Mexican Bestiary

Mexican Bestiary

The great variety of sculpted animal forms, from minuscule fleas to large coiled serpents, highlight the importance of the natural world in both daily life and, more profoundly, in Aztec religious and cosmological beliefs. The Aztecs created carefully observed sculptures of domesticated animals such as turkeys and dogs, as well as wild coyotes, snakes, and jaguars. The intensity of their observations and their ability to create naturalistic forms are exemplified by the stone sculpture of an insect thought to be a flea. The Aztec artist has magnified this tiny creature many hundreds of times, so that features barely visible to the naked eye are fully discernible.

The Aztecs explained the distinguishing features and roles of different animals through elaborate and often entertaining myths. One such story tells how, when the moon was born, it was so bright that one of the gods threw a rabbit at its face to dull its glow. This is why, for the Aztecs, a full moon appears to contain the silhouette of a rabbit.

There are many examples in Aztec art in which gods such as Quetzalcoatl, the “feathered serpent,” take a hybrid form, in his case a snake-bird, combining the features or qualities of two animals to emphasize aspects of the deity’s mythical or supernatural powers.

AGRICULTURE

In addition to the animals that they coexisted with, the Aztecs were also reliant on the plant world to provide food for sustenance and fibers from which to weave cloth, baskets, and mats. As Aztec society was largely agricultural, it was reliant on the weather, which was sometimes unpredictable or harsh. When the Aztecs first settled around Lake Tetzcoco, farmland was relatively scarce and so they created floating fields called chinampas, which were arranged in a grid pattern with canals between each block. Here they cultivated pumpkins, avocados, and tomatoes (from the Nahuatl aguacatl, tomatl), sweet potatoes, chillies, and beans, as well as corn, which they used to make pancakes known as tortillas. The market – a bustling, vibrant, and noisy place central to Aztec daily life – was where farmers, traders, and craftsmen came to exchange their produce. One Spanish conquistador later commented: “We were astounded at the number of people and the quantity of merchandise it contained” (Bernal Díaz, The Conquest of New Spain, 1580s). Valuable items such as gold dust, quetzal feathers, and cacao beans were used to barter for goods of equal value: turkeys, quail, rabbits, and deer; ducks and other water birds; maguey (cactus) syrup, and honey. Cacao beans were also used by the Aztecs to make a special chocolate drink, which only nobles could afford. Until the arrival of the Spanish in 1519, chocolate was unknown beyond the Americas.

View + Discuss

Flea
Aztec, ca. 1500
Stone, 22 x 21.5 x 36.5 cm
Museo Nacional de Antropología, INAH
Mexico City 10-594039
Photo: Michel Zabé, assistant Enrique Macías

1. As a class, generate a list of things you know about fleas. Look carefully at the sculpture. What other information about fleas can you learn from careful observation?

2. Why might someone focus on something as tiny as a flea and create a sculpture of it magnified hundreds of times? Why might this theme have been important to Aztec artists? What animals are important in contemporary society? What artifacts might later explorers find from the 21st century that include references to animals?

Further Explorations

This sculpted flea, on a monumental scale, reflects the skill of Aztec stone carvers and their ability to capture minute details of insect anatomy using only stone tools. Both artists and scientists learn about the natural world through close observation. Select a small, complex natural object. A dead insect is best for this exercise, but a small flower or seed can also serve as a model. Closely observe your subject, using a magnifying glass if you have one. Then make a detailed drawing on a piece of paper that is at least 9 x 12 inches (larger is better). Your drawing should fill the entire page. Once you are done, make a list of the things you learned about your subject by drawing it.

Students can experience the process of carving by using a soft material like a bar of soap or a potato. A butter knife, plastic or wooden clay tools, and toothpicks can be used as implements. Choose simple forms such as vegetables and fruits to model. The Aztecs created excellent examples in the form of pumpkins, squashes, and cacti carved from stone. This project is best done outdoors under adult supervision.

Aztec gods such as Quetzalcoatl, the “feathered serpent,” frequently take a hybrid form, in his case a snake-bird, combining the features or qualities of two animals to emphasize aspects of the deity’s mythical or supernatural powers. What two animals would you combine to create a supernatural being? Sketch your creation and write a description of the qualities that this new creature would possess.

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