Maya Structures Were Made Sacred

By installing them with life For the ancients, there was no separation between the secular and the sacred. Everything was sacred, ensouled with ch’ulel, a vital source that comes from the sun. Beyond the city or village there was chaotic space—the “wilds”—peopled by animals, ghosts, demons, spirits and “foreigners.” These were sometimes considered hostile, but it and they also contained ch’ulel. Because human beings couldn’t live in chaos—the wilds—life and living was all about maintaining order within the caah, the community. The model for it was (and remains) nature and the cosmos,… Read More

Maya Creation Myths

The events of creation are recorded on monuments throughout the Maya region. At larger cities such as Tikal, Uaxactun, Copan, Palenque, El Mirador and Caracol the more detailed inscriptions name the involved deities and provide dates. The information varies somewhat from place to place and across time, but there are commonalities that closely match the creation myth described in the Popol Vuh, a written account of creation, and other stories derived from K’iche’ oral traditions, such that scholars tend to agree in principle, if not in the details of the ancient Maya… Read More

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

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

Water Management

The rise and fall of intensive agriculture in the Maya area In this model of central Tikal, Guatemala the dark-colored basins indicate the location of  large, very deep reservoirs. The entire city was built with slopes so the runoff would fill them during the rainy season. These sustained the city all year longl. Around 2000 BC much of the Central Lowlands of the Yucatan peninsula consisted of year-round wetlands (bajos or swamps). The rainy season usually insures that the swamps were inundated, but during the dry season, they dried up and solidified… 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

Period Ending Rites

Calendar dates that warranted the “planting” of a monument Lord Smoke Shell, 15th Ruler of Copan. Stela N (Front) Period endings in the long count were the greatest of ritual occasions for Classic-era Maya kings. Nearly all of the stone stelae at sites such as Copan, Tikal, and Yaxchilan were meant to commemorate these days and, most especially, the ceremonies that the rulers oversaw in their celebration: casting incense, drilling fire, sacrificing war captives, as well as in a rite called ‘the binding of stones.’ One of the principal duties of Maya… 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

Jaguar

Lord of the Underworld The jaguar was the most powerful animal in the ancient Maya world. It’s not surprising that it played a prominent role in mythology and kingship. Piecing together the interpretations of several scholars, mythically, K’inich Ajaw, the Sun god, created the jaguar to represent him in the world. He gave him the color of his power (reddish-orange) and the voice of thunder (the voice of the sun), and entrusted him to watch over his creation.  Each night, when K’inich Ajaw descended into the “West Door” and entered Xibalba he… Read More

Storytelling Through Dance

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 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… Read More