Olmecs Religion

From: http://facweb.stvincent.edu/academics/religiousstu/writings/lavin1.htm

"There were certainly religious people living in the New World prior to the Olmecs, but the Olmecs are now generally recognized as the first visible stratum of Middle American civilization, with the latest stratum being represented by the Aztecs, who flourished up to the time of the Spanish conquest."

All of the Mesoamerican religions were polytheistic which was common at this time. Although a lot is speculated as to what their deities were, none is confirmed. The Olmec practiced shamanism. They believed each individual has an animal spirit. Olmec religion centered around the Shaman. "The feared and revered shaman would conduct rituals and heal the sick." Some believe that the sun was a part of their worshipping along with the jaguar.

The jaguar was a very important figure to the Olmec. "To the ancient Indians the jaguar was a symbol of supernatural forces-not a simple animal, but an ancestor and a god." It was referred to as a nahual, which is an animal that is so closely related to a certain man, that if the animal dies, the man will also die. "The nahual can be that of a god, that is, the animal form of his representation. Peter Furst, an anthropology at the University Museum in Philadelphia commented, "in tropical America, jaguars were the shamans of the animal world, the alter ego of the shaman. They are the most powerful predators." Or it can be the symbol of something harmful and dangerous, although at other times it can be only mischievous, like a poltergeist."

There is also something called a werejaguar baby that was the offspring of a feline father and a human mother. A famous sculpture that found of a human woman and a jaguar copulating. Michael Coe, an important man in the research of the Olmec said about this sculpture, "that this union resulted in a race of infants combining the features of the jaguar and man in varying degrees. These are usually shown as somewhat infantile throughout life, with the puffy features of small fat babies, snarling mouths, fangs, and perhaps even claws. The heads are cleft at the top…. They are always quite sexless, with the obesity of eunuchs." These werejaguars were deities of thunder, lightening, and rain. There is some discrepancy as to what the most important deities were and the categorization is among them. Coe said, that the number one deity is the jaguar-dragon, while other authors believe otherwise.

Peter David Joralemon published a book in 1971 that listed ten divinities that he felt were believed in by the Olmecs.

The jaguar-monster, fire god, or maize god
A god with a maize symbol on his head
A bird god
The jaguar-baby
A being with a human-feline face
A figure representing Xipe Totec
The Plumed Serpent
A death god
A bearded figure
God X


"They performed ceremonies that were thought to be dark and powerful, and centered around the jaguar."

The Olmec had a lot of beliefs that are obviously not believed in today, at least by North Americans. One such example is that the Olmec believed that smoke was very close to clouds, and therefore produced rain. Back in the time of the Olmec and even today with the Pueblo Indians, during a rain ceremony, the Indians will smoke in hopes for rain. The Olmec and other contemporary Indian groups seem to have more spiritual relations with their deities and each other than people do today.

The Olmec were brought up believing the Great Serpent was a divine power that was believed to have brought prosperity and growth. When the Olmec first settled around the volcanoes, they noticed in the dried up lava that there were resemblances to their Great Serpent. In all actuality this was only the way that it dried over the land. In any event, the Olmec farmers took these large basalt boulders and carved them into monuments, for example the colossal heads, and placed them in their maize fields. For many years to come after that, everyone in the town acknowledged and revered it. It has also been noted that the top of these colossal heads resemble the heads of snakes. Along with this snake theory there is also mentioned a lot about how in nearly every sculpture the person is seated with their legs crossed. We call that "indian style" today but the authors of books refer to them as coils like a snake. "Worshipers of gods eventually become their controllers; religion becomes science."

Although no remains have been found of any person of the Olmec civilization, researchers have learned how they were laid to rest. After the master dies, he was laid to rest in a special burial mound in the middle of the ceremonial court. He was placed in there adorned with earrings, beads , and necklaces made of jade. Over the body, a layer of thick cinnabar red putty in the shape of an oval was spread over him with thirty-seven serpentine and jade celts. This site was then decorated on top with jewels and other decor. However, only traces of human remains have been found. "The authors posit that the Olmecs believed that the human body, itself, and espescially that of the ruler, divided itself and represented the three cosmic levels: the celestial or heavenly, the terrestrial, the earth’s surface and the watery underworld, reachable through caves and sacred accesses."

In conclusion, while researching the intricate facets of the Olmec and their culture, this writer discovered that everything was tied in with everything else. One cannot read about religion without reading about art and society. This writer believes this is very important because it shows that their life and civilization was very structured and connected. It is

abundantly clear that religion was a very strong integral piece of their culture. A great deal of the material on the Olmec dealth with the jaguar being a major factor of their survival. A lot of the material also discussed the large colossal heads that were found and their possible significance to the Olmec society. This writer is inclined to believe that these large monuments were some sort of symbolization of their leader or priest. Although researchers continue in their efforts, it is very possible that some of the questions about the Olmecs may never be answered.