The Dancing Maize God

Vessel of the Dancing Lords (A.D. 750/800)  Photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago. Maya Image Archive This vessel was produced in the Naranjo, Guatemala workshop for Lord K’ahk’ Ukalaw Chan Chaahk. At the top, above a band of symbols indicating the sky (a “sky band”), the hieroglyphs read: “His painting, (artist’s name?), artist sage, Lord Maxam, child of woman, Holy Lady Water-Venus, Lady Lord of Yaxhá (title?)(title?), child of man, Three Katun (60 year) Sacrificer, Lord Flint Face, Holy Lord of Naranjo, pure artisan.” The Classic Period name of the… Read More

Maize

The staple of ancient Maya life In the pre-dawn darkness, Gucumatz and Heart Of Heaven call on Fox, Coyote, Parrot and Crow to bring yellow and white maize from Paxil and Cayala, a mountain filled with seeds and fruits. Old Xmucane grinds the maize and, from the meal, the first four men are fashioned. Unlike the previous wooden race, these people of maize possess great knowledge and understanding and correctly give thanks to their creators. However, Gucumatz and Heart of Heaven are troubled; these corn men can see everywhere—through earth and sky… Read More

Ancestor Substitution

How balance and order are maintained in the cosmos Concepcion, Guatemala: A shaman and his mother converse with my guide The Tzutujil Maya who live around Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, use the term k’ex “substitute, exchange” to reference various ways in which the universe maintains balance or equilibrium. The perceived order in the cosmos has to be maintained on Earth—as above, so below. Substitution applies to generations. For instance, a child is considered a substitute for a deceased parent or grandparent. People are exchanged for one another through repetition, the same basic… Read More

Color and Symbolism

I’m standing in front of Rosalila, a life-size replica of a 6th century shrine, the centerpiece of the museum at the Copan, Honduras archaeological park. Although the structure was completely buried, it was found whole and in excellent condition with much of the original paint. Inside, there were ceramic incense burners containing charcoal, two of which were resting on sculpted, stone jaguar pedestals. There were offerings of flint knives for sacrificing, nine elaborate, ceremonial scepters wrapped in a deep blue bundle, carved jade jewelry, conch shells, stingray spines (for bloodletting rites), shark vertebrae,… Read More

Ancestor Veneration

The old men used to say that when men died, they didn’t perish, they once again began to live. . . They turned into spirits or gods. — Alfred Tozzer, American anthropologist This is likely a noble ancestor depicted on the frieze of a council house at Copan, Honduras. Among the ancient Maya, evidence of ancestor veneration shows up around the first century B.C. At that time, decisions were being made about the inheritance of land use. Land was not owned, but the right to use it was handed down. The principle… Read More

Thrones

The seat of divine power and influence Scholars observed that whenever kings are depicted on monuments, they stand higher than those around them. This indicates their elevated status and positions them closer to the sky and the celestial gods. On vases, where palace scenes are depicted, they may sit lower. But the throne signifies their anointed, higher position relative to others. Only the gods had the power, by virtue of divine lineage, to seat a king of the throne. Maya thrones were first seen in the Guatemalan Highlands in the Late Preclassic… Read More

Maya Monuments

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

Feasts And Banquets

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

Prophecy And Belief

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… Read More

Solar Observatory Or Performance Stage?

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… Read More