The base figure, certainly a trophy head, appears to be an elderly male with wrinkles on his face, above his eyes, and on the bridge of his nose. His ears bear large composite ear spools, and his chin has shanks of a probable false beard. The lips meet in front, but the toothless mouth is contorted in a forceful grimace. The large eyes appear to be slits, closed as in death. A prominent bar-like attachment extends from the eye over the upper bridge of the nose; above it are the upper part of the eye socket and forehead abutting a circle under the larger upper image.
This distorted head may well be a Veracruz variant of an aged underworld deity, such as Gods L and N in Maya art. Regardless of the specific image, this sculpture was probably carved to mark the sacrifice of a high-status personage or ruler of note rather than solely to honor a fearsome god. The decapitated man depicted here may have impersonated just such a deity in a sacrificial ball game rite. In the Maya epic Popul Vuh, the Hero Twins competed with the underworld gods in the ballcourt. Ultimately, the gods were defeated and beheaded. The head depicted in this hacha may be wearing a skin mask; it also may be named in the scene above.
The upper 60 percent of the sculpture, ostensibly a type of crested headdress or helmet for the lower face, is dominated by a seated zoomorphic figure with a human body. The form is highlighted and the depth of relief is augmented by removal of background stone. Three swept-back feathers rise from the head; the eyes are slits. A necklace with beads of unusual thickness rests upon the shoulders, denoting both sacredness and rank. The legs are drawn up under the chin. The extended hand of the figure appears to be encased in a heavy glove, as might be used in one of the hand formats of the ritual ball game.
The hand opens toward a circle, perhaps representing a ball or a symbol for the number one. The thumb touches an elongated loop symbol, possibly related to the object above it, which covers the end of the animal’s snout, studded with triangular teeth. With a loop handle on top, a circle at its center, and three hanging tassels, the device may be a pouch, symbol of preciousness and sacredness. The animal, or more properly the animal impersonator, is probably representing an opossum or deer: both have mythological import.
The first animal was particularly important because the young Hero Twins of the Popul Vuh were thought to have returned from death at the hands of the underworld lords as dancing magicians or actors with animal attributes and names, including that of the opossum. Demonstrating their powers of illusion, they decisively defeated the gods, sacrificing some of them. This animal is also called the “old man” and in that capacity is associated with the dawn as well as with the solar and Venus cycles, which were important in the ball game cults of ancient Veracruz.
Deer, often with extended ear-like ornaments not shown here, were also supportive participants in the legends of the ball game. In El Tajín’s ballcourt sculptures they were rendered with a human body and helmet. Regardless of the correct zoological designation, the impersonator’s identity is of a divine animal thought to participate in one of the mythological ball games.
The thick glove may denote a highland ball game variant distinct from the hip and mallet or stick forms that seem to have predominated in the Gulf Lowlands in the Classic period. The hand probably opens toward a numeral—instead of a ball—because the game ball is normally not shown in movement in Classic Veracruz sculpture. Hands often point to name glyphs in the late sculptures at El Tajín. Unless it improbably refers to the stacked items directly above it, the reference here is most likely to the grotesque head immediately below.
Possibly this numeral is part of the name of the mythological animal being portrayed, but far more likely it refers to the name of the individual whose severed head is depicted next to it, perhaps reading One Death, the name of the most powerful underworld overlord who was sacrificed by the Hero Twins. The demise of this aged deity, commonly identified as God L, was the high point of the quest to destroy the malicious power of the fickle rulers of the underworld.
Like some other hachas and many palmas, this sculpture has two registers of information. Palmas frequently have a ritual scene or contextual depiction, often on the back, and a celebrated symbol or protagonist, usually on the front. In this case the upper figure is suggestive of the context, a ball game player with a zoomorphic helmet alluding to a specific mythological event. The base of the hacha has the principal image, the severed head of a sacrificed participant, a trophy rendered in the guise of a major deity from legend.
These merging themes evoke compelling mythology and prerogative. This powerfully rendered, well-crafted hacha probably commemorates the sacrificial death of a high-status individual. This personage could well have been a regional ruler of sufficient standing, and perhaps capriciousness, to die in a ritual reenactment of one of the central events of ball game mythology—the downfall of the underworld’s paramount deity.
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Formerly in the collection of Mrs. Amparo Mendizobal de Fernandez of Orizaba , Veracruz, Mexico.
Purchased from Earl Stendahl, Los Angeles (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, 1956.
Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1956-1962.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.