Birthing the Future
Updated: Apr 25
Olmec Pottery Head Fragment
In a world of nearly 7.8 billion people, it might be difficult to understand why the birth of more children adding to the population of an Earth choking from pollution and in the midst of unpredictable climate change would be looked upon as an event to be treasured and celebrated. Yet, universally, in every culture, the baby is a treasured symbol of regeneration and the future. All cultures have rituals and customs that ensure the fertility of both men and women. Conception, birth and healthy children are the necessary components for the perpetuation of the community. Without births and children, societies would disappear. While the reasons for marriage can be argued and can be different from one culture to the next, the conception and birth of children within a culture has always been looked upon as joyous occasion – despite modern personal or political beliefs. The rituals to aid conception can vary from dancing around maypoles (male virility), to eating pomegranates (female fertility), or sleeping under hawthorn trees (sympathetic magic because of the scent of the flowers). These and similar symbolic actions set the tone ensuring that the prospective parents are psychologically preparing themselves for parenthood even if it is performed under the guise of magic.
For most of human history, infant mortality has been high. The potential risks that can befall a child preventing them from surviving into adulthood have been many. For this reason, many rituals have been devised to protect children from whatever malevolent, supernatural evil may be lurking about, waiting to snuff out the vitality of youth. Hanging fennel over the crib (the pleasant scent of fennel is thought to be repellant to the devil) or placing a string of red coral beads around the child’s neck (the red color of the coral and coral’s associations with the animal, vegetable, and mineral energies led people to believe it attracted the life force) were popular at different times. Italians would hang a cross over the bed (as a Christian invocation to Christ for protection) or hang a horn (a replica of the devil’s horn would fool the devil into believing that the soul of the wearer is already corrupted) around the neck of the child. All of these had the same intention, to protect the child from harm; be it disease, physical misfortune or spiritual attack. During times of high infant mortality or child death, and a lack of understanding of why these calamities would happen, these actions were considered necessary and vital to protect the promise of the future.
Shortly after the onset of their civilization, one ancient society faced a perplexing and difficult situation regarding fertility, childbirth and the future of their nascent society. Olmec women were experiencing an unnatural increase in miscarriages. Infants were dying at an alarming rate. Concentrated in the present day central, coastal Gulf of Mexico states of Veracruz and Tabasco, the Olmec people emerged as a civilization around 1500 BC. They were the earliest major civilization in Mesoamerica. As a possible response to their dire predicament, the Olmec conceived a genre of baby-faced, figurative sculpture within their complex visual iconography. These have been termed by archaeologists as “the hollow baby figures” and may have been devised as protective magic to combat the miscarriages and infant deaths that had been plaguing their civilization.
These naturalistic, life-sized figures were fashioned from fired clay. They can be recognized by their infant-like bodies, a neonatal face, down-turned mouth and slit-like eyes. The heads are always large in proportion to the bodies. They are always nude except for (occasionally) a tight-fitting cap, but despite their nudity, they are not gender specific. The cap could have been a protection for the delicate infant skull, or it could be a depiction of the apparatus used to reform of the skull into a high, domed pear shape, since the Olmec practiced artificial cranial deformation.
The American Museum of Natural History has on display a fragment of a hollow baby sculpture. It shows just the nose, mouth and chin of the face. It is apparent from the extraordinary naturalism of this fragment that the modeling on these sculptures can be very subtle and skillful. The close observation of the lips, nose and the delicate detail of the emerging baby tooth all indicate a high degree of command in sculpting and in the ceramic firing process. In extant examples of these sculptures, it becomes apparent that the visual emphasis is always on the face. This pronounced attention to the modeling of the face is common in most Olmec figurative sculptural forms. For the Olmec, it indicates that a person’s greatest area of identity is concentrated nearly solely in their facial features. The attention to detail and interest in anatomical accuracy diminishes the further from the head the modeling proceeds. Often the toes and fingers are indicated with only the most rudimentary modeling or even just incised strokes.
The Olmec created a highly developed sculptural tradition in addition to the hollow babies. They were very adept in fashioning exceptionally hard stone such as jade and basalt into masterful works of monumental mien. There was also a strong convention of clay and ceramic sculpture that depict a range of subject matter from masks, small figurines, and genre figures, as well as creating monumental gods and altars that obviously took a cooperative community to carve and erect. What sets the clay baby sculptures apart from all other Olmec sculpture are their hollow construction. Their hollowness was achieved by wrapping sheets of clay around a combustible core. The various parts of the body were sculpted separately around the core. The separate parts were then fused together after completion to construct the whole figure. To construct the figures with a hollow interior, a greater understanding of ceramic construction, and forethought in firing was needed to keep them from exploding in the kiln. This skill-intensive method of manufacture indicates that a higher caliber of facility would have been necessary to construct these sculptures. The care and detail in crafting these objects suggests that they were held in high esteem by a culture who would readily pay the cost for such craftsmanship. Examples are also scarce by comparison to other solid ceramic artifacts. The few that have been found in situ have been discovered in large storage pits with other upper-class items, such as carved jade, and in the context of dwellings inhabited by aristocrats.
All of the figures are covered with white slip, regardless of the color of the clay used for construction. This is apparent, on the American Museum of Natural History’s fragment, where the white slip has chipped off exposing the brown clay underneath. Whiteness is an important indicator of the spiritual nature of these figures. It sets them apart from other objects by indicating the purity, cleanness or virginity of the objects. White is an indication to the spirits (and gods) that this object is ritually clean, renewed and proper for the ritual. The symbolic purity of white is believed to be an attractor to positive energy, and an announcement that the ritual object has been made acceptable for the magic.
Since it was difficult and time consuming to create them, the hollowness must have had a purpose. Was a hollow interior necessary so that the magic, the spirit, or the energy that was needed to animate the figure could live inside? Was an interior space required to contain the invisible essence of the person or entity they were intended for? The baby sculptures could have been used to attract the positive energy of fertility. If a woman or a couple wanted help in conceiving, the couple could commission one of these baby images and fill it with the magic of fruitfulness using the proper spell.
The Olmec babies figures may have been used for a variety of reasons beside for granting fertility: if a baby was sick, the figure could trap the bad energy of the sickness; if the child had died, the figure could hold the spirit of the dead child until certain rituals were performed to send the soul of the child onto its journey to the underworld. If the child was stillborn, the sculpture might have been used to contain the evil that caused the stillbirth. If a pregnancy miscarried, the baby figure could have been used as a spiritual way to complete the interrupted cycle, or to offer a way for the distraught mother to channel her grief and the negative spirits that took away the developing child. These sculptures and rituals could have been a way to find closure and acceptance at the end of hope and promise.
In magic rituals, determining identity is often required. If the magic is for an individual, having an image of the head or face of the recipient of the magic is usual. Without a portrait or image of the intended recipient, a physical piece of the person (hair, nail clippings, saliva, blood) or something the person wore or owned helps to focus the magic. Just a name can be used if nothing else can be obtained. The image, personal item or a person’s name all carry the spiritual energy or a bit of the soul of the subject. This is why some people believe that to photograph them is a means of capturing a part of their soul and fear that the image might be used for bad magic. The Olmec baby faces are both individuated and generic the same time. Some hold toys, some have features that look specific enough to be portraits, while some look more generalized. This may be because, depending on the circumstances of the magic, some were used for specific individuals, or some were used as an all-purpose child stand in. Clothing the baby figure physically transforms it to a magical being that is more personal, or more receptive to the intended ritual. The lack of gender indicators suggests that the figures may have been dressed in items and clothing that may have been or could be used by the child. This would strengthen the attraction or connection between the effigy and the soul or spirit. Since the genitals would be covered or hidden when clothed, they would not be necessary to include.
It seems perplexing that none of the hollow babies that have come to light thus far have been found whole. Most have been found broken or even fragmented, as if the breakage was intentional. This can be seen in the extensively fractured figure at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This figure looks as if had been totally crushed, like an eggshell, seemingly by a blow just above the belly by a two-pronged tool. The most intact baby figure is held at the University of Texas at Austin. Even this one has a fracture under the neck that suggests the head may have been knocked off intentionally.
At the end of the ritual or at the end of the usefulness of the object, the magic had to be returned to the universe to complete the cycle and prevent the spirit from becoming trapped, or the residual magic might cause something bad to happen to the individual or community. Breaking the figures after the ritual would dissipate the contained energy and send it away. The final breaking does not have to be done immediately but could happen later under other ritualistic circumstances where the negative energy would be neutralized. This ritual breaking of a clay figure has parallels in other ancient Mexican cultures, especially the Colima culture. The Colima would place a clay figure at the entrance to their grave sites and break it to release the guardian spirit that they had trapped inside it.
While the creation of the hollow baby genre may have been initiated by an increase in miscarriages among the Olmec, what was the cause behind the miscarriages? The Olmec baby sculpture genre is associated only with the early part of the Olmec civilization when the Olmec civilization was just coalescing from a group of forest villages. During this period of 1500 – 900 BC., as they culturally unified and transitioned into an agrarian society, they adopted corn as their main food crop. Corn as a staple food, does not provide all of the nutritional needs for complete human health and this could have been the culprit to the health problems of the Olmec and the invisible harbinger that inspired the hollow baby figures.
Corn became a food crop through hundreds of years of selective breeding and hybridization by an Archaic people who occupied the El Salvatore-Guatemala boarder. It was these people who first began cultivating a wild grass called teosinte. Teosinte is the ancestor of modern maize. It is not precisely known why this unassuming plant attracted the notice of the Archaic boarder people. Weedy, tall, with unruly branching, it bears seeds that are teeth breakingly hard and nearly inedible in its natural state. It is an unlikely ancestor for the food crop that eventually became a staple and worshiped as a god for all of the Mesoamerican people. Teosinte does have one remarkable attribute, the seeds, when heated, pop. It could be that the explosive sound and projectile movement produced through the transformative action of heat on the seeds may have influenced the people to believe the plant contained a magical property. Also, the popping, while a remarkable and perhaps an entertaining event in itself, did make the seed soft and edible. Yet, whatever the fascination teosinte had for these ancient people, they began to grow it and through domestication and selective breeding, began to change it from an unruly weed to the straight, unbranched, unified, uniform modern maize that we know today. It was modified into a perfectly tamed, crop that fits exactly with our monocultural agriculture and is dependent on humans to cultivate it because it cannot propagate on its own.
Through interaction with the border peoples of El Salvatore-Guatemala, the Olmec adopted corn as their staple crop as well. By the time of the baby sculptures, maize was higher yielding and had developed the cob as the structure on which the seeds formed. The seeds were still too hard and unchewable, so the corn needed to be ground or popped to be eaten. Ground corn is labor intensive to produce and when consumed as a staple food, it is not a good source of available niacin. Niacin or vitamin B3 is a necessary nutrient for human health. Lack of it will cause a fatal condition called pellagra. Corn does contain sufficient quantities of vitamin B3 in its seed in its natural state, but it is not available in a form that is useable to the human body. However, when dry corn is processed with lime (calcium oxide), the niacin contained in the kernel becomes available for absorption by the human body. This process of adding lime to the corn is called nixtamalization. Soaking the corn in water and lime overnight, softens the tough outer pericarp of the corn enough to allow the corn to be kneaded into a dough with the hands. This relieves the laborious process of pounding or grinding the maize.
Another common symptom of niacin deficiency and the pellagra it causes, is a high incidence of miscarriage in pregnant women. When the production of the baby figures was at its height, it is known that the early Olmecs were not aware of the importance of nixtamalization to process their corn. The resulting dietary niacin deficiency may have caused a spike in miscarriages. The increase in the occurrence of miscarriages and an already high infant mortality rate may have caused a grieving and perplexed population to try and find a way to put an end to the loss. An appeal through magic to the gods using the baby figures may have been their answer.
How nixtamalization was discovered is not known. Lime was a common material used in Mesoamerican building techniques. It can be used as vermin control when dusted on corn seed, and it will leach out of shells of shellfish when they are cooked in water. Being near the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, seafood was a large part of the Olmec diet. Softening the hard kernels to make them easier to process and eat was probably more important to the Olmec than increasing the nutritional value of their corn by soaking it in lime. Still, the convenience of this method of preparing the corn was outweighed by the profound results it had in preventing miscarriages and protecting the future of their civilization. By 900 BC, the Olmec had learned about nixtamalization. At around the same time, the production of the hollow baby figures ended.
At the onset of their civilization, the Olmec faced a grave challenge, which they did not understand. For some reason, women were losing their babies. Along with the profound grief this caused the parents, it also put the future of the civilization at peril. There did not seem to be an understanding of what was causing this calamity, so they turned to magic to try and solve their dilemma. Without understanding the scientific cause, this may have been their only option aside from doing nothing. Doing nothing could only offer more grief and threaten the future of their new civilization. The surrogate babies they built out of clay offered a way to channel their grief and allowed hope in their despair. They furnished the people something proactive to do instead of accepting this fate or waiting for the gods to bestow their favor. Devising the baby rituals allowed the people to purge or process the psychological negative aspects of the tragedy they were living through. It provided hope that they could somehow reverse the tragic, black magic they were engulfed in. Somehow, this helped them through these difficulties. While sculpting the hollow baby figures and performing the rite associated with them, through chance or through supernatural guidance, the solution was found, and the crisis ended. The future seems unknowable and random. It is the accidental nature of what lies ahead that makes humans fearful and want to find a way to perceive it and control it in some way. It is in our nature to want to keep the bad from happening and invite the good to bless us. What draws people to magic, is the belief that there is a way to influence the future outcome by appealing to a god or to banish some negative, invisible force. Because this sometimes works, it keeps us returning.
Arthur Bruso © 2020
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