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mesoamerica and the maya world

Category: culture (Page 1 of 3)

Culture of Mesoamerica and the Maya World

Festival, Chichicastenango, Guatemala, 1975

Festival, Chichicastenango, Guatemala, 1975.

This post will be sticky in the “culture” category. To start with, here are some links that might be helpful. For now, many of these utilize the old Buried Mirror html, which is less responsive for mobile than the current look. Some are blog posts that may also appear below. These issues will get addressed.

Mayan Languages and Cultures

The Mesoamerican context
New system of orthography
Classification of Mayan languages and cultures
More on Mayan languages, Proto-Mayan, and the origins of the Maya
The Garifuna Journey

Maya Cosmology and Belief

Principal gods
Maya Calendar(s)
Maya numeric notation
Maximon, an auspicioius folk deity
Yaxche, the Maya Tree of Life

Daily Life

Manioc

Maya Art and Architecture

The Maya and the Golden Section
The Fountain at La Merced, La Antigua, Guatemala
Door knockers at La Antigua, Guatemala

Maya Symbology

Parrot
Turtle

The Contemporary Maya World

Penguins in Bed
Zacatenango

Festivals and Celebrations

Palos Voladores
Kites at Santiago Sacatepequez

Politics

The Art of Political Murder
Rigoberto Menchu in Poptun

Flowers in Mesoamerica

A festival in Chichicastenango, 1974, prob. Dec.

A festival in Chichicastenango, Dec. 1974.

I remember my first arrival in Guatemala, back in the 1970s. I had been studying literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, when I got what seemed to be an opportunity to teach at the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala (in fact I ended up teaching at the Colegio Americano). As we traveled from the airport to our new home in Mixco Viejo — then a rural suburb of Guatemala City where cattle grazed in fields, but today well inside the city sprawl — I saw workers sweeping mounds of flower petals out of the roads. Wow, I thought, I’m not in Madtown any more.

Flowers are so pervasive in Mesoamerica that it is easy to take them for granted.

Surrounded by flowers. Guatemala. Photo from Lucía García González's photostream.

Surrounded by flowers. Guatemala. Photo from Lucía García González‘s photostream.

It’s hard to image a festival in the lands of the Maya that does not involve flowers, and this tradition goes back to ancient times. In a discussion of the ruins at Uxmal, Linda Schele and Peter Mathews write of “a small torso in a rosette” found on that site:

This image represents the birth of a god from a flower. There are several beautiful figurines that show just such an emergence from a flower. Moreover, modern Lancandon myth holds that the gods were born from plumeria flowers, and among the modern Kaqchikel and K’iche’ of Guatemala the word for placenta is kotzij, or  “flower.”

Legends say that Quetzalcoatl sought to replace human sacrifice with offerings of flowers and butterflies. The Aztec gods Xochipilli, Macuilxochitl, and Xochiquetzal all had strong connections with flowers, and all were viewed as patrons of the arts.

Morning glories seemed to offer visions of the realm of the flowers. Their seeds (called “Ololiuhqui” in Nahuatl) were consumed to produce hallucinogenic visions during festivals to Tezcatlipoca, the god of rulers, sorcerers, and warriors (this is the god whose name translates as “smoking mirror“).

Some flowers offer connections to ancestors. Marigolds are a traditional offering on the Day of the Dead. Offerings of marigolds are mentioned in the Popul Vuh. In 1992, Jane H. Hill posited the existence of a “Flower World” among Mesoamerican peoples, and this work has more recently been extended by her together with Kelley Hays-Gilpin in an essay in the Journal of Anthropological Research. According to this research, the Flower World is the spirit land the dead go to, “a beautiful chromatic world that includes not only flowers but also colorful birds, butterflies, and rainbows.” Flowers, these authors conclude, are metaphors of the heart and soul.

Certainly flowers are at the heart and soul of Mesoamerican culture. And flowers continue to be a major motif in contemporary Maya painting (as witness any number of paintings at Joseph Johnson’s excellent Arte Maya).

A jacaranda tree, Antigua, Guatemala.

A jacaranda tree, Antigua, Guatemala.

 

 

Balam apju.

Balam Ajpu: Maya Hiphop as Political and Cultural Expression

 

Maya culture is among the most persistent in the world. People sometimes say things like “The disappearance of Maya civilization remains something of a mystery.” But anyone who has lived in the land of the Maya knows the culture remains vibrant and strong. Yes, the Maya abandoned their jungle temples for political, cultural, environmental, and climatic reasons. But their culture persists.

It doesn’t do this without adapting. The musical group Balam Ajpu shows how Maya musicians can incorporate assimilate trends without betraying their cultural heritage. (The band’s music is commonly called “Maya hiphop.” I don’t think “hiphop” is exactly right, but I have followed convention.) Following are some excerpts from articles about the group; follow the links for more.

Jose Garcia, Guernica magazine:

All of Balam Ajpu’s shows are that memorable. Far from a typical hip-hop recital, theirs is a ceremony, a rebellious spiritual gathering. Their lyrics are sincere tributes to the Mayan culture, Mother Nature, the forefathers and foremothers, the creators, the Earth, the stars, life. Their music: a fermented rendering of contemporary sounds. Marimbas, sonajas, turtle shells, hand-made drums, and birds chirping meet with acoustic guitars, basses, and violins to form slippery reggaes, smooth cumbias, and explosive Mayan raps.

Center for Latin American Studies, Vanderbilt University:

Balam Ajpu: Means Jaguar Warrior and represents duality, the opposites that complement each other, masculine and feminine energy. This group is made up of M.C.H.E., Tz’utu Kan, and Dr. Nativo, who crossed paths at Lake Atitlán…. Currently the three are part of the musical project Balam Ajpu, whose goal is to combine Mayan spirituality with art and to achieve a fusion between the indigenous Cosmovision, or worldview, and music. For the past five years, they have worked with girls and boys from the Atitlán region and Quetzaltenango through their school of Hip Hop Cosmovision, Casa Ajaw. They are part of the movement that is recovering the ancestral wisdom that the Conquest tried to silence, relying on ancient art and combining it with contemporary trends…. The musicians of Balam Ajpu refer to their creative work as “downloads” that they received through a series of ceremonies with spiritual guides like Venancio Morales. The lyrical content is based on a theological investigation in Tz’utujil. It evokes pre-Hispanic music, which it mixes with universal rhythms and influences.

Bandcamp Daily:

Read More

Mexico returns to its roots

Over at Frisco Vista I recently posted about my new bitters, called Old Tom’s Maximon Mole Bitters. They will definitely spice up a cocktail. So what better time to have another listen to Lila Downs’s great “Cumbia del Mole”?

Actually, I had planned to insert a video by Natalia Lafourcade, but I didn’t find one I liked enough. The impulse derived from this article in the New York Times, which says that Mexico is experiencing a new back-to-roots movement. (I think Ms. Downs was already there). The article begins:

When the pop singer Natalia Lafourcade stepped onto the stage of National Auditorium here last fall, it was a high point of a career that began more than 10 years ago, when she performed in grunge-inspired attire.

But for this concert, Ms. Lafourcade eschewed the ripped jeans. Instead, she wore pants from a Mexican designer and a crown of red roses, paying homage to the artist Frida Kahlo. Halfway through the show, she was joined by a band playing jarocho, a style of folk music from Veracruz.

“It was time to connect back with my origins,” said Ms. Lafourcade, 32. “I wanted to infuse my music with Mexican character.”

In a country that is struggling with pressing social, economic and political challenges yet possesses a rich cultural heritage, many emerging artists and trendsetters no longer feel compelled to look abroad for inspiration.

 

Ometochtli

Mesoamerican animal husbandry

Illustration of stone rabbit sculpture from the Oztoyahualco 15B apartment compound. (Manzanilla ed.1993; drawing by Fernando Botas). http://bit.ly/2bEl0bZ . Via http://bit.ly/2bDOKEN

Illustration of stone rabbit sculpture from the Oztoyahualco 15B apartment compound.
(Manzanilla ed.1993; drawing by Fernando Botas). http://bit.ly/2bEl0bZ. Via http://bit.ly/2bDOKEN.

A team of researchers led by Andrew Somerville of the University of California San Diego, as reported by Cynthia Graber in Scientific American, have produced new evidence that ancient Mesoamericans raised animals for food. Traditionally it was felt that they did not engage in such acitivites, evidentally because researchers were looking for large food animals such as the cattle and pigs introduced by Westerners.

Archaeologists had already noted ample rabbit remains at Teotihuacan, near modern Mexico City. The current research team, however, noted a few curious things:

  • Carbon isotope analysis provides evidence of the rabbit’s corn and cactus fruit diet, which is different from that of wild rabbits and suggests that they were raised domestically.
  • Ruins of what appears to be a dedicated rabbit pen have been discovered.
  • A rabbit statue was found at the site of the pen.

According to Mexconnect, domesticated rabbits are still a common feature of central Mexican cuisine:

The rabbit, still hunted but more often raised domestically, is popular in Central Mexico, where it is most often eaten adobado – marinated in a chile and spice rub – or estofado – stewed. The latter is a more suitable way of cooking larger rabbit, from three-and-a-half to four pounds. Smaller ones generally run from one-and-a-half to two pounds and can be prepared using shorter cooking methods such as frying or grilling. In either case, even domestically raised rabbit benefits a great deal from being marinated first.

Buen provecho!

Maya quiz

national geographic quiz on maya

National Geographic has an interesting quiz on the Maya. It’s fairly challenging — anyway, I got two answers wrong.

Drinking vessel, 600-800 CE

lacma drinking vessel from campeche area

The portion of this painted ceramic drinking vessel that is shown in this image shows a well-turned- jaguarsporting a knotted scarf and a deer antler. He is a wayob’ — the companion spirit of a Maya ruler. Other wayob’ shown on the other sides of this vessel are a toad and a serpent (the young man at right is emerging from the serpent’s jaws). The vessel, from the southern Campeche area, is in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

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Drinking Vessel, 600-800 CE. Mexico, Southern Campeche. Ceramic with cream, red, and black slip, H: 5 3/8 in., D: 5 1/8 in. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of the 2006 Collectors Committee.

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Maya foods that changed world cuisine

Christine Delsol identifies ten revolutionary Maya foods.

  1. Chocolate
  2. Vanilla
  3. Corn
  4. Chiles
  5. Tomatoes
  6. Black beans
  7. Avocado
  8. Sweet potato
  9. Squash
  10. Papaya

Pretty good list. Read what she has to say here.

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image from a Chiapas market from 10b travelling’s photostream

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A new discovery at El Mirador

A pair of monumental (26-foot) stucco panels have been discovered at the important classic Maya site of El Mirador in the Peten by a team led by Richard Hansen of Idaho State University. The figures in the panels appear to represent the heros twins of the Maya creation myth.

This is clearly an important find. The panels can be dated to the Late Preclassic period, from about 300 BCE to a little after the beginning of the common era.

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Video via MSNBC

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Happy Haab 5125

chajchaay, a maya ball game

Yesterday, Sunday Feb. 22, marked the first day of the Maya year 5125, according to the Maya solar calendar, or haab. The haab is also known as the “vague year,” because it did not adjust for the extra quarter day in the solar year. The Maya were, however, perfectly aware of the discrepancy, which they had calculated more precisely than was the case in Europe’s Julian calendar. Because they had several calendar systems it was not important to them that the haab include such an adjustment.

According to Prensa Latina, over the past couple of decades traditional Maya calendrical celebrations, which had been forced underground by centuries of repression, have become less secretive. The photo (by AFP via Straits Times (of all places, shows  men playing chajchaay, which is described in the caption as “an ancient Maya ball game,” in Guatemala City. It is questionable whether this game has any connection to those played on the ball courts of the classic Maya. Below is one of several YouTube videos showing the game.

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Maya multiplication

I don’t know anything about this. Is it really Maya?

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Viene el dia de los muertos

tom and friend at day of the dead

With Day of the Dead around the corner, Rafael Jesús González’s blog is well worth visiting. He traces the celebration from its ancient roots through the colonial period and into the present.

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Above: Me (right) and a friend, at the 2006 Dia de los Muertos celebration at the Oakland Museum. Tee shirt image by José Guadalupe Posada, photo by Anne Christensen.

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Photo Wednesday: Maximon

Maximon: A Maya Folk Deity

This image of Maximon comes from cito’s photostream

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Wilfredo Lam and Carlos Luna

Wilfredo Lam painting

Wilfredo Lam (1902-19982) was an influential modernist Cuban painter. Among those who acknowledge his influence is the contemporary painter Carlos Luna. While Luna was born in Cuba, his work “deals in part with the duality of Cuban and Mexican heritage,” according to the Museum of Latin American Art (MoLAA) in Long Beach, where a show of the artists’ work is being presented through the end of August. Luna’s work, like Lam’s, is rich in historical and cultural symbolism.

carlos luna, gran mambo

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Above: Wifredo Lam, Untitled, ca. 1947, oil on canvas 49 x 59 ¼ in.
Below: Carlos Luna, El Gran Mambo, 2006, oil on canvas, 144 x 192 in.

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Is that Maximon playing the marimba?

, along with some recollections of Maximon.

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Life has imputantly interfered with Buried Mirror’s posting schedule this summer. In upcoming days I will be backfilling and trying to get back into the flow.

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Volver volver

I’m back after a little medical absence.

Photo Wednesday: Painted table top

painted table top from Guanajuato, México

This photo of a table top painted with images of colorful fruit, taken in a crafts shop in Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato, Mexico, is from Lucy Nieto’s photostream.

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Juan Soriano at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

juan soriano, the dead girl (1938)

Juan Soriano (1920-2006) was born in Guadalajara, son of veterans of the Mexican revolution. Something of a prodigy, he developed his distinctive style after moving to Mexico City when he was fifteen.

According to the exhibition label for this painting (The Dead Girl, 1938, oil on panel, 18 1/2 x 31 1/2 inches (47 x 80 cm), Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Clifford, 1947, 1947-29-3),

Soriano painted this 1938 work shortly after seeing a Veracruz household whose front window displayed a dead child dressed like an angel, notifying the neighbors of the baby’s passing. Postmortem images of children were common in Mexican painting (and, later, photography) beginning in the colonial era. While this tradition originally developed in Renaissance Europe, it had a particular importance in Latin America. Mexican modernists Frida Kahlo, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Julio Castellanos also created famous examples of this theme.

John Everett Millais’ Ophelia (1852) makes an interesting contrast. Both figures are surrounded by flowers, but the flowers in Soriano’s picture only point up the starkness of the figure by their contrast; Millais’ Ophelia seems to be drifting into a flowery world — she holds flowers in her hand and even her dress echoes floral patterns. Millais’ Ophelia holds her hands open to her fate; Soriano’s girl clinches her hands together. In her madness Ophelia stares vacantly skyward; the eyes of Soriano’s girl are pressed tightly shut. The difference reflect the styles of the moment, but they also suggest something of the artists’ temperaments. Soriano’s world is one in which the very edges of the canvas seem to press in on the image with a suffocating force.

millais, ophelia, 1852

Fragile Demon: Juan Soriano in Mexico, 1935-1950 collects 16 early works by the artist. It runs through Sunday.

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Photo Wednesday

campeche chiles

Today’s photo, of chiles in a market in Campeche, comes from malias’ photostream.

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Mexico and the modern print

mexico y la estampa moderna

Mexico City’s Museo Nacional de Arte is offering what looks like a strong show of Mexican printmaking from 1920-1950. The full title is México y la Estampa Moderna, 1920-1950: Una Revolución en las Artes Gráficas. Included are works by Diego Rivera, Clemente Orozco, Leopoldo Méndez, and many less familiar artists. Click the image above for a video preview on the museum’s website. The exhibition runs through June 8.

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via Jim Johnston

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A Maya suspension bridge?

maya suspension bridge

A fellow named James O’Kon claims that the Maya built the longest bridge span in the ancient world.

His theory is based on computer reconstructions derived from a 12-foot high and 35-foot diameter rock formation in the Usamacinta River near the site of Yaxchilan, which flourished between 500 and 700. A similar second structure was discovered in 1992.

O’Kon, who is former chairman of the forensic council of the American Society of Civil Engineers, enlisted the services of his Atlanta engineering firm to create a reconstruction of the bridge.

To my eye the bridge does not look consistent with known Maya architecture.

The full story is at the Georgia Tech Alumni website, which is also the source of the image shown above.

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Ancient Maya produced high-quality textiles

girl with embroidered blouse in momostenango, guatemala

That the ancient Maya produced high-quality textiles will come as little surprise to anyone who has traveled through the modern Maya world. But because few textiles are preserved from ancient times, it has been difficult to confirm that this was the case. Now researchers at the University of Rhode Island have performed a lab analysis of forty-nine samples from a tomb at Copan. The analysis showed a high degree of sophistication in the textiles’ manufacture — one had a count of 100 yarns per inch, which would be high by modern technology and consequently “speaks to the technology they had at the time for making very fine fabrics” according to textiles conservator Margaret Ordoñez.

The story is at ScienceDaily. The article has a weird lead, which claims that “Very few textiles from the Mayan culture have survived.” When will people learn that the Maya culture is still very much alive? And that “Mayan” is the adjective for the language, not the culture?

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Image of girl from Momostenango from DavidDennis’ photostream

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Photo Wednesday

downtown guatemala city at night

This image of the National Palace and downtown Guatemala City at night is from Oscar Mota’s photostream.

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The war on plants

sunflower detail

Dale Pendell, author of Pharmako/Poeia, has argued that the “war on drugs” is like a religious war, intended to keep officially sanctioned drugs like alcohol and chocolate dominant. A new study, reported by Scott Norris in an article in National Geographic News, suggests that sunflowers may have been similarly suppressed by the Spanish in Mesoamerica.

It has long been believed that sunflowers originated in the east-central U.S. and only spread to Mexico in recent centuries. But the new study, led by David Lentz of the University of Cincinnati, argues that sunflowers have been domesticated in Mexico for at least 2000 years, which suggests an independent origin of domestication in Mexico.

This conclusion is based on plant remains discovered in Cueva del Gallo in the Mexican state of Morelos. The sunflower achenes (fruits containing seeds) from this site are larger than wild varieties, indicating domestication. They have been dated to 300 BCE.

“We have filled in the gaps with lots of additional data that now make the Mexican sunflower [domestication] hypothesis irrefutable,” Lentz said. “Given all available data, the best explanation is that the sunflower was domesticated twice.”

But Bruce Smith of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., insists that “genetic research shows that all present-day domesticated sunflowers originated from a single domestication event, from wild progenitor populations in the central United States.” Smith says that if sunflowers were domesticated in Mexico there should be more remains than have been observed.

Lentz responds that sunflowers were used differently in the two locations. In the U.S. they were primarily a foodstuff, but in Mexico they were mainly used for ceremonial purposes.

Lentz’s team interviewed indigenous people in different parts of Mexico where sunflowers are grown today.

Eleven of 14 indigenous groups had unique words for “sunflower” bearing no resemblance to the Spanish word for the same species, according to the new study. Spaniards did not arrive in Mexico until the 1500s.

This linguistic evidence—along with distinctive traditions associated with the plant—suggest a long history of indigenous Mexican use and not a more recent cultural borrowing, the researchers argue.

They also suggest that the Spanish may have suppressed indigenous use of the sunflower because of the plant’s symbolic associations with the sun god and warfare—hence the lack of modern Mexican remains with lineages that can be traced back to ancient times.

If Lentz is correct, one wonder what other ancient ceremonial plants might have been suppressed during the Conquest.

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image from charlie_cva’s photostream

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Maya temples

If figures somehow that Sun Ra would have done a tune called Mayan Temples. Far out?

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Adding up the bones

and arms, and hearts, and hands, and arrows . . .

Geographer Barbara Williams and mathematician Maria del Carmen Jorge y Jorge have, after three decades of labor, deciphered an Aztec code used to calculate the areas of land plots.

The Aztecs needed to calculate the area of irregular shaped parcels of land for tax purposes. Their calculations were recorded in two books, the Codex Vergara and the Codice de Santa Maria Asuncion, in which older documents written on tree bark or cotton cloth were presumably transcribed onto paper brought by Spanish conquistadors. According to an article by Alan Zarembo in the L. A. Times,

The pages of the books are filled with tiny property maps. For each plot, there are two drawings — one showing the lengths of the sides and another showing the area. The measurements are represented by seven symbols: lines, dots, arrows, hearts, hands, arms and bones. Each map also includes the name of the property owner and the soil type.

Researchers already knew what each map represented and the value of some of the measurements. A line, for example, was the standard unit of length, which was known as a tlalquahuitl, or rod, and in modern units would measure a little more than 8 feet.

When the researchers knew the values of the units in roughly rectangular plots, they could easily follow the logic of the Aztecs and reproduce their calculations by multiplying lengths and widths.

But they were stymied in calculating many plots because they didn’t know the value of the units. The breakthrough came when Jorge y Jorge, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, found that the values of some areas were prime numbers.

So now we know, a hand equaled 3/5 of a rod, an arrow was 1/2 , a heart was 2/5 , an arm was 1/3 , and a bone was 1/5.

But I would like to know more about how the Aztecs classified soil types.

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Guatemalan worry dolls

guatemala worry doll

Worry people are small, rather crude (but charming) dolls, usually sold in batches of several in a bag or box. As far as I know they are particular to the Maya of highland Guatemala. Children put them under their pillows at night as a sleep aid.

Tradition — or the vendors of the dolls — has it that one confesses one’s worry to the doll before putting it under the pillow. Then by morning the worry people will have taken that worry away.

The image is from dickuhne’s photostream.

La Maldicion de Malinche

Amparo Ochoa’s take on Mexican history.

Yucatan color

A nice sample of Yucatecan color from saguayo’s photostream.

colorful dishes and bowls from the yucatan

Maria Felix

Maria Felix epitomizes the glamor of the classic Mexican cinema. Her fame is linked with that of the great Veracruz composer and pianist Agustin Lara. In this homage to Maria Felix by 2somos2 the music has the flavor of Agustin Lara, but it doesn’t sound like his voice singing.

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