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The mysterious Olmec Civilization flourished between roughly 1200 and 400 B.C. on Mexico's Gulf coast. Although there are still more mysteries than answers about this ancient culture, modern researchers have determined that religion was of great importance to the Olmec. Several supernatural beings appear and re-appear in the few examples of Olmec art that survive today. This has led archaeologists and ethnographers to tentatively identify a handful of Olmec gods.
The Olmec Culture
The Olmec culture was the first major Mesoamerican civilization, thriving in the steamy lowlands of Mexico's Gulf coast, mainly in the modern-day states of Tabasco and Veracruz. Their first major city, San Lorenzo (its original name has been lost to time) peaked around 1000 B.C. and was in serious decline by 900 B.C. The Olmec civilization had faded by 400 B.C.: no one is certain why. Later cultures, like the Aztec and the Maya, were heavily influenced by the Olmec. Today little survives of this grand civilization, but they left behind a rich artistic legacy including their majestic carved colossal heads.
Researchers have done a remarkable job of learning so much about Olmec religion and society. Archaeologist Richard Diehl has identified five elements of Olmec religion: a particular cosmos, a set of gods who interacted with mortals, a shaman class, specific rituals and sacred sites. Many specifics of these elements remain a mystery: for example, it is believed, but not proven, that one religious rite mimicked the transformation of a shaman into a were-jaguar. Complex A at La Venta is an Olmec ceremonial site which was largely preserved; much about Olmec religion was learned there.
The Olmec apparently had gods, or at least powerful supernatural beings, which were worshiped or respected in some way. Their names and functions - other than in the most general sense - have been lost over the ages. Olmec deities are represented in surviving stone carvings, cave paintings, and pottery. In most Mesoamerican art, gods are depicted as human-like but are often more gruesome or imposing.
Archaeologist Peter Joralemon, who has studied the Olmec extensively, has come up with a tentative identification of eight gods. These gods show a complicated mixture of human, bird, reptile and feline attributes. They include the Olmec Dragon, the Bird Monster, the Fish Monster, the Banded-eye God, the Maize God, the Water God, the Were-Jaguar and the Feathered Serpent. The Dragon, Bird Monster, and Fish Monster, when taken together, form the Olmec physical universe. The dragon represents the earth, the bird monster the skies and the fish monster the underworld.
The Olmec Dragon
The Olmec Dragon is depicted as a crocodile-like being, occasionally having human, eagle or jaguar features. His mouth, sometimes open in ancient carved images, is seen as a cave: perhaps, for this reason, the Olmec were fond of cave painting. The Olmec Dragon represented the Earth or at least the plane upon which humans lived. As such, he represented agriculture, fertility, fire and otherworldly things. The dragon may have been associated with the Olmec ruling classes or elite. This ancient creature may be the forebear of Aztec gods such as Cipactli, a crocodile god, or Xiuhtecuhtli, a fire god.
The Bird Monster
The Bird Monster represented the skies, sun, rulership, and agriculture. It is depicted as a fearsome bird, sometimes with reptilian features. The bird monster may have been the preferred god of the ruling class: carved likenesses of rulers sometimes are shown with bird monster symbols in their dress. The city once located at the La Venta archaeological site venerated the Bird Monster: its image appears there frequently, including on an important altar.
The Fish Monster
Also called the Shark Monster, the Fish Monster is thought to represent the underworld and appears as a frightening shark or fish with shark's teeth. Depictions of the Fish Monster have appeared in stone carvings, pottery, and small greenstone celts, but the most famous is on San Lorenzo Monument 58. On this massive stone carving, the Fish Monster appears with a fearsome mouth full of teeth, a large "X" on its back and a forked tail. Shark teeth excavated at San Lorenzo and La Venta suggest that the Fish Monster was honored in certain rituals.
The Banded-Eye God
Little is known about the mysterious Banded-eye God. Its name is a reflection of its appearance. It always appears in profile, with an almond shaped eye. A band or stripe passes behind or through the eye. The Banded-eye God appears more human than many of the other Olmec gods. It is found occasionally on pottery, but a good image appears on a famous Olmec statue, Las Limas Monument 1.
The Maize God
Because maize was such an important staple of life of the Olmec, it's not surprising that they dedicated a god to its production. The Maize God appears as a human-ish figure with a stalk of corn growing out of his head. Like the Bird Monster, Maize God symbolism frequently appears on depictions of rulers. This could reflect the ruler's responsibility to ensure bountiful crops for the people.
The Water God
The Water God often formed a divine team of sorts with the Maize God: the two are often associated with one another. The Olmec Water God appears as a chubby dwarf or infant with a gruesome face reminiscent of the Were-Jaguar. The Water God's domain was likely not only water in general but also rivers, lakes and other water sources. The Water God appears on different forms of Olmec art, including large sculptures and smaller figurines and celts. It is possible that he is a forebear of later Mesoamerican water gods such as Chac and Tlaloc.
The Olmec were-jaguar is a most intriguing god. It appears as a human baby or infant with distinctly feline features, such as fangs, almond-shaped eyes and a cleft in his head. In some depictions, the were-jaguar baby is limp, as if it is dead or sleeping. Matthew W. Stirling proposed that the were-jaguar is the result of relations between a jaguar and a human female, but this theory is not universally accepted.
The Feathered Serpent
The Feathered Serpent is shown as a rattlesnake, either coiled or slithering, with feathers on its head. One excellent example is Monument 19 from La Venta. The feathered serpent is not very common in surviving Olmec art. Later incarnations such as Quetzalcoatl among the Aztecs or Kukulkan among the Maya seemingly had a much more important place in religion and daily life. Nevertheless, this common ancestor of the significant feathered serpents to come in Mesoamerican religion is considered important by researchers.
Importance of the Olmec Gods
The Olmec Gods are very important from an anthropological or cultural point of view and understanding them is critical to understanding Olmec civilization. The Olmec civilization, in turn, was the first major Mesoamerican culture and all of the later ones, such as the Aztec and Maya, borrowed heavily from these forebears.
This is particularly visible in their pantheon. Most of the Olmec gods would evolve into major deities for later civilizations. The Feathered Serpent, for example, appears to have been a minor god to the Olmec, but it would rise to prominence in Aztec and Maya society.
Research continues on the Olmec relics still in existence and at archaeological sites. Currently, there are still more questions than answers about the Olmec Gods: hopefully, future studies will illuminate their personalities even further.
Coe, Michael D and Rex Koontz. Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs. 6th Edition. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2008
Diehl, Richard A. The Olmecs: America's First Civilization. London: Thames and Hudson, 2004.
Grove, David C. "Cerros Sagradas Olmecas." Trans. Elisa Ramirez. Arqueología Mexicana Vol XV - Num. 87 (Sept-Oct 2007). P. 30-35.
Miller, Mary and Karl Taube. An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1993.