Cocijo, Zapotec God of Rain & Lightning

Instructor: Harley Davidson

Harley has taught university-level History classes and has a Ph.D. in History

Cocijo, the god of rain and lightning, was one of the most important deities of the Zapotecs. This lesson examines Cocijo's abilities, appearance, and post-Zapotec legacy.

A God for the 'Cloud People'

Monte Alban, its ruins seen here with mountains in the distance, was the Zapotec capital.
Monte Alban

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.

The physical features of Cocijo, seen here, are meant to represent his various abilities.

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.

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