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Goddesses Fly Again: Butterfly Images
          in Mexican Myth and Textiles

                    by Gary Noel Ross

I lived for nearly a year in a Popoluca Indian village in Veracruz, Mexico while pursuing graduate research on butterflies in the mid-60's. My entry into Ocotal Chico, the remote mountain stronghold of the Popoluca, caused quite a stir. I can vividly recall the moment when my American missionary hosts tried to explain to a small assembly of elders that I had come to study butterflies. Facial expressions registered confusion and shock. After a few minutes of silence, several of the elders began to ask questions: Was I a shaman? Was I going to use the insects to perform magic? Or, perhaps I was going to eat the butterflies to attain their mystical powers?

   My attempts to describe my proposed scientific investigations into the biology and ecology of the local butterflies proved to be in vain. My quick-thinking hosts then jumped in to teach me a quick lesson in biology Popoluca style. I learned that the Popolucas believed that butterflies (me me in Popolucan) represent the spirits of the dead. To the villagers, my proposed activities were incomprehensible. We then tried another approach. We explained that in the United States, people don't believe that butterflies harbor human spirits, but butterflies do symbolize beauty. Because the butterflies in Ocotal Chico were different from those in the United States, I had traveled here with the hope of bringing back some of their beautiful butterflies to show my family and friends. At last a few smiles. Although the local shaman avoided all contact with me (I later learned that he considered me to be a rival), the elders did grant me the freedom to pursue my interests.

Massive figures of warrior-priests (about 15 feet high) have breastplates decorated with a butterfly motif

Tula, Hidalgo

   I now realize that my days with the Popoluca were some of the most formative and special of my life. By challenging me to consider cross-cultural beliefs, the good-natured Popolucas had opened a new and exciting world to me. No longer would I look upon butterflies as mere biological specimens. I would now have to acknowledge that butterflies have an extraordinary spirituality, mythology, symbolism, and I dare say, even magic. As a result, butterflies have been the passion of my life.

   Many of the indigenous peoples of the New World hold butterflies in a special place in their culture. However, nowhere is the presence of butterfly motifs more prevalent than amongst the Aztec, Mixtec, Teotihuacan, Toltec, and Zapotec cultures of highland Mexico. For example, butterflies figured prominently in the life of the Aztecs, who dominated the Central Valley of Mexico between 1300 and 1523. At least two of their many deities were personifications of lepidoptera Xochiquetzal ("precious flower") and Itzpapalotl ("obsidian butterfly). The former closely resembles a Two-tailed Swallowtail while the latter is identified with the large silk moth, Rothschildia orizaba. Both deities were female and had many attributes.

   For example, Xochiquetzal was regarded as a mother goddess, goddess of love, goddess of flowers, as patron of all fine arts, as the symbol of beauty, as the symbol of fire, as the symbol of the spirits of the dead, as the patron of domestic laborers, and as the patron of warriors killed in battle. In fact, this goddess supposedly followed young warriors into battle and at their moment of death, coupled with them, clutching a butterfly between her lips!

   Itzpapalotl was a mother goddess, goddess of obsidian and knives, of human sacrifice and of war, the personification of the Earth, the patron of women who died in child birth, and more. The early Spanish chronicles state than when Quetzlcoatl (perhaps the Aztec's most beloved god-king) abolished human sacrifice as a response to Spanish dictates, butterflies were burnt alive as a sacred effigy.

   In Aztec and other cultures butterfly motifs appear not only in pure form but in many highly stylized renditions, some of which are so abstract that they were frequently misinterpreted by pioneer archaeologists. The butterfly symbol now has been documented in ceramics, stone carvings, mural paintings, codices, feather work, wood carvings, and gold ornaments.


Zapotec weavers are creating new rugs using traditional dyes and techniques

Ceramics. Many funeral urns from the Teotihuacanos were decorated with butterflies. These were beautifully painted with natural dyes from plants, insects and minerals. The figures, often highly stylized, were often accompanied by figures of flowers and heads of serpents. But by far the most commonly encountered ceramics with butterfly designs are "stamps." These are small clay molds with raised designs and round handles for grasping. The stamps were used as templates for imprinting pottery, for inking clothing, and even for decorating the human body.

Stone Carvings. The butterfly motif appears as a breast plate on the monolithic warrior figures at Tula (Toltec culture). The famous Aztec calendar also includes the butterfly combined with the symbol of fire. And, the motif is found on several ceremonial pillars and as pendants and plugs for ears and noses.

Mural Paintings. In the ancient city of Teotihuacan, one of the sacred buildings contains an elaborate mural with beautifully painted butterflies.

Codices. These "picture books" have proven invaluable to the understanding of pre-conquest Mexico. Both pre and post-Hispanic chronicles contain elaborate drawings of butterflies, all depicted in brilliant colors.

Feather Work. Unfortunately, most of the magnificent feather work of the ancient Mexicans has been lost. However, ancient drawings and stone work reveal that pre-conquest peoples used elaborate costumes that included not only fabric and animals skins, but feathers as well. Much of the work depicting butterflies was incorporated into elaborate headdresses as well as accouterments for the chest and back. So spectacular and highly prized were these garments that Moctezuma, the last Aztec emperor, offered at least one to the conquistador Hernando Cortez upon his entry into Tenochitlan, the Aztec capital.

Wood Carvings. Like feather work, very little survives. One cylindrical piece with a butterfly motif is now in the Museum of Vienna.

Gold Ornaments. Several pendants and disks of gold in the form of butterflies were discovered in the ceremonial tombs of Oaxaca (Zapotec and Mixtec cultures), and from the sacred cenotes (wells) in Yucatan (Maya culture).


Many of the Vásquez' rugs use butterfly motifs. This striking example depicts the goddess Xochiquetzal (that isn't a mustache on the goddess' face, but rather a butterfly!). The model for the goddess was a Two-tailed Swallowtail

Textiles. Although most artifacts displaying butterfly motifs are now in museums, magnificent reproductions are now available to butterfly and art enthusiasts in an entirely new and spectacular format: Zapotec tapestry Art. The Zapotecs of Oaxaca have a long history in the textile arts. Ancient chronicles reveal that this sizable culture reigned supreme as apparel entrepreneurs in pre-Hispanic Mexico the Mexican equivalent of Parisian haute couture. The center of that thriving industry was the village of Teotitlán del Valle, on the semi-arid, mile-high plateau of central Oaxaca. There, artisans brewed a kaleidoscope of long-lasting dyes using natural plant and insect products a spectrum of reds from tiny cochineal bugs, blues and greens from the indigo shrub, yellows from a parasitic vine, amber and tan from a rock lichen, browns and lavenders from the husks of pecans, and black from the bean of the sweet acacia tree. The dyes were then used to color handspun woolen yarns that were in turn woven on narrow backstrap looms into exceptional textiles to trade far and wide.

   But the Zapotecs didn't fare well under Spanish domination. Textile arts rapidly regressed to the mere basics necessary for survival. By the dawning of the twentieth century, the artistry of the Zapotec world was effectually unremembered.

Enter Isaac Vásquez García. As a youngster growing up in Teotitlán del Valle in the 1950's, Issac assisted his father at the family foot-looms. Fueled by a restless curiosity, the youngster questioned his father and other elders to recall clouded memories. Young Isaac was inspired and committed to a personal quest: he would resurrect the arcane dye recipes and designs, and in so doing recreate a vision of the past.

These modern rugs are dyed with natural substances. The bright red dye is cochineal, made from the dried bodies of female scale insects that infect the native opuntia cactuses (photo by Jeffrey Glassberg)

   Isaac's experimentation eventually paid off. He succeeded in formulating a broad pallet of natural, time-proven dyes. Additionally, whenever convenient, Isaac traveled to archeological sites, museums, libraries, and bookstores throughout Mexico to sketch or purchase what he considered important and particularly aesthetic forms. Finally, by the late 1970's Isaac had succeeded with new and dramatic interpretations of an ancient art form.


Right and Below: Two butterfly designs in modern Zapotec rugs


   Technically, a "Vásquez tapestry"is a wall hanging -- maybe small, maybe large -- tightly woven of hand spun virgin wools. Colors range in intensity from carmine red and royal blue to the delicate pastels of peach and salmon not harsh as with so many synthetic dyes, but with a subtlety and sumptuousness that can be found only in nature. Patterns include bold geometric figures, plumed serpents with rattletails; feathered coyotes flashing claws; girded warriors crowned with colossal headdresses and cloaked in jaguar skins; snow-capped volcanoes belching smoke; wide-eyed gods birthing grotesque humanoid creatures from gaping skulls, elbows, and knees; and, not to be left out, the all important butterfly flamboyant and often invested with human hands and faces, symbolizing the unique butterfly-human relationship.

   And so, a boyhood dream was realized. Isaac and his younger cousin, Alberto Vásquez Jiménez, are now internationally acclaimed masterweavers. Their styles and techniques are broadly imitated not only in Teotitlán del Valle but throughout the whole of Mexico (Vásquez originals always bear the monograms IVG or AVJ). The Vasquez style tapestries are coveted by connoisseurs of art and butterflies alike, and Teotitlán del Valle once again has distinguished itself as the quintessential center for New World textile arts. As expressions of pre-Hispanic art, the modern tapestries have become living legacies. In the words of Isaac: "By producing tapestries of the highest quality and portraying classic myths, new generations of my countrymen will find a new reverence and respect for their long cultural heritage. Now everyone can know not just who we are, but who we were."

   And so, intense interest in butterflies may again spread throughout Mexico.

All photographs this article by the author, except as indicated.


7 Feb 1998 / Main Page