During the great Huastec-Nahua expansion of the Postclassic period in the upper Gulf Lowlands, a notable artistic florescence was manifest in stone sculptures by the working of slabs, mainly sandstone flags. The bellicose explosion of the district’s multiethnic kingdoms, often with Nahua elites but including various displaced ethnic groups, took this new sculptural form to the borders of the northern Gulf Lowlands and beyond.
With the violent conquests of these mostly ephemeral realms, earlier sculptural formats and styles largely disappeared, generally replaced with severe stone figures in a style traditionally called Huastec, after the principal inhabitants of this district, which was commonly known as the Huasteca. Although the corpus of large-scale Huastec statuary mostly depicts males, usually rulers, there are many female representations in an array of formats in which goddess impersonators with their symbolic attire predominate.
Before exploring the nature of such divine associations, however, it is important to examine this sculpture, one of the finest of its kind, and the only Bliss Collection object of the period from the northern Gulf Lowlands. More three-dimensional than most carvings from the area, it embodies many attributes of Huastec stone carving at its zenith and is shaped from good quality sandstone.
The sculpture’s surface is pitted, primarily along the sides, because of the irregularly compacted nature of the stone as well as its original shaping. When fresh, this type of rock tends to have a bright yellow color but fades to beige, or even off-white, over time. Portions of the surface, principally in front, are flaking, as the relatively soft stone ages and is exposed to humidity. Nonetheless, the sculpture is in better overall condition than most known examples.
Most Huastec anthropomorphic statuary is one-fourth to one-third life size, although a few, primarily depicting males, are life size. Female figures, including headdresses, vary from 40 to 170 cm in height. This figure is in the lower portion of that range. On its own, the size of the figure would approach portable size, but the ample, unadorned pedestal base beneath the figure’s feet indicates that the sculpture was meant to be erected at least in a semi-permanent manner. Most such statues in the Huastec style come from temple sanctuaries, which sometimes included more than one sculpture.
Here the face, perhaps a mask, emerges from a relatively large monster-maw helmet. The jaws are ornately rendered with a scroll-like projection for the snout. The monster’s decorated bifurcate tongue extends down between the breasts to just above the waist. The beast’s bulbous eyes bulge out from the figure’s semicircular headdress. This spreading, fan-like adornment, used as the effigy headgear’s backdrop, is the quintessential Huastec ceremonial accoutrement, visual affirmation of high status, rulership, or divinity.
The nude upper torso has widely separated breasts; formally posed hands nearly touch on the abdomen. A long skirt hangs down to the feet, best described as blocked out rather than carved. Typical of Huastec carving, less attention is paid to detail in the lower figure, especially the legs. The arms are adorned with pendant skulls attached to a cloth or leather flap in the form of a “holly leaf” design that also occurs in Huastec warrior tattoos.
The human mask, especially when viewed from the side, is unusually individualistic. Although such visages are most often stereotypic in these sculptures, this particular likeness has personal features. The large flared nose is accentuated by the sharply receding forehead characteristic of intentional cranial remodeling. The strong jaw recedes, its slackness leaving the slightly lopsided lips parted as in repose. The large eyes are blank and expressionless. The complete counte¬nance gives the deliberate impression of a specific death mask.
The statue’s squat appearance and stocky proportions belie its importance. In the northern Gulf Lowlands, particularly in the southern reaches at the time of this style, female sculptures were often small, even when depicting rulers, and the woman commemorated here was of very high status. Dangling craniums on the arms, uncommon in both male and female statuary from the core coastal Huastec area, are associated with warfare, rulership, and perhaps lineage. The monster motif, more common and geographically widespread, strongly indicates elevated female rank and divine impersonation.
But what gods are being imitated? Conventionally, in modern accounts, Huastec deities have Nahuatl names assigned in Aztec times, implying that these earlier gods of the Gulf Lowlands have connotations similar to those in the Central Highlands of Mexico at the time of contact. There is thematic overlap, but Huastec deities have their own significance. In this case, regional and temporal distinctions are essential to understanding the symbolic context of the sculpture.
Many of these female images from the northern Gulf are indiscriminately called Tlazolteotl figures. To Late Postclassic Nahuatl speakers of the highlands, this goddess was the patron of carnal vices, curing, and purification. Sometimes thought to be one of the powerful underworld and night lords, she was appeased by bloodletting. However, the earlier Huastec counterpart was Ixcuina, an ancient deity of the lowlands with broader earth goddess implications than the attributes mentioned above, including water abundance, fertility, war-fare, flaying rituals, and lunar associations, and by extension a descending goddess who enters the underworld.
The earth goddess in hybrid reptilian monster form was thought to swallow the setting sun and the accompanying souls of both women who died in childbirth and deceased warriors. Thus the deity’s mouth was the living entrance to the underworld, and this faculty of the goddess is depicted here. There are parallels to the Aztec earth deity Tlaltecuhtli, but the Huastec goddess was more encompassing and multifaceted. Enduring traditions in the Gulf Lowlands today reflect these once-common interlocking Pre-Columbian beliefs.
Surviving vestiges of these divine permutations from antiquity are at times evoked among indigenous groups in the former Huastec area of dominance. In one folk practice, women offer strands of hair to the waning sun, a deception to cheat the earth goddess from swallowing their souls. Similar deception and concealment may be a motivation for identity-hiding masks common to such statues. Misleading the often capricious and malevolent gods, especially those of the night or underworld, is a Mesoamerican tradition of great time depth.
Metaphorical descent and ascent to and from the underworld were probably royal Huastec coronation rituals. This statue may portray an important woman in the accoutrements of Ixcuina, wearing a stone death mask in a dynastic ritual invoking divine sanction for rulership renewal or change. Seemingly, such female statues were frequently paired in temples with larger renderings of males, often in warrior attire, that are probably ascension markers for rulers.
Such statuary could be from practically any portion of the northern Gulf Lowlands’ large core coastal area. However, the stone’s grain and the rendering of detail in PC.B.533 suggest an origin in a zone of proficient sculptors with high artistic standards. This object is most probably from the slopes of the Sierra Otontepec. On the southern side in the upper north-central Gulf Lowlands, at such sites as Piedra Labrada and Zacamixtle, similar stone and styling were used in some of the most dynamic and expressive sculptures of the period.
Benson, Elizabeth P. 1969 Supplement to the Handbook of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art. Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D. C., cat. 452.
Fuente, Beatriz de la 1975 Arte Huaxteco Prehispánico. Artes De México; No. 187. Revista Artes de México, México. p. 30.
Fuente, Beatriz de la 1985 Main Subjects in Huastec Sculpture. In Fourth Palenque Round Table, 1980, Elizabeth P. Benson and Merle Greene Robertson, eds., pp. 303-312. The Palenque Round Table Series; V. 6. Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, San Francisco. fig. 6