Olmec Man: Gods in Jade

Were-jaguars and maize gods: representations of the natural world in Olmec greenstone.

 

Learn more about this object

Keywords: Olmec, jade, artwork, Mesoamerica, Mexico

Lucy Ward, Collections and Education AssistantLucy Ward, Collections and Education Assistant

4 mins to read

1 December, 2021

Olmec Man

Sculpture, Olmec Man/Mineral,Serpentine, or Mineral,Jade/1st millennium BC/The Hunt Collection/PD

The Hunt Museum has in its Collection a jade or serpentine statue, approximately 30cm tall, known as Olmec man.  He has fearsome and distinctive features with snarling lips, toothless gums, a heavy brow and large bald head. In this blog, we will introduce the Olmec and explore how they used jade and other greenstones to create beautiful artwork representing the natural world.

Sculpture, Olmec Man/Mineral,Serpentine, or Mineral,Jade/1st millennium BC/The Hunt Collection/PD

Who were the Olmec?

The Olmec were the earliest-known civilisation in Mesoamerica, a region comprising the modern-day countries of central and southern America, including Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. They thrived between c.1600 and 400 BCE in what are now the modern-day Mexican states of Tabasco and Veracruz. The name ‘Olmec’ comes from the Aztecs – they called this region Olman or Ulman, which means ‘Land of Rubber,’ and referred to the people there as the Olmeca (‘rubber people’) [1].

Map of the Olmec Heartland in Mesoamerica. CC BY 3.0. Click here for image link: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Olmec_Heartland_Overview_4.svg

We know less about the Olmec than their successors, the Maya and the Aztecs, as they left behind no written records, so Olmec art has been one of the fundamental ways archaeologists have interpreted different aspects of Olmec religion and culture. The Olmec were skilled artists, who are most famous for their colossal stone heads (Figure 4) – the largest of which  are nearly three and a half metres tall and weigh up to 50 tonnes! – but also created smaller, delicate pieces in stone and jade. 

Olmec Colossal Stone Head at La Venta. CC BY-SA 4.0. Click here for image link: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Olmeca_head_in_Villahermosa.jpg

Countless jade items including human figures, votive axes, celts (flat, upright stones similar to axe heads) and personal ornaments were excavated in the 1940s and 1950s at La Venta, one of the Olmec’s most important cities. Many of the items found in elaborate burials, meaning they must have been very important to those who created and used them. Olmec man is likely a funerary statue and is similar to items uncovered at La Venta. The top of his head and his lower arms have been deliberately mutilated or damaged. This seems to have been a common occurrence when the Olmec abandoned a site. The material he is made from also holds some significance.

Jade and other greenstones have been prized by many civilisations and cultures, and were considered precious to the Olmec [2]. It is believed that the green and blue colours were associated with life-giving water and vegetation, particularly maize which was a staple of the Mesoamerican diet. Several recurring images in Olmec jade art have been identified and these link closely to the natural world – animals, plants and the elements including fire and water. Some of these images are of human-animal hybrids. The most common have been termed ‘were-jaguars,’ as they are human-like creatures with feline features such as fangs, and a cleft head that has been compared to the skulls of jaguars. Supernatural baby figures are common in Olmec art, and often these children are shown with the animalistic were-jaguar features. This famous example (Figure 5) from Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, Mexico, depicts a cross-legged figure with a were-jaguar baby across its lap. Note the almond-shaped eyes, downturned mouth and v-shaped cleft on the head [3].

El Señor de Las Limas, 10th-4th century B.C. Mexico, Mesoamerica. Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, Xalapa, Veracruz, México (04017). https://www.metmuseum.org/-/media/images/blogs/now-at-the-met/2015/2015_04/olmec-babies/5.jpg?as=1&la=en&mh=266&mw=600&hash=9ED847BDB38695E0E10BBBE4371CA76A

This example of a jade votive axe from the British Museum (Figure 6) also highlights these animalistic characteristics, including the cleft head and downturned mouth with fangs [4].

Jade votive axe, 1200-400 B.C.E., Olmec, 29 x 13.5 cm, Mexico © Trustees of the British Museum. Click here for image link: https://www.uv.mx/apps/max/coleccion/FichaTecnica.aspx?ObjetoID=53

The cleft head features prominently in other Olmec art too, and another interpretation is that it represents the hole made in the earth to plant crops. This is linked to the imagery of the Olmec ‘maize-god;’ one of them can be seen on this jade celt (Figure 7) from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Here, we can see a deity in profile with similar features to the votive axe and Olmec man – a snarling mouth, cleft head and fangs. A maize plant with two branches and new leaves depicted as V-shaped marks is seen sprouting from the deity’s head [5]. The physical form of an axe or a celt was similarly symbolic; they have associations with agriculture, being important for clearing forestry to create fields. The long, pointed shape of the celt may also symbolise a green ear of corn. Maize was an important crop, essential to the survival of Mesoamerican people – so important that it had its own god! [6].

Celt with Incised Profile, 10th-4th Century B.C., Olmec | The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1963. Public Domain. Click here for image link: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/310467

There are many other references to the natural world and deities in Olmec art, particularly in their jade and greenstone carvings. Some have been identified, others remain a mystery … why not visit Olmec man and see what you think?

References

[1] Pool, C. (2007). Olmec archaeology and early Mesoamerica. Cambridge University Press.

[2] Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. (2001). Jade in Mesoamerica [Blog]. Retrieved from https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/jade2/hd_jade2.htm.

[3] Doyle, J. (2015). Olmec Babies as Early Portraiture in the Americas [Blog]. Retrieved from https://www.metmuseum.org/blogs/now-at-the-met/2015/olmec-babies

[4] McEwan, C. (1994). Ancient Mexico in the British Museum [Extract]. BMP. Retrieved 25 May 2021, from https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/E_Am-St-536.

[5] Celt with Incised Profile. Metmuseum.org. (2021). Retrieved 25 May 2021, from https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/310467.

[6] Taube, K. (1996). The Olmec Maize God: The Face of Corn in Formative Mesoamerica. Res: Anthropology And Aesthetics, 29-30, 39-81. https://doi.org/10.1086/resvn1ms20166943.

Get fun and creativity in your inbox

Enter your details to sign up to our newsletter.