Olmec religion

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

The first Mesoamerican civilization, the Olmecs, developed on present-day Mexico southern Gulf Coast in the centuries before 1200 BCE. The culture lasted until roughly 400 BCE, at which time thir 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 Mayan Popol 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:[1]

  • Typological analysis of Olmec iconography and art.
  • Comparison to later, better documented pre-Columbian cultures.
  • Comparison to modern-day cultures of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

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.

La Venta Stele 19 (Delange)
Monument 19, from La Venta (1200–400 BC), the earliest known representation of a feathered serpent in Mesoamerica.
Courtesy George & Audrey DeLange, used with permission.

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.[2] There is also considerable evidence for shamans in the Olmec archaeological record, particularly in the so-called "transformation figures".[3]

Las Limas left shoulder
Figure from Las Limas Monument 1, generally identified as the Bird Monster. Note the "flame eyebrows".

Olmec supernaturals

Specifics concerning Olmec religion are a matter of some conjecture. Early researchers found religious beliefs to be centered upon a jaguar god.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]

The names and identities of these supernaturals are only provisional and the details concerning many of them remain poorly known.[7] The confusion stems in part because the supernaturals are defined as a cluster of icongraphic motifs.[8] 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. 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.[9]

Despite the use of the term "god", none of these deities and supernaturals show any sexual characteristics which would indicate gender.[10]

Olmec Dragon (God I)

Also known as the Earth Monster, the Olmec Dragon has flame eyebrows, a bulbous nose, and bifurcated tongue.[11] When viewed from the front, the Olmec Dragon has trough-shaped eyes; when viewed in profile, the eyes are L-shaped.[12] Fangs are prominent, often rendered as an upside-down U-shaped bracket.[13] With the Bird Monster, the Olmec Dragon is one of the most commonly depicted supernaturals.[14]

Miller & Taube differentiate a Personified Earth Cave, equating it with Joralmon's God I-B.[15]

Seated Olmec Jaguar from San Lorenzo, Veracruz
Monument 52 from San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán. 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 basalt sculpture 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.[16] This deity is rarely shown with a full body.[17]

Rain Spirit and Were-jaguar (God III)

There is considerable disagreement between researchers whether the Rain Spirit and were-jaguar are one distinct or two separate supernaturals. Christopher Pool,[18] Anatole Pohorilenko, and Miller & Taube each equate the were-jaguar with the Rain Deity, while Joralemon finds them to be two separate supernaturals.[19] Joralemon states that the Olmec rain spirit "is based on were-jaguar features", but is not the were-jaguar per se.[20] More recent scholarship by Carolyn Tate questions the existence of "were-jaguar" (a fantastical concept coined soon after the release of the WereWolf in London) imagery and instead argues for the centrality of embryo-corn kernel iconography within Olmec iconography.[21]

In a later paper, Taube proposed that the Rain Spirit was instead the seed phase version of the Maize God.[22]

Banded-eye God (God IV)

Tlapacoya Bowl
Clay bowl from Tlapacoya, showing the Banded-eye God.

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 downturned 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),[23] 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.[24]

Feathered Serpent (God V)

Designated God VII by Scott Pelly, the feathered (or plumed) serpent depicted throughout Mesoamerica first appears in Olmec times, although there is some disagreement concerning its importance to the Olmec.[25] The Feathered Serpent appears on La Venta Stele 19 (above) and within a Juxtlahuaca cave painting (see this Commons photo), locations hundreds of miles apart.

Fish or Shark Monster (God VI)

Most often recognized by its shark tooth, the head of the monster also features a crescent-shaped eye, and a small lower jaw.[26] 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.[27] This supernatural's profile is shown on the left leg of Las Limas Monument 1 (see Commons drawing).

Continuity Hypothesis

Marshall Howard Saville first suggested in 1929 that the Olmec deities were forerunners of later Mesoamerican gods, linking were-jaguar votive axes with the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca.[28] 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 Mesoamerican rain deities as descendents of a "jaguar masked" deity portrayed on a votive axe.[29] The Continuity Hypothesis has since been generally accepted by scholars,[30] although the extent of Olmec influence on later cultures is still debated.


  1. ^ Pool, p. 98.
  2. ^ Diehl, p. 106. See also J. E. Clark, , p. 343, who says "much of the art of La Venta appears to have been dedicated to rulers who dressed as gods, or to the gods themselves".
  3. ^ Diehl, p. 106.
  4. ^ Joralemon, p. 31.
  5. ^ Joralemon originally defined Gods I through X. However, over time, Joralemon proposed that Gods V, IX, and X were not separate deities (e.g. God IX was to be merged with God II) and has since split the earlier God IV into a rain supernatural and the were-jaguar. See Joralemon (1996) and Coe (1989), pp. 75-76.
  6. ^ Miller & Taube, p. 126.
  7. ^ See Taube (2004), p. 29.
  8. ^ See Joralemon (1996), p. 54.
  9. ^ Joralemon (1971).
  10. ^ Miller & Taube, p. 126.
  11. ^ Pool, p. 117. Joralemon (1996), p. 54.
  12. ^ Pool, p. 117.
  13. ^ Joralemon (1996), p. 54.
  14. ^ Miller & Taube, p. 126.
  15. ^ Miller & Taube, p. 126.
  16. ^ Coe (1972), p. 3.
  17. ^ Miller & Taube, p. 126.
  18. ^ Pool, p. 117, who states: "The were-jaguar is God IV, a god of rain and storms".
  19. ^ Joralemon, pp. 56-58.
  20. ^ Joralemon, pp. 56.
  21. ^ Tate, Carolyn. Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture. Austin: the University of Texas, 2012.
  22. ^ Taube (2004), p. 30.
  23. ^ Joralemon (1996), p. 56.
  24. ^ Taube (2004), p. 30.
  25. ^ Joralemon (1996), p. 58, says "it was a divinity of considerable significance". However, in counterpoint, Diehl, p. 104, says that the Feathered Serpent's "rarity suggests that it was a minor member of the Olmec pantheon".
  26. ^ Arnold, p. 10.
  27. ^ Pool, p. 102.
  28. ^ Coe (1989), p. 71, who in turn cites Matthew Stirling.
  29. ^ Covarrubias, p. 62.
  30. ^ Miller & Taube (p. 126) say: ". . . some [of these deities] were to survive, albeit in a changed form, for 2500 years until the Spanish Conquest".


Arnold, III, Philip J. (2005) "The Shark-Monster in Olmec Iconography", in Mesoamerican Voices, 2005, v. 2.
Bierhorst, John (1990) The Mythology of Mexico and Central America, William Morrow, ISBN 0-688-11280-3.
Coe, Michael D. (1972) "Olmec Jaguars and Olmec Kings" in E.P. Benson (ed), The Cult of the Feline. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, pp. 1-12.
Coe, Michael D. (1989) "The Olmec heartland: evolution of ideology" in Robert J. Sharer and David C. Grove, (ed), Regional Perspectives on the Olmec. Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-36332-7, pp. 68-82.
Coe, Michael D.; Rex Koontz (2002). Mexico: from the Olmecs to the Aztecs (5th edition, revised and enlarged ed.). London and New York: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-28346-X. OCLC 50131575., pp. 64, 75-76.
Covarrubias, Miguel (1957) Indian Art of Mexico and Central America, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Diehl, Richard (2004). The Olmecs: America's First Civilization. Ancient peoples and places series. London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-02119-8. OCLC 56746987.
Joralemon, Peter David (1996) "In Search of the Olmec Cosmos: Reconstructing the World View of Mexico's First Civilization". In E. P. Benson and B. de la Fuente (eds.), Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art: 51-60. ISBN 0-89468-250-4.
Luckert, Karl W. (1976) Olmec Religion: A Key to Middle America and Beyond. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma. ISBN 0-8061-1298-0.
Miller, Mary; Karl Taube (1993). The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion. London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-05068-6. OCLC 27667317.
Pohorilenko, Anatole (1996) "Portable Carvings in the Olmec Style", in E. P. Benson and B. de la Fuente (eds.), Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art: 119-131. ISBN 0-89468-250-4.
Pool, Christopher A. (2007). Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica. Cambridge World Archaeology. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-78882-3. OCLC 68965709.
Taube, Karl (2004). Olmec Art at Dumbarton Oaks (PDF). Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, No. 2. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection; Trustees of Harvard University. ISBN 0-88402-275-7. OCLC 56096117. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-02-27. Retrieved March 2009. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)

Further reading

  • Joralemon, Peter David (1971) A study of Olmec iconography, Dumbarton Oaks.
  • Joralemon, Peter David (1976) Olmec Dragon: a study in pre-Columbian iconography, UCLA Latin American Studies Series, v 31, pp. 27–71.
Absolute (philosophy)

The concept of the Absolute, also known as The (Unconditioned) Ultimate, The Wholly Other, The Supreme Being, The Absolute/Ultimate Reality, The Ground of Being, Urgrund, The Absolute Principle, The Source/Fountain/Well/Center/Foundation of Reality, The Ultimate Oneness/Whole, The Absolute God of The Universe, and other names, titles, aliases, and epithets, is the thing, being, entity, power, force, reality, presence, law, principle, etc. that possesses maximal ontological status, existential ranking, existential greatness, or existentiality. In layman's terms, this is the entity that is the greatest, highest, or "truest" being, existence, or reality.

There are many conceptions of the Absolute in various fields and subjects, such as philosophy, religion, spiritual traditions, formal science (such as mathematics), and even natural science. The nature of these conceptions can range from "merely" encompassing all physical existence, nature, or reality, to being completely unconditioned existentially, transcending all concepts, notions, objects, entities, and types, kinds, and categories of being.

The Absolute is often thought of as generating manifestations that interact with lower or lesser types, kinds, and categories of being. This is either done passively, through emanations, or actively, through avatars and incarnations. These existential manifestations, which themselves can possess transcendent attributes, only contain minuscule or infinitesimal portions of the true essence of the Absolute.

The term itself was not in use in ancient or medieval philosophy, but closely related to the description of God as actus purus in scholasticism. It was introduced in modern philosophy, notably by Hegel, for "the sum of all being, actual and potential".

The term has since also been adopted in perennial philosophy.

Aztec religion

The Aztec religion is a religion that originated from the Aztecs in central Mexico. Like other Mesoamerican religions, it had elements of human sacrifice in connection with a large number of religious festivals on the Aztec calendar. Polytheistic in its theology, the religion recognized a large and ever increasing pantheon of gods and goddesses; the Aztecs would often incorporate deities whose cults came from other geographic regions or peoples into their own religious practice.

Aztec cosmology divides the world into thirteen heavens and nine earthly layers or netherworlds (the first heaven overlapping with the first terrestrial layer, heaven and earth meeting at the surface of the Earth), each level associated with a specific set of deities and astronomical objects. The most important celestial entities in Aztec religion were the Sun, the Moon, and the planet Venus (both as "morning star" and "evening star"). Aztecs were popularly referred to as "People of the Sun."

Many leading deities of the Aztec pantheon were worshipped by present Mesoamerican civilizations, gods such as Tlaloc, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, who were venerated by different names in most cultures throughout the history of Mesoamerica. For the Aztecs especially important deities were the rain god Tlaloc, the god Huitzilopochtli—patron of the Mexica tribe, Quetzalcoatl the feathered serpent, wind god, culture hero, and god of civilization and order, and Tezcatlipoca, the shrewd elusive god of destiny and fortune, connected with war and sorcery. Each of these gods had their own shrine, side-by-side at the top of the largest pyramid in the Aztec capital Mexico-Tenochtitlan—Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli were both worshipped here at this dual temple, while a third monument in the plaza before the Templo Mayor was devoted to the wind god Ehecatl.

La Venta

This article is about the archeological site in Mexico. For the fossil site in Colombia, see La Venta (Colombia).

La Venta is a pre-Columbian archaeological site of the Olmec civilization located in the present-day Mexican state of Tabasco. Some of the artifacts have been moved to the museum "Parque - Museo de La Venta", which is in nearby Villahermosa, the capital of Tabasco.

List of religions and spiritual traditions

While religion is hard to define, one standard model of religion, used in religious studies courses, was proposed by Clifford Geertz, who defined it as a

[…] system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic." A critique of Geertz's model by Talal Asad categorized religion as "an anthropological category." Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to explain the origin of life or the universe. They tend to derive morality, ethics, religious laws, or a preferred lifestyle from their ideas about the cosmos and human nature. According to some estimates, there are roughly 4,200 religions in the world.The word religion is sometimes used interchangeably with "faith" or "belief system", but religion differs from private belief in that it has a public aspect. Most religions have organized behaviours, including clerical hierarchies, a definition of what constitutes adherence or membership, congregations of laity, regular meetings or services for the purposes of veneration of a deity or for prayer, holy places (either natural or architectural) or religious texts. Certain religions also have a sacred language often used in liturgical services. The practice of a religion may also include sermons, commemoration of the activities of a god or gods, sacrifices, festivals, feasts, trance, rituals, rites, ceremonies, worship, initiations, funerals, marriages, meditation, invocation, mediumship, music, art, dance, public service or other aspects of human culture. Religious beliefs have also been used to explain parapsychological phenomena such as out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences and reincarnation, along with many other paranormal and supernatural experiences.Some academics studying the subject have divided religions into three broad categories: world religions, a term which refers to transcultural, international faiths; indigenous religions, which refers to smaller, culture-specific or nation-specific religious groups; and new religious movements, which refers to recently developed faiths. One modern academic theory of religion, social constructionism, says that religion is a modern concept that suggests all spiritual practice and worship follows a model similar to the Abrahamic religions as an orientation system that helps to interpret reality and define human beings, and thus religion, as a concept, has been applied inappropriately to non-Western cultures that are not based upon such systems, or in which these systems are a substantially simpler construct.

Maya religion

The traditional Maya religion of Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras, and the Tabasco, Chiapas, and Yucatán regions of Mexico is a southeastern variant of Mesoamerican religion. As is the case with many other contemporary Mesoamerican religions, it results from centuries of symbiosis with Roman Catholicism. When its pre-Spanish antecedents are taken into account, however, traditional Maya religion already exists for more than two millennia as a recognizably distinct phenomenon. Before the advent of Christianity, it was spread over many indigenous kingdoms, with all their own local traditions. Today, it coexists and interacts with pan-Mayan syncretism, the 're-invention of tradition' by the Pan-Maya movement, and Christianity in its various denominations.

Mythologies of the indigenous peoples of the Americas

The indigenous peoples of the Americas comprise numerous different cultures. Each has its own mythologies. Some are quite distinct, but certain themes are shared across the cultural boundaries.


The Olmecs () were the earliest known major civilization in Mesoamerica following a progressive development in Soconusco. They lived in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico, in the present-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco. It has been speculated that the Olmecs derive in part from neighboring Mokaya or Mixe–Zoque.

The Olmecs flourished during Mesoamerica's formative period, dating roughly from as early as 1500 BCE to about 400 BCE. Pre-Olmec cultures had flourished in the area since about 2500 BCE, but by 1600–1500 BCE, early Olmec culture had emerged, centered on the San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán site near the coast in southeast Veracruz. They were the first Mesoamerican civilization, and laid many of the foundations for the civilizations that followed. Among other "firsts", the Olmec appeared to practice ritual bloodletting and played the Mesoamerican ballgame, hallmarks of nearly all subsequent Mesoamerican societies. The aspect of the Olmecs most familiar now is their artwork, particularly the aptly named "colossal heads". The Olmec civilization was first defined through artifacts which collectors purchased on the pre-Columbian art market in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Olmec artworks are considered among ancient America's most striking.

Southern Maya area

The Southern Maya Area (SMA) is a part of Mesoamerica, long believed important to the rise of Maya civilization, the period that is also known as Preclassic Maya. It lies within a broad arc or cantilevered rectangle from Chiapa de Corzo, in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in the northwest due south to Izapa and Paso de la Amada, from Chiapa de Corzo southeast to Copán, Honduras, and from Copán south to Chalchuapa, El Salvador.

The Pacific Ocean forms the southern and western limits of the Southern Maya Area. Within this area and in addition to these sites are found the major centers of Kaminaljuyu, Takalik Abaj, Chocolá, El Sitio, El Jobo, La Blanca, Ujuxte, Palo Gordo, El Baúl, Cotzumalhuapa, Monte Alto, Semetabaj, El Portón, Zacualpa, Zaculeu, Balberta, and La Montana; many of these sites are believed to have been built and populated by speakers of Maya languages, and others by speakers of other Mesoamerican languages, including Xinca, Lenca, Mixe–Zoquean, and Pipil; accordingly, in consideration of the multilingual character of the Southern Maya Area, in many ways Southern "Maya" Area is a misnomer.Most of these centers developed to their apogees in the Preclassic period before declining or disappearing. In addition to these large sites, many Early Preclassic communities, found mostly along the Pacific Coast, bear witness to the seminal character of the Southern area; notably these include La Victoria, a site studied by Michael Coe that yielded the first secure ceramic sequence from early on in Preclassic times. Since Coe’s work, John E. Clark and other scholars from the New World Archaeological Foundation have found, at Paso de la Amada and other sites, ceramics that refine and deepen in time Coe’s sequence, pushing back to ca. 2000 BC the earliest nuclear centers, fine pottery, figurines, and other manifestations of the beginnings of complex society and culture in Mesoamerica. The earliest pristine ballcourt and evidence of a ranked society (a rich child's burial), indicative of emerging social hierarchization, were found at Paso de la Amada and nearby. At La Blanca, archaeologists discovered a quatrefoil made of baked clay buried near Mound 1, one of the largest and earliest temple mounds in Mesoamerica, indicating an early fount of what later became core Maya ideology.

Historical polytheism
Myth and ritual
Modern pagan movements

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