When I look at Aztec grasshopper sculptures it’s kind of like they are all cousins; they share a generalized visual syntax that allows for them to be read as a sculptural group or type.* The sculptures all depict animals with a schematic and selective naturalism that is typical of of Aztec carvings: there are enough features for us to determine that these are grasshoppers but not so much detail that we are overwhelmed.
Most grasshopper sculptures have large compound eyes, articulated forewings, four long thin legs, and spiracles (air sacs used for breathing) on their back and/or underside. More rarely, sculptures also include antennae on the top of their heads.
The carnelian grasshopper sculpture currently on display at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City and the tiny grasshopper pendant on display at the Brooklyn Museum may share characteristics with just about any grasshopper sculpture, but they are nearly identical to each other, except in size and color. And while the schematic nature and overall shape of the sculptures interest me, I’m far, far more attuned to the differences.
Much has been made about the attention Aztec sculptors paid to the color of stone, or how Aztec artisans often chose stones to someone enhance their own depictions and make them even more real.** Why should the carnelian grasshopper sculpture be any different? According to contemporary scholarship, it should matter that this sculpture is a bright orange-red color as much as it matters that it was discovered atop Chapultepec Hill at the main Aztec reservoir during the nineteenth century. This particular discovery has led to the constant and consistent speculation that this sculpture represents a grasshopper.***
I ask you (and, honestly, I do, because I live in New York City and don’t see a ton of grasshoppers): how often do you see an orange grasshopper? Sure, they exist. But they aren’t common. We find green grasshoppers far more frequently, and while even sixteenth-century naturalist Francisco Hernández remarked upon the bright colors of Mexica grasshoppers, he provided no evidence that they were ever pure orange.**** More frequently, grasshoppers camouflage in their natural environments, changing from green to brown and all the shades in between.
While I was interested in the color of the carnelian grasshopper sculpture early on in my research, I nearly went crazy about it when I saw the aquamarine grasshopper pendant at the Brooklyn Museum. I knew there was something to it. Because the color of stone sculpture means something, or at least so it seems, and the aquamarine sculpture is, well, aquamarine, which is remarkably similar to the color of water. Now this is a grasshopper sculpture.
I’m not saying that the carnelian sculpture can’t be a grasshopper. It can be. But it can also be a locust, because grasshoppers are also locusts. They become gregarious and swarm and they are different insects from those the Aztecs closely associated with fertility and water. Locusts were dangerous and harmful in the Aztec world, a world structured around concepts of duality. The Aztecs could see both sides of pretty much anything; why shouldn’t we?
* I define visual syntax as certain elements of specific animals and plants repeated in a variety of representations. I argue that each repeated elements was important to the Mexicas and necessary in order for the whole representation to have meaning.
** Felipe Solís Olguín, ed., The Aztec Empire: Catalogue of the Exhibition (New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2004), 30.
**** Francisco Hernández, Historia Natural De Nueva España, vol. 2 (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1959), 385. I also am thinking about cooked grasshoppers are often orange, which is more than just a little interesting in this context.