Violent Butterflies!

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.

 

Location of Meso-America with relation to North and Central Americas.

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.

 

A view of the Classic Maya city of Palenque which flourished in the sixth and seventh centuries. (Image:Jabob Rus in Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-2.0)

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.

 

Mayan glyphs from Palenque. (Image:User:Kwamikagami in Wikimedia Commons)

Pyramid in the Mayan city of Chichen Itza, Mexico. (Credit:User:AlexCovarrubias on Wikimedia Commons)

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.

 

Corn, or maize, descended from a Mexican grass called teosinte. (Image:New York Times)

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.

 

Drawing of Aztec ballplayers performing for Charles V in Madrid in 1528 drawn by Christoph Weiditz. (Image:Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain).

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 Teotihuacanits 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.

 

Kukulcan's Jaguar Throne at Chichen Itza. (Image:Bonomojo & Alvinying on Wikimedia Commons)

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.

A butterfly motif from Ancient Mexico. (Artist : Jorge Enciso)

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.

 

Itzpapalotl - the Obsidian or Clawed Butterfly. A skeletal figure with jaguar claws and butterfly wings. (Image:www.azteccalendar.com)

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.

Nine Butterfly patterns from Meso-American 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.

A likely model for Pattern A - Three-tailed Tiger-Swallowtail, Pterourus pilumnus (Boisduval, 1836). (Image:Nelson Dobbs)

 

Another model? Mexican Kite-Swallowtail, Protographium epidaus (Doubleday, 1846). (Image:Nelson Dobbs)

 

The Bloody Spot (Phocides polybius), a beautiful skipper from Mexico. (Image:mariposasmexicanas)

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).

I found the main image of butterfly patterns on this extinct web-site, still existing but abandoned since the mid-nineties. The image was bereft of information - looking up on the internet brought out the gruesome association.

Images: As attributed. Copyrighted images reproduced under “fair use” policy.

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Explore posts in the same categories: architecture, Aztecs, butterflies, culture, Meso-America, nature, Teotihuacan

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20 Comments on “Violent Butterflies!”

  1. Tarique Sani Says:

    An extremely well researched and well written article. Loved it!


  2. Informative and interesting… as always. Your blogs are a delight to read…

    In Bengal… the butterfly’ or the ‘prajapati’… is a welcome symbol… and is taken as an indication of a wedding happening soon!

    I for one… do not subscribe to this Aryan vs Dravidian theory. Even the word ‘Pharaoh’ has its roots in sanskrit. The word ‘Dravidian’ has been coined much later.

    Groups of Aryans traveled to distant lands… fought wars, conquered these lands… and settled down there. Over a period of time… most lost their Aryan qualities and became ‘mlechchas’.

    Wonder why the history of our country or these ‘extinct’ civilizations are usually written by folks… belonging to nations whose own history is but a few hundred years!

    And somehow… our history never goes beyond the British and Mughals, with a smattering of French and Portuguese thrown in here and there.

    The greatest of Emperors… Chandragupta Vikramaditya… has been successfully reduced to ‘Vikram and Betal’ while the Emperor Ashok is papered over… as someone who embraced Buddhism and ‘non-violence’. No word is ever written… that inspite of having ’embraced non-violence’… no conqueror could capture even an inch of the land he ruled.

    … Despite enough proofs to the contrary… our great epics are dubbed as ‘mythology’. Wonder why though…


    • Glad that you liked my post again. I look forward to your comments too.

      The main problem I fear is that Indians have no sense of history. we do not record it, preserve it or bother that our actions will be studied in the history yet to come.

      • promila chaturvedi Says:

        I have read about these civilizations before, but never came across any war associated details which depicted delicate butterflies in such gruesome bloodthirsty form. It is rather interesting. Thanks. I will appreciate it if in future you remain in touch and I can get the benefit of such posts.

        Regards,

        Promila


  3. […] Violent Butterflies! « The Butterfly Diaries […]

    • promila chaturvedi Says:

      It may be called violent in modern terms. But with time and place definitions and values change. We are nobody to judge every period of history with the same yardstick.

      Promila


      • I agree. Take the mighty Mongol empire of Genghis Khan and his descendants for example. The bloodthirstiness of the Mongols was their way of life. Compassion was alien to those mighty warriors of the past. Yet they established a Pax Mongolica which allowed merchant caravans to roam freely across Central Asia without fear of being robbed.


  4. it was a well searched data about the tribals of Meso – America.

  5. Susan Sharma Says:

    Nature and wildlife pervades everything-including history. But it takes great communicators like you to bring it out effectively. Thanks for the blog.

  6. Radha Says:

    Very well researched and as always superbly written, bringing out in exquisite detail the Mezo American cultures.I am amazed by the effort you have taken to compile all these details. The visuals are a treat.
    Look forward to more of your posts.
    Radha

  7. dibyendu Says:

    The blog is as good as the comments that it has attracted(excluding mine ,of course).The unwritten ancient history of our subcontinent is not the way it is bcos indians don’t record history by compulsion or choice,but,because it belongs to an era wayyyy back in time.
    In addition, anyone who moved from west to east(a la Alexander) was a great warrior,bla blah, bla, but east to west(Monsieurs Taimur,genghis khan to name a few) was what Ashwin says and we believe to be so.
    So, while we could not ,or, did not, record history, those who did ,much much later, made Hitler (and now Saddam Hussein)responsible for all the weapons of mass destruction(sic).
    By the way, it was about the violent butterflies,isn’t it.Well, Ashwin as usual,was and is forever chasing them ever since I know him.great blog buddy.


  8. this is really awesome , it could be funny , but also very wise ! this history is really valueable 4 us !


  9. Fascinating! I always mix up the Mayas and the Incas, now I think I’ll just associate the Mayas with butterflies and the confusion will go away 🙂

  10. Carolyn Tuttle Says:

    We traveled to both Mexico and Peru, and I became fascinated with the use of butterflies on warriors’ armor (breastplates), but either was told or read on my own that the butterfly represented immortality, because of its lifecycle — therefore keeping the warrior safe from harm — not at all a violent symbol. How do you know otherwise?


  11. Hi Carolyn,

    This blog is meant to be very general reading and I admit the title and parts are sensationalist. :). The militaristic interpretation of butterflly motifs on Teotihuacan armour was sourced from here :

    http://books.google.co.in/books?id=FLJxLlGkpiUC&lpg=PA166&ots=XUgyNLGgaH&dq=butterfly%20motifs%20in%20Mesoamerican%20cultures&pg=PA166#v=onepage&q&f=false

    As mentioned in the blog, the butterflies also represented “fire, soul, death, travelers and hummingbirds.”. So I’m not surprised that another interpretation would be “immortality”.

    Thanks for your comment, hope you enjoyed visiting my blog.


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