Harley has taught university-level History classes and has a Ph.D. in History
A God for the 'Cloud People'
Modern-day Mexico has been home to vibrant civilizations for thousands of years. Perhaps no better example of this exists than the Zapotec civilization. Also known as the 'cloud people,' the Zapotec civilization was based in the Southern highlands of modern-day Mexico, in the Valley of Oaxaca. From their capital city of Monte Albán, the Zapotecs traded with other Mesoamerican civilizations and thrived from about 500 BCE to around 900 CE. In addition to material goods, the Zapotecs would share their gods with the other Mesoamerican civilizations. One of the most important Zapotec gods was Cocijo, the god of rain, thunder, and lightning. Cocijo was a fitting deity for a people who viewed themselves as living amongst the clouds.
Cocijo's Abilities and Appearance
Cocijo was one of the main gods in the Zapotec pantheon, alongside Coquihani, the god of light. The Zapotecs, like other Mesoamerican civilizations, were polytheistic and believed that the gods embodied different cultural ideas and natural elements. In addition to Cocijo and many others, the Zapotecs worshipped Copijcha, the god of the sun and war, and Pitao Cozobi, the corn god. Some gods were designated as patron deities for certain cities. Cocijo's responsibilities spanned far beyond cities, corn, or warfare.
In addition to being the god of rain, thunder, and lightning, Cocijo was very important for two other reasons. First, Cocijo's ability to provide rainfall was seen as vital to an agricultural society like the Zapotecs. The Oaxaca Valley, with its mountainous terrain, moderate rainfall, and mild climate, was the perfect place for a god like Cocijo. Second, Cocijo was a creator god within the Zapotec pantheon. The Zapotecs believed that Cocijo created most of the physical universe, all of its celestial bodies, the Earth's physical features, and life on Earth itself.
Cocijo's abilities are symbolized in his physical features. From a broad design standpoint, Cocijo is a fusion of the jaguar and the serpent. Furthermore, different portions of his face represent different weather elements and parts of the sky. For example, Cocijo's forked serpent tongue symbolizes his dominion over lightning. His eyebrows and lower eyelids come together to symbolize the clouds, the heavens, and, by extension, the rainfall they provide. Cocijo's vast importance and influence was felt even as the Zapotec civilization declined and disappeared.
The Legacy of Cocijo
The Zapotec civilization spanned across two periods of Mesoamerican chronology, the classic period (around 300 CE-950 CE) and into the postclassic period (about 950 CE-1521 CE). The Zapotecs thrived in the classic period and declined in the postclassic period, but Cocijo's importance remained constant. For example, recent archaeological research indicates that the Zapotecs came to associate each cardinal direction with its own Cocijo. For further proof of Cocijo's legacy and importance, we can see how the civilizations that came after the Zapotecs drew inspiration from Cocijo.
Cocijo's influence was felt in the more well-known Mesoamerican civilizations, the Aztecs and the Mayans. The Aztec god Tlaloc and the Mayan god Chaac bear many similarities to Cocijo. In addition to these gods, Mesoamerican people still worshipped Cocijo himself centuries after the Zapotecs vanished. After the Spanish conquest of the 16th century, descendants of the Zapotecs continued worshiping Cocijo. As late as the 1540s, the Spanish Inquisition was putting Indians on trial for performing human sacrifice in the name of Cocijo. For over 1,500 years, the god of rain, thunder, and lightning exercised remarkable power over Zapotec society and religious life.
Cocijo, the god of rain, thunder, and lightning, was one of the chief deities for the Zapotec civilization. The Zapotecs, also known as the 'cloud people,' worshipped Cocijo as a creator god and bringer of plentiful rainfall. Cocijo's influence on Mesoamerican society extended centuries beyond the lifespan of the Zapotec society itself. The Aztec and Mayan gods, Tlaloc and Chaac respectively, were inspired by Cocijo. Even after the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, Cocijo worship still existed in some parts of colonial Mexico.
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