The Spearthrower Owl of Teotihuacan

Warrior, outsider, ruler, and legend. These are a few of the words used to describe the infamous “Spearthrower Owl.”

The Spearthrower Owl or “Atlatl Cauac” is the name of a figure that appears in Maya inscriptions throughout Mesoamerica (364-439 AD) from the Early Classic period. The name Spearthrower Owl describes the appearance of the figure that is holding a spear and shares owl-like features. The Spearthrower Owl is believed to be from Teotihuacan because of his attire and weaponry. It is suggested that the Spearthrower Owl was a ruler of Teotihuacan at the height of their civilization.

Tikal Marcador text describes the arrival of the Spearthrower Owl to Tikal in the presence of Siyaj K’ahk. This arrival took place decades before the arrival of the “War Serpent” from Teotihuacan to Tikal. Therefore this suggests that the Spearthrower Owl was a key part in introducing Teotihuacano customs to the rest of Mesoamerica before the arrival of other key Teotihuacan figures.The name appears in a Maya glyph in Tikal, but it is translated as “owl that will strike.” Other references to the Spearthrower Owl have been found at Uacactun, Yaxchilan, and Tonina.

The arrival of the Spearthrower Owl at Tikal was during a time of political transition. The estimated time of his arrival is at the same time of the death of the Tikal ruler, Chak Tok Ich’aak I.

“Spearthrower Owl Hill” is a toponymic place which is referenced in a set of murals found at the Atetelco residential compound located in Teotihuacan. Murals 2 and 3, located on the North Patio of the compound are divided in two parts. The bottom half shows two birds on top of platforms that are covered in obsidian blades, thorns and cacti. The top half, which is placed upside down shows a row of smaller hills in front of three larger stepped hills. The placement of the hills and the surrounding plants and features of the land indicate that perhaps this mural depicts a significant place in Teotihuacan. The association with the Spearthrower Owl comes from the characteristic rounded hook and the tassel-like element that is seen just below the owl’s head which is visible in the mural. Therefore it is possible that Spearthrower Owl Hill may have been a sacred placed dedicated to the individual “Spearthrower Owl” or have some correlation with the warrior birds themselves. The location of the hill is uncertain, but some have proposed the Pyramid of the Moon due to the temple’s association with warfare, birds, human sacrifices and the elites.

The proposed dates of Spearthrower Owl’s reign correlate with the time of the Atelelco compound, but this does not mean that the hill is necessarily named for the individual. However, a more plausible explanation is if the Spearthrower Owl was originally a mythological being or deity in which the ruler was named after. At this time, the Spearthrower Owl is not a confirmed deity, but it is possible that it was a significant ancestor of Teotihuacan which may have developed into a deity.

Owls play an important role in Mesoamerican iconography. Owls are usually presented face-forward and symbolize messengers from the underworld. This was due to their nocturnal nature. As a result, owls are a bad omen in Mesoamerican culture. Owls are associated with warfare and death. To this day, their hooting is thought to be a sign for someone about to die. In the Maya world, the owl makes two key appearances. The first is in the Tonalamatl Aubin and Codex Borbonicus in which the owl is one of the thirteen birds that accompany the the thirteen lords. Secondly, the screech owl is the animal of the sixth day in the 260-day calendar found in the Yucatec Mayan Books of Chilam Balam. The two owl species which exist in Mesoamerica are the great horned owl, and the screech owl which appears most commonly in iconography.