Home Living in Mexico Oaxaca’s Zapotec Heritage: A Modern Ceremony at Villas Biznaga

Oaxaca’s Zapotec Heritage: A Modern Ceremony at Villas Biznaga

by Brent May

Oaxaca's Zapotec Heritage

The Zapotecs (Oaxaca’s Zapotec Heritage) were an indigenous civilization that lived along the Oaxaca coast and all over the state of Oaxaca. They are known for their rich and ancient history, with roots dating back over 2,500 years. You may be familiar with Monte Alban right outside of Oaxaca city.  It was the most significant Zapotec city-state, founded around 500 BC. It was known for its impressive architecture, pyramids, and complex city planning. It was one of the earliest urban centers in Mesoamerica.

Zapotec culture is still very present along the coast. We witness aspects of the culture almost daily. We meet people and families who speak Zapotec, we have visited Zapotec sites like Monte Alban and other lesser-known archaeological sites around Oaxaca.

One of the main representations of Zapotec society that we witness today are traditional ceremonies and rituals. The Zapotecs had a polytheistic religion, worshipping several deities, some of which were related to natural elements and agricultural cycles. Ceremonies revolve around giving thanks, asking for rain or a good harvest.

We recently attended a ceremony on the land for the new development, Villas Biznaga. Offerings were made of corn, cotton, feathers, herbs, precious stones, ears of corn, statuettes, chilis, beans, pumpkin seeds, etc.

Oaxaca's Zapotec Heritage

Offerings are laid out to different gods, honoring the 4 cardinal points. To the West, offerings are laid out on a red or orange cloth, honoring Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god or god of creation, who represents the Earth. Facing North, offerings are laid on a black cloth, honoring Tzcatlipoca, creator of sky and earth, manifesting as Wind. To the East, on a white cloth, offerings are laid out to Xipe Totec, god of life and death and agriculture, representing fire. To the South, on a blue cloth, offerings are laid out to honor Huitzilopochtli, sun and war god, representing water.

During the ritual, copal is burned. Copal is a tree resin from the Copal tree or can be made from other tropical trees. It is from the same family of trees as Frankincense, Myrrh and Palo Santo. Copal is burnt in an urn called a Popoxcomitl. It has a sweet, earthy pine-like aroma.

The Copal is figuratively the sacrificial blood of the trees, food for the gods and ancestors, and a smoke signal to the heavens and a way of saying thank you. It is believed to call upon the gods to purify the energy of places. It is also a spiritual and physical medicine thought to help with opening the soul to intuition and inspiration.

The ceremony on the land asked for the purification of the energy of this special place. Copal was burned and presented to the 4 cardinal points, also purifying those who attended the ceremony.

Today, the descendants of the Zapotecs continue to live in Oaxaca and maintain aspects of their cultural heritage. They are known for their vibrant traditions, crafts, and cuisine, making Oaxaca a culturally rich and diverse region within Mexico.

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