The Ancient Olmec

Nae's Nest —  January 18, 2013 — 3 Comments

The religion of the Olmec people significantly influenced the social development and mythological world view of Meso-America. Scholars have seen echoes of Olmec supernatural in the subsequent religions and mythologies of nearly all later pre-Columbian Meso-American cultures.

The first Meso-American civilization, the Olmec, developed on present-day Mexico’s southern Gulf Coast in the centuries before 1200 BC. The culture lasted until roughly 400 BC, at which time their center of La Venta lay abandoned. The Olmec culture is often considered a “mother culture” to later Meso-American 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:

  • Typo-logical 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 Meso-American 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.

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 practiced was Shamanism, believing that every person had an inner animal spirit.

The shaman himself was a healing man who would conduct religious rituals and sometimes practice blood letting  He was often too called upon as a medicine man to heal the sick.

In Olmec religion, it was believed that the Jaguar was the shaman’s equivalent in the animal world and many rituals centered around the animal. It is also believed that there were up to ten different deities worshiped or believed in by the Olmecs, based on sculptures and art work found.

Rituals took place in huge centers, especially built by the Olmec community for these ceremonies.

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 PhD. 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 iconographic 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. To add to the confusion, Joralemon suggested that many of these gods had multiple aspects – for example, Joralemon had identified a God I-A through a God I-F.

Despite the use of the term “god”, none of these deities and supernaturals show any sexual characteristics which would indicate gender.

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.

Miller & Taube differentiate a Personified Earth Cave, equating it with Joralmon’s God I-B.

Monument 52 from San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan. Some researchers identify this figure as the were-jaguar while others state that it instead represents the Rain Deity. The long deep groove carved into the back of this basaltsculpture indicates it was part of the drainage system.

Maize deity (God II)

Another probable supernatural is identified by the plants sprouting from its cleft head. A carved Celt from Veracruz shows a representation of God II, 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 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. Christopher Pool, Anatole Pohorilenko, and Miller & Taube each equate the were-jaguar with the Rain Deity, while Joralemon finds them to be two separate supernaturals. Joralemon states that the Olmec rain spirit “is based on were-jaguar features”, but is not the were-jaguar per Se.

In a later paper, Taube proposed that the Rain Spirit was instead the seed phase version of the Maize God.

Feathered Serpent (God VII)

Designated God VII by Joralemon, the feathered (or plumed) serpent depicted throughout Meso-America first appears in Olmec times, although there is some disagreement concerning its importance to the Olmec. The Feathered Serpent appears on La Venta Stele 19 (above) and within a Juxtlahuaca cave painting locations hundreds of miles apart.

Fish or Shark Monster (God VIII)

Most often recognized by its shark tooth, the head of the monster also features a crescent-shaped eye, and a small lower jaw. When depicted in its full-body form, such as on San Lorenzo Monument 58 or on the Young Lord figurine, the anthropomorphic Fish Monster also displays crossed bands, a dorsal fin, a split tail. This supernatural’s profile is shown on the left leg of Las Limas Monument  (see Commons drawing).

Banded-eye God (God VI) This enigmatic deity is named for the narrow band 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 down-turned mouth. Unlike others, the Banded-eye God is only 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  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.

Continuity Hypothesis

Marshall Saville first suggested, in 1929, that Olmec deities were forerunners of later Meso-American gods, linking were-jaguar votive axes with the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca. This proposal was amplified by Miguel Covarrubias in his 1957 work Indian Art of Mexico and Central America where he famously drew a family tree showing 19 later Meso-American rain deities as descendants of a “jaguar masked” deity portrayed on a votive ax. The Continuity Hypothesis has since been generally accepted by scholars, although the extent of Olmec influence on later cultures is still debated. Over three thousand years ago, in the fertile jungles of lowland Mexico, the first civilization in the Americas was born. Five hundred years before Rome was founded, the Olmec were building great cities with pyramids and ball courts.

Considered by most archaeologists to be the mother culture of Mexico, the roots of the later Maya and Aztec cultures lie with the Olmec.

One of the most extraordinary feats of the ancient Olmec was their monumental sculptures.The inhabitants of the site of La Venta erected huge sculptures, some of which weighed up to 40 tonnes.The most famous of these are the massive stone heads.

Believed to be portraits of their leaders, they are over two meters high and sculpted entirely without the help of metal tools.There are thousands of tonnes of stones at the site but, most extraordinarily of all, these sculptures are found in an area where there is no rock available.

The area id identified as the source of the Olmec boulders lies in the Tuxtla mountains over 160 kilometers away. And between these mountains and La Venta the land is criss-crossed with massive rivers and swamps which would have made the transportation even more difficult. So how did the stones get to La Venta?

Although there were humans in Latin America for centuries before them, the Olmecs are the oldest known civilization.

They lived in the area of Mexico from 1200 to 400 BC



Nae's Nest


I find myself "Dancing With Cancer", problem is...I can't dance. I stumble, bumble, and get pulled along. To keep my sanity, (humor me), I write short stories, a journal, musings and poetry....just about anything goes.

3 responses to The Ancient Olmec


    This is a nice piece, Renee, and it’s even nicer to see you blogging more and the lovely new blog design as well.

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