La Venta came into prominence around 900 BC. It had thousands of inhabitants and was about 200 hectares; though the power and influence of the city spread much further. Many people there had jobs such in farming, fishing, and moving stone blocks from distant quarries. Traders also ventured into the distant valleys of Mexico and beyond, bringing back cacao, bright feathers, obsidian, and jadeite. Others were members of the priesthood and the elite or ruling class.
La Venta was built on top of a ridge along the Palma river. The royal compound existed at the very top. Four colossal heads were found at La Venta and three of the four were oriented in a line east-west. The placement of these monuments at both La Venta and San Lorenzo is very intriguing.
La Venta had a Great Pyramid, which is thought to have been an important ceremonial and political center. Building of the pyramid is estimated to have begun around 1200 BC. It was the largest Mesoamerican structure of its time. It is 110 feet (33.5 meters) tall, and contains approximately 100,000 cubic meters of earth fill. It has never been excavated and scans of the area show a few interesting anomalies. There are other structures underneath the city – offerings to the gods. These include more than 1,000 tons of polished serpentine blocks, more than 48 individual deposits of pottery, hematite mirrors, jade celts, and complex mosaics.
Tres Zapotes is the third major city. In 1862, Jose Melgar discovered the first Olmec colossal head there. This led to the first archaeological explorations in the area five years later. The city’s unique because it may have been inhabited for more than 2,000 consecutive years. It also shows artistic influences from several other groups.
Tres Zapotes became prominent around the time that San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan declined. The decline of Olmec culture at Tres Zapotes occurred during the Middle Formative period, about 400 BC. This “decline” refers to the Olmec people losing unique cultural aspects. The city was not abandoned at this time, but became a mixed culture known today as the Epi-Olmec culture. Many believe that Epi-Olmec art, especially at Tres Zapotes, was less skilled. Less detail was used and lower quality items were produced.
La Cobata was not an inhabited city – it was a basalt site located near the Sierra de los Tuxtlas. An offering of an obsidian knife was found buried with the colossal head found there. The knife was pointed North toward Monument Q’s head. The head at La Cobata was discovered in 1970 and is the largest found so far. It is the only Olmec head discovered with closed eyes.
La Cobata colossal head. (Author provided)
Olmec religion spurs the interest and debates of many scholars. Some regard the Olmec religious hierarchy as complex, while others call it simplistic compared to the Maya and Aztec pantheons. I view it as both complex and simplistic. Complex because it showed ingenuity in rituals and beliefs set in place with no major outside influence, but simplistic when compared with the Maya and Aztec pantheons. The Maya worshipped over 250 deities and the Aztec had more than 1,000 gods!
Unfortunately, the identities of the Olmec gods have been lost to time. Because the Olmec language has yet to be deciphered, the only way to gain insight regarding their beliefs is by studying the images and symbols left behind on carvings and other artifacts. Information on who they worshiped and how they did so may change drastically in the future. But it appears the Olmec deities did not show gender, unlike the Aztec and Maya cultures that they ‘parented’.
Shamanism was a central part of Olmec religion and images of shamans transforming is often depicted in their art. Shamans are shown performing acrobatics, sometimes with were-jaguar attributes. It seems that the Olmec thought very highly of jaguars and admired their strength, stealth, and prowess. One of the highest states of being you could achieve would be the ability to become one with the powerful jaguar. Therefore, shamans were very important people in Olmec religion.
Shaman transforming into a Were-jaguar. (Author provided)
God I of the Olmec pantheon was the god of earth, sun, water, and fertility. and was also referred to as Earth Monster. It was sometimes depicted as a dragon with flaming eyebrows and a well-defined nose. This being’s connections suggest that it may have been a creator deity. It may also be the ancestor of the Maya Itazmna, Aztec Xiuhtecuhtli, and Mesoamerican god Huehueteotl.
Olmec God I. (Author provided)
God II was the maize /corn god. It was usually depicted with a maize cob sprouting from a cleft in its head. Sometimes the being was shown as youthful or carved as a toothless infant. It had almond-shaped eyes, thick prominent lips, and a large flat nose. Carvings atop the heads of these statues were common. God II may have been the antecedent of all Mesoamerican corn deities.
Olmec God II – Maize Deity. (Author provided)
God III was a cosmological deity sometimes referred to as a bird monster and was associated with the sun, sky, and agricultural fertility. It was usually portrayed in bird-monster form which combined reptilian and avian features. It sometimes had flaming eyebrows.
Olmec God III – Bird God aka Bird Monster. (Author provided)
God IV is the Olmec god of rain and was an agricultural fertility deity. It was depicted as a were-jaguar. Usually it was shown wearing a headband, pectoral badges, and ear ornaments. God IV has characteristics that suggest it was the predecessor of the Aztec Tlaloc and the Maya Chac.
Olmec God IV – Rain (Water) God. (Author provided)
God V is no longer a designation in the Olmec pantheon, but God VI represented spring and annual renewal. It was most often portrayed as a disembodied cleft head with almond-shaped eyes – one having a stripe across it. The name Banded-eye god is associated with this being. It was usually shown with a toothless, upturned grin. The only known depictions of this deity are in profile, usually carved on earthenware containers. In later years, the worship of this deity became rather hideous as priests would wear flayed human skins of sacrificial victims.
Olmec God VI – Banded-eye God. (Author provided)
God VII is a plumed or feathered serpent. It is the best known from the Olmec pantheon and was one of the earliest to have developed. Its counterparts include the Maya Kukulkan, and the Aztec Quetzalcoatl.
Feathered / Plumed Serpent transition over time from Olmec, to Aztec, to Maya. (Author provided)
God VIII was the Olmec fish god, sometimes called Fish Monster or Shark Monster. This being was associated with all bodies of water, from lakes to oceans. Its portrayed with crescent-shaped eyes, a somewhat human style nose, a small lower jaw, and a fish body. In fish form, it was sometimes depicted with a forked tail and a dorsal fin.
Olmec God VIII – Fish or Fish monster God. (Author provided)
God X is the last known god in the Olmec pantheon. It was a were-jaguar type being with the popular cleft head characteristic, a toothless mouth, and almond-shaped eyes. A definable motif of this god was the figure-eight symbol in its nostrils. This being was never shown wearing stripes or bands and was probably a lesser deity compared to the others in the Olmec pantheon.
Olmec God X – Were-jaguar. (Author provided)
Final Thoughts on Olmec Deities
There is much confusion involving the Olmec pantheon. It is very difficult differentiating one deity from the next because their characteristics are so similar and Olmec examples so few. In fact, I have come across several internet sites and articles that have the deities listed incorrectly. More research needs to occur on individual deities in order to classify them accurately.
Top Image: Examples of Olmec art. Source: Jj Ainsworth
Jj Ainsworth is an alternative archaeologist history buff world traveler and explorer She focuses mainly on megaliths and symbol decoding but loves solving any kind of ancient mystery.