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Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

Greenstone Mask, Central America

Penn Museum - Greenstone Mask

Greenstone Mask, Central America

This Greenstone Mask is made of dark green soft stone with a natural white-colored large spot represent eyes. Originating from Central America, it is thought to belong to the Toltec culture. The name Toltec has many meanings, including an “urbanite” or a “cultured” person.

Stone masks, life-size or smaller, were used in burials to cover the face of the dead. Perforations allowed the masks to be attached to the shrouds. The natural white spots representing the eyes would have made this a unique and valuable mask.

Toltec

The Toltec culture is a Mesoamerican culture that dominated a state centered in Tula, Mexico, during 900–1168 AD. The Toltecs continued the Mesoamerican heritage left by the earlier Olmec, Teotihuacano, and Maya cultures. The Toltecs built an impressive capital at Tollan and passed on their legacy to later civilizations such as the Aztecs. The later Aztec culture saw the Toltecs as their intellectual and cultural predecessors and described Toltec culture as the ideal example of enlightenment. The Aztec oral and pictographic tradition described the history of the Toltec Empire as part of their lore.

Diverse Mesoamerican civilizations made claims of Toltec ancestry and a ruling dynasty founded by Quetzalcoatl as the Aztec, the K’iche’ and the Itza’ Mayas.

Quetzalcoatl

Quetzalcoatl was a deity in Mesoamerican culture and literature whose name means “feathered serpent.” The worship of a Feathered Serpent was first documented about the first century BC and was part of the Toltec culture. Was this Greenstone Mask used in ancient Quetzalcoatl ceremonies?

Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec god of wind, air, and learning, wears around his neck the “wind breastplate” made of a conch shell. This talisman was a conch shell cut at the cross-section and was worn as a necklace by religious rulers. It was symbolizing the patterns found in hurricanes, dust devils, seashells, and whirlpools, which were forces that had significance in Aztec mythology.

In the era after the 16th-century Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, some written sources conflate Quetzalcoatl with Ce Acatl Topiltzin, a ruler of the mythical-historic city of Tollan. It is a matter of much debate on whether these narratives about this legendary Toltec ruler describe historical events.

Greenstone Mask, Central America

  • Title:                Greenstone Mask
  • Date:                0 – 1,000 AD
  • Culture:           Toltec (uncertain)
  • Provenience:   Mexico (Central America)
  • Culture Area:   Central America
  • Materials:        Greenstone
  • Museum:         Penn Museum

Reflections

  • Was this Greenstone Mask used in ancient Quetzalcoatl burial ceremonies?
  • Who was significant enough to call for such a highly prized burial mask?
  • Life is but a mask worn on the face of death. And is death, then, but another mask? ‘How many can say,’ asks the Aztec poet, ‘that there is, or is not, a truth beyond?’ – Joseph Campbell

Explore the Penn Museum

Aztec, Maya and Toltec Proverbs

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“Respect everything on this earth.”

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“Clean your mind, and your heart, and everything will be cleaned.”

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“Speak up for the poor and the troubled. Be prompt to comfort them with kind words.”

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“Our ideal should be to create something beautiful that did not exist before us.”

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“You can’t put corn in a basket with holes.”

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“If you can’t do what you like, try loving what you do.”

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“Do not let anyone set your path. It’s your journey, only yours.”

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“Wherever you go be modest and composed. Don’t rush, and don’t laugh at anyone you meet.”

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“The world is yours so long as you earn it.”

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“Clean your mind, and your heart, and everything will be cleaned.”
– Aztec Proverb

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Photo Credit: GM

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