Sculpture of Huastec goddess

Contributed by British Museum

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This statue was made by the Huastecs, a people conquered by the Aztecs in about 1450. Goddess statues like this were erected throughout Huastec territory and were the main focus of their religion. Making statues of the gods was thought to be dangerous. Sculptors feared they or their families might die as a result, so they fasted and performed prayers and rituals before they began. The Aztecs identified the Huastec mother-goddess with their own goddess of fertility and sexuality, Tlazolteotl, and the two figures in some ways merged.

What was the Aztec attitude to sin?

Tlazolteotl was the goddess of filth worshipped throughout Mesoamerica. She was a goddess of sexuality and fertility who would devour excrement and sin and transform it into renewed vitality. Sex was highly regulated in Aztec society and sexual transgressions heavily punished. Some sexual misdemeanours were confessed to a priest of Tlazolteotl and were forgiven if the penitent worshipper underwent an appropriate penance. Usually they would shed their own blood as part of this, piercing their tongue, ears or penis with a stingray spine.

Statues of the Huastec goddess continued to be venerated into the 19th century, being identified with the Virgin Mary

The power to guarantee continuity

Well it’s quite remarkable because at first it looks as if it might not be that interesting, and then it draws you in, and I think one of the reasons that you are drawn in is the expression: it’s very powerful, with staring eyes. And some remains, perhaps, of paint or perhaps the socket in which some stone was once embedded: and so she has actually quite a vivid staring look and her mouth is open too.

Her ears are quite widely spread so that they can hold these very large ear spools; that’s a very characteristic decoration or ornament for the Mesoamerican grand dignitary or goddess; a sort of sign of power, probably gold. Her hair is braided and hangs in very pendulous sort of tassels on her shoulders, and her breasts actually pick up this look of her eyes; they are in fact themselves rather like eyes.

And then as you begin to look more closely, at this arresting, sort of staring presence, you realise that under her breasts there are some marks, and these are the marks that she has given birth. They’re meant to indicate – the breasts themselves are not pendulous, but as I say they stare out at you like eyes – but underneath them there are folds of flesh, and that is the sign that she is a mother who has possibly given birth more than once: these are breasts that have been used.

And then her hands are exactly symmetrical: not clasped, but resting on where her womb would be. And again that draws attention to the fact that she is fecund. Fecund and has been fecund and is there as a power to guarantee the continuity of the people who worship her, of the tribe, and of vitality itself: of the life principle itself.

Marina Warner, historian and broadcaster

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Comments

  • 3 comments
  • 1. At 11:24 on 8 July 2010, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    Wonderful. And not short of clues. She has thirteen fronds to her head dress: A Luna calendar?
    Three weights on her head/mind: planting; harvesting; building.
    Three sizes to her dress: play?; formal?; ritual? Or three seasons; hot; warm; cold.
    Three sizes to her breasts: innocence/child; maturity/woman; old age/wisdom.
    The hands are clenched: Strength. Possibly a yogic like posture employed in child birth or for that matter defecating.
    Her face: eyes wide open; alert: Mouth open; song, instruction, nourishment, relaxed: Hair and earrings; neat and tidy.
    There is a faint outline on the block itself. A plant? A figure? My imagination?
    With the light of the rising/setting sun and viewed from beneath she has a charming earnestness about her facial expression, perhaps invoking cooperation or prayerfully chanting on her way to or from her days activity. And then again she might be calling out a warning ?Tread carefully dangers abroad.
    Finally, would it be too much to suggest that some type of onomatopoeic meaning can be gleaned from the name Huastec. HU ? wind, A(h)- sun, S(h)- rain, t- eating.

    Super series. Many thanks. Sincerely,..

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  • 2. At 19:38 on 8 July 2010, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    Second thoughts: What if the figure is standing behind a structure like a house? Then the building block makes sense as she might be carrying produce or building materials too or from it. Or what if she is standing guard over it? Her headdress might signify protection from falling walls (as in an earthquake), fire (stylised), but the cone shape (no ideas; possibly thunder if they had cone shaped drums).
    Third thought: What if the figure is emerging from something. It could be a creation myth if it is a stylized phallus then the first woman looks like she might have arrived complete with everything she needed. Strength, vigilance, dress code, calendar, fire, building ability and music/fish trap??). Whose phallus? Why Shiva of course. Just kidding.
    Fourth thought: Maybe the figure was used variously to describe all these activities and attributes: A sort of standalone story book.

    Fascinating to think about. Thanks again. Sincerely...

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  • 3. At 22:15 on 13 July 2010, hirundine608 wrote:

    Is that a corn cob, as part of the headdress? With corn leaves around?

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