Vase rollout courtesy of Justin Kerr
They joined together in companies of fifty and roasted the flesh of deer so it would not be wasted; they make presents of it to their lord and distribute the rest among friends.
Fray Diego de Landa, Bishop Inquisitor of Colonial Yucatan
Deer were treated like gods because their main god had appeared to them in that form. In some places there were deer parks and reserves where deer weren’t afraid of people because they were not killed.
Hernando Cortés, Conquistador (Referencing the Aztec)
Hunting among the ancient Maya was multifaceted — a necessity for food, an act of communication between humans and animals, negotiation between men and gods and social engagement. The hunters shown above would have been an elite class, with modes of dress, rituals, gods, methods, weapons and territories specified by the ruler. Also specified, was how the meat would be divided. Given the depiction on this vase, I imagine these men comprised a group of Court Hunters.
Aside from deer being hunted, the Spaniards reported that it was common for women to raise them in their homes. At Cuello in Northern Belize, a young deer was buried ceremonially, an indication that as early as the Preclassic Period, deer were considered a suitable sacrifice for the gods.
Of course, commoners hunted as well. Unfortunately, little is known about their rites and methods. Top to bottom, however, all classes of hunters used the same weapons. Above, the only weapon depicted is the blowpipe, but also common were spears with flint or obsidian tips, traps, slingshots (mostly for birds, iguana and other small animals) and snares. Bows and arrows came into use in the Postclassic Period, just prior to the arrival of the Spanish.
Indigenous people didn’t kill animals for the thrill of it. While there were likely individual exceptions, animals were considered sacred beings endowed with individual spirits offsprings of gods. To take the life of an animal for any reason other than food, would have been a grievous offense to its overlord. And there would be a price to pay —personally for the killer, his family and the community. And, because meat was scarce, a prized commodity, wasting it would never occur to anyone at any level. It would be like us throwing a hundred-dollar bill in the garbage can. Hunting for “sport” was virtually non-existent.
Hunting deer For Food
Large animals, like white-tailed deer and tapir, were generally hunted for special occasions. Without refrigeration, meat had to be either prepared and consumed within a day or two, or salted in brine to extend its viability for several more days. There were strict codes of meat distribution. Typically, the hunter who made the kill got first choice, then his family, then the ruler, his or her family (the Maya had female rulers), their courtiers and so on down the line. And no part of the animal was wasted. Bones contained life force, one reason why they were carved as object of ritual, for instance fragments used as sacred bloodletters, along with stingray spines and obsidian lancets.
Hunting required communication with divine overlords
Because animals were the “property” of their overlord, humans had to persuade the gods to allow the giving (sacrifice) of one of its members for human survival or ritual necessity. And in order to maintain balance between human and animal, the debt had to be repaid. For commoners, this could be an assurance that the hunter would offer something in return. It could be as simple as a burnt offering of copal incense, or maize gruel. Whatever the offering, what mattered was following through on the intention to restore balance.
We have to remember, because everything (rocks, trees, buildings, etc.) was endowed with a spirit and god-overlord, acts of taking involved a negotiation with a deity. In some instances, it was reported that the hunter gave back to insure the animal’s reincarnation. For the Tzotzil of central Chiapas, the “Lord of the Deer” used a whistle to inform a stag or doe that he was present or returning home. And animals were perceived to reside in supernatural corrals inside mountains.
Among the Tz’utujil, who live on the shore of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, there was the belief that whatever animal a hunter kills, as the son or daughter of a god, he will be responsible for that animal’s upbringing in the otherworld.
- The ancients preferred to hunt for deer in the dry season, between November and May. It was easier because they could hear leaf rustles as they walked in the forest, and they stood out through the sparse foliage. During this time, there would be animal round-ups, ceremonial drives that were part of an agricultural ritual.
- Hunting teams, as many as fifty or as few as five, would spread out in a wide circle and use the bleat of conch shells — as shown above — to frighten deer to a central point where there were snares or camouflaged men waiting with blowpipes or spears hurled with atlatls.
- A similar technique requiring fewer men, was to use dogs to chase the deer to a given location. One limitation, however, was that dogs could not outrun a deer in swampland.
- Snares made from rope woven from plant fibers were placed along paths that led to watering holes. The hunters dug a shallow trench next to a springy sapling, drove in a straight stake on one side of the trench and a stake with a crooked top on the other side. They bent the tree over and attached the stick between the stakes so a noose hung over the trench. With scattered leaves to disguise it, the animal would run into the trap and the recoil of the tree would string it up by the neck.
Hunting as part of Initiation into manhood and full membership in the community
In indigenous societies, initiation into adulthood typically involved a trial (“Vision Quest” in the Native American culture), and a ritual where, among other things, the initiate was welcomed into the community and given the name he would use the rest of his or her life.
In my novel, Jaguar Rising, one of the four trials given to the protagonist by his guide is the capture — not the killing— of a deer. He had to do it alone and with only a weapon or device that he would make. And he can’t return home until this is accomplished.
Part of the ritual for male initiates, was having their father cut a white bead from their hair, worn as a sign of adolescence. For females, it was cutting loose a white shell that hung from the front of their waist-cord. With these cut, initiates were welcomed as men and women of the caah, “community.”
Initiation Trial One: To Capture A Deer
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p.100)
BEYOND AXEHANDLE, WHERE THE FINGER OF THE LAND turned into a broad thumb, we stopped beside a tree marked with a tall hunter’s hat and two black bands. “Grandson,” my teacher said. “Here begins the first of your three trials, one in each of the worlds. Ahead is your middle world trial.”
I was excited. “What do you want me to do?”
He pointed in the distance to the narrowing of the beach where the forest nearly met the water. “Stop along there and say an apology and gratitude to the forest lord. Then go into the wild and capture one of his sons or daughters, a fully-grown deer. Do not kill him. Use no weapons. Make your shelters and drill your fires along the coast. If you need a cord, cut some vine and braid it. If you need a net, get some thin fronds and weave one. Ask and accept help from no one but your ancestors. Eat what you alone can gather or kill. Go as far as you need—to take a deer. Remember, you must not kill or injure it. Instead, deliver it live to your father’s pen.”
I was so shocked I could neither interrupt nor believe what I was hearing. “With respect, grandfather. Is this even possible? An adult deer could be taller than me. Even a little one could outrun Thunder Flute.”
“Trust your ancestors. They are always with you.”
Hunting deer required skill and muscle. Usually, bands of six or more men went out with dogs and spears and strong cords. For me to do it alone and without any of these things was unthinkable.
If Mother knew this she would be horrified.
Like vultures on a carcass, stories that Thunder Flute told about men in the wilds swooped down and began pecking at my throat and stomach. Deadly yellow-jaws lay coiled in the weeds and hung from trees. There were blood-sucking bats as large as eagles, and frogs whose loud and constant croaking made men crazy. And there were jaguars. Hunters told stories of them taking down tapirs, deer and peccary and carrying them up a tree. Even water didn’t stop them. More terrifying for me as a sprout was the prospect of encountering an underworld demon, bony creatures with bulbous skulls and bellies who roamed the wilds at night in search of human flesh and blood. Their sweat and flatulence alone were known to kill any who walked into it. “With respect grandfather, what should I do about the dark lords?”
There was not much left of the day. “Keep your thoughts on what you have come to do. If a crosswind comes at night, take shelter away from your fire. Wear this.” He removed his necklace, a single jaguar tooth on a leather cord, and put it over my head. “By this, demons, jaguars and snakes will know you are under our protection.” He had me kneel and he held the serpent on his staff against my head while he chanted. Then he tapped me on the shoulder and turned away. I watched as he left. He didn’t even glance back.
Capture Of Kicking Deer And Muddy Fawn
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p.101)
Within the sorcerer’s ring, there was a dark grotto, a long mud pit overhung with a thicket of bush with palm and nance trees blooming yellow and orange rising above it. Not far from the edge of the pit, a fawn lay on its side, lifeless and splattered with mud. Two vultures were trying to get at it, flapping their wings to stay above the mud. Farther out dark splatters on top of the lighter-colored mud drew my eyes to an adult deer who was submerged except for its head. Flies, dragonflies and mosquitoes flitted around its nose and closed, seeping eyes. I threw a stick at the vultures and they backed away, but the largest of them jumped onto a branch above the lifeless brown body. When he leaned down and pecked at an ear, it twitched, so I knew the deer was alive. I began throwing clumps of mud at the big ugly and he went higher in the tree.
To get to the fawn I gathered some fallen branches and laid them on the mud. Crawling out on my stomach I had no trouble getting my arm around her, but when I pulled her by the neck she kicked, the branches broke and we sank. Fortunately, the mud and water was only waist deep. I managed to get some footing, enough to pull the little one onto the bank. The big ugly jumped down again and sidled along the branch closest to the doe. This time when I threw mud at him, one of his brothers darted at the fawn and pecked at its rump. Shouting and throwing mud in both directions, I chased them back.
So it went until I could gather enough dried fronds and weeds to cover the trembling fawn. With the vultures pushed back I managed to pull some creeper vine and twist it into a cord about an arm’s length. I broke off a branch from a fallen tree and stripped the small branches to make a pole. Using it for balance, I went into the pit to see how far I could go—all the while warning the vulture lord that if she didn’t keep her sons and daughters back, I would be forced to use it against them. Nearly up to my neck in mud, I got the cord around the doe’s neck and tied the ends together. When I pulled on it she opened her eyes, pulled back and kicked me hard in the side, ripping the cord from my hands.
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