Word's Worth: Celebrating talking birds in the news, history, mythology, literature, & more.
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Mayan Bird ©1999 by Craig Conley

The most exotic birds on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula haven’t ruffled a feather since 200 B.C. That’s because they’re carved in the stone of ancient Mayan ruins. Though these birds can’t talk, they still manage to communicate as Mayan pictograms. And their story reaches all the way back to creation. Organizations such as the Audubon Society frequently sponsor birdwatching tours in the Yucatan, but their focus is usually on colorful flocks of parrots, toucans, and macaws. Most visitors overlook the Mayan birds because they don’t know how to spot them. But one simply needs to know what to look for.

Birds figured prominently in the Mayans’ conception of the world. Near the Copán Valley, for example, the people named their most sacred area “Macaw Mountain.” One month of the year, “Muan,” is indicated by the sign of a bird’s head. And the founder of a dynasty of kings was called Yax-Kuk-Mo, which means “Blue-quetzal-macaw.” (The quetzal is a scarlet and gold bird with tail plumes two feet long). In pictograms, this king often has the head of a bird.)

On the Mayan compass, each direction is associated with a particular god, tree, and bird. In the center of the compass is the World Tree, on top of which perches the Celestial Bird. The World Tree is a common motif in Mayan art. Its branches symbolically hold up the sky, and its roots stretch all the way to the underworld. But in carvings it appears as a modest vertical column with one horizontal cross piece (somewhat like the Christian cross). The Celestial Bird on top is ornate. Its tail is very long and the feathers curl at the end. The wings have faces. The beak is monstrously long and holds a woven ribbon. On its head is an elaborate headdress. This bird is said to represent the forces of chaotic nature.

How to spot and identify the birds

A bird pictogram always shows the head in profile. Look for a large hook bill with a nostril at the top, a very large eye (often surrounded by a ring of small circles -- it looks like a daisy), and a number of feathers sticking up from the top of the head. If the bird has these characteristics, it’s meant to look like a parrot.

If the bird has ears or horns and a much smaller beak, it’s an “omen owl.” Owls are typically depicted holding shields, which symbolize their fortune-telling ability.

A sharp, short, closed beak may distinguish a bird as being a vulture.

The Celestial Bird is considerably more elaborate than the parrot or owl, and sometimes gets lost in its own complicated design. It usually faces left, in profile. Its elongated body stretches out horizontally with beak pointing down. The Celestial Bird frequently sits atop a World Tree, resting on a huge three-toed foot. First look for long curved tail feathers on the right. Then follow them across until you see the two long ribbons which dangle from a long beak. With these two points of reference, you should be able to make out the bird’s other features -- personified wing, clawed foot, huge headdress, enormous eye, breastplate.

One Mayan god is always depicted wearing a headdress in the shape of a quetzal bird. Indeed, the bird appears to sit on the god’s head. The god looks like an old man -- he’s toothless, stooped, and smokes cigars. The bird’s beak is open, its wings are outstretched, and its tail feathers are twice the length of its body. This bird is named Oxlahun Chan and is a figure from mythology.

The Mayans associated pygmy owls with the Underworld, mainly because such owls frequent the mouths of caves. Apparently, caves were thought to be entrances to the world below. Owls served as messengers from the Underworld, communicating with humans by means of signs and omens.

Talking birds played a crucial role in the mythology of Precolumbian Mexico. Not only owls, but nearly all other birds served as messengers. In fact, the same Mayan word, mut, means both “bird” and “prophesy.” We can see an example of their connection in a hieroglyphic depiction of the Great Flood, where a dove is pictured with an emblem of languages in its beak. In the story, the children of the sole surviving man and woman were born mute, and this dove offers them the gift of speech.

The Mayans also told the story of how the world’s first man met up with the Celestial Bird. An ornamental pot shows him crouched below the World Tree, aiming his blowgun at the bird. According to tradition, the bird was imitating the sun’s glory (upsetting the balance of nature), and the first man had to restore order by putting the bird in its place. The succession of Mayan kings upheld this order.

The written record of Mayan civilization has all but disappeared. Thousands of their books were burned by Spanish conquerors. Jungle rot has destroyed the rest. What remains of Mayan literature has survived because Mayan scribes didn’t use only paper: luckily for us, they also enscribed more permanent materials, such as bones, jade, limestone, shells, clay pottery, and the stones of their temples. Mayan bird pictograms stand as silent sentinels. If we bother to educate ourselves just a little, they can be a fascinating backdrop for our study of the living birds of the Yucatan.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Fodor’s Mexico 1992. (New York: Fodor’s Travel Publications, 1991.)

William Prescott. History of the Conquest of Mexico. (New York: Modern Library, 1966.)

Linda Schele and David Freidel. A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya. (New York: William Morrow, 1990.)

Paul Sullivan. Unfinished Conversations: Mayas and Foreigners Between Two Wars. (New York: Knopf, 1989.)