The idea for the exhibition Fangs, Feathers, and Fins: Sacred Creatures in Ancient American Art began when I subscribed to International Wildlife as a teenager. Instead of boy-band posters on my bedroom wall, I had pages torn from this magazine.
That’s what drew me to Pre-Columbian studies, to examine the cultures that existed in the Americas before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. For the people of these ancient cultures, animals helped explain the world and why things happened. Why did one person die, and another live? Why did another get sick or recover?
The answers came through a cosmological perception of the world that intimately involved animals, which helped people navigate the often-perilous world. Fangs, feathers, and fins were essential characteristics that made animals spiritually magical to Pre-Columbian cultures.
The world was divided into three realms:
- Celestial Because of their amazing ability to fly, birds were believed to travel to the Celestial Realm of the sky, where gods lived. Feather tunics like one on display in the exhibition (slideshow image #2)—treasured as more precious than gold—were invested with cosmological power.
- Terrestrial The powerful animals with fangs—like the jaguars represented in the exhibition by ceramics and stone—dwelt with humankind in the Terrestrial Realm, and fangs gave these creatures a power over death and other beings.
- Underworld Stingrays—like one shown in a gold pendant (slideshow image #3)—and other miraculous water-dwelling animals possessed fins and lived in the watery Underworld Realm.
Not only did sacred creatures dwell in these realms—and sometimes voyage from one realm to another—but gifted humans with supernatural connections could traverse the realms by transforming into different animals. Ornaments like collars depicting double-headed serpents (slideshow image #4) could define and change the human body into sacred space.
As you visit the exhibition, I hope you feel some of that power.