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HOME : Pre-Columbian Art : Olmec Masks : Olmec Stone Mask Pendant Depicting a Were-Jaguar
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Olmec Stone Mask Pendant Depicting a Were-Jaguar - SP.172
Origin: Mexico
Circa: 900 BC to 500 BC
Dimensions: 2.5" (6.4cm) high
Collection: Pre-Columbian
Medium: Stone

Location: United States
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Based on archaeological and linguistic evidence, the ancient civilization of the Olmecs appears to have taken root and blossomed in the low-lying Gulf Coast area of modern Mexico around 1200 B.C. Considered to be the first civilization of the Americas, many aspects of Olmec culture would be absorbed by the civilizations that came after them. The Maya, for instance, were directly influenced by their city centers based around large platform mounds and their hieroglyphic language. However today, the Olmecs are known primarily for the distinctive works of art they left behind. Olmec art was primarily a reflection and result of their religion. The Olmecs believed that a union of jaguar and woman produced an earlier race of were-jaguars. Depictions of human infants with the snarling mouths of jaguars are a reoccurring motif of Olmect art. These were-jaguar babies are thought to function both as symbols of fertility and of the shape-shifting powers of the shaman. The Colossal Heads, a series of massive stone portraits of their rulers, are perhaps the most celebrated works of Olmec art. Olmec artists also commonly worked with jade and greenstone, which they believed had beneficial properties linked to fertility and procreation.

The facial features of this mask-shaped pendant are characteristic of Olmec art. The down turned mouth of the were-jaguar is thought by scholars to depict a shaman in the midst of transmogrification. Its harmonious proportions are indicative of the sophistication attained by Olmec sculptors. The eyes and mouths are open, the nose slightly upturned. Holes drilled along the side of the forehead and chin and well as the ears, coupled with the masks diminutive size, suggest this carving was worn on the body as a protective amulet. While it is possible this mask was worn by a living individual during a ceremonial celebration, it is also possible that it served a funerary function. The preservation of the physical remains of the dead through mummification was a central concern of Olmec burial rites. Masks of jade and greenstone were traditionally laid over the wrapped remain of important individuals who had passed away. As great civilizations rise and fall, they leave behind traces of their existence. Ritualistic objects, venerated in their own time, continue to exert an eternal force long after they have left the hands that once held them sacred. A mysterious energy still radiates from this stone mask pendant, a testament to the artistry and culture of the ancient Olmec civilization.
- (SP.172)


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