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Kent Reilly III’s article on Olmec iconography Essay (Critical Writing)


The article relates the shaman transformation pose and the leadership in societies where shamanism is practiced. The shaman transformation pose portrait involves the Olmec style. Olmec is an art style that was used back in early Pre-Columbian period. It is also an archaeological culture.

In the Kent article the shaman in transformation pose, the Olmec art style has mainly been employed. The Olmec culture was found in southern Mexico in the Mesoamerican prehistory. However, it was found to be more popular in Heartland.

The art was indicated in various objects linked with formative period society members. This indicates that, it was employed as a charter for leadership. The art was displayed on rulers’ images in a specific pattern which allowed easy interpretation of the rulers’ source of supernatural power.


The article highlights the relation of the shaman transformation pose to leadership in the middle formative period. Transformation was involved with shamanistic activities which included rituals. The presence of the art in ruler’s grave highly suggests that, the art which pointed some transformation was linked with the leadership of the then formative period complex.

This has been brought out clearly using the description of the shaman portrait. The shaman transformation pose is a portrait which is believed to be found in Heartland, southern Mexico.

The portrait is described as an unclothed, kneeling man who from the view of the muscle tension and relaxation shows he is about to rise. The facial expression of the man in the portrait seems charismatic. The individuals who practiced shamanistic powers according to the article got the power from the personal charisma.

Posture of the portrait is significant in the transformation process. The head features are more emphasized than those of other areas. The head is shaved where the scalp hair is partitioned into two layers. The naked parts indicate some transformation process where the person skin is peeled off to reveal an underlying supernatural creature.

The same part of the head is used as a poster to show symbolic evidence (9). In the shaman transformation pose portrait, a toad with a protruding tongue is the symbolic information. The toad according to researches has been indicated to be Bufo marinus which is believed to be important in shamanistic activities due to its pharmacological substances.

Hallucinogenic substances from the toad have been indicated to be used in transformation rites. Kent goes ahead and describes several portrait of the toad which holds other meanings. However, the toads including the one on the portrait have a distinct stripe on the back. The stripe later splits during transformation which is shown as elongated diamond elements on the portrait.

When the portrait is aligned together with other four transformation portraits, the shaman pose portrait is shown to be still in the initial changes of transformation to a jaguar. Other portraits have different postures and features which show different stages of transformation.

They have some similar features which include shaving and red cinnabar traces (16). In relation to leadership, the transformation figures in sequence symbolize the various stages in a ritual act while the toad signified zoomorphic supernatural. It was also used to locate place and action.

The presence of red cinnabar on the statuettes signified their use as grave equipment or their use in burial rituals where they were left on the grave. After a thorough research, the red cinnabar was shown to be used to differentiate the tombs of the rulers in the formative period. The transformation ritual was significant since the rituals including communication with the ancestors and sacrifice supported the ruler’s office.

Olmec culture is an intriguing culture which has stimulated researchers to find its relevance. Many writers have come up with articles explaining the culture but Reilly brings out the picture more clearly than any other.

He is a renowned author of great art articles. In the shaman in transformation pose article, Kent employs simple language which makes it easier for one to understand the article though some terms are complex. The description of the shaman in transformation pose in a simple language also facilitates understanding of its theme. The format employed is excellent as it allows free flow of the various descriptions in the article.

Employment of pictures to illustrate the descriptions in the article makes it even simpler to understand. Moreover, the pictures used in a given page are relevant to the content of that particular page. For example, the description of the toad on the portrait head is excellent as he involves a picture to demonstrate it and further uses other art on the same to describe it.

This makes it easy to understand the symbol. He expresses his suggestions openly and gives substantial discussion which proves the point. This is evident when he suggests that, the naked part of the shaved hair also is a platform to show hidden symbols. In this case, he brings out the feature of the toad on the head which he readily proves and gives even more additional information like the name of the toad and how it is associated with shamanism.

At the beginning of the article he provides definition of Olmec term which is related to the topic and is used in the article content. This is important as it makes one understand the content of the article and its main theme. Furthermore, it eases the understanding of the article making it convenient to read without any guidance.

ncorporation of other people suggestions on the same topic helps one to get more information on the discussed topic. The article explains several aspects separately after which they are combined to prove the topic of the article. This enhances the understanding of the article subject.

The article is basically correct as it provides substantial information about the relation between the transformation rituals which involve the Olmec art and leadership in the then formative period.

Though there is some background information about the shaman in transformation pose, the format used does not bring out the information clearly making it hard to have a good flow of the information ( Klein et al 398). The article however is up to date as it has cited some recent researches on the same hence reliable. Different points of view are adequately presented however some are extensively presented which make it inconsistent. The reference citation is properly done.


For the provision of knowledge on different cultures including Olmec culture, Reilly work on the same is effective. This is because it is fully detailed, thus, enhancing understanding as well as giving more knowledge on the subject. The presentation style used makes it even more interesting and easy to understand. This makes it an article of choice that should be incorporated in everyone’s library.

Works Cited

Klein, Eulogio Guzmán, Elisa C. Mandell, and Maya Stanfield-Mazzi. “The Role of Shamanism in Mesoamerican Art: A Reassessment.” Current Anthropology (2002): 383-419. Print.

Reilly, F. Kent III. “The Shaman in Transformatin Pose: A Study of the Theme of Rulership in Olmec Art.” Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University (1989): 4-21. Print.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Kent Reilly III’s article on Olmec iconography." July 17, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/a-critique-on-kent-reilly-iiis-article-on-olmec-iconography/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'Kent Reilly III’s article on Olmec iconography'. 17 July.

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