Owls in the art of Teotihuacan

Between A.D.300 and A.D.600, owls were occasionally featured in the murals and vase paintings of Teotihuacan, Mexico. As is typical of mythical creatures in Mesoamerican art usually the birds were a mixture of several species: usually a longer and more fancy set of tails feathers was added.

The other issue, in most identifications of flora and fauna in writings on murals, vase paintings and stone stelae (of the Maya) is that the scholars are very good at their subject (archaeology) but tend to consistently misidentify the birds, flowers, and other aspects of plants and animals in ancient art. This is a polite way to say that not all the birds in ancient art are really owls.

Since there are hundreds of capable archaeologists, epigraphers, and iconographers I decided that I can best contribute to Mesoamerican studies if I do research on flora and fauna. So every month I tackle another species to help clear up the confusion.

Owls are also considered harbingers of death among many Mayan speakers. But my primary interest is the iconography of owls, especially the remarkable round eyes. Some owl eye rings are good replicas of the round “goggles” of the Teotihuacan deity Tlaloc.

Why write about Teotihuacan in a web site dedicated to Guatemala? Because for several hundred years there was commerce in obsidian, cacao, and other products between Teotihuacan and the Maya city-states, especially Copan, Honduras, Tikal, Uaxactun, Yaxha, Holmul, Kaminaljuyu and much of the Costa Sur.

So when you next see an owl, or hear an owl hoot, I hope this web page has introduced the fact that owls are part of the mythology, iconography, and epigraphy of two thousand years of Mesoamerican culture.

Lots of Owls in Teotihuacan and Owl Warriors in Peten Maya areas influenced by Teotihuacan

A 4th century A.D. historical individual (believed to be at Teotihuacan) named Spear-Thrower Owl, is pictured on a Teotihuacan style ball court marketer found at Tikal. But I have not yet noticed many owls in Teotihuacan-influenced Copan (Honduras). And the most common creature in the mass of Teotihuacan-related art of the Costa Sur of Guatemala is primarily the butterfly.

Sometimes animal images were introduced via religious symbolism from thousands of miles away. The butterfly images on Teotihuacan-related incense burners throughout the Tiquisate area of the Costa Sur of Guatemala is a good example. Were these species from Central Mexico, or from the Costa Sur? An additional complication is that some species of Teotihuacan may also be present in Guatemala.

The famous monarch butterfly of the butterfly park of Mexico Reserva de la Biosfera Mariposa Monarca (Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve) are found throughout much of Guatemala. Indeed they fly around the ethnobotanical research garden surrounding the office of FLAAR in Guatemala.

Owls in Military Scenes at Chichen Itza

Owls with diagonal feathers sticking up from their heads are near quetzal-like and other birds on relief sculpture of the 10th century Temple of the Wall Panels (Baudez et al). But only one owl is pictured, and not carrying a weapon.

Owls mentioned in the Popol Vuh

These are the four messenger gods (of the demons, devils, and deities of Xibalba). These are the most interesting owls of Maya mythology but they are very rarely pictured in Classic Maya art. I know of one vase which probably originally showed all four, but is eroded. Fortunately it had not yet been damaged by “restoration” when I photographed it many decades ago in a private collection.

Owl Species in Mexico and Owl Species in Guatemala

We are working on studying owl species, especially which owls can be found at Tikal, Yaxha, El Mirador, as compared with owls of the Highland Q’eqchi’ and of the Highland Kiche. Although the Popol Vuh is preserved from the Kiche area, in fact the saga was first pictured in the pre-Maya Lowland stelae of Izapa (Chiapas, Mexico) and in the stucco sculpture of El Mirador and early murals of San Bartolo (Peten, Guatemala).

The caves of Xibalba can be found throughout Belize, Yucatan Peninsula, Chiapas, Peten, but especially in the Candelaria-Mucbilha area of Alta Verapaz.

The Popol Vuh speaks of stairway leading into the caves. Actual physical stairways can be found going into a cave in Alta Verapaz, as documented already by speologists. And even when there are no formal stairways, most trails leading to caves have “steps” as described in the Popol Vuh.

Would also be nice to find all four Messenger Owls flying around the cave entrances, but so far, no such luck.

We will have a list of species of owls in Guatemala hopefully by next year in our
www.maya-ethnozoology.org and a nice bibliography in our Maya book list site

First mid-November, 2016.

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