Raimondi Stela

Raimondi Stela

Tony Gerard Dolan 19-Jul-2011
Chavin culture sphere (900-200BC) - Wikipedia

Chavin Culture

In one of Joseph Campbell's final works, the Atlas on Middle/South America Primitive Plantersi, he makes a very long and detailed commentary on the Raimondi Stela. Briefly it is thought to date from circa 900 BC and was created by the Chavin Culture, it is over two metres tall and made from polished granite. Right way up it reveals a/the (jaguar faced) Staff God, while the other way up reveals that the extravagant headdress consists of three serpent snouts - or three and a half if we include the first one whose eyes are hidden inside the jaws of the dragon-like face.

The Staff God

The god with his two staffs and pairs of fangs represents authority in the temporal world of duality whereas the fantastic headdress is centred on a series of fangs. Following Campbell's reading this would place the rectangular head, which contains both, at the fourth chakra, the conjunction between the earthly sphere of duality and antimony and the heavenly where such distinctions are transcended.

Right way up the god appears to look upward apprehensively. Upside down he is seen to be leering. In the upturned version two jaguar heads are visible just above the elbows of the deity.

Raptor - Serpent Antimony

The motif of the raptor-serpent antimony in South and Meso America is evident in Chorrera Ceramics of roughly the same date as the stela. Campbell was able to count 52 serpents (difficult to do it with this image) which he thought could suggest a calendrical relationship with the Mayan Calendar's 52 year cycle. In this instance the deity would, he suggested, be counterpart of the Aion or Zervan Akarana (Endless Time).

The basis in this culture for such spiritual insight would be based on the persistence among their priesthood of a shamanic tradition that employed the use of hallucinogens that allowed them to enter the same psychological realms that Indian yogi's do in meditation and hence experience these clothed in their own local cultural forms/icons. The date though is well before such ideas arrived at their final formulation in India.

Raimondia Stela
The Raimondi Stela, right way up and upside down, respectively.

Campbell's long exposition rests upon, among other things, the idea that in the head quadrangle, the upward turned head is that of a bird (looks to me like a Chinese dragon) and he sets this opposition to the positively burgeoning snake nature of the stela which actually culminates in a caduceus like motif. He mentions the antimony in India between the Garuda celestial-sun-bird and the Naga earth-rain-serpent and equates this to the antimony between the will in nature to the illuminating, but also annihilating/desiccating, power of spiritual light/heat. He extrapolates then to read a parallel to the entire seven chakra system of kundalini yoga in the design of the stela.

The Gate of the Sun Tiwanaku
The Gateway of the Sun

Many centuries later over the Gateway of the Sun in the city of Tiwanaku we see what appears to be the same deity who in this instance appears to be weeping.

Serpent, Feline and Raptor

Campbell points out that the three principal animals in the Chavin environment: the anaconda snake, the jaguar and the Harpy eagle, are incarnate in the principal deity. However he also points out that this deity is shown holding a Malea Strombus shell and a Spondylus shell in his right and left hands respectively. This suggests an influence from the Ecuador coast and indeed from peoples who interact with the ocean. Thus some cultural influence may have come across the ocean from Asia and found a fruitful home.

Chavin de Huantar deity holding shells in each hand.
Deity Clasping Sea Shells


Campbell then goes on and discusses the Taotie, a motif in Shang (1600BC) bronzes associated with sacrifice and how this notion, which again appears to originate in India, appears to have found its way to Meso and South America. If we take the Indus Valley civilisation as being overrun in 1500BC by migrating Indo-Aryan tribes then there could have been a significant displacement of an elite. There is the tantalising possibility that some of these cultural ideas found their way, mediated by a Chinese or South East Asian influence, across the pacific to the America's. Joseph Campbell gives a more detailed account of the many correspondences while acknowledging that we must await fresh archaeological discoveries to clarify the sense of this cultural enigma.


i Joseph Campbell,The Way of the Seeded Earth. the Middle and Southern Americas Part 3, Mythologies of the Primitive Planters (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), pp. 377–380.