I have always tried to visit a museum that I love as though it was the first time. Sometimes the attempt is successful, sometimes not. When the revisited museum makes me feel that I am just repeating an experience, I rush away to the nearest café. Museums, like lovers, can lose their charms. But the next time can always be the first time. I had the good fortune to return to the Museum of Anthropology in Xalapa with two younger novelists, Arturo Fontaine from Chile and Santiago Gamboa from Colombia.
In Mexico it is easy to move simultaneously in time and space. On the road to Xalapa, we made our first stop at the city of Puebla, one of the earliest urban foundations set up by Spain in Mexico, dating from 1532. A town of glistening blue tiles arranged around the second-largest cathedral in Mexico, Puebla represents the confidence of the Spanish colony: if we build this, we are here to stay. I then led my friends to the nearby chapel of Tonantzintla, perhaps the most delirious statement of the American baroque. The Franciscan brothers commissioned Indian labourers to decorate the interior of the church. And this they did, adapting the Catholic baroque to the sensibility of the recently conquered and converted people. If baroque is the name of a penitent oyster that decided to grow into a pearl—from mollusc to jewel—the Indian artisans of Tonantzintla accepted the European baroque and transformed it into an amazing interior cascade of the fruits, the flowers and the fauna of the tropics. The angels ascending to heaven are brown-skinned, and the devils delivered to hell are white, blonde, bearded and grinning ferociously. An artistic vendetta, if there ever was one.
Our next stop took us to Cholula, the ancient pantheon of the Indian peoples. It is now being slowly uncovered, after becoming a nameless mound. (How many Mexican mounds are hidden pyramids?) You can enter the place through a series of labyrinths into the heart of the pyramid, where figures representing life and death in black and red colours remind us that this is a ceremonial centre ruled by time. There were no centuries in the pre-Hispanic era: the closest unit of time was 52 years. Cholula holds a pyramid within a pyramid within a pyramid, as time ended and the older structure was covered up by the new.
On top of the Cholula pyramid the very modest chapel to the Virgin of El Rosario attempts, unsuccessfully, both to crown and to expunge the Indian past. Cholula once had 365 temples. The conqueror Cortés ordered that a Christian chapel be built on top of each. Only 30-odd remain today. To impose his wiles the conqueror ordered a huge massacre in Cholula, where 3,000 Indians were killed. Temples were whitewashed. Men, women and children caged for sacrifice were freed. “Let us put fear into the land,” said Cortés. Submission as well. Gratitude?
If I recall the events on the road to Xalapa, from the more recent to the more ancient, it is because I am taking my novelist friends to the very origin of all that we have so far seen and heard: the great Museum of Anthropology at Xalapa, the capital city of the state of Veracruz.
Xalapa sits at the foot of a mountain, and the dramatic beauty of the drive and our arrival in the valley prepared us for what is a trip to the birth of Mexican civilisation. Not always understood: for a long time, the Maya were considered the first culture, until, in 1957, radio-carbon dating revealed that the Olmecs had been the true pioneers, dating back to San Lorenzo in 1500BC.
We go down a long, wide, declining corridor, interrupted here and there by tropical gardens, where five or six colossal heads look at us from their height of almost ten feet, all of them seemingly similar, until we begin to observe some differences. They all wear what we might call helmets, but one head shows its teeth, another is tight-lipped, a third is probably a woman as her headdress goes down her cheeks. The most stately figure has his ears transformed into the symbol of the jaguar, while the next shows signs of mutilation and yet another is pockmarked and visibly deteriorating.
So, what seemed almost identical at first sight reveals, on closer inspection, the distinctive trait of each head. Head number one, “The King”, was the first of them, discovered by Matthew Stirling of the Smithsonian Institution in 1946. It is regal indeed. The museum exhibits six more heads. Number three is almost hospitable, whereas number four is hardly welcoming. Number four is seriously grim, but number five is closing its eyes as if preparing the final disappearing act of number seven, a face eaten up by time and the jungle. Number eight seems to smile at the pretences of these monumental figures, as if it has guessed that their very presence, heavy with mystery, would one day be mystery itself.
But then, would not the Christian religion also have been presented as a “mystery” to these same Olmec peoples by the friars of the conquest? And wasn’t Tertulian’s tenet of faith “it is true because it is unbelievable”? Looking at the colossal heads of the Olmecs, one is led to believe that religious faith operates on universal principles: it is true because it cannot be proven.
The symbols of power are present here. There is a throne upheld by two dwarfs while the ruler’s seat shows drippings of water, a reference, perhaps, to the liquid divinities sustaining life in Mexico, a country where water flows from the mountains into tropical rivers and then the sea, leaving the vast central mesa dry and thirsty.
Who sits on the throne? The figures of rulers in the museum are curiously blurred, as if undecided whether to move forward to a full human figure, or backwards to the omnipresent jaguar, whose sitting posture the monarchs recall. A remarkable sculptural set—two human beings and a feline—stare at each other. The jaguar looks ferociously at the two men and we know not if they fear, or confront, or venerate the beast. What is notable is that, far from the metamorphoses into animal we see in the kings, these two sturdy individuals are radically separate from the deity.
The gods of the Olmecs, like all those of ancient Mexico, seem extremely distant from the faithful. Indeed, in these lands, in those days, gods were expected to be inhuman—a sentiment that rose to its highest pitch with the Aztec divinities. Coatlicue, the mother goddess at the Anthropological Museum in Mexico City, is a sum of non-human attributes: snake-heads, a skull necklace, a snake-skirt, feet with claws confirm her nature—headless, non-human and thus divine.
Yet the Olmec gods seem comparatively less alien to humanity than the Aztec divinities, even if their traits are linked above all to their religious function. The Xalapa museum exhibits a whole pantheon. There is Tlaloc, the rain god, in a masked relief from Tuxpan. There is Tlazoltéotl, the divinity of earth and sex, weavers and the moon, presented as a prohibitive deity, glaring, her lips blackened, her heavy attire perhaps a reference to the weaving and wearing. But she is also presented as a semi-naked goddess, her breasts being the polite symbol of her fertile functions.
The most impressive divinity in Xalapa is Xipe Tótec, the lord of the flayed skin and god of agriculture, who changes his appearance with the seasons. This is one of the grandest statues here, a metre and a half tall and strikingly coloured—and clothed—in orange scales. The face and hands are his own, whereas scales belong to the gods: is this a slave masquerading as a god, or a god as a slave? The suspicion is furthered by yet another Xipe Tótec, this one covered by the skin of a human being with an erect phallus, as if being devoured by a god were the climax of pleasure.
There is quite a contrast with the three representations of Cihuateotl, who might be a goddess, or simply the soul of a woman who died at childbirth. Her three statues are among the most beautiful in Xalapa. The simplest one is the dead Cihuateotl, her eyes closed but her arms open and palms upturned as in a final prayer. Her outfit is more elaborate than her attitude: necklace, ribbons, tassels. The other two Cihuateotl are among the most striking. The more dramatic lady has half-opened eyes, an open mouth, and also shows her breasts, but her necklace is made of rare serpentine shells and her sumptuous headdress is worthy of a trip to the country of the dead—a region containing both heaven and hell.
Yet the most magnificent of these women who, on dying, have a claim to divinity, is the sitting Cihuateotl, infinitely restful, even serene as she sits on the throne of eternity, crowned by a blind monkey and supported by four rays of light behind her. This piece, I believe, is a worthy companion to ancient Venuses and Renaissance Madonnas.
Can the order shown here last? The incessant struggle between the beast in the jungle and the god in the temple is made visible by the abundance of animal figures—volcanic rock that becomes an eagle, bats serving incense, vessels in the form of monkeys. They would seem to be held back from outright metamorphoses by the daily objects lying around, testifying to a world beyond the pantheon, a living, quotidian universe of paste glasses, braziers, tripoid vessels, polychrome plates, funeral dishes, but also toys on wheels and infants on a swing.
It is as if the claims of daily life were attempting to reassert themselves in minute ways, yet finally, crashing against the stele; attempting to accommodate human clocks (children on swings, toys, dishes) to the time of gods and kings. A magnificent truncated stele describes a god (the plumed serpent?) trying to speak. The stele looks for something to read while pronouncing the virgule of language.
Are these gods? Do gods deteriorate? The Olmec religious culture has lost its religious significance. It has become art. As we walk through the museum it is evident that these metamorphoses–from sacrality to art–have their paradoxical origin in nature. The Olmecs, a word that means “rubber” in the Náhuatl (Aztec) language, believed that they sprang from the jaguar (as Romans and Britons from the lion) and their art is anchored in the metamorphoses of beast into human being through copulation of woman and jaguar, bringing forth a terrifying (for me) race of fat babies, sexless, snarling, their heads cleft.
Man and jaguar, woman and jaguar. The Xalapa museum leads one to believe that this was the Olmec myth of creation: the union of the sacred and the human. What for? The answer is forthcoming: to create the first Mesoamerican state run by an elite on the backs of thousands of labourers, trekking 60 miles overland, down the river, across to the sacred city where only priests, judges and generals could live. The Olmec hinterland was a bevy of dispersed villages and peoples subject to ritual, myth and, eventually, death imposed from above.
Nothing new here. Many aboriginal cultures, worldwide, were built by hand labour and despotic rulers garbed in myth. Yet Xalapa offers a great surprise. Next to the colossal heads and the sacred jaguars, there are human beings, and they are laughing.
This, for me, is the most salient aspect of the Xalapa museum: all the power, all the divinity, all the ceremony, all the myths of state and religion, finally provoke laughter. The outright, irrepressible humanity of the little heads smiling, holding up their hands in amusement. Laughing, perhaps, at the pomp and circumstance of the world.
But then, where does it all—the power and the glory, the fear and the laughter—end? The soil of the Olmec heartland dissolves dead bodies. No skeletons are left here. The earth is acid. The bones vanish.
This final vision causes fear, I grant it. Yet the terror of a land without bones is, in a way, assuaged by the fact that all that we have seen here, the colossal heads and the laughing figurines, the immense stone wrestler and the fragile polychrome plates, the toys on wheels and the Xipe Totec, the flayed god of death and renewal (with an amazing resemblance to Boris Karloff in “Frankenstein”), have an underground destiny. The ceremonial art of the Olmecs was heading for the same fate as its humanity. Burial. Disappearance. The end of their time on earth.
Can a museum have a higher mission than that of resurrecting the dead? I drive with my friends to the port of Veracruz, an hour and a half away. We sit in the busy central square, under the arcades, drinking our Veracruz mint-juleps, watching the dancers, far from the rituals of the Olmecs, closer to the Mediterranean life that flows from Cadiz and Gibraltar, touching Cuba and Florida, to its final resting place here in Veracruz, where I belong.
TIPS FOR YOUR TRIP (compiled by Beatrice Perry)
When to go
All year round, but November to April is when Mexico is at its most welcoming, and festive—the Days of the Saints and the Dead are celebrated with gusto on November 1st and 2nd, while carnival is in the week leading up to Ash Wednesday. The Xalapa museum is open every day bar Mondays and national holidays, 9am to 5pm, adult admission $3.50 (all prices US).
How to get there
Fly to Mexico City from Europe (London, 12hrs) or America (New York, 5hrs), or to Veracruz from Houston (2hrs). From Mexico City, take a UNO deluxe bus to Xalapa from TAPO station (5hrs). From Veracruz, the bus takes 2hrs. Bookhere.
Where to stay
In Xalapa Mesón del Alférez is the former house of a Spanish colonial officer, and is proud of its breakfasts (doubles from $52 per night). Five miles outside Xalapa the Posada Coatepec is an elegant hotel which offers a guided tour of the museum (doubles from $87). Or head for an ecolodge in the woods—Villa los Maquiques, near Coatepec, is set in 5,000 acres of protected forest with a natural spa and yoga classes (doubles from $93).
At El Retoño there is a spa plus workshops for weaving, cooking and papermaking, lectures on wildlife and birding tours (rooms from $75).
What else to see
Culture: El Tajin, 4hrs north of Xalapa, is a UNESCO archaeological site. La Venta, south of Veracruz, has an open-air park museum and an archaeological site, the best for Olmec ruins. The Zempoala ruins are closer to Xalapa, towards the coast.
Active: In Xalapa the Parque de los Lagos has lakeside lanes to bike along. Outside Xalapa the Francisco Javier Clavijero Botanic Garden is a nature reserve for endangered species. There are also waterfalls to visit, hiking trips, rafting and mountain biking.
Gastronomic: Nearby Xico is celebrated for its spicy meat stew, egg breads and mulberry wine.
Carlos Fuentes was a novelist, lecturer, and former ambassador
Picture credits: Holly Wilmeth/Aurora
Picture Captions:Wide heads revisited: Carlos Fuentes goes eye to eye with Olmec head number nine, from San Lorenzo
Old heads, young shoulders: two Mexican teenagers, a brother and sister, study a figure known as “Captive”, from Veracruz in 600-900AD
Detail of an image depicting the Huaxtecs, from a room devoted to osteology A piece known as “The Swing”, from Veracruz in 300-900AD
Little wonders: Carlos Fuentes studies the sculptures known as “Baby Face Type Figurines”, found at several Olmec sites