K’awiil: Ancient Maya Lightning Lord

God of fertility, abundance and royal lineage   In Maya art, K’awill often appears in the form of a scepter that, when held, signifies royal lineage. Because one of his legs terminates in a serpent’s head, the Popol Vuh—the sacred book of the K’iché Maya—identifies him as Cacula Huracan, “Lightning One-Leg.” His forehead is a mirror penetrated by a smoking axe, which references ancestors and designates him as a lightning lord. The hooks in his eyes securely identify him as a deity. In Classic times, at accession events, when the kings displayed… Read More

Dowsing / Divination

Are there underground forces that can be felt? Xunantunich, Belize Dowsing is a type of divination, typically used today to locate ground water, buried metals, gemstones, oil and grave sites without the use of scientific instruments. It’s consider a pseudoscience because there’s no scientific evidence that the technique is any more effective than random chance; skeptics say the dowsing rod moves due to accidental or involuntary movements of the person using it. The entry in Wikipedia says it probably originated in Germany in the 16th century. I never thought much about it…. Read More

The Maya Celestial Realm

Rollout vase photo courtesy of Justin Kerr Similar to the Maya Underworld, the Upperworld was populated with demons. Instead of nine levels, however, the celestial realm had thirteen, each with a ruling god. Not much is known about the levels, but there’s an indication that the fifth was a “Place of Fire” inhabited by fire serpents who emitted comets and meteors. One group called that level the Na Ho Chaan or “First Five Sky,” portrayed in art as long, twisted cords— an association with the umbilical cord and the cords wrapped around… Read More

Xibalba

The Maya underworld and the god of death Rollout vase photo courtesy of Justin Kerr The Maya Underworld, called Xibalba (She-balba), “The Place of Fright,” was the realm beneath the surface of the Earth and under water. It was perceived to have nine descending levels arranged like an inverted pyramid, was ruled by the Bolontik’u, “Nine Lords of Death” and was often depicted on vases as a giant conch or snail shell which enclosed a mysterious other reality interpreted by some to be an infinite, eternal and bloody ocean of bliss. The… Read More

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