Spirit axe

CULTURE:
Olmec
DATE:
900–500 BCE
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General Description

This massive stone axe embodies the power of man to clear the land, dig and shape the earth, and make the world a habitable place. The cleft in the forehead represents the opening of a path from the human world to the otherworld. Its blade, wielded by the king in ceremony, was a means of cleaving such a path and bringing spiritual force into the world. In all likelihood, this axe was associated with lightning, rain, and abundance. Full of power during the years of its use, the axe was ritually "killed" by the Olmec themselves, who battered and burned it before burial. Today, it bears the scars of this ordeal.

The facial features are common among Olmec figurines and represent the were-jaguar motif, which depicts a human-jaguar supernatural figure with exaggerated down-turned mouth, cleft head, and almond-shaped eyes. Prominent in Olmec art, the motif likely represents a supernatural entity or deity, the were-jaguar supernatural. The term were-jaguar refers to the merging of human and jaguar characteristics, an analogy with the term werewolf. Although interpretations of the were-jaguar figure vary, the incorporation of animal attributes suggests that the Olmec held animals in high regard and may have attempted to channel the power of such creatures.

Adapted from

  • Carol Robbins, Label text, A. H. Meadows Galleries, 2010.

  • Carol Robbins, Label text [1968.20], A. H. Meadows Galleries, 2010.

Fun Facts

  • This axe is possibly attributed to the same carver of the _Kunz Axe_ in the collection of the American Museum of Natural History.

Web Resources

Khan Academy
Watch a video with Dr. Rex Koonz and Dr. Steven Zucker discussing the famous Olmec Kunz Axe, Olmec iconography, and the importance of jade, jadeite, and other greenstones.