Pre-Columbian, Southern Mexico to Guatemala, Olmec culture, ca. 1150 to 550 BCE. An ominous figure from violent ancient religious rituals, a carved stone bloodletting implement capped by a looming avian figure who stands in an anthropomorphic posture. Does this represent a human, probably a shaman, who has assumed the costume and/or form of a bird as part of a transformative ritual? The figure looms over the long, sharp, needle-like implement, its large, mask-like face gazing impassively down its length, its eyes drilled, empty holes, its wings hanging ominously at its sides. Red cinnabar pigment coats much of the figure, making it appear bloody. Size: 0.95" W x 12" H (2.4 cm x 30.5 cm); 12.2" H (31 cm) on included custom stand.
Bloodletting seems to have been a common ritual in Olmec society, although most of what we can surmise about it we know from the later Maya, who emulated the Olmec practice. We know that the Olmec used shark's teeth, stingray spines, obsidian blades, and other sharp items to perforate the skin, and they have been found at Formative period sites like La Venta, San Jose Mogote, and Chalcatzingo. There are also stone recreations of these items - for example, the jade effigy of a stingray spine found in a tomb at La Venta. As for the presence of the avian figure, Olmec artwork sometimes shows flying figures that seem to represent personified deities or powerful rulers who have aligned themselves with godly powers, traveling through the air accompanied by birds. Birds' ability to travel between the earth and the sky world made them powerfully symbolic figures, associated with the liminal, and therefore the breaching of boundaries that occurred in shamanism and death.
Provenance: private Hawaii, USA collection, acquired in 2008; ex-private Spencer Throckmorton collection, New York, New York, USA
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Repaired from four or five pieces, with repairs well done and almost impossible to detect. Very nice remaining detail and original pigment. Old collection sticker taped on the back.