We guard our property in many ways: with alarms, fences, locks, and dogs. We secret our valuables away in safes and boxes, complete with combinations and passwords to keep the criminal and the curious from gaining access. We place a value on what is precious to us and keep it protected so that we and our loved ones can benefit from any financial rewards or aesthetic joy that may be inherent in it. To lose what is precious or valuable to us through theft, deception or act of God is considered a tragedy.
In our modern society, most of us only think of the tangible ways in which we can secure our belongings to ourselves. We rarely think of supernatural means of guarding our belongings (or even ourselves) from the evil that would target our corporal wealth or even our spiritual selves. While we may have decided through generations of scientific learning and practical experience that spiritual protection is ineffective at best, this was not always the case. Many cultures have practiced forms of defense and guardianship that take the form of invisible protection from incorporeal beings. These methods were often used in conjunction with more practical means.
The Western Mexican civilizations centered in the modern states of Nayarit, Jalisco and Colima had learned to bury their dead deep under the ground to keep them protected from the physical disturbances of animals and climate that would defile the body and prevent it from entering the afterlife. But how to keep the covetous humans who would pilfer the goods that were deemed necessary to assist and accompany the deceased spirit to the afterlife? The answer partly was to situate the tomb under a dwelling where the living were sheltered and conceal the entrance. Living on top of the grave would keep the family on constant vigil for would be desecraters. But this was only the beginning. There would have to be protections to keep the deceased spirit from wandering the surface world and haunting the living. There would have to be some form of magic that would help the newly dead to travel to the land of the dead and be born again.
The ancient Western Mexicans of 300 BC devised the culture of the shaft tomb for the interment of their elite dead. These tombs were dug out of tuff, a bedrock that is formed out of the compaction and consolidation of volcanic ash. This rock is easily worked and forms the substrate of much of Western Mexico. Shaft tombs were constructed by digging a shaft straight down into the bedrock about 10 to 65 feet. At the bottom of the shaft, a low-ceilinged chamber would be hollowed out large enough to lay out one or more bodies. The bodies would be surrounded by various grave goods: pots (which often contained food), tools, jewelry, and household implements (like grinding stones for maize and spindles for weaving). These items would be needed to complete the afterlife journey and to keep the spirit comfortable. Included in the grave goods were also clay figures. The clay figures were of various genres, some depicting situations or people from life and others that were for magical protection and guidance.
Underground, within the darkness and silence of the earth, was considered by many cultures to be a place of transformation and regeneration. All life came from the earth and all life had to return to it. The tomb was the place where the body of the deceased returned to the womb of the Great Mother, to be reborn into the afterlife and join the ancestors. For this stage of the cosmic cycle to be completed successfully, the Jalisco culture of Western Mexico believed that a guardian spirit needed to accompany the deceased to fend off any physical or spiritual entity that may try to deter, confuse, or interrupt the soul. A soul, interrupted from its journey to the afterlife, would become a wandering spirit who would haunt the family and village. A wandering spirit could cause all kinds of difficulty, stress and fear to the family and/or the community through its haunting. It is important that the deceased have the peace and security of it’s tomb to complete the necessary final stages.
The sculptural head pictured at the top of this essay is from the collection of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. It is the head of a warrior from a shaft grave located in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. He wears a feather crested, wooden (or wicker) helmet of a warrior of what would become the Ameca people who lived in the area of what is now the modern Mexican state of Jalisco. On his face are traces of slip painting that indicate the tattooing or face painting of the community. He has wide staring eyes with pronounced rims, which are nearly hidden by his helmet; a long, exaggerated aquiline nose; and a straight, wide, unmodeled mouth that looks like it was just a lineal mark made by a pointed tool into the wet clay as an indicator for a necessary feature. These set, grim features create the necessary seriousness of tone for a sentinel whose mission is to protect and attack. The chin has been built up by adding a strip of clay to strengthen the jawline to continue the air of severity to the face. The dot and striped pattern of facial decoration almost make it look like the hair of a beard. My first impression of this head was that it was an indigenous Mexican interpretation of a conquistador. With the pointed nose and the added chin, the features look European. But when compared with extant examples of other Ameca warriors, the resemblance to the usurper Europeans fade. Originally, this warrior head would have sat on a body that would have been covered by a barrel shaped cuirass to protect the torso, and would be brandishing a type of mace-spear, in a stance of ready defense. His legs would have been sculpted stout, with wide, flat feet to ensure that the figure would stand upright against any enemy that would threaten the interred body. The substantial legs and feet also kept the figure standing, always on guard through the ages.
But what was this warrior guarding against? Certainly, the tangible, physical pilfering of the sacred space of the grave. The goods that were buried with the deceased had their own value in everyday life and would be coveted by the living. But there was more to keep at bay than the sticky fingers of the living. There were many evil and seductive forces and spirits that would try and deter the soul of the dead away from its journey to the afterlife. The individual themselves, may want to stay on earth to be close to their spouse or friends and not continue their cosmic obligation. The warrior figure was there to force back the spirts of seduction that would tempt the soul to linger or to encourage, with the point of a spear, the reluctant soul to fulfill its destiny. The warrior was tasked with keeping the cosmic order cycling. It was his job to ensure that the soul under his guardianship found its way to the afterlife and completed it rebirth to live again.
Each culture must face the inevitable fact that each living person must die. But is death the end of a person? For most cultures the answer is a hopeful “no.” To this end, many rituals have been devised to assist the dead in its transition to whatever was next in the cycle of life. The ancient Mesoamericans of Western Mexico saw death as a continuation and partner of life. They believed that the souls needed to journey through the afterlife and back to the womb to be born again into a new life (kings, however, became gods). They contrived to bury their dead deep in the sacred ground with all that was necessary to continue their work and make the journey to complete their cosmic cycle and to protect the soul from interruption in this final and most necessary of tasks. The warrior head from Jalisco had the responsibility to guard his charge and the goods lain with them from any deviations that would be a deterrent. It was a noble and necessary obligation that kept the cosmos in order.
Arthur Bruso © 2020
To read further on Western Mexican pre-Columbian culture, read my essay on the Colimba Culture Mask here.
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