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

Period Ending Rites

Calendar dates that warranted the “planting” of a monument Lord Smoke Shell, 15th Ruler of Copan. Stela N (Front) Period endings in the long count were the greatest of ritual occasions for Classic-era Maya kings. Nearly all of the stone stelae at sites such as Copan, Tikal, and Yaxchilan were meant to commemorate these days and, most especially, the ceremonies that the rulers oversaw in their celebration: casting incense, drilling fire, sacrificing war captives, as well as in a rite called ‘the binding of stones.’ One of the principal duties of Maya… Read More

The Triadic Architectural Complex

Reminiscent of the Three Hearthstone “Thrones” in the Sky The Maya began erecting enormous pyramid platforms that had three temples on top, two facing each other across a plaza and the third centered behind them. Above, I’m looking down from the central temple atop the platform called “Caana” at Caracol in Belize. In 2000, extensive excavation was underway, and my lens wasn’t wide enough to include the other temples. This is the central pyramid. The previous photo was taken atop these steps, between the coverings protecting large scucco masks from the rain…. Read More

Hearth Stones

Modeling creation by establishing a center in a house and vitalizing it Operating on the principle, as above so below, the ancients “centered” their homes in the world following the example of the celestial deities who placed three “stones” in the universe to establish the center. The hearth wasn’t necessarily placed in the center of the house. The centering it provided was symbolic and spiritual. A Maya farmer showed me this hearth in a house that was no longer used. The guardian-spirit had long been released.  According to art historian Julia Kappleman,… Read More

Maya Monuments

Kings stayed active in the world by being remembered in stone Waxaklajun Ub’ak K’awiil, “Serpent Of Eighteen Bodies,” 13th Ruler of Copan, Honduras.   That’s me beside his monument, Copan Stela A. It was dedicated February 1, 731 A.D. Elements of his costume symbolize death and resurrection. He wears the Maize God skirt of jaguar skin and his headdress, a woven mat pattern, signifies the throne— authority to rule. Glyphs on the right side of the monument speak of a ritual on that day witnessed by the lords of Tikal, Calakmul, Palanque… Read More

Jaguar

Lord of the Underworld The jaguar was the most powerful animal in the ancient Maya world. It’s not surprising that it played a prominent role in mythology and kingship. Piecing together the interpretations of several scholars, mythically, K’inich Ajaw, the Sun god, created the jaguar to represent him in the world. He gave him the color of his power (reddish-orange) and the voice of thunder (the voice of the sun), and entrusted him to watch over his creation.  Each night, when K’inich Ajaw descended into the “West Door” and entered Xibalba he… Read More

Storytelling Through Dance

Rollout Vase courtesy of Justin Kerr Combined with music and the fragrance of burning offerings, dance was often visualized as the direct manifestation of supernatural forces. Matthew Looper Elite dances depicted in Maya art were part of rituals and celebrations. On sculptured stelae. the kings are shown dancing as a deity. The monuments mostly depict male dancers, but there are some women shown dancing, for instance, Lady Ok Ayiin dancing as the Moon Goddess on the Yomop stela. More often, women are shown as dancers or dancing assistance on painted pottery. Most… Read More