Ancient Maya Infancy And Childhood
Steeped in symbols and tradition
At birth, the child is anointed and slapped three times, a reference to hearthstone symbology. Maya hearths for cooking consist of three stones. The ancients believed that the stones replicate three prominent stars in the constellation Orion, set in the sky by the maize god at the beginning of creation.
Because every day in the ancient Maya calendar had personal characteristics, a person’s birth date controlled his or her temperament and destiny. The given name was determined by a shaman at a divining ceremony. Generally, it was a composite of the father’s family name and the mother’s family name. And always, as the child grew, he or she was given an informal nickname.
Among the ancients, immediately after birth, mothers fastened the infant to a cradle with their heads compressed between two boards. In two days, a permanent fore-and-aft flattening of the skull occurred reminiscent of an elongated maize husk. Among the nobility especially, this was a mark of beauty. It has been suggested that in some places ancient kings favored decapitation in human sacrifices because it paralleled the “harvesting” of maize, considered the source of sustenance.
Also for the ancients, because children were considered to still be fresh from the Otherworld, they were favored for sacrifice to Chaak, god of thunder, lightning and rain. The archaeology bears this out.
Tecpan Market, Guatemala
In the birthing ceremony, a cord is cut over a maize cob with an obsidian blade. When a girl is three months old, a “Hip Carrying” ceremony is held where a white shell is tied to her waist cord. Boys have a white bead tied into their hair. Through infancy, boys and girls run naked. And both are dependent upon the mother until weaning ends. Meanwhile, fathers are tending to their fields and matters of the community.
Between three and four years of age, when there’s no longer a dependency upon the mother for food—breast milk or otherwise, the primary activity is learning social skills, gained by observing their parents. Through play, the child learns the culture and how to be socially appropriate.
The Maya generally value quiet children who are calm and relaxed.
A common sign of poor health brought on by weaning or stress is hypoplasia, brown striations across the teeth. The enamel stops growing at age six.
Beside Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Between the ages of nine and twelve, children practice adult behaviors without repercussions and are no longer dependent upon a parent for survival. Girls learn to weave by watching their mothers, and boys learn to hunt and garden alongside their fathers. In this phase, an initiation ceremony is held where the girls have the shell cut from their waist cords, and the boys have the white bead cut from their hair. Both are anointed (sprinkled) with holy water, ideally obtained from a spring or cave. Initiation signifies their readiness to be married, and they take on work expectations such as carrying water and wood and maintaining the household.
This information was provided by Dr. Amanda Harvey, anthropological archaeologist at the University of Nevada. It combines her talk, Being A Kid Again: A Cultural and Biological Examination of Childhood Identity, my interview with her afterward and her dissertation. While it mostly applies to the contemporary Maya across a variety of communities, it suggests patterns that have a deep history in the culture. The photographs are mine.
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 20-21)
Ayaahh, finally. I was the only sprout in the caah who didn’t know his path and destiny. Mother said my birth prophecy was so special they couldn’t reveal it to anyone, not even to me—until I reached manhood. The prospect of hearing it now nearly distracted me from what I’d just learned about my blood.
“Your mother and I had taken cover in a cave during a great storm. There were many people around, so the women took her behind some boulders, close to a dark pool. They had a fire and except for the thunder outside, everything was quiet. Your crying out startled me awake. They were washing you when a young daykeeper came out of the darkness. He said the sound of your voice caused a spirit to move in him. He offered to say the gratitude and seek your prophecy in exchange for just touching your cheek. We had nothing to trade, so we were very grateful.”
“Touching my cheek? Why would he—?”
“Your mother thinks his ch’ulel recognized yours. He pressed your hand to the soil and welcomed you to the world. After saying a gratitude, he held a long crystal over your head and petitioned the ancestors to reveal to him your path and destiny.”
Father raised his hand to silence me. “I am going to tell you this now, Seven Maize. Never again. Do not even ask. Listen carefully and remember. The lightning came fast and clear through the blood in the holy man’s leg. The ancestors said your path would be the path of the jaguar and that your destiny is to rule. They said you would rule as a great and powerful warrior.” Father turned and put a hand on my knee. “This is why we could not tell you—or anyone. If your roots or prophecy became known, you would not have lived this long.”
“Rule? How could I ever rule? We may be high placed, but we are still commoners. What does it mean—the path of the jaguar?”
“You are forgetting what I said about your blood-father. The daykeeper could not tell us about your path. When we came here we asked White Grandfather. He did not know either. Jaguars are cunning and fast, great hunters. They go after their prey as easily in water as up a tree. Also, they watch and wait before pouncing. It could mean you are meant to hunt in the three worlds.”
“Did the ancestors tell him my number and direction?”
“They said you have two favored numbers, three and four. And south is your favored direction.”
“What else did they say?”
“That was all. The ancestors give what they give.”
My father could talk forever—to boast, give orders or make a friend— but I had to fight for every word. Others I knew might have been excited by such a prophecy. I was disappointed. It was confusing and seemed not all to fit. My heart was already fixed on my uncles’ path. They were builders. As for ruling, that was like asking a butterfly to be a parrot. “He really said I would rule—and as a warrior?” I couldn’t believe it. It had to be a mistake, I wanted it to be.
Father insisted. “As a great and powerful warrior. He said it came clear. There was no doubt. That was the prophecy and that is your destiny. It is fixed. There is nothing to do but accept it. You cannot deny your blood.”
The White Shell and White Bead Initiation
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 142)
It happened quickly. The holy ones bowed to the wind and gestured for a deceased ancestor to stand beside each of us. With the spirits in place, the serpent lord danced and sung a petition to raise us to the position of full members of the caah. One by one, with an assistant holding a ceramic censer, he faced the female initiates with open arms as their mothers spoke the name of their daughters saying “…as First Mother, my mother and all mothers before me have done, I release you to your destiny and welcome you as a woman of Cerros.” After that, they used their blades to cut the white shells from their daughter’s waist cords.
When it came time for Thunder Flute to release me, it surprised me to hear him speak my name as Macaw rather than Rabbit. “Seven Maize Chan Macaw,” he said, “As First Father, my father and all fathers before me have done, I release you to your destiny and welcome you as a man of Cerros.”
Man of Cerros. Finally. While we waited for the others to complete the releasing and cuttings, I wondered if the ancestor standing beside me was Rabbit or Macaw. I wanted it to be Macaw. In truth, Lord Jaguar Tooth Macaw should have been the one to cut the white bead from my hair. I vowed: If I ever have sprouts or flowers, they will grow up knowing me. I will know them, and I will tell how they came to be.
Hypoplasia: Brown Striations in the Teeth
Excerpt From Jaguar Sun (p. 40)
I HAD BEEN LIVING AT THE LODGE OF NOBLES FOR NEARLY a year when, on one of my visits home, Mother told me that Sharp Tooth confided to Father and she that I had “special powers.” He said one sign of it was the brown lines that ran across my teeth. I’d had that since I was six. This, combined with the healing of my leg and then coming back from the “river of death” told him I had defeated both the demon and the lords of death. Regarding this, he advised them to watch for more signs. It could be that my path was that of a healer or shaman.
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