Saturday, May 26, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 10: The Maya Cosmos

Incense burner shaped in the image of a Maya god. Mérida's Museum of Anthropology and History (see also Part 9 of this series) contains an excellent section on Maya religion, including this burner for copal incense. The Maya worshiped a pantheon of at least two dozen major gods, and many other minor ones. Most of the gods ruled over multiple areas of life, and often these areas overlapped with other gods. In addition, a god might be known by several different names. All this tends to make Maya religion exceedingly complex. In general, Maya gods were benevolent, charitable, and accessible, unlike the severe and threatening gods of Central Mexico. The Maya gods could, however, punish those who didn't worship them with respect and the proper rituals. Unfortunately, not all of the artifacts depicting gods were labeled with their names. This handsome fellow may (or may not) be Ah Kin, god of the sun, or Ah Puch, god of death, or even Itzamna, the father of the gods.

Itzamna, the "father of the gods". This image was definitely identified as Itzamna (the Godfather, to you Mario Puso fans). He is both a hero and a god, making him a rather enigmatic figure. Itzamna ruled the heavens, controlling day and night. As such, he is related to the sun, the moon, rain, agriculture, maiz (corn), medicine, divination, and the celestial bodies of the Pleiades and Venus. He is also considered the god of knowledge and is credited with the invention of hieroglyphic writing, the calendar, and the writing of the codices (religious texts and histories). He is usually represented, as in this statue, as old, lean-faced, with sunken cheeks, and toothless. Any of us would look like this, with all those responsibilities!

Hun Nal Yeh, the god of maiz and forests. Also known as Yum Kaax, he is unlike many of the other gods in his appearance. Most of the others, like Itzamna, are represented as old, haggard, and sometimes with monstrous features. Hun Nal Yeh, by contrast, appears as youthful, smooth-faced, and vigorous. Maiz, or corn, was the staff of life for the ancient Maya. They believed that humans were created from maiz by the Hero Twins, a pair of figures who were somewhat less than gods and somewhat more than human. Hun Nal Yeh also ruled the forests surrounding the Maya that produced most of the other foods and materials necessary for daily life. Overall, he represented abundance and prosperity. Hun Nal Yen was therefore an extremely important god, even though below Itzamna in the pecking order.

Another unnamed, but no doubt important, member of the pantheon. This statue is part of another large censer. In addition to an extravagant head dress, he is shown with a long, animal-like snout with his tongue hanging out like a panting dog. With his left hand, he holds out a small cup or pot, a gesture often seen in these god figures. The vessels often hold materials related to the area of life over which the god rules. His appearance and posture somewhat resemble Ah Puch, the god of death, also known as Yum Kimil, and Kisin. The titles of Ah Puch included Prince of Darkness and Lord of Drought. Oddly, he was seen as a timid sort, even though he was also related to sacrifice and war. The Maya saw the cosmos as 13 superimposed heavens, from the sky down to the earth. Below the earth were 9 additional levels, the lowest of which was Mitnal, over which Ah Puch ruled.

Sacred decorations

A human figure emerges from the open jaws of a snake (Uxmal between 800 AD -950 AD). This sculpture was once mounted high on a wall at Uxmal, one of the greatest of Yucatan's ancient cities. Uxmal was the most important city in the Puuc area south of Mérida, and remained important even after the Mexicanized Maya invaded and conquered it in the Post Classic era. Representations of human figures emerging from snakes' mouths are also found at Tollan, the capital of the Toltec Empire, another of the curious similarities archaeologists have found between the these two geographically separated civilizations. When I first saw carvings like this, and the ones at Tollan, I thought the snake was devouring the human. Later, I learned that these are a symbols of rebirth. For the Maya death was not final, but merely one stage in a continuous cycle, represented by the disappearance and reappearance of Venus, the Morning Star.

An Atlantean, doing its bit to hold up the world. The figure probably was one of four holding up  corners of a stone altar, which represented the world. Atlanteans are yet another cultural crossover found both at Tollan and at Chichen Itza. In the Maya context, the figures were called Bacab and represented the four immensely strong gods who held up the four corners of the world, with each corner being one of the cardinal directions.

Stone censer, probably from Chichen Itza. One way of showing devotion to the gods was the burning of copal, a fragrant tree resin. Copal is actually a derivative of the Nahuatl word copalli, meaning "incense". The Maya call it pom, and continue to burn it as part of rituals that have ancient roots. The sculptured head of this censer has the look of the rigid, militarized society that emerged after the takeover by the Itzas.

Maya warfare

Stone head of a helmeted warrior (Chichen Itza between 850 AD-1100 AD). Up until the 1970s, many archaeologists believed the Maya to be peaceful stargazers and mystics. Then, experts like Linda Schele began to decode the Maya hieroglyphics, and a new picture emerged. It turned out that the last two descriptions were true, but they they were definitely not peaceful. Long before the Mexicanized Maya invasion of the 10th Century AD, the Maya city states in Yucatan, Chiapas, and Central America had fiercely warred among themselves. Sometimes the cause was dynastic, sometimes it was a struggle over trade routes or precious resources like jade deposits, and sometimes it may have been a quest for captives to sacrifice to the gods.

An ancient warrior crouches, ready for combat.  Clutching a spear in his right hand and a round shield in his left, he wears a helmet on his head and a ferocious, narrow-eyed expression. Armor would have been made of wood, leather, or quilted cotton. Warfare was an elite occupation in which the general population probably did not participate, except in case of the overthrow of a ruler. Armies were not large, probably in the range of 500-1000 men on a side, organized and led by a figure known as the Halach Uinic. Since there was a close relationship between religion and warfare, campaigns were often timed around celestial events such as the cycles of Venus.

A selection of Maya weapons. These include spear and arrow points, large blades for hand weapons, and smaller blades for daggers. On the upper right is the stone head of a club or hand axe. In general, our information about ancient battle tactics is unclear, but surprise attacks sometimes occurred like the one in which the ruler of the subordinate state of Quiriguá ambushed, captured, and sacrificed his overlord, the ruler of Copan. In a pitched battle, two armies would approach each other close enough to launch long-range missiles. To give extra distance and force, warriors often used the atlatl, or spear-thrower. Bows and arrows also were used, but not widely. When the distance weapons were exhausted, the armies would close for hand-to-hand combat, using their obsidian and chert bladed weapons. At this point, any discipline probably broke down and the battle would have become a melee between individuals. Since everyone knew the fate of captives was torture and sacrifice, the fighting would have been fierce.

The Ball Game

Nobles watch the ball players from the the walls of the Great Ball Court of Chichen Itza. In overall size, this was the largest court in all of Mesoamerica, exceeded in length only by the court at the Guachimontanes in Western Mexico. The ball game served both religious and political purposes, and in many ways simulated combat. On a religious level, the struggle in the ball court reenacted that of the Hero Twins against the Lords of Xilbalba (the Underworld). In addition, the game was sometimes used as an alternative to war to settle disputes between city states. In the drawing above, you can see the Temple of Kulkulkan in the upper left background. On top of the wall to its right is the Temple of the Jaguars. Set into the far wall about 7 meters (21 ft) above the players is a stone ring which casts a long diagonal shadow across the wall.

Stone ring from the Ball Court of Oxkintok, dated 713 AD. Like Maya military tactics, the precise rules of the ball game are unclear. One way of scoring was apparently to pass the ball through the ring. This would have been exceedingly difficult since it was set so high on the wall, and the players could move the heavy rubber ball only with their hips, chests, and heads. One theory is that the object of the game, other than scoring through the ring, was somewhat like badminton, i.e. to keep the ball off the ground and in play. From the carvings on the walls at Chichen Itza, it is clear that some of the players were sacrificed after the game. Whether those accorded this dubious honor were the losers or the winners is the subject of an on-going dispute. Although the Maya built the greatest of all the ball courts, and played the game nearly everywhere in their world, they did not invent it. The ball game appears to have originated with the Olmecs who built the earliest known court in approximately 1400 BC. Today, indigenous people in the northern state of Sinaloa still play a version of the ball game called ullama (without human sacrifice, however).

Cenote offerings

Offerings thrown into cenotes ranged from small jade pieces to the occasional human being. Cenotes are limestone sinkholes formed when water filtering down to underground rivers weakens the limestone above. When it collapses, a circular or oval pit filled with water is formed. Cenotes are found along the stress lines in Yucatan's limestone shelf formed by the impact of the great meteor which hit the Yucatan coast 65 million years ago, killing off the earth's dinosaurs. Cenotes, along with the springs found in caves, formed the primary source of water for many of the pre-hispanic cities of northern Yucatan. Accordingly, water and caves strongly influenced Maya religious practices. They believed Chaac, the god of rain, lived in cenotes. The caves were viewed as entrances to Xibalba.

Carved jade cenote offering. The Maya saw jade as being of divine origin and much more important than gold. It was used both for religious objects and for personal decoration. Jade is a very hard material and therefore difficult to carve, especially with little more than stone or bone tools. Regardless, Maya craftsmen created countless exquisitely detailed pieces, as can be seen on the fragment above. The kinds of jade jewelry created included ear plugs, pendants, necklaces, masks, pectorals wristbands, bracelets, and even jade chips to insert into people's teeth.

Many jade necklaces were also found in the cenote. As a divine material, jade was associated with fertility, and the green shoots of new corn. Bodies of the dead, particularly royal figures and the nobility, were often adorned with jade jewelry. Pakal, the Great King of Palenque, was buried in his pyramid tomb wearing a beautifully constructed jade death mask. Dead kings wore such masks so that the Lords of Xibalba would accord him the proper respect. Jade beads were often placed in the mouths of the dead as a kind of spiritual food. Other objects offered up to cenotes, included copper and gold bells, masks, cups, figurines, and the human being. As the 20th Century dawned, American archaeologist Edward Thompson dredged the Chichen Itza cenote and recovered many of the objects already mentioned, but also the bones of men, women, and children.

The Cult of Death

Bust of a war captive from the Owl's Temple, Chichen Itza. By the expression on his face, this fellow is extremely unhappy with his situation. However, the real tipoff may be his crossed arms. This is a posture often found on images of captives, when they aren't shown with hands bound behind them. Given the jade bracelet on his right wrist, and his necklace, he was probably a noble captured in battle. The fate of such captives was rarely good, since high-status captives were nearly always sacrificed, sometimes after extensive torture. While it is true that human sacrifice in the Maya Classic Era world was never on the assembly-line basis found among the Aztecs of the Post-Classic world, it was far from rare. This became particularly true after the Itzas and other Mexicanized Mayas arrived on the scene. These Gulf Coast Maya tribes had wholeheartedly adopted the Toltec death cult and all of its images, as well as the sophisticated Toltec military organization and tactics which enabled their rapid conquest of Yucatan.

Chac Mool found at Chichen Itza. The concept of Chac Mools like the one above may have originated with the Toltecs, and many have been found at Tollan, their capital. Both there and at Chichen Itza, they are closely associated with warrior temples and human sacrifice. A Chac Mool nearly always has certain features. The figure lies on its back, knees bent, while leaning on its elbows. The head, always wearing a distinctive hat and large square ear projections, is turned and gazes off into the distance. The hands meet at the stomach and hold a bowl or plate, possibly to receive the still warm and bleeding heart of the freshly sacrificed captive.

Stone skulls from a tzompantli, or skull rack. Tzompantli are prominent features of both Chichen Itza and Tollan. In both ancient cities, great platforms stand on which skull racks once rose high. In both cities, these platforms are immediately adjacent to large ball courts, and not far from shrines to the eagle and jaguar military cults. The stone skulls above were merely symbols of the real thing. Both the Itzas and the Toltecs mounted recently decapitated and skinned heads on long racks containing hundreds of previously placed skulls. There were row upon row of skulls, and the rows were stacked many layers high. Tzompantlis did not originate with either the Toltecs or Itzas, however. Archaeologists have found evidence of skull racks in Oaxaca State dating as far back as 1500 BC, the beginning of the Olmec era. The purpose of the skull racks seems to have been intimidation of foreign or domestic enemies. Had I lived in that era, they certainly would gotten my attention.

This completes Part 10 of my NW Yucatan series. I hope I have been able to give you a glimpse of the complex religious practice of the Maya, which interwove religious, military, and political themes. If you would like to make a comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly. I always welcome feedback.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

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