from transient and simple uses of the lepidopteran form for adornment of pottery and in featherwork, to deeply religious symbolism hewn in stone. A review is available here.
Sadly though, butterflies in Meso-America reflect not aesthetic values as in the civilisations further East across the Atlantic Ocean, but bloodshed, warfare and human sacrifice.
Ironically, the Aztec butterfly may also be considered as symbol of this blog being a curious mixture of butterflies and the life of a military man (though with the violence carefully excluded).
Images: As attributed. Copyrighted images reproduced under “fair use” policy.