The Sacred World Tree (Ceiba)

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

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

Jade

The ancient Mayas most precious stone Ear Ornaments The Classic Maya ascribed a number of meanings to jade, including maize, centrality, and rulership, as well as a material embodiment of wind and the vitalizing breath soul. Because of its close relationship to the breath spirit, jade was an important component of funerary rites and the ritual conjuring of gods and ancestors. Carved in floral form, jade earspools were considered supernatural sources or passageways for the breath spirit, frequently portrayed as a bead or a serpent emerging from the center of the jade… 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

Shamanism

A shaman in his workshop. Catarina, Guatemala.   Shamans were specialists in ecstasy, a state of mind that allows them to move freely beyond the ordinary world, beyond death itself, to deal directly with the gods, demons, ancestors and other unseen but potent things that control the world of the living. – David Freidel, Archaeologist The perception that everything in the cosmos is imbued with the life force and interconnected, gave rise to the practice of contacting the spirits of ancestors and gods in altered states of consciousness, asking for guidance, favors and prophecy…. Read More

Hearth Stones

Modeling creation by establishing a center in a house and vitalizing it Operating on the principle, as above so below, the ancients “centered” their homes in the world following the example of the celestial deities who placed three “stones” in the universe to establish the center. The hearth wasn’t necessarily placed in the center of the house. The centering it provided was symbolic and spiritual. A Maya farmer showed me this hearth in a house that was no longer used. The guardian-spirit had long been released.  According to art historian Julia Kappleman,… 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

Ball Game

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… Read More

K’awiil: Ancient Maya Lightning Lord

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