Ancient acrobats? Yes, they existed in Mesoamerica and are documented. Was it just for entertainment or did defying verticality have a deeper meaning?
The first Mesoamerican ancient acrobat I met was Olmec, at La Venta Park Museum in Villahermosa. It got me really intrigued. Did the Olmecs have a circus? And how about the Maya?
The sculptures in La Venta museum are mostly gods (or jaguar gods), rulers, governors or warriors. So why is the acrobat among them? Was he a professional acrobat, specially trained? Was his role to entertain the rulers? Or perform at special rituals for the whole community, alongside other dancers and musicians? Or could he have been a shaman with special acrobatic skills? And if so, why was this skill required of him? Or was he a priest? Or a god?
Recurring images in Olmec and Mayan art are birds, dwarfs, hunchbacks and the 'were-jaguar' (part human, part jaguar) and these images indicate a belief in the supernatural and in shamanism. Shamans provided a connection with spirits, through ecstatic voyages into non-human realms. Think of them as 'healers'.
Shamans were not priests. Among the Maya, the rulers and the high nobility carried out priestly tasks. For example, the Yucatec ruler known as the halach uinic (‘true man’) is defined both as a governor and a priest. Later the priests emerged from a pre-existing network of shamans as social complexity grew. They served as intermediaries between the population and the deities. Their basic skills were the arts of reading, writing and cosmology. As the societies grew more complex, the rulers could not have done without them, as they set the dates for ritual ceremonies, wars (based on planet movements) and agricultural works.
Before we explore the acrobat's role, we must look into the shaman's role in ancient times, when they were closely connected with the power of the jaguar. The Olmecs knew their jungle companions well and incorporated them into their mythology. The 'were-jaguar' of the Olmecs is a combination of animal and human. They believed they were descended from a Jaguar God, who they depicted with a cleft head, large eyes and feline snout.
Subsequently, the descendants of the Jaguar God featured downturned feline mouths, almond-shaped eyes, and a cleft head similar to that of the male jaguar.
Shamans considered the jaguar as a spirit companion or 'nagual', which protected them from evil spirits.The Mayan word for nagual was 'way' (alter ego, wayob in plural). The jaguar for them possessed the transient ability of moving between worlds (both in the trees and the water), the ability to hunt as well in the night time as in the daytime, and the habit of sleeping in caves, places often associated with the deceased ancestors. So the jaguar was connected with the underworld.
The shamans took on the abilities of a jaguar. Olmec were-jaguar shamans were depicted in standing or seated positions, but more interestingly many figurines have been found in acrobatic positions. The were-jaguar shamans were believed to have the ability to flip backwards and transform before they landed. Apparently the shaman acrobats were reputed to flip five times forwards and turn into their jaguar form and then perform five somersaults backwards and return to their human form. Like today's magicians, the 'trickery' would have played some role, quickly putting on the jaguar mask in the process. Masks were always worn during the dance, usually the mask of the animal or god or ancestor that the dancer wanted to communicate with (or become). Still, just imagine the skill of the acrobats that the shamans had to learn.
The acrobat pose signified a person in a visionary state who is integrated into the ritual life of the community. And how was this state of ecstasy achieved by the shamans? Some scientists believe that the shamans used the hallucinogenic properties of mushrooms; others mention the cane toad (bufotenin found in the skin of the toads). Perhaps the whole ritual of the were-jaguar shaman represented the cycle of life, as did the Olmec God Jaguar (he follows the path across the sky, falls into the Underworld, is reborn, and returns to the sky). The acrobat in La Venta in Villahermosa is supporting himself on his tiny forearms and legs. Perhaps this is a 'were-jaguar' shaman depicted in acrobatic poses; this represents the agility of the feline. Shamans seemed to achieve complex poses with ease. The Olmecs also recognized the chaneques – dwarfs who lived in waterfalls. They believed that dwarfs also possessed special powers and had the ability to communicate with the supernatural world.
The Teotihuacán kingdom in central Mexico adopted similar depictions of jaguar-shamans; none of the jaguars is depicted with only jaguar traits. According to Kubler (in Elin: New Theories on the Ancient Maya) the netted jaguar is a portrayal of a priest. The netting or 'diamond' design was used to give him the more frightening, supernatural aspects of the jaguar. Priests and shamans wore jaguar pelts, tail, nose and claws, even heart and fang, to be feared by the populace. It was a concept of control and mastery used well into the 16th century, by both the Aztecs and the Maya. The Yucatec Maya have the phrase Chilam Balam, 'priest jaguar'. Chilam is priest (or sorcerer) and balam is jaguar. The shaman had the ability to transform himself into the jaguar. This represented human and animal aspects in the same body. The Maya also gave the jaguar attributes to their gods. One such god is Xbalenque, one of the Maya Hero Twins who descended to the underworld, and whose entire body is covered with patches of jaguar skin.
At one time, king, jaguar and shaman may have been interchangeable concepts but through the centuries the attributes of king and shaman separated. The king was perceived as the personification of the Sun God, with great powers. In the late classic period of the Maya kingdoms, reliance on the king's powers was lessened and the powers of the shaman rekindled. The jaguar that roamed the jungle could only be controlled by the shaman.
As the theories on the ancient Maya have been developing in recent years, more and more scholars believe that many figurines represent the transformation process of the human (or god) into an animal. The Maize god in acrobatic position was found in Copán and Tikal burials. Moreover, the theme of ancestral resurrection embodied by the acrobatic pose was evoked through Mayan dance imagery. According to Matthew Looper, dance was an important category of Maya dynastic ritual. His drawings enhance a stunning bodily discipline. As an example, below are acrobats depicted on a carved jade on Stela 7 in Copán. His pictures immediately prompt me to ask: Were the dancers a specific class in the Mayan society, specially trained for ritual purposes? Or were such trained positions, skills and disciplines strictly for the shaman's (or god's) status?
Dance was a central component of social, religious, and political life of the Maya. The entire community danced, including kings, nobles, priests and common people. Dance was certainly often characterised by transformations of human beings into supernatural (godlike) beings by means of visionary trance, as I already mentioned. I could not find conclusive information on whether the acrobats were strictly shamans or if specially trained professional dancers were used in the ritual ceremonies but for now we presume so.
Curiously, circus arts also began as ritual effects. In Japan the Saragaku tradition wove together the presentation of acrobatics, magic, divination, fire-eating and other circus-like acts.
In Tibet it was the protective snow lion, and dolls or puppets were animated and used in divination by the Inuit.
The arts originated by the world's shamans include drumming, music, dance, acrobatics, masks, theatre, body-painting, tattooing, as well as circus arts such as juggling, illusionism, puppetry, ventriloquism, clowning, rope-walking, fire-eating and animal training.
Some researchers believe that the acrobatic pose could have related to concepts of resurrection, particularly when the acrobatic pose was assumed by the deities. It represents the 'diving' of the dead into the underworld and imminent resurrection through an axis mundi (world tree of life). A good illustration of this is a funerary scene from an Early Classic vessel (now in Berlin). The central tree is cacao and the scene is a resurrection of the dead into a cacao tree. The acrobatic pose of the deceased represents his diving into the underworld. Sometimes this resurrection would have been depicted even through a more conventional dance pose. For example, on the sides of Pakal the Great's sarcophagus in Palenque, his ancestors emerge from cracks in the earth in front of fruiting trees, with their hands in conventional dance poses (Pakal believed that all his ancestors would resurrect as fruit trees, no kidding!)
The maize god is also depicted in an acrobatic dance position on another Early Classic vessel. This is a complex supernatural scene as the serpent is ejecting the god (this is the birth of the god). Near his legs is a pair of rattles and in front of him is a drum and the hieroglyphs indicate that this is a dance. It seems that he is in an altered state of consciousness achieved through dancing and possibly with the use of some hallucinogenic substances.
In conclusion, the ancient royals and warriors of Mesoamerica have taken over the magical crafts developed by shamans, to serve their own power and ambitions. It may look relatively primitive from today's point of view, but I am quite impressed by both the skills of the ancient shaman acrobats and the cleverness of the rulers to use illusion to obtain and maintain their power as well as to 'buy' themselves the ability to be reborn, in essence to buy eternal life (even as a cocoa tree!). Perhaps we should not be surprised by that. The modern politicians also use smoke and mirrors to fool us all.