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Transformation Figure

Olmec, Middle Preclassic
900 BCE - 300 BCE
19 x 8.9 x 7.9 cm (7 1/2 x 3 1/2 x 3 1/8 in.)

On view


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This object, carved in serpentine, expresses the posture, power, and aggressiveness of a combatant. This stance interpretation is reinforced with the existence of a piercing in his right fist that is suited to hold a weapon. Although his body and certain traits of his head (such as the overall shape and ears) remain human, his face, hands, feet, and neck are that of a jaguar. In addition to the right hand, the eye orbits were also drilled; in this case, the drilled cavities were intended for circular inlays, of which only the left remains. Smaller drills were employed to create shallow holes for the nostrils and spaces between the toes. The finger and toenails of the hands and feet are delineated by fine line incision, as are the knuckles of the right hand.

This representation of a man in the process of transforming into a jaguar pertains to the long-lasting Mesoamerican cultural tradition of nahualism. The nahualli were individuals who, through the consumption of hallucinogenic drugs, had the ability to transform into their supernatural animal counterparts. In animal form, they traveled to a spiritual world and could intercede for the well-being of their community. The earliest known representations of this tradition are seen in the stonework of the Olmec, one of the oldest and great influential cultures of Mesoamerica.

Benson, Elizabeth P. 1963 Handbook of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art. Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C., p. 5, cat. 19.

Benson, Elizabeth P. and Beatriz de la Fuente (EDS.) 1996 Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., p. 229, no. 70.

Bliss, Robert Woods 1957 Pre-Columbian Art: The Robert Woods Bliss Collection. Text and Critical Analyses by Samuel K. Lothrop, William F. Foshag, and Joy Mahler. Phaidon, New York. p. 234, cat. 10, fig. 10, pl. IV.

Coe, Michael D. 1996 The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership. Art Museum, Princeton University, Princeton. p. 69-70, 175, fig. 2.

Diehl, Richard A. 2004 The Olmecs: America's First Civilization. Ancient Peoples and Places; Vol. 112. Thames & Hudson, London. p. 107, fig. 69.

Furst, Peter T. 1968 The Olmec Were-Jaguar Motif in the Light of Ethnographic Reality. p. 146, 148-9, 151, fig. 1.

González Calderón, O. L. 1991 The Jade Lords. O.L. González Calderón, Coatzacoalcos, Ver., pl. 228.

Gutiérrez Mendoza, Gerardo and Mary E. Pye 2010 Iconography of the Nahual: Human-Animal Transformations in Preclassic Guerrero and Morelos. In The Place of Stone Monuments: Context, Use, and Meaning in Mesoamerica's Preclassic Transition, Julia Guernsey, John E. Clark and Bárbara Arroyo, eds., pp. 27-54. Dumbarton Oaks Pre-Columbian Symposia and Colloquia, Joanne Pillsbury, general editor. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 28, fig. 2.1(b).

Kubler, George 1962 The Art and Architecture of Ancient America; the Mexican, Maya, and Andean Peoples. The Pelican History of Art, Z21. Penguin Books, Baltimore. p. 70, pl. 35 (A).

Loisy, Jean de and Sandra Adam-Couralet (EDS.) 2012 Les Maîtres Du Désordre. Musée du Quai Branly, Paris. p. 224, pl. I

Magni, Caterina 2003 Les Olmèques: Des Origines Au Mythe. Seuil, Paris. p. 193, pl. 3.

National Wildlife Federation. 1987 Kingdom of Cats. National Wildlife Federation, Vienna, Va., p. 71.

Reilly, Frank Kent, III 1989 The Shaman in Transformation Pose: A Study of the Theme of Rulership in Olmec Art. Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University 48 (2):4-21.

Saunders, Nicholas J. 1989 People of the Jaguar: The Living Spirit of Ancient America. Souvenir Press, London. p. 71-73.

Soustelle, Jacques 1979 Les Olmèques: La Plus Ancienne Civilisation Du Mexique. Arthaud, Paris. pl. 52.

Soustelle, Jacques 1984 The Olmecs: The Oldest Civilization in Mexico. Doubleday, Garden City. p. 129.

Taube, Karl A. 2004 Olmec Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks; No. 2. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 62-4, pl. 6.

Exhibition History
"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, January 1956 to July 1962.

"Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 6/30 - 10/20/1996.

"Les Maîtres du désordre:, Musée du quai Branly, Paris, 4/11 - 7/29/2012

Acquisition History
Purchased from Earl Stendahl, Los Angeles (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, 1954.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1954-1962.

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.

Anthropomorphic | Felines | Olmecs