Across Mesoamerican cultures we find representations of butterflies in art, suggestive a a prominent place in the realm of aesthetic appreciation and in religious belief. We have a long way to go to grasp fully the meaning of butterflies. Below are some tantalizing bits of interpretations calling out for synthesis and further explanation.
Butterflies in Classic Teotihuacan
The ruined city of Teotihuacan includes the remains of a spectacular palace that features motifs that blend the quetzal bird with a butterfly, two figures that are prominent across time and across Mesoamerica. Mexicolore also discusses the prominent imagery of the plumed or feathered serpent which abounds in the same palace and across the city. See the drawings of Karl Taube that Mexicolore replicates. Mexicolore also provides a wonderful drawing of the stylized butterfly from Teotihuacan. And an organization that specializes in insects offers reproductions of a number of ways butterflies are represented in the art of Teotihuacan.
Studying such butterfly reproductins may help observers recognize them in the murals and other types of art work from that grand city of Teotihuacan, such as this amazing mural of what is believed to be the principal goddess, or in this detail of a figure that may also have both quetzal and butterfly features. Of course, the interpretation of mural motifs, according to J. Q. Jacobs, is a controversial practice (which is really true about interpreting symbolism in pottery and manuscripts, too), and one must be cautious about drawing firm conclusions. One can experiment with this practice of interpretation (“iconography”) and explain the potential pitfalls with students, of course.
Murals in the ancient city of Teotihuacan (central Mexico, Classic Period) are said to depict Tlalocan, an earthly paradise filled with tropical vegetation, lots of greenery, flowers, and butterflies. In one mural fragment (reproduction or enhancement) published by Mexicolore, we see men with branches chasing after butterflies. Speech or song scrolls emerge from the men’s mouths. Here is the original mural. Is this a “Western” reading into what we are seeing? What might support or detract from this conclusion?
Butterflies and the Aztecs
Itzpapalotl, the obsidian butterfly goddess of Aztec culture, seems to have been an important figure since before the Post-Classic Period. Here is a representation of this goddess in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis. Edgar Martín del Campo, examining a stone carving of the goddess, describes her as an earth mother figure and a patron of warriors. The motifs embedded in her representation are fangs (jaguar?), claws (eagle), and butterfly wings that “grasp the sky like a bird.”
John Pohl, in his study of Itzpapalotl (or Ixpapalotl) in a manuscript, explains that this goddess was a patroness of a division of the calendar (a “month” of 13 days, called a trecena in Spanish), and that, according to legend, she was expelled from the heavenly paradise called Tamoanchan, and cast down to earth. In this manuscript, she is said to have been killed by the Chichimeca migrants after they left Chicomoztoc (the “Seven Caves”) heading toward Tula. Elsewhere, Pohl informs us that the obsidian element is a knife, which could connect this goddess to bloodletting (see the story he conveys about this). The same scholar also tells us, in drawing from another codex, that the creator deity, Quetzalcoatl, killed Itzpapalotl.
Aztec warriors, after death, were believed to be able to return to earth to lead comfortable lives as butterflies or hummingbirds.
In the Codex Borgia, the Aztec goddess of flowers, Xochiquetzal (root, xochitl, flowers, and quetzalli, quetzal bird or feather) is represented with two butterfly motifs, among others. Mexicolore author and director, Ian Mursell, has developed a brief exercise where students study the depiction of this goddess and try to identify her attributes. He also provides an answer key that points to these elements.
Butterflies in Oaxacan Cultures
In describing a ceramic pot in the shape of a vulture, Edgar Martín del Campo tells us that the vulture was associated with the goddess Itzpapalotl, Obsidian Butterfly. In the calendar, he says, the vulture had a connection with longevity. The day sign One Vulture, however, could portend either a very short life or a very long one.
Mazatec textiles today have many butterfly designs. Ethnographic research tells us that the Mazatecs see the butterfly as respresenting the “soul that leaves the body.”
Butterflies and the Maya
In contemporary Maya textile patterns (both of Mexico and Guatemala), butterflies help carry the sun across the sky. They come to symbolize the sun. They can be represented in connecting diamond shapes. One interpretation is that the wings of the butterfly denote motion, which again relates to the movement of the sun from east to west, and the transformation from day to night. Keeping the sun rising, which sustains life, is a theme across Mesoamerican cultures. The presence in hand-woven blouses (huipiles, in Spanish, from huipilli, in Nahuatl) of not only butterflies, but also hummingbirds and flowers, suggests a clustering of motifs that is both deep (temporally) and broad (geographically).
Here is a video of a lecture in Spanish about the myth of the hummingbird as represented in Maya art, “El mito del colibrí en el arte maya,” by Oswaldo Chinchilla, and hosted by Universidad Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala, from 2008 (1 hour and 4 minutes). The slides actually also bring to light information from other cultures, such as the Nahuas of the Huasteca, Mixes of Oaxaca, the Totonacs of Veracruz, and more.