The Olmec civilization (1200-400 B.C.) was the first major Mesoamerican culture and laid the foundation for several later civilizations. Many aspects of Olmec culture remain a mystery, which is not surprising considering how long ago their society went into decline. Nevertheless, archaeologists have been able to make surprising progress in learning about the religion of the ancient Olmec people.
The Olmec Culture
The Olmec culture lasted roughly from 1200 B.C. to 400 B.C. and flourished along Mexico's Gulf coast. The Olmec built major cities at San Lorenzo and La Venta, in the present day states of Veracruz and Tabasco respectively. The Olmec were farmers, warriors and traders, and the few clues they left behind indicate a rich culture. Their civilization collapsed by 400 A. D. - archaeologists are unsure as to why - but several later cultures, including the Aztec and the Maya, were profoundly influenced by the Olmec.
The Continuity Hypothesis
Archaeologists have struggled to put together the few clues that remain today from the Olmec culture which vanished well over 2,000 years ago. Facts about the ancient Olmec are hard to come by. Modern researchers must use three sources for information on the religion of ancient Mesoamerican cultures:
- Analysis of relics including sculpture, buildings and ancient texts when available
- Early Spanish reports of religious and cultural practices
- Ethnographic studies of modern-day traditional religious practices in certain communities
Experts who have studied the Aztecs, Maya and other ancient Mesoamerican religions have come to an interesting conclusion: these religions share certain characteristics, indicating a much older, foundational system of belief. Peter Joralemon proposed the Continuity Hypothesis to fill in the gaps left by incomplete records and studies. According to Joralemon "there is a basic religious system common to all Mesoamerican peoples. This system took shape long before it was given monumental expression in Olmec art and survived long after the Spanish conquered the New World's major political and religious centers." (Joralemon quoted in Diehl, 98). In other words, other cultures can fill in the blanks in regards to Olmec society. One example is the Popol Vuh. Although it is normally associated with the Maya, there are nevertheless many instances of Olmec art and sculpture that seemingly show images or scenes from the Popol Vuh. One instance is the nearly identical statues of the Hero Twins at the Azuzul archaeological site.
The Five Aspects of Olmec Religion
Archaeologist Richard Diehl has identified five elements associated with Olmec Religion. These include:
- A cosmos which identifies the socio-cultural context within which Gods and man interacted
- Divine beings and gods who controlled the universe and interacted with men
- A shaman or priest class who acted as intermediaries between the common Olmec people and their gods and spirits
- Rituals enacted by shamans and/or rulers that reinforced the concepts of the cosmos
- Sacred sites, both natural and man-made
Like many early Mesoamerican cultures, the Olmec believed in three tiers of existence: the physical realm they inhabited, an underworld and a sky realm, home of most of the gods. Their world was bound together by the four cardinal points and natural boundaries such as rivers, the ocean and mountains. The most important aspect of Olmec life was agriculture, so it is no surprise that the Olmec agricultural/fertility cult, gods and rituals were extremely important. The rulers and kings of the Olmec had an important role to play as intermediaries between the realms, although it is unknown exactly what relationship to their gods they claimed.
The Olmec had several deities whose images repeatedly appear in surviving sculptures, stonecarvings and other artistic forms. Their names have been lost to time, but archaeologists identify them by their characteristics. No fewer than eight regularly-appearing Olmec deities have been identified. These are the designations given to them by Joralemon:
- The Olmec Dragon
- The Bird Monster
- The Fish Monster
- The Banded-eye God
- The Maize God
- The Water God
- The Were-jaguar
- The Feathered Serpent
Most of these gods would later figure prominently in other cultures, such as the Maya. Currently, there is insufficient information about the roles these gods played in Olmec society or specifically how each was worshipped.
Olmec Sacred Places
The Olmecs considered certain man-made and natural places sacred. Man-made places included temples, plazas and ball courts and natural places included springs, caves, mountaintops and rivers. No building easily identifiable as an Olmec temple has been discovered; nevertheless, there are many raised platforms which probably served as bases upon which temples were built of some perishable material such as wood. Complex A at La Venta archaeological site is commonly accepted as a religious complex. Although the only ballcourt identified at an Olmec site comes from the post-Olmec era at San Lorenzo, there is nevertheless much evidence that the Olmecs played the game, including carved likenesses of players and preserved rubber balls found at the El Manatí site.
The Olmec venerated natural sites as well. El Manatí is a bog where offerings were left by the Olmecs, probably those who lived at San Lorenzo. Offerings included wooden carvings, rubber balls, figurines, knives, axes and more. Although caves are rare in the Olmec region, some of their carvings indicate a reverence for them: in some stonecarvings the cave is the mouth of the Olmec Dragon. Caves in Guerrero state have paintings inside which are associated with the Olmec. Like many ancient cultures, the Olmecs venerated mountains: an Olmec sculpture was found close to the summit of the San Martín Pajapan Volcano, and many archaeologists believe that man-made hills at sites such as La Venta are meant to represent sacred mountains for rituals.
There is strong evidence that the Olmec had a shaman class in their society. Later Mesoamerican cultures which derived from the Olmec had full-time priests who acted as intermediaries between the common people and the divine. There are sculptures of shamans apparently transforming from humans into were-jaguars. Bones of toads with hallucinogenic properties have been found at Olmec sites: the mind-altering drugs were presumably used by shamans. The rulers of Olmec cities probably served as shamans as well: rulers were likely considered to have a special relationship with the gods and many of their ceremonial functions were religious. Sharp objects, such as stingray spines, have been found at Olmec sites and were most likely used in sacrificial bloodletting rituals.
Of Diehl's five foundations of Olmec religion, the rituals are the least known to modern researchers. The presence of ceremonial objects, such as stingray spines for bloodletting, indicate that there were, indeed, important rituals, but any details of said ceremonies have been lost to time. Human bones - particularly of infants - have been found at some sites, suggesting human sacrifice, which was later important among the Maya, Aztec and other cultures. The presence of rubber balls indicates that the Olmec played this game. Later cultures would assign a religious and ceremonial context to the game, and it is reasonable to suspect that the Olmec did as well.
Coe, Michael D and Rex Koontz. Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs. 6th Edition. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2008
Cyphers, Ann. "Surgimiento y decadencia de San Lorenzo, Veracruz." Arqueología Mexicana Vol XV - Num. 87 (Sept-Oct 2007). P. 36-42.
Diehl, Richard A. The Olmecs: America's First Civilization. London: Thames and Hudson, 2004.
Gonzalez Lauck, Rebecca B. "El Complejo A, La Venta, Tabasco." Arqueología Mexicana Vol XV - Num. 87 (Sept-Oct 2007). P. 49-54.
Grove, David C. "Cerros Sagradas Olmecas." Trans. Elisa Ramirez. Arqueología Mexicana Vol XV - Num. 87 (Sept-Oct 2007). P. 30-35.
Miller, Mary and Karl Taube. An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1993.