Inherited from the gods, it conferred divine power
In all of Mesoamerican history, human blood served as a means of channeling and infusing the world with the sacred essence or soul.
David Stuart, Archaeologist, epigrapher
Among certain creation myths, there’s the indication that, in the beginning, “First Mother” mixed the blood of the Creator gods with maize dough to create human beings. Without blood, a person dies, so it was understood to carry the life force. Being sacred, blood was the highest kind of sacrifice a ruler could make to nourish the gods, especially Ajaw K’in, “Lord Sun,” whose radiant manifestation was both red and hot.
In certain periods and places, it was also believed that Ajaw K’in could perish from a lack of blood offerings. A thousand years later, according to Spanish chroniclers, this belief among the Aztec kings resulted in human sacrifice on a massive scale. To ensure a constant supply of blood for the gods, regular bloodletting rites among the Maya opened a portal between the human and sacred realms, allowing their kings to feed the gods in exchange for blessings of security, bountiful harvests and fertility.
Sacrificial blood was drawn from tongues, earlobes, fingertips, and cheeks. Blood from a ruler’s penis was an especially powerful sacrifice. Whatever the source, blood was let onto strips of white cloth or paper that were then burned in a sacred offering bowl along with incense. In the smoke, their petitions rose to the gods in the celestial realm. Scholars note that the favored places on the body for sacrifice are not those with large numbers of blood vessels or pain receptors, so “it wasn’t as painful as we might think.” On monuments, the bloody cloths are shown tied in three knots, identifying them as carrying itz, “sacred substance.”
Because the royals traced their bloodline to the Maize God, their blood was considered especially powerful—spiritually “hot” compared to everyone else’s blood. In “Blood Inheritance,” the protagonist learns that blood determines his destiny. In “Hot Blood” (below), Thunder Flute proves that his stepson’s royal blood is not hot to the touch.
How Blood Was Inherited
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 18)
FATHER CAME UP THE EMBANKMENT, PASSED BY ME AND WENT to the trees where he picked up a stick and began peeling the bark. It was hard not to ask what I’d done, but he’d trained me well. I never spoke first. Coming to the water, he threw in a piece of bark and fish came to nibble on it. When he saw me looking at the stick, he tossed it aside. “I am not going to beat you,” he said. “Sit.” I sat and he went around behind me. “This will be worse than a beating.” He came around front, faced the water and crossed his arms. “It falls to me to burden you with a heavy truth, Seven Maize.” Whenever he said my name, I knew it was serious. My heart pounded like a tree-drum. “Hard to believe,” he said. “Twelve tunob since I brought you and your mother here. Already, you stand on the doorstep to manhood.” He came over, gathered his cloak and sat at the other end of the bench resting his forearms on his legs.
“Respect, Father. Whatever it is I can bear it.”
“A man needs to know the truth about his beginnings,” he said to the ground. “Otherwise, he goes mad, becomes useless to his family and the caah.” Laughing sounds from the compound caused him to look up, but only for a moment. “Did you see Lord Laughing Falcon leaving?” I nodded. “He came all this way—.” Father heaved an annoying sigh. “It comes to this: after initiation, you will not be going with the others to the men’s house. You will be going to the Lodge of Nobles.”
It took me a moment. “The Lodge of Nobles? How can that be? Are they raising you to the nobility? Finally?” Everyone knew that Father deserved it. We always thought he would one day carry the title, Minister of Trade.
He turned my way, but only to look at the necklace. “It has nothing to do with me,” he said. “It is because of you.”
“Me?” Suddenly, I remembered. Mother’s blood was hot. Long before I touched the earth, her Father ruled somewhere far to the south and west. “Because of Mother’s blood? I thought only blood from the male line could enter the lodge?”
I shook my head. “I do not understand. Am I to be a servant there?” A chill of lightning flashed up my back. Or a sacrifice? Then I realized, he wouldn’t want me. He could get sacrificial blood from a slave. Still, it was a possibility.
“Your mother and I kept you safe these many tunob by not talking about your birth, not to anyone.”
Especially not me. I clenched my teeth and crossed my arms against the winds of his truth. Whatever storm he was blowing, I would face it like a mighty ceiba.
Father picked up another twig and began peeling the bark. Still, he talked to the grass in front of his feet. “I am not your father, Seven Maize.” When our glances met he looked away. “Another man planted the seeds in your mother, the seeds that called you down from the other world.” I heard what he said, but because it could not be true I tried to understand why he would speak such a mountainous lie.
“You heard me speak of Lord Jaguar Tooth Macaw?” I stayed steady and fixed my gaze on his fingers picking at the twig. “His is the blood that runs in your veins, not mine.” I got up and walked to the trees. I could feel my heart pounding. He’d spoken of that lord so often and with such admiration, I usually turned away at the sound of his name. “When I brought you here I told everyone that I found your mother in a regalia workshop at Kaminaljuyu. The truth is, Lord Macaw gifted her to me in gratitude for saving the life of his youngest son.”
“At Ahktuunal?” I knew something important had happened to him there. He always changed the subject when anyone spoke the name of that place.
“Your mother feared Lord Macaw—and for good reason. I will let her tell you about it. She was so afraid, she could not tell him his seeds were growing in her. So that was her secret. No one knew. Not until—”
“I want to hear this from her!” I surprised myself by interrupting and speaking boldly, but I no longer cared about what he would say or do to me. I went to the edge of the embankment hoping to see my mother. She was down there, standing in back of her workshop, wiping her eyes, apparently waiting to see if I might appear. When our eyes met and she nodded, it felt like I’d been hit in the chest with a beam. I dropped to the ground and doubled over.
“Get up!” Father shouted. “Show her you can shoulder this like a man.” I felt caged, like one of his dogs. Going to the water, I pressed my hand against my neck to hold back the lump that was growing in my throat. “Keep your head up, Seven Maize! Stand tall. Be grateful that you were raised in the Owl Brotherhood.” He barked his orders to me like I was one of his crew.
“If you are not My father, who are my brothers? If I am not a Rabbit, what am I?”
Father got up, came over and pointed his finger at the side of my face. “You, little sprout, are the fourth son of Lord Jaguar Tooth Macaw, the Great Tree of Kaminaljuyu…” He pounded me with that man’s titles and said something about my blood coming from the maize god, but my thoughts were darting like a deer catching the scent of a jaguar.
One thing made sense. This is why he favors my brother and sister. This is why he never beat me—or carried me as he did them.
“You should feel proud, Seven Maize. Kaminaljuyu is a sprawling place with thousands of people, more noblemen and tradesmen than you can imagine. All of Cerros would fit into just one of her districts—and there are five of them. Her temples sit on great red pyramids that rise above grassy aprons and mounds. The city surrounds a blue lake with canals. South from there, you can see First True Mountain, the fiery place where the world was made. At night the clouds turn red from the fire, and in the belching smoke, you can see lightning spears being hurled by the Chaakob. I was going to tell you after your initiation, but Lord Falcon—. He insisted that I tell you now. He wants you to enter the lodge after the ceremony. I will say, he honored us by coming to tell me in person. He could have sent a messenger.”
How Blood Was Considered To Be “Hot”
Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 206)
Thunder Flute came forward. “Red Paw Owl! Fire Eyes Jaguar Macaw! Come forward,” he said. My friend and I went up and faced the gathering. “Face each other. Now Macaw, show us your salute.” I crossed my arms and grabbed my shoulders sharply as if I were standing before the Mat. Although my chin was high, I watched Thunder Flute from the corner of my eye as he picked up a blackened stick lying close to the fire. Before I could even imagine what he was going to do with it, he made a black circle of charcoal on my arm above the elbow. Fortunately, the stick was only warm. He turned to Red Paw. “Owl, are you prepared to follow orders?”
“With respect master!” Red Paw’s quick and proper response, combined with his warrior stance showed that he’d learned well at the Crooked Tree men’s house.
Thunder Flute handed him the blade. “That circle is your target. Make it bleed!”
Red Paw looked at me, and then Thunder Flute. “Respect master, do you really—?”
“This is not a request. This is an order. Do it or leave.”
I couldn’t believe it. Red Paw poked my arm and it bled. Instinctively, I grabbed the wound.
“Take your hand away!” Thunder Flute shouted. “Owl, take the blood on your finger and taste it.” Red Paw put his finger out. When he hesitated, Thunder Flute pressed it hard against my arm. “You execute my order when the command is given. You do not hesitate. Do you understand?” Red Paw put his finger to his mouth like he was about to drink the venom of a yellow-jaw. Beads of sweat began appearing on his forehead and lip. Still, he tasted it. “More!” Thunder Flute said, marking my other arm with the stick. Red Paw tasted more of my blood and followed the next order by poking the other arm and tasting the blood that ran from the wound.
Those watching were shocked, but someone applauded and everyone joined in. Thunder Flute turned to them. “You who are new here, form a line. This is hot blood and I want you to taste it. Paint it on your noses. If you need more, draw more, but only from within the circles. We want Fire Eyes to wear these scars proudly—as a reminder of this k’in and the brotherhood of the expedition.”
One by one the men came up, dipped their finger in my blood, tasted it and drew more as needed. Thunder Flute stood beside me. “Eyes straight!” he barked when I looked at my arm. My heart was beating as fast as it had at the binding ceremony. As much as I wanted to grip my arms, I wanted to grab the blade, slash him with it and paint his nose with the blood. “I want you to see,” he said to the men. “What your Mothers and the holy ones told you is not true. Hot blood does not burn. It will not make you sick. Demons are not unleashed when you spill it.”
A man with frog-like eyes said he was taught that only holy men were allowed to spill the blood of the maize god. “You speak rightly,” Thunder Flute said. “It must be respected. You must have a good reason to spill it. Never waste or desecrate it. Just know that it cannot harm you and you will not be punished for spilling it for good reason.”
Another asked why hot blood wasn’t especially hot to the touch. Thunder Flute explained the difference between heat from fire and heat from ch’ulel. And then he took no more questions. “On expedition, you do not regard the blood of an attacker, neither do you regard the tongue he speaks, his dress, manner or title. When you are attacked, you have a choice—kill or be killed. Only the first is acceptable. The path of long-distance merchants is dangerous. There are many who are waiting, eager to relieve us of our cargo. An expedition is not an adventure. It is not an excuse to visit distant places or see how other people live. You will not be picking flowers along the way.” We laughed at the double meaning of the words “flower”—young females, and “wahy” meaning “dream” as applied to demons. “When I give the order to kill, you kill—without hesitation, without question. We teach the Tollan ways here, not just because I was one of them or because I enjoy killing. I do not. We teach their ways because they are the only way to survive and return with the cargo intact.”
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Reenacting mythic stories
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, Archaeologist
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 of the performances on vases show more than one dancer, whereas the stelae only show one or two dancers.
On painted vases dancing is often performed in association with feasting and gift exchanges. On these occasions, a ruler could formalize the political and marriage alliances between his and other elite families. It provided an opportunity to demonstrate his wealth, power and control over the trade in luxury goods. And just as the indigenous leaders of the Pacific Northwest Coast tribes of Canada and the United States gave away their accumulated wealth at lavish potlatch ceremonies, a Maya king could reaffirm polity relationships and his connection with the supernatural world by dancing “in their skins.”
At the level of the court, dance wasn’t just entertainment, it was fundamental to the ruler’s social, religious and political identity, at times demonstrating his continuity with apotheosized ancestors. Through the use of costumes and psychoactive drugs in some instances, dance transported the participants into the supernatural characters they portrayed. It brought them to life.
The primary occasions for ritual dancing were accessions to the throne, birth anniversaries, building dedications (Quirigua Altar L), sacrificial bloodletting by a wife (Yaxchilan Lintel 32), celebrations of military victory (Tikal Temple 4 Lintel 3), tribute presentations (El Abra vase) and designations of a royal heir (Bonampak mural),
Resplendent quetzal feathers invested the dancers with the spirit of the bird. The same with jaguar pelts. Seashells connotated the underworld, and Spondylus shells, in particular, were associated with the celestial realm and the rebirth of the Maize God. Mirrors made of pyrite flakes made the dancers sparkle. Bark paper, worn as headdresses and aprons was associated with sacred words (glyphs) and blood sacrifice. Dancing with jadeite conveyed a sense of the breath essence of the soul, the essence of life. White flowers were the visual representation of the soul. The colors and textures of woven fabrics referenced the vegetable world and gardens. And the various colors of body paint and painted cloth referenced an object and its associated myth. For instance wearing yellow, the color of maize, conveyed the notion of abundance and fertility. Red connoted blood; black represented death and blue was the color of “precious.”
The Spaniards reported that Maya dance was “mannered.” In their art, the upper body doesn’t appear to have played much of a role in dancing. Instead, there’s a slight bending of the knees and a graceful shuffling of the feet. Researchers suggest the movement was at court was either “highly stylized” or “the artists chose a very narrow repertoire of motions and gestures for their canon of acceptable display.”
Dance Of The Colomche
Chroniclers describe a dance with reeds that was much like a game. A large group of dancers formed a circle. Two of them moved to the center to the beat of the music—drums, flutes, wooden trumpets, ocarinas perhaps. One dancer holds a handful of reeds and dances standing up, while the other crouch in a wide circle. The person holding the reeds throws them with all his might to the others and they have to catch them with small sticks.
Dance of the Hero Twins
The dance is based on the Popol Vuh, the ancient mythological text of the K’iché Maya. The performance opens with the appearance of two youths, the twin gods Junahpu and Xbalanque. The Xibalbans, lords of death from the underworld, dance around and try to kill them, but the twins escape their attacks and are unharmed.
Celebrating, the brothers dance in a frenzy and the underworld lords get caught up in it. Hunahpu and Xibalanque flit around with torches, light a fire and wood is thrown into it until the smoke gets dense. Then, facing one another, the twins appear to hurl themselves into the fire. The lords of death follow them. The smoke obscures everything. When it clears, only ashes remain.
Then, on the ground, a compartment opens up, and an emissary in a feathered cape comes out carrying a censer. He points to a chamber off to the side. And with the drums and shell trumpets sounding, the Hero Twins come out covered with beautiful feather capes—their former masks replaced with faces of young lords. They greet the onlookers and proclaim their victory over the fearsome Xibalbans.
Dance of The Warriors
Xq’ul was a war dance. It began with a dancer hunting for an enemy warrior. To the sound of flutes and the beating of ceramic drums covered with leather, enemy warriors come out dressed like beasts—jaguar, cayote, tapir, their identity strengthened with like-in-kind headdresses. The hunters, wearing headdresses of eagles or other birds, dance around them carrying swords, axes and spears. How it ends was not reported.
It’s interesting, the contrast between indigenous dancing where the intent is spiritual and modern dance where, regardless of the style, it’s mostly about personal experience or expression. The former has to do with maintaining and celebrating horizontal (social) and vertical (heavenly) relationships, the latter being individual, even when many people are involved. The one form I can think of that retains storytelling in modern dance is ballet, but even there the stories are about an individual. I’m not saying that our modalities are bad. Considering that our worldview is based more on science than myth, that’s understandable. But in seeing ourselves separate and the world as inanimate, we’ve lost something precious, perhaps essential, in our quest for meaning and more satisfying relationships.
Dancing Brothers: One Lord vs First Jaguar
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 166-171)
While the minister and the other dancers got Red Paw into his costume and gave him instructions, two of the drummers heightened our excitement by displaying their speed in twirling and throwing torches back and forth while their brothers pounded the skins of the tall drums.
The dancers came forward escorting Red Paw, now dressed as a messenger with a deerskin apron and a barkcloth overshirt. In place of the owl feather worn by messengers, they’d stuck a broken palm leaf in his headband. His head hung in embarrassment as we laughed and applauded.
The drums stopped abruptly and we became silent. Billowing his cloak again, the minister strode forward with a flourish to begin the story. “There was a messenger of the court—.” As directed, Red Paw ran around the dancers in a circle. Two ceramic drums and now rattles and flutes played by the other dancers quickened his pace. “He ran fast,” the minister said. “Faster! The messenger was true to his master’s words. When he was not running messages, he helped his father in the field.” Red Paw stopped and made the motions of a man casting seeds and tamping them down with a planting stick. Behind him, other dancers comically exaggerated his movements. “He hunted iguana—.” Red Paw turned to the wahy dancer dressed as an iguana and chased him with the stick. “At the men’s house the messenger practiced his warrior skills. He took a wife and he built her a house.” Red Paw pretended to lash poles together. “He was a good husband. He emptied his own chamber-pot!” We laughed as a dancer handed Red Paw a large gourd. He looked into it, sniffed, wrinkled his nose and made the “pot” look heavy, hoisting it to his shoulders. Struggling under its weight, he wobbled over to the initiates and spilled the contents—crumbled dried leaves—onto the heads of the men in the first and second rows.
“Listen now!” The minister shouted over their shrieks and our laughter. “The messenger had a flaw—he was lazy! He only did what he was forced to do.” Red Paw plopped down and lay on the ground with one leg resting on the other knee. “Having found most men to be like the messenger, One Lord and First Jaguar argued among themselves: ‘What is the best way to get the human beings to attend to us, praise our names and feed us their blood and sweat?’” The minister turned to us and opened both arms. “Cerros! This is the question they put to you! The gods tell me they will not release their abundance until it is settled.”
An initiate called from behind saying Red Paw could settle it. When we laughed, my friend raised his hands in confidence and we laughed even louder. The minister stepped back and bowed as One Lord, the dancer wearing a jaguar helmet and wrapped in a cloth with black spots, came bounding down the steps swinging his axe. He stopped here and there thrusting his menacing face close to us. From the stories we’d heard growing up, we knew his pointed tooth was a perforator and that his breath could instantly burn flesh off a bone. Dutifully, we screamed and backed away. When he went to center again, he paced and gestured as the minister spoke on his behalf, directing the words to his brother lord. “First Jaguar! Brother! Maker of men! There is only one way to get the human beings to praise our names and offer us their sweat.” Boom! A drummer pounded. “Watch, we will show you!” Boom! Boom! One Lord pointed and the wahy monkey bounded forward, twirling with a tall wooden box painted with sky signs. Monkey set the “throne” down and One Lord stepped on it. He held his head high, turned to the side to show the mirrors dangling from his belt and he pulled on it to make them clink.
While this was happening, Red Paw received further instructions from the minister. When they finished, my friend went over to the spotted lord, knelt, bowed his head and showed his submission and respect with arms across his chest in the “sky” sign. To the slow agonizing beat of the drums, the other wahyob—Macaw, Jaguar, and Opossum—entered from the side struggling under the weight of a huge boulder. Like their axes it was made of stiff painted cloth, but the way they carried it and set it down in front of Red Paw, made it look heavy.
Again, the minister spoke on behalf of One Lord. “To respect us the human beings need to see that we are powerful.” Behind Red Paw, Iguana got up on Macaw’s shoulders. “We make clouds!” the lord said. Macaw reached into his pouch and rained down ash on Red Paw’s head. Quickly he cowered and brushed it out of his hair. While he was not looking, a drummer approached from behind and pounded his drum hard and fast. Shocked, Red Paw fell against the god-dancer’s feet, nearly knocking him off the little throne. I laughed so hard my cheeks hurt.
The minister spoke for the spotted lord. “We make thunder!” The drummers stood close on both sides of Red Paw and pounded their drums hard in his ears. “We make lightning!” Red Paw crouched as Macaw pummeled his back with palm stems painted yellow. We saw what was coming next. Monkey held an enormous jar over Red Paw’s head. It too was made of stiff cloth but the red rings painted around its neck made it look real. Glancing up Red Paw covered his head. “We make rain!” When, instead of water, more leaves fell, the laughter turned to sounds of disappointment.
As Red Paw shook off the leaves and brushed more of the ash out of his hair, the wahyob set a boulder in front of him. At the same time, One Lord opened his arms to us. “Young men and women of Cerros!” the minister shouted on his behalf, “Did your mothers and fathers teach you properly? Did they teach you to praise our names, keep the count of k’inob and offer us your sweat?” Prompted by our shouts and a dancer standing behind Red Paw, he shook his head emphatically, saying they had. Many of us knew better. “You have seen our power?” Again, Red Paw agreed and the spotted lord turned to him. “We say to you then, praise our names and raise this boulder over your head that we may taste your sweat.”
Red Paw rose to his knees and repeated the words the minister had whispered to him. “With respect, One Lord. Awinaken,” he said. “I praise your name. I will give you my sweat—as one who runs messages. But I do not lift boulders.” The drums pounded fast and stopped abruptly. We were shocked. It was an unthinkable reply. Many of us on the steps, parents especially, made scowling sounds and hurled scolding remarks at Red Paw.
One Lord put his hands to his head as if the reply pained him greatly. The minister spoke his words: “What did you say? It seems we did not hear you correctly.”
Red Paw received instructions again, folded his arms in defiance and looked up at the lord. “With respect lord, I was trained to run messages, not to lift up boulders.” Again the drums. The wahyob dancers had changed their helmets and costumes, coming back as Grasshopper, Snake, Scorpion and Vulture, now rattling threats at the messenger’s head and heels. One Lord danced his anger at Red Paw’s response, twirling around him and the wahyob. In a more demanding tone, the minister, speaking for the spotted lord pointed at the stone and shouted, “Son of Cerros, we order you to lift that boulder!”
“With respect, One Lord. My tribute is to run messages. This is my agreement, my privilege, my obligation to the caah. I—do—not—lift—boulders!” The drummers gave it all they could and the wahyob rattled the lord’s furious dance. When he stopped and pointed to the side, the noise stopped. A dancer dressed as a warlord pulled a captive woman onto the plaza by a cord around her neck. Her head was down and her hair covered her face. We’d not seen her before. All the dancers were men.
The warrior pushed the woman to the ground beside Red Paw and pulled the cord tight so she would rise to her knees and look up at One Lord. Higher up, someone in back of me whispered that it was Lady Sandpiper, second daughter of Laughing Falcon. Others agreed and word spread. To see a hot- blooded Cloud kneeling next to Red Paw was amazing. To see her wearing a barkcloth sarong with her hair hanging down and strips of cloth pulled through her ears was unbelievable. The dance was her father’s surprise. Seeing his daughter bound and treated like a captive was an even greater surprise.
When the murmuring among us stopped, Lady Sandpiper—the captive—bowed to One Lord. Scorpion handed the god his bloody axe and he held it over her head. The command came again—“Son of Cerros! Raise that boulder! If you do not, we will harvest the head of your wife!” His wife? That was funny. But when Red Paw turned and smiled at us with a stupid grin on his face, my friends and I almost fell off the steps laughing. After the minister whispered something to Red Paw, my friend bowed to One Lord, loudly praised his name and took hold of the boulder. Slowly, laboring under the weight, he lifted it over his head with wobbling legs. One Lord turned to First Jaguar with crossed arms and a satisfied posture. “You see my brother,” the minister said. “This is how we get the human beings to praise our names and offer us their sweat!” We applauded, stomped our feet and shouted. The wahy dancers stepped back to change their helmets, and the god dancer stepped down from the throne.
While both gods wore jaguar helmets, we recognized One Lord by his black spots and First Jaguar by orange-and-black tufts pasted onto his skin. Also, he wore rounded jaguar ears and paw mittens.
First Jaguar crouched and pawed at the women, then the men. Finally, he stood on the skybox throne. As before, the minister spoke for him, exalting him as one of the lords of the night. Instead of threatening Red Paw, First Jaguar presented him with gifts—a brown cloak, a planting stick and a spear for hunting. Following instructions again, Red Paw danced a hunt by chasing the wahyob demons who now wore tapir, fox, deer and peccary headdresses. After applauding the capture of his prey, First Jaguar gestured and Red Paw assumed a kneeling position. Lady Sandpiper came forward, now wearing a shell necklace over a plain white sarong with her hair wound high into a braid with spiraling red ribbons. “You have shown us your goodness and loyalty,” the lord said to Red Paw. It would please us if you would accept this beautiful woman as your wife.” Lady Sandpiper held out her hand toward Red Paw and he bowed.
Hoots and whistles turned to laughter and cheers as Red Paw danced around the lady to the sweet sounds of a bamboo flute. When First Jaguar gestured to the ground in front of him, Red Paw went before him and knelt. “You are a good and loyal messenger,” the lord said. “Speaking words properly and repeating them with care is a sign that human beings are well made. Also, it shows you respect your masters and their words. Now, from the River Of Abundance, it is our pleasure to give you everything you need and want.”
After some prompting Red Paw replied, “With respect, First Jaguar, Lord of the Night. Awinaken. I am grateful for all that you have given. What can I offer you in exchange?”
The First Jaguar dancer looked our way, tilted his head and raised his hands as if to say the argument was settled. During the applause Tapir, Fox and Peccary got the boulder and set it in front of Red Paw. “Faithful messenger,” First Jaguar said. “It would honor us greatly if you would praise our name and raise this boulder over your head.” Without hesitation, and to our foot stomping and shouting, Red Paw loudly praised his name, lifted the boulder over his head and paraded it around the dancers. First Jaguar folded his arms and turned to One Lord. “Brother,” he said. “Do you see? This is the better way to get the human beings to praise our names and offer us their sweat.”
Our applause continued as the minister, Red Paw and the gods came forward. “Son of Cerros,” the minister said. “You have witnessed the arguments of the god twins. Now, the burden is yours. Tell us, which of them carries the greater argument?”
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Keeping the spirits of deceased kings alive and active
(Stelae) were more than mere representation; they were themselves animate embodiments of the king, extensions of the kingly self that always ‘acted’ to insure the perpetual renewal of time and the cosmos.
David Stuart, Archaeologist
Maya stelae are tall stone monuments, erected in the Classic Period between 100 and 300 AD. Many of them were sculpted in low relief on all four sides with kings, gods, ancestors and hieroglyphs. They were mostly painted red—the color of the life force—but uncarved stelae were also found. It’s speculated that these had been painted with images and glyphs.
Stela E at Quirigua, Honduras (Above)
This is the largest monolithic monument ever erected in the New World. It’s over 24 ft. tall, and below the carving 10 ft. more is sunk in the ground. The worker in the top right corner was one of several men building a new shelter. Stela E was dedicated on January 22, 771 AD to commemorate the completion of the 16th K’atun—a period of 7200 days—and the rise to power of Lord K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat. On the front and back, he’s shown standing on the earth monster wearing a tall headdress and holding the scepter of divine rulership across his chest. The text on the sides records his accession under the auspices of Waxaklajun Ub’ah K’awiil, the ruler of Copan whom he later tried to best—in part by erecting larger monuments and performing rituals to establish his supernatural identity.
Twelve years after his accession, K’ak’ Tiliw captured and beheaded Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil to secure Quirigua’s independence. Then on November 28, 762 he raided Xkuy, a polity under Copan’s control. He captured its sacred palanquin—a litter platform used to ceremonially transport a king, born on the shoulders of slaves—and displayed it in public at Quirigua.
Sculpted stelae recorded ritual moments in time and held them forever, depicting rulers who communed with the gods and divine ancestors to validate their power and authority. Beyond carrying information, they extended the ruler’s gaze and influence. Because there was a sameness between image and subject, sculpted eyes were believed to emanate the life force. So the ruler, apotheosized after death as a divine spirit, could impact the people with his sacred heat and continue to act on their behalf—but only if he and his deeds were remembered. Curiously, the English word is re-member, in a sense to re-establish someone as a member of the community. That’s what remembering did for Maya kings, and it’s why faces proliferate on their monuments, buildings and artifacts.
The stelae functioned within the ritual landscape as surrogate ritual performers. The images of gods portrayed on them were understood as the actual manifestation of those deities, not merely a representation.
David Stuart, Archaeologist
Because stela were the embodiments of the ruler, they were given names and treated with great respect and ceremony, helping to define their ritual placement and dedication as everlasting testimony of significant events in the life of the ruler, the community and beyond. Among these rituals was the binding and covering of stelae in cloth shrouds, possibly in imitation of maize husks which could then be ceremonially “shucked” to reveal the substance (kernel) of the event depicted. In the Maya world, everything was perceived to be alive in the first place. Then, once a stone or other object was subjected to a “spirit-entering” ritual, a particular spirit—the ruler in the case of stelae—or a deceased ancestor.
What The Stelae Recorded
These monuments recorded accession to power, lineage birth dates, bloodletting ceremonies, calendar dates and rituals, the dedication of buildings and monuments, marriage alliances, presentation of the heir-apparent, the taking of captives and their sacrifice and war events including the capture of sacred palanquins and god-bundles containing the bones of apotheosized ancestors.
Whether a person was living or dead, commoner or elite, any power they had resided in the spirit that dwelled within. For rulers, spirit power could be acquired by capturing and then sacrificing another elite as an offering to the gods.
Of course we don’t kill people to capture their power today. Instead, we align ourselves and support those with influence. Always, I think it’s a good idea to ask why.
Re-Membering In Stone
Excerpt From Jaguar Wind And Waves (p. 105-109)
(Jaguar Wind And Waves is largely about a woman’s search to find the stela that her deceased father, the Tikal ruler, had commissioned. In this scene, a holy man is showing the monument to her and her son. They’d been away for many years, so they’re seeing it for the first time. Here, the stela is being described as a whole monument. Later in the story, only a piece of it is found—illustrated as a drawing below).
I nodded to Father’s monument. “Were you here when he dedicated it?”
“I supervised some of the carving as well, mostly his face and headdress.” We got up and he led me back to the monument where he retrieved a stick with a white feather on the end. Using it as a pointer, he asked Crocodile and Honey a feature in Father’s headdress. “What is this?”
“Jaguar Paw!” Crocodile said immediately. “His name.”
“Well done, young lord.” He pointed the feather to the word-signs at the bottom of the monument. “What about this?”
My son went in close and easily read, “He completed it—the seventeenth k’atun—at Tikal Sky place.”
“Again, well done! I see you are laying well, following in your father’s footsteps. Far Sky gestured and we followed him a few steps into the plaza. He pointed to the top of First True Mountain across the way. Bending slightly, he favored my son and daughter. “Up there is where your grandfather celebrated the completion of that k’atun. Do you know what that means?”
It was Honey’s turn to respond. “The calendar god who carried the burden of the last twenty tunob, completed his journey, set the burden down so the next god could pick it up and carry it forward.”
The old man turned to me with an astonished look. Turning back to Honey, he called her a “bright flower.” We followed him back to Father’s monument. “You know, my lady, your parents were very proud of you. They spoke of you often. Your father said you were making a grand contribution to them and the caah. They missed you greatly.”
Far Sky led us around to the front of the monument. Careful not to block the view of those presenting gifts in front of it, we stood to the side. First Crocodile pointed to the object in my father’s hand, another jaguar paw, long, with the claws extended. “Is that an axe?” he asked.
“With respect young lord, that was his scepter. Your uncle Flint Dancer made it, and I ensouled it for your grandfather. He used it at all the Period Ending rights. That was real pelt, covering a real jaguar bone. It was not painted. The claws were pieces of carved shell.”
“What happened to it? Can I see it?”
“Last I saw, it was in a box in the regalia chamber at the palace. If it is not there, it was probably taken in the attack.”
I asked who sculpted Father’s monument. “He came from Kaminaljuyu, a journey of twenty k’inob. He treated him very well, even had a shelter built at the quarry so he and his men could work through the rains.” He pointed. “The block they cut from the quarry was not much taller, but it was much thicker and broader than what you see here.”
First Crocodile had his head tilted back, looking up. The monument was at least four times his height. Frown-lines creased his smooth forehead. “How did they get it here?”
“That is quite a story. Once it was cut, they wrapped it with green palm fronds, three layers thick. Then they tied on thick matting using cords as thick as your arm.” He explained what a hoist was, telling how the cords worked front and back. “Very slowly, with many strong men, they lowered it onto logs—eight, I believe. Again very slowly, they rolled it on the logs to the causeway and then to here— all in six k’inob.”
“They were actually carved here?” I asked. “Not at the quarry?”
“Always. As for this one, your father wanted the carving to be deeper than the others.” Far Sky pointed to Father’s elbow with the feather. “See here? To make it look like he was standing in front of the temple doorway, they carved his arm so it overlaps the frame—which he said was the doorway to the palace.
Tikal Stela 39
Drawing by Linda Schele © David Schele
“What was the dedication like?”
“Grand, my lady. Colorful. We were up on First True Mountain, the ministers and I wore our jades and quetzal headdresses. The plaza was filled with people. As part of your father’s oratory he repeated what he said when he ascended to the Mat, words that earned him the title, Contribution Lord. You were just a flower—”
“I’m so glad you reminded me of that. I’d almost forgotten. What did he say?”
“I can hear his words as if he spoke them this morning, my lady. He said, ‘I come to the Mat not only to rule, but also to contribute.’”
“He was always talking about how we were privileged to make a grand contribution.”
Far Sky nodded and raised his eyebrows. “I proclaimed that title whenever I introduced him.”
Honey Claw pointed to the figure of a man under Father’s feet. He lay partly on his side but with his sandaled feet rising in back with his head and shoulders high, grasping a bundle to his chest. “Is that one of his captives?” she asked.
I wondered as well. The figure’s artificial beard, the black mask across his eyes, the sacrificial knots on his sandals, and especially the knotted burial cloths around his midsection made it not likely that he was a captive. Far Sky provided the answer. “That is his father, Lord Radiant Hawk Skull—your great-grandfather. His name is also carved on the back.
Crocodile asked, “Why did they show grandfather standing on his back?”“He wanted to be shown rising above him, just as a maize stalk rises from its seeds. Because rulers are the Great Trees of their cities, he honors his father by showing him as both his seed and root. The signs in Lord Skull’s headdress say he held the Mat and celebrated the calendar rounds.”
“What is the bundle he is holding?” Honey asked
“It shows that your great-grandfather was the keeper of a precious bundle, a god-bundle that contained ancestor bones, likely those of the founder of the Paw line.”
First Crocodile went closer to the stone and pointed. “Why is a k’in sign on grandfather’s right anklet? On the other it reads ak’ab.”
He explained the k’in—“day”—sign stands for light and ak’ab—“darkness”—showed that his grandfather had one foot in the sky and the other in the underworld. “He spoke to the gods in both realms.”
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Reading the future; healing body, mind and spirit
A prophecy is a message that comes from a deity, delivered to a person attuned to receive it. Typically, the message expresses the divine will regarding the future. Ancient cultures all had prophets who delivered prophecies. And people believed what they heard, were willing to kill and die to be true to it. Gods, after all, were to be trusted.
Anthropologist Mircea Eliade noted that tribal societies believed that their stories, about the gods and sacred ancestors overcoming the forces of chaos, created a sacred cosmic and social order in which humans could safely dwell. He said their myths and rituals divided the world into two realms, the sacred and the profane. Those who live the sacred order are human beings; all others are strangers who come from the realm of chaos and are different and those differences threaten the life-sustaining stability of their sacred order. Around the world, he showed that ancient tribal societies saw themselves as living at the center of the cosmos, the place where the gods and ancestors brought things into being. In such a physical and mental space, trusting the will of the gods and sacred ancestors was inborn, automatic, a matter of life, destiny and death.
As part of the divinely created order of the cosmos, to maintain personal safety and stability in a tribal society, human beings needed to model the cosmic order—maintain the center. There were many threats—rivalry, disease, beasts and demons that roamed the wilds, malevolent deities, climate fluctuations and outsiders. So it was necessary to understand the will of the benevolent gods and appeal to ancestors who in death became guardians of the sacred order.
It is not surprising that, according to archaeologist David Freidel, the Maya institution of “divine” kingship derived from the much earlier Olmec culture in southern Mexico. Maya kings were more than elites who ruled. Their power, at least until the Late Classic period, derived mainly from their ability, along with their priest-daykeepers, to discern the will of the gods and divine the future.
Privileged to meet and photograph a Maya shaman in his Santa Catarina, Guatemala healing center, I took the above picture of the sacred items he used to do a “layout” that would inform him about a client’s health and prognosis. Using two types of beans and crystals, his procedure was to arrange them in rows using sacred numbers. On a trip to Belize, I met a shaman who used beans and crystals in the same way, but an important part of his discernment had to do with the feelings he got in different parts of his body.
Maya kings used psychoactive drugs, auto-sacrifice and ecstatic dancing to commune with the gods and deified ancestors. In the modern era, prophets emerged and we built religions around them. And today there are individuals who claim to be gifted with precognition, the ability to foretell the future. Whatever the underlying reality, then and now, there is no question that belief is one of our most powerful capacities. It’s the rudder that steers the canoe and the ocean liner.
This is a make-believe world. We make it according to our belief.
Your beliefs become your thoughts.
Your thoughts become your words.
Your words become your actions.
Your actions become your habits.
Your habits become your values.
Your values become your destiny.
Prophecy Of The Cloud Kings At El Mirador
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 57-59 )
“According to the prophecy there were to be two trials,” White Grandfather said. “Our grandfathers survived the first. Now it comes to us. And it will not pass when the k’in bearer sets his burden down. It will only pass when the gods see how we are shouldering this, their final trial.”
The same man spoke again. “Respect, Grandfather, people are saying that Laughing Falcon has not bargained well with the gods, they are not honoring his requests.” When others in the crowd agreed, White Grandfather shook his head and looked side to side. Someone called out. “Enough talk! Release the food! Give us the food!” The people shouted, stomped the ground, and clapped their hands. “Food! Food! Food…”
White Grandfather took a step forward and pointed to the crates and baskets beyond the guards. “Do you know where this comes from?” he shouted.
“From us!” someone yelled. Another called out, “Tribute!” Someone else complained that it was his family’s sweat that filled the storehouse.”
“All that we have, all that we receive is a gift from the gods,” White Grandfather said. “Lord K’in provides the heat and light for your crops. The Chaakob water them with rain. One Maize gives us the maize to eat and the seeds to plant. All this and more is given through the appeals, the blood sacrifices, petitions and offerings of Our Bounty. Turn away from what you lack. Instead, fix your gaze on the bounty that is coming, that has been foretold…”
A calmer voice interrupted, “With respect, Grandfather, how can I, when my family is starving? My eyes are fixed on their misery.” The man turned and pointed beyond the guards. “We cannot eat the words of a prophecy.”
White Grandfather bent down. “We understand. We know it is difficult—” A noblewoman next to the man got his attention and spoke. All I could see was nodding behind a deer headdress with a spray of macaw feathers. White Grandfather stood straight again. “The lady asks why the trial has been so long and severe. Those who gave the prophecy did not say. But they understand—when sustenance is withheld, trust, belief, and hope are all challenged. By standing firm against the drought, against the fields of rotting maize, the pain of hunger and the loss of our elders, we show ourselves to be worthy of the abundance they promised.”
“What prophecy do you speak of?” the lady asked. “When and where was it given?”
“The Cloud prophecy, given nine k’atunob past, at Mirador.” In a voice only those around us could hear, a round-faced guard said a one-hundred-eighty-year-old prophecy could not be trusted. He said it was no longer valid.
“I have not heard of it,” someone called out. “What did it say?”
White Grandfather opened his arms and waited for the crowd to quiet. “The prophecy said the destiny of the House of Cloud—and the challenge to its rulers—was to raise temples to Lord K’in and One Maize that reach to the clouds. It said that when this is fulfilled there will be many seasons of abundance, but first, there would be trials—to determine if the people living in the Cloud territories are deserving of such abundance. Further, he said there would be two long seasons when the skin of the earth and skins of the people dry up. There will be too much water and then not enough. A mingling of strong winds from the east and west will bring black smoke, a blanket of death. It advised that we, along with the rulers, make offerings of blood and incense—and stand tall through the trials.” White Grandfather walked closer to the shelter’s roof. “Already, we have raised temples that reach the clouds. Now, if we stand tall—like a forest around our Great Tree—offering our sweat and patience to the gods, the abundance will come.”
A young warrior raised his feathered spear and called from the middle of the crowd. “With respect, did the prophecy come from the Cloud ancestors—or from the gods?”
“Our ancestors gave the prophecy that we might understand what the gods want,” the old man said.
“What do they want?” An older warrior standing beside him asked.
Rather than answer, White Grandfather removed his three-leaf headdress and held it out. Mother whispered in my ear. “Remember what tell—about Those Born First?”
“How they wore three maize leaves in their headdresses?” I answered.
She nodded. “Tipped with jade beads.
“I forget what they were for.”
“Listen,” she said, pointing to White Grandfather.
“This is what they want,” he said. He pointed to the leaves and named them in turn: “Beauty—Respect—Gratitude. To your eyes, they look like maize leaves painted white. To our eyes, they are the seeds that, when sown in the hearts of men, flower into the coming abundance. When we make beauty in our houses and fields, when we show respect for the gods, ancestors, Our Bounty, our brothers and sisters of the caah—all that lives, when we have gratitude in our hearts for what we have been given, the gods will be satisfied. When they see the seeds of beauty, respect and gratitude growing in each of us and in the caah, they will be eager to sustain us, continue the world for another round and bring the promised abundance.”
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Stages for community-wide ritual and celebration
By 500 B.C. there were numerous large architectural assemblages throughout the central lowlands of Guatemala and Mexico. At first, they appeared to function solely as line-of-site markers of the sun’s solstice and equinox turning points. Archaeologists named them E-Group complexes.
Although there was great diversity in these structures across time and place, what they had in common was a large rectangular, flat, paved plaza with a square four-sided pyramid aligned to the cardinal directions, situated west of a long narrow platform with small temples that ran north and south. The first to be investigated in the Maya area was Uaxactun Structure E-VII-sub. Above is how it looked when I visited there in 2000. Although it was severely weathered, early photographs showed that there were large deity masks and stairways on all four sides.
We can imagine—as I had when writing Jaguar Rising—a priest-ruler on top of the pyramid before dawn. Adorned with jade and wearing a tall headdress of blue-green quetzal feathers, he and his family, daykeepers and principle courtiers are all there, lit by a brazier, waiting to witness the rising of the Sun god at the corner of the easternmost temple, an opportunity to verify that both the sacred (tzolkin) and solar (haab) calendars were accurate and congruent, marking the seasons and times for particular rituals.
After years of investigation at many sites, the consensus is now that, while E-Groups may have originally been built to mark and celebrate the solstice and equinox, their more prolific purpose was to establish a large space with a bonifide sacred center, a theater stage, where kings could perform elaborate calendar rites and other ceremonies. One of these common to the E-Groups was to celebrate the k’atun (20-year) Period Ending, the day when the current god of that period set his “burden” down and the next god in line picked it up to carry it forward with his particular influences for the next twenty years. Cycles of 13 k’atuns—about 256 years—were also celebrated.
The west-situated pyramid that established the sacred center of an emerging polity or city did so by symbolizing the cosmos and the time cyclicals they held sacred.
- The four sides and stairways have the shape of a cross (+), the symbol for k’in, which is the Maya word for “day” and the glyph for “sun.”
- Aligned to the cardinal points, the pyramid “celebrates” the four directions. In particular, the east-west stairway references the journey of Ajaw K’in the “Lord Sun.” He is born in the east, reaches his highest holy place over the top of the pyramid, descends to his “dying place” in the west to dwell overnight in the Underworld—under the pyramid. In making this journey, Ajaw K’in creates the day. To insure that his journey continued, sacrifices were made on the last day of each period. And they ranged from one day to thousands of years.
- Cosmologically, it was believed that the celestial realm had several layers, or “steps” that Ajaw K’in had to ascend and then descend in his journey. We can imagine then, the king ascending the pyramid steps slowly and thoughtfully.
- As at Uaxactun, E-Group pyramids in other locations often displayed stucco reliefs, masks with cosmological themes. Those on E-VII-sub reference Ajaw K’in, the watery underworld and long-lipped gods representing the earth and sky. According to archaeologist David Freidel, they represent the sun cycle surmounted by Venus. And because the four-sided pyramids usually appear in the middle of open plazas they also represent the center of the universe and the centering point of the four world quarters.
Did E-Groups serve as seasonal observatories or as stages for ceremonial spectacles? More work needs to be done, but it appears that they served both functions. Perhaps even more— at different times and in different places.
E-groups were most widely constructed as Maya society was becoming increasingly stratified, an indication that the ritual they framed ensured both cosmic and political order. By expressing a fundamental cosmological concept on a monumental scale, and as settings for religious and political ritual, E-groups provided an experientially powerful and symbolically meaningful condensation of Maya reality.
James Aimers and Prudence Rice
Incident at an E-Group, Uaxactun, Guatemala
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (pp. 348-349)
We turned north and came to an enormous open and paved, gleaming red plaza where, in the center, gods flanking a pyramid’s steps looked in all four directions. On the eastern side of the pyramid, a stone monument faced a long platform that supported three shrines. Because the plaza itself was one of the holy places Hammerstone told us about, Fishbone pointed to where we could cross, while he, his brothers and Butterfly took a long way around. Judging from the men atop the pyramid wearing quetzal headdresses and dancing to drums, a ritual was in progress.
We met up with the slaves on the other side of the plaza. They were out of breath from running, so White Cord called for a rest. Fishbone took it as an opportunity to tell us why that particular plaza was holy ground. “After the founder built the first shrine in the sacred district,” he said, “he came here, cut a living branch and walked with it until it pointed down—to a little pool of black water. He marked it with stones and then walked east until the branch told him to stop.” Fishbone pointed about fifty strides away to a tall shaft of stone painted red. “That stone marks the eastern ahkantuun. There are three others—white to mark the north, black for west and yellow for south. With the ground so ordered, he made another circuit to mark the trees to be cut. By recognizing the ground as holy, he established it so for the eyes of his followers. They felled the trees to burn limestone and they hardened the ground with mortar between the markers.
When the new plaza was paved and painted red, the founder came again. In the center—where the pool had reflected the canopy—they drilled new fire. And there he offered his blood and the blood of a young woman so the place would forever bring new life. He named it Plaza of Black Water Sky. Nine tunob later his son erected a building over that center, a shrine, and he named it Three Sky Place. Inside he planted a bundle containing the bones of his Father and the female offering. So it was established—the caah of Uaxactun. The shrine has been built over many times since. The bundle that gives life to it is still there.”
Fishbone answered some of our questions and told how the current ruler built the shrine we were seeing, Raised Up Sky—the place where the maize god raised the sky off the water to reveal the land. “Very hot,” Fishbone said. He pointed to three more shrines across the plaza by about two hundred paces. “Now, every solstice, Our Bounty marks the journey of Lord K’in by sighting his face over there.”
White Cord was eager to move on. We all were. The women especially wanted to get settled while there was still some light—and we didn’t know how much farther we would have to go.
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An evolution from ritualized skirmishes to large scale warfare
Rollout vase photos courtesy of Justin Kerr
It was the custom among them to pledge what they possessed to each other; upon collection and payment they began to quarrel and attack each other.
Frey Diego de Landa
They never had peace, especially when the cultivation (of milpas) was over, and their greatest desire was to seize important men to sacrifice, because the greater the quality of the victim, the more acceptable their service to the gods.
War was the way you got gifts for the gods and kept the universe running.
Purpose and Objectives
In the Early period, warfare was practiced as a confrontation between spiritual forces, primarily involving the capture and sacrifice of royal captives. Most valued were captives of high rank. The sacrifice of royal blood was the ultimate gift to the gods. Rather than “battles” between large forces, warfare initially amounted to raids and attacks to take captives. In the inscriptions, what was important was the captive’s name, title and who captured him. A large part of ceremonial warfare amounted to capturing not only a worthy sacrificial victim but also the patron banner of the polity, the ruler’s god-bundle which containing the relics of his deified ancestors, his palanquin and war paraphernalia. All of these sacred items increased the power and prestige of the victor and his lineage. It also brought economic benefits to the community that fueled the emerging elite and contributed to the massing of both commoner and slave labor for construction projects.
According to archaeologist Dr. Arthur Demarest, warfare in the Middle-to-Late Classic was about status and charisma. It helped to define who the royals and elite were and how much power they had with the gods. This was important because knowing who the gods favored provided a means for resolving dynastic succession, it opened trade routes, reinforced the status of elites by providing them with prized possessions such as quetzal, obsidian and jade and it bolstered the victor’s access to tribute labor. Dr. Demerest says, “In this period they did not ruin the enemy’s fields, or take a chance on harming its population because this brought no prestige. The necessary pact between humans and gods was sealed by the bloodletting of rulers.”
Other possible benefits included the acquisition of tribute from subject polities, boundary maintenance, the establishment of warlords which fostered elites and ranking, opportunities for public rituals and spectacles. It legitimized the ruler’s power in dealing with the gods.
Early Maya warfare (Preclassic and first centuries of the Early Classic), pitted the leaders of communities, their noble followers and a reasonable complement of commoner militia against one another on well-known battlefields and on known and planned occasions. I think that Maya warfare had some clear-cut rules of conduct during this early phase of the civilization… The primary tactic was the raid or brief battle aimed at surprise attack and quick defeat rather than total conquest or subjugation.
David Freidel (Archaeologist)
Maya artworks show warriors marching behind battle standards—tall poles with large shields attached to the tops, decorated and edged with bright featherwork. (Much larger than those shown here and above). The fighting itself amounted to free-for-alls where the principal lords and warriors, decked out to represent supernatural forces, engaged each other in close-order combat. The sounds of the battlefield came from conchs, rattles, wooden trumpets, wood and turtle carapace drums, whistles and frantic shouting.
In the Preclassic period, most polities weren’t large enough to maintain standing armies, so the rulers assembled able-bodied men and boys and armed them with brine-hardened cotton armor, wooden helmets, short stabbing darts, wooden axes with obsidian blades anchored along the sides, spears, axes and slings. It wasn’t until the Postclassic that the Maya used bows and arrows.
Generally, wars were fought during the dry season, mostly because men would be available after the harvest and before the planting. Aside from agricultural needs, the rainy season with extensive flooding and muddy paths would have made it difficult, at times impossible. The Nacom (chief warlord) presided over an annual festival in the month of Pax (Mid-May). Rites were performed and he was treated as a god and he discussed military matters with the ruler and other members of the court.
A Significant Shift
According to inscriptions at a variety of sites, on January 31, 378 an emissary from Teotihuacan in Central Mexico called Siyaj K’ahk’ (Born Of Fire) arrived at El Peru/Waka’. On the same day, Tikal’s ruler, Chak Tok Ich’aak (Great Jaguar Claw) “entered the water.” He and his entire lineage were killed and replaced by a new male line drawn from the ruling house at Teotihuacan. Foremost among them was a high nobleman from Teotihuacan named Spearthrower Owl. This event marks the beginning of major changes in Maya society, among them the purpose, strategy and scale of warfare.
The shift was from the modest scale taking of royal captives for sacrifice to the creation and maintenance of city-states through the acquisition of tribute (bounty and labor) from subject polities, the expansion of trade routes, and in the case of the Snake Kings of Calakmul, the establishment of allies to encircle Tikal, their bitter enemy, through marriage alliances. From then on, the “Peten Wars” ratcheted up involving many thousands of warriors in a single battle.
After decades of the Calakmul kings building alliances, on August 3, 695 the current ruler, Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ (Fiery Claw) led his allies into an enormous battle against the Tikal king, Jasaw Chan K’awiil. In a major twist, Yich’aak K’ahk’ was defeated.
(My novel, Jaguar Wind And Waves, is about this momentus event).
Postclassic Period (950-1539 AD)
There is evidence of constant warfare in Northern Yucatan among competing city-states throughout these years. The Spaniards reported that Maya armies were large during important campaigns, numbering in the thousands, but they were not maintained very long because they were logistically sustained through temporary appropriations of food and materials from unhappy peasant villagers. And those city-states were then governed by royal families, likely including other elites, rather than individual rulers.
The information provided here derives largely from a collection of scholarly opinions and interpretations. Warfare among the ancient Maya is one of the many cultural practices that changed over time and from place to place. The benefit of collected research and discussion is that it gives us a “taste” of what it was like. In that, we can consider the past as we shape the future.
Green Band Raid on Ahktuunal, Guatemala
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 35-36 )
Across the plaza at the base of the Great Turtle temple, a similar fate had befallen the Mother of the underlord, members of his council and court including their wives, even his steward. They and the most holy jaguar prophet who speaks to the people on behalf of the ruler and prognosticates for him were also being stripped, bound and tied together. Wherever the green band raiders were from, they apparently needed slaves—probably for construction projects—and a hot-blood for their master’s altar.
Above the chain of captives, the zapote beams of the Holy House of Lord Turtle were engulfed in roaring flames. Tall, red-and-green feather standards on both sides of the doorway burst into flames sending an explosion of sparks into the smoke and fog. With the exception of the residence and the lineage house behind it—where Thunder Flute and Pech were taking cover—all the structures of the central district, the shrines, temples and other structures made of perishable materials, were going up in flames.
The Green Bands brought their looted items to the center of the plaza and dumped them into baskets and onto nets, mats, and blankets, ripping open the tied bundles and spilling out their contents for their leader to inspect. Thunder Flute signed to Pech that he wanted a count of the raiders, including those not in the plaza. In turn, Pech signed an order to an assistant at the back of the Flower House and the message was passed on. Thunder Flute signed again, saying that if the raiders all come together in the plaza, we will attack. If not, they would “target and track” them when they leave. Again, the message was passed. Thunder Flute watched a while longer, then signed again to Pech. Why are they not talking? Pech shook his head and signed back. No one was talking, not a word passed between them.
After parading his prize in front of the warriors, the Owl leader tied the underlord’s neck-cord to the great stone turtle at the base of the temple. The goods being brought into the plaza were more bountiful and precious than Thunder Flute would have thought possible. They overturned a crate filled with ceramic and carved stone turtles packed in dried pine needles. Another contained the hides of deer, peccary, and ocelot. Two of the raiders labored over a large wooden crocodile. With his foot on the back of his neck, he pried out the obsidian eyes with his knife and broke off two rows of shell that served as its teeth. The rest he left, turning his attention to a prickly armadillo goblet offered by a young warrior. When another held out a ceramic censer in the shape of a turtle, he swatted it down and it smashed against the pavement. Thunder Flute noticed that any object carrying the likeness of a turtle—painted, molded, or incised—was either rejected or destroyed.
From a heavy basket, one of the raiders dumped a number of green stones onto a blanket. Thunder Flute wanted to get a closer look so he motioned for Pech to stay where he was while he went around to the back of the residence. Crossing to the council house under the cover of streaming black smoke, he crouched behind a stairway and watched as three of the raiders examined the green stones with their leader. Thunder Flute counted six hand-sized ceremonial celts, at least ten equally long belt danglers, two jade tubes as long as a finger, four jade earflares shaped like flowers, a dark greenstone the size of a fist and scores of jade bead necklaces. When an assistant held one up with the bulbous head of the sun god at the bottom, the leader snatched it out of his hand and stuffed it into his already bulging pouch. From another warrior, he snatched a jade turtle shell the size of a fist, a magnificent piece with three red spots painted on the carapace. With great force, he hurled it down the plaza. Thunder Flute gasped as it hit the pavement and rolled into the smoke.
After dumping some thorny oyster shells, red shell beads, and shell perforators onto a blanket, a warrior with a jagged scar down one arm gathered the ends and slung it onto his back. His brother warriors gathered up the other goods and the leader followed, all the while looking to see if there would be any resistance. There was none. Along the way, he stepped onto the back of a fallen Ahktuunal guard and struck a victory pose with his axe held high. Several of his men imitated the gesture, and together they howled like coyotes.
Thunder Flute took advantage of the distraction. He ran behind the retaining wall to where Pech was watching. Beside him, an assistant pointed to the temple of the Great Turtle. Through the smoke, high on the third terrace and hiding behind a fallen censer stand, a scout was signing: god bundle burned—six guards down. Warriors gone.
Gather their weapons, Thunder Flute signed. Return to the canoes. He whispered in Pech’s ear, “I want a man on the far side of the council house—to see where they will go. The leader threw a jade turtle down the plaza, a big one. I want it.”
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Where the story of creation was repeated and celebrated
Ball Court: Copan, Honduras
Scholars believe that in earlier Maya times, the contest was a ritual that represented the fight of the opposing and forces of the universe—life-death, Sun-Moon, day-night, light-darkness—in order to insure balance, continuity and fertility. Some say it was a metaphor for the movements of heavenly bodies, the ball representing the journey of the Sun god passing in and out of the underworld. Because some courts have stone rings on the walls for the ball to pass through, other say it was about the Earth swallowing the sun where the loosers would be sacrificed as a offering to the Sun god to insure his rebirth the next day.
In 2008 my guide on the right told how the ball game bore a strong relation to the Popol Vuh account of creation. I had my recorder going. The following is an abbreviated version of his account.
The ball game was a ceremony of creation. The Hero Twins, Hun Hunahpu and Xbalanque, danced here and woke up the Lords of the Underworld. The owls came and invited them to go to the Underworld. There, they defeated the bad forces and saved their father who was reborn, apotheosized as Orion in the sky. Hunahpu, Hun Hunapu’s son, was reborn and became the Sun. Xbalanque became Venus. And Xmucane, their grandmother, became the Moon. This is how the Maya universe was created.
The shaman, or specialized dancers of the ball game, were men who prepared their whole lives to fight against the bad forces—storms, earthquakes, epidemics, drought—all of which came from the Underworld. The ball represented the movement of the creators. Everything was alive. The ball bouncing up and down represented sunrise and sunset. And when it hit one of the macaw heads placed in the center and the ends of the risers, it signaled the defeat of the bad forces.
Here, Vucub Kakich, the Principle Bird Deity, was reconstructed atop the ball court riser. The central macaw head is below, a side-on view beneath the open-air corbled vault.
Continuing the story, Hunahpu tried to defeat Vucub Kakich—the vein god who fancied himself more powerful than the Sun—using a blowgun. Repeating that event here in the ball court, the players tried to hit a macaw head with the ball to defeat this great bird. He’s shown in the celestial realm, on the highest level of the court. When the ball hit the floor in the alleyway, it amounted to the Hero Twins knocking on the door of the underworld, a demonstration that they had the courage and power to wake the forces of evil to fight against them. When a king engaged in this enactment of good versus evil it was an opportunity for him to assume the persona of a Hero Twin and defeat death. The ancients didn’t look for winners or losers. They wanted a hero, somebody who had the courage to fight against the forces of evil.
Loosers Were Sacrificed
According to the inscriptions, loosers were decapitated, their heads symbolic of the “sacred sun” ball. At Yaxchilan and possibly other places, the heads of war captives were thrown from the top of a long stairway, emulating the rolling of the ball. This was briefly depicted in Mel Gibson’s 2010 movie, Apocalypto.
Here, elite individuals engage in a ball game ritual. The ball (with a glyph inside) is about to connect with the king’s hip and chest deflectors. The horizontal lines are the ball court steps. Black body paint was often worn by warriors. Here, they are warring against the forces of evil. On the murals at Bonampak, bird headdresses were worn by winners, deer was worn by the losers. (Rollout photo courtesy of Justin Kerr)
It was a badge of honor for royalty to be good ball players. It’s reported that after great battles were waged, prisoners were brought back to the city of the victor where they were starved and dragged onto the ball court for a match. With depleted strength, they lost the game—and their heads—but shedding their blood on the court meant dying with honor. One writer suggests “The highest goal of Classic kings seems to have been to capture the ruler of a rival city in battle, torture and humiliate him (sometimes for years), then, following a ball game decapitate him.
Another says, “To capture an enemy and then let him be defeated in the ball game was to let him die with dignity. Royals became apotheosized—made divine—in this way. And the winner captured the loser’s power (the head was seen as the center of power).”
The Ball Itself
Ol, the Maya word for “rubber” is also the word for “heart” and “motion.” The ball was referred to as cahuchu “weaping wood” because of it was made from the sap of a tree. Inscriptions give the size of the ball, for instance, a circumference of “twelve-handspans” is indicated on a vase from Motul de San Jose in Belize. That meant it could be 12-18 inches in diameter. Spaniards also reported that the balls weighed six to eight pounds. And the juice of Morning Glory vine s were added to give them more bounce.
Later, When It Was Played As A Game
The object was to keep the ball in the air without touching it with the hands. Only shoulders, forearms, hips and knees could contact the ball. A goal was scored when the ball bounced off the wall and hit one of the stone markers—or a macaw head at Copan. If it ever went through a ring mounted on the walls—as at Chichen Itza—the person who did it won automatically. Scoring was based on faults: touching the ball with head or hands or feet; failing to connect with the ball; sending the ball out of the court. After one bounce, the other player got to serve the ball. If it bounced twice the other person scored. The first person to reach thirteen points won.
The Mesoamerican ball game provided a formalized context and ritual wherein the mystery of death and the mythology of creation could be repeated and celebrated with an eye to the future. As a contest between the forces of good and evil, arranged so the good—perceived as the Sun god—would prevail and the world would not end.
Game Played Between Brothers To Determine The Heir To The Throne
Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 411)
(In this scene, Fire Eyes Jaguar, the protagonist, surrenders his body to Lord K’in, the Sun god by taking a hallucinogenic drug and dawning the Sun god helmet. His brother, Flint Axe Macaw, does likewise wearing the helmet of Chaak Ek’, god of Venus. The “god” with thirteen skulls (points) on the wall at the end of the game will replace their father as the Lord of Kaminaljuyu. “Dark Sun” is a reference to the ball).
AS HAD BEEN ESTABLISHED IN THE SKY—CHAAK EK’, GOD OF the morning star preceded Lord K’in, the sun god, along the White Flower Way— my brother danced onto the alleyway making quick turns, swinging his invisible axe and pounding the ground with his feet to taunt the lords of the Underworld. I waited for him to make a full circle, then followed behind him. Since Lord K’in was believed to prowl at night as a jaguar, I danced him as Red Paw had in Father’s courtyard the night after my presentation. I strutted, crouched and eyed Chaak Ek’ as if he were my prey.
The veil of brightness over my eyes burned even more because of the hundreds of torches that surrounded us. I poked my fingers through the eyeholes to rub them, but it didn’t remove the veil or ease the burning. Watching my brother dance, I had the feeling that I’d done this before.
Lightning flashed and a thunderclap shook the ground. I’d never heard anything so loud, not even in the House of Obsidian. I and everyone I could see had crouched. Just as suddenly, the light tapping on my helmet turned to pounding rain which quickly seeped into the eye- and mouth-holes. Oddly, the padding in my helmet was colder than the rain on my shoulders. My brother danced as if he welcomed it, running the alleyway like a freed deer, turning and leaping over the markers and darting back and forth to the end zones.
Feeling the power of the cheering, I danced jaguar staring, sprinting and pouncing but missing his prey. There came another bright flash and three breaths later a thunderclap so loud I yelled into my helmet. “Ayaahh! Huracan! First Lightning! Here we are! Do you see?” I crouched and stayed still. “Great Thunderbolt! Is this your doing? I said I would have the head of the Iguana. If Lord Tapir and the Iguana are the cloud of death, I will be the destroyer, the cloud breaker. But enough of this rain! Enough of this dancing. Father wants a ball game. Let us begin.”
Chaak Ek’ took a position on the northern side of the center marker, facing the eastern end zone with his hands on his knees. Facing him ten paces away, I took my stance. Keeper of the Ball went to the eastern marker where he held Dark Sun low, between his knees with both hands. To distract me from the pounding on my helmet, I kept repeating out loud, “Thirteen skulls, thirteen skulls, thirteen…” With my eyes trained on the menacing face of Chaak Ek’, words came into my head that shocked me. “Flint Axe, you are standing in the way of my destiny.” It was then that I knew—Lord K’in had entered my body, taken my place. I would never have had such a thought. Where Fire Eyes Jaguar had gone I did not know.
AS HAD HAPPENED IN THE MAKING OF THE WORLD ON the first day, the game began with the rising of Dark Sun from the east. Ballplayers referred to the opening volley as “Comes the dawning.” Chaak Ek’ got under the ball and deflected it off his hip. It bounced toward me. I turned and connected hard with my hip and the ball went out of his reach. It bounced once and rolled across the alleyway. I let out a yelp when the keeper of the count set a white skull on the northern wall.
As the keeper took his stance at the eastern end zone, the rain let up. He didn’t squat very low this time. The ball fell short. I deflected it off my hip and it went low. After one bounce Chaak Ek’ slid under it and connected on the underside of both wrists. I ran and connected high on my hip protector. The impact sent a sharp pain through my ribs, reminding me of Gourd Scorpion and the injury sustained in the Nine Step court. The ball bounced twice before Chaak Ek’ could get to it, so I gained another skull.
On the next round, the onlookers applauded our keeping the ball in play, back and forth without any misses. I tried to keep it high. Chaak Ek’ kept it low, apparently to take advantage of my injured leg. He made an elbow deflection and when the ball hit the ground it rolled. That put a yellow skull on his wall.
Chaak Ek’ connected with a stylish combination of a lunge and hip deflection. I returned it the same way and the onlookers applauded—even more, when he deflected with his knee and the ball rolled between my legs. Another skull for him.
The keeper squatted and turned his back to us. Chaak Ek’ went back and I stayed close. The ball fell short and I connected with both wrists. Chaak Ek’ got under it and butted the ball with his helmet, sending me running. I wasn’t even close.
Spectators in the end zone behind Chaak Ek’ were all a blur. The ball came to him and he connected with a stylish standing twist. I returned it off my hip. He deflected it back and we closed the gap between us. He turned and did a front deflection. On my return, he jumped back and connected with his knee-protector. I dove but missed.
I scored on the next round. Chaak Ek’ took the following two. He was managing better than me to either send the ball where I wasn’t or to hit it so forcefully I couldn’t get to it in time to connect. He was ahead of me by three skulls, but I was learning fast. By playing closer—which he seemed to want—and trusting the nubs on my sandals, I defeated him twice.
Hoping to slow me down, Chaak Ek’ kept deflecting the ball toward the center where the rain was pooling. I wasn’t slipping, so I played close to the marker and kept him on the sides. On a quick turn, he slipped and fell and the ball ran along the northern platform. When he slipped and missed again, I counted the skulls—Lord K’in seven, Chaak Ek’ six.
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What you wore was a sign of who you were and where you belonged
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 art—ceremonial regalia, jewelry and body manipulation such as scarification, tattooing, piercing, teeth filing and cranial modification, were rich with meanings that referenced and celebrated their myths and ideology. In the Early Preclassic period, symbols were largely based on ancestor veneration. In the Classic Period, belief systems evolved to where the emphasis was on stories of creation, gods and apotheosized rulers—those who’d died and became deified.
With regard to body coverings, the materials at hand were mostly plant fibers including cotton, kapok, yucca and agave, which contains henequen and maguey fibers. Animal products such as duck and goose feathers, deer hides and feline furs were incorporated as well. A thousand years later, in Aztec Mexico, only the king could wear fine mantles of cotton. So it’s likely that cotton was also reserved for Maya elites. With regard to commoners and slaves, very little is known about their coverings, except they mostly consisted of maguey fibers. Soaking and cooking the leaves made them tender enough to scrape and shape into long soft threads that were dried in the sun and then woven into fabrics.
The principle device for weaving raw fiber into cloth was the backstrap loom, similar to the ones used today. Since the looms are not very wide, several widths of woven cloth were sewn together to create square or rectangular shaped garments. These were fitted in place with a belt or fabric tie. Weaving lent itself to the making of geometric shapes and patterns. Below, the patterns woven into the woman’s huipil and the ruler’s cape symbolize the four cardinal directions.
Dated approximately 709 AD, Shield Jaguar, Lord of Yaxchilan, holds a torch over his wife, Lady Xoc, who performs a bloodletting sacrifice by pulling a barbed cord through her tongue. Her huipil appears to be embroidered and trimmed with fringe and pearls, and the pectoral on her beaded collar—likely made of shell or jade plaques—depicts the sun god. The object at their feet is an offering bowl containing blood-splattered cloths to be burned along with copal incense.
Although insect, vegetable and mineral dyes were traded extensively in the Classic Period, the archaeological record indicates a strong preference for painting on cloth—clothing—using stamps and brushes. Embroidered stitching, which was an easy and quick way to embellish a woven garment with color and designs is also in evidence, worn by elite women. Though scholars are still debating gender roles and responsibilities, weaving tended to be the domain of women, and farming the responsibility of men. Attire for both men and women varied depending on the individual, status, location and time period.
In this unprovenanced panel in the Cleveland Museum of Art dated 795 AD, a royal woman holds an effigy, a “God K” or “K’awiil scepter.” The kings who displayed it proclaimed themselves masters of the “Vision Serpent,” which conferred upon him the ability to negotiate with the gods. Here, the woman is wearing a huipil, a long outer garment that covered the shoulders, chest and hips. Those worn by commoners were likely plain with little or no embellishment. Huipils of elite and royal women usually contained symbols. The four quatrefoil designs on this figure represent “portals” to the otherworlds. Also evident here is an undergarment. In hot climates, women of all ranks more often wore a sarong, a long garment tied under the arms that could more or less conceal the legs (See the figurine on the right in the first photo).
The figurine in the center wears a typical loincloth. Men of all ranks wore them, some with shorter or longer hanging ends, a long or short skirt, a short waist-length jacket and in some instances the elites wore a short cape. Because males depicted on monuments are sometimes shown wearing long skirts as seen on Copan Stela H (Schele #1011), it took the decipherment of inscriptions for scholars to realize they were men. The length of a skirt alone is no longer considered an indication of gender.
Piedras Negras Stela 8
The jade-beaded latticework on a cape or skirt, seen here, can be long or short, worn by a man or woman. Always, it signifies maize god. Commonly, a Spondylus (spiny oyster) shell hangs from the belt with the face of a fish on it, a mythological shark the maize god defeated in the Underworld. It was worn as a sign of victory. That beaded garments are worn by both men and women, anthropologist Karen Bassie-Sweet sees them as an example of gender “complementarity.” Maize plants, and therefore the maize god, had both male and female elements.
Lavish clothing, regalia and costumes signified elite status. Fabric embellishments could include jaguar pelts, bird feathers, flowers and wood, leather or thinly painted ceramic constructions that represented fish, waterlilies, the heads of gods, underworld monsters and other mythical or symbolic creatures. At the other end of the spectrum, because nudity signaled disgrace, captives wore nothing other than strands of paper in their earlobes, another symbol of disgrace.
The elaboration of footwear was another element that distinguished the elite from commoners. Slaves went barefoot. Most everyone else wore sandals. I notice, however, the royal woman wearing the decorated huipil in the above drawing is barefoot. Most unusual. Kings always wore high-backed and probably animal hide sandals, often embellished with feathers and jewels containing symbols. On Yaxchilan Lintel 24 (above), the king’s sandals display black circles with hashing that represented little jaguar pelts.
Reference to Backstrap Looms
Excerpts from Jaguar Rising (pgs. 31 and 223)
Thunder Flute interrupted. “Of all the places we trade, none offers better embroidery. On the last trip, the exchange was better here than at Kaminaljuyu. Lord Macaw gives his son an advantage—and we take it.”
“All the women weave,” Pech said. “You will see—as soon as a flower can talk she will be sitting beside her mother at the loom. Unfortunately for us, the women at court do the best work. Most of it never reaches the marketplace. If I or one of the assistants is not nearby, do your best. Better to acquire fine work than not. You will know it when you see it.”
The steward led us across the plaza to a large house that sat on a high, white-painted platform with scarlet macaws in flight painted on both sides of a broad stairway. He told us his master was holding council, but he went in anyway to let him know that we were there. While we waited, Standing Rock led us to the corner of the platform that overlooked a patio where women were weaving with back-strap looms. Thunder Flute spoke from behind me and close to my ear. “Ladies of the court. They weave from dreams. The cotton is the finest you will see anywhere.” Voices behind us were three men in red robes coming through the doorway. They nodded to us and went down the steps.
Ruler Wears The Beaded Maize God Skirt
Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 360)
Moments later, Lord Cormorant, lavishly attired in quetzal feathers and a jade-studded skirt, came down the steps with his jaguar prophet. Stopping on the first terrace, the prophet replaced the ruler’s k’atun helmet with the sak huunal. The prophet raised his arms and the drums called us to order. I judged there to be near to six hundred people there, all huddled in blankets. After several moments of silence, looking to the sky with arms outstretched, he gave the prophecy for the next twenty years.
A Gift Of Elite Sandals To A Merchant
Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 315)
BLOOD SHARK HAD THE SERVANTS MOVE MY ITEMS TO THE side and he gestured for me to follow. Blue Skin stepped down from the dais and Yellow Stone admitted other servants with bundles intended for Thunder Flute as he came over. “Thunder Flute Rabbit,” the lord said gesturing, “Your compensations for teaching Blue Skin and our first spears the ways of the Tollan warriors.”
The largest bundle contained a tapir pelt and seven embroidered mantles, beautiful pieces for Thunder Flute’s wearing. Next, came an assortment of colorful feathers which Blue Skin named: turkey, eagle, toucan, duck and owl. The great white heron feathers were especially beautiful, but it was the owl feathers that Thunder Flute chose to touch with two fingers and express his gratitude. From a third bundle, he held up a pair of high-backed sandals. “The bottoms and straps are crocodile,” Blue Skin said. “The backs are doe-hide. Very soft.” Owl faces were burnt into both backs. When he put them on and walked, Thunder Flute’s face lit up like never before.
“For when you become raised and titled,” Lord Tapir explained. “The burner tried to match the tattoo on your chest.”
* All drawings courtesy of The Montgomery Drawings Collection, 2000. FAMSI Resources.
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Major factor in the decline of Maya civilization
Land bridge between reservoirs. Tikal, Guatemala
In the Late Classic period (A.D. 500-900) this path separated two immense reservoirs in Tikal’s city center. When I was there in 2008 it was overgrown and difficult to see the bottom on either side. I estimated them to be about as deep as an eight-to-ten-story building.
Maya farmers are still around today; kings, however, disappeared 1,000 years ago. There is a lesson here on how people and water managers respond to long-term climate change, something our own society faces at present. — Lisa J. Lucero, Anthropologist
There were a series of long droughts in the Southern lowland jungles during the latter part of the Classic period. Isotope analysis shows that there were at least eight in Northwestern Yucatan between A.D 800-950 that lasted from three to eighteen years. These impacted different centers differently depending on social, environmental and political circumstances, which helps to explain why the “collapse” extended over 100 years in the southern lowlands.
In response to droughts, kings performed ceremonies to the god of rain, Chaak, royal ancestors and other supernaturals to ensure adequate rainfall and maintain clean water supplies. Generally, they maintained control by exacting tribute and labor, managing the times for planting and harvesting, allocating water, constructing and repairing reservoirs and designing plazas and buildings to direct as much rainwater into them as possible. It’s been estimated that the six central reservoirs at Tikal could easily have provided water for 45,000 to 62,000 people over six months, but because rainfall was the only source of water in the lowlands, changes in its amount and timing had major consequences for sustainability.
To keep the water potable through the dry season, the Maya incorporated plants such as pondweeds and other small plants—and their associated bacteria and algae—which filter the water, feed on the spores of parasites and absorb nitrogen and phosphorus that builds up in standing water. In today’s terms, they transformed artificial reservoirs into wetland biospheres.
In response to droughts, kings were able to reassure their people through daykeepers—managers of the sacred calendar—who, because the nature of reality was believed to be cyclical, predicted the return of rain according to patterns in the past. In some places the kings intensified their building programs, temples especially, to appease the gods. And they increased the frequency and spectacle of ceremonies and sacrifices. When the rains came, people believed in the power of the rulers. When it didn’t, they lost faith in their ability to deal with the gods and many people left. Loosing power, along with warfare and dwindling populations, the kings and their courts began to disappear by the early 900’s.
Nonetheless, although populations decreased, some farmers adapted. Freed from tribute and labor demands, they generally migrated north to where there were lakes, rivers and cenoté’s. No longer dependent on the court and its restrictions, they learned how to manage the environment and diversified their subsistence to include hunting, fishing and planting fruit trees. In some areas, well-adapted farmers persevered until the present.
An aguada (catchment pond) at Tikal in 2008. A guide said they sometimes covered them with thatch to prevent evaporation.
Maya kings used the same rituals that had served them in the past in the hope that conditions would change; they did not. The same is true for global climate change. We know global climate change will not end anytime soon, so it is up to individuals, families and communities to act now and not wait for conditions to change. The only viable long-term solution is adaptation… It is the people, not politicians, who in the end resolve problems. — Lisa J. Lucero, author, Climate Change and Classic Maya Water Management by Lisa J. Lucero, Joel D. Gunn and Vernon L. Scarborough, published in Volume 3 of the journal, Water. 2011.
Along The Reservoir Trail At Tikal
Excerpt From Jaguar Wind And Waves (p. 59 )
APPARENTLY MY HUSBAND HAD BEEN COUNTING THE DAYS of my grieving because, early on the fifth day, servants with muscles like stone haulers came to move my belongings into the chamber next to his. I didn’t want any part of it, so Honey and I went for a walk between the reservoirs. The water levels were still high and the ducks made us laugh, splashing and upending their tails.
Whenever I walked the reservoir trail I remembered what my father said on the morning of his accession. Standing before thousands he’d said, “I come to the Mat not just to rule; I come to contribute.” The children heard this many times, but I couldn’t resist saying it again when Honey asked if I was still hoping to make a contribution beyond my duties as mistress of the palace and residence. Not having an answer, her question stayed with me.
Later in the day, alone with my thoughts, I sought an answer. Considering what has happened, is there anything I can do to contribute to Tikal? Was my grand contribution the fulfillment of Father’s alliance? Or is there something I can do now?
Excerpt From Jaguar Wind And Waves (p. 141 )
Because it held so many memories of my family, the reservoir trail had become my favorite place to walk and think. Early the next morning, with a thin blanket of fog resting on the water on both sides, I sat alone on the stump of a tree intending to speak to my ch’ulel about the vases when a tall, strikingly handsome young man with a severe, cob-shaped head approached. At first I thought he was carrying a staff, but it turned out to be a walking stick painted yellow. Judging from the tonsured hair that hung below his waist in back, his cotton loincloth, and high leather sandals, I judged him to be the son of a nobleman, perhaps an apprentice to a holy man, but he bore neither scars nor tattoos and his only jewels were jade florets in his ears. Unmarried men and warriors wore black body paint, yet his flesh was unpainted and fair beyond any I’d seen. Almost pink, like the inside of a shell.
Excerpt From Jaguar Wind And Waves (p. 163-164 )
Leaving them where the reservoir trail met the causeway, Gray Mouse and I continued around the elbow of the reservoir to see if we might reach the stone by going down the steps. Several women were down there getting water, so we knew the clay was solid enough to walk on. But there was vegetation growing high on mounds that blocked our view of the place where we saw the stone.
Gray Mouse and I spent the next day talking about what, if anything, could be done about it. First of all, I needed to get close to the stone. Given its size and shape, it was either a small monument, a piece of one, or not one of the monuments from Precious Forest. No matter, the possibility that it could have a foot carved into it gave me hope. I knew the palace reservoir had been the first to be dug at Tikal and lined with clay—long long ago. So in all that time any stone could have fallen into it—or been dumped there.
Gray Mouse suggested that I approach the stone haulers and compensate them to take a closer look and tell us what they found. I started on that course, but the thought of their seeing the stone before me changed my mind.
AT FIRST LIGHT, WITH FOG RISING FROM THE RESERVOIR, now looking like an enormous muddy canyon with trees and bushes growing out of mounds, Gray Mouse and I met Knotted Bee and his sons, Nakal and Nakoh, at the top of the steps. With cords on their shoulders and carrying slashers to cut through the vegetation, we descended the long wooden steps to the bottom where just a few strides away, women were filling their water jars. Had a guard or sentry seen me walking with sandals, wearing a bark-cloth sarong with no jewels, they would never have believed that I was the wife of the Great Prophet of Tollan. The black clay was hard along the wall, so we had no trouble getting over to the cliff face.
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