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turkey

The Precious Night Turkey (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, Mixed Media)

Longtime readers know that one of my favorite animals is the turkey.  I am not alone. We Americans have a whole month dedicated to devotions of the magnificent bird: the turkey is literally at the center of our third (or second?) most important festival. However there is a distinctly Aztec aspect to the turkey’s key role in the holiday.  The fowl is not just a sacred animal of autumn—it is a sacred sacrifice of the dying year.

I love turkeys.  I love their appearance.  I love their personalities.  I love their furtive mastery of the eastern woodlands. I…uh…I love their flavor.  A lot. This strikes me as a noteworthy juxtaposition of its own: a troubling aspect not of turkeys, but of humankind.  Our kindness is always streaked through with appetite.  Our admiration is dark and terrible.

Anyway, I figured I had better make an artwork to capture some of these mixed feelings (and as a personal devotion to the consecrated bird).  Here is a picture of Chalchiuhtotolin, the jeweled night turkey of the Aztecs.  You can revisit the post here—the deity is a trickster, a sacrifice, a shapeshifter. I made it with paper cutouts, markers, colored pencils, and rhinestones—in the artistic style of an alimentary schoolchild, er, I mean an “elementary” schoolchild.  I wanted it to be like a Faberge jeweled egg, glistening in the purple night, but perhaps I should have made it more Aztec instead of Rococo.

Ominously, as I was pasting it all together I accidentally tore off the head (you can see the seam of where I glued it back if you blow up the work). It was an artistic mistake—but it works perfectly to capture the true ritualistic nature of November’s spirit animal.

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?

Chalchiuhtotolin, the Precious Night Turkey (by Fernando Rodriguez at www.thecodexofthenightsky.com)

Chalchiuhtotolin, the Precious Night Turkey (by Fernando Rodriguez at http://www.thecodexofthenightsky.com)

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).

Chalchiuhtotolin, as depicted in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis.

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.

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