(Moctezuma and Solís Olguín, Aztecs, 2002, p. 427)
Carved in a dynamic and abstract form of the god, Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, the sculpture displays the focus and strength of a snakes striking moment, its tensed nostrils and hooded eyes intently gazing forward and muscular tapering body rising upward into a curled tail. The three crenellations at the top of the tail symbolize multiple plumes as seen on other palmas of the region. The serpent's tapered body has two carved glyphic elements (legible when viewed horizontally, possibly referring to penance or sacrifice), a rare feature for ballgame sculptures, which mark and brand this sculpture. The intensity of the figure is highlighted by the application in places of red pigment, particularly in certain areas of the face and tail.
An Inverted Serpent with Crenelated Tail
John F. Scott, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, University of Florida
The purpose of this very exceptional piece has puzzled me since Elizabeth Easby and I first published it in Before Cortés: Sculpture of Middle America (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1970), no. 154. Its general proportions are much like a palma, a similarity also noted by Ed Shook and Elayne Marquis, Secrets in Stone: Yokes, Hachas and Palmas from Southern Mesoamerica (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1996), p. 229. It can be considered contemporary with a palma from interior El Salvador, on which much more extensive Maya glyphs than the two on this piece indicate a date in the Terminal Classic. The carving of the serpent on both objects is very similar, even to cross-hatching over its eyes. However, our subject piece lacks the classic notched base and thus would not be considered a true palma.
Palmas, like hachas, have a concave curve projecting in their bottom front, permitting them to be held over the front of yokes, most likely by the players' forearms, perhaps in the position carved on the famous 'praying hands' palma in Mexico's National Museum of Anthropology. Since they would be unstable in play, both the hachas and the palmas would have to be set aside, likely on the sides of the ballcourt itself, after being worn by the players as they paraded in before the game itself commenced. The figure represented in the palma likely is a spirit presiding over the player and/or his team.
The subject sculpture of the inverted serpent most likely was made for a similar function: to be set beside the court where the ballgame was played, so that the patron animal spirit could oversea play. Parrot heads placed on top of the side slopes of the great ballcourt at Copán, Honduras, preserve such a placement of hachas on a monumental scale. The rough base of this object suggests it was not intended to be visible, but probably buried up to the bottom of the serpent head. Its base is absolutely flat, unlike the slightly concave bottom of palmas from El Salvador. Many of those represent inverted serpents, most with three feathers on their tails at the top. Our piece instead has three single-stepped crenelations, such as those on top of the palace of the Quetzal butterfly in Teotihuacan.
Inverted serpents line the balustrades of many temples at Toltec Chichén Itzá, in the northern Maya area during the Early Postclassic, and form entrance columns on temples there. Remains from such columns also exist at the Toltec capital at Tula, central Mexico. At both sites their tails show a splay of feathers at the end, which soar above the heads of worshippers. Along their sides are undulating lines incised in the stone, conveying a continuation of feathers. They represent a major god of the Toltecs, Quetzalcóatl in Náhuatl, the language of the later Aztecs and probably of the Toltecs themselves. Inverted serpents are the dominant patron animal rendered on the Salvadorean palmas, probably brought there by the Pipil migration of Nahua speakers ultimately from Mexico, where the feathered serpent deity had originated.
History of Ballgame Paraphernalia
Palmas apparently evolved late in the sequence of stone paraphernalia associated with the Mesoamerican ballgame, first in the State of Veracruz, Mexico. The earliest well-documented pieces, excluding some attributed to the Olmec (see Scott, 'Dressed to Kill: Stone Regalia of the Mesoamerican Ballgame' in Whittington, ed., The Sport of Life and Death, 2001, p. 53), are datable to the early Protoclassic (150 BC - AD 100). They are traditionally called yokes, from their shapes like an inverted U. The yoke is considered a stone version of a ballgame belt worn to protect a player's hip when hitting the solid rubber ball back to the opponent. During the Early Classic, stone heads became part of the ballgame assemblage, simulating trophy heads taken at the conclusion of the game. They were notched in the back, possibly to be held over the front of a yoke. During the course of the Late Classic, they became thin laterally, suggesting their Spanish name hacha, for an ax head. Effigy pottery shows them attached to the front of yokes. At the end of the Classic period appear the first tall stones, called in Spanish palmas for their upward flaring shape like palm leaves.
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