11 January 2010

Birds a Prominent Feature of Pre-Columbian Literature of Mexico

For the ancient people of Mexico, birds were a prominent feature of their culture, and this is vividly conveyed in the following pieces of literature from the mid-1500s that were thankfully preserved in the original chronicles that survived the Spanish invasion.

"The delicate sensitivity of the Mayas shows from the very beginning in their poems and legends. Reading their myths today evokes an image of an old Maya inscription on a stele or in the interior of one of their palaces which still remain from this ancient culture."

The first literary bit given is a legendary story about Prince Quetzalcóatl, a Toltec culture hero, and a priest named for the god. This epic poem tells about the deeds and accomplishments of Quetzalcóatl, the spiritual leader of the Toltecs.

The Toltecs, the people of Quetzalcóatl,
were very skillful.
Nothing was difficult for them to do.
They cut precious stones,
wrought gold,
and made many works of art
and marvelous ornaments of feathers.
Truly they were skillful.
All the arts of the Toltecs,
their knowledge, everything came from Quetzalcóatl.
The Toltecs were very wealthy,
their foodstuffs, their sustenance, cost nothing.
They say that the squash
were big and heavy.
That the ears of corn
were big and heavy as the pestle of a metate [grinding stone].
And the blades of amaranth, like palm leaves,
you could step on them,
climb on them.
Also they grew cotton of many colors:
red, yellow, pink,
purple, green, bluish green, blue, light green,
orange, brown, and dark gold.
These were the colors of the cotton itself.
It grew that way from the earth, no one colored it.
And also they raised there fowl of rare plumage:
small birds the color of turquoise,
some with green feathers,
with yellow, with flame-colored breasts.
Every kind of fowl
that sang beautifully,
like those that warble in the mountains... .
And those Toltecs were very rich,
they were very happy;
there was no poverty or sadness.
Nothing was lacking in their houses,
there was no hunger among them....
They say that when Quetzalcóatl lived there,
often the wizards tried to trick him
into offering human sacrifices,
into sacrificing men.
But he never did, because he loved his people
who were the Toltecs.
And they say, they relate,
that this angered the magicians
so that they began to scoff at him,
to make fun of him.
The magicians and wizards said
they wanted to torment him
so that finally he would go away,
as it really happened.
In the year I-Reed, Quetzalcóatl died,
truly they say
that he went to die there,
in the Land of the Black and Red Color.
They say that in the year I-Reed
he set himself on fire and burned himself;
they call it the burning place,
where Quetzalcóatl sacrificed himself.
And they say that when he was burned,
immediately his ashes rose up,
and all the exquisite birds came to see:
those which flew about in the heavens,
the macaw, the blue bird,
the sunflower bird, the red and blue bird,
the golden yellow one, and other birds of fine plumage.
When the pyre had ceased to burn,
Quetzalcóatl's heart came forth,
went up to heaven, and entered there.
And the ancient ones say
it was converted into the morning star... .

This is a Mayan account of the history of the earth.

"Although similar to Nahuatl poems of the ages or cosmological suns, the myth has its own distinctive flavor which might be described as a mystical approach to the realm of the gods and ultimate reality.
It was in the 11-Ahau Katún,
[during the eleventh period of twenty years]
when there appeared those who had great power
to hoodwink the thirteen gods of the heavens.
Their names were not known.
It was the time
when the earth had just awakened.
They did not know what would happen.
The thirteen gods of the heavens were seized
by the nine gods of the underworld.
It rained fire, it rained ashes;
trees and stones fell over.
The trees struck against each other
and the stones against other stones.
Seized were the thirteen gods,
with their heads battered,
faces bashed in,
and skin broken out;
they were bent over at the shoulders.
They were deprived of their great serpent,
with the bells on its tail,
also the plumage of quetzal was taken away.
They partook of ground beans,
together with the seed of the serpent,
together with its heart,
ground seeds of squash,
big ground seeds of squash
and ground kidney beans.
He who has no limit, nor end,
wrapped up everything and tied it together
and went to the thirteenth heavenly plane.
Then the skin of the serpent fell off
and pieces of its bones
fell here on the earth.
Then its heart escaped;
the thirteen gods did not want
their heart and their seed to escape.
The orphans, the forsaken ones and the widows,
those not strong enough to live,
were killed with arrows.
They were buried in the sand at the shore
of the sea, in the waves.
Then in a great sheet of water the waves came.
When the great serpent was taken away,
the heavens fell
and the earth was submerged.
Then the four gods,
the four Bacabs destroyed everything.
And when the destruction was finished,
they remained firmly in their
places, to ordain the dark-reddish men.
Then rose up the first white tree in the north.
Rose up the arch of the heavens,
symbol of destruction beneath.
After the first white tree was set up,
then rose up the first black tree,
on it perched the bird with the black breast.
Then rose up the first yellow tree,
and as symbol of destruction beneath
was perched the bird with the yellow breast.
The steps of the dark-reddish men were heard,
those of the dark-reddish countenance.
And then rose up the green tree of abundance,
in the center of the world,
in memory of the earth's destruction....
At that time Uuc Cheknal,
he who fertilizes the maize seven times,
came down from the seventh plane of the heavens.
Coming down, he stepped on the shoulders of Itzama,
he came while the earth and the heavens were being cleansed.
He walked along the fourth canopy of stars.
The earth was not yet lighted.
There was no sun,
there was no night, there was no moon.
They would awaken
when the earth awakened.
Then the earth awoke.
Many eons of time
after the earth awoke,
finally it dawned for them.
The kingdom of the second term was declared
the kingdom of the third term.
Then the thirteen gods began to weep.
In this age they wept.
All became red....
Then the foundation of the red age was established....

The following hymn "declares that death is transformation. Men are changed into flame-colored pheasants and women into owls. They are defied in the beyond, in the paradise of the rain god." These are the only lines which remain from the ancient poem which "invokes the coming of dawn as the beginning of a new life, while birds of many colors fly about in a heaven suffused with light."

Thus the dead were addressed,
when they died.
If it was a man, they spoke to him,
invoked him as a divine being,
in the name of pheasant;
if it was a woman, in the name of owl;
and they said to them:
"Awaken, already the sky is tinged with red,
already the dawn has come,
already the flame-colored pheasants are singing,
the fire-colored swallows,
already butterflies are on the wing."
For this reason the ancient ones said,
he who has died, he becomes a god.
They said: "He became a god there,"
which means that he died.

The following is another poem which conveys another view of death.

Truly I say:
certainly it is not the place of happiness
here on earth.
Certainly one must look somewhere else,
where indeed happiness will exist.
Or only in vain have we come to the earth?
Somewhere else is the place of life.
There I want to go,
there surely I will sing
with the most beautiful birds.
There I will have
genuine flowers,
the flowers that delight,
that bring peace to the heart,
the only ones that give peace to man,
that intoxicate him with joy....

This next example, proclaims the glory and power of the Aztecs in an "almost mystical exaltation."

From where the eagles are resting,
from where the tigers are exalted,
the Sun is invoked.
Like a shield that descends,
so does the Sun set.
In Mexico night is falling,
war rages on all sides.
Oh Giver of Life!
war comes near....
Proud of itself
is the city of Mexico-Tenochtitlan.
Here no one fears to die in war.
This is our glory.
This is Your Command,
oh Giver of Life!
Have this in mind, oh princes,
do not forget it.
Who could conquer Tenochtitlan?
Who could shake the foundation of heaven?
With our arrows,
with our shields,
the city exists.
Mexico-Tenochtitlan remains.

Another lyric poem also refers to the bird with the golden feathers, indicating its prominence in the literature of the culture.

"Nezahualcóyotl sought in his heart songs and flowers that would endure forever. Aware of death, he hoped that at least these might be carried to the intermost house of the Lord of the Close and Near, where dwell the birds with golden feathers:"
They shall not wither, my flowers,
they shall not cease, my songs.
I, the singer, lift them up.
They are scattered, they spread about.
Even though on earth my flowers
may wither and yellow,
they will be carried there,
to the innermost house
of the bird with the golden feathers.
Like several other Náhuatl wise men and poets, Nezahualcóyotl succeeded in expressing himself by means of flower-and-song. The part of his work that has come down to us gives his ideas and sentiments about man's existence on earth, about death and the beyond, and about the mysteries that surround the supreme Giver of Life, the Lord of the Close and Near. Many rewarding discoveries await whoever explores in depth this form of more personal lyric poetry among the Nahuas."

This next example is "a declaration of the joy which can be found everywhere on earth:"

You are singing, little dove,
on the branches of the silk-cotton tree.
And there also is the cuckoo,
and many other little birds.
All are rejoicing,
the songbirds of our god, our Lord.
And our goddess
has her little birds,
the turtledove, the redbird,
the black and yellow songbirds, and the hummingbird.
These are the birds of the beautiful goddess, our Lady.
If there is such happiness
among the creatures,
why do our hearts not also rejoice?
At daybreak all is jubilant.
Let only joy, only songs,
enter our thoughts!

The following is basically a "farce," or a dramatic play about a buffoon arriving in the market plaza.

The main character "acts in different costumes, rapidly and skillfully putting on different masks. First he is a human being, then a deer, a rabbit, a thrush with a red breast, a quetzal bird, a parrot, and finally the same funny man again. What he says is amusing, but it also contains something to think about. The people watch and are entertained by the buffoon, who says:"

"My fine master, I have come; I am here to laugh.
I'm a rascal. My singing is a flower;
it gets mixed up, then it gets untangled.
Oh, I'm a master in the house.
Now let us begin. Already there has come
the sweet-smelling flower; may it please you.
It is going to rain flowers;
may they please you!
I am scattering many different flowers.
I come to offer songs, intoxicating flowers.
Oh, I'm a rascal, who comes from there,
where the water flows.
I come to offer songs, intoxicating flowers.
"Next, using a rabbit's head, he appears as a god of pulque (a native wine) and again mentions the flowers and songs. Always acting like the animal he represents, he dances in front of the people.
I who come am the Deer-Two-Rabbit,
the Rabbit which bleeds,
the Deer with big horns....
My fine master, my friends, we open
his book of flowers, his book of songs.
Erect is the Flowery Tree,
it has many branches,
it has grown large; now it is scattering flowers.
We have come to listen at your threshold,
on the branches you are walking, Precious Pheasant.
You are singing....
"The buffoon then changes his costume and becomes a thrush with a red breast. He dances and sings, telling of poetry, laughter, and suffering:
I'm a rascal.
I am the thrush with a red breast,
now I shrill my song: jojojojon.
I come to make paintings
where the courtyard spreads out;
I am the thrush with a red breast;
shrill, shrill, my song: jojojojon.
I wink my eyes,
as I go laughing;
from within the court I come,
into a flower I am changing myself,
I am the Rabbit who suffers....
"Finally he becomes a chattering parrot, a wise parrot from the interior of Tula, who invites everyone to listen to his song. While speaking the last lines, the buffoon takes off his mask and sings an exquisite song in honor of poetry.
I am the chattering Parrot,
I go to catch it, I throw it....
Now I begin, now I can sing.
From there I come, from the interior of Tula;
now can I sing; my voice bursts forth,
the flower has opened.
Listen to my song:
"Stealer of songs, oh my heart,
where can you find them?
You are in need. But like a painting
grasp firmly the black and red ink,
then perhaps you will no longer be a beggar."

What a delight this presentation would be to the crowd watching the performance.

If there is one question which arises from these texts, it is the mention of the pheasant, which is mentioned as the "flame-colored pheasant" and the "precious pheasant" as well as just the pheasant.

There is no pheasant which is a native species of Mexico, and would have been present in the 1500s when these text were recorded. So what might be a more suitable species?

There are no clues provided by the known examples of terms for birds for this region during this particular period of time, i.e., 1571 for the Nahua of Mesoamerica and 1585 for the Mayans at Tenochtitlan. Neither lexicon includes a listing for a pheasant. There is also no mention of a bird with "flame-colored" plumage.

Two species that are referenced in the Nahua dictionary as birds with red plumage are the flamingo and roseate spoonbill. There were undoubtedly other species with the dramatic colors that can be considered as being a bright coloration resembling a flame. Yet there isn't a source which can provide a definitive answer ... so the mention of a pheasant is an enigma that cannot be resolved with the information available.

It is obvious that there were no "pheasants" so this attribution must have meant something else, probably some type of bird such as a quail or other prominent species.

Nonetheless, the chronicles of this era 500 hundred years ago convey a distinctive and especially important aspect of the historic ornithology of Northern America. If only there was a series of original sources from the era to read and study that could provide further clues and hep to understand the birds known to the people of the time, and how they knew and understood the variety of wild birds where they lived.

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