This image presents the goddess Itzpapalotl, Obsidian Knife Butterfly. She is a complex deity, a hybrid of a number of human and animal parts, none of which dominates - and the mythology is equally labyrinthine, connecting her with a dazzling, almost hallucinatory range of deities and powers. In one set of myths, she breaks the limbs of the sacred tree in paradise, causing the land to wither. The tree at left probably refers to this myth. In another body of myths, she tries to seduce one of the Mimixcoa, Lesser Cloud Snakes, who builds a fire and throws himself into it to escape from her. She jumps in after him and has a number of adventures in the realm of fire. Finally, the fire gods try to destroy her by burning her fire in an even greater fire, which shatters her into five pieces, each a different color. These fragments became the basic sacrificial knives from which all others descend. Butterflies have three associations that reach deep into the meso- American past. The first two, fertility and resurrection, probably arose from the life cycle of natural butterflies. The third association, fire, involves purification and the fire of dawn, the rebirth of the sky. The essence of Itzpapalotl is blood sacrifice, and her core is the obsidian dagger. The other elements in her makeup intensify rather than moderate this. In the present image, she bears the wings not of a butterfly, but of an eagle, a raptor with strong military associations. Her hands and feet are claws, based on those of jaguars, eagles, and other creatures with built-in knives. The Aztecs believed that women who died in childbirth (a kind of war - were deified and accompanied the sun (an eagle) on its path from zenith to Death's Kingdom below the western horizon. Itzpapalotl manifests herself here with the face of one of these women. She can act as the nahuali of Xochiquetzal, Precious Flower, patroness of beauty and fertility, or of Tlazolteotl, Eater of Filth, goddess of lust and cleanser of sins, or of Mixcoatl, the Great Cloud Snake, lord of hunters and nahuali of Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca. In turn, her own nahuali is usually a deer, sometimes with a human head, or with two heads. We have thus far seen several types of interspecies relationships within a single figure: separate nahualis, fused nahualis, and anthropomorphic deities in animal disguises. In Itzpapalotl we see perhaps the maximum of species interaction: numerous human and animal forms inextricably bound together, each lending its different powers to a common end: the creation of the sacrificial knife. This knife, however, is common to the cults of nearly all the Aztec gods and makes her a sort of hub deity, with cabals to all the others. Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca are other such figure, through whom all numens pass. In their cases creation and destruction rather than sacrifice form the base of their functions, neither of which works without sacrifice. These functions may seem very different to us, but did not to the Aztecs: the knife of sacrifice could be a butterfly, an instrument of resurrection on individual and cosmic levels, a reunifier of all life forms.


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Copyright © 1983 and 2000 by Karl Young