Picture a being with the body of a cat, the feet of an eagle, wings of a butterfly, and horns of a ram. Thus may be the image of one of the magical, mystical creatures from Mexican culture known as an alebrije.
You may know of the alebrijes from seeing them at festivals, galleries, small shops or, in the 2017 movie, “Coco.” Beyond their fascinating and sometimes macabre shapes and beautiful colors, the alebrije’s history is as rich as the culture itself.
In pre-Hispanic times, the Zapotec culture (500-900 CE) used a solar calendar which featured 13 cycles (one year) of 20 days each. To each of these 20 days and 13 cycles, an animal was assigned that represented a diety in the Zapotec spirituality.
At the birth of a child, the particular animals chosen represented the baby’s year and day of birth. A tiny sculpture or fetish with features of both of the animals or “tonas” would be carved out of copal, hardened sap from a particular species of Copal tree, and hung from a strand around the infant’s neck as a connection to the spirits that would guide, teach and protect its wearer throughout his or her life, and into the afterlife.
The power the animals possessed was based on their particular characteristics, which the people knew from observing them — the eagle represented power, the iguana, chameleon and possum-flexibility and learning; the owl was a healer, rabbits and deer showed movement and so on.
These were also the lessons they would teach to the bearer of their spirits to guide that person on their true path of life. They could be mischievous at times, too, like the coyote trickster in Native American culture, or the spider in African tales. But their mischief was meant to keep one on his or her toes, to avoid becoming complacent, to embrace adventure and ensure a life “filled with everyday magic.” (Mexican Arte.com)
Alebrijes became popular folk art objects in the 1960s when a sculptor from Mexico, Pedro Linares, began making the fantastical creatures in his studio. The story goes that Pedro became very ill with infection and a high fever, and in his condition he dreamed, imagined or hallucinated creatures and landscapes that were otherworldly, made from bits and pieces of many different animals and nature objects like gnarled trees and vines.
You can watch Pedro and his three sons at work in the 1975 documentary, “Pedro Linares: Artist de Carton” on YouTube. Some years later, artist Manuel Jimenez Ramirez, from Oaxaca, began sculpting magical creatures from the Copal wood traditionally used in the alebrijes of old. Ramirez also incorporated the original spirit animals or tonas from the Zapotec calendar in his work, once again honoring the connection between one’s tonal or sacred animal and the power and spiritual insight it would bring.
Today, in the Oaxaca region of Mexico, alebrijes are lovingly crafted in the world famous workshop of Jacobo and Maria Angeles. Here, the artists follow the ancient traditions of the craft, from the mindful harvesting of copal wood, using every bit of it right down to the sawdust, to painting the marvelous creatures with pigments made almost exclusively from plants, minerals and the wood and resin of the tree itself.
Not only that, but the couple expanded their workshop into a school, offering kids from all over the region an alternative to the violence and hardships of everyday life, while also ensuring the art of making alebrijes will not be lost to future generations. They also remain active in ongoing reforestation campaigns to offset the harvesting of the wood they use in their pieces.
For thousands of years, cultures around the world have crafted belief systems and customs recognizing animals as spirit guides, protectors and teachers. It’s a sad irony that in our modern culture those same beings are so often used, abused and disregarded.
Whether their images in paintings, sculptures, artifacts and fetishes have become mere trinkets or topics of conversation, their purpose was and is to guide us and inform us of our innate behavior patterns, talents, and foibles. That knowledge is key to helping us understand and take ownership of our thoughts and behavior, and gives us the power to change our actions if they’re not serving us, or are causing harm to another.
Until next time, thanks for reading. Be well.