Monday, January 12, 2015

eye of the jaguar

We know next to nothing about the Olmec people.

From the scant evidence that is available, they appear to be the fountainhead of all other Mesoamerican cultures.  The myths (including the sacred nature of jaguars), games, and rituals that were part of subsequent Indian civilizations began with the Olmec.

That is a rather daunting ancestry.  Even more so because we know very little about them.  Where they came from.  Or why they abandoned their cities.  We don't even know if they slipped off to be part of other tribes -- or if they simply disappeared.

Based solely on the works they have left behind, we know they thrived as a separate culture from 1500-400 B.C.  And their works are worth seeing.

I have seen a fair representation of those works at the Anthropological Museum in Mexico City.  But Villahermosa offers an even better selection at the Parque Museo de La Venta.  To preserve some of the more massive pieces, the Mexican government moved them to a very enticing outdoor setting.

When I think of Olmec works of art, I usually think of the 17 colossal heads found at four Olmec sites.

Like most things Olmec, there are many theories about what the heads represent.  The majority opinion is they are representations of chieftains dressed in ritual ball-playing garb.

Each head is distinctly individual -- to represent a specific person.  What strikes most people are the features.  They appear to be far more African than Oriental.  And, if you buy the land bridge from Asia theory of migration, that simply makes no sense.

And where sense seems to be a stranger to history, all types of myths grow up.  There have been (and are) some rather loony theories.  All the way from believing the heads represent Africans who sailed to the Americas from the shores of their home continent to the heads represent aliens who arrived in UFOs with advanced technological knowledge.  After all, how could the Olmec have transported the giant rocks for their sculptures over such large distances on their own?

No one can answer that question.  We simply do not know enough about the Olmecs.  Well, we know enough to discount theories that are incredible on their face.

Apparently there is a current belief to explain the odd features on the heads.  The sculptures are said to represent an exaggeration of the physical characteristics the Olmecs most admired -- almond-shaped eyes with a tendency to squint, prominent cheekbones,
wide noses, and thick lips. 

I would be very interested in reading the source material leading to that conclusion.  It seems to be far too specific for a people about whom we know so little.

The heads are impressive.  But I was rather surprised to discover that this proto-civilization had developed sculpture skills far more sophisticated than the heads.

The bas-relief scultures on the sides of the Altar of the Children are poignant.  You can almost feel the movement of the children as their parents attempt to hold them.

Or the rather complex story told of the passage of power from one chieftain to another.  If executed in stained glass, it could be a parable in the window of a Spanish cathedral.

But the piece that touched me the most was this monkey looking into the sky.  Rodin could not have improved on the artist's ability to connect with the viewer.

Each of the pieces (and many more) is set in a jungle-like setting in the park with a winding pathway that obscures each exhibit from the next.  When we were there, it was drizzling.  The park must be stunning in the sunlight.

But the park is more than simply an outdoor archaeological exhibit.  It is also a zoo.  Unfortunately, one of those zoos where the animals seem far more captive than on display.  I will not upset you with the lame, tumor-ridden, overweight large and small wild cats. 

Let me share a few of the non-mammalian exhibits.

The park has a large aviary filled with a wide-range of birds -- most of whom seem a bit bewildered that their once-open skies are a bit restricted.  These macaws were brilliant -- even without the sun.

No zoo exhibit would be complete without a snake house.  This beautiful Mexican viper looks as if it might be far happier somewhere warmer.

And this baby iguana stopped by to just say hello.


On our way out, we stopped at the park cafeteria for lunch.  I thought we might have the possibility of tasting some of Tabsco's regional foods.  That was not to be.  Instead, the young men running the counter convinced me a corn dog was in my future.  Actually, two corn dogs.

It was not a hard sell.  I am a sucker for corn dogs.  And these were some of the best I have eaten.  (I suspect Sam's Club may have been involved somewhere in that food chain.)

I told Dan that if the cafeteria had been an American television show, the owner would really have been a vampire and his young employees were-jaguars (a motif popularized by the Olmecs).  As we left, the resident Jaguar stalked me.  I could almost hear his breath as we wandered through the rest of the park.

We were then on our way east.  Campeche was our ultimate goal -- a goal we may reach tomorrow.  While driving through mile after mile of marshland, it was easy to see why
Cortés did not land his troops along the Tabasco coast. 

We refused to let nature limit our possibilities.  When night fell, we found ourselves in Ciudad del Carmen.

Due to the rain storm, the streets are filled with water.  Tomorrow we will see how the place looks in the cold (even though it is a comfortable 72 degrees) light of day.

But that is for another day.

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