Charting out a Complex World: Ancient Zapotec Religion in Context

Review by Naomi Calnitsky
July 10, 2017

Ancient Zapotec Religion: An Ethnohistorical and Archeological Perspective

by Michael Lind
Published 2015

University Press of Colorado

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Michael Lind begins Ancient Zapotec Religion: An Ethnohistorical and Archeological Perspective at Lambityeco, near Tlacolula in the Valley of Oaxaca, at a Late Classic Xoo phase (650-850 AD) site titled Mound 190 that may have been home to a “series of superimposed palaces occupied by several generations of important priests” (p. xvii). The sacred and religious realities at play in this site are then discussed against the realities of post-contact, post-conquest Spanish documentary knowledge about the Zapotec gathered in spotty and hard to locate Spanish documents that date from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The tensions between archeological and historical knowledge linked to the Zapotec religion are here immediate and intentional, the author provoking the need, fulfilled in part by his own work, to reconcile such tensions and offer fresh insights into the nature of the belief systems and religious social organization of the ancient Zapotec. In not immediately making any reference to Mitla in his preface, Lind provocatively points to the still understudied, complex and multi-locational realities of religious organization, structure and infrastructural elements of the ancient Zapotec world. Indeed, as the book progresses, the complexity inherent to the world of Zapotec deities is increasingly made known.

Lind’s study combines attention to archeological finds from the Postclassic prior to Conquest, as well as documents from the 1st two centuries after conquest in an effort to describe and interpret the nature of ancient Zapotec religion. (p. 1) While the Zapotec had a concept of the “sacred” they had no word for religion. (p. 2) In his review of the theory on the linkages between religion and social organization, ideas are linked with the “sociocultural system” while rituals serve as enactors of “religious principles or myths” (p. 2). For Lind, Zapotec religion is “conceived as a shared worldview” that served to “integrate” its city-state culture (p. 3). Lind situates his own work within a trajectory of studies on the Zapotec including Eduard Seler’s work, a 1910 manuscript by Martinez Gracida and other work from Victor de la Cruz and Winter; Seler’s work, significantly, pointed to “a basic unity” among Nahuas, Maya and Zapotec religious structures, while others like Wigberto Jiménez Moreno contested this view. Louise Burkhart’s exploration of Nahua concepts as functioning post-contact in dialogue with Christian ones was additionally innovative in deconstructing the assumptions inherent to colonial documents if read along their grain (p. 4). So, then, to what extent is Lind offering anything new to the study of the Zapotec? He asserts that the ‘ceremonies and rituals’ of the Zapotec are ‘little known’ in comparison to the ample discussion given to the Nahua and the Maya (p. 4). As one moves through the body of the work, it becomes clear that Lind’s study is an impressive and detailed one that pays meticulous attention to Zapotec ceremonial and ritual life shaped prominently by priestly hierarchies and idol, deity, and ancestor worship.

This book is a highly structured one and begins with a focus on the ways in which Zapotec deities were revealed in documents from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and then moves into a description of temple priests and temple ceremonies. Lind’s focused chapters on Mitla and Yagul reveals attention to infrastructure, while his turn to the colaní in Chapter Seven, termed letrados or maestros in Spanish, provokes a reinterpretation of the role of these community priests who “did not staff temples, were not celibate, and resided with their families in neighborhoods within their communities” (p. 216). Colaní took part in birth and marriage rituals, dealt with sickness, and were additionally involved in burial rituals. They were also consulted on the proper time to perform the maize harvest (p. 225). Colaní were also involved in ceremonies linked to deer hunting and led prayers for good fortune in fishing activities. Chapter 8 follows the fate of Zapotec ritual books and considers the structure and complexity of the Zapotec sacred calendar. In all this is a highly thorough study that relies upon an existing literature and a reinterpretation of primary materials to form a cohesive whole.

At the outset Lind helps clarify the definition of Zapotec deities by referring to Joyce Marcus’ conceptualization of Zapotec “gods” as in realities coqui or rulers who were deified after death and thus “perceived as intermediaries between the people and the supernatural forces,” while others like Alfredo López Austin divided Zapotec deities into reverence for gods and supernatural forces (p. 8). Importantly, Lind positions sixteenth century documents within the specificity of their historical contexts; Fray Juan de Córdova’s works, Relaciones Geográficas and Vocabularios were penned more than fifty years after the Zapotecs’ initial encounters with Christianity, between 1578 and 1581 (p. 16). Indeed, what Lind offers here is an ethnohistory of Zapotec culture prior to and in the aftermath of contact. He also offers a window into the production of knowledge on the Zapotec, detailing, for instance, how in response to King Phillip II’s questionnaire for corregidores or magistrates in New Spain, magistrates and “the occasional priest” secured knowledge from Zapotec nobles about their religious “practices and deities,” pointing to the difficulties and ambiguities linked to translation of concepts (p. 22-25). Lind’s study is dense in descriptive detail and is as encyclopedic as its sources. Seventeenth century writings on the Zapotec, penned by priests like Gonzalo de Balsalobre, were tied in with confessions of guilt from Zapotec priests and indigenous actors who, primarily in the Sola Valley, continued to worship their deities, these confessions consolidated into a book published in 1656 (p. 38).

While Lind’s is a work of anthropology it will also be of interest to historians of Colonial Mexico and colonial Latin America more generally, for its attention to the interplay between text and history and for its capacity to reveal the ways in which religious rifts were foundational to the historical experience of Spanish-led conquest and encounter in New Spain. It shows how Spaniards who left records on the Zapotec were not only interested in imparting Catholicism to indigenous communities throughout Oaxaca but that they were, at the same time, hungry for knowledge about the deities worshipped in and by those communities. He notes that Dominican missionaries were “very thorough in their destruction of statues of Zapotec deities”; in the Sierra Juarez they “went from town to town gathering the idols from temples and burning them in huge bonfires” and those that were hidden in caves were often later on uncovered and destroyed. (p. 50-1) These facts have meant that the archeological evidence on Zapotec deities has remained more limited. Monika Baumanova has touched on this issue, when observing that “the incompleteness of the archaeological record affects all paradigms and approaches, which means that not all theories and methods can be successfully used in all contexts. However, they can often be made to provide complementary answers, as long as we pay due attention to the development and adaptation of the disciplinary theoretical and methodological toolkit.” (Baumanová, p.215).

Lind refers throughout to female deities/goddesses that were part of the Zapotec world, noting the general term Xonaxi for lady or queen in the Valley of Oaxaca, and such goddesses as Huichaana of childbirth and sweatbaths, and Xonaxi Quecuya, goddess of death. Since female deities were often consorts to male deities, these relationships are also meticulously charted, yet some deities could also possess both male and female attributes (p.20). Still, many ambiguities remain; scholarly interpretations of archeological remains often differ, and some of Lind’s interpretations represent mere suggestions. A discussion of the Zapotec cosmos, which was divided into three realms, the Houses of Earth, Sky and the Underworld, is set against the multi-level understandings of Heaven, earth and Underworld prevalent among the Aztec, paving the way for Lind’s transition into the question of priestly culture and community in Chapter Four. For this the author relies on Spanish colonial records, from Burgoa and Cordova, and connects high priestly life in Oaxaca to residence at Mitla, unearthing priestly cultures of reverence and fear, and also setting the high priest or huia tao against descriptions of lesser coqui at places like Tehuantepec (p.77-78); he notes for instance how Burgoa’s depiction of the huia tao detailed him wearing a “chasuble decorated with figures of wild beasts and birds over his white robe” and “sandals with colored threads that certainly set him apart from other priests” (p.84). A school for priests at Teitipac, a “stone palace of teaching and doctrine” in the Valley of Oaxaca, also finds a place in this record. Indeed, Lind’s study is telling on the subject of priestly culture and its multi-layered complexities; his reading of Burgoa for instance reveals a presence of clandestine temple activities and the persistence of pre-Hispanic idolatry, facts that were met with severe and often brutal punishment (p.88).

Lind’s chronology of depictions of Mitla is highly text-based, and begins with impressions of Tehuantepec and Mitla from Franciscan missionaries like Fray Toribio de Motolinía, one of the twelve Franciscans led by Martín de Valencia who began work in Mexico in 1524. What follows is a structural depiction of Mitla that weaves in, however sparsely, textual insights into the ways its rooms may have been utilized by Zapotec priests. A similar chapter on Yagul charts the central archeological findings and inroads made at the site, including the presence of greca mosaics, and an emphasis upon interpretations of Yagul’s function as a palace rather than as a temple, as evident from the multiple household artifacts uncovered there, but also its utility as a site for the funerary ceremonies of coqui and priesets. Here, Lind draws direct connections with Aztec remains, in describing a crude, crouching jaguar at Yagul with a “circular basin…carved into the center of the jaguar’s back, indicating that it had probably served as an Aztec-style cuauhxicalli, or receptacle for the hearts of human sacrificial victims” (p. 204). In the colaní chapter, Lind’s discussion of death rituals is particularly revealing. Finally, the book treats the question of elitism and its intersection with religion, pointing out the way sin which religion not only provided an organizing function within “any given Zapotec city-state,” while simultaneously bringing legitimacy to an elite that functioned as “active participants” in a set of rituals where commoners served as “participant observers” (349).

Baumanová, Monika. “Space Matters: A Reflection on Archeological Theory and Method for Interpreting the Materiality of Space.” (Thematic Review)
Interdisciplinaria Archeologicia VII.2 (2016): 209-216.

Flannery, Kent V. and Joyce Marcus, eds. The Cloud People: Divergent Evolution of the Zapotec and Mixtec Civilizations (Clinton Corners, NY: Pantheon, 2003).

Naomi Calnitsky is an Independent Scholar and Researcher based in Winnipeg, Canada. She received a doctorate in Canadian and Mexican History from Carleton University in 2017. Her forthcoming book, Seasonal Lives: Twenty-First Century Approaches (University of Nevada Press) compares managed farmworker migrations in North America and the Pacific world.

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