Urn representing Cosijo

100–200 CE
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General Description

The Zapotec people believed clouds were the primordial beings from which they descended, hence their name, Peni-Zaa or "cloud people." Zapotecs honored their ancestors who, after death, returned to the clouds. There, royal ancestors communed with lightning and other supernaturals, interceding on behalf of their earthly community. Deities associated with clouds feature prominently in the art of Monte Albán.

In characteristic Zapotec fashion, this hollow cylindrical vessel depicts an elaborately dressed female figure decorated in relief that is worked onto the surface of the vessel. It originally functioned as an urn likely containing water, beads, shells, or animal bones, and placed with other urns as an offering in a tomb, temple, or cache. Female figures such as this example are often represented wearing huipils with hands crossed over the chest, while male figures wear loin cloths and appear with hands on the knees.

This ancestor figure sits cross-legged, adorned in a beaded necklace, ear ornaments, mask, and an elaborate headdress representing Pitao Cocijo (Cosijo), which signified both lightning and the deity of rain and lightning. The god Cocijo is commonly represented on Zapotec ceramic urns from Monte Albán, identified by zoomorphic face and buccal mask with thick, blunt snout; merlon-shaped eyebrows, squared lower eyelids; characteristic bifurcated serpent-like tongue; and the headdress adorned with the Zapotec "Glyph C," which likely signifies the day name for water and is visually represented as a cross section of a vase with a horizontal band, from which two serpent-form streams flow in opposite directions. The undulating movement of the serpent conjures water, while the swift strike of its tongue signifies deadly lightning bolts associated with rain. Below the serpents on this headdress are profile crocodile heads facing opposite directions. They represent the Sky Monster, called Chila in Zapotec, though also known to the Maya as the Cosmic Monster stretching across the sky as the Milky Way.

The crocodile, lightning, water, and rain are all associated with the first day in the 260-day ritual calendar of the Zapotecs and the Maya. The Zapotecs divided time as well as space into cocijos—each of the four parts of the 260-day ritual calendar was governed by a cocijo with particular powers. In ritual respect, the Zapotec and Maya peoples offered them precious goods: pulque and offerings of blood, either drawn from their own bodies in an act of autosacrifice, or that of a sacrificed animal, child, or war captive. In return, the supernaturals granted them sunshine and precious rain to ensure fertile maize fields.

Drawn from

  • Kathy Windrow, DMA unpublished material, 1992.

  • Mary Ellen Miller and Karl A. Taube, "Cocijo," in The gods and symbols of ancient Mexico and the Maya: an illustrated dictionary of Mesoamerican religion (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993): 64-65.

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