buried mirror: latest reflections

mesoamerica and the maya world

Category: uxmal

Borges at Uxmal

borges by tom christensen

Over at Right Reading I’ve posted some comments about Borges’s trip to Uxmal when he was eighty.

Mayan Theater, Los Angeles

mayan theater, los angeles facade

Posting is a little light while I’m on the road. Meanwhile, for your amusement, here are a couple of images of the facade of the Mayan Theater (1040 Hill Street, near 11th Street) in Los Angeles.

The decorative motifs on the facade of the theater were inspired by elements of the late Maya sites of Uxmal and Chichen Itza in the Yucatan. The theater opened in 1927 with a performance of George Gershwin’s Oh, Kay! Over the years the neighborhood declined, and it became a site for porno films. I think now it’s a concert venue.

I went to a party at the Mayan Theater once. Booker T and the MGs Junior Walker and the All Stars performed.

mayan theater, los angeles -- detail of facade

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

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