Posted tagged ‘culture’

Violent Butterflies!

6 June 2010

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.

Culture

25 February 2010

– a poem by Ashok Mahajan

Two purple-white rose blossoms shown one above the other amongst mint-green leaves.

I missed the chance to nose... a pure damask rose

A pile of brown manure to front and right in a meadow with a chestnut coloured horse in the background slightly out of focus

..merely with animal or human waste.

Bred among odours of ordure
I missed the chance to nose
A pure damask rose.
Now fully grown I realize
We were only taught to use
Green fields as lavatories,
And therefore I have come to associate
All kinds of hues
Merely with animal or human waste.

Pericrocotus flammeus

A tinge of minivet-scarlet
Is no reminiscence of that bird,
But of betel-spittle stains
Left by movie fans
On walls of cinema halls,
And by pimps and harlots
In red-light lanes.

Red betel nut spit stains on a tarmac road.

....but of betel-spittle stains left by...pimps and harlots in red-light lanes.

Siris leaves possess
An autumn flavescence immeasurably less

Than expectorations of asthmatic old men
Coughing doubled-up on loose
Squeaky string cots whose
Rans of twine
Are bro-
Ken as their thoughts.

A golden yellow bovine with blue-grey horns curved back and head lowered to eat grass. The fence of a zoo enclosure is seen in the background.

A takin-gold evokes... memories of some rare beast.

A takin-gold evokes
Not in the least
Memories of dawn or some rare beast,

But scats of stray dogs
Like pagoda heaps

Among scattered slippers
Of scores of worshippers
At a Vashnoi temple-feast.

Tourists note
Fresco-amber
in Ajanta art
I know this pigment from
pools of bovine piss
at any vegetable mart.

Fresco-amber from Ajanta art...

...than pools of bovine piss in a vegetable mart.

Ashok Mahajan, is an Indian poet whose “Goan Vignettes and other poems” provide a peep into the quaint, idyllic and sometimes  anachronistic Goan life-style. This poem, the first poem of the first section – ‘Eclectic sketches” – is one of the ‘other poems’.

Though the compilation is considered light-hearted by some critics, Mahajan’s poems are of more value to the common man who would better appreciate his short true-to-life vignettes of life in Goa as well as in other parts of India. May I add that I am biased towards him as he is a retired army officer, my father’s good friend and he fueled my interest in poetry, though I’m sure that he thought it was to no avail.

In ‘Culture’, he shows us how colours associated conventionally with poetic and literary motifs are equally well served by less salubrious examples in human life. Though the poet chooses his words carefully to avoid repugnance, his craftsmanship and choice of examples evokes graphic images.

The poet attempts to show us colours through Alice’s  looking glass – a new way of imagining colour. At the same time he gives us many ways to interpret this poem.

Is he indicating that  ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ are two sides of the same coin as in Kipling’s infamous line :

“For the colonel’s lady an’ Judy O’Grady, Are sisters under their skins”?

Or that good and evil are interlinked as in old English proverb:

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions”

Perhaps he mocks the futility of objects that people desire and upon which they bestow high epithets, echoing Daniel Webster’s words:

“One may live as a conqueror, a king, or a magistrate; but he must die as a man.”

I prefer to look at it from the earthy viewpoint of nature-watching. That the commonplace and unremarkable things in nature are as valuable or fascinating or worthwhile to watch as the rare, the unusual and bizarre.

The poem also obliquely draws my thought to a dialogue between the protagonist(s) in “The Last Samurai” – Tom Cruise (as Nathan Allgren a  disenchanted ex-United States Army captain) and Ken Watanabe, the samurai warlord Katsumoto. They talk about finding perfection in life and its virtues, symbolised by the cherry blossom : –

Katsumoto: The perfect (cherry) blossom is a rare thing. You could spend your life looking for one, and it would not be a wasted life.
….
Katsumoto: I also. It happens to men who have seen what we have seen. But then I come to this place of my ancestors, and I remember. Like these blossoms, we are all dying. To know life in every breath, every cup of tea, every life we take. The way of the warrior….
Nathan Algren: Life in every breath…
Katsumoto: That is Bushido.

A swathe of white cherry blossoms with carmine stamens hang from a branxch highlighted agaist a blue sky.

The perfect blossom is a rare thing. You could spend your life looking for one, and it would not be a wasted life.

Credits

  • All files from Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise specified.
  • Click images to reach source page on Commons or elsewhere.
  • Cherry Blossoms – Sakura CC3.0.
  • Takin – ‘stevehdc’ ( on Flickr) CC2.0.
  • Chestnut horse & manure – Malene Thyssen, CC2.5SA.
  • Rose – Ulf Eliasson, CC 2.5.
  • Cow & vegetable mart – ‘brotherscarface’ in webshots (unlicensed).
  • Ajanta fresco – Jonathan A. White (public domain).
  • Betelnut spit – Scott Zona on Flickr (CC 2.0).
  • Scarlet Minivet – JM Garg, CC 3.0.