Jaws of Death - The Kuntz Axe
Updated: Oct 11, 2019
As a stalk and ambush predator, the jaguar usually attacks from the victim’s blind side. In the dim and dappled light of the jungle, the cat takes advantage of its silent movement and camouflaging coloration. It can seem as if the attack has materialized out of thin air. If it is a miss, the cat can disappear as swiftly and silently as a shaft of light. For the Olmec people of ancient Mexico (1500 BC – 400 BC), the jaguar was such a perfect predator it appeared to be magical. With its qualities of lethality and stealth in hunting abilities, indigenous people held the jaguar in awe and esteem. They prized and respected the jaguar’s traits so highly that they believed jaguars had supernatural powers. The mortal fear of being stalked and attacked was so great, the Olmec turned the jaguar into a chthonic god because within its superb hunting abilities it held the power of life and death. Staring into the face of its deadly fangs and jaws, the mouth of the jaguar for the Olmec became as the inescapable Hellmouth for Europeans, the transitional portal to the afterlife. These qualities were also sought for in Olmec leaders. It was expected that their kings could transform during religious ritual into a werejaguar, a half man half jaguar entity that conjoins not only the courage and prowess of the jaguar, but also its physical characteristics as well. The paralyzing and terrifying sight of a jaguar, mouth agape in growling mortal attack, has been venerated and idealized in many Olmec works of art.
The Olmec were the earliest known major civilization in Mesoamerica with their beginning placed around 1500 BC. They were centered on the tropical coast along the Gulf of Mexico, in the present southern Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco near Guatemala. The Olmec are credited with forming the cultural basis of many Central and South American indigenous cultures. They may have discovered how to harvest and cure rubber for use as balls for their ritual games. For this, the Aztec gave them the name of Olmec, which means “rubber people.” The ball games, which were played on a designated court became part of all major Mesoamerican cultures and are speculated to have been invented by them. From the materials of the artifacts associated with them, it is clear that they had an extensive trading system with other peoples for materials that they held precious, especially jade, obsidian, and feathers. Much of the physical evidence of their culture remains mysterious and in need of further study. They left only limited writing that has not been deciphered. Their major cities were systematically destroyed for unknown reasons. How and why the Olmec civilization disappeared remains a mystery, but their legacy lived through all of Central and South American pre-history.
The visual center of the Kuntz Axe is focused on the snarling, horrifying mouth which is the most detailed and attentively carved area of the sculpture. This is where the magic is concentrated, on the area of transition, the jaws of death, that fanged and threatening opening to the underworld. This is an Olmec object that embodies the half human, half jaguar figure, the werejaguar that was not only a god, but also expected to be the embodiment of their leaders. This idealization of the terrifying mouth was so revered and omnipresent in the artifacts; it has become the defining style of the culture. The proportion of the head is somewhat greater than half of the figure which intensifies the visual focus onto the mouth. The remainder of the carving on the head is skillful, but the feline nose is distorted by the oversized grimace of the mouth. The slanted eyes provide a catlike sinister glint adding to the primal sensation of the fear of the imminence of death surrounding it. The body tapers away from the head giving it the axe-like shape it is named for. Two muscular arms are defined in shallow relief. The hands are held in front of the chest area. Only one is depicted, because they are clasping a pointed object. The half-hidden object clasped in the hands is a perforator, a long, sharp ritual object, which could have been made of jade, flint, bone or a sting ray spine. Perforators were used to pierce the tongue, foreskin or earlobes in the ritual bloodletting of the Olmec people. The Kuntz Axe is made of jade, which is precious in ancient South American cultures, because of its translucency and color. Jade for Mesoamerican cultures was a symbol of life sustaining water and the fecundity of the forest. As water and the forest embodied growth and life, jade also became associated by extension with blood, also necessary for life. This association with blood and life made jade and jade artifacts treasured among all Central and South American indigenous peoples. At 12 inches in height, The Kuntz Axe is one of the largest jade objects found in Mesoamerica. The size, the high value of the material used in creating this object, the care and skill apparent in the carving all point to its sacredness.
In the habitat of the equatorial forest, with the jaguar as the apex predator, the notion of predator and prey keeping the cycle of life going is duplicated and intensified in the diversity and abundance of the ecology. The Olmec people providing blood to bloodthirsty supernatural beings such as the night sky jaguar god, kept the gods satisfied and hopefully prevented them from taking vengeance on the population. It was one of the duties of the ruler/priest to protect the population from the wrath of the gods. They offered their blood in supplication, in place of the lives of the people in the hope of keeping the forces of nature, the spirits and humanity in balance. The ritual of bloodletting was practiced by many Mesoamerican cultures, including the Olmec who may have originated the practice. The drawing of blood from various fleshy points on the body (tongue, foreskin, earlobes) was reserved for the rulers or religious leaders (often one and the same). The ritual was a public display that proved the leader retained the courage and strength to rule, but also had the required sacred ability to communicate with the gods and appease them. The blood was allowed to drip on copal incense, cloth or bark paper. These were burned to send the vitality inherent in the blood to the gods in an effort to keep the dark forces at bay that could threaten the fertility or success of the community.
Blood sacrifice is the key to understanding the Kuntz Axe. This object is highly charged with meaning and drama and designed to be present during the gore and emotional intensity of the sacrificial ritual. The deep depressions in the mouth may have held drops of the priest’s blood as part of the offering, intensifying the idea of the jaguar mouth as a portal of transition into the otherworld. The deep groove under the head creates a shadow that separates the head so that in certain light it appears to be floating above the body. This adds to its magical, god-like quality. It has also been suggested that the groove has a more prosaic function, such as a place to tie a cord to bind the figure to a display. Some archeologists have suggested that the idol may have been dressed in ceremonial clothing, given that the body details are mostly suggested. We do not have any actual evidence of how this artifact was actually used in Olmec rituals, but its physical characteristics and symbolism provide a great number of cues that correspond with what we know of their culture.
The Kuntz Axe is misnamed. The title obscures its true identity as a Mesoamerican artifact. Instead the object’s cultural identity is obscured by naming it for a past American owner. The “Kuntz” part comes from George Kuntz, who was a mineralogist and a late 19th century Vice President of Tiffany jewelers. He acquired and described the artifact in 1890. Kuntz subsequently donated it to the American Museum of Natural History in 1891 because he recognized its cultural and archeological importance. The “axe” part of the name is derived from the overall shape if the object, thick at the top and tapering toward the bottom like an axe head. There is no evidence that the Kuntz Axe was ever intended to be used as an axe to chop or hack. The object is purely ceremonial and magical in nature, intended to intimidate with its visual presence and incite reverence with its symbolic power. Many of the jade Olmec artifacts that have been recovered, were found within and among other Mesoamerican culture’s artifacts. The Kuntz Axe’s circuitous route to The American Museum of Natural History follows this pattern of ancient collecting. It started in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico some miles inland from the territory of the Olmec. In Oaxaca, is seems to have been found among the artifacts of the Zapotec people who were a prominent ancient culture there and who were known to admire Olmec jade. From there it was passed to a collector who knew Kuntz and believed Kuntz would be interested in such a large piece of jade.
Even in its present state, isolated from its origins, without the context of its culture or understanding its purpose, the Kuntz Axe projects power. It may seem repugnant or bizarre, but the flaring mouth draws the eye in and projects the supernatural. The feline eyes, even with their limited modeling, project the sinister expression of a predator. The muscular arms feel tensed, about to thrust the perforator to begin the letting of blood. The object knows its purpose even if we no longer do. It is telling us it secrets in a language of darkness that we turn away from in horror.
Arthur Bruso © 2019