• Arthur Bruso

Four page engravings of christian mystical symbolism.
Unidentified engraver. Published by Johann Gichtel in the collected works of Jakob Bohme,1682. Engravings illustrating the text of Jakob Bohem.

I saw the Being of all Beings, the Ground and the Abyss; also the birth of the Holy Trinity; the origin and the first state of the world and of all creatures. I saw in myself the three worlds—the Divine or angelic world; the dark world, the original of Nature; and the external world, as a substance spoken forth out of the two spiritual worlds. . . .

Jakob Bohme

At 25 years old, young Jakob Bohme, had a spiritual vision that would change his life. He was always a pious man who studied the Bible, was raised in the Lutheran religion and was constantly seeking knowledge. One day while working in his cobbler’s shop, Bohme’s attention was directed to a flash of sunlight that reflected off a pewter vessel. In the blinding flash of this event, Bohme had an insight to the some of the most difficult theological conundrums of the age. He believed that he had been shown the mystical order of the universe, the answer and solution to the theological dilemma of good and evil, God’s plan on the collapse of feudal hierarchies, and that all things consist of either yes or no.

Engraved portrait of Jakob Bohme in an oval with text underneath.
Jakob Bohme

The year was 1600. Jakob Bohme (1575 – 1624) was a shoemaker in the Eastern German town of Gorlitz, near the Polish border. Although he had only a rudimentary education, he had risen from his apprenticeship in a shoemaker’s shop to become a master craftsman with his own shop. He had married a butcher’s daughter and begun a family that would eventually include six children. Bohme’s wife Katherine was a pragmatic woman who did not share her husband’s interest in searching for knowledge. For her, there were mouths to feed and a household to maintain. Let God do His work and Jakob the shoemaker do his and the world will be fine, was her belief. We do not need to understand God’s ways.

Although not highly learned, and despite his wife’s pragmatic approach to life, Bohme still thought on many things and wished to know more. When the charismatic Lutheran pastor and mystic Martin Moller came to town to assume the position of the town Pastor, Bohme joined his congregation, and then began attending Moller’s spiritual study group the Conventicle of God’s Real Servants. It was shortly after becoming part of this spiritual study group that Bohme had his vision.

Old engraving of an bird's eye view of the town of Gorlitz, Germany c. 1600.
The town of Gorlitz c.1600

However, Bohme knew his place as a peasant shoemaker in German society, and he knew not to confide to his quarrelsome wife the daydreams he had on the nature of God. He kept his remarkable visionary experience to himself. For twelve years he ruminated on what had been revealed to him until he believed that he fully understood the message he had been entrusted with. Wishing to hold on to his thoughts in a more tangible way, he began to write down his understanding of his mystic vision. The manuscript he composed was titled Dawn of the Day in the East. Although the Pastor Moller had died six years before, Bohme must have shared his project with members of the Conventicle of God’s Real Servants because somehow the work in progress got into the hands of a nobleman. Dually impressed the nobleman had copies made and began to circulate them among the learned men of Gorlitz. A copy of Dawn of the Day in the East, retitled Aurora by a friend, reached the hands of the new Pastor who had replaced Moller and become the chief Pastor of Gorlitz. The Pastor, Gregorious Richter was not as open to religious interpretation of Lutheran doctrine as Moller had been, nor was he open to considering the thoughts of the unlearned. An uneducated peasant had no business attempting to have his own interpretations of the Word of God. For the intransigent Moller, theology was best left to trained clergy who had rigorously studied religious discourse. Although Bohme’s treatise did refute the Lutheran teaching of sola fide, (the righting of sin by faith alone) this was not the main reason that Richter was willing to brand Bohme a heretic. It was Bohme’s audacity to try and rise above his station and his attempt to argue theology with his social and intellectual superiors of the clergy that angered Richter. Bohme must be silenced. Richter threatened exile if Bohme continued with his scribbling.

For five years Bohme laid aside his pen. But the exhortations of his supporters and the continued mystical experiences he had had finally won out. The message from God was too important to keep silenced. Between 1618 and 1622 Bohme wrote eleven books. All of these were inspired by his mystical visions and experiences and covered the topics of sin, evil, redemption, and divine grace. Each of these books were copied by hand and distributed among his friends and supporters. By the time his eleventh book, The Way to Christ, was completed in 1622, one of Bohme’s nobleman friends decided that it was time for Bohme to find recognition with a wider audience. In 1624, through the largesse of this nobleman, The Way to Christ became Bohme’s first published book. Its publication caused another scandal and complaints among the clergy. He was summoned in front of the Gorlitz town council and given the ultimatum of exile, or harsher measures would be implemented against him.

The primary condition of his exile was that he was required to appear in front of the Prince Elector (one of the reigning nobleman who had the power and duty to elect the German Emperor and decide legal issues) who had his court in Dresden. The Prince Elector would be the one to decide Bohme’s fate. There Bohme stayed with the court physician. His stay was brief, for at the Dresden court, his intellect was recognized by the high clergy and the Prince Elector. Through their judgement and decision, his transgressions were vindicated. After only two months exile, Bohme was encouraged to return home to his family who were destitute without his financial support.

Unfortunately, this was not the end of Bohme’s troubles. Pastor Richter had inflamed the rancor of the townspeople against Bohme, so much so that the nobleman who had financed the publishing of The Way to Christ extended an invitation to Bohme to stay at his country estate to keep him safe from their cruelty. There Bohme began work on what would become his final book, 177 Theosophic Questions.

Although welcomed, esteemed, and lauded by his intellectual and noble friends, he fell gravely ill while at the country estate. Acceding to his wishes, Bohme was returned to his family. There he died under the care of his wife and sons on November 17, 1624 at age 49.

Jakob Bohme's house in Gorlitz, Germany where he died.
Jakob Bohme's house in Gorlitz, Germany where he died.

In 1682, Bohme’s work was collected and published in Amsterdam, by an ardent disciple, Johann Gichtel. It was Gichtel who commissioned and had inserted into Bohme’s text the esoteric, symbol laden illustrations that have fascinated many for so long. These illustrations by an unnamed engraver, under the supervision of Gichtel, attempt to visually interpret Bohme’s complex theological universe. Many of these illustrations use alchemical symbolism in their depictions of religious concepts since much of Bohme’s writing uses such terminology. This has brought up speculation that Bohme may have been practicing alchemy. Bohme was never an alchemist. His Christian piety would not allow for something that may have associations with the Dark Sphere of evil and greed. It is clear from his language that he did have a cursory understanding of alchemical terms and processes, probably through his intellectual and physician friends. He also certainly was given access to the writing of Paracelsus (c. 1493 – 1541), the famous German Renaissance physician and alchemist, who had an enormous influence on medical thinking and practice at the time. For Paracelsus the purpose of science was not only to learn more about the world around us, but also to search for divine signs and potentially understand the nature of God. This intersection of nature, science and God resonated with Bohme.

18th century oil painting of Paracelsus with red hat.
The Louvre copy of the lost portrait of Paracelsus by Quentin Matsys, 18th century.

It was through those mystical engravings that Gichtel had inserted into Bohme’s printed works, rather than the texts themselves, that became my introduction to this Lutheran mystic. I too was fascinated by their dense symbolism and cryptic imagery. Perhaps because of my Catholic upbringing, the Catholic Church’s reliance on similar symbols and my fascination with Catholic iconography, these engravings did not read as alchemical in nature. Their arcane appearance and nearly impenetrable messages enticed me to decipher them further. Particularly, four of the etchings from Bohme’s volumes caught my interest when I saw them on exhibition. I shall delve into these particular engravings more deeply and attempt to unravel their meanings.

The Kingdom of Christ

There are several written clues that aid in deciphering this engraving. Each illustration has a floating banner imposed upon the image which titles it. This one translates to The Kingdom of Christ and sets the theme. Additionally, there are two references to Bible verses: Matthew 11:12 and Joel 1:12-13. These two Biblical quotes further clarify the meaning of the image.

Matthew 11:12 reads – And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.

Joel 1: 12-13 reads - The vine is dried up, and the fig tree languisheth; the pomegranate tree, the palm tree also, and the apple tree, even all the trees of the field, are withered: because joy is withered away from the sons of men.

Gird yourselves, and lament, ye priests: howl, ye ministers of the altar: come, lie all night in sackcloth, ye ministers of my God: for the meat offering and the drink offering is withholden from the house of your God.

If we look at the Kingdom of Christ engraving from the bottom up, we notice that the quote from Joel is just above the Dark World sphere, in which roots penetrate. For Jakob Bohme, there are always at least two world spheres: the Dark World and the Light World. Bohme always sees the universe as a conflict of opposites (Yes and No). The Light World is the sphere of goodness, the acceptance of God’s grace and the world of unlimited spiritual growth. The Dark World is the unregenerate sphere. The place where we turn away from God and his blessings and embrace sin.

As the quote from Job describes it, the roots in the Dark World are dead. They do not bring nourishment to the human heart. They are in fact keeping the heart in darkness and withholding it from the light of God, causing it to wither and in danger of dying. To further emphasize the hold that sin has on the human heart, it is encircled by the evil, cunning serpent of Eden and the Dragon of Satan.

Crowning the heart, is the eye as a symbol of the soul. The soul is surrounded by the flames of enlightenment, which also penetrate the heart to fend off the negative influences of the Dark World. As the quote from Matthew implies, the soul must take action, even violently, to break free of the evil of the serpent, dragon and the Dark World.

The quote from Matthew, comes from the New Testament chapter where Jesus explains to his followers the importance of John the Baptist to the coming of the new world order in preparing their souls for the coming grace of God, in the form of His presence on Earth. So too, must we all continue to do what is necessary to thwart that which would keep us trapped in sin and darkness.

Rising from the enlightened soul, is a rope, the lifeline that leads us to salvation, attached to an anchor. The anchor of hope. The anchor is affixed to the cross of Christ’s Crucifixion, the symbol of redemption from our transgressions. Christ died for our sins so that we could break free from the darkness of Satan and live in the light of the Holy Spirit, which sits atop the cross.

The concise message of this engraving is that to achieve an eternal life with God, we must put our faith in Christ as our savior who will lead us to the Holy Spirit.

The passage from Bohme that inspired this engraving is:

“The fiery soul has entered a shelter with fire, and must break out again with fire and violence, or the diabolical serpent or the astral world spirit will keep it in its prison. There is no escape route downwards; only upwards – above all the senses – does one draw breath and strengthen life.” Jakob Bohme, The Way to Christ, 1730 edition.

Of Divine Revelation

The print titled Of Divine Revelation, is the only Gichtel engraving for the Bohme books to have a naturalistic figure in it. The masculine form symbolizes Adam, or Everyman. He stands on the Earth, between a sheep which rests on the side of the sun and light; and a goat, that seems to cower on the side of darkness (note the moon in the sky). These are the traditional biblical symbols of good and evil. This is defined in the New Testament Gospel of Matthew where he discusses Christ’s Last Judgment (25: 31-33) -

When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:

And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:

And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.”

Adam holds in his right hand a sphere. The sphere is bordered by the alphabet that symbolizes all the world’s knowledge. Inside the sphere are the flames of enlightenment, and the cross of God’s blessing. In Adam’s left hand, he holds the lighted candle of flesh (Christ) and spirit (Holy Spirit). With the candle of the Word of Christ, he is igniting the flames of purification and rebirth around the sphere of the earth.

Above Adam’s head is a triangle which contains a cross surrounded by a nimbus. Each side of the triangle is named: VA – Jehovah (father), IE – Christ (son), and OH – Adonai (spirit), the components of the Christian Holy Trinity. The Trinity is also indicated by the three heavenly crowns and the letters M, V, and I: M - Mysterious Magnum (great mystery), V – Verbum (the word) and I, which is the symbol of unity, or one.

Thus, the etching is telling us that every person has been given the knowledge and ability by God to rise above the earthly sphere by choosing rebirth and purification over evil and can elect to dwell in heavenly sphere with God. For Bohme, understanding this is the divine revelation.

Bohme wrote a pamphlet titled The Four Tables of Divine Revelation that may have influenced the iconography of this etching. Similarly, Bohme’s Conversation Between and Enlightened and an Unenlightened Soul (1624) covers similar ground.

The Serenity

At the center of the engraving The Serenity, is the symbol of the soul with wings. In Gichtel’s engravings for Bohme, the eye is consistently used as a symbol of the soul. Here, it has been given wings to represent the soul’s state of yearning to reach ever higher into God’s grace. In this etching, there are two overlapping spheres, the bottom sphere represents the Universe, or God’s creation. It is the corporal plane where we all live. The larger sphere, superimposed upon the worldly sphere, is the sphere of heaven. It holds the triangle of the Trinity near the top, representing God from which all goodness radiates as light. In the center is the striving soul. For Bohme, this was the ideal place for man’s desire to be with God. We need to rise above the worldly temptations and concerns to bask in God’s grace. But, warns Bohme, we must not strive to rise too high into the loving light of God, lest we become accused of hubris like Lucifer. Lucifer wished to shine brighter than God in his beauty and was then cast down into the abyss for trying to compete. So it is the same with our human souls. Finding the proper middle place between the darkness of the world and the light of God’s grace, should be the desire and humility of every human soul to avoid the condemnation of hubris.

The text from Bohme’s Theosophical Work of 1682 became the basis of this illustration of human humbleness before God. “The soul is an eye of fire, or a mirror of fire, wherein the Godhead has revealed itself… It is a hungry fire and must have being, otherwise it becomes a dark and hungry valley. The darkness is hidden at the center of light, and anyone who wishes arrogantly to go beyond God, like Lucifer, is left with only darkness. Thus, it is best for the soul to linger in a “calm” middle region between spiritual heights and deep humility.”

The Tree of Faith

The Tree of Faith engraving is based upon three spheres of God’s creation. The bottom most is called The Region of Stars. Like the dark universe of The Serenity engraving, it represents the worldly sphere where were all humans live. The surrounding stars are the spiritual light penetrating from heaven. The Center sphere placed behind in an inferior position is the Dark World of sin. This is the sphere that humans are trying to avoid as we grow in God’s grace. The sphere of the Dark World is positioned to the back to minimize its influence both visually and spiritually. The third and topmost sphere is the sphere of Paradise, with Jesus positioned at its center.

The tree trunk grows up through the center of the image. Its roots are entwined around the anchor of hope from the Word of Jesus’ teachings. The branches of the tree fill Paradise with the promise of immortality when we follow the Word of God.

In the center position, between Paradise and the Region of Stars rests the soul, purified by the flames of truth. This provides us with the message that as we put our faith in the hope of God’s Word, so we will grow into the promise of immortality in Paradise.

Bohme’s passage from Aurora sets the imagery for this engraving. “Now the Earth, in which the Tree stands affords sap continually to the tree, whereby the tree hath its living Quality: but the tree in itself grows from the Sap of the Earth, becomes Large, and spreads it self abroad with its branches : And then as the Earth works with its power upon the tree, to make it grow and increase ; so the tree also works continually with its branches with all its strength, that it might still bear good fruits abundantly.” Jakob Bohme, Aurora, 1656 English edition.

As can be attested by the four engravings interpreted here, it was Gichtel who gave visual acuity to Bohme’s dense metaphysical texts. For good or bad, it is Gichtel who seems to hold our modern interests now even if we merely find the engravings curious and optically arresting. Few of us have studied Christian theology enough to decipher the opaque religious symbolism and with the waning of religious interest, fewer still are open to the messages of salvation that these engravings offer. As I hope to have shown through my analysis of their meaning, they have little to do with alchemy, but everything to do with the Christian mystical experience. It was the mystical state of mind that Gichtel was attracted to in Bohme’s writing and through these engravings it was that mysticism that he endeavored to convey. Given how these images have gained attention, I believe that Bohme’s greatest fan has succeeded in his endeavors. If perhaps the American occultists who are attracted to these symbolic illustrations could actually read the black letter German banner titles, perhaps they would find them less exotic and mysterious. The banner titles direct the viewer towards the direction that the imagery is going. There is something attractive about a mystery. The romantic attributes of something visually undeciphered can entertain the creative mind for an eternity. Knowing the meaning of something often takes one kind of pleasure from it. The pleasure of savoring the inscrutability, of reveling in the enigma. We don’t always want to know the “how” of the trick. We often want to believe in the magic and let the mystery be.

Arthur Bruso © 2022

#arthurbruso #artswriting #occultwriting #arthurbrusoartswriter #flashinthepan #jakobbohme #lutharan #lutheranmystic #christianmysticism #gorlitz #marttinmoller #conventicleofgodsrealservants #aurora #gregoriousrichter #thewaytochrist #princeelector #Dresden #177theosopicquestions #johanngichtel #paracelsus #germanrenaissance #thekingdomofchrist #gospelofmatthew #gospelofjoel #ofdivinerevelation #adam #everyman #lambsandgoats #trinity #holytrinity #thefourtablesofdivinerevelation #theserenity #3theosophicalworks #thetreeoffaith #christiantheology #alchemy

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  • Arthur Bruso

Vera Cruz Classic Culture Terracotta head from Veracruz, Mexico, 600 - 800 AD
Head; Locale: Veracruz, Mexico; Period: Late Classic, circa A.D. 600 - 800 (Remojadas style); Material: terracotta; Dimensions: H: 4.72" W x 4.33" D 3.93." Collection American Museum of Natural History

My little one, my daughter, my noble woman, you have wearied yourself, you have fought bravely. By your labors you have achieved a noble death, you have come to the place of the Divine. …Go, beloved child, little by little towards them (the Cihuateteo) and become one of them; go daughter and they will receive you and you will be one of them forever, rejoicing with your happy voices in praise of our Mother and Father, the Sun, and you will always accompany them wherever they go in their rejoicing.

Bernadino de Sahagún, Florentine Codex, pages 381-382. (Aztec midwife’s prayer for women who die in childbirth.)

Map of Mexico showing Classic Vera Cruz sites.
Map of Mexico showing Classic Vera Cruz sites.

On the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, in the present-day central, coastal Mexican state of Vera Cruz, a Mesoamerican culture flourished that predated the Aztecs. Known as the Classic Veracruz Culture, it’s golden age lasted from 100 AD to 1000 AD. Its major city was called El Tajin, named after the culture’s rain god whose name translates to Thunderbolt. This ancient city outlasted the Classic Vera Cruz Culture, declining in stature until 1230 AD when it was invaded and burned by the Chichimecs, a rival Mesoamerican tribe. After it was destroyed, El Tajin was abandoned as a city and left to be reclaimed by the jungle. However, the ruins were well known by the indigenous people who survived the invasion and destruction of El Tajin. These remnants of Vera Cruz Culture continued to live in subsistence villages in the area. They kept the knowledge of the ruins of El Tajin from outsiders because to them the abandoned city was a haunted and holy place. Especially sacred was the Pyramid of Niches, a major and prominent landmark of El Tajin. The indigenous people kept The Pyramid of Niches free from the overgrowth of the forest for the use of local rituals. El Tajin came to the notice of the western world when it was stumbled upon by Diego Ruiz in 1785. Ruiz was a Spanish official who had been entrusted by the Spanish king to seek out illegal tobacco plantings that were breaching the Spanish monarchy’s monopoly on the crop. His discovery and official description of the Pyramid of the Niches began an academic interest in El Tajin and Classic Vera Cruz Culture that has continued until the present day.

View of the reconstructed city El Tajin center of worship.
View of the reconstructed city El Tajin center of worship.

Veracruz Mexico ruin of the Pyramid of Niches.
Pyramid of Niches, El Tajin, Vera Cruz, Mexico.

Although El Tajin was the most spectacular ancient Vera Cruz community with its prominent architectural program and its many Mesoamerican ballgame courts, there were other settlements under Classic Vera Cruz Culture rule. Further to the south, the town Remojadas was the site of a thriving pottery and ceramic industry that served all the communities of Vera Cruz. Thousands of Vera Cruz terra cotta figures have been unearthed at Remojadas in a wide array of situations from gravesites to waste dumps. They range from hand size to nearly 3 feet in height, each with a highly recognizable and developed modeling skill that can be most noted in their expressive and animated faces. Unfortunately, despite the riches in the ceramic art that was found there, unlike the continuing archeological interest in El Tajin, interest in Remojadas has waned since 1950. It does not have the grand architectural structures of El Tajin to sustain a tourist trade that would support and encourage further investigation. Most of the figures found at Remojadas are the enigmatic Sonrientes (smiling faces). These curious sculptures depict smiling, almost childlike characters that seem to caricature elements of the Vera Cruz culture. Because of the lack of archeological study and widespread looting from the unguarded site, the context and academic interpretation needed to gain a full picture of the Sonrientes is lacking. Other sculptures which have been studied, have been interpreted as figures of rulers or of gods. One type of deity in particular for which much is known is called a Cihuateteo. Cihuateteo iconography is distinguished by depicting a woman, often sitting with closed eyes and open mouth. She shows the usual Mesoamerican female attributes of bare breasts, a skirt, and elaborate head ornamentation. This feminine sculptural deity was assimilated from Classic Vera Cruz culture into the much better studied Mayan civilization. The Cihuateteo goddess myth maintains a strong folk tradition among central and southern indigenous Mexicans in the present day which parallels the archeologic record.

Standing terra cotta figure with smiling face from Veracruz, Mexico.
Sonrientes figure; Date: 7th–9th century; Mexico, Mesoamerica, Veracruz Culture: Remojadas; Medium: Ceramic; Dimensions: H. 20 7/16 x W. 16 3/4 x D. 4 in. Metropolitan Museum of Art

A triangular shaped terra cotta head believed to be from Remojadas or El Tajin, from the collection of Vera Cruz pottery in the American Museum of Natural History (catalog no. 30.3/2395) shows some of the basic elements of the Cihuateteo. While it is difficult to ascertain what the missing body of this particular head would have looked like or what pose it would have taken, the sides of the Vera Cruz head show evidence of an absent headdress. The facial features display the closed eyes and open mouth typical of the Cihuateteo. These distinguishing iconographic attributes aid in identifying this head as belonging to this class of deity.

A female figure of the Cihuateteo type, depicts a woman who died during childbirth. The closed eyes and open mouth illustrate the trope of the human face at death. The death of a woman during childbirth created a dire situation in the mythos of ancient Veracruz Mexico. The tragedy of a woman’s death in this way, set up a condition that went against the order of birth, motherhood and nurturing of the child to maturity to become a productive member of the society. To restore the natural order, something had to be done to set the world aright. Without intervention, the spirt of the deceased woman would haunt the community and cause much disruption and destruction. The dead mother’s spirit had to be appeased in a special way, by deifying the woman as a goddess. She must be transformed into one of the Cihuateteo (transliterated to “woman goddess”).

 Cihuateteo goddess. Anthropology museum. Mexico City
Cihuateteo goddess; Anthropology museum; Mexico City

In central Mesoamerican culture, childbirth was considered to be akin to a battle between the soul of the mother and the new soul of the child. The new soul was invested into the child by the gods during childbirth and the two could not coexist in the same body. Childbirth to the ancient Mexican people became a fight for existence between the mother and child. If the mother was victorious in bringing forth the new soul while holding on to her own, then all was right with the natural order of things. A new individual was added to the community to be nursed and raised by the mother and blessed into being by the gods. If she lost the struggle and therefore her own soul, the mother’s spirit needed to be placated. Special prayers and funerary practices were necessary to make the transformation from restless ghost to goddess.

For the warriors of the community, the body of a mother who died in childbirth held special magic. Since the woman’s body was believed to have been a battleground for the gods, the body was considered consecrated. Specifically, two parts of this holy body held powerful magic: the hair and the left middle finger. Hair is magically potent because it continuously grows and is replaced. This constant regeneration implies that the hair would always contain the essence of the individual. Fingers, along with hands, actualize and direct the creative energy of the individual which is the manifestation of an individual’s power. The left side in some cultures including Mesoamerica, is believed to have a direct connection with the heart, the seat of courage and the life force. As such, the left side of the body contains stronger magic, as does the center finger since it is the longest. Both the hair and middle finger were considered supremely potent talismans. When either was placed on a warrior’s shield, it was believed they would give them strength, blind their enemies, and enhance their bravery. Because of these strong beliefs and desirable attributes, it was imperative to protect the body of the deceased from the warriors who would attempt to desecrate it and thus trap the woman’s soul on earth. To prevent this from happening, the husband, midwives and women beyond childbearing years would hold vigil to guard the body during the prayers and rituals that transformed the deceased woman into a Cihuateteo.

In the cosmology of the Classic Culture of Vera Cruz, the Cihuateteo traverse the heavens, the underworld, and the earth. They dwelt with the stars in the western sky called the Cihuatlampa (the place of women). They accompanied the sun from noon to sunset as it made its daily cycle across the sky. On five specific days in the calendar (the first day of every fourth cycle of a 13 day count of a 250 day year), the Cihuateteo descended to Earth.

The Cihuateteo were worshipped at special shrines called cihuateocalli (goddess house), which were built in various sizes and locations, but especially at crossroads. Across the world and across cultures, the crossroads has an almost universal symbolism as a haunted place that exists between worlds. This stems from the idea of these areas being anonymous places, belonging to neither one road nor the other, but also as a place where fate is decided. Since it is an area which can claim no proprietary rights to the intersecting paths that create it, it exists out of space and time. This is where a community can discard all the negative refuse it accumulates and in doing so discharges all the negative energy away from the community to be transformed and dispersed. This idea of discarding the negative into an ambiguous area makes the crossroads the ideal place to build shrines that consecrate and deify the unnatural souls that have died in childbirth. The shrines contained an image of the deceased reimagined as a goddess, lifting her above her station as an outcast who has lost the battle for her soul and has been resurrected as a divine being who has fought with the gods and is thus worthy of worship.

During the days when the Cihuateteo descend to Earth, the shrines were decorated with amatetéuitl, which were originally bark paper badges that represented the soul of the deceased. The figure was also dressed in the bark paper and ornamented with paper jewelry. To venerate the deceased woman’s sacrifice of her soul, food offerings were left, including small cakes or breads shaped in the form of butterflies. Besides being a devotional offering to the transformed soul, the cakes are formed into the shape of butterflies because in Mesoamerican culture they are a symbol of the breath of life exhaled by the dying.

On the holy days that the Cihuateteo were abroad on earth, only women who were skilled in the art of spirit communication and protective magic were deemed safe to go outside the home. All others, especially men were cautioned to stay indoors, unless they become possessed. Possession was evident by uncontrollable shaking and seizures. Because this ban on men during the sacred days limited their movements, the men would grumble and, in their discontent, began the germ of the demonization of the Cihuateteo as fiends who would take possession of their souls and cause them physical harm. This annoyance among the Vera Cruz indigenous men allowed the Spaniards of the Spanish Conquest to complete the corruption of the true nature of the Cihuateteo, encouraging the loss of the identity of these goddesses as munificent beings. Instead of being the gods who visited earth only on their holy days, they were metamorphosized by the Spaniards into evil, pagan entities would continually haunt the crossroads where their shrines had been built. With this devolution into infamy, they were charged with stealing children; causing madness; and inducing men into adultery along with possession.

The frequently seen, weeping female ghost of Latin American folklore, La Llorona, has its roots in the worship of the Cihuateteo. While, the Cihuateteo had the beginnings of a negative reputation, because of their limitations put on men. But the correlation of the Cihuateteo with evil became ingrained under the forced influence of the Catholic Church, and the importation of machismo culture from Spain after the Spanish Conquest. The Church tried to repress the mythology of the Cihuateteo, since they were pagan in origin and not connected with the official Church or the Catholic saints. Additionally, as a point of pride, the men could not allow themselves to be subsumed by a feminine taboo. Eventually, the Cihuateteo roles as gods became erased and their mythology became diminished, fractured, and distorted into many different legends of the dark feminine, all under the heading of La Llorona (the crying one). The common thread of all the La Llorona stories is that the ghostly woman has failed in some way as a mother, either through killing her children or allowing them to die. Often, she is seen wailing along the shore of a body of water – water is the symbol of femininity and of regeneration – a body of water she cannot enter or cross because of her punishment for breaking the trust of motherhood. She no longer has the capacity for childbearing since she was wanton with her children in life, nor could she be absolved for her transgressive sin (cleansed in the water). Her hell was to wander lamenting her irredeemable deed in tragic grief.

La Llorona has been used as a tale of feminine socialization to illustrate the fate of woman who try to live against the rules of a Eurocentric society and the morality of the Catholic Church. It is clear from the tales, most of which involve either a poor girl having a relationship with a rich man, or an indigenous woman having relations with a Spaniard, that the message to women is that all women must be good mothers. They must stay within their economic status, they must stay within their racial group, they must not tempt men into adultery, and children must be born legitimate. These confines, if followed, would assure that the woman would be accepted into a favored afterlife and not be doomed to wander the earth in grief for eternity. La Llorona is nearly an unrecognizable distortion of the Cihuateteo who fought valiantly for her soul during childbirth and having lost the battle became an assistant to the sun god to help him traverse across the sky.

Three different images of aliens with large heads.
Media conceptions of alien's heads.

The American Museum of Natural History’s Vera Cruz pottery head’s most striking feature is the exaggerated shape of the skull. It has clearly been reshaped from its natural rounded form. Its appearance almost gives credence to those fringe claims that extraterrestrials visited Mesoamerica and assisted with pre-Columbian technology. The classic alien shape of the head is what drew my attention to this object and engaged my curiosity about it. Associations with extraterrestrials aside, it is clear from the bone structure and of evidence from actual skulls that have been excavated at Vera Cruz, that it represents an incidence of artificial cranial modification. Artificial cranial modification is a permanent body alteration that has been practiced worldwide, throughout history, and in many cultures. It is achieved by binding the head of an infant, while the skull’s bone plates are still malleable. There are several final shapes that are considered desirable depending on the cultural standards and aesthetics of the people. These different shapes require different tools and methods to achieve the eventual appearance. Three broadly basic shapes are classified in cranial modification: round, lambadoidal (high and narrow, or annular) and occipital (flattened and broad, or tabular). There are also many nuances in between these broad shape definitions as each culture may have devised subtly different methods for achieving the look they were after.

Drawing of skull showing tabular shape.
Tabular shaped skull.

Row of skulls showing the different shapes attained through cranial modification..
Range of shapes of Cranial Modification

The Vera Cruz head shows an extreme tabular shaped skull, with a prominent crest. The frontal crest molded on the forehead may be a stylized head ornament, hairstyle, a sculptural device that assisted with the attachment of amatetéuitl to the head or a structural element that was devised in the sculpting of the image to support the missing headdress. The lack of detail to this feature and without the body context and the absent head decoration, make it difficult to ascertain the original intention.

The reasons for cranial modification are as varied as the cultures that practice it. In Mesoamerica, reshaping the skull was done for a variety of reasons. One was to emulate the gods as a form of veneration and deification. Reshaping the head to resemble the long narrow shape of a jaguar skull, was a form of sympathetic magic. Its intention was to help the individual attain the traits of a jaguar, especially if the child was to grow up to be a warrior. Some head shapes were restricted to the elite class, so only rulers and their children could have their heads shaped to show their status. Some skull shaping was reserved for certain gender roles which would make the individual more desirable for marriage. Whatever the reason for the shaping, it did not affect the intelligence or mental capacity of the individual. It was however brutal for the child and could result in the child’s death if the pressure applied was too great.

In every culture, there is the belief that there is a natural order to the flow of life. Birth, growth, marriage, continuing the generations, and so the continuation of the culture and community. There must be food, shelter and thanks to the omnipotent provider of all these human needs. A disruption in the natural order of the life flow could mean dire consequences to the entire community. The unnatural order must be set right again with the proper rituals and appeasements that reset the wrong and show a contrition be acceptable to the powers that control the flow of life, and encourage them to continue to bestow their bountiful blessings onto the people. The death of a mother during childbirth creates a rift in the regeneration of the community. The future of everyone is at stake. The blessings of the gods must continue. A child needs nurturing from its mother so the mother needs to live and prosper with the child. The mother needs to win the fight for her soul, or find her place with the sun as a new goddess.

Arthur Bruso © 2022

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  • Arthur Bruso

Wood cabinet with niches. Each niche contains a scientific specimens that is painted with glow in the dark paint.
The Phantom Museum (Wonder Workshop); 2015; walnut cabinet, objects with white glow in the dark paint, black light; 102" x 96" x 12"

The cabinet of curiosities emerged during the 16th century. While some still exist today, the majority of them are no longer extant, but often drawings of the rooms, or illustrations of the individual objects were commissioned and still survive as intriguing evidence of what they looked like or contained.

With The Phantom Museum, Mark Dion pays homage to the lost objects of the cabinets. By creating a facsimile of the object as portrayed in the surviving illustrations, he constructs a phantom of that object. Then painting the object with glow in the dark paint, he further emphasizes that the object is an apparition of the original, not in fact the actual object, nor is it intended to be a facsimile.

Dion sees this as the continuation of a chain of reproduction of the lost objects, that has been started when the original owners had the first illustrations commissioned. His glowing objects are part of a living culture that is long gone, leaving only these representations - these ghosts of things. 

Arthur Bruso © 2017

#arthurbruso #artreview #artwriting #arthurbrusoartwriting #markdion #thephantommuseum #cabinetofcuriosities #wunderkammer #glowinthedark #facsimile #lostobjects #hydra #theghostofthings

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