Owls in Mesoamerican Mythology

2019 History Kirby Vickery March 2019

By Kirby Vickery from the March 2019 Edition

In December 2017, I published an article about the Aztec Owl. It focused on the historical data available of relationship with the Aztec and the Owl. My problem, at the time, was that I couldn’t find a story connected with the owl as the protagonist. There wasn’t any story in their folklore that had anything to do with an owl other than a statement that told the world that the owl had something to do with the underworld of the Aztecs. Apparently, the Aztec feared the owl because it is a silent flyer, hunts at night, and is a dweller in the underworld.

Mictlantecuhtli, the ‘Aztec God of Death’, is a real bad hombre. He’s the one that delayed Ehecatl-Quetzalcóatl in his clean-up or gathering of all the human bones in the fourth Sun (creation myth) to help create the fifth and final Sun of which we are a part. Part of Mictlantecuhtli’s, legacy is that he is often portrayed in Aztec art as being accompanied by Tunkuluchú (Owl). Mictlantecuhtli was the god that demanded most of the human sacrifices with their beating hearts torn out and held up for the slathering hoards to see and get high on. So, people didn’t want to go to the underworld when they died. This also meant that they didn’t really like the owl either because he was a part of that underworld. Generally, the Aztec respected the bird but didn’t want to have anything to do with it.

As a result no Aztec mythological stories about this animal were conceived which could be turned into parables or even light-hearted children’s folklore as was done to the monkey, fox, eagle, and frog, to mention a few. I was finally able to find an owl story in Mayan mythology. Please remember that most all the Aztec mythology and folklore came from the Maya and Toltec civilizations ahead of them.

A Mayan Owl Parable

All the birds throughout the world have something distinctive about them which they use to attract others of their kind and give to the rest of the creatures for their enjoyment. All except two, that is. The poor Tunkuluchú was the drab owl. Plumage aside, the owl was placed pretty high within the hierarchy of the bird world, because of his intelligence and the fact that he was an advisor to the king of the underworld.

So, when the birds gathered to help out the other non-descript and boring bird (hummingbird), because of its sweet and positive attitude, they included the owl in the festivities to avoid the wrath of the great underworld king, Ahau-Kin. He was officially known as the Jaguar Lord and Lord of the underworld.

Now it seems that the owl detested these banquets, so the members of the committee didn’t just invite him to their party. They sent an entire delegation, headed by the Peacock, the male end of the Peafowl (Phasianidae) family. He was another highly placed official within the Galliform world. They were to persuade both him and his kingly boss so he couldn’t turn them down and had to accept their offer of presiding over the banquet.

The committee made sure that Ahau-Kin and his advisor were seated next to each other and, when they arrived and were finally seated, the festivities began. The waiters served bohbilsikil (Pumpkin Seed Stew) in fresh, large, bowl-shaped green leaves [I have the recipe for this dish. If anyone would like it sent to them, let me know. Ed]. Down the center of the table in front of each guest, they also placed flower petals, which simulated vases full of dew. A short time later, all the guests, with the exception of the owl, were celebrating and enjoying themselves.

It didn’t take very long at all to have the morose owl start to itch at the prospect of slipping out and decamping the party as he couldn’t stand the shouting and merry-making any more. As…Owls in Mesoamerican Mythology he started to make his move, the King spotted him and ordered him back, “You will attend this function to its end.” He ordered. So, the owl did just that. He perched on a high branch facing away from all the noise and happiness. That was about the time they brought out the octli (today known as ‘Pulque’, a sweet alcoholic drink made from the fermented sap of the agave plant think of tequila or mezcal).

Mr. High and Mighty, our friend the peacock, went bipolar and figured the owl was objecting to him personally with a snub and wasn’t going to have any of it. He immediately ordered the owl to dance and sing the drinking songs that had started up. Owls can’t sing but are loud in voice. After the event finally wound down, the rest of the guests were all making side comments on how lousy he made all their songs sound.

In December 2017, I published an article about the Aztec Owl. It focused on the historical data available of relationship with the Aztec and the Owl. My problem, at the time, was that I couldn’t find a story connected with the owl as the protagonist. There wasn’t any story in their folklore that had anything to do with an owl other than a statement that told the world that the owl had something to do with the underworld of the Aztecs.

Apparently, the Aztec feared the owl because it is a silent flyer, hunts at night, and is a dweller in the underworld. Mictlantecuhtli, the ‘Aztec God of Death’, is a real bad hombre. He’s the one that delayed Ehecatl
Quetzalcóatl in his clean-up or gathering of all the human bones in the fourth Sun (creation myth) to help create the fifth and final Sun of which we are a part. Part of Mictlantecuhtli’s, legacy is that he is often portrayed in Aztec art as being accompanied by Tunkuluchú (Owl).

Mictlantecuhtli was the god that demanded most of the human sacrifices with their beating hearts torn out and held up for the slathering hoards to see and get high on. So, people didn’t want to go to the underworld when they died. This also meant that they didn’t really like the owl either because he was a part of that underworld. Generally, the Aztec respected the bird but didn’t want to have anything to do with it.

As a result no Aztec mythological stories about this animal were conceived which could be turned into parables or even light-hearted children’s folklore as was done to the monkey, fox, eagle, and frog, to mention a few. I was finally able to find an owl story in Mayan mythology. Please remember that most all the Aztec mythology and folklore came from the Maya and Toltec civilizations ahead of them.

All the birds throughout the world have something distinctive about them which they use to attract others of their kind and give to the rest of the creatures for their enjoyment. All except two, that is. The poor Tunkuluchú was the drab owl. Plumage aside, the owl was placed pretty high within the hierarchy of the bird world, because of his intelligence and the fact that he was an advisor to the king of the underworld.

So, when the birds gathered to help out the other non-descript and boring bird (hummingbird), because of its sweet and positive attitude, they included the owl in the festivities to avoid the wrath of the great underworld king, AhauKin. He was officially known as the Jaguar Lord and Lord of the underworld.

Now it seems that the owl detested these banquets, so the members of the committee didn’t just invite him to their party. They sent an entire delegation, headed by the Peacock, the male end of the Peafowl (Phasianidae) family. He was another highly placed official within the Galliform world. They were to persuade both him and his kingly boss so he couldn’t turn them down and had to accept their offer of presiding over the Banquet.

The committee made sure that Ahau-Kin and his advisor were seated next to each other and, when they arrived and were finally seated, the festivities began. The waiters served bohbilsikil (Pumpkin Seed Stew) in fresh, large, bowl-shaped green leaves.

[I have the recipe for this dish. If anyone would like it sent to them, let me know. Ed]. Down the center of the table in front of each guest, they also placed flower petals, which simulated vases full of dew. A short time later, all the guests, with the exception of the owl, were celebrating and enjoying themselves.

It didn’t take very long at all to have the morose owl start to itch at the prospect of slipping out and decamping the party as he couldn’t stand the shouting and merr-making any more. As he started to make his move, the King spotted him and ordered him back, “You will attend this function to its end.” He ordered. So, the owl did just that. He perched on a high branch facing away from all the noise and happiness. That was about the time they brought out the octli (today known as ‘Pulque’, a sweet alcoholic drink made from the fermented sap of the agave plant –think of tequila or mezcal).

Owls can’t sing but are loud in voice. After the event finally wound down, the rest of the guests were all making side comments on how lousy he made all their songs sound. The owl was embarrassed and ashamed with the cruel taunts that all the other birds made after the celebration. He immediately headed for his burrow and refused to come out for any reason to include food or even at the direct order from his King. After a few days in the burrow, revenge came into his mind. He needed to expose the peacock to the ridicule he had gone through. The wise owl consulted the sacred book of the Maya (the Popol Vuh), where he learned how the peacock had once tricked the ingenuous Puhuy, the woodland turkey, when he stole his magnificent plumage for himself.

The owl copied the entire story and then invited all the birds to a grand assembly. He finally came out of his burrow to address and read the whole nasty story to them and realized that he couldn’t read a single word because the light from the sun was too bright for him after having spent such a long time underground. He turned and fled back into his burrow and, from that moment on, he was rarely seen during the daytime. His longing for vengeance against his king and the peacock was punished by the gods.

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Kirby Vickery

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Kirby was born in a little burg just south of El Paso, Texas called Fabens. As he understand it, they we were passing through. His history reads like a road atlas. By the time he started school, he had lived in five places in two states. By the time he started high school, that list went to five states, four countries on three continents. Then he joined the Air Force after high school and one year of college and spent 23 years stationed in eleven or twelve places and traveled all over the place doing administrative, security, and electronic things. His final stay was being in charge of Air Force Recruiting in San Diego, Imperial, and Yuma counties. Upon retirement he went back to New England as a Quality Assurance Manager in electronics manufacturing before he was moved to Production Manager for the company’s Mexico operations. He moved to the Phoenix area and finally got his education and ended up teaching. He parted with the university and moved to Whidbey Island, Washington where he was introduced to Manzanillo, Mexico. It was there that he started to publish his monthly article for the Manzanillo Sun. He currently reside in Coupeville, WA, Edmonton, AB, and Manzanillo, Colima, Mexico, depending on whose having what medical problems and the time of year. His time is spent dieting, writing his second book, various articles and short stories, and sightseeing Canada, although that seems to be limited in the winter up there.

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