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

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

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

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

Feasts And Banquets

Vase rollout photo courtesy of Justin Kerr The above scene could be a “snapshot” of a ruler hosting a feast. Others are likely attending, evidenced by two long wooden trumpets (left top). And a hand beating a drum (below the trumpets). There’s a canopy overhead, so this takes place inside. Honey is likely fermenting in the narrow-necked jars below the ruler, who gestures to a dwarf holding a mirror so he can see himself. (Note the ruler’s long fingernails). Another dwarf, below the dias, drinks from a gourd. The Maize God had… Read More