The Under and Afterworld of the Ancient Zapotec People

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 10.04.53 AMBy Julie Etra

The Zapotec people have historically occupied central and southern Oaxaca and part of the southern state of Guerrero, the southern part of the state of Puebla and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which is also part of Oaxaca. In pre-Columbian times, the Zapotecs were one of the most important civilizations of Mesoamerica, and today their descendants still comprise a large component of the population of Oaxaca. Zapotec is actually a náhuatl word “Tzapotécatl” (the language of the Mixteca or Aztecs) meaning people of the Zapote village, as they were conquered by the ‘Aztecs’ . They call(ed) themselves “ben´zaa” o “vinizá”, people of the clouds.

Excellent farmers, the Zapotecs first settled in the Valley of Oaxaca in about 1400 B.C., establishing small villages based around rivers and sources of fresh water, cultivating chilies, squash, corn, beans, and chocolate, with corn providing the most sustenance to many villages. They therefore worshiped the gods of the sun, rain, soil, and corn to ensure an abundant harvest. While Teotihuacán flourished in central Mexico and with the Mayan cities in the southeast, the Monte Alban ceremonial center was the most important city in the Oaxacan region.

According to extensive archeological excavations of pre-Hispanic sites, particularly in Tehuantepec, burial practices varied enormously both in simplicity or complexity, and groupings. Some were simple, consisting of pits dug under the floor of habitations, to complex tombs with facades of intricate design and jambs and lintels with bas-reliefs, and large tombs with halls and multiple chambers. Some tombs had walls decorated with polychrome murals showing scenes of everyday life and ritual ceremonies. Other tombs contained riches such as jade from Guatemala, gold, silver, and turquoise, reflecting extensive trading in that part of the word.

Zapotec funerary urns were clay pots placed in tombs, most probably of the nobility. They were decorated with effigies of one or more of their gods or human beings depicted in a sitting position, guarding the burial site and intended to accompany, protect, and lead the dead through their journey to the underworld and eternal life. It was important that the dead rest in peace, and not wander aimlessly, while maintaining communication with those who still lived.

The ancient Zapoteco people had their own god of the dead, or the underworld, Pitao Bezelao. Although it is difficult to determine when this god first appeared in their culture, he reached the same importance as Cociyo, the god of lightning and rain. Pitao Bezelao was also the god of masculinity, the father god, god of death, luck, and chickens, and protector of the land and crops. According to the Spanish-appointed mayor of Tlacolula, located just east of Oaxaca City (and currently well known for its vibrant market), sacrifices of adults, children, and animals were all commonly made to this god. He was married to two wives. Wife #1, Xonaxi Quecuya, Mother Death, was in charge of collecting the souls of the dead and was accompanied by insects that digest and decompose flesh (as in corpses). As a female deity she was always pregnant. Wife #2, Coqui Bezelao had male and female attributes; his/her mother, Goddess of the Earth, Tlaltecuhtli, was born through a process known as parthenogenesis (without a male).

Pitao Bezelao is sometimes represented as a skull, with hands shaped like pincers, ear ornaments, and a knife for a nose. Sometimes he appears as a skeleton with knees bent and mouth wide open, carrying a human femur in his right hand, and a sacrificial knife in his left. He also may be represented in the company of spiders and lizards, and frequently has an enormous phallus.

After Monte Alban, the Zapotec ceremonial center moved to Mitla, east of Oaxaca City, and the Hall of Columns was the gateway to the Underworld. The Zapotecs worshiped their ancestors and believed in the existence of an underground paradise, since previous generations clearly sprang from the earth. Pitao Bezelao told the people to build the entrance to eternity in Mitla, where he was born.

The cult of Pitao Bezelao was typical of the nobility during the Classic Period (350-850 A.D.), when the worship of ancestors was central to the Zapotec worldview. It continued through initial contact with the Spanish when the cult of death was at its peak at Mitla. This cult lasted well into the seventeenth century in remote indigenous communities of Oaxaca where Spanish influence was limited. Even after five centuries of conquest the veneration of the dead is still firmly rooted in the Oaxacan people, as expressed by the Day of the Dead celebrations.

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