Wearing goggles was very popular in ancient Mesoamerica. The question is why.
What do you think? An ancient astronaut? A pilot in another life? Some scholars have speculated that goggles are proof of ancient alien activity in the rise of the Maya civilisation.
A Mesoamerican ball player? After all, he does wear protectors on his arms and calves.
I find this clay figure very stylish and timeless. It could certainly pass for a contemporary pilot. It is from El Zapotal in central Veracruz (Totonac culture) and is one of the highlights of the Xalapa Museum of Anthropology.
So let's look closer at the goggle mystery. If you visit any ancient ruins in Mexico, you are bound to find a carved figure with goggles. I found my first goggles in Chichén Itzá and then in Teotihuacán.
There are various views on the matter of the use of goggles and their symbolism. To make things simpler, I outline a few of them with the help of online visuals.
First, let's have a look at who wore them.
The images above show that goggles were worn by gods, rulers, ballplayers and warriors. So what did they represent? Here is a summary of the various symbolisms of the goggles that I have found so far:
noble status, as part of the king's ceremonial headdress (not for eye protection, because there's no evidence that the goggles contained lenses of any kind)
penetrating gaze of the gods, which separated them from the common folk
the power of the Sun
Venus and its duality: the movement of Venus in and out of the underworld as both Morning Star and Evening Star. In essence, a circle of life.
owl's eyes, the owl’s ability to traverse the darkness of the cave or the underworld
a symbol of water (found in caves/underworld)
a symbol of sacrifice
a paradise of life after death
Oof! And where did it all start?
Most images of a goggled sculpture refer to the Rain God Tláloc. His goggled mask stemmed initially from the Olmec sources, the first Mesoamerican civilisation, and moved simultaneously into the Teotihuacán, Maya and Zapotec. The mask from Veracruz is principally understood as a Jaguar being (worshipped first by the Olmecs); however there are also the overriding implications of the 'Midnight Owl'. The Teotihuacános are thought to have derived the infamous feathered-serpent from the image of an owl fetching a serpent from a cave (with the ability to traverse its darkness). Mexican art historian, Miguel Covarrubias, demonstrated that later images of Quetzalcóatl, feathered serpents, and rain gods like the god Tláloc were all derived from the Olmec were-jaguar (half jaguar and half human being), who served also as a rain deity for the Olmecs, and was associated with sacrifice and the underworld (the Olmec rain deity did not wear goggles; that was added later by other Mesoamerican cultures).
Take for example the Olmec rock painting in Oxtotitlan where a ruler is dressed as a deity Quetzalcóatl (Feathered Serpent) in an Owl Costume. He sits on the double avian seat. Overall it could be an image of sky constellation or the Milky Way. From the mouths of the double avian images seem to hang the formation of water serpents and the serpent head represents Feathered Serpent. Apparently the Owl Head to the upper left is the constellation of Ursa Major, and the Red Dot above the ruler's hand is the star Arcturus (the brightest star in the constellation of Boötes, the fourth-brightest in the night sky, and the brightest in the northern celestial hemisphere). The backward slash symbols (\\) are in all probability the specified direction of the spiral arms of the Andromeda Galaxy as they are seen appearing within the Milky Way Arm.
Sometimes it is difficult to determine if the goggled mask represents Tláloc or Quetzalcóatl. The facial identity of the ancient Tláloc Serpent Mask is that of an owl picking up a serpent with its beak. It also bears features of the Midnight Mountain Jaguar, Tepeyollotl, and therefore making Tláloc a mixed combination of an owl and jaguar. I find very interesting a drawing by Alfonso Caso, showing the evolutionary source of the Tláloc Mask through Mesoamerican culture (starting from the Olmec jaguar mask A at the bottom, through the Oaxacan mask in the left-hand column, the Tláloc of central Mexico in the next column, followed by the Gulf coast rain gods and finally, the Maya in the right-hand column: mesoamericancalendarstudies.com).
Open cavities in the eyes indicate that the Mixtec mosaic mask below may have been worn by the priest who served Tláloc in the Templo Mayor at Tenochtitlán and was known as Quetzalcóatl Tláloc Tlamacazqui. He would have worn it as a deity impersonator, as part of his ritual attire.
The frequency of goggle-eyed figures in Teotihuacán has misled investigators into assuming that all figures with goggles represent the god Tláloc. In Doris Heyden's view Tláloc's goggles represent a circle symbolising a drop of water (connected with the cave, the underworld). Tláloc's eye within the ring in the codices is usually a stellar eye. Heyden points out that in many dialects of Mixtec, the same word (ti-nuu or te-nuu) means both 'stars' and 'eyes'. Ancient Mexican deities, those concerned with the earth, water, and fertility, were also seen as heavenly bodies.
Esther Pasztory points out that in Teotihuacán rings over eyes are also used on butterflies, over human eyes and several deities associated with war and sacrifice. Karl Taube and Saburo Sugiyama individually interpreted the relief as serpentine headdresses on the bodies of the Feathered Serpent. The rings, which were believed to have been around Tláloc’s eyes, were actually on the forehead. The eye rings are in fact directly above what looks like the upper jaw (from where the teeth and fangs are visible). So Tláloc here acts as Quetzalcóatl's avatar, the feathered serpent. As Sugiyama further states, the headdress is of the day sign Cipactli, which is the first day of the Aztec ritual calendar, the beginning of time. The temple was dedicated to the myth of the origin of time. Scholar Cecelia Klein has suggested that the ringed eyes of Tláloc refer to a mirror, which represents fire or water, which are other attributes associated with the Feathered Serpent.
So the symbolism identified so far is the social status, star (deity), water (symbol of the underworld), owl (ability to see in the dark underworld). Our ball player example fits the bill in that sense as well. The ancient ball game (invented by the Olmecs and adopted by the whole of Mesoamerica) was seen as a struggle between day and night, and a battle between life and death. Ball game courts were considered portals to the underworld. Through the game, the players (including the kings) confronted the forces of the underworld to obtain rebirth and fertility. By playing the game, they symbolically entered the underworld to match themselves against its leaders, to defeat death and recreate life. (I deal with this topic in more detail in my post Ball Players.) In the underworld, they would have needed the owl's ability to traverse through darkness, hence the use of the goggles. So it seems all the symbolisms are connected with each other.
In the case of the unique sculpture of a humanoid dog with goggles (below left), he is wearing the 'Tláloc Owl Eyes', an aspect of the underworld. The dog is the companion of the dead on the journey through the underworld (dogs were often sacrificed to help the deceased on their journey).
The jaguar mask head from Veracruz is fascinating too. My own speculation is that it could have been a mask of a priest used in rituals. The priests sometimes transformed into a jaguar in a ritual, and thus showed their spiritual ability to communicate with gods. In other words, the mask could be a metaphor of transformation. The mask could also express the relationship and communication between man and the gods, which was the function of the priest. During the ritual, the mask allowed men to become gods and to explore the world of spirit. The world of the spirit had to be joined to man's world to ensure the continuation of life on earth. On the other hand, it could be a funerary mask, used in the funerary rituals that marked the beginning of the passage back to the realm of the spirit.
In the case of the ruler K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo, the founder of the Mayan city of Copán (426-437 AD), the goggles possibly represented the ruler's separation from the common people and association with the penetrating gaze of the gods. His title K'inich translates as 'sun-eyed' so this would be the gaze of the sun, so to speak. The king was perceived as the personification of the Sun God, with great powers. So not just the gaze of the gods; the goggles portrayed the king to his people as somebody with the power of the sun!
Scholars now believe that he was not native to Copán and that he may have been placed on the throne by Teotihuacán (which defeated Copán). He would therefore wear the fashion and the trademark of Teotihuacán, the goggles.
There is plenty of evidence in Mesoamerican mythology linking the many avatars of Tláloc to the duality of the planet Venus. Both Tláloc and the Feathered Serpent Quetzalcóatl shared the same temple at Teotihuacán, and Eduard Seler was the first to link feathered serpent imagery to the planet Venus and Quetzalcóatl. Seler also believed that jaguar-bird-serpent imagery was associated with war and the Morning Star. In Aztec mythology the cosmos was intimately linked to the planet Venus. Venus, in its form as the Evening Star, was believed to guide the sun through the Underworld at night. The trademark goggles allowed Tláloc to see well in the underworld. In other words, it allowed him a peek into paradise.
To understand how goggles may have represented Venus, it might help if we look at the Mayan glyph of Venus. The double curve was used as a glyph for the word muyal, meaning 'cloud' in Classic Mayan texts, and is a metaphor for the heavens. Venus glyphs below represents the duality: the symbol on the left most likely representing the Evening Star, on the right the Morning Star (source: lostworlds.org).
The glyphs help us to see the symbol of Venus in Tláloc goggles in the image below, encoded as both a Morning Star and Evening Star. The symbol which extends down between Tláloc’s eyes creating Tláloc’s nose, alludes to the motion of Venus in and out of the Underworld as both Morning Star and Evening Star (source: mexicolore.co.uk). It captures the phenomenon that the Maya were obsessed about: after the Evening Star phase (236 days), Venus disappears for eight days before returning as the Morning Star (the 236-day phase) when it rises just before dawn (and afterwards disappears again for 50 days). The whole cycles takes 584 days.
The Venus symbol appears even in the Maya creation myth from Popol Vuh. On an old vase (see below), Hunahpu, the older Hero Twin, is shown in the act of self-decapitation in the underworld. His twin brother, Xbalanque, is likely represented as the underworld jaguar, who appears encircled by a serpent, surrounded by Venus symbols, one of which is located on the axe suggesting decapitation in the Underworld and Venus resurrection. The story suggests that, after the twins sacrifice themselves in the underworld in front of the Lords of Death, they become immortal and come back to life, defying death, as the resurrected Sun and Moon.
Tláloc's goggles were also popular with warriors, as we established earlier. The warrior had a glorified position in society. The high ranks of both Teotihuacán and Aztec military were Eagle and Jaguar warriors; they wore the feathers and the jaguar skin attire. Their role was to get captives for human sacrifice (see my post Warriors). The main warring emblems were year signs, owl pectorals and circular Tláloc goggles. On their backs they wore mirrors (of polished obsidian). Mirrors were associated with sun, fire, and water because of their bright surfaces, but also with the 'eye', which may derive from the highly reflective eyes of the jaguar. Among the Maya of the Classic period mirrors were a means of communication with otherworld entities.
I already mentioned the ballplayers wearing goggles in preparation for the underworld. They wore this symbol of Venus (or the heavens) as part of their headdress but even on other parts of their attire, as a symbol of sacrifice, and consequently, a paradise of life after death. The Maya believed that, unlike normal human beings, sacrificed victims skipped the nine layers of the underworld; they went straight to heaven.
Goggles were also found at the bottom of the Sacred Cenote of Chichén Itzá (see the image below left. Photo by Justin Kerr: research.mayavase.com). Now that we know that goggles were a symbol of sacrifice, we can understand the connection. The Sacred Cenote was where the Itzá sacrificed their victims by throwing them into the water from high above (the cenote is 25m deep from the surface and the waters are 40m deep). The victim wearing the goggles would have known that he was heading for the paradise of life after death.
There is even the famous sculpture of Chac Mool wearing goggles (probably from the Great Temple of Tenotchitlán). He holds on his chest a vessel with the human hearts of sacrificial victims, an association between the goggles and the sacrifice. Or could his goggles represent the 'big eyes' as an expression of his concentration in the meditation process? Roberto Giagnoli says that Chac Mool was wrongly identified as such; in reality these were adepts in the tantric position. The adepts were trained in ceremonial centres such as Chichén Itzá, being prepared to rule but also to be better human beings, capable of staying alert and 'keeping their eyes open' to the complexities of life. They were being prepared even for their own sacrifice for the good of their people (their sacrifice would appease the gods and bring fertility in return). The eyes of such an adept are big, because now he can see it all.
In conclusion, it seems to me that the iconography of the goggles was interconnected with the Mesoamerican ancient beliefs of the birth and death cycle of life. This was manifested through various forms of imagery: the expression of the power of the gods, the nobility status, as a metaphor for the underworld (the means of resurrection of life and fertility), the power of the sun (gaze of the rulers, their strength and power), the symbol of Venus duality and its cycles (in and out of the underworld), the strength of the jaguar and the power of mirrors (both as a communication tool with the underworld), the power of warfare, the ability of the owl's eye to see in the dark underworld, the symbol of sacrifice and, ultimately, a paradise of life after death. If you have found other symbols, do share, please.