The Mesoamerican world was heavily influenced by the Olmec religion, both in the mythological world and social development. Most religions that followed it were influenced by the Olmecs.
From 1400 BC to 400 BC, the Olmec civilization flourished in the territory currently occupied by Mexico on the south part of the Gulf Coast. For many reasons, the culture of the Olmecs is considered to be the mother of all the Mesoamerican cultures.
While we have direct proof of the religions of the Aztecs or the Maya, there are none when it comes to the Olmec religion. That’s why archaeologists had to use a number of different techniques to find out how the Olmec religion worked. Some of these techniques were comparing it with pre-Columbian cultures which were documented better, analyzing the art and iconography of the Olmec, plus the comparison with cultures of the Native Americans.
The last techniques mentioned here were used under the assumption that the religion of the Olmecs had continuity through the ages, to the present Mesoamerican religions. By using the techniques mentioned here, researchers managed to find a number of deities which had characteristics from a number of animals.
Activities in the religion of the Olmecs were done by shamans, priests and the rulers. The most influential were the rulers, which were considered relatives of supernatural beings and of the deities of the Olmecs. The archaeological evidence also points to the existence of shamans in their culture.
The specific details of the religion of the Olmecs aren’t always pinned down by the researchers. Initially, historians thought that the religion of the Olmecs was based around a jaguar god. Later, Joralemon Peter David said in some articles that the Olmec religion was actually placed around 8 supernatural beings. In time, the point of view of Joralemon became the main theory of how the Olmec religion functioned. Right now we don’t have a complete list of the deities of the Olmecs, as their study is still in the beginning.
Right now, the identities and what these supernatural beings did is still a matter of discussion, with few details known. The problems here are based on the motifs of iconography that are used to define a supernatural. The same supernatural can be defined by motifs that appears in others as well. For example, the motif that means flame eyebrows will show up both for the bird and dragon monsters, while all supernaturals from the monument of Las Limas contains the cleft head. Another problem is that these gods actually might have a number of different aspects. According to Joralemon, gods I-A to I-F are the same one. These supernatural beings don’t have a gender from what is known right now.
One of these gods is the olmec dragon, which has a bulbous nose, flame eyebrows and a tongue that is bifurcated. The eyes have the shape of an L from the profile and they’re through shaped from the front.
Another supernatural being is the maize deity, which has a cleft head and plants sprouting from it. Usually this supernatural doesn’t have a body represented in the pictures.
The third one is the bird monster, which looks like a harpy eagle, though it also has features of a reptile and of mammals. Usually the bird monster is known as the rulership deity.