Ancient Maya Ancestor Veneration
The old men used to say that when men died, they didn’t perish, they once again began to live. . . They turned into spirits or gods. — Alfred Tozzer, American anthropologist
This is likely a noble ancestor depicted on the frieze of a council house at Copan, Honduras.
Among the ancient Maya, evidence of ancestor veneration shows up around the first century B.C. At that time, decisions were being made about the inheritance of land use. Land was not owned, but the right to use it was handed down. The principle of first occupancy gave preferential access to a man’s descendants because his house was built over his ancestors who came to be regarded as guardians of fields and forests. When the ancestor was the founder of a lineage, if a pyramid-temple was of raised on the site it would be called his nah “house.” The entire site was “the home of…”
Ancestor veneration ultimately is not about the dead, but about how the living make use of the dead; it’s a type of active discourse with the past and future, embodying the centrality of Maya understanding of death and rebirth. — Mark Wright, Anthropologist
While ancestor veneration provided the rules of inheritance, it often created conflict between household heads and their heirs. Maya anthropologists observe that ancestor veneration promotes and perpetuates inequality and alienation from resources within the household as well as the polity. In times of hostility, the tombs of royal ancestors were plundered. Naranjo Stela 23 (Guatemala) records the desecration of the tomb of a Yaxha Lord.
Kings often venerated their ancestors by having their heads float above them, facing down at the top of the composition. Piedras Negras Stela 5 shows the king’s ancestor beneath the Principle Bird Deity at the top. The Maya regarded the head as the place from which breath, the vital force, emanates. A Maya text confirms this —
Each ancestor guards the boundaries of his land. When the spirit leaves (the body), the head goes with the spirit, just down to his shoulders. His strength and his head and his heart go wherever they want to. The head and face confer honor as well as being honored.
In the Classic Period, ancestor veneration was politicized, used to sanction elite power and authority. Kings would enter their ancestor’s burial vault and perform ceremonies involving fire and the sprinkling of blood and incense. This is depicted on Piedras Negras Stela 40 and Tikal Alter 5.
In some places the kings deified their ancestors. This, of course, meant they inherited divine blood. And it put them on a trajectory toward becoming deified after death. Further, a king could make the case to his royal household that his ancestors—and later themselves—would protect them and guard them against usurpers when “they took the dark road.” Died. When several generations of ancestors were buried in the same location, a pyramid-shrine was built over it, and expanded. It made the place sacred, in some places a pilgrimage destination.
Idols of the apotheosized ancestors were often the recipients of sacrificial offerings. Made of wood and painted blue, these figures were heirlooms that were passed down through many generations. Spanish chronicles indicate that they were carved during the Maya month of Mol’ and the preferred wood was cedar.
They made wooden statues and left the back of the head hollow, then burned part of the ancestor’s body and placed the ashes in it and plugged it up… kept in their houses… great veneration… made offerings to them so they’d have food in the other life. — Frey Diego de Landa. Spanish priest
Not all dead relatives were venerated. Only lineage heads or people of position. Their remains were treated preferentially. Both men and women were candidates of ancestor status. Because the bones of deified ancestors were sacred, they were kept in bundles with other objects. Considered relics that contained power, these objects frequently appear beside kings seated on thrones, those depicted on painted vases.
Here, the bundle containing ancestor relics sits on the throne behind the king, under the feathers being presented to him. Below the throne is a vase containing tamales dripping with sauce, perhaps chocolate. — Vase rollout photo courtesy of Justin Kerr
Maya iconographer Carl Taube observed that “Only kings or other high nobles could look forward to resurrection and a return to this diurnal paradise and dwelling place of the gods and euhemerized ancestors, called Flower World or Flower Mountain. Flower Mountain is depicted in Maya art not only as the desired destination after a ruler‘s death, where he would be deified as the Sun God, but also as the paradisiacal place of creation and origin. Evidence for the belief in Flower Mountain dates to the Middle Formative Olmec (900-400 B.C.) and is also attested to among the Late Preclassic and Classic Maya as well, from about 300 B.C. – A.D. 900.”
Maya communities today maintain lineage shrines that go back many generations.
The source for much of this information is A Study of Classic Maya Rulership by anthropologist Mark Wright’s 2011 Dissertation.
A Healer’s Advice: Gather Your Ancestors Around You
Excerpt From Jaguar Wind and Waves (p. 141-142)
Whenever your husband—or anyone else—says or does something that ruffles your leaves, stand tall and watch. Let it blow past you. The amaté neither blames nor scolds the wind. It thinks not of lashing back. It knows it has deep roots. It trust that it will hold.”
“By roots you mean my ancestors?”
She nodded. “Call out to them by name. Ask them for strength when the winds blow strong, when the waves threated to drown the real you. You were brought up trusting and revering your ancestors, were you not?”
“I was. But I was also taught to speak up, not let a man treat me like a dog.”
“The greater part of standing and watching is knowing who you are and what you stand for. The warrior has his shield, the turtle has its shell, the house has its roof. Human beings hold to the truth of who they are in order not to be crushed.”
“I have become so busy with the household, my children, and my husband’s torments, I have lost the truth of who I am. That is what I want back. So whatever he says or does, you want me to just stand and watch? Say nothing? Do nothing?”
Lady White Gourd nodded. “For now, until your flower is whole again. When he sings a song or dances a dance that offends you, stay steady inside yourself. Allow it and listen. You do not have to be offended or hurt by anyone. Choose not to be hurt. Let the winds blow past. Offer no resistance. Just stand firm. Remember your roots and say to yourself: ‘stop, drop and endure.’ No resistance, not even in thought. Put away the part of you that wants to resist. And let the wind and wave pass. Then, as quickly as possible, remove yourself to a quiet place where you can be alone. Gather your ancestors around you like a blanket, and offer words of gratitude for what they have given you. Name it—what you received from them. And ask them to calm the storm.”
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