Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Observations on Izapa Stela 5 (often known as the “Tree of Life” stone.)

My attention was captured by this stone when a replica of it was printed in the July 2010 Ensign on p40*. I was on a car ride at the time and since I had no other place to go, I decided to put some serious study into it to see what I could discover.

The first thing I decided to do in my study, was to empty my mind of assumptions that I knew what it meant. Yes, some people say that it depicts the tree of life in Lehi’s vision, but I felt if that were the case, then ignoring that assumption should allow me to come to that meaning naturally through extensive observation. I wanted to see what I could notice on my own. (I must mention here that I have no training whatsoever in interpreting ancient pictures. In some ways this can be a disadvantage since it means I am ignorant of all previous scholarly work done and accepted meanings and interpretations. In other ways, this can be an advantage, since it means I am likewise ignorant of scholarly errors.)

The first thing I notice is the tree. But it is a very strange tree. The top half looks properly tree-like, with eight limbs and leaves sprouting out of it. The bottom half seems to be divided into three sections that do not look very tree-like at all. The section at the very bottom has all these squiggly root-like things and almost looks like an octopus. But it has too many arms to be an octopus and it has no suckers… Using my imagination, it almost looks like the fringe of a large scarf. I really don’t know what to make of it. It doesn’t look like roots though, that’s for sure.

An idea that came to me is this: the bottom half of the tree may constitute where figures were removed. The rest of the stela is very detailed and intricate, but the bottom of the tree seems unexpectedly blank and crudely rendered. There is a face turned toward the tree with its hands on it, but its face is completely blank. It seems incredible that the center of a stela would not have something very important there.

I took the liberty of looking up other drawings of the stela and I found a few different versions that have varying levels of detail and definiteness. I will refer to the drawing with the number labels for ease of identification.

Some general observations - There are hats on most of the heads of the figures in the lower part of the stela. This could indicate high rank. The size of the figures could indicate their relative importance to each other. Or could it indicate age?

Figure 11c and 11d – Located at the bottom right. Figure 11c appears to be an important person, since it seems to enjoy the privilege of being shielded by an umbrella held by figure 11d. What is figure 11c doing? One hand is stretched out towards figures 11f and 15 in front of him (assuming 11c is a ‘him’). Another hand holds some kind of long skinny object. To me, it looks like a writing implement and that there is a piece of paper there ready to write on. But what do I know? I like to write, so I tend to see writing implements everywhere.

Figure 11a and 11e – Located on the left bottom. Figure 11a appears to either have a very long chin or a beard. I think this depends on which rendering of the stela you look at. Figure 11a is pointing at figure 11e over the top of some kind of container with flames coming out of it. (At least it looks like flames to me, and possibly some smoke rising above the flames and floating toward the middle of the scene.

Figure 11b – located at the left of the scene. Holds another long skinny object in one hand and in the other, holds some kind of container. I think that is smoke curling out of it, but I’m not sure what to make of that container or the long skinny object.

Figure 12 – located near the center of the scene. This figure has their hands on what seems to be the trunk of the tree. Just for fun, I covered up the top of the tree and tried to see if I could imagine the bottom half as anything else than a tree. Perhaps a wall. But it still seems strangely vague.

Above the figures that are sitting, there are two figures that have bodies like humans, but heads like animals. The head on the one on the left looks like a dolphin to me. It seems to bend down to look at two fish and it has two rather large hummingbirds on the top of its head. (I call them hummingbirds because their beaks seem extra long.) I can’t tell what the dolphin figure’s arms are doing. The figure 9 on the right seems to have the head of a bird. It almost looks like it is pecking at the tree like a woodpecker. I think these larger figures are supposed to represent gods because the space around them is so elaborate and decorated.

Figure 13 seems oddly placed. It is raised up to be on the level of the god figures, but the way it is depicted seems ultra simple. It has almost no headdress or head covering, unlike the figures sitting at the bottom, who have hats. It also shows no body detail, unlike just about every other body figure. I wonder if the body details on figure 13 were defaced from the stone.

It is interesting that none of the figures who are sitting seem to notice the large god figures above them. Instead they are interacting with other humans.

I notice on the upper left side, there are two fishes hanging by their tails. Also, I notice that their tails are very similar to the object that figure 11b has in right hand.
On the upper right, there is a bird perched, but it doesn’t seem to be perched in the tree, but rather on a sort of billowy spiral.

We have now arrived at the part where I give my opinion about what I think the whole scene means. I don’t think it is of the tree of life dream sequence. I think that there is storytelling going on in the scene about the ways of the gods and what is being told is being depicted above the heads of the storytellers and the listeners. I also think the middle portion at the lower half of the tree is missing.

You are all welcome to chime in and tell me what you think it looks like. John E. Clark gives his view in the essay “A New Artistic Rendering of Izapa Stela 5: A Step Toward Improved Interpretation” and he points out:
The long roots of the tree appear to penetrate the ground. But when we look closely, we see that what look like roots are actually the elongated teeth of a crocodile or earth monster, while the tree trunk doubles as the crocodile's body, a feature depicted on several other Izapa monuments.
Personally I have a very hard time seeing this, and I wish he would refer the reader to other specific monuments for comparison for other examples of crocodile bodies depicted on monuments. He also says that the god figure on the right has a jaguar mask. I REALLY don’t know where he gets that idea. He says that the old man (figure 11a) is sitting on a skull throne. You can really only see the skull in the picture with the numbers on it. (It’s right behind the man’s right hand.)

Another interesting interpretation can be found in Michael J. Grofe's pdf file
The Recipe for Rebirth: Cacao as Fish in the Mythology and Symbolism of the Ancient Maya." Discussion of this particular stela can be found on p21-24 and 48-49. You can also see yet another drawing version of stela 5 on p21.

For those who want to know how someone might get Lehi’s dream out of stela 5, there’s this site: “The Tree of Life Carving – A Christian Relic?” by David Allen. You decide whether the comparisons made are enough to justify calling it “The Tree of Life” or not.

* an entry in the Seventh International Art Competition, rendered in metal by Araceli Andrade

Stela 5 image 1

Stela 5 image 2