buried mirror: latest reflections

mesoamerica and the maya world

Category: symbology

Maya symbology: jaguar

jaguar motif at lamanai maya site, belize

According to joiseyshowaa, from whose photoset this image of an architectural element at the Maya site of Lamanai in western Belize is is taken, the decorative pattern represents a jaguar. The Maya admired the jaguar, whose habitat is tropical jungles, for his fearsome appearance and roar, and his stealth and prowess as a hunter and fisher.

In Mesoamerica jaguars were associated with shamans, who were thought to change into the beasts during rituals. Shamans and priest sometimes carried jaguar hides, wore jaguar clothing, or adorned themselves with necklaces made of jaguar teeth.

Jaguar gods were associated with night (or, paradoxically, the sun), caves, the underworld, and hunting. Belief in the terrifying were-jaguar — the product of a jaguar-human union — goes back to the Olmecs, but the cult of the jaguar reached its peak with the Maya — as is logical, since the Maya and the jaguar shared the same habitat.

Jaguars were sometimes sacrificed in rituals. At Copan, sixteen jaguars were sacrificed with the city state’s 16th ruler assumed the throne.

.

Unusual Guatemalan embroidery

guatemala embroidery representing constellations

Luis Figueroa, a columnist for Prensa Libre, maintains a blog called by the same name as his column, “Carpe Diem.” His most recent post included this image of an embroidery from Magdalena Milpas Altas (a municipality in the department of Sacatepéquez), Guatemala, ca. 1941. The textile is extremely unusual. Does it represent a particular constellation, and if so what is its significance?

The textile was exhibited at the Museo Ixchel de Traje Indigena, located on the campus of the Universidad Francisco Marroquín in zone 10 of the capital.

Maya Symbology: Bat

copan bat sculpture

The bat’s association with night and with caves was significant to the ancient Maya, who equated nightime with death and viewed caves as the gateway to the underworld, called Xibalba (literally, “place of fright”). At nightfall the sun appears to pass through the earth to enter the underworld.

In the northern Maya region, life-sustaining water is held in underground sinkholes, or cenotes, which are associated with Chak, the rain god. Thus from death comes life, a pattern seen again in the figure of the Maize God, who emerges from the underworld, through the crust of the earth, bringing forth the staple foodstuff of the Maya (as the rising sun heralds the daytime world).

Death and life also come together in the act of sacrifice, and a people as obsessed with bloodletting as the Maya could hardly fail to notice the vampire bat’s habit of making an incision in the skin of its victim and lapping up its blood. This is probably why some representations of the bat depict flint knives on the snout or wings.

Sometimes the bat is shown together with a severed human head, and in the Popul Vuh the hero twin Hunahpu’s head is cut off by the Cama Zotz, or “death bat.” So decapitation and sacrifice are among the qualities most strongly associated with bats by the ancient Maya.

The image above is a bat carving from the sourthern Maya site of Copan. Maya cities were identified with totem animals, and Copan’s was the bat, which was often displayed on the city’s emblem glyphs. This large carving, now in the Sculpture Musem at Copan, was probably a roof ornament.

LINK: Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya

Maya Symbology: Turtle

house of turtles, uxmal

Like the parrot I discussed previously, this turtle is located at the Puuc Maya site of Uxmal in the Yucatan. It’s one of the many turtles decorating the building known, not surprisingly, as the House of the Turtles, which is located at the northeast corner of the enormous platform housing the large structure known as the Governor’s Palace. The turtles decorate the cornice at the top of the building at more or less regular intervals. The turtles are realistically rendered, though their shells are decorated with decortive reliefs.

The function of the House of the Turtles is unclear, but it is clearly an integral structure in the Uxmal complex — its central doorways on the north and south are aligned with the archway and central doorway of the major building called the Nunnery. Although a rather small building (about 30 by 11 meters), the House of the Turtles is beautifully proportioned and has been hailed as a superb example of the Puuc style.

For the Maya the turtle was associated with water and with the earth. Not only are turtles found in aquatic habitats but their shells seem to have been associated with thunder because of their use as components of musical instruments such as drums. An image in the Codex Borgia depicts a turtle playing a drum.

The Atlaslike Maya deity (Pauahtun) who supported the world on his shoulders is sometimes depicted wearing a turtle shell on his head. Turtles shells are also associated with altars in some contexts, and the Maize God is sometimes shown emerging from a turtle shell.

Some of this information is drawn from The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya by Mary Miller and Karl Taube (London: Thames and Hudson, 1993). In dictionary format, this is a useful resource on Maya and Mesoamerican symbology.

Click image for larger view with a different crop.

Maya Symbology: Parrot

parrot atop the great pyramid at uxmal in the yucatan

This parrot (click for a larger view) is carved in a 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 abandonned.

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

Some rights reserved 2017 buried mirror: latest reflections. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons (attribution, noncommercial, no derivs: 3.0) License (US), although some of the work this blog incorporates may be separately licensed. Text and images by Thomas Christensen unless otherwise noted. For print permissions or other inquiries please request via rightreading.com/contact.htm.