“Sculpture of a Huastec Goddess” is a sandstone sculpture of a female figure on display at The British Museum. The statue, carved of a single stone sometime between the 10th and 14th century CE, is believed to represent a mother goddess of the Huastec peoples who lived around and north of present day Veracruz , Mexico. No first-hand information regarding the statue exists as very few Huastec writings survived after the region fell to the Aztecs in the late 15th century.
It is believed that the goddess was adopted by the Maya in their language as Tlazolteotl, whose name comes from tlazolli, meaning 'filth' and teotl, meaning 'deity'. Tlazolteotl represented sexual impurity and sinful behavior and had the ability to both tempt sinful behavior and absolve impurity and sin through confession to a preist.
The statue stands approximately 6 feet tall, 2 feet wide, and a very thin 6 inches thick. Being that it was carved from a single piece of stone, it is assumed to have been carved using only basic tools, which probably contributed to its use of straight, geometric shapes and lines. The "slablike" sculptures of female deities was very popular in Huasteca in the late 15th century, and it is beleived that these female dieties, known collectively as Tetoinnan, had a large cult-like following among the Huastec Maya of present day Southern Veracruz(See Evans, Webster, 2001. P. 106). Statues similar to this one would have stood in many spiritual and communal locations .
The stone was likely cut from one of many large alluvial sandstone deposits that stretch across Northern Mexico and the Gulf region (See Pettijohn, et. all. 1987, P. 241). This region was ideal for the development of sandstone following the volcanic period, with temperatures averaging 80 degrees Fahrenheit and rainfall around 120 inches per year (See Pettijohn, et. all. 1987, P. 242).
Sandstone, being a volcanic sedimentary rock, is very porous and not as ideal for carvings as Jade or Marble, which is likely the explaination for the relative lack of detail in the statue. The only distinctive areas of detail on the statue are the face and breasts. The figure appears to be looking up and to the left, mouth open, with its eyes rolling back in its head. The breasts have creases underneath which show maturity. Due to the fact that the statue represents themes of age, disgust, and anguish, the figure most likely represents Tlazolteotl in her middle age form of Tlaco, “absorber of filth” (See Oxford Vol.3 , 2001. P. 234). Most of the right half of the statues headdress is missing.
Assimilation into Maya Culture
What little is known about the Huastec leads us to believe that they, like their Mesoamerican neighbors and predecessors, were a polytheistic, nature worshiping people. Their principle deities were Tlazolteotl, goddess of health, and Mixoatl, supernatural being in the form of a deer. They also had minor deities representing wind, the creation, and death (See Oxford Vol. 2, 2001 P. 14). As far as historians can tell, the name Huastec comes from the name the Maya gave them that refers to a type of gourd tree called a huaxin that grew north of present-day Veracruz (See Sandstrom et. al. 2005, P. 258).
After the Aztec conquered the Huastec region in the late 14th century, nearly all objects bearing Nahua, the language of the Huastec, were destroyed (See Oxford Vol. 2, 2001 P. 14). As a result, extremely little is known about the Huastec and their culture, which is why it is still unknown as to whom the original goddess depicted in the statue is. What is known about the Huastec comes from Mayan writtings regarding their Mayan successors in the region. The closest Maya god that can be compared is Tlazolteotl.
Tlazolteotl, according to the Anales de Cuauhtitlan , a multivolume text translated into Spanish which documents many of the oral stories of the Huastec Maya, is seen as a goddess of quintuple personality known as Ixcuiname (See Oxford Vol. 3, 2001 P. 234). The four forms of Ixcuiname are the youthful and lusting Tiacapan, the destructive and gambling teenage Teicu, the mature absorber of human sin Tlaco, and the old and terrifying evil known as Xocutzin.
It is believed that each form was represented in different settings in society, but the most common was Tlaco. Tlaco was seen by the Maya as the earth-mother goddess, one of fertiltiy and sexuallity (See Evans, Webster, 2001. P. 106). Her primary role was a cleanser of filth; she cleansed her subjects by consuming their filth after they had confessed to a priest; this is why many of the statues representing Tlazolteotl have darkened patches around the mouth and a look of disgust (See Oxford Vol. 3, 2001 P. 235).
A stark contrast can also be drawn between the Catholic act of confession and the Maya use of confession in conjunction with Tlazolteotl’s Ixuiname of Tlaco. The Maya believed that by confessing sins of the flesh to a priest under Tlazolteotl, they would be cleansed. This ritual began to be recognized by the Maya assimilation of Tlazolteotl almost a full century before any interaction with Spanish Conquistadores in the 15th century (See Oxford Vol. 2, 2001. P. 14).
The established practice of confession, along with Nahua priests’ rhetorical tools, is credited as being one of the elements that aided in bringing Catholicism to the Maya (See Christensen, 2010. P. 353). Catholicism had enough similarities to Maya beleifs, that the two began to intertwine almost immediated after Catholicism's introduction. Many of the stories of Christian origin were adapted and spliced with Maya beleifs and stories, such as that of Paul's conversion, were transposed into Nahua with many meanings lost in translation (See Christensen, 2010. P. 358).
The mixing of Catholicism and traditional Nahua myths applied to most of the tribes throughtout Central America and is considered an important influence on the unorthodox Roman Catholic diversity there as well as a major factor in "the Spritual Conquest" of Central America (See Christensen, 2010. P. 354).