Stone owl

Mexica*, AD 1325-1521
From Mexico

Birds are rarely represented in Mexica stone sculpture. This rare sculpture of an owl has a shallow receptacle on its back, which indicates that it may have been used as a cuauhxicalli, a vessel for sacrificial offerings. Other animals with symbolic meaning for the Mexica, such as dogs, jaguars and serpents, are more frequently depicted in stone.

The main sources of information on Mexica ideas about birds and other animals are archaeological finds and colonial documents of the sixteenth century. The Florentine Codex, in particular, gives us detailed information passed on by native informants to his author, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, a Spanish priest.

Owls were associated with shamans, who transformed themselves into animals, and with the powers of darkness. They were considered to be a bad omen: their presence and nocturnal calls were believed to announce death or misfortune. Owls served as a messenger for Mictlantecuhtli, the Lord of the Underworld.

Aztecs had a strong belief in fate; the day in which a person was born had a particular significance. People born on 1 Rain, whether noble or commoner, man or woman, had a tendency to become a tlacatecolotl (human owl). These creatures could cause sickness and even kill people.

*The people and culture we know as 'Aztec' referred to themselves as the Mexica (pronounced Me-shee-ka).

Find in the collection online

More information

Bibliography

F.F. Berdan, The Aztecs of Central Mexico:, Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology (New York, London, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982)

F.F. Berdan, 'Birds and beasts in Nahua thought' in Chipping away on earth: studie (Lancaster, CA, Labyrinthos, 1994)

H.B. Nicholson and E. Quiñones Keber, Art of Aztec Mexico, treasures (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1983)

E. Pasztory, Aztec art (New York, Abrams, 1983)

Dimensions

Length: 48.000 cm
Width: 30.000 cm
Depth: 26.000 cm

Museum number

AOA 1825,12-10.3

ESA90

Bullock Collection

Location

Find in the collection online



Search highlights

There are over 4,000 highlight objects to explore