Censer representing Tlaloc
From about 1000 CE, independent kingdoms of the Mixtec people dominated western Oaxaca and adjacent parts of Puebla. After the Aztecs conquered some Mixtec kingdoms in the 15th century, the tribute they subsequently paid included works of art in ceramic, metal, and turquoise mosaic, for which the Mixtec craftsmen were justly famous. This monumental ceramic head was reportedly found in a cave shrine in the Mixtec area, accompanied by two enormous ceramic toads (1969.13.1; 1969.13.2) and a large ceramic hand (1969.13.3), all in the museum's collection. Originally, it would have been placed in an urban setting, probably on the terrace of a pyramid. A similar head in the collection of the Museo Nacional de Antropología (National Museum of Anthropology) in Mexico City was reportedly found near Tehuacan, Puebla. The prominent blue circles around the eyes, snakes on the cheeks and brow, and fangs that once streamed from the mouth identify this monumental head as a representation of the god of rain and lightning, whom the Aztecs called Tlaloc. Known by many names, Tlaloc is one of the principal deities of Mesoamerica. Although considered beneficent, Tlaloc could bring harm through drought, lightning, floods, hail, and ice. The offerings made to placate him included human sacrifice, especially children. In this image, blue discs encircle Tlaloc's eyes, signifying water being rippled by rain, and his tubular teeth may represent flowing water. Serpents on his face and ear flanges embody the swift strike of lightning. This head functioned as a brazier for the burning of rubber and copal incense as an offering to the gods, and would have sent billowing columns of scented black smoke into the sky and may well have evoked rain clouds.
Bonnie Pitman, ed., "Head of the rain god (1967.5)," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 51.
Carol Robbins, "Head of the rain god Tlaloc (1967.5)," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection, ed. Suzanne Kotz (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 1997), 192.
Carol Robbins, Label text, A. H. Meadows Galleries, 2010.
According to Museum legend, each time the Tlaloc Head has been moved, rain and thunderstorms soon follow—the first being the 1983 move from Fair Park to the current downtown building, the second in 1993 to the new Ancient Art of the Americas galleries on level four, and the third in 2003 when it was moved for restoration. According to DMA Preparator Russell Sublette, who has been with the museum for over thirty years, and has been a part of each of the relocations: "Rain has always followed it. The most we've had to wait for a downpour after we touch Tlaloc is forty-eight hours. And it's never a light shower, it's always heavy rain after he's disturbed. I mean we laugh about it, but it definitely comes with the territory. It's an amazing piece."
Among the cultures of Central Mexico, the four Tlalocs were the beings who lived in caves and controlled rain, lightning, and thunder, and dwarfs worked for them. Tlalocs were both fearful and generous as their whims dictated, but certainly influenced the prosperity and well-being of people through their influence on the health of crops. Masks of Tlaloc were worn by the priests of the great city of Teotihuacan and by priests and warriors in the Mixtec codices. Tlaloc did not appear among the Zapotecs; instead a similar being called Cosijo played this important role. This colossal head of Tlaloc was found in the mid 1960s just about the same time as the great head of Tlaloc now in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City (Museo Nacional de Antropología, MNA). That colossal head, called a "ceremonial brazier" was found near Tehuacan, Puebla. This one arrived at the DMA with the provenience of Central Veracruz, but was later changed to Teotitlan del Camino, Oaxaca. All three sites surround a special region of the highlands of Mexico where corn was first cultivated in the New World around 5000 BCE, and the dry caves of this region have yielded remains of the earliest cultivated corn. Tlaloc and the large ceramic hand (1969.13.3) and three frogs found with him (1969.13.1; 1969.13.2) may originate from such a cave. It is possible that the ancient Mixtecs preserved the tale of the origin of corn in the Coxcatlan, Abejas, and Purron caves near Teotitlan del Camino, and placed the Tlaloc incensarios there as offerings to that sacred place, though this is unknown at this time.
The Mixtecs believed that the supernatural power of Dzavui brought lightning, thunder, and maize-fertilizing rain, thereby controlling the prosperity of the people. Dzavui was four-fold, a rain deity of a different color for each cardinal direction. The Mixtecs, who called themselves "nuu dzavui," or "People of the Rain Deity," believed this supernatural dwelled in sacred caves and hills where thunderstorms brewed. There, they built shrines and temples to which pilgrims journeyed to chant and make offerings of feathers, copal, tamales, their own blood, and even the lives of their children. Billowing clouds of copal incense rose from the crowns of colossal braziers such as the DMA's Tlaloc Head. Both the DMA's Tlaloc and the one at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City bear the indentifying traits of Dzavui. Blue disks encircling the eyes stand for water rippled by rain; the long tubular teeth for flowing water. Serpents on the faces and ear flanges symbolize the swift strike of lightning and relate to moisture and fertility. Both heads have openwork ornaments on the bridge of the nose. Small heads on the crown probably symbolize the cardinal directions, while the twisted ropes on the crown may relate to the twisted celestial ropes shown in the Mixtec codices. In those sacred books of lineage and creation, priests and warriors are shown wearing masks of the rain deity; hills appear in the form of the rain deity's head, and hills or platforms support rain deity braziers or vessels. Only three large scale braziers are known to survive. Although this one is removed from its original context, the visual power of Dzavui still thunders through massive slabs of clay, traces of pigment, layers of symbolism, and time.
- Dallas Museum of Art
Read more about the Head of the rain god on the DMA's Uncrated blog.