Spotlight on the Collection

April 2013: Urn Representing Cosijo, the God of Rain

Urn Representing Cosijo, the God of Rain. Zapotec Culture, Mexico, about AD 450. Fired clay. 21 × 12 × 11 inches. Museum purchase, 1965.33.

Urn Representing Cosijo, the God of Rain. Zapotec Culture, Mexico, about AD 450. Fired clay. 21 × 12 × 11 inches. Museum purchase, 1965.33.

Urn Representing Cosijo, the God of Rain, Zapotec culture, Mexico, about AD 450

You can’t take it with you – or can you?

The saying “you can’t take it with you” encourages people to enjoy life to the fullest since worldly goods and wealth remain behind after death. However, not all cultures agree with this idea, as evidenced by the wealth of objects discovered in ancient tombs from across the globe. Even in contemporary society, people deposit personal mementos, family heirlooms, or other significant items into the caskets and urns of loved ones they have lost.

The Zapotecs, whose culture thrived from 200 BC to AD 750 in what is now the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, placed objects such as Urn Representing Cosijo, the God of Rain in their tombs. The artist made Cosijo – whose name means “lightning” – recognizable by his characteristic facial features. According to Emily Hanna, the Museum’s curator of the arts of Africa and the Americas, “his eyebrows depict the heavens, his lower lids represent clouds, while the forked serpent’s tongue represents a bolt of lightning.” His mouth’s feline qualities associate him with the earth-jaguar, while the snake-like elements on his headdress connect him with the sky-serpent. The seated deity’s ornate decorations also include large ear spools, a beaded necklace, and a fringed costume.

Archaeologists disagree whether the Zapotecs used  urns like Cosijo, the God of Rain prior to burial or created them specifically for funerary use. The Zapotecs buried similar urns depicting this deity in many tombs – often multiples in the same tomb. They associated Cosijo with rainfall, a life-giving force in a rugged and arid landscape that required irrigation and dependable rainfall to sustain human, animal, and plant life. The annual process of renewal and growth through farming connected to broader beliefs about the cyclical nature of life and death. They surrounded deceased members of their society with objects such as Urn Representing Cosijo, the God of Rain as a way to signal that death was but one phase in the ongoing circle of life.

—Samantha Kelly, curator of education

Read on!

For more information about Cosijo and Zapotec culture, take a look at these links.

“New Pyramid Found With Vivid Murals, Stacked Tombs,” National Geographic Daily News, August 17, 2012

Mont Albán,” “Monte Albán: Sacred Architecture,” and “Monte Albán: Stone Sculpture,” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Join the conversation!

What are some of the many different ways that cultures conceive of death? If you could take something with you when your life ends, what would it be and why?

Take a look at these works at the BMA and beyond, and join the conversation!

Allegory of Charles I of England and Henrietta of France in a Vanitas Still Life, Carstian Luyckx, about 1669

Tomb guardian, Chinese, about 300 BC

“Handsets Get Taken to the Grave,” BBC News, March 29, 2006

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