Dwarfs were often depicted in arts and rituals by pre-Columbian Americans. Were they marginalised individuals? What was their place in their communities? Let's have a closer look.
The first ancient Mayan dwarf that I encountered was in the ruin site of Yaxchilán. Two dwarfs are standing right behind the king Bird Jaguar on Step 7 frieze from Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 leading to Structure 33. They look very attentive to the king, although they are standing behind him. It is important to note that king Bird-Jaguar is playing the ball game on this occasion, with a bound captive human as a ball (shocking!). This is clearly a game after a victorious battle and the game is of significant religious and ritual importance (the captives of royal lineage were to be tortured and killed, see my post Captives. So what was the role of the dwarfs during this event? Were they the king's advisors? Or did the Mayan courts have them just for entertainment? The two dwarfs are marked with Venus signs (movement of Venus in and out of the underworld as both a Morning Star and Evening Star represented the role of the ball court as the entrance of the underworld). Venus was called the sweeper of the path of the sun so perhaps they are presented as the sweepers of the path for Bird Jaguar on his journey to confront the Lords of the Underworld in the ball game. In other words, they were the king's advisors. I am quite impressed by that! That certainly indicates that the Maya respected deformity and thought highly of the dwarfs' supernatural abilities.
My encounter with the Yaxchilán dwarfs prompted me to look more generally into physical deformities and how they were treated by Mesoamerica. It seems that deformities were considered divine attributes bestowed upon humans by the gods. The Olmecs (before the Maya) believed that deformities were caused by lightning (by gods of rain and lightning), and, as such, they probably identified them with rain (rain-making ability), lightning and maize. It seems this belief was adopted by the Maya and is maintained until today amongst the indigenous people. Among the contemporary Quiché there is a C'oxol dwarf who summons powers through his lightning axe.
The ancient Olmecs (peoples in southern Mexico and Central America between about 1200-400 BC) recognised the chaneques, dwarfs who lived in waterfalls. Among the artefacts of this civilisation we see depictions of dwarflike humans engaging in service to the elite or as court entertainers. They could have been real people, although some scholars believe they were a mythical race of little people. The Olmecs believed that dwarfs had the ability to communicate with the supernatural world. They also believed that dwarves held up the cardinal points of the sky, a very important role! They had dwarfs at their courts; they probably considered them chosen beings. The crouching chinless dwarf is a well-known motif in Olmec sculptures, with typical signs such as exaggerated pelvis, prominent buttocks and large abdomen. But it gets more complex. Read on.
Carolyn E. Tate, American art historian, firmly believes that the Olmec sculptures represent foetuses, not dwarfs. One of her arguments is that dwarfs usually have short upper arms, meaning that young dwarfs have difficulties raising their arms to the top of their heads. However, many of the Olmec sculptures have their arms raised, reaching the ears. Of all abnormalities chinlessless is the most obvious, as well as a large head. Some of the Olmec foetus effigies have hair, nails, pierced ears or adornments.
These natural features do correlate with foetal development, in which fingernails are present at 24 weeks, the eyes are open and hair is well developed at 28, and toenails are present at 30 weeks. Carolyn E. Tate gives a lot of analyses of the embryo or foetus comparisons to the Olmec 'dwarf' figurines so as a shortcut here are a few photo comparisons by the author (see the source below).
If we believe this appealing interpretation, the question remains why the Olmecs went to such lengths to make sculptures of a stylised representation of the birth of life. The answer sits with their deeply rooted mythological beliefs. In Mesoamerica, humans were believed to be born with animal spirit companions. Spiritually adept persons such as shamans could metamorphose into their animal alter-ego; for more watch out for my post Acrobats. The concept of self was frequently extended to the impersonation of a supernatural in ritual circumstances.
I personally find this fascinating and it helps me understand the so-called 'were-jaguars' (half human, half jaguar) in Olmec culture. A were-jaguar was a shaman (sometimes a dwarf) who could transform through a ritual into a jaguar, his 'way' (alter-ego). People of lesser status would have had other animal 'way'; for example a mouse. This transformation was a representation of power. A group of congenital malformations such as Down's syndrome or mongolism is also depicted in the Olmec figures. A Down's syndrome baby may have been what the Olmecs saw as a personification of the were-jaguar. This was brought about by the belief that it was the copulation of a woman with a jaguar, which produced a strain of were-jaguar people. Olmec, or at least the royal lineage, 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.
But the most amazing journey of transformation occurs in a human life. Miscarriages would have been common in ancient times as well, allowing the Olmecs to study this transformation and then portray it in art and rituals. The metamorphosis is evident in the development of the foetus over the weeks of gestation, from a tadpole or fish-like form to a human one. Similarly, the foetus parallels the life cycle of maize, the Mesoamerican symbol of the miracle of life. Both undergo dramatic transformation, the foetus apparently from lower to higher animal and the maize from seed to fruiting plant to seed again.
The function of the embryo and foetus in Olmec art may have represented the observation that humans begin as animals, while sculptures of were-jaguars represented the reverse transformation of humans back to animals (a transformation of the shaman acrobat into jaguar through a dance ritual). It seems the Olmec were very advanced in observing and depicting the human transformation. Why has the foetus not been a symbol of transformation in other societies? Have most human cultures been uncomfortable with the non-human appearance of a human embryo?
The Maya creation myth recognises dwarfs as beings existing prior to humans. The Popol Vuh (Sacred Book of the Quiché Maya) deals with the stories of the world creation. The gods had several attempts at creating people. In one of the attempts the gods fashioned a race from mud. The mud dwarfs possessed eyes and could see well but started to ignore the gods; rather than worshipping the gods they spent their time creating beautiful pottery, writing books, and constructing magnificent buildings of stone. So they were pretty clever! The dwarfs angered the gods so much that they sent a flood to destroy the world.
Ah, what vanity by the deities! (Some believe the ancient aliens had a hand in this making and their first mixes of the DNA just did not work out.)
During the floods, the dwarfs went into hiding in caves. After a few other attempts (and destructions of the world) the gods finally made humans from corn and gave them their own blood. The surviving dwarfs left their caves and joined the new world. The indigenous people believe that the dwarfs or their spirits returned to the caves and are still among us. In Yucatán they call them alux; in Chiapas the Cholan Maya call them ch'at. The Aztecs, like the Olmecs, called them chaneques.
In the legend of the dwarf king of Uxmal, the dwarf became king by defeating the human king in several contests. One of the contests required the dwarf to create an image of himself that could burn in the fire and still survive. He produced a ceramic figurine. The alux is portrayed until today as a clay figurine. This folk tale is used to explain the clay figurines found on Jaina Island, said to have been made by the Maya people of the Puuc Hills on the instruction of their dwarf king.
Were-jaguar, or jaguar children in Olmec culture seem to correlate with Down's Syndrome children, also spina bifidia or other mental or physical disabilities. Perhaps, in order to explain the physical and mental differences, the Olmecs made them divine (while other ancient cultures across other continents considered them feeble). Anomalies, including dwarfism, acromegaly, clubfoot, and polydactyly can be found even amongst some portraits of the Mayan rulers. For example, the figure carved in stone on the sarcophagus lid is king Pakal the Great with an abnormally positioned right foot. Merle Greene Robertson believes that it is a form of clubfoot and not a bad alignment due to poor draughtsmanship. I already outlined the deformity of the ruler Ukit Kan Lek Tok' in my post Ek' Balam. The king was portrayed on the wall of his tomb with a split upper lip. The angels at the entrance to his tomb have clubfeet and finger deformities. They are considered to be his priests or even ancestors.
And what about the contemporary dwarfs, chaneques or aluxes, that still live among us? Are they real or mythical beings? They are said to wear straw hats and cloth shoes, and they carry bags made of cloth or agave cactus fibre, their bag of tricks, so to speak. Other stories give them a less friendly appearance, almost alien-looking humanoids. In some legends, they carry around slingshots to use in hunting or to shoot stones at disagreeable humans. Despite their reputation for mischief, the nocturnal life of aluxes makes them the ally of local farmers. In Yucatán, food, alcohol and cigarettes are often left in the fields or nearby hills by the farmers for them, to appease them.
And it is not only farmers who believe in aluxes. Sightings have been reported. I have not encountered an alux yet and I often go to Mayan sites, cenotes and jungles. Well, as they are spirits, you probably can't see them but perhaps you can feel them. There is a place in the state of Veracruz called Los Chaneques, with a river and small waterfall, believed to be a place of the paranormal activity of the chaneques. In Yucatán, there is a small stone house constructed for the alux under the Cancún-Nizuc Bridge on the way to Cancún airport. Apparently the bridge collapsed during the construction so the house was quickly built and offerings by locals are now given to the alux (no problem with the bridge has been detected since). I have seen similar little houses built in Playa by people in their front yard, for the protection of their household. In 2010 there was an Elton John concert at the Maya archaeological site of Chichén Itzá. Days before the performance the massive stage collapsed and the locals say it is because the organisers did not secure the permission and blessing of the local aluxes before constructing it. They had to get the local shamans to resolve the protection of the location.
There is a stylish restaurant in Playa del Carmen, called Alux. It is situated in a cave (a dried cenote) and apparently you can meet the aluxes here. I have been there, but no luck meeting an alux so far. The restaurant has a small house for them, to appease them. Look out for the alux statue as well. Or next time you walk in the jungle, watch out for a real alux. If he plays a trick on you, appease him with a sweet or a cigarette. Let us know your experience; I can't wait for your story! Somebody is bound to experience them!