The Stuff of Life: Clay, Figurines and Priestesses in Mesoamerica†

by | May 14, 2014 | Articles, Visual Artists

Key Anne Yaxchilan_lintel_25

Lintel 25 from Yaxchilan showing Lady Xoc in the role of a priestess, invoking the Vision Serpent (image in the public domain)

By Anne Key –

Originally published in a slightly different form in She is Everywhere! An Anthology of Writing in Womanist/Feminist Spirituality, ed. Mary Saracino and Mary Beth Moser (Berkeley, CA: Belladonna, 2005) and Stepping Into Ourselves: An Anthology of Writings on Priestesses (Las Vegas, NV: Goddess Ink, 2014).

The female figure is present throughout the thousands of years of Mesoamerican history, spanning its many cultures and encompassing various media, whether formed from clay, carved into stone or drawn on paper or pottery. Viewing these artifacts with the eye of a researcher and a priestess, I perceive many of these pieces as ritual implements. The evidence seems abundant that women were a dynamic force in the spiritual sphere.

However, from decades of studying these pieces I have noticed a distinct gap between what I view in situ and in museums, and what I read in the academic research. While there seems to be a great deal of physical evidence of women, there is little research into women‘s roles and even less of women‘s part in the encompassing spiritual life of the Mesoamericans.1 This winding road takes us through seeing women as artists, and then regarding their creations as ritual tools. With those two in mind, it is possible to envision women as priestesses and leaders.

There is evidence that women were the artisans of clay figurines in the earliest eras of Mesoamerican culture. In her research, Carolyn Tate shows that women were both the potters and paper-makers in the Maya civilization. It was only after the Spanish introduced the potter‘s wheel that men became potters. She points out that: “The activities of hand building pottery emulate grinding corn, forming corn dough, and cooking it, as the mythical First Mother of the Popul Vuh formed the human race of corn dough.“2 Women, associated with the earth and the water, were the ones that formed the shapes from clay.

On a different tack, Joyce Marcus has also concluded that women were the original clay artists.3 In her examination of Formative Era female figurines from the Oaxaca area, she identified their extravagant hairstyles as markers for social status. When considering the gender of the artist of these clay figurines, she consulted modern hairstylists to see if the maker of the figurine would have to know how to create the hairstyle to achieve such realistic results. The hairstylists agreed that hairstyles of the Formative Era were depicted in such realistic detail that whoever made the figurines must also have known how to produce the hairstyle depicted. As it is highly unlikely that men styled women‘s hair in Formative Era Mesoamerica, it seems logical that both the hair styles and the figurines were produced by women.

Women as clay artisans persist to contemporary times. Women in Chiapas still model small figurines from clay and fire them in the cooking fires. These small painted figures are whimsical, representing daily life and sold to tourists for only a few centavos. In Michoacán, making clay figurines is still today considered women‘s work, as it has been traditionally.4

But, does the gender of the artisan matter? When we study the female figurines, does it make a difference if they were formed by women or men? If we view the figurines in relation to culture, as opposed to looking at the figurines solely in an isolated context, then the gender of the artist is certainly relevant.

When the figurines are regarded as a cultural artifact, the gender of the artists tells us about social formation of society; when the figurines are regarded as ritual tools, the gender of the artisan tells us about gender-specific spiritual practices. Female figurines crafted by women reflect the spiritual practice of women. What were their rituals like? What was their unique cosmovision? How were the figurines used and why did women make them?

Most ritual tools are also works of art. A link exists between art and ritual tools; both media are used to express what can and cannot be seen, uniting and giving form to thought. Further, ritual tools bring the formless into form. One example of this is using a feather to symbolize air. The feather, while not being air, brings some of the qualities of air, such as being insubstantial yet strong. Feathers also move air effectively and, when in their original state on birds, are in constant contact with air, using air to do the seemingly impossible—keep aloft a weight in a weightless atmosphere. Art and ritual tools bring multivalent meaning to a single concrete form.

From a physical perspective, creating art unites both sides of the brain, the left for the skill and the right for the inspiration and vision. The creation of art for sacred purpose brings the spiritual realm into the concrete. When viewed in this light, studying clay figurines as ritual tools allows us, in this century, to see how the women of previous times manifested their relationship to the Divine.

There have been numerous methods of categorizing Mesoamerican clay figurines, the most notable being the system authored by Valliant and based on physical features.5 Methods of categorization that rely solely on physical (aesthetic) qualities diminish the possibilities for using these figurines, as well as the possibility that we will look at them as ritual tools. It sets them firmly in the category of something to be viewed rather than used.

There is certainly a difference between a clay figurine that a woman makes to sell in the marketplace and a clay figurine that a woman makes as a ritual tool. Both may look the same, and both may be evaluated by the same guidelines whether regarded as a piece of art or as a cultural artifact. However, both of these pieces are not the same, for the intent of their manufacture is completely different. This is especially applicable to objects with a numinous quality. At this point, there is not a recognizable metric for establishing the degree, or even existence, of numinous qualities. Yet, this is exactly the quality that separates an object made solely for aesthetic purposes or commerce from an object made with sacred intent. But, simply because we do not have the metrics for something, simply because we have not devised with a way to measure and quantify the unquantifiable, does not mean that the unquantifiable does not exist or is not intrinsic to the meaning of the object.

One of the reasons we can view these clay figurines as ritual tools—objects created with sacred intent—is that they are often funerary objects. Objects that accompany a body in burial, and may presumably accompany that person into her next life, are important. Most Mesoamerican objects in museums and collections had funerary functions. As Coe has observed, there is a

. . . tremendous difference between ordinary artifacts and funerary material. . . . I would, therefore, conclude from this that most of what one finds in art museums is not the stuff of ordinary life but, rather, is another form of scarce goods which have been taken out of circulation for this cult of the dead.6

While these goods can be used as offerings for a “cult of the dead“ these scarce goods can also be viewed as ritual tools.
It should be remembered that the most spectacular pieces—the pieces we study, the pieces that hold the most meaning—are most often associated with ritual. It is no wonder that the artisans put the greatest effort and intent in creating these pieces. In contrast, there are relatively few ritual tools used in modern Euro-American culture. This can be attributed to the fact that spiritual practice in our culture is highly centralized; most ritual tools reside in churches. In a home-based spiritual practice, such as was common in Mesoamerica, ritual tools would be abundant. Again, in modern Euro-American culture, much of our most spectacular art is created for viewing and sale, not for use in ritual. It is no wonder that we overlook the ritual qualities of so much of the art of Mesoamerica.
For people, one of the most intimately known and powerful figures is the human form. Humans anthropomorphize the un-embodied or unknowable into something knowable by using the human form. Images of deities are often shown in human form.

The making of human figurines that become the first people is told in the creation story of the Aztec from the Leyenda de los Soles. Cihuacoatl (woman snake) grinds bones gathered by Quetzalcoatl from the underworld. She grinds them into flour, puts the flour in a womb-like container and the gods bleed their penises in a ritual of autosacrifice. In four days a boy is born, and four days later a girl is born. In the Mayan Popul Vuh, the “maker-modeler” (the mother-father of life, the midwife-matchmaker) grinds corn and mixes it with water to form humans.7 The forming of human figures out of a substance, be it corn, clay or ground bones, is the act of creation.
The human form can also be a metaphor. Milagros, tiny metal figures for sale in front of cathedrals in Mexico, are often in the form of the human body, or parts of a body. They can symbolize the need for healing for a certain part, say a leg, or act as a metaphor:

The milagro of the arm might represent an arm itself, and some condition associated with-it, such as an injury, or, say, an arthritic condition. It might also represent one’s strength, one’s ability to work—and hence one‘s job—or some related concept. It might represent an embrace, and physical demonstrations of affection that involve embracing. Any part of the arm might be the focus of the prayers or the magic, such as the hand, for instance.8

In general, concrete objects, especially familiar figures, make the intangible tangible and manifest multiple meanings simultaneously in a single object.9

The female figure represents creation, fecundity. As the gender that gives birth, women are the repository of life. As a symbol, a female figure represents creation, and the ability for humans to create, which is, in itself, a divine act.

As a material, clay possesses many miraculous properties that make it a staple world-wide. Its plasticity and strength make it easy to work with, and it is readily available. It hardens on its own and fires easily. Clay also has medicinal properties. It is used externally to absorb toxins from the skin while simultaneously exfoliating and improving skin circulation. Ingested, clay is an anti-diarrheal medication that relieves nausea and provides calcium. For these reasons, it is especially helpful for pregnant women.10 Clay and female figurines combined create powerful multivalent symbols. Used in ritual, these figurines would have multiple applications.
Female figurines are some of the oldest known works of art. By regarding these figurines as ritual tools, works of art made to perform a sacred function, we open the possibility of glimpsing into the oldest rituals performed by women. This, indeed, is an exciting prospect. By researching, unearthing and discovering women‘s rituals, we expand our perspective on women and their roles.
Regarding the Paleolithic and Neolithic female figurines from Europe and Mesoamerica, which stylistically shared many similar characteristics, the standing interpretation has been that these were fertility objects, possibly used to glorify, request or to reflect one‘s own fertility.

The ideas of fertility and a “cult of fertility“ bring to mind many images. There is a vital reason that fertility is the basis of many religions, for there is no life without it. Fertility is the sustenance and rejuvenation of life on this earth. However, when one speaks of a cult of fertility, especially in the context of modern American culture steeped in Abrahamic religious values, the idea of a fertility cult is devalued, associated solely with sex or procreation or considered a component of primitive religions as opposed to more “advanced“ religions. So at the same time that one regards the obvious fertility aspect of these figurines, it is necessary to define or redefine the concept of fertility to include all life and the moral philosophy that underlies the continuance of life, the endurance of fecundity.
There continues to be speculation that these figurines were “stone-age, sexual fetish“ pieces.11 This perspective presumes a male artist and sees the female model as faceless. This perspective traps women, again, in the male gaze, solely as objects of fertility and procreation, leading some experts to believe that prehistoric males (the artists) viewed females solely as reproductive mechanisms.12
Marija Gimbutas‘ research into Paleolithic and Neolithic Europe began a much needed re-visioning of these figures. Of her many contributions, two most heavily impact our view of female figurines and this study. The first is her interpretation of the symbols on figurines and pottery of the Neolithic. These symbols were commonly regarded as decoration, not as language. In Language of the Goddess, Gimbutas convincingly categorizes the repeating symbols, presenting them as purposeful ideographs laden with meaning.13 This is crucial to broaden the discussion around these figurines, to move beyond their descriptive and aesthetic qualities and on to their possible meaning, uses and function. By finding meaning in what was previously considered decorative (that is, having only minimal symbolic significance and high aesthetic significance), Gimbutas began decoding the symbolic language of the artifact. She paved the way for the interpretation of meaning.

The second of Gimbutas’ contributions with impacts on this study is her idea of goddess-based religion prevalent across many thousands of years throughout Old Europe,14 with many of these figurines as images of a Great Goddess. Her work brought to the forefront an overwhelming amount of evidence that in Old Europe a female deity was honored.

Barbara Tedlock provides another perspective on these Old European figurines, linking them with shamans.15 Many of the figurines feature dress characteristic of shamans who practiced midwifery. This link to shamanism adds another layer of meaning, connecting the figurines with real women performing real functions. It certainly moves beyond the idea of woman as mere model, passively procreating, to woman as illustrious figure, immortalized in sculpture.

Mesoamerican figurines have a similar array of meaning attached. Bernal assigns the female figurines as fertility cult items, intimately tied to harvest and deity propitiation: “. . . .we see that the groups in the Valley of Mexico practised a fertility cult, related to natural phenomena and fecundity, for which female figurines were modeled in clay with a view to propitiating gods who controlled the harvest.”16

Peterson links their development to the post-Classic Mesoamerican cosmovision: “The clay women probably represent earth or vegetation goddesses made in connection with agricultural ceremonies. This was an important step in the development of one of the greatest magico-religious cultures in the world.“17 Kocyba directly compares the European Neolithic female images with those found in Archaic and Formative Era Mesoamerica; he attributes the decline in both cultures to the institutionalization of religion.18 Román Padilla R. and Araceli Jaffer G. broaden the possibilities of the functions of female clay figurines to include: to provide magical protection, to serve as an amulet, a votive offering, a toy, a death offering, an offering to structures or an element associated with fertility, or to represent deities.19 (166–167).

Marcus proposes that small, predominantly female figurines from Early and Middle Formative Oaxaca (1800–500 BCE) were used in ancestor worship rituals. Marcus speculates that women created clay figurines of their “recent ancestor,“ female family members that had died, to be used in ceremonies honoring these ancestors.20

In a myriad of ways, female clay figurines can be seen as ritual tools. But what of the women who made them and most likely used them? Why are they not seen as spiritual leaders?

Viewing these figurines as ritual tools requires that we understand the underlying spiritual philosophy of those who use them. The set of beliefs termed “shamanism“ accurately describes the spiritual philosophy of the Mesoamericans.

A comprehensive definition of shamanism is put forth by Barbara Tedlock based on both her academic work as an anthropologist and her personal work training with Mayan and other shamans. In her definition, shamans share these traits: the conviction that all entities (animate or otherwise) re-imbued with a life force participate in the life energy that holds the world together; the belief that all things are interdependent and interconnected; the vision that the world is constructed of a series of levels connected by a central axis in the form of a world tree or mountain; the belief that societies designate individuals to take on the role of shaman for their group; the recognition that extraordinary forces, entities and beings affect individuals and events in our ordinary world and that rituals performed in ordinary reality can lead to effects in the alternative sphere.21 To Tedlock’s definition, I would add an observation from Sasakia, a specialist in Japanese shamanism: “the role of the shaman is related to the maintenance of the cosmology of the society.“22
However, there has been an ongoing controversy over the use of the word “shamanism“ in the academy. Numerous accusations of over-reaching or even “sloppy“ uses of this word23 have led to calls for a strict definition. Though definitions such as the one quoted earlier by Tedlock have been proffered, there remains resistance to their usage.24 This recent backlash against the use of the word “shamanism“ could be due to a number of factors, including an anti-spiritual bias in academia, based on the general idea that spiritual practice is non-rational (I mean this, of course, in a pejorative fashion) in contrast to the rational basis of academic work. The resistance to viewing spiritual practices in terms of shamanism reflects on the resistance to seeing clay figurines as tools in ritual practice.

Even when shamanic ritual practices are recognized, why are women not often seen in the role of shaman, as spiritual leaders, or as the ones that maintain the cosmology of their society? Part of this may be due to data on tribal societies collected by foreign men who did not have access to women. Part of this is also due to the unfortunate fact that many people turn to Mircea Eliade‘s work when discussing shamanism. Eliade is widely quoted because he explores unifying concepts applying to many religious expressions. However, his work is hampered by multiple factors, including the fact that his work on shamanism is based solely on anthropological records as opposed to in situ observation, which often leaves the stories of women untold. Tedlock and others25 have performed an excellent service to further the study of shamanism by clearly rebutting many of the tenets Eliade proposed. The unfortunate fallout of Eliade‘s popularity as a reference for shamanism is that women as shamans and women‘s rituals are, at best, overlooked and, at the most egregious, are devalued. If we move from an androcentric idea of men as the prominent shamans and embrace the idea of women as shamans and leaders, we begin to view what we find in their graves, and in their homes, as ritual tools.

The study of ancient spiritual practice is hugely important. By researching spiritual practices in different contexts and searching for the common and uncommon threads, we are able to see more clearly the self-imposed paradigms of our modern spiritual practice; and when the paradigms of our modern religions are found to be less than “historic“ or “natural,“ the gravitas they have accumulated dissipates and ground fertile for new growth opens to the sun.

This is particularly important for women‘s place in religion. Certainly in the last two-thousand years in many parts of the world, women‘s leadership roles in socio-politically powerful religions have been incredibly diminished. When faced with the paradigm that women have not “historically“ been spiritual leaders, we must understand the limits of “historic“ and who was writing the history. If the idea of historic is expanded to the pre-historic, which is far, far longer than the historic, then we certainly see a more comprehensive view; we see women in a far greater, juicier context, not hemmed in by the present paradigm.

The figurines from the long and artistically productive Mesoamerican culture were multivalent and with multiple utilizations. Seeing them not only as dolls and votives but also as ritual tools enhances our scope of understanding the spiritual practices of the artists. Seeing them as created by women, for use in ritual led by women, opens new vistas for our understanding of women‘s roles in the spiritual lives of Mesoamericans.

Pieces that have been labeled as “pretty ladies“ and children‘s toys might be viewed as numinous objects and ritual tools. Women grinding corn to feed their families and making whimsical toys for their children can be seen as women grinding corn to prepare offering tamales and crafting powerful objects of veneration. Women once considered the silent objects of the male gaze can be reconsidered—and regarded as spiritual leaders.


1 Notable exceptions are Carolyn Tate, “Writing on the Face of the Moon: Women‘s Products, Archetypes, and Power in Ancient Maya Civilization,“ in Manifesting Power: Gender and the Interpretation of Power in Archaeology, ed. by Tracy L. Sweely (New York: Routledge, 1999) and Joyce Marcus, Women’s Ritual in Formative Oaxaca: Figurine-making, Divination, Death, and the Ancestors (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998).
2 Carolyn Tate, “Writing on the Face of the Moon: Women‘s Products, Archetypes, and Power in Ancient Maya Civilization“ Manifesting Power: Gender and the Interpretation of Power in Archaeology, ed. by Tracy L. Sweely (New York: Routledge, 1999), 86.
3 Joyce Marcus, Women’s Ritual in Formative Oaxaca: Figurine-making, Divination, Death, and the Ancestors (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998).
4 Claudia B. Isaac, “Witchcraft, Cooperatives, and Gendered Competition in a P‘urepecha Community,“ Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies 16, no. 2/3 (1996): 161–189.
5 G.G. Vaillant, Aztecs of Mexico (Baltimore, MD: Penguin, 1965).
6 Michael Coe, “Closing Remarks,“ Death and the Afterlife in Pre-Columbian America (Cambridge, MA: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library, 1975), 194.
7 Today, the act of making tamales is considered sacred. The corn is the flesh, the meat is the muscle and the sauce is the blood.
8 For more on milagros, see
9 A figurine is also thought to be a form that “traps“ spirit, making it controllable. For a look at Yoruba use of human figures, see Norma H. Wolff, “The Use of Human Images in Yoruba Medicines.“ Ethnology 39, no. 3 (Summer 2000): 205–224.
10 See Wiley and Katz, “Geophagy in Pregnancy: A Test of a Hypothesis.“ Current Anthropology 39, no. 4 (Aug–Oct. 1998): 532–545.
11 Though these sorts of interpretations are usually designated to an older, androcentric time in academia (see particularly Desmond Collins 1978), a relatively new general audience book, The Prehistory of Sex: Four Million Years of Human Sexual Culture (New York: Bantam, 1997) by British archaeologist Timothy L. Taylor, proposes some equally androcentric views of female figurines.
12 See Patricia Rice “Prehistoric Venuses: Symbols of Motherhood or Womanhood?“ from Journal of Anthropological Research 37,no. 4. (Winter 1981), 402–414, for an excellent, though dated, review of female Paleolithic figurines and their possible symbolic meaning.
13 Marija Gimbutas, Language of the Goddess (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001).
14 See especially Civilization of the Goddess (1994) and The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe 6500–3500 BC: Myths and Cult Images (1982). When the latter was first published in 1974, though the figurines in the book were predominantly female, her publishers insisted that the title be The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe.
15 Barbara Tedlock, The Woman in the Shaman‘s Body: Reclaiming the Feminine in Religion and Medicine (New York: Bantam Dell, 2005).
16 Ignacio Bernal, A History of Mexican Archaeology: The Vanished Civilizations of Middle America (London: Thames and Hudson, 1980), 36.
17 Peterson, Frederic, Ancient Mexico (New York: G.P. Putnam‘s Sons, 1959), 36.
18 Kocyba, Henryk Karol. “La formación de las religiones insitucionalizadas y el surgimiento de las sociedades jerarquizadas en Europa centro-oriental y en el área maya,“ Historia comparativa de las religions, ed. Henryk Karol Kocyba. (Mexico DF: Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, 1998), 41–68.
19 Padilla R., Román and Araceli, Jaffer G. “Las figuras preclasicas de Temamatla, Estado de Mexico,“ Homenaje a la doctora Beatriz Barba de Pina Chan (Mexico, DF: Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, 1997),157–176.
20 Joyce Marcus, Women’s Ritual in Formative Oaxaca: Figurine-making, Divination, Death, and the Ancestors (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998).
21 Barbara Tedlock, The Woman in the Shaman‘s Body: Reclaiming the Feminine in Religion and Medicine (New York: Bantam Dell, 2005), 20–21.
22 Nakanishi, F. “Possession: A Form of Shamanism?“ Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft 1, no. 2 (Winter 2006): 236.
23 From Klein, Current Anthropology 43, no. 3 (June 2002): “It is our position that many of these writers, regardless of their disciplinary base, are using shamanism to provide predictable, easy, and ultimately inadequate answers to what are often very complex questions about the relationship of art to religion, medicine, and politics in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica“ (383).
24 For repartee on shamanism, see Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft 1, no. 2 (Winter 2006) and Current Anthropology 43, no.3 (June 2002), as well as Current Anthropology 46, no. 1 (February 2005), F127. For a view of shamanism and modern paganism, see Graham Harvey, Contemporary Paganism: Listening People, Speaking Earth (New York: New York UP, 2000), 107–125.
25 Tedlock gives a comprehensive rebuttal of Eliade‘s scholarship on shamanism (see especially pages 64–65 and 72–75). Other rebukes of Eliade‘s work include: Carol Christ, Rebirth of the Goddess (1997), especially 80–86; Ruth-Inge Heinze, Shamans in the 20th Century (1991); and Alice Beck Kehoe, Shamans and Religion: An Anthropological Exploration in Critical Thinking (2000). For a friendly view of Eliade, see Bryan S. Rennie, Reconstructing Eliade: Making Sense of Religion. (1996).


Anne Key is a practicing priestess and an adjunct faculty in Women’s Studies and Religious Studies at the College of Southern Nevada. She is a graduate of the Women’s Spirituality Program of California Institute of Integral Studies where her investigations centered on Mesoamerica goddesses and rituals. Co-founder of the independent press Goddess Ink, Dr. Key is a devotee of Sekhmet and was Priestess of the Temple of Goddess Spirituality Dedicated to Sekhmet, located in Nevada, from 2004-2007. She is the author of Desert Priestess: a memoir and she is co-editor of The Heart of the Sun: An Anthology in Exaltation of Sekhmet and Stepping Into Ourselves: An Anthology of Writings on Priestesses. Anne resides in Albuquerque with her husband, his four cats and her snake.


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