Maya Bloodletting And Elite Initiation

Rollout vase photo courtesy of Justin Kerr

The theme of the past three posts was initiation. Examples were from my novel, Jaguar Rising. In the story I added another ceremony, a rite of passage for individuals who would enter the brotherhood of elites. Typically for the Maya, this involved bloodletting. More than a ritual of endurance, the symbolism around blood was complex and powerful.

Inherited royal blood, whatever the status, was perceived as the rarified essence or “breath” of the ch’ulel “soul, ”a conduit between the world of the living and the world of gods and ancestors. This was because blood carried the life force. In the image above, just such a ritual is underway. That the man on the left has his heel raised means he is dancing. And in the dance, he and the man third from the left have let blood from their penises (notice the drops), usually by driving a stingray spine or other perforator through them to produce lots of precious and sacred blood. Other preferred areas to pierce were tongues, ears and elbows. 

Initiations into elite status could also take the form of circumcision, mutilations, tattooing or scarring, forms of bloodletting that indicated death of one’s profane identity and resurrection into the sacred self. In addition to bloodletting rites, candidates were given the names they would use for the rest of their lives—their “true names.” In the ceremony they learned a secret vocabulary, and the ways of elite customs, manners and expectations for both men and women. Virtually everything began fresh for them. Initiates were considered “born” into a larger (sometimes cosmic) order that obliged him or her to assume responsibility for that order.

Perforators such as stingray spines and bone needles were deified. Depicted in Maya art, they often had long handles that took the form of a long-lipped god head with a stack of knots topped by quetzal plumes as a kind of sacred headdress. And blood was never wasted. Rather, it was collected on cloth knots or strips of white paper, placed in censers and burnt with copal as an offering to the gods. 

The following scene in Jaguar Rising was based on a ritual observed and recorded by Frey Diego de Landa, a Spanish priest. I included it in the story because it marks the transition of the protagonist, One Maize, into elite society because his mother had royal blood. At the ceremony, his true name becomes Fire-Eyes Jaguar in response to the belief that he got so close to a jaguar he could see the reflection of his torch in its eyes. That the group with penises tied together (witnessed by Spaniards) backed onto burning coals was creative license on my part, considering that fire played a major role in most Maya rituals. The ritual takes place at night. Tzab is a star, and the “Great Tree” is the Milky Way. Huracan was a storm god, from whom we developed the word for hurricane.

An Elite Bloodletting Initiation
Excerpt in Jaguar Rising (p. 156-158) 

The men on both sides gripped my shoulder and I gripped theirs. On a third round, the assistant hung a white cloth on the knee cords. As mine was being tied, I remembered what White Grandfather had said about Tzab, so I looked up and found the rattlesnake stars high alongside the Great Tree. I’d told Red Paw about Tzab, so he was probably gazing there too—and sweating as much as I was.

The waterlily brew made my head feel soft. Although I couldn’t move my legs apart, the cord that bound them felt less tight and the back of my legs was feeling less heat. Gratefully, I could no longer feel the sweat trickling down my face and sides. That’s when it occurred to me—like the Warriors For Beauty, I could offer my sweat, even my blood, to Tzab. I stared at him hard and whispered my offering.   

The lodge brothers had formed a circle around us. As the shaman and his assistant danced, they drummed and rattled their rattles. Occasionally, the old shaman interrupted his dance to look at our eyes. With his nose close to mine, he appeared to be more monkey than man. When he was satisfied that the brew had taken effect, he gestured to the onlookers and altogether they drummed louder. Much louder. 

Boom, Boom — Boom!

Boom, Boom — Boom!

Boom, Boom — Boom!

On it went. The shaman began a different dance, with a chant that invited the daybearer, Two Water, to come and witness the binding. To summon our ancestors as witnesses, he had us call out the names of our lineage founders. I didn’t know who founded the Macaw at Kaminaljuyu, so I just called to “Lord Macaw.” The occasional glint of quetzal feathers in the shaman’s headdress as he passed, reminded me that I was standing with the sons of noblemen and ministers. It made me stand a little taller.

THE MEN ON BOTH SIDES OF ME Raised their arms, so I raised mine and faced my palms to Tzab. To keep the sweat and body paint out of my eyes so I could fix them on the stars, I had to keep blinking and jerking my head to the side. The daykeeper and his assistant came to me first, censing the little white bundle and then opening it. 

As soon as I felt his hands and grasping me, I looked up. And just in time. A jolt of lightning went through me. Burning. Like a startling fire, like I’d been punched as well as pierced. I breathed hard and fast. Tzab! Keep me from moving! The cord—. Pulling—. Pulling it through. I gritted my teeth but that made it hard to breathe. On my toes, I thrust my palms as high as I could. Tzab! Keep me steady. Now, instead of the lightning fire coming on the final drumbeat, the hard drumbeat, it came on the beats before it. 

The shaman pulled the perforator and cord through my penis to the man on my left. Ayaahh! Lightning again—then sustained fire. The pulling was worse than the piercing. Tzab! Help me! I gulped air as fast as I could, knowing the lightning would rake through me four more times—and knowing that to speak even one word would be a sign of weakness. 

After the last pull there came a moment of calm and steady fire, such that I let my heels touch the ground. As the assistant tied one end of the cord to the other in front of me—to make a complete circle—I could feel every little tug and movement. 

Ayaahh! Tzab! Intense burning. Several jolts of lightning. I didn’t mean too, but I had to look. Kneeling beside me, the assistant kept tightening the cord with a stick, forcing us to close the circle and back into the coals. Tzab! Keep me still! Every turn of the chock sent a streak of fire and lightning through me, a drawn-out stinging that made me wonder if I’d been ripped. Ever so gently, slowly, tenderly, I backed onto the coals and tightened the hold on my brothers’ shoulders. The burning in front was too intense to worry about my feet. As frightful as the thought of being strung together like bundles of maize stalks was, even more frightening was knowing that if one of us broke away we would all suffer permanent damage. What’s more, if we let down our arms or spoke the binding would have to be done over again in twenty days. Tzab! Keep us strong! I wished I’d taken even more of the waterlily brew. The face paint ran into my eyes so badly I finally had to close them tight.

Suddenly, the drumming became slow and quiet. I knew the cord had to be untied and pulled back, but I didn’t know how they would do it. The drumming stopped altogether. Then came rattling, loud and hard. With it came a long and constant stream of fire, pulling like the stripping of a branch. Higher than ever, on my toes and reaching for the stars I couldn’t see I thought I was going to faint. 

The stream continued, but the jolting stopped. There was gripping again and pressure, but the worst seemed to be over. Someone pulled my hands down, cut the cord between my knees, led me away from the coals and put a wet cloth in my hands. I wanted to wipe my eyes with it but a hand stopped me. A voice told me to keep pressure on the wound. Moments later a dry cloth was offered and I used it to wipe my eyes and face. Over our coughing and looking—amazingly—at the coals we’d been standing on, the shaman put the bloodstained cloths in an offering bowl and pronounced the binding “complete and proper.” He said our ancestors were pleased. We looked at each other relieved. The assistant poured more of the yellow liquid onto another cloth and had me hold it against the wound while he wrapped it with strips of cotton to keep it in place. Without looking up, he said I did well.

When our wounds were bound, the five of us gathered around the coals again, put our arms around each other’s shoulders, pressed our heads together and screamed as loud as we could. And then we laughed. Our feet were black but none had been burned—a sign, according to the shaman, that our courage had defeated the fire. 

After tying on our aprons again, we collapsed on the grass with the other men and watched the shaman and his assistant dance their gratitude to the gods. While this was going on, I found Tzab again and said a gratitude for helping me not break the circle. Master of the Lodge said we performed well, and everyone applauded. 

Servant women wearing yellow sarongs came out carrying baskets of food with beverage gourds on their heads. Each man gave his name and lineage, told how long he lived at the lodge and explained his tribute to me. There was much laughter and teasing, especially when it came to passing the perforator bone and cord. It amazed me that such a little needle could cause so much lightning and fire.

Back in my sleeping chamber, I untied the strips of cloth and looked at my wound. Although it hurt and I worried about urinating, I found that holding myself tight lessened the soreness. For a moment the sprout in me wanted to cry, but I quickly defeated him. As much as I hurt on the outside, on the inside my heart was full. I was a man of the caah and a brother in the Lodge of Nobles. I need to ask Mother about Huracan and his tantrum—and where I touched the earth.


For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

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