General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 22 May 2024/1 Dog
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The coyote, Florentine Codex Book 11


Many may be aware that the Mexica referred to the invading Spaniards as coyotes (follow the link below to learn more...) - a term long associated with ‘trickster’ in Mesoamerica. But there’s far more to the coyote (the most common species of canine in Mexico) than this negative connotation. The Florentine Codex (whence comes the main picture here) even tells a story of a coyote showing its appreciation for being rescued by a human being by bringing him gifts... (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: An Aztec warrior sporting a full coyote uniform; Codex Mendoza fol. 65r (detail)
Pic 1: An Aztec warrior sporting a full coyote uniform; Codex Mendoza fol. 65r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

The English word coyote is one of a small but important number of words that derive from Nahuatl - in this case coyotl - via the Spanish coyote. The creature (Canis latrans) has an extensive natural range in North America and not surprisingly features widely in Mesoamerican folklore, though in Meso art and myth much less frequently than the dog.
To the Aztecs the coyote embodied the ferocity of a warrior plunging into battle. In the military career of a priest-warrior who had attended the élite calmécac school, the top rank - only attained after successfully capturing six enemy fighters - entitled the bearer to wear a complete all-yellow coyote costume (pic 1). As in the case of the jaguar, the tunic itself wasn’t an actual coyote skin, but a cotton outfit decorated with (in this case parrot) feathers, complete with matching animal-head helmet, with a crest of quetzal feathers. Sahagún’s Primeros Memoriales depicts eight different styles of coyote warrior suits, all explicitly made of feathers.
Coyote warriors are also depicted in Teotihuacan murals (Benson 2001: 137) and in Mixtec codices (Seler 2004: 64).

Pic 2 : Huehuecoyotl, Codex Borbonicus pl. 4 (detail)
Pic 2 : Huehuecoyotl, Codex Borbonicus pl. 4 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Just as the powerful jaguar and eagle were associated with specific deities, so was the coyote: supreme god Tezcatlipoca often disguised himself as a coyote, intercepting travellers to warn them of possible attacks by robbers (Florentine Codex Book 5: 180), and the Aztec god of dance pays tribute to the creature in his very name Huehuecoyotl (‘Old Coyote’ - pic 2). Associated with physical pleasure and virility, Mexica men prayed to Huehuecoyotl for health and long life. Seler specifically (op cit: 66) and Mateos Higuera indirectly (1992: 60) suggest that the band or patch of lighter yellow colour round the animal’s eyes can be seen transferred to Huehuecoyotl and other pleasure-related deities such as Macuilxóchitl: it’s certainly very clearly visible in the centre of picture 2. Huehuecoyotl was patron of the calendar sign Lizard, another creature closely associated with virility.

Pic 3: Sculpture of a ‘feathered’ coyote, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City
Pic 3: Sculpture of a ‘feathered’ coyote, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

The coyote has a long pedigree as well in ancient Maya lore. in the sacred book of the Quiché Maya, the Popol Vuh, the coyote is one of four creatures tasked with bringing the first foods - particularly maize - to humans (the others were the fox, parakeet and raven) (Christenson 2003: 193). Indeed, one of the names of the creator grandfather, Hunahpu-Utiú, means ‘Hunter with blowgun-coyote’, whereas that of the grandmother carries the suffix ‘opossum’. ‘This seems to place the animals in a binary opposition, in which the coyote is the night sky, the masculine force; and the opossum is the feminine force, the god of dawn’ (López Austin 1996: 224).
Today the Quiché Maya see the coyote, like the fox, as cunning nocturnal animals, associated with discovering and digging up hidden or secret things (Christenson, op cit: 193), and there can be little doubt that the animal generally suffers from negative associations: in the Primeros Memoriales one of the auguries listed couldn’t be clearer: ‘When someone encountered a coyote or it crossed his path it was said that he would die soon’ (1997: 175).

Pic 4: A coyote on the front of a ceramic whistling jug, Sala Oaxaca, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City
Pic 4: A coyote on the front of a ceramic whistling jug, Sala Oaxaca, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City  (Click on image to enlarge)

But we end on a positive note. Whilst the cunning, astute aspects of the coyote’s nature are forever found in folk tales - epitomised by the fable of the coyote and the rabbit (Ramirez 2018), the Florentine Codex rallies to its defence by adding the adjectives ‘grateful, appreciative’, and telling the story of an Aztec warrior who one day came across a coyote being strangled by a snake round its neck. The man released the coyote by beating off the snake with a large stick. The coyote staggered off, but a couple of hours later ‘farther in the maize field, the coyote went to look for the warrior who had rescued it. It brought him two turkey cocks, went on to throw them down, proceeded to push them on with its muzzle almost as if to say to him “Take them.” Once again the coyote went. When the warrior was going to his house, once more he met the coyote on the road. It gave him another one, a turkey hen. And when the warrior had gone to his house, again, a little later, it came to throw down another turkey cock in his courtyard.’ (Book 11: 7). (Note, by the way, there were four gifts - always an important number in ancient Mesoamerica...)

Pic 5: Last of the Six Sky Walkers, this deity bears a coyote helmet. Seler suggests he could represent the Milky Way; from Higuera, based on Codex Borgia pl. 55 (detail)
Pic 5: Last of the Six Sky Walkers, this deity bears a coyote helmet. Seler suggests he could represent the Milky Way; from Higuera, based on Codex Borgia pl. 55 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

• Christenson, Allen J. (2003) Popol Vuh, the Sacred Book of the Maya, University of Oklahoma Press
• Dibble, Charles E. and Anderson, Arthur J.O., Florentine Codex (Sahagún), Book 11 - Earthly Things, School of American Research and University of Utah, Santa Fe, 1963
• Ditto, Book 5 - The Omens, 1981
Primeros Memoriales: Paleography of Nahuatl Text and English Translation by Thelma D. Sullivan, University of Oklahoma Press, 1997
The Codex Mendoza by Frances F. Berdan and Patricia Rieff Anawalt, vol. II (Description, Bibliography, Index), University of California Press, Oxford, 1992
• Benson, Elizabeth P. (2001) ‘Coyote’, in Oxford Encylopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures, Ed. David Carrasco, OUP
Aztecs Royal Academy of Arts, London, exhibition catalogue, 2002
• López Austin, Alfredo (1996) The Rabbit on the Face of the Moon: Mythology in the Mesoamerican Tradition, University of Utah Press
• Ramírez, Elisa (2018) ‘Tradición Oral Indígena Mexicana: Cuentos de fechorías y engaños 2: Conejo y Coyote’, Arqueología Mexicana, July-August 2018, no. 152 pp. 18-19
• Seler, Eduard (2004) Las Imágenes de Animales en los Manuscritos Mexicanos y Mayas (original in German, 1909-10), Casa Juan Pablos, Mexico
• Mateos Higuera, Salvador (1992) Enciclopedia gráfica del México antiguo: Los Dioses Supremos, Secretaría de Hacienda y Crédito Público, Mexico City.

Picture sources:-
• Main: image from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 1: image from the Codex Mendoza scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark 1938 facsimile edition, Waterlow, London
• Pic 2: image from the Codex Borbonicus (original in the Bibliotheque de l’Assembée Nationale, Paris) scanned with permission from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974
• Pix 3 & 4: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 5: image scanned from Mateos Higuera, op cit.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Mar 20th 2023

‘What did the Aztecs call the Spanish invaders?’

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Mexicolore replies: You’re welcome!
Mexicolore replies: We THINK these are feathers, part of his elaborate coyote mask disguise. The image you’ve seen is not the clearest one. In the original the two ‘lines’ are coloured yellow, not white. The headdresses he wears vary greatly, and can include quetzal and heron feathers...
Mexicolore replies: Sorry but you’ll have to be more specific; which image in the Borgia are you referring to?