Ancient Zapotec ritual activities provide clues to their pre-Hispanic
religious beliefs. Mortuary rituals were particularly important
in pre-Hispanic Oaxaca. The ceramic urns that were used as funerary
offerings during these rituals provide insights into pre-Hispanic
A common class of urn represented Cocijo, the Rain God (cocijo means lightning in Zapotec). Others are said to have represented the God with Helmet of a Wide-Billed Bird, God with a Serpent Mask, and so forth.
It is believed that Zapotec urns represented powers or gods just as the images of saints in a church do. Some urns represented leaders or priests who had taken on special powers. By wearing a mask, the person represented on the urn was taking on extrahuman forces. The Zapotecs may have venerated and respected certain spirits and forces, communicating with them by means of an image of a man accompanied by the appropriate symbols. Particular symbols may have represented certain powers, deities, or gods and may have been invoked during specific events or ceremonies, which may explain why some images and sets of symbols appear frequently.
Little is known about the beliefs surrounding these deities, but their constant presence in the archaeological record implies that they were of great importance in Zapotec life. Often they are represented as abstract symbols: just an eye, beak or snout. But it appears the wearer of the symbol was imbued with its power.
The Zapotecs assimilated the religion of the Spanish missionaries during the 16th century. Today, they are predominately catholic.