In order to talk about the specific, sometimes it helps to start with the general. Or maybe put a little differently, sometimes to talk about an object we need to better understand the context. That’s the opposite of the way a lot of us learn to think about art objects*, but over the time I’ve spent looking at Aztec floral and faunal sculpture it’s become obvious that scholars oftentimes don’t think a lot about actual plants and animals. Unlike sculptures of gods, sculptures of plants and animals are not sculptures of ideas; they are sculptures of real, living beings that shared the Aztec world.
Let’s start with the grasshopper.
Grasshoppers most often live near water, and were therefore fairly commonplace in the Aztec capital, which was located in the middle of a brackish lake. Grasshoppers mate during the rainy season (summertime in Central Mexico), and this is not a quiet event. Male grasshoppers rub their legs against their wings, chirping, in an effort to find an available female. Once impregnated, the female lays dozens of eggs that hatch during this still warm and wet season.
Because grasshoppers live near water and mate during the rainy season Aztec myths most frequently associate them with water and fertility. Relatedly, one of the most important sites in the Basic of Mexico, Chapultepec (Grasshopper) Hill, was the home of freshwater springs that provided Tenochtitlan with its water supply via a massive aqueduct. (And today this same hill is home to many of the museums you can visit in Mexico City.) Primary sources from the early colonial period such as the Court physician Francisco Hernández and Dominican Friar Diego Durán strongly indicate a correlation between water and fertility symbolism in the Aztec empire.**
Mostly, grasshoppers had a positive connotation, but they also had a much darker side. During specific conditions grasshoppers become gregarious and swarm — they transform into locusts. The Aztecs were an agricultural people that relied on crops to feed a very large population, and the threat of locust swarms was very real, as they could lead to famine and the death of large populations. The ability of the grasshopper to change overnight reflects both the capricious nature of the animal and the gods, particularly those associated with agricultural abundance, and the importance of the dual nature of animals in the Aztec worldview. The grasshopper could bring fertility and imperial success, but the locust could also wreak destruction on the empire. These were, essentially, two sides of the same coin, two forms of the same insect, one with a devastating impact and the other with abundant offerings. ***
As a pre-Columbian art historian, why do I care so much about grasshoppers? Because the Aztecs cared enough about these insects to sculpt them in stone over and over again. The most prominent example of an Aztec grasshopper sculpture is on display in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City. Carved from carnelian, a hard brownish-red mineral polished to gleam, this bright red-orange sculpture is about the size of two bowling balls placed next to each other — and it probably weighs that much too.
On the other end of the spectrum, and on display at the Brooklyn Museum, is a teeny tiny grasshopper sculpture carved from translucent aquamarine.
Despite the difference in their size, their color, and the quality of materials both of these sculptures are carved in intense, almost identical detail, so much so that you’d almost assume they were sculpted by the same artist.
In the next post I’ll discuss the details of both of these sculptures, and some of the conclusions I’ve come to as I’ve stared at them, and pictures of them, for many months.
* Or it’s the only way some of us learned to talk about art objects! Art history is so fickle.
** Diego Durán, The History of the Indies of New Spain, trans. Doris Heyden (Norman, OK: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1994), 29, 42, 66–7, 242 and Francisco Hernández, Historia Natural De Nueva España, vol. 2 (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1959), 385.
*** Ross Hassig, Time, History, and Belief in Aztec and Colonial Mexico, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001), 60