Ancient Maya Clothing

What you wore was a sign of who you were and where you lived Whether intended or not, clothing communicates. For example, an apron in modern society can signal that the wearer is a chef or manual laborer. It can also symbolize the wearer’s beliefs and values, as when an apron is worn by a Rabbi. The elite Maya of the Classic Period went to extremes in the latter category, investing many items of clothing with meaning.  While commoner garments were simply intended to beautify or eroticize the body, those depicted in… Read More

Ancient Maya Infancy And Childhood

Steeped in symbols and tradition from birth Panajachel, Guatemala At birth, a child is anointed and slapped three times, a reference to hearthstone symbology. Maya hearths for cooking consist of three stones. The ancients believed that the stones replicate three prominent stars in the constellation Orion, set in the sky by the maize god at the beginning of creation. Because every day in the ancient Maya calendar had personal characteristics, a person’s birth date controlled his or her temperament and destiny. The given name was determined by a shaman at a divining… Read More

Maya Buildings and Houses Were Made Sacred

By installing spirits within them, they were given 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 came from the sun. Beyond the city or village there were chaotic spaces referred to as “the wilds.” These were the places of animals, ghosts, demons, spirits and “foreigners.” While these were sometimes talked about as hostile, the wilds (wilderness) and everything in it contained ch’ulel, a spirit. Because human beings couldn’t live in chaos—the wilds—life and living was all… Read More

Ancestor Substitution

How balance and order are maintained both in the cosmos and in the family—that mirrors it 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… Read More

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… Read More