buried mirror: latest reflections

mesoamerica and the maya world

Month: February 2019

Maya Symbology: Parrot

Parrot Relief on Great Pyramid at Uxmal

This parrot is carved in stone near the top of the Great Pyramid at the classic Maya site of Uxmal in the Yucatan.

“Uxmal” means thrice-built, but archaeologists have uncovered at least five stages of construction. The Maya often constructed new pyramids on top of existing ones, and it is speculated that this pyramid, located in the southern part of the site, was being prepared for such a treatment when it was abandoned.

Parrots — especially macaws, the largest members of the parrot family, which are native to Mexico and Central and South America — were associated with fire, and the sun, by the Maya because of their bright colors. Images of macaws appear in the Dresden and Madrid codices, in both cases bearing torches. The hero twins of the Popul Vuh trick the death gods by placing macaw feathers at the end of cigars to make them appear to be burning.

In general in Mesocamerica fire represented the principle of change. For the Maya fire was a vehicle for for communicating with the gods. Offerings of bloody paper were burnt, the rising smoke viewed as carrying the people’s supplications heavenward.

The Spanish word for the macaw — guacamaya –is more euphonious and suits him better. When we lived in Mixco in Guatemala a large, very bright-colored guacamaya appeared in our yard and spent several months with us. It was a long time before I realized this was the same bird called macaw in English

The Observatory at Chichen Itza (El Caracol)

The Observatory at Chichen Itza (El Caracol)

Named in Spanish El Caracol (the snail) for the spiral staircase inside its tower, the observatory at the Maya-Toltec site of Chichen Itza appears to be oriented toward a variety of celestial phenomena, viewed through its doors and windows. An unusual structure, with a round building on a square platform, it was built in the tenth century CE, late in the Classic Maya period (what’s called the Terminal Classic). The platform enables sky viewing over the surrounding vegetation. Its northeast–southwest axis is oriented to the summer solstice sunrise and the winter solstice sunset.

The central tower has partly collapsed, making it difficult to determine all of the observatory’s astronomical aspects. It is clear, however, that it was designed to trace the movements of the planet Venus with particular care. Venus was associated with a war deity, and it possible that one of the uses of the observatory was the planning of military activities. A grand staircase at the front of the building is – uniquely among Chichen Itza buildings – oriented to 27.5 degrees north of west, the northern extreme of the path of Venus.

Among the great Maya cities, Chichen Itza has a particularly extensive range of architectural elements, to which the observatory certainly contributes. The city is thought to have had an unusually diverse population, perhaps contributing to its variety of architectural styles.

Palo Volante, Chichicastenango

Palo Volante, Chichicastenango, Guatemala

During the fiesta of Santo Tomas (Dec. 21), in Chichicastenango in the Guatemalan highlands, extremely tall pine poles are consecrated and erected in the plaza for the ceremony of the palo volador — the flying pole. Pole dancers climb in pairs to the top via platforms and ropes, and then they spin at the end of the ropes dizzyingly (and dangerously) down in great swooping circles. The ropes are attached to a frame that rotates at the top of the pole.

In the background is the church of Santa Tomas, which was built on top of a pre-Columbian temple. I had assumed that the ceremony’s origins lay in the Maya tradition of yaxche, the tree of life but Anthropology of Guatemala connects it to the bird deity, Itzamna:

In the pre-conquest period, the dance was said to be associated with the bird deity, Itzamna, and the recreation or regeneration of the world. A flute player stood on the top of the pole and played flute music that imitated the sound of birds singing. The “flying bird men’ represented the four directions. And spinning around the pole represented the regeneration of the world.

After the arrival of Christianity, the interpretation of the dance was altered. The ‘flying bird men’ were replaced by Angels. And their spinning descent to the ground represented the descent of the Angels into the Underworld to do battle with the forces of darkness

Santo Tomas is Chichi’s patron saint, and with Christmas approaching this festival is one of the years biggest events, perhaps equaled only by the semana santa festivites in La Antigua. The festival attracts a very large crowd from all over the highlands. The rowdy, noisy, alcohol-fueled ceremony extends for several days around the saint’s official days. That day is marked by colorful processions, which include the baile de la conquista, the dance of the conquest, in which masked dancers portray the Spanish conquistados. It is the best market day of the year in Chichi, which is the prime highlands market town.

I took this photo in 1975.

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