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  • Writer's pictureArthur Bruso

Playing God

mexican ceramic figure of a Tlaloc impersonator from Veracruz with goggle eyes , holding a staff and a bag
Tlaloc Impersonator, Veracruz Mexico, c. AD 1-900, ceramic, collection of American Museum of Natural History.

Central Mexico is an area of great contrasts. There are a variety of climates from the tropical coast along the Gulf of Mexico to the central cooler, dry highlands. What connects them is the seasonal rains that have marked the beginning and end of the growing season for centuries. The rains begin in June and last until October. In November, the dry season begins, lasting until the rain begins again. For the ancient Mesoamericans who settled in this area and learned to grow maize, the coming of the rains meant that a new year of food would keep them from starvation. Ensuring the rains came became a major concern for the indigenous people. And making certain that the rains were ample, steady, and not flooding or destructive became a top priority. It was essential to their continued survival.

Two photographs. Left is the Mexican rainforest, right is the drier highlands.
The contrast of the Mexican lowland rainforest (left) and the drier highlands (right). Left, Rio Guayalejo. Right, Oaxaca.

Olmec jaguar god carved of green jade.
Olmec jaguar god carved in green jade. The Kuntz Axe, American Museum of Natural History collection.

The first recorded Mesoamerican people, the Olmec (c. 1,600 – 400 BC) conceived of a god that controlled the life-giving rains. Fashioned on the concept of the sacred jaguar, he controlled life and death, as well as all water as an aspect of the continuity of life. The jaguar is an apex predator of the Mexican rain forest. Its ability to disappear into the shadows, see in the dark and kill silently made it seem supernatural to the ancient Olmec. These magical characteristics were deemed the perfect qualities for a ruler, and they were also exemplary attributes for a superior god; a god who could control the most important necessities for Olmec survival: the water of life and the growing of maize. The Olmec fashioned images of their jaguar god out of green jade, emphasizing the huge, fanged maw and slanted feline eyes. The aqueous green color of the jade symbolized the water they wished to conjure. They devised rituals to appeal to the jaguar god asking to release the gentle rains that would nurture the crops and rejuvenate the land. When the Olmec mysteriously disappeared, they took the name of their god and the actions of their rituals with them. But the enigmatic jade images the Olmec left behind were prized by subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations. Their preservation through succeeding cultures as objects of magic and awe still fascinate us in modern times.

Ceramic urn of Cocijo.
Ceramic urn representing Cocijo held at the Birmingham Museum of Art.

This idea of a god that presided over water and the growing of crops was coopted by other civilizations of Mesoamerica that were influenced by the Olmecs. For the Zapotec (c. 700 – 1521 AD) people who settled further inland on the drier, cooler highlands, the Olmec jaguar god, became Cocijo. Cocijo was re-envisioned as being more serpent and less jaguar because of the difference in the living environment of the Zapotec. The jaguar thrives in the dark costal rainforest, but the dry, cooler, and sunnier savannah of the Mexican highlands is not conducive to rainforest or jaguars but is an ideal environment for snakes.

Since the jaguar was revered in all Mesoamerican cultures, some references to it were retained, as in the fangs. But it was the serpent or snake attributes that became dominant for the god now known as Cocijo. The snake was identified with lightening, storms, and the rejuvenation of the land because of the snakes’ propensity to shed their skin and seemingly renew themselves, while the form of lightening is reflected in their serpentine shape and quick movements.

Cocijo’s duties as a god remained the same – to provide the annual rainfall that would ensure success of the maize crop and keep the Zapotec people alive. But it was with the Zapotec that the rain god became associated with mountains. Mountains were observed by the Zapotec to be reservoirs of water because they were the source of rivers and the clouds and storms that often collected at their peaks. As the place and source of water, it was believed that the tops of mountains were the home of the god Cocijo the god of water. To be close to the god during their rituals and observances, the Zapotec built shrines for the facilitation of the ceremonies on the crest of mountains.

Sone carved with a relief of Tlaloc at a mountain shrine.
Part of an Aztec Tlaloc mountain shrine, showing a relief caving of Tlaloc on a rock in situ.

Blood1 which may have always been an aspect of Olmec rain god ceremonies, was equally as important to the Zapotec. Blood was viewed as the anima – the substance that gives us life. It became equated with corn since corn was also a life-giving substance. As corn nourished the people, so blood nourished the corn. Bloodletting rituals were vital to appease Cocijo and induce him to bring the rejuvenating rains. Personal prayers to Cocijo always were accompanied by bloodletting through the tongue or genitals. These places on the body were the most sensitive and would cause the most pain. Suffering, because of the psychic energy it expends, seems to be a necessity to attract the attention of the gods and prove the supplicant’s sincerity. Even more important than simply spilling living blood, was the need for child sacrifice. Children were the future of the civilization and its most precious commodity to ensure the continuation of life. As representations of the future and regeneration, they were magically related to the growth of the maize. Their sacrifice was considered a dept payment for the intercession of Cocijo to bring the rains, as well gratitude for his part in the creation of the world. The child’s blood and tears nourished the corn as the corn nourished the people. Their lives ensured that corn would be bountiful and sustaining.

Polychrome pottery urn of Aztec god Tlaloc.
Urn showing a depiction of the rain god Tlaloc. Polychrome pottery artifact originating from Mexico. Aztec Civilization, 14th-16th Century. Mexico City, Museo Nacional De Antropología (Anthropology Museum)

The Zapotec resisted invasion by the Aztec until the Spanish conquest of 1521, while the surrounding city state of Vera Cruz beginning in the 11th century and into the 1400s was absorbed into Aztec culture. Because of the proximity of the cultures, the influence of Aztec worship and their gods steadily crept into Zapotec life. The Aztec assimilated the some of the Zapotec concepts of Cocijo into their already existing rain god Tlaloc. These new attributes were absorbed into the Aztecs divine cosmos, then further transformed to conform to their spiritual sensibility. Some snake symbolism was retained but reduced to reemphasize Tlaloc’s jaguar origins. The most obvious physical change from Cocijo to Tlaloc was his distinctive goggle eyes. These round, ringed eyes became the defining feature of the Aztec rain god and betrayed his presence in all representations. The rings have been variously interpreted as drops of water, or a visual representation of the god’s ability to see under water, or the gods’ ability to see in the dark – all vital aspects of his supernatural power.

Originally, the goggle eyes seem to have been a distillation of the snake symbolism that had been part of the Zapotec god Cocijo. Cocijo’s eyes and nose were made up of stylized serpentine forms that circled around the eyes and ended with a viper’s snout (which has also been interpreted as a jaguar’s nose) where the nose would be placed. These and other snakelike forms on and about the god’s representations were an allusion to Cocijo’s association with lightening and storms. With Tlaloc, the rings around the eyes were refined from the snake iconography and seem originally to refer to Cocijo’s ability to conjure up lightening or shoot lightning bolts from his eyes. The jaguar features of the feline fangs and long tongue (and the notion of being able to see in the dark) as well as the personality traits of stealth and stamina, were restored from the original Olmec iteration of their jaguar god.

Tlaloc, like Cocijo still had to be supplicated with blood sacrifices, especially with the sacrifices of children. Blood was still considered to contain the vital anima that fed the corn as the corn fed the people. Tlaloc, like Cocijo was the creator of the landscape and the rain to nourish it. By allowing humans to use his creations of land and water, the people created a dept that the god demanded be paid by the sacrifice of their most precious commodity of youth and the future of the people.

Aztec painting depicting child sacrifice.
Aztec child sacrifices during I Atlcahualo: procession of priests with the child proceeds towards the mountain shrine (Sahagún, Primeros Memoriales, fol. 250r.

For the Tlaloc rituals, the children selected for sacrifice were from royal linage and dressed to resemble the god. The priests who carried out the ritual bloodletting also would dress as Tlaloc impersonators. This role play, besides the assumption that it would make the sacrificial victim and the ritual actions more acceptable to the god, also brought a greater sense of reality to the practice. The ornate costumes and pageantry of the ceremonies made a more palatable disguise for the distasteful reality of the gore and horror. It was considered an omen of a successful outcome if the children cried during the ceremony. Their tears meant that plentiful and nourishing rain would benefit the crops.

The seated figure from the Veracruz collection of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, depicts a child partly dressed for sacrifice to Tlaloc/Cocijo. His eye rings are the most distinctive indicator of his role. In his right hand he holds a staff. The serpentine shape of it suggests the lightning bolts that are linked with the god. In his left hand, he holds an incense bag that would contain the copal incense which when burned, would assist in carrying the soul of the victim aloft into the sphere of the gods. The child is depicted here as if he were content with their role of the savior of the people. This figure probably would have been dressed and decorated with paper clothing and feathers to further ornament it. Notably, there would have been some sort of lavish headdress to make it more fitting a presentation to and of the deity.

Ceramic head of Tlaloc impersonator showing eye rings.
Detail of Tlaloc Impersonator from the American Museum of Natural History showing eye rings.

It was the eye rings on this figure that caught my attention and caused me to question what these ornaments were for. My first assumption was that they were a lavish personal decoration for a person of noble birth. I believed that they were a representation of some ostentatious ornament to exhibit wealth and status among the Veracruz. The American Museum of Natural History's website has precious little information on this artifact to refute my presumption. Investigating further, I could find nothing about these eye pieces as an article of fashion among the Mesoamericans. But upon conducting research on another artifact in the Veracruz collection, I came across a photograph of a figure of a Tlaloc impersonator which pointed me in the right direction and to the true interpretation of these embellishments and their imitation of Tlaloc’s eyes. The object was a clay figure of an adult Tlaloc impersonator, probably a priest, sculpted as dressed in the paper ritual costume of Tlaloc with the requisite eye rings. This figure was the clue that sent me in the proper direction of my inquiry into what these eye ornaments were for.

Seated ceramic figure of Tlaloc impersonator.
Adult Tlaloc impersonator or priest. Ceramic, 18.5" tall, Veracruz, Mexico.

As much as we find human sacrifice abhorrent, most Mesoamerican cultures practiced it as the main way of supplicating and appeasing their gods. The life energy it released was considered necessary payment for the good graces hoped for from the targeted deity. Without this spilling of blood and releasing of the anima, the Mesoamerican universe would cease to exist. The sun would not rise, the rains would not come, pestilence would fester and devastate the populations. The god who was the jaguar god of the Olmec, Cocijo of the Zapotec, and Tlaloc of the Aztecs demanded child sacrifices to bring the crop saving rains. The very crops that were necessary for the people to survive, and needed the annual rains to grow, would fail if the rejuvenating energy of the children were not discharged to placate the god of rain. But it was not one child each year, it was five each month from harvest until the rains came that were needed to ensure the proper cycle of the world. The Aztecs believed that a child had to be offered to Tlaloc in each of the five directions (north, south, east, west, and upwards to the sun). This loss of life and great loss to their community’s generational future, was necessary to keep the world in order. It was their dept payment for the gods creating the world and the universe and allowing the people to live in it. In our modern times, there is no longer the belief that we, the population of the world, need to pay our debt to any gods. The idea that we are beholden to any supernatural forces that could lay claim to our existence many now think of as absurd. Science has shown us that all the matter in the universe has been created by elemental forces, not by supernatural powers. We believe that we evolved through natural processes and dismiss the old gods as superstition. But our hubris may be catching up to us through our careless disrespect of our planet. The world is no longer in order, and we must devise new rituals and ways of thinking to make it right again.

Arthur Bruso

1. Johanna Broda, Processions and Aztec State Rituals in the Landscape of the Valley of Mexico, Penn State University Occasional Papers in Anthropology No. 33 (2016)

© 2022 Arthur Bruso

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