Creating Supernaturals

Birds abound in the arts of the ancient Americas. Soaring falcons, fish-eating sea birds, hovering hummingbirds, and brilliantly colored parrots captured the imagination of peoples from Mesoamerica to the Andes.

Winged beings are prominent in indigenous cosmology. Whether benevolent or beastly, they were thought to wield tremendous power as they transcended the divisions between earth, sky, and the underworld. Some celestial birds could act as attendants and messengers between humans and gods, like angels in the western tradition. The staff-bearing raptors that appear in the art of many Andean cultures may have been intermediaries of this sort. Pre-Columbian kings and shamans claimed to transform into birds to go on spiritual missions.

Other supernatural birds were deities in their own right. With awesome powers of flight, speed, vision, and predation, they impacted the human realm directly and irrevocably. Large birds carrying human heads in their beaks and claws are featured in the arts of Central America and the Andes. Many Mesoamerican gods could transform into their animal selves at will, and any hummingbird, owl, or vulture could be a deity in disguise.

Dumbarton Oaks Special Exhibition 2009 Flights of Fancy 6
Fragment of Incense Burner, Maya (Guatemala), 600–900 CE, Ceramic, PC.B.193

This creature has the hooked beak of a macaw, a vulture's caruncle above the beak, and an owl's tufts above the eyes and ears. In Maya culture, macaws held great significance as solar and regal emblems, vultures as symbols of power and fertility, and owls as messengers of the underworld. When in use on the lid of an incense burner, this piece would emit sweet smelling smoke from the mouth.

Predatory Bird, Caribbean Watershed (Costa Rica), 500 BCE–500 CE, Jadeite, PC.B.255

This small jade bird holds a head in its claws. The long extension of the beak is suggestive of a hummingbird's tongue, generally used to taste nectar.

Ceramic Vessel, Nasca (Peru), 350–450 CE, Ceramic, PC.B.618

Known as the Horrible Bird, the creature depicted on this vessel is well known in Nasca art. Earlier representations are less abstract and show a condor feeding on human parts. Here, a dead human being, depicted in black and white, lies above the creature's belt.

Stone Cup, Cupisnique (Peru), 900–600 BCE, Stone, PC.B.573

In front of its feline face, the creature on this cup sports the beak of a bird of prey. Feathers on its chest, tail, and wings complete its avian attire. This bird-feline adopts a position similar to that of the staff-bearing birds represented in the art of several later Andean cultures.

Tapestry Fragment, Wari (Peru), 650–1000 CE, Cotton and camelid fiber, PC.B.502

Four staff-bearing bird-men appear on this tunic fragment. Each has the head of a raptorial bird, elaborate wings, human-like feet, and hands carrying a staff with a beaked head at either end. Such figures are found in many Andean cultures. Following Wari weaving canons, the figures are wider in the band that was closest to the center of the textile, and more compressed in the band closer to the edge of the cloth.

Tapestry Fragment, Chimú (Peru), 1400–1540 CE, Cotton and camelid fiber, PC.B.494

Man-eating birds animated the myths and folklore of the ancient Andes. They take pride of place on this textile, holding human trophy heads in their beaks. Rows of small birds complete the design. The two large birds are probably pelicans, which appear often in Chimú iconography from Peru's north coast. It is not unusual to see representations such as this, where a monstrous pelican seals the fate of a human victim.

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