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  • Writer's pictureArthur Bruso

Unnatural Order

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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