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In our ongoing exploration of underworld gods, we have come across all sorts of animal divinities. The ultra-modern Japanese still venerate Namazu a vast chthonic catfish god. Contemporary Inuits worship Sedna, walrus/cetacean goddess of the cold depths. The rational Greeks imagined a great three-headed dog guarding Tartarus. There are so many giant serpents from different cultures that they create an entire subset of underworld gods: some of these snake beings are bigger than the world and longer than the oceans. They range from kind creators like Nuwa to monsters like the Midgard serpent to indescribable cosmic forces like the rainbow serpent. There are dark swans and mystery animals, but where in this worldwide pantheon/bestiary are my favorite birds? Where are the turkey gods?
Well, turkeys are from the Americas, they were sacred to the original inhabitants (and have been discovered buried alongside humans with ceremonial pomp–or even by themselves on altars). However the Americas were swept by a great wave of diseases which was followed by waves of European colonizers. When the Native Americans were killed by plague or assimilated by Europeans, many of their deities vanished. The Spaniards were delighted to find domesticated turkeys in the ruins of the Aztec empire and they shipped them off to Spain as farm animals (whereas it seems they may have been originally domesticated for their feathers).
However even now we know a little bit about important Aztec turkey deities. Chalchiuhtotolin, “Precious Night Turkey” was a god of plague who ruled thirteen days of the Aztec calendar from 1 Water to 13 Crocodile (the thirteen preceding days were in fact ruled by Xolotl, hapless god of misfortune, who was instrumental in the creation of humankind). Little is known concerning Chalchiuhtotolin, except that he was magnificent and terrible to behold. As a plague god he holds a somewhat ironic place in Aztec cosmology (since the Aztecs were defeated and destroyed more directly by smallpox then by Cortes). It is theorized that Chalchiuhtotolin was an animal aspect of Tezcatlipoca, one of the central gods of Aztec mythology (who was more famous in his ferocious manifestation as a jaguar). Tezcatlipoca was one of the four cardinal gods of direction, ruling the North (which was a realm of darkness and sorcery to the Mesoamericans). Tezcatlipoca was based on earlier Mayan and Olmec divinities. One of his legs was missing, since he sacrificed it to the crocodilian earthmonster called Cipactli in order to fashion the world. A god of night, wind, obsidian, warriors, and slaves, Tezcatlipoca was eternally opposed by the Mayan hero god Quetzalcoatl, “the Feathered Serpent”, a sky god, and lord of the West. A great deal of Aztec mythology including the story of the creation of this world (not to mention the creation and destruction of many others) involves the fractious push-and-pull rivalry between Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl.
During February and March, tom turkeys beguile hens with their magnificent gobbles and vivid visual displays. Shortly thereafter the hens begin nesting. Not only are turkey eggs larger than chicken eggs, they are covered with delicate brown speckles and tend to have a more acute taper on one end than chicken eggs do. The turkey hen constantly broods her eggs leaving only briefly to eat. When she is sitting on her nest, the hen is extremely vulnerable to predators.
A month later, turkey poults emerge from the eggs. The tiny poults punch open the egg with egg teeth (sharpened ridges on the beak which quickly vanish as the young turkeys begin to grow). Wild turkey poults leave the nest about a day after they hatch.
Wild turkeys face a terrifying host of predators including bobcats, raccoons, skunks, opossums, foxes, coyotes, armadillos, weasels, crows, owls, hawks, bald eagles, and a variety of snakes. To cope with this list wild poults quickly develop limited flight capability and begin roosting in trees two weeks after they hatch. Domestic turkey poults need substantial warmth to thrive and must be kept under a hot lamp and never given cold water. They need medicine supplements to prevent infection from chicken diseases and special calcium supplements to make up for the minerals which their wild cousins get from the bugs and arthropods which make up the bulk of their diet.
One of the most endearing traits of poults is the way in which they imprint on their mother and then follow her around. This trait is identical in domestic turkeys: when we ordered poults during my childhood, the little fluffy birds imprinted on me. Thereafter they would follow me around the barnyard peeping–which was very cute but made me worry about their well-being (imprinting being a two-way street). The young turkeys were affectionate and endlessly amusing. Indeed the Aztec trickster god Tezcatlipoca was strongly associated with turkeys because of their playful tricks and the deity was said to sometimes manifest as a turkey. In the picture below, Tezcatlipoca even looks a bit like a strutting Tom.