Olmec mythology

From Academic Kids

The religion of the Olmec people significantly influenced the social development and mythological world view of Mesoamerica. Many scholars have seen echoes of Olmec supernaturals in the subsequent religions and mythologies of nearly all later pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures.

The first Mesoamerican civilization, the Olmec, developed on present-day Mexico's southern Gulf Coast in the centuries before 1200 BCE. The culture lasted until roughly 400 BCE, at which time their center of La Venta lay abandoned. The Olmec culture is often considered a "mother culture" to later Mesoamerican cultures.

There is no surviving direct account of the Olmec's religious beliefs, unlike the Maya, with their Popul Vuh, or the Aztecs, with their many codices and conquistador accounts.

Archaeologists, therefore, have had to rely on other techniques to reconstruct Olmec beliefs, most prominently:

  • Typological analysis of Olmec iconography and art.
  • Comparison to later, better documented pre-Columbian cultures.
  • Comparison to modern-day Native American cultures.

The latter two techniques assume that there is a continuity extending from Olmec times through later Mesoamerican cultures to the present day. This assumption is called the Continuity Hypothesis. Using these techniques, researchers have discerned several separate deities or supernaturals embodying the characteristics of various animals.

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Rulers, priests, and shamans

Olmec religious activities were performed by a combination of rulers, full-time priests, and shamans. The rulers seem to have been the most important religious figures, with their links to the Olmec deities or supernaturals providing legitimacy for their rule. There is also considerable evidence for shamans in the Olmec archaeological record, particularly in the so-called "transformation figures".

Olmec supernaturals

Specifics concerning Olmec religion are a matter of some conjecture. Early researchers found religious beliefs to be centered upon a jaguar god. This view was challenged in the 1970s by Peter David Joralemon, whose Ph. D. paper and subsequent article posited what are now considered to be 8 different supernaturals. Over time Joralemon's viewpoint has become the predominant exposition of the Olmec pantheon. The study of Olmec religion, however, is still in its infancy and any list of Olmec supernaturals or deities can be neither definitive nor comprehensive.

The names and identities of these supernaturals are only provisional and the details concerning many of them remain poorly known. The confusion stems in part because the supernaturals are defined as a cluster of icongraphic motifs. Any given motif may appear in multiple supernaturals. For example "flame eyebrows" are seen at times within representations of both the Olmec Dragon and the Bird monster, and the cleft head is seen on all five supernaturals that appear on Las Limas Monument 1.

Olmec Dragon (God I)

Also known as the Earth Monster, the Olmec Dragon has flame eyebrows, a bulbous nose, and bifurcated tongue. When viewed from the front, the Olmec Dragon has trough-shaped eyes; when viewed in profile, the eyes are L-shaped. Fangs are prominent, often rendered as an upside-down U-shaped bracket. With the Bird Monster, the Olmec Dragon is one of the most commonly depicted supernaturals.

Maize deity (God II)

Another probable deity is identified by the plants sprouting from its cleft head. A carved celt from Veracruz shows a representation of God III , or the Maize God, growing corn from his cleft, and also shows this god with the snarling face associated with the jaguar. This deity is rarely shown with a full body.

Bird Monster (God III)

The Bird Monster is often identified with the harpy eagle, although it also has mammalian and reptilian features. The bird monster is associated with rulership.

Rain Spirit and/or Were-jaguar (God IV)

Main article: Were-jaguar

There is considerable disagreement between researchers whether the Rain Spirit and were-jaguar are one distinct or two separate supernaturals. Interestingly enough, Joralemon states that the Olmec rain spirit "is based on were-jaguar features", but is not the were-jaguar per se.

Taube however separately proposes that the Rain Spirit is instead the seed phase version of the Maize God.

Feathered serpent (God VII)

Main article: Feathered Serpent

Designated God VII by Joralemon, the feathered (or plumed) serpent depicted throughout Mesoamerica first appears in Olmec times where it was a divinity of considerable significance.

Fish or Shark Monster (God VIII)

Most often recognized by its shark tooth, when depicted in its full-body form, the anthropomorphic Fish Monster is also shown with crossed bands, a dorsal fin, and a split tail.

Banded-eye God (God VI)

This enigmatic deity is named for the narrow hand that runs along the side of its face through its almond-shaped eye with its round iris. Like many other supernaturals, the Banded-eye God has a cleft head and a downturned mouth. Unlike others, the Banded-eye God is known from its profile - these renditions are generally concentrated on bowls from the Valley of Mexico (as shown on left), although the Banded-eye God is one of the five supernaturals shown on Las Limas Monument 1 from the Olmec heartland.

Rather than a distinct supernatural in its own right, however, Taube finds God VI to be yet another aspect of the Maize God.

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