mesoamerica and the maya world

Category: culture

Sites we like: La Antigua Daily Photo

You can hardly go wrong with Antigua, but Rudy Girón goes the extra mile. Every day he posts a new photo from the city, along with some pretty interesting commentary. Some of his favorite topics are food, architecture, and signage, but really nothing is out of bounds. Well worth checking out (click iamge below).

la antigua daily photo


maximon altar

According to, this is a fellow named Andy ( a professor of law and economics) sitting in front of his Maximon altar. As the blog succinctly notes, “En todo buen altar para Maximón no deben faltar el güaro, los cigarros, las candelas, perfumes, polvos, amuletos e inciensos” — every good Maximon altar must include guaro (a vodkalike drink), cigars, candels, perfumes, dust, amulets, and incense.

You can find more about Maximon here, together with my own photo of a Maximon altar.


huitlacoche image

Huitlacoche, or cuitlacoche, is a unique ingredient of Mexican cuisine. Its English name is “corn smut,” which helps to explain why it has never quite caught on north of the Rio Bravo. (James Beard tried, to little avail, to overcome this by calling it “the Mexican truffle.”) It’s basically a corn disease caused by a fungus that replaces normal corn kernels with something that looks like mushrooms.

cuitlacoche from mexgrocer.comSmuts are a class of fungi that are parasitic on flowering plants and form black dusty spore masses that resemble soot or smut. A farmer in the U.S. who spots this on his crop will move heaven and earth to get rid of it. But in Mexico the smoky-flavored huitlacoche — said to signify “raven’s excrement” in Nahuatl — is viewed by many as a delicacy. It is used to flavor quesadillas, tamales, soups, and other dishes.

Corn Fungus Tamales, recipe by Aaron Sanchez
Huitlacoche Soup, recipe by Ellen and Tom Duffy
Monteblanco brand

Huitlacoche image by Kai Hirdes via Wikipedia
Monteblanco image via Mexgrocer


San Jose El Viejo, Antigua, Guatemala

church of san jose el viejo, antigua, guatemala

This magnificent ruin is San Jose El Viejo in Antiguaga, Guatemala. In some ways it is the quintessence of the baroque, rather Moorish impulse in Antigua architecture.


Dichos are Spanish popular sayings. Unlike proverbios, which are more extended thoughts, dichos can be either brief phases or longer refranes. When I was running Mercury House I published a book by José Antonio Burciaga, called En Pocas Palabras /In Few Words: A Compendium of Latino Folk Wit and Wisdom. Sadly, Tony succumbed to cancer before the book was finished, so I finished it with my regular collaborator, Carol — mainly a matter of organizing and translating the sayings, which Tony had already collected.

I’ve always liked that book, and I refer to it often. So here are a few sample dichos:

  • De noche todos los gatos son pardos.
    All cats are gray in the night.
  • El mal ajeno da consejo.
    Other people’s problems give the best advice.
  • No toda gallina que cacarea pone huevo.
    Not every hen that cackles lays an egg.
  • Date buena vida y sentiras más la caída.
    The softer your life the harder your fall.
  • Buena vida, arrugas trae.
    A good life brings out wrinkles.
  • El que se hace miel, se lo comen las abejas.
    Who turns into honey will be eaten by bees.
  • El hambre es lo bueno, no la comida.
    Hunger is what is good, not the meal.
  • El hombre debe ser feo, fuerte, y formal.
    A man should be homely, hardy, and honorable.
  • Cada loco con su tema.
    Each fanatic with his fancy.
  • La cochina más flaca es la que quiebra el chiquero.
    The scrawniest pig is the one that breaks the pigpen.
  • Cada oveja con su pareja.
    Every lamb has her love

Like a lot of backlist titles, the book might be a little hard to find. If you can’t locate it at your locate independent bookstore, you can get it from Amazon (left link below), or from Powell’s (right link below), or elsewhere on the web (I get no royalties, but sales benefit Mercury House, a great literary nonprofit now under the direction of Jeremy Bigalke).

  burciaga, in few words/en pocas palabras

Mudejar architecture in La Antigua, Guatemala

facade of the church of la merced in antigua, guatemala

Antigua’s distinctive architecture is not all in a single style, yet a certain spirit seems somehow common to each of the examples. Elaborate facades such as that of La Merced (shown) have been called churrigueresque (a term indicating elaborate symmetrical ornamentation). Other writers have called Antigua’s architecture hispano-indigena. But S.D. Markman, in his excellent Colonial Architecture of Antigua Guatemala considers Antigua’s architecture to be in essence mudejar.

The term mudejar is applied to Moors who remained in Spain after the Christian reconquest. It is a corruption of the Arabic word mudajjan, meaning “domesticated.” In book arts, a mudejar binding is one decorated with intricate interlaced designs, and in architecture it refers to a late medieval and early Renaissance Spanish style influenced by Moorish tastes. The mudejar architectural style, in essence, involves the use of simple materials such as brick, tile, plaster, metals, and wood, which are then elaborately worked. For the Spanish workers who developed the style, labor and creativity were more obtainable than were fine, expensive materials.

Cartuja Monastery, Cadiz, Spain

According to Markman, the Spanish examples closest to the Antigua style are found in the provinces of Seville, Huelva, Cadiz, and Malaga (which collectively were called the Reino de Sevilla). “But this comparable stylistic mood is not to be found in the monumental churches of the capital cities of this part of Spain, rather in the small towns of the countryside.” The image at right is the Carduja Monastery in Cadiz, Spain (the image is from somewhere on the web, but I have lost the address).

The mudejar style was exported to the new world as a craft tradition, which underlay all of the iterations and evolutions of the architecture of the often-rebuilt city (most of its architectural landmarks contain elements from a variety of different periods). “The mudejar is the one Iberian style which predominates and underlies all the other recognizable styles from which the Antigua style is derived,” says Markman. It is “the basic core on which the other imported Iberian styles appear as an accretion. In this respect, the architectural tradition of Antigua is but an extension of that of the Reino de Sevilla where the mudejar style is not confined to a single stylistic period, but one which lies submerged in the nonindigenous styles such as the Gothic, Renaissance, and baroque. The same process of assimilation and acculturation of architectural styles seems to have taken place in Antigua.

In future posts we will have an opportunity to look in more detail at some of the elements that characterize the mudejar-influenced Antiguan style in architecture.

Robert Hansen’s Yucatan photography

While we’re on the subject of Yucatan art, let’s check out some black and white photography. Robert Hansen, who has been photographing the Yucatan for the past eight years, has collected his photos in a large-format book called Yucatan Passages, published by Laguna Wilderness Press. The image shown is Loltun cave, “a large cavern showing evidence of human occupation for as long as 10,000 years.” The cave is located south of Oxkutzcab. It is very difficult to photograph is these kinds of lighting conditions, and this image turned out splendidly. For information, visit his website (images are copyrighted; used here by permission).

loltun cave, by robert hansen

Samuel Barrera

barreraYucatan Living has a nice article on the Merida-based painter Samuel Barrera. Trained in law, Barrera developed a passion for painting while designing and creating theater sets. After years of struggle, most recently selling his art in the Parque de la Madre outside of the Jose Peon Contreras Theatre, Barrera seems to be breaking through, with several gallery exhibitions coming up. His canvases are often displayed in iron frames, like the example shown here.

View of temple 1, Tikal, from east plaza

This is a watercolor I did some years ago.

watercolor by thomas christensen, first view of temple one, tikal, from east plaza

Maya stela

 de young stela

This stela was purchased by the de Young museum in San Francisco in 1999. According to the museum, the stela’s origins are unknown. “It could not be identified by site, epigraphy, or style, and its imagery represented a blend of elements from works found in both Guatemala and Mexico,” said the museum in a statement. “This fact was corroborated by the many key art historians, archaeologists, and epigraphers whom we subsequently contacted.”

The relief appears to depict a standing female ruler. A snake wraps around her body, and out of its head appears the deity K’awil. This is the iconography of the vision serpent. Dates on the sculpture give the dates March 13, 761, and August 10, 760. Both the dates and the style suggest an origin in the southern Maya lowlands.

The Black Christ of Esquipulas

The town of Esquipulas in Guatemala is famous for its black Christ image, carved of dark balsam wood in the sixteenth century. The church is a famous pilgrimage site, and in 1995 Esquipulas was named “the spiritual center of Central America” by Pope John Paul.

The 1987 Central American peace treaty was called the Esquipulas Peace Agreement.

Narration in the video is in Spanish.

More Carnival in Merida

Before we take our leave of Carnival, let’s take a moment to enjoy this character’s colorful costume.

carnival costume, merida, yucatan

Carnival in Merida

The city of Merida in the Yucatan has one of the livelier Carnival celebrations in Mesoamerica. These pictures were taken 19 February, 2007.

a float at carnival in merida

performers at carnival in merida

carnival lights, merida, yucatan

El Bus

On the chicken bus.

chicken bus

Bonus: another chicken bus photo

Platanos en mole

A dish for any time of the day. Serves eight.


  • 3 ripe plantains
  • 0.5 lb. high-quality chocolate
  • 2 ounces “pepitoria” (pumpkin seeds?)
  • 2 ounces sesame
  • 0.5 ounce cinnamon
  • 2 chiles pasa (a kind of red chile pod similar to chile pasilla)


  • Slice the plantains horizontally in slightly diagonal high-centimeter strips and fry until golden
  • Roast the pumpkins seeds, sesame, cinnamon and chile in a pan
  • Mix the chocolate with two cups of water and combine with the spices; blend until smooth
  • Drip the sauce on the plantains, sugar to taste, and boil for five minutes

This recipe is via

Easter carpets in Antigua

One of the great festivals in Guatemala is Semana Santa in Antigua. On Easter celebrants bear heavy floats depicting images from the passion of Christ; the floats, some requiring dozens of carriers, may weigh thousands of pounds.

semana santa procession, antigua, guatemala

Elaborate carpets — alfombras — of pine needles, corn kernels, flowers, and sawdust are created on the cobbled streets. These beautiful artworks will soften the treads of the bearers of the heavy statuary as they make their way across the hard, uneven cobbles. And they will be destroyed by them.

easter alfombra, antigua, guatemala

These photos were taken many years ago. The corn in this alfombra detail is interesting. The figure appears to be presenting the corn as a form of offering. The corn seems to emerge from a cooking vessel.

Maize has been the main crop of Mesoamerica since time immemorial. One of the chief deities of the classic Maya was the corn god, who is associated with death and rebirth. He descends to the underworld and reemerges in youthful guise much like a young shoot breaking through the surface of the earth at the beginning of the growing season. So it is natural that he would become associated with Easter, a springtime festival that is also associated with death and rebirth.

The Art of Political Murder

the art of political murder, francisco goldman on guatemalan murder caseIlan Stavans reviews Francisco Goldman’s The Art of Political Murder in the Los Angeles Times. The book is a look at the 1998 murder of bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera, vicar-general of Guatemala City. Goldman’s book apparently imlpicates current presidential candidate Otto Pérez Molina in the murder. Stavans criticizes the book (which I have not yet read) as lacking focus and style; in Publishers Weekly, on the other hand, Trent Olson says that “Goldman manages a clear narrative,” asserting that “his journalism isn’t so much a departure from his fiction as an extension of his concerns with the fraught landscapes where ‘truth’ is as contested as the soil underfoot, yet central to battles waged over it.”

(image links to book page at amazon)



native women preparing manioc

For some time archaeologists have disputed whether manioc was a significant foodstuff of ancient Mesoamerica. While it seemed a logical possibility, there was scant hard evidence to support the thesis. Now a University of Colorado – Boulder team has uncovered an ancient field of manioc at a Maya site in present El Salvador, providing the first substantive evidence of the ancient use of manioc as a food crop in Mesoamerica.

Manioc, also known as cassava or yuca, is a member of the spurge family. Its potato-like root is often said to taste like a mixture of potato and coconut. It is extremely starchy and therefore is a good source of calories.

The image, Native Women Preparing Manioc for a Feast, by Theodor De Bry, is from Colonial Latin America. De Bry (1528–1598) was a Flemish engraver and publisher who specialized in depictions of explorations of the Americas (which he never visited).

This item is via La Casa Azteca. (More information there.)

Vanilla or Chocolate?

Both flavors have their origins in Mesoamerica.

This article on The Journey of the Vanilla Bean was published in the Evanston Review. It was pointed out by La Casa Azteca.
SEMI-RELATED: There’s a great series on Guatemalan food and drink at Antigua Daily Photo.

The fountain at La Merced, Antigua, Guatemala

merced fountain, antigua, guatemala, 1975

The church of La Merced is one of the most distinctive in Antigua. Its history is strongly marked by earthquakes. Originally built in the mid-sixteenth century, it was destroyed and rebuilt several times until assuming more or less its present shape in the eighteenth century. Perhaps its most striking feature, its churrigueresque facade, was added in the nineteenth century.

But this post is not about the church — I will save that for another time. This is about the fountain in the adjacent courtyard. Called the Fuente de Pescados, it dates from the eighteenth century; it was restored in 1944. Twenty-seven meters in diameter, it’s said to be the largest classical fountain in Guatemala, or in Central America, or in Latin America — it doesn’t really matter.

The fountain is in the shape of a water lily. Water lilies are more common in the lowlands, in which bodies of water tend to be still or slow-moving, than in the highlands. In Maya symbology, the water lily, perhaps as a result of the way it seems to emerge out of the watery depths, is associated with creation. A Lancandon legend says that the first god created a water lily, from which all the other gods emerged (Miller and Taube, The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya).

I took the picture at the top of this post some three decades ago. Compare it to the following one, which I took about five years ago. Here you can see that the surrounding arcades have been completely restored. The stucco-like surface has been replaced with brick. It’s not an unpleasant change, and now one can walk all the way around the courtyard, looking down on the fountain from many angles.

Still, the romantic quality of the ruins in the first photo brings a wave of nostalgia. I feel fortunate to have been among the last to see the fountain in this form. I don’t know when this latest restoration occurred, but I suspect it followed the massive earthquake that struck the highlands just a few months after the first picture was taken. Nothing is permanent in Mesoamerica, where Christian churches are built on the foundations of ancient temples, and the earth itself rearranges the surface of things at frequent intervals.

la merced fountain in antigua, guatemala, 200

Revolution in Guatemala, 1944

Jorge Ubico y Castañeda ruled as dictator of Guatemala from 1931 to 1944, the year documented in this great historical footage (with “Sail to the Moon” by Radiohead as a soundtrack). Ubico was one of the models for the president in Miguel Angel Asturias’s classic novel El Señor Presidente (The President). Asturias’s book stands as one of the greatest novels about the Latin American strongman.

In 1944 Ubico’s regime was overthrown by the “October Revolutionaries” after a general strike forced him to cede power to a cabal of his generals. Two young officers, Jacobo Arbenz and Francisco Javier Arana, executed a final coup, and then allowed a general election. In 1945 Juan José Arévalo was elected president, initiating was is called The Ten Years of Spring. The period ended when the United Fruit Company was nationalized and the CIA orchestrated a coup to undo the progressive reforms.


chicken bus in antigua

Thanks to Rudy of La Antigua Guatemala Daily Photo for pointing out “Zacatenango” by Francis Dávila, part of a compilation of electronic music from Guatemala. The compilation can be downloaded here.

The image was taken in Antigua in December 2001.

Here’s “Zacatenango”:

Antigua Door Knockers

Tigre fe54 has a nice set of door knocker photos from Antigua, Guatemala, at his flickr site. Clickable thumbnails appear below, via the Crossroads plugin.

Stela B, Copan

stela b, copan

In every civilization of the ancient world, there are art works and monuments that stand out among their fellows as objects of special character. The great portrait sculptures that stand in silent rows down the center of the Great Plaza of copan created one of these special places. They constitute one of the great masterpieces of the Maya legacy. Although the artists who made them did not sign their works and leave us their names, the patron of these great works did. He was Waxaklahun-Ubah-K’awil (commonly known as 18 Rabbit), the thirteenth king of the Copan dynasty.

— Linda Schele and Peter Mathews, The Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs

The trend in Maya archaeology has been away from architectural and fine arts connoisseurship and toward broader societal analysis, with new work focusing less on the grand monuments of the ruling elite than was the case in the past. A working archaeologist in the Maya area today is more likely to be sifting dirt for fragments of fish and animal bones than reconstructing a soaring temple overgrown with vegetation. But some achievements are too great to be resisted, and the stelae at Copan are among them.

Waxaklahun (whose name actually alludes not to a rabbit but to a War Serpent) assumed the thrown of Copan on July 19, 695, when the city was at the height of its power. He soon oversaw a prodigious program of construction of public monuments. His projects included Temple 22, a remodel of the ball court, and the initiation of work on the hieroglyphic stairs of temple 26, perhaps Copan’s most famous feature (see map). And, over a period of years, he filled the Great Plaza with a major series of stelae.

The stelae are in at least a couple of different styles. It was once thought that these styles relected an evolving artistic aesthetic, but we now know, from their inscriptions, that the historical sequence of the works does not correspond to the stylistic differences. Schele and Mathews suggest instead that the stelae were the works of two different artists (or workshops), one more “innovative,” producing works more fully in the round, and the other more “conservative” (traditional), producing works emphasizing shallower front and back reliefs.

Stela B is an example of the latter style. At the time of its construction (August 22, 731) the planet Venus appeared in the constellation Virgo, which the Maya associated with Chak, the rain god. The stela depicts Waxaklahun bedecked with the diadem of Chak in his headdress, and further allusions to Chak in his elaborate regal regalia. The stela formidably expresses the king’s royal authority and his association with Copan’s patron deities (complex allusions to the Macaw Mountain Lord are prominent on the reverse side).

Five years later, around the time Waxaklahun — now an old man who had reigned more than forty years — erected his last stela (Stela D) in 736, a representative of the Maya state of Kalakmul met with K’ak’-Tiliw, the vigorous, youthful ruler of Quirigua, a vassel state to Copan. Kalamul was an emerging power and the enemy of Copan’s trade partner, Tikal. Copan, though at the extreme southern limit of the Maya region, occupied a strategic position that offered the possibility of controlling trade in jade and obsidian through the Motogua valley. About a year after this portentous meeting, K’ak’-Tiliw attacked and defeated Waxaklahun. In the fighting the mighty patron of the Copan’s Great Plaza stelae was captured.

Waxaklahun was sacrificed to the gods in the Great Plaza of Quirigua. As he attended his priestly executioner he must seen that K’ak’-Tiliw’s monuments were not so fine as his own.

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

Song clips from the “golden age” of Mexican popular music

Xeni Jardin has posted a great list of classic Mexican tunes (“YouTubes to Make Your Mexican Grandmother Cry“). Well worth checking out.

Cumbia del Mole

Here’s another music video from contemporary Mesoamerica. The singer, Lila Downs, is of Mixteca descent on her mother’s side (Mixtecs are a people of Oaxaca).

Penguins in Bed

The Guatemalan singer Ricardo Arjona is accompanied by Angentian model Chenoa in this video version of his hit Pinguinos en la cama.

Maya Architecture and the Golden Mean

the golden mean at copan honduras

Mathematicians define the golden section as a relation in which the smaller unit is to te larger unit as the larger is to the sum. In other words, a:b = b:(a+b). The name for this relation is phi. Its numeric value is 1.618034. Phi is an interesting number. If you add 1 to it you get its square. If you subtract 1 from it, you get its reciprocal (1/phi). If you keep multiplying it by itself you get an infinite series that retains the phi proportion.

The thirteen-century Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci discovered that the phi proportion often manifests itself in nature as a spiral of increase found in snails, seashells, pinecones, and so forth. And so, it is said, did Maya mathematicians.

One element contributing to the beauty of Maya architecture may be its use of the golden section. (In the image above, I have drawn an approximate golden section over the opening atop the east court at the Maya ruins of Copan in Honduras.) Of course, we must beware of what a professor of mine called “the blueberry principle” — if you are out gathering blueberries you tend not to notice anything else, and you tend to see blueberries wherever you look. If we go looking for the golden section, we are likely to find it. But does this mean the Maya consciously employed it?

A researcher named Christopher Powell concluded that the answer to this question is “yes.” He says that the fundamental shape of Maya geometry is the golden section, and that the Maya composed such sections using a procedure that is brilliant in its simplicity. Using a cord, it is easy to construct a square. If the cord is doubled back on itself it obviously becomes half the length, and that halved cord can be used to find the midpoint of one of the sides of the square. Next, if the cord is placed on the midpoint and extended to one of the opposite corners, it can be swung like a compass in an arc that will define the length of a golden section, from which the final rectangle can be constructed.

Powell observed modern Yucatec Maya using this very technique. He was told that the use of the cord makes houses that are like flowers because of the relations of their proportions. His theory appears to have been confirmed by red marks that remain on some structures at Copan and Tikal and suggest sizing via this cord method.

In the Popul Vuh it is written that gods used the following method to lay out the cosmos:

Its four sides
Its four cornerings
Its measurings
Its four stakings

Its doubling-over cord measurement
Its stretching cord measurement
Its womb sky
Its womb earth
Four sides
Four corners as it is said


  • Linda Schele and Peter Mathews, The Code of Kings (Scribner)
  • Alan Christenson, tr., The Popul Vuh, translation adapted by Schele and Mathews
  • See also the Dennis Tedlock version of the Popul Vuh with his comment on this section in which he says that it is based on the cord approach to layout, and he reports that a source informed him that the passage “describes the measuring out of the sky and earth as if a cornfield were being laid out for cultivation.”
  • Christopher Powell

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.

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Some rights reserved 2022 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