Animals and Aztec religion: Keepers and
cultivators of nature
Molly H. Bassett
Georgia State University
Molly H. Bassett, Department of Religious
Studies, Georgia State University, Atlanta,
Aztecs are known as formidable warriors and religious spe-
cialists, but they were also accomplished folkbiologists.
Aztec priests, for example, employed specialized knowledge
of the natural world in ritual activities. In the following, I
highlight Aztec perceptions of a few key species as exam-
ples of animals' overall significance in pre‐ and post‐Contact
Mesoamerican cultures. In particular, I examine the descrip-
tion of the jaguar in the Florentine Codex to ground an
understanding of indigenous folkbiology after Contact.
Then I introduce recent archeological findings that under-
score the importance of birds and feathers in Aztec religion.
Finally, I suggest that studying animals as a point of refer-
ence for indigenous adaptations to colonial life highlights
creatures' cosmological agency. Each example demonstrates
the centrality of animals in Aztec cosmology.
“[In] the Aviary . . . there was everything from the Royal Eagle and other smaller eagles, and many other
birds of great size down to tiny birds of many‐coloured plumage, also the birds from which they take
the rich plumage which they use in their green feather work. The birds which have these feathers . . .
are called in this country Quezales [Trogon resplendens], and there are other birds which have
feathers of five colours—green, red, white, yellow and blue . . . and there are so many of them that I
forget their names” (Díaz del Castillo, 2008, p. 170).
In his memoir The History of the Conquest of New Spain (1568), Spanish conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo recorded
his initial impressions of Tenochtitlan, including the city's botanical and zoological features. Despite writing these
words nearly five decades after he set foot in the Aztec capital, Bernal Díaz recalled vivid details about the aviary's
birds, Moteuczoma's fragrant gardens, and the city's herpetarium. Like other Mesoamericans, Aztecs were keen
observers and experienced keepers and cultivators of nature. Flora and fauna were (and still are) central to indigenous
religions in Mesoamerica, and outsiders have been quick to interpret their significance.
Religion Compass. 2018;12:e12264.
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