Monday, April 18, 2011

Guatemala Part 2a: Maya rulers & religion

Detail of Maya altar at Guatemala's Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología. We visited the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology during our brief stay in Guatemala City as part of our Caravan Tour of the country. This is a spectacular museum, with displays and artifacts representing all the major archaeological sites in Guatemala, and all of the stages of Maya civilization's development. In addition, there was a knockout display of textiles and Maya traditional clothing styles. The altar shown above, and also later in this posting, was one of my favorite pieces. The craft, realism, and sensitivity of the stone work was amazing. In this detail, you can see every fingernail, every stray wisp of hair, and the jewelry and finery of a noble figure of the time. The figure is carrying on an animated conversation with another different but equally detailed noble. Their expressions and gestures are lively and realistic. In addition, every available surface was covered with Maya hieroglyphic text, beautiful in itself. For a map of Guatemala City showing how to find the museum, click here.

Because the museum's displays were so extensive, I got a huge number of wonderful photos. After agonizing over choosing which to use, I decided to do two postings rather than one. The first will focus on the ruling class, religion, the Maya Codex, and artistic representations of the human face. The second will cover day-to-day life, with pottery, tools, objects of personal adornment, and artifacts which artfully use human and animal representations. Woven through both postings will be an italicized account of Pre-Columbian Maya history in Guatemala.

Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología

The National Museum is sparkling clean and very well arranged. Jorge, our tour director, gave us a walking tour through the main exhibits, then left us to wander on our own. I like the solo wandering best because it is difficult to take photos and follow a tour. Not only do I miss out on the tour monologue, but too many people get in the middle of my photos.

Archaeologists believe the first humans arrived in what is now Guatemala as early as 18,000 BC. The earliest settlements were by hunter-gatherers known as Paleo-Indians in about 6500 BC. Pollen samples of cultivated maize (corn) have been dated as early as 3500 BC. Ceramic pottery was in use as early as 2500 BC in lowland settlements on the Pacific Coast and the northern area known as Petén. Between 2000 BC and 400 BC, people in the mountain valley around present-day Antigua were using pottery showing that they had trade relations with people on the Pacific Coast.

Statue of a Maya warrior-noble. This piece was one of two guarding the main entrance of the museum. Although it was carved by a modern artist, it faithfully represents what such a Maya warrior-noble would have worn and how he would have carried himself. His headdress would have been made of multicolored feathers. The object in his right hand is a wood and jade hand-axe, a formidable weapon against anything but the steel armor worn by the conquistadors. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, the young officer under Hernán Cortéz who wrote "The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico" had great respect for the skill, discipline, and bravery of the indigenous warriors he fought. After the Conquest, Diaz del Castillo spent the last part of his life in Guatemala where he wrote his History and where the original is now kept.

Archaeologists have divided the time between these early settlements and the Spanish Conquest into three broad eras. The Preclassic (2000 BC-250 AD), Classic (250 AD-900 AD), and Postclassic (900-1520 AD). It is also worth noting that archaeology is a constantly developing field. New discoveries regularly change our understanding of different periods, and the cultures involved. The Olmecs have long been considered the "mother of Mesoamerican cultures". However, recent discoveries in Monte Alto (Pacific Coast of Guatemala) show a culture distinct from the Olmecs which may even pre-date them as the first complex culture of Mesoamerica. The Olmecs, great traders and travelers, definitely had an impact on the ancient Maya culture in a number of areas, and in Retalhuleu (southwest Guatemala) we find the only ancient city in the Americas with clearly Mayan and Olmec features.

Circular courtyard of the National Museum. The museum is itself architecturally beautiful. In the center is a round courtyard, open to the sky. Behind the pillars ringing the edge stand incredibly intricate stelae. Such sculpted stone shafts rise as high as 35 feet and weigh as much as 60 tons in sites like Quiriguá, but are smaller at the museum. They were used as historical monuments, and announcements of accessions to the throne and great victories. Stelae were closely associated with the concept of divine kingship.

Recent discoveries at a Preclassic site called El Mirador (600 BC-300 BC), on the northern border between Guatemala and Mexico, show a far greater level of civilization than anyone imagined existed in the Preclassic era. La Danta Pyramid at El Mirador contains a volume of over 2,800,000 cubic meters, making it one of the largest in the entire world. The vast number of structures at the site indicate the population of this city may have been greater than any other in the Americas. Archaeologists working at the site believe the Maya in this area organized the Kan Kingdom in 1500 BC, the first political state in the Americas. The kingdom included 26 cities connected by broad, raised, limestone and stucco highways called sacbeob that cut arrow-straight through the dense jungle.

Maya kingdoms and their rulers and religion

A Maya ruler arrives for a temple ceremony. The museum has a number of small displays like this to help visitors visualize life in ancient Maya times. Here, a ruler is borne by slaves carrying his litter into a small plaza. Awaiting him are a variety of feathered and jeweled nobles and servants. One blows a long horn in greeting. Waiting at the top of the temple steps sits the priest of the temple. Maya civilization was not an empire in the same way that Teotihuacan, or the Toltecs, or the Aztecs had empires. Maya power was dispersed among city-states, each ruled by a divinely-sanctioned dynasty of kings.

Classic era Maya civilization in Guatemala was centered in the Petén area in the northern pan-handle of the country. Petén is a huge, flat or gently-rolling lowland area, with a limestone base and covered by thick jungle. In the approximate center is Lago Petén Itza. Most of the western border with Mexico is set by the winding course of the Usumacinta River. The eastern border with Belize is simply a straight north-south line through the jungle, as is the east-west line of the northern border with Mexico. Of course, none of these borders would have meant anything to the ancient Maya. Numerous rivers cut through the Petén, in addition to the Usumacinta on the west, making it much better watered than the Yucatan Peninsula which is Petén's northern extension. Classic era Maya cities are thickly distributed throughout the Petén. Tikal, perhaps the largest and greatest of all Classic Maya cities is located about a 1 hour drive to the northeast from the modern city of Flores on the shore of  Lago Petén Itza.

El Cargador, an Olmec-style stela from the Preclassic era. Modern-day politicians habitually hark back to "the forefathers" to support their own legitimacy. The early Maya were no different. The stela above was created some time between 400 BC and 200 BC by an early Preclassic ruler. He ordered the sculptor to use a style that melded Olmec with Maya. The Olmec civilization had ended by 400 BC and was already looked upon as "the good old days". Then, about 150 AD, near the end of the Preclassic era, another ruler named Tak'alik Ab'aj unearthed the stela and reused it to connect himself to the ancient, almost-mythical-by-now, Olmec civilization. Talk about recycling!

The great city of El Mirador was overwhelmed by the military power of the newly ascendant Tikal right about this time. The Classic era of Maya civilization ran from about 200 AD to 800 AD. Art, architecture, mathematics, astronomy, and literature flowered. The Classic era's geography centered on Tikal, the largest city, but extended from the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico to northern Honduras and from Guatemala's Pacific Coast to the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. Politically, it was not an empire, but was more like ancient Greece, with competing city-states alternately warring and trading with one another.

Sitting in solitary splendor, a Maya king gazes out from centuries past. Wearing an elaborate headdress, and a richly embroidered cape thrown over his shoulders, this Maya ruler exudes power and confidence. Of course, that is exactly the image that stelae are supposed to present to the world, sort of a billboard for the Big Guy. Most billboards don't last 1,500 years, however.

In the Classic Maya world, Tikal was contemporaneous with Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico, and Uxmal in Yucatan, Mexico, among others. The cities of the Classic Maya world would have been in contact with each other through trade and sometimes warfare. In addition, they were in contact with the other great civilizations outside the Maya world such as Monte Alban of the Zapotecs in Oaxaca, Mexico, and Teotihuacan, just north of present-day Mexico City. In fact, Teotihuacan artifacts such as censers (incense burners) found at Tikal were on display at the museum. There is also evidence that a Teotihuacan prince named K'ak'Sih ("Fire-born") became ruler of Tikal during the Classic period, and died there in 402 AD. 

Magnificent throne from the Maya city of Piedras Negras. The face on the left side of the back of the throne is the same as in the first picture in this posting. Aside from the gorgeous carving, the most interesting aspect of the throne is that the back of it is actually the large face of a supernatural being. The holes around the two small faces are the eyes and in between is the nose. The hieroglyphs that cover the front and legs tell the story of the enthronement and succession of various kings of Piedras Negras. The whole throne, beginning with the two nobles conversing so animatedly, is a masterwork of grace and technique.

The throne was created in the late Classic period at the western Petén city of Piedras Negras on the Usumacinta River. Piedras Negras was an important independent city state occupied from the mid-7th Century BC to 850 AD. Its position on the Usumacinta was strategically important both for trade and for warfare. Piedras Negras was allied with the city of Yaxchilan, about 40k (20 mi) up the river in what is now Chiapas, Mexico. Piedras Negras' greatest period was from 400 AD to about 810 AD. At its peak, 50,000 people may have lived in or around the city. One of the unique artistic aspects of Piedras Negras are the existence of "artists' signatures" on some monuments that have enabled the identification individual artists who did various work.

The king and his captives. Above, a ruler sits cross legged on a low stool while two men, bound at the wrists, kneel before him. From their headdresses and earrings, they appear to be captured nobles. Both men seem to be earnestly supplicating the ruler, while he points, rather disdainfully, at the captive on the left. The small dot just in front of the ruler's nose indicates speech. The men look anxious, and should, since their fate is almost certainly sacrifice. Among the variety of reasons a Maya ruler might go to war, the capture of nobles, or even a rival king, for sacrifice stood out. Decapitation was often the method used. Battles were fought twice, once for real, and once as a elaborate ceremony with the live captives paraded before their final act. 13 Rabbit, the king of the northern Honduras city of Copán, lost his life in just this way. His rival, the king of Quiriguá in nearby Guatemala, captured and executed him, a disaster for Copán.

Things began to fall apart in 600 AD, when all the temples and elite palaces in Teotihuacan were torched. The common people stuck around for another 150 years, but by 750 AD, the capital of that great empire stood empty. Monte Alban lasted a bit longer, but by 900 AD, its day was over too. Palenque and the other cities of the Chiapas highlands were ruins after 800 AD. Tikal and the great cities of the Maya heartland of Petén followed suit, and before long stood silent as the jungle enveloped them.

Playing "top dog" over a big cat. The stela above is a masterpiece of political propaganda. The ruler appears to be dancing, with one foot raised and his arms swaying. Underneath his feet lies a jaguar, looking up at the ruler with respectful awe. The jaguar is the largest and most powerful cat in the Western Hemisphere. In the world, only the African lion and Indian tiger are larger. To the ancient Maya he represented power, agility, hunting skill, bravery, and a connection with another world. Jaguars hunt at night and the Maya believed night and day are two different worlds. The day is the place of the earth and the living, the night is the world of the spirits and the ancestors.  By doing his "happy feet" jig above the supine--and obedient--jaguar, the ruler is portraying himself as all powerful. However, in the late Classic era, things were deteriorating, with droughts and failing crops caused in part by deforestation and overpopulation. Wars and uprisings were increasing. The common people were losing faith. As Shakespeare said, the ruler "doth protest too much".

 After about 800 AD, Mesoamerica entered a period called the Postclassic which was similar to the Dark Ages in Europe. Warfare between the remnants of great states raged over resources. A militarized state called the Toltec empire arose with a lust for war, barbarity, and human sacrifice that was almost Nazi-like. Maya who had adopted Toltec modes of warfare seized northern Yucatan cities like Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Mayapan. Archaeologists call them "Mexicanized Maya." This Postclassic period includes the Aztecs, who were a late part of the waves of Chichimec invaders from the north. The earlier waves had brought down even the Toltecs. The Aztecs, who greatly admired the Toltecs, went on to found a brilliant civilization of their own. The dark side of Aztec civilization was human sacrifice on an industrial scale. And then came the ultimate holocaust, the Spanish Conquest. By the time Hernán Cortés passed through Guatemala in the 1520s, the Classic era Maya cities had been lost deep in the jungle for 7 centuries.

Maya Religion

One of the supports for a late Classic altar at Piedras Negras. This huge, rather grumpy-looking stone monster head supported a temple altar at Piedras Negras about 790 AD. It would no doubt inspire the requisite degree of awe among those who approached. Maya societies were theocratic, that is to say the kings were also high priests and considered divine in themselves. The chief god was Hunab Ku, creator of the world. Another incarnation of Hunab Ku was Itzamna, lord of the heavens, and of day and night. He brought rain and was the patron of medicine and writing. Itzamna was worshiped by the priests and was the patron of royal dynasties. Two gods important to common people were Yum Kaax, god of maize (corn) and Chac who was actually four gods in one. Chac was responsible for rain and there was one Chac for each of the 4 cardinal directions. The rainbow god Ix Chel was responsible for healing, childbirth, and weaving, areas of special concern to women. There was even the god Ixtab, who saw to it that suicides went to a special heaven. In addition, each day, month, and year was controlled by special gods. All this was almost as complicated as Christianity, with its Trinity and pantheon of innumerable saints, angels, and Old Testament prophets.

Kneeling priest carries a censer in his left hand. He may be sprinkling something with his right. Every  important ritual involved burning copal incense in devices called censers. Some were small and relatively simple like the hand-held one above. Others were large and incredibly elaborate. They have been found everywhere from temple steps, to caves, to the insides of pyramids. Censers were often associated with rulers and rulership. Copal, or pom as the Maya call it, is a very aromatic tree resin that has been used from Olmec times until today. While visiting churches in remote Guatemalan villages, we found Maya women burning copal on the front steps. Other expressions of worship included feathered banners hung from doorways, and dances by men and women in the plaza wearing feathers and bells and accompanied by drums, whistles, rattles, flutes, and wood trumpets like that in the temple scene shown earlier in this posting. Participants often took hallucinogenic mushrooms, or smoked strong tobacco to produce similar effects. Such experiences were also produced through pain, by self-piercing the tongue or genitals with sharp spines. Myself, I'd go with the mushrooms.

Ball game marker from Kaminaljuyu, associated with a tomb. Made of volcanic basalt, it is similar to those found in Teotihuacan, a further demonstration of the influence of that far-away trading empire. The ball game had a religious significance throughout Mesoamerica. At least in some areas, the game was considered a re-enactment of the victory of the Hero Twins over the Lords of the Underworld, part of the Maya creation myth. The ball game was also associated with human sacrifice, but it is not clear whether the losers or the winners were sacrificed, nor what the actual rules of the game were. It is known that the players used a hard rubber ball, ranging in size from a grapefruit to smaller than a soccer ball. In some courts, there were stone rings set in the walls through which the ball must pass to score. Players wore helmets and leather padding around their waists and hips. Relief carvings at ball courts indicate that the use of hands or feet to move the ball was forbidden. Nearly every ancient Mesoamerican city we have visited, whether Maya or not, has possessed at least one ball court, and sometimes several.

Recreation of a Maya tomb. Archaeologists working with the museum created a display showing a Maya tomb they had found. The body is laid out full length on some sort of matting. Nearby are "grave goods", typically food and other small items to help the departed on his journey to the underworld. Covering the walls are paintings related to death and the underworld. The Maya deeply respected death and thought that certain forms of death were more noble, such as that occurring in battle, suicide, or childbirth. Such people would immediately be transported to heaven. Evil and guilty people suffered during their stay in Xibalba, the Underworld. The body in tombs often had maize in its mouth, both as food for the journey and because maize represents rebirth. Other favorites for placement in the mouth were jade or stone beads to be used as currency in the passage through Xilbalba. Often graves were located in or near caves, which were considered entrances to Xilbalba. Red was considered the color of death and the bodies were often covered by cinnabar, a reddish mineral.

The famous Maya Codex

A long section of an original Maya codex was on display. A codex is a folding book made from the bark of a wild fig or Amate tree. The Maya called the paper from the bark huun. The brown lines separating panels in the photo above are crease marks from the folds in the ancient and very fragile document. Huun was developed around the 5th Century AD, and was superior to the papyrus paper used by the Romans of the same era. The codices were written by special scribes under the sponsorship of the Tonsured Maize God and the Howler Monkey God. Their subjects included religion, astronomy, and Maya histories reaching back 800 years or more.

Detail of Maya codex: battling a serpent. In the panel above, a half-human, half-monster wrestles with a huge blue snake. The half-human figure wields a Maya battle ax with a jade blade as he prepares to smite the snake. He appears to be standing in a shower of water, and the snake is also associated with such showers in other panel. Four horizontal rows of Maya hieroglyphs cross the panel from left to right. Such hieroglyphs on codices and on stone monuments baffled European explorers and later archaeologists for hundreds of years. Some thought they were simply decorative elements. Others thought they were picture-writing like Egyptian hieroglyphs, and still others thought they might be purely phonetic. Many thought they could never be decyphered. Finally, beginning in the 1970s, the code was cracked by a team led by an archaeological artist named Linda Schele. They realized that the script was a combination of picture-writing and phonetics, and that there was still a connection with modern Maya languages. Suddenly a window swung open on the ancient world of the Maya. Many beliefs about them underwent drastic changes, including the one that they were non-violent mystics chiefly engaged in stargazing.

Codex detail: more snakes and monsters. In another panel, the snake on the right appears to wear a top hat while pursuing a couple of the monster figures. The monster figure in the middle is upside down, which usually represents someone dead or at least defeated. Score one for the snake. Both the defeated monster and the one on the left are carrying Maya battle axes. The snake is again shown under what appears to be a shower of water. There was no interpretation at the display so I am only reporting my observations and impressions. Tragically, almost all the Maya codices were seized and burned by Catholic priests shortly after the Conquest. One of the leading figures in this tragic episode was Bishop Diego de Landa who organized a huge bonfire in the Yucatan in 1562. The conversions of the Maya had not been going well, and many slipped back into the old religions. Landa felt that the existence of the codices encouraged these desertions. When the Spanish priests lit the bonfire, de Landa and the others were astonished to see the anguish of the Maya, as they watched their entire history and culture go up in flames. Only a few codices survived, including this one in the National Archaeological Museum.

Human faces in Maya art

Late Classic Stucco head from ancient Ceibal in the Petén. Moulded sometime between 600 AD and 900AD, this is one of the many unusual busts I found in the museum. It actually struck me as rather modern-looking. The Maya artists were members of the elite, sometimes minor sons of the ruler. They made stucco through mixing burned limestone with an organic adhesive from a local tree called Holol, adding another mineral called Sascab to complete the mix. Sometimes the human representations were of actual people, and this may have been one.

Stone fragment from a late Classic censer from La Joyanca in Petén. Dated between 600 AD - 925 AD, this face is unusual because it portrays a man with a very distinct goatee. Indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere generally have less facial hair than Europeans or others of the Eastern Hemisphere. I once got a rather indignant comment from a person taking exception to my statement that some of the Olmec carvings show bearded men. The person was convinced that this was impossible. And yet, how do you argue with a sculptural fragment like that shown above? Clearly some Maya grew beards.

Stylized stone profile was associated with a tomb. The closed eye and relaxed face seem to indicate a person asleep, or perhaps dead. I have seen very similar profiles at Monte Alban in Oaxaca, Mexico. In that case, the profile was associated with the ball game. Since the Zapotecs of Monte Alban and the Maya regularly traded, there may indeed be some connection. Of course, since there was no sign with this profile, the above is only my own educated speculation.

Stucco mask of the Classic era (250 AD - 925 AD) from Cancuen, in Petén. Again, a rather realistic stucco face. I believe this may be a mask, given the eye-holes. The Maya wore masks during important events, including everything from births to battle. The most elaborate masks tended to be used to cover the faces of the dead, such as the famous jade mask of Palenque ruler Pakal. Sometimes they showed the faces of ordinary people, such as the one above, in weddings and to commemorate births and deaths.

This concludes the first of two parts on Guatemala's National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. I hope you have enjoyed this tour of the museum and of Guatemala's ancient Maya history. I always appreciate feedback, and if you'd like to comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I  can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Thank you so much Jim!!

    As one who spends most of his Mexico time in the Yucatán, I appreciate you Maya articles!!

  2. Beautiful. Insightful. Thank you, Jan

  3. Hi Jim,
    I saw the obsidian tool, and to me it looks like a tool for scraping wood to make arrows or dowels.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim