Beutelspacher’s Butterflies of Ancient Mexico

by Hugo E. Ponce-Ulloa, M. Sc.

“Las Mariposas entre los Antiguos Mexicanos,” Butterflies of Ancient Mexico, is one of the few books dealing almost exclusively with cultural entomology. It was published in Spanish by Dr. Carlos Beutelspacher in 1988. This 103 page book was reviewed by Dr. Hogue in the Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society 44(2). 1990, 102-103. Hogue stated, “it brings together, in an aesthetic way, a collection of images and information, demonstrating and documenting the multifarious ways that butterflies and moths were woven into ancient Mexican Cultures. These range from transient and simple uses of the lepidopteran form for adornment of pottery and in featherwork, to deeply religious symbolism hewn in stone.”

Las Mariposas entre los Antiguos Mexicanos book

On Beutelspacher’s Butterflies of Ancient Mexico
Mexico’s history reveals numerous examples of the profound knowledge held within ancient Aztec and Mayan cultures. Insects were observed, studied and many times adored by these ancient Mexicans. Along with the snake, the butterfly was one of the most frequently represented animals. Some researchers, like Dr. Alfredo Barrera-Mar?n, Dr. Leonila V?zquez and Dr. Rafa?l Mart?n del Campo, are fascinated with Mexico’s natural and social history, and have found interesting examples of cultural entomology within writings, paintings and other cultural sources not destroyed by the Hispanic conquistadors. For many centuries before the conquest, and until the Colonial and Independent periods, butterflies, crickets, fleas, scorpions and spiders were studied by the Aztecs, Mayans, Chichimecs and other diverse peoples of Mexico. Today, ethnic groups of Mexico still look to insects for explanations of life and death.

Mexican vase supports

Vase Support

One of the most prominent Mexican researchers is Dr. Carlos Beutelspacher, an entomologist or, more specifically, a lepidopterist. In 1988, Dr. Beutelspacher wrote an extremely interesting and colorfully illustrated book on the interpretations of butterflies by the ancient cultures of Mexico. Dr. Beutelspacher’s love for butterflies is evident and one shared by many people. The following is a summary of his book, “Las Mariposas entre los Antiguos Mexicanos” (Butterflies of Ancient Mexico) with the intent to provide a “butterfly-view-look” and encourage the reader to seek out the original book.

The exquisite beauty of butterflies, the flowers they feed on, and the poetry-in-motion of flight were all closely observed by the ancient Mexican cultures of the Teotihuacans, Mixtecs and, more recently, the Cholultecs and Aztecs. Butterflies represented fire, soul, death, warriors, travelers and hummingbirds.

Mexican butterfly codex symbols

Codex Symbols

Ancient Mexicans were aware of lepidoptera life cycles and gave names to each phase. In the Nahuatl language, the egg phase was named ahuauhpapalotl derived from the root ahauatli or amaranth, for its similarities with the seeds of this plant. The larvae was named ocuilin. Some country regions like Ocuil?n (caterpillar land – Estado de Mexico, to the SW from Mexico City) are similarly named. The pupae, or cocoon, was known by the word cochipilotl that means pending “piloa” sleeper “cochi.” For the imago (adult), people used – and in some regions use to this day-the generic word papalotl for all butterflies. Other words find lepidopteral derivation. For example, papaloquelite composite plant, Porophyllum macrocephalum. Papalote are wide sheets used in Mexican cuisine. Place names like Papaloapan (Veracruz) meant butterfly’s river. Local butterfly species, habits and appearance resulted in variations on these words and other word combinations.

Mexican butterfly stamp collection

Stamp Collection 1

Dr. Beutelspacher points out that these people were not only warriors. They had an extensive art culture, were prolific poets, and the butterflies were a component of many poems and songs.

Beutelspacher discussed two very important goddesses. He dedicated Chapter VI to Xochiquetzal and Chapter VII to Itzpapalotl. Xochiquetzal was the goddess of love, flowers, vegetation and fire. Xochiquetzal means beautiful “quetzalli” flower “xochitl” and was probably a representation of the species Papilio multicaudatus, Western Tiger Swallowtail, a very common butterfly in the central Mexico. This goddess protected artists, handicraft-workers, painters, public-women and houseworkers. This goddess has sometimes been associated with the hummingbird although Beutelspacher provides several arguments supporting a butterfly-like divinity.

 Xochiquetzal and Itzpapalotl

The goddess Itzpapalotl – obsidian “itztli” butterfly “papalotl” – Beutelspacher associates with the species Rothschildia orizaba, a Saturniid silk moth. This divinity was the mother-goddess of Chichimec, substituted for Xochiquetzal when the Aztecs dominated this ethnic group. She was a strong and ferocious goddess with butterfly wings and big claws on her hands and feet. Similar to Xochiquetzal’s hummingbird symbolism, Iztpapalotl was also represented by the royal vulture (Sarcoramphus papa), a species very common in northern Mexico during the Chichimecan culture.

Many people in Mexico believe that somebody will die when a black butterfly stops at your door. This butterfly is known as Micpapalptl from miquiztli, death (Ascalapha odorata). Another interesting butterfly is Eucheria socialis. Its larvae makes a community cocoon on madro?a trees. The Nahuatl name for this insect is tomazquipapalotl, from tomazquitle or madro?a. The people used the cocoons to make paper for codex.

Mexican butterfly clay flat stamps

Clay Stamps

Butterfly representations are varied and adorned numerous substrates. The butterflies found on stone and ceramics were often found among other figures and ranged from realistic to very stylized representations. Butterflies adorned the outer ring of the Aztec calendar and represented the fire of snakes. Other representations are found among the gold ornaments owned by high-ranking officials. Some wall-paintings and murals displayed colorful butterflies which in some cases represent birds. Such paintings are found on the walls of the Butterflies Temple of Teotihuacan. Dr. Beutelspacher demonstrated that the real name for this temple should be the be Quetzal Temple. The butterflies were present on codex, and in two isolated cases, on wood and feather-made art (plumeria).

Dr. Beutelspacher interpreted the 11th book of chronicler Sahag?n’s 16th Century “Historia general de las Cosas de la Nueva Espa?a” in which the primary butterfly group is Papilionidae, with some cases of Nymphalids, Saturniids and others. Beutelspacher makes corrections to other authors’ interpretations of ancient representations of butterflies or others animals confused with this insect.

Mexican butterfly stamp collection

Stamp Collection 2

In conclusion, this book is recommended reading for entomologist, archaeologist, biologist and for all people who love or want to know more about insects, ancient Mexico or gain general knowledge.