Ancient Maya Feasts And Banquets
Insuring the location of power
Vase rollout photo courtesy of Justin Kerr
The above scene could be a “snapshot” of a ruler hosting a feast. Others are likely attending, evidenced by two long wooden trumpets (left top) and a hand beating a drum (below the trumpets). The canopy overhead indicates an interior room, likely a palace. Honey is fermenting in the narrow-necked jars below the ruler, who gestures to a dwarf holding a mirror so he can see himself. (Note the ruler’s long fingernails). Another dwarf, below the dais, drinks from a gourd. Because the Maize God had a dwarf companion, so rulers kept them close.
Along with marriage and warfare, feasting was an important institution for building and maintaining alliances. It provided a context for the presentation of tribute and wealth—at times in a plaza where everyone could see. And it served as a form of “prestation,” a social system where attendees were obligated to the host in some way.
Even feasts where noblemen or lower status individuals served as hosts, those attending were obligated to give another such feast in return. If the guest died in the interim, his heirs inherited the obligation. Competitive or “ritual feasting” was ostensibly for the benefit of the community, but it was equally a way for a potentially powerful person to step up the ladder of importance. Anthropologist Joanne Baron writes about La Corona, a medium-sized site in Guatemala that played a key role in advancing the influence of the Snake Kings. The rulers there “encouraged the active participation of non-elites in public rituals, for example, by encouraging or requiring them to attend feasting events in honor of patron deities.”
Feasts were often held in honor of ancestors, to celebrate calendar events, religious rites, royal accessions and war victories. In wealthy houses, tamales were served in earthenware bowls and platters so each person could have his own. Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan friar, wrote about the preparations for an elite feast. “Ground cacao was prepared, flowers were secured, smoking tubes were purchased, tubes of tobacco were prepared, sauce bowls and pottery cups and baskets were purchased. The maize was ground and leavening was set out in basins. Then tamales were prepared. All night they were occupied; perhaps three days or two days the women made tamales… That which transpired in their presence let them sleep very little.”
Diego de Landa, another Spanish priest, reported that “sumptuous feasts were attended by many and lasted a long time. They spend on one banquet what they earned by trading and bargaining many days. To each guest, they give a roasted fowl, bread and drink of cacao in abundance, and at the end, they gave a manta to wear and a little stand and vessel, as beautiful as possible.” It was also noted that others were fed from the kitchen of the ruler, starting with the visiting nobility, the guards, priests, singers and pages, down to the feather-workers and cutters of precious stones, mosaic workers and barbers.
Art historian, Dori Reents-Budet, an expert on Maya vases and their imagery, found that dignitaries from aligned polities and even people from adversarial polities were invited. Gifts were usually exchanged before the feast, including polychrome vases and drinking cups, cotton mantles, crafted adornments, cacao beans, bundles of feathers and foods. And chocolate, a highly valued beverage, was served. The vases depict banquets in plazas and dancing with musical accompaniment in long buildings, some with curtains and long benches for seating.
Feast to Celebrate the Protagonist’s 12th Birth Anniversary
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 16 )
To prepare for the feast, married women cleaned pots, shook out the long reed-mats and tended the cookhouse fires while the younger ones made trips to the reservoir. Butterfly Moon Owl, my friend’s sister and daughter of Mother’s feather-worker, carried two of my cousins astride her hips while balancing a water jar on her head. Neighbors came with knives and digging tools to help my uncles slaughter the peccary and prepare the cook-pit while their wives helped with the flowers and other foods.
After the chores were done, families would bring even more food and flowers, and they would stay until the sun set over the western forest. On some occasions, as a favor to Father, purple-robed ministers wearing blue-green quetzal feathers and jade adornments would come to celebrate with us. If they came at all, they would come toward the end of the day, compliment the women on the food and amuse us with flowery words and puns to make us laugh. Before taking their leave they would offer a little gift, usually a shell or polished stone. Father, always the spokesman for the Rabbits when he was home, would express his gratitude for their coming but we all knew that they came because our ruler, Lord Laughing Falcon Cloud, had ordered it.
More to my liking were the tradesmen who always came. These were canoe carvers, stone workers, cord-winders, bead-makers, fabric dyers and tanners, the people Father relied upon for his expeditions. They didn’t just sit and talk. They played games and demonstrated their skills with axes, spears, and blowguns, heaving hand-sized stones into water buckets and building human pyramids. When they finally tired and went to the brazier to tell stories and drink, we sprouts would run to the forest and play hunting and warrior games. The older flowers tended the younger ones in a clearing there, so one of our games was to see how close we could get before surprising them with war cries and chases with our imaginary axes and spears. The Mothers wouldn’t let us use sticks but sometimes we did—and denied it when the flowers told on us.
Lady Jaguar Prepares a Feast For Her Husband’s Guests
Excerpt From Jaguar Wind & Waves (p. 99)
For the feast I had arranged for the ministers to sit on reed-mats in a circle, each covered over with either a red or yellow blanket. Lime Sky and her assistants prepared maize-leaf tamales, some stuffed with paca meat, others with turkey. Four of the ten serving women had never been to court before, so I worried greatly that they would drop or spill or not understand a minister’s gesture.
Along with the tamales we served roasted grubs with ground beans, platters of cooked chayote greens topped with ground squash seeds that Lime Sky dusted with chile powder. Along with the meal, and for the purpose of toasting, we served chih. But the final offering, an extravagance usually reserved for lords and their ladies, was cold kakaw poured into outstretched calabashes from the height of the server’s breast to raise a dark brown foam. Jatz’om and Sihyaj K’ahk’ had easy access to the caah storehouse. Why not?
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