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

Cerros Structure 5C-2nd (Belize)

A preclassic period Maya temple Cerros is a gem! It’s one of my favorite sites and home to Fire Eyes Jaguar, the protagonist in Jaguar Rising. Overlooking Corozol Bay, this small-to-mid-size Late Preclassic site of 140 structures is located within two miles of the New River. With proximity to an even longer river, the Rio Hondo, and given the evidence of certain trade goods, scholars believe that Cerros may have been established by the “Snake Kings” of El Mirador—111 miles northwest—as a trading port where cargo from sea-going canoes could provision her… Read More

Ancestor Substitution

How balance and order are maintained in the cosmos Concepcion, Guatemala: A shaman and his mother converse with my guide The Tzutujil Maya who live around Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, use the term k’ex “substitute, exchange” to reference various ways in which the universe maintains balance or equilibrium. The perceived order in the cosmos has to be maintained on Earth—as above, so below. Substitution applies to generations. For instance, a child is considered a substitute for a deceased parent or grandparent. People are exchanged for one another through repetition, the same basic… Read More

Shamanism

A shaman in his workshop. Catarina, Guatemala.   Shamans were specialists in ecstasy, a state of mind that allows them to move freely beyond the ordinary world, beyond death itself, to deal directly with the gods, demons, ancestors and other unseen but potent things that control the world of the living. – David Freidel, Archaeologist The perception that everything in the cosmos is imbued with the life force and interconnected, gave rise to the practice of contacting the spirits of ancestors and gods in altered states of consciousness, asking for guidance, favors and prophecy…. Read More

Color and Symbolism

I’m standing in front of Rosalila, a life-size replica of a 6th century shrine, the centerpiece of the museum at the Copan, Honduras archaeological park. Although the structure was completely buried, it was found whole and in excellent condition with much of the original paint. Inside, there were ceramic incense burners containing charcoal, two of which were resting on sculpted, stone jaguar pedestals. There were offerings of flint knives for sacrificing, nine elaborate, ceremonial scepters wrapped in a deep blue bundle, carved jade jewelry, conch shells, stingray spines (for bloodletting rites), shark vertebrae,… Read More

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… Read More