Tzutukil Maya

House of Birds

When walking the streets of Santiago Atitlán, you can’t help but noticed a frenzy of birds, both whimsical and realistic that adorn women's huipiles and the calzoncillos pants of local men. Majestic Santiago is situated on Lake Atitlan that rests between two volcanoes, and is home to the Tzutukil Maya, one of the 21 ethnic groups represented in Guatemala. The natural scenery oozes into the embroidery and weavings, becoming a kind of visual literacy seen throughout the rainbow of colors and Mayan designs. This town is said to be the largest indigenous town in Central America where the majority continue to proudly wear their traditional dress, reflecting ethnic identity and Mayan ancestry. 

Since ancient times, the Tzutujil people have called their community Tinamit Tz'ikin Jaay, "the House of Birds." This name is a self-reference and a representation of the town’s mythology depicted in their embroidery. Margot Blum Schevill is an independent anthropologist specializing in textiles and folk art and says, “Nature is their source. They live with the flowers; they live with the birds. And their imagery comes from what is around them.

Maryanne Wise who founded Cultural Cloth, a company that sells beautiful world-class textiles, brought this stunning embroidery to my attention. Their work is inspired by the traditional Tzutujil Mayans who dress in purple and white striped pants and in their hand woven, brocaded huipiles that are intricately embellished with whimsical birds in a kaleidoscope of color. She and her colleague Jody Slocum have been working closely with master embroiderers in Santiago. They have designed their own line of pillows, tablecloths, and handbags that utilize these traditional techniques. This imagery embellishes their textiles along with vines and branches, flowers and water birds that wade by the beautiful Lake Atitlan.  

Looking into the significance of birds is intriguing, as it has held an important place in the Mayan cultural world. Since ancient times, they have been depicted as our connection to the sky, the supernatural and our tie between heaven and earth. They are considered the messengers, the omens and that which is divine. They are adored for their dramatic colors, fluidity and celestial beauty.

From ducks and turkeys to owls and vultures, each species takes on its own meaning. Birds not only fill the forests with their beautiful songs, but have an ancient role in Mayan spirituality and mythology. To name a few for example, the raptor symbolizes the act of looking forward and backwards and the double-headed eagle represents spiritual power and courage. As the Guatemalan national bird, the quetzal signifies freedom and wealth and is a favorite for it's long and iridescent green tail feathers. Schevil says, “It's one of the most beautiful birds, and during ancient Mayan times its feathers were highly valued and traded.”

In Mayan culture, eagles are also a symbol of community and cooperative unity amongst a diverse group. When a symbol of a bird such as the eagle is focused upon, it facilitates clear mental focus. It is believed that after focusing on the qualities of the eagle, they pave the way for higher, or even telepathic acuity." These textiles are not only metaphors and meditations, but also reflections upon the Tzutujil Maya’s unity with the natural world.
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