As the Pilgrims never made it as far south as Yucatan, Thanksgiving is not one of the top Mexican holidays. But what they do have south of the border, specifically in Yucatan, is one of the greatest turkeys in North America– the Ocellated Turkey (Agriocharis ocellata).
Above are some representations of the ocellated turkey from various Maya codices. The above graphic comes from those wonderful folks at Project Gutenberg who scanned and posted a wonderful little book, Animal Figures in the Maya Codices, by Glover M. Allen and Alfred Tozzer (1904)
This turkey (Maya kuopen o with dot under) is an important species in the Maya economy, and is seen frequently in the manuscripts. This is a smaller bird than the more northern true turkey (Meleagris) and is characterized by the presence of curious erect knobs on the top of the naked head. These are shown in conventionalized form in the various figures (above), and afford a ready means of identification.
On the bill of the bird shown in Tro-Cortesianus 10b (above, fig. 2) occurs again the curious symbol, a circle surrounded by dots, previously noted under the frigate-bird and pelican. It probably has some special significance. Other figures of ocellated turkeys show but little in addition to the points just discussed. One shown above, fig. 7, from Codex Vaticanus 3773, however, has a circular ring about the eye and the wattles are indicated as projections merely. In fig. 13, they are apparently shown as stalked knobs found elsewhere in connection with serpent head ornaments. It is only the head in this latter figure, which is considered in this interpretation.
In the Nuttall Codex, there frequently occur representations of a bird that was evidently used for sacrificial purposes. It is shown with erectile head feathers and a ring of circular marks about the eye or with concentric circles. These figures are not surely identifiable, but probably represent this turkey. Possibly they are the chachalaca (Ortalis vetula pallidiventris), a gallinaceous bird, commonly kept in semi-domestication in Mexico, whose bare eye ring and slightly erectile head feathers may be represented by the drawings.
It is probable that this turkey is the bird represented frequently in the Maya codices as a bird of sacrifice. The head alone usually appears in this connection, among other places, in Dresden 34a (above, fig. 10), 41c (fig. 14), 29c (fig. 16), 28c (fig. 17), and in Tro-Cortesianus 12b (above, fig. 11), 105b (fig. 12), 107b (fig. 15). In several of these places the head is represented as resting on one or more Kan signs, again meaning bread, as well as on the vessel or jar.
In Dresden 26c (above, fig. 9), the whole turkey is pictured as an offering, as in the preceding case noted in Dresden 35a (figure not shown). The whole bird as an offering may also appear in Tro-Cortesianus 4a (figure not shown) corresponding to the offering of venison and iguana on the following pages. This representation of the entire bird is very rare although the fish, when used as an offering, is always represented as a whole and the iguana is in most cases when used in the same connection. [Diego de] Landa confirms the offering of the heads of birds with bread.
It is, however, the sacrifice of a bird, probably a turkey, by decapitating, that is especially interesting, as the operation as shown in the Dresden Codex 25c (figures not shown), in the rites of the four years, is described in full by Landa. In the codex, a priest is represented as holding in his hand before an altar, a headless bird. Landa tells us that in the Kan, the Muluc, the Ix, and the Cauac years, the priests burnt incense to the idol, decapitated a â€œgallinaâ€ (undoubtedly a turkey), and presented it to the god.
The turkey is also used as a head-dress. Only in one case, however, Tro-Cortesianus 95c (above, fig. 5), is the whole bird represented in this connection. This is clearly of totemic significance here, as it occurs in that part of the codex where birth and infant baptism are shown. In many other places there are curious partial representations of bird heads in the front of head-dresses which may or may not be identified as heads of turkeys. Among these are the head-dress of god H in Dresden 7c, of god E in Dresden 11e, of god C in Dresden 13b, of god A in Dresden 23c, and a female divinity in Dresden 20a (above, fig. 13). Schellhas identifies these birds as vultures.
That the turkey is connected with the rain seems clear. This is especially the case among the Nahuas. In the Aubin manuscript the rain god, Tlaloc, often appears in the disguise of the turkey-cock (uexolotl), and in the Vaticanus 3773, 14, the turkey (above, fig. 7) is represented in the â€œHouse of Rain,â€ in contrast to the owl shown in the â€œHouse of Drought.” It might be noted also that Fewkes shows that the turkey is emblematic of the rain among the pueblo peoples. The same idea seems to be present among the Mayas, as we note in the Tro-Cortesianus 10b (above, fig. 2) the turkey is pictured in the rain and surrounded on three sides by bands of constellation signs.
Two methods of capturing the turkey are shown in the Tro-Cortesianus 93a and 91a (above, figs. 1, 3). By the first, the bird is captured alive in a sort of wicker basket, which drops over it at the proper moment. The second method is by the â€œtwich-upâ€ or snare, which consists of a noose tied to a bent sapling and properly baited. In connection with graphic above, fig. 1, it may be suggested that possibly this represents a cage rather than a trap, in which the bird is confined. The Lacandones at the present time often keep their totem animals in captivity.