Be Your Own Birder

Worshiping the Turkey

In November, turkeys – wild or domestic, and typically roasted, smoked, glazed, brined, grilled, or deep-fried – are most definitely worshiped on dining tables, but did you know that wild turkeys were once worshiped in temples and ceremonies as revered as messengers to the gods? Learning a little more about turkey reverence can help birders and non-birders alike better appreciate every moist and juicy bite of the turkeys we worship today.

Prayer Beads - Photo by Ahmed Helal
Prayer Beads – Photo by Ahmed Helal

Mayans Worshiping Turkeys

In 300 BC, the ancient Mayan culture was at its height, with sprawling cities, elaborate temples, written hieroglyphics, cultivated agriculture, engineered aqueducts, and other advancements. The Mayans were a highly religious people, and their life was filled with symbolism and ritual. Among their most powerful symbols and part of their most sacred rituals was a bird that we see as all too commonplace today – the wild turkey.

To the Mayans, turkeys were seen as exceptionally powerful, with the ability to work their charms at night and in dreams. The birds were indicative of great personal power and wealth, and were often owned to show societal prominence. Turkeys were also associated with agricultural fertility and substantial trade routes, and domesticated turkeys were useful for bartering and trade. Turkeys were symbols in the Mayan calendar and were even buried with the dead, though the exact symbolism of that ritual burial is not well understood.

Mayan Ruins in Guatemala - Photo by Dennis Jarvis
Mayan Ruins in Guatemala – Photo by Dennis Jarvis

Ocellated turkeys were similarly prized and traded. While these more colorful turkeys were not successfully domesticated, there is evidence that they were captured and traded, possibly after being fattened to make them even more desirable.

Other Native Turkey Worship

The Mayans were not the only ancient culture to revere turkeys. In other Native American cultures, turkeys had symbolic representations as well as practical uses, including…

  • Turkeys as rain spirits able to predict the weather
  • Trickster identities and more mischievous personalities
  • Turkeys as symbols of plentiful crops and friendship
  • A night god of plagues, disease, and pestilence
  • Clan names and tribal symbols
  • Dances and songs about war honors and tribal pride
  • Feathers used in ornamental cloaks, headdresses, and garments

The exact representations and venerations of wild and ocellated turkeys varied within different cultures. In addition to the Maya, the Aztecs, Hopi, Creek, Shawnee, Delaware, Pima, Navajo, Zuni, and Miami peoples all revered turkeys in some manner.

Wild Turkey - Photo by Larry Lamsa
Wild Turkey – Photo by Larry Lamsa

Honoring Turkeys Today

Our modern Thanksgiving and other holiday celebrations, along with turkey legs at amusement parks, sliced turkey sandwiches, turkey bacon, and other ways we have turkey in our lives may not be as reverent as in ancient cultures, but we can still honor these birds. By understanding more about turkeys and their place in all types of cultures, we can better understand just how valuable birds are, not just as food, but as part of the celebrations, happy experiences, and good times we share them with – even if it is around the dinner table.

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