The Sacred World Tree (Ceiba)

A young ceiba. The thorns protect the tree from animals, especially the peccary who like the bark. The spikes disappear when the tree matures. The ceiba is the largest tree in the tropical forest, so it’s not surprising that the Maya would use it as a model for the cosmos. The stature of the actual tree with roots deep in the underworld, tall trunk and branches that touched the sky, it well represented the three realms which were inhabited by gods and demons. The ideological version, an imagined replica was known as… Read More

Ancient Maya Termination Rituals

Temples and other structures were buried when no longer used Caracol Structure B5 For the ancient Maya the most important interaction was not between persons, objects or buildings, it was their relationship with the spirits that resided in them. While everything was perceived as being alive, only those things that were useful were ritually ensouled with a guardian spirit—or a god in the case of temples, palaces and sacred places. When a house, palace or temple was built, a och’ k’ak’ “fire-entering” ritual was held to ensoul it with a guardian spirit,… Read More

Kakaw (Chocolate)

Kakaw trees can’t tolerate high altitudes or temperatures below 60º F. They need moisture year-round, so during prolonged dry seasons irrigation is necessary. Given these considerations, they were domesticated in the Pacific coastal plains of Guatemala and Chiapas around 1000 B.C., at the height of the Olmec civilization at San Lorenzo. The area around Izapa, a Late Formative site in Chiapas, was a particularly rich source of kakaw (cacao) because it was very hot with volcanic soil.  The variety of cacao grown in the Maya area is called theobroma bicolor—“pataxte” in Mayan…. Read More

Maya Structures Were Made Sacred

By installing them with life For the ancients, there was no separation between the secular and the sacred. Everything was sacred, ensouled with ch’ulel, a vital source that comes from the sun. Beyond the city or village there was chaotic space—the “wilds”—peopled by animals, ghosts, demons, spirits and “foreigners.” These were sometimes considered hostile, but it and they also contained ch’ulel. Because human beings couldn’t live in chaos—the wilds—life and living was all about maintaining order within the caah, the community. The model for it was (and remains) nature and the cosmos,… Read More

Maya Creation Myths

The events of creation are recorded on monuments throughout the Maya region. At larger cities such as Tikal, Uaxactun, Copan, Palenque, El Mirador and Caracol the more detailed inscriptions name the involved deities and provide dates. The information varies somewhat from place to place and across time, but there are commonalities that closely match the creation myth described in the Popol Vuh, a written account of creation, and other stories derived from K’iche’ oral traditions, such that scholars tend to agree in principle, if not in the details of the ancient Maya… Read More

The Dancing Maize God

Vessel of the Dancing Lords (A.D. 750/800)  Photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago. Maya Image Archive This vessel was produced in the Naranjo, Guatemala workshop for Lord K’ahk’ Ukalaw Chan Chaahk. At the top, above a band of symbols indicating the sky (a “sky band”), the hieroglyphs read: “His painting, (artist’s name?), artist sage, Lord Maxam, child of woman, Holy Lady Water-Venus, Lady Lord of Yaxhá (title?)(title?), child of man, Three Katun (60 year) Sacrificer, Lord Flint Face, Holy Lord of Naranjo, pure artisan.” The Classic Period name of the… Read More

Maize

The staple of ancient Maya life In the pre-dawn darkness, Gucumatz and Heart Of Heaven call on Fox, Coyote, Parrot and Crow to bring yellow and white maize from Paxil and Cayala, a mountain filled with seeds and fruits. Old Xmucane grinds the maize and, from the meal, the first four men are fashioned. Unlike the previous wooden race, these people of maize possess great knowledge and understanding and correctly give thanks to their creators. However, Gucumatz and Heart of Heaven are troubled; these corn men can see everywhere—through earth and sky… Read More

Ch’ulel “Soul”

The animating spirit in all things Plumeria, San Ignacio, Cayo, Belize For the Tzotzil Maya, ch’ulel is the inner, individual soul which has thirteen parts and is centered in the heart. This life essence that animates the person is placed in the embryo at conception by ancestral deities and is inherited from the grandfather, not the father, because, after a person dies, the soul remains at the gravesite for the same period of time as the person lived. And once the ch’ulel has been placed in the new grandchild, he or she… Read More

Jade

The ancient Mayas most precious stone Ear Ornaments The Classic Maya ascribed a number of meanings to jade, including maize, centrality, and rulership, as well as a material embodiment of wind and the vitalizing breath soul. Because of its close relationship to the breath spirit, jade was an important component of funerary rites and the ritual conjuring of gods and ancestors. Carved in floral form, jade earspools were considered supernatural sources or passageways for the breath spirit, frequently portrayed as a bead or a serpent emerging from the center of the jade… Read More

Prophecy And Order

As in the past so in the future Prophecy was a prominent feature in all the known ancient cultures. Feeling at the mercy of the gods who represented the forces of nature, complex societies needed a way to understand their behavior so they could brace themselves for the next god-made flood, drought or other catastrophe and hope the gods would yield to the petitions and bargaining sacrifices of their kings and holy men. Maya kings established order by relying on observations of the motions of the sun, moon and other heavenly bodies…. Read More