Maya Stone Monuments: Stelae

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… Read More

Ancient Maya War And Warriors

Ritualized skirmishes evolved into 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.  Alfred Tozzer   War was the way… Read More

Climate Change and Drought

A 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… Read More

Dugout Canoes And Mythology

Paddler gods escorted the Maize God across the Milky Way                                                                                                                 Lake Peten Itza, Guatemala By 400 B.C., salt was being “shipped” by canoes from northern Yucatan to Tikal in the Guatemalan jungle by way of Cerros, Belize… Read More

The Sacred World Tree (Ceiba)

This is a young ceiba. The thorns protect the tree from animals, especially the peccary who like the bark. The spikes disappear when the tree matures. The ceiba is the largest tree in the Mesoamerican tropical forest, so it’s not surprising that the Maya would use it as a model for the cosmos. The stature of the actual tree with roots deep in the underworld, the tall trunk and branches that touched the sky, makes it an ideal representation of the three realms inhabited by gods and demons. The ideological version, an… Read More

Maya Buildings and Houses Were Made Sacred

By installing spirits within them, they were given 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 came from the sun. Beyond the city or village there were chaotic spaces referred to as “the wilds.” These were the places of animals, ghosts, demons, spirits and “foreigners.” While these were sometimes talked about as hostile, the wilds (wilderness) and everything in it contained ch’ulel, a spirit. Because human beings couldn’t live in chaos—the wilds—life and living was all… 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 both in the cosmos and in the family—that mirrors it 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… Read More

Ancient Maya 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

Ancient Maya 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