The book “The Maya” by Michael D. Coe and Stephen Houston is an encyclopaedia of the Mayan world. To discuss all the subject matters written on this book will take me a whole book. Instead, this article is going to focus mainly on various aspects of the book, parts that I have found interesting to mention. Mayan thought and culture can be reached by esoteric works such as the books of Chilam Balam or the Popol Vuh, offering indigenous perspectives mixed with outside views. Court cases show colonial enthusiasm for stamping out local beliefs, but equally clear evidence of resilience, which indirectly tell us about their world. Physical evidences in murals, ceramics, shell and stone carving, modelled stucco and paintings on walls and pots are other excellent sources of information. Out the hundreds of pieces of writing that the Mayas must have created, only four codices have survived, the Madrid, Dresden, Paris and Grocier codices, which are completely ritual. They are ritual-astronomic works compiled in the northern area during the post-classic period.

Characteristics shared amongst Mesoamerican Indians were a hieroglyphic writing, books of fig-bark paper or deerskin, a complex calendar, knowledge of the movements of the planets, especially of Venus, against the dynamic background of the stars, a game played with rubber ball and on a special court, highly specialised markets, human sacrifices and self-sacrifice, highly complex pantheistic religion, a cosmic cycle of creation and destruction and a universe with specific colours and gods assigned to the four cardinal points and to the centre.

Even though there are thirty-two languages derived from original Proto-Mayan language, the Mayan language used by scribes was Tukateco in the northern area of Yucatan and Ch’olan through the central area. However, recent discoveries point at the language of inscriptions being classic Ch’olti’an. This is a pre-language that derived into a language still spoken at Copan and Tikal 2000 years ago.

The authors speak about phases and periods with different trends. They tell of the Locoma phase, in pre-dynastic times, 1600 – 1500 BC, when there appeared first ranked societies and amongst other discoveries were the first known Mayan deities, the Wind god is an example. The Mayas were greatly influenced by the Olmecs in about 1000 to 400 BC, which is the time when this civilisation flourished. This was a culture represented by a distinctive style of gigantic basalt sculptures, elaborate tombs and spectacular buried offerings of jade and serpentine figurines. The themes of those figurines are of features of a snarling jaguar with human characteristics, often those of weeping children, the Maize god or the god of the rain. It is also believed that the Olmecs were the architects of what became Mesoamerican elaborated calendars, knowledge of astronomy, and therefore, were the originators of complex societies in the area.

The jump into Maya classic period was in late pre-classic, in 400 BC to 250 AD, with a cultural evolution in all aspects: a very elaborated calendar, writing, temple-pyramids and palaces of limestone masonry with vaulted rooms, etc. This period started when Olmec culture declined. It was the time of the rise of El Mirador, which has the first vestiges of hieroglyphic writing and of the calendar. Writings perhaps used to record the doings of kings and dynasties, we don’t know, as the writings are not yet understood.

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The calendar is one of the most important characteristics of the Mayas. It demonstrates an understanding of the universe that the Europe of the time did not have. They had a calendar round of 52 years consisting of two permutating cycles, one of 260 days, representing the intermeshing of a sequence of the numbers 1 to 13 with 20 named days, having those names same animal and mythic associations in every culture. Every single day had its own omens and associations. The 20 days acted as a kind of perpetual fortune-telling machine guiding the destinies of the Maya and all the peoples of Mexico. The 13 Bak’Tun – long great cycle among the Classic Maya was actually embedded in a far larger structure dubbed as the grand long count, which enabled to make calculations thousands and even millions of years into the cosmic past and future.

Amongst important deities, in Izapa we find a part human part fish, most likely shark, who might have represented the Mayan god Chahk, patron of lightnings and rain or the Principal Bird Deity (PBD), the monstrous form of Wuqub Kaquix or 7 Macaw, an anthropomorphic bird appearing in the Popol Vuh with the hero twins side by side, while the PBD descends to the fruit tree. The book of the Popol Vuh is a great epic of the K’iche Maya, speaking of god father Tepew and Q’ukumatz and the brought forth of the earth from a water void, endowing it with animals and plants. The progenitors fashioned human-like creatures, firstly made of mud, next wooden figures, then humans made of flesh, then, after their destruction, true humans made of maize were made. The book is a creation story fundamentally agricultural, relating to the annual planting and harvest cycle of maize, the Maya staff of life. The connections of the Maize god and his double brother, to the lords of Xibalba and to the underworld is reflected on the book, ending both brothers being sacrificed by the underworld deities. This though does not end here, as the daughter of one of the underworld lords passed under a tree and took a prohibited fruit, becoming magically impregnated, being consequently expelled from the underworld and giving birth to the twin brothers, who inherited from the lords of Xibalba this trickster characteristic, which helped them defeating the lords of the underworld. Also by trickery will the twin brothers got rip of their half-brothers and also of Wuqub Kaquix and other monsters, achieving a final triumph with the resurrection of their father the Maize god and their transformation into the sun and the moon. The Popol Vuh has a clear significance related to the cycle of maize fertility, to the cycle of nature birth and rebirth.

A burial found at Tikal contained a single skeleton, lacking thigh bones and head, but with richness of goods around, which hints at an individual who perished in battle, mutilated by his enemies and recovered his body afterwards. The remains were wrapped in textiles, a greenstone mask with shell-inlaid eyes and teeth was sewn as a head. A stingray spine, symbol of self-sacrifice, and a spondylus shell were part of the content of the burial. Dr Coe believed it could have been the tomb of Yax Ehb Xook, first step shark, origin of Tikal dynasty or perhaps a ruler bringing a change in royal status. Another extraordinary well-preserved and interesting fresco is found at the site of San Bartolo. This is the oldest Maya painting known. The mural depicts the creation of humankind and of maize. The North face shows the Maize god removing a bottle gourd of water from the cave accompanied by 4 women. The West wall shows one of four Hunahpus (twin brother), offering a sacrificed deer to the Principal Bird Deity while perforing his penis. The Principal Bird Deity stands on a world-direction tree and holds a two headed serpent on its mouth, and one of the serpents descends to eat its fruit (the world-direction tree). In this mural there is a sacrificed deer and a fish (same images found at the Dresden codex). Also, it appears the Maize god with his Olmec mask beating a turtle shell within a quatrefoil cave, itself placed within a gigantic turtle (representing maybe the earth). This might be interpreted as the birth of music and dance, facilitated by raucous rain gods.

The classic period is characteristic of lowland Maya world usage of the long count calendar on their monuments. A Leide plaque made of jade and depicting a ruler dancing over a surrendered enemy, which was a typical image on the Maya world, may have been a posthumous portrait of an ancestor, and it probes, together with another plaque found, the usage of the long count calendar in the lowland Maya, in this case in Tikal. Another important characteristic of the classic period was the influence of Teotihuacan in the Maya world. The art coming from Teotihuacan was permeated with war symbolism and this reflected in Maya art. The pyramid of the feather serpent, an early version of the god Quetzalcoatl, patron god of priesthood, is another example of its influence in the Maya world. Teotihuacan allowed for local cultural continuity and had outright interference in dynastic matters with profound implications for the course of Maya history. In Tikal for example, later dynastic annals retrospectively reference a putative founder, the eight successor, Chak Tok Ich’aak or Great Jaguar Paw, who entered the water, the underworld. On that date of 378 AD, Sihyaj K’Ahk or Fire is Born, showed up on the scene through a natural route marching between the gulf coast plain and Tikal. This figure wasn’t of Maya dynasty, but general of a strange figure whose very non-Maya hieroglyph is a spear-thrower conjoined to an owl, motif well known in Teotihuacan. This strongly suggests an invasion with execution of the Maya ruler. Teotihuacan influence was also felt in other important towns such as Copan or Calakmul, where in a square monument one of the main rulers was named West Kalomite, the arrival, and having the ruler war googles such as the ones depicted in characters at Teotihuacan. In Yaxchilan appears a scene on a lintel which shows a bloodletting rite which took place in 681 AD, the accession day of Itzamnaaj Bahlam II or Shield Jaguar the Great, with a kneeling figure of his wife, holding a bowl in which a stingray spine and bloodied paper have been placed. Before her rises a double-headed snake from whose mouths appear a warrior and a head of Tlaloc, the Teotihuacan god of war.

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The murals at Bonampak depict a story of a battle, its aftermath and the victory celebrations against a background of satirised jungle foliage. A skirmish takes place among magnificently arrayed Maya warriors, while musicians blow long war trumpets of wood of bark. The scene shifts to a stepped platform in Bonampak itself; the prisoners have been stripped and their nails are torn from the fingers or their hands are lacerated. Heads are laying on beds of leaves and one prisoner is tortured. A naked figure is pleading for his life, while Yajaw Kan Muwaan, clad in Jaguar-skin battle-jacket and surrendered by his subordinates in gorgeous costume. Among the spectators there is a lady in a white robe, holding a folding-screen fan. The ruler’s wife as she is, is identified as coming from Yaxchilan. In another depiction, one of the ceremonies is a group of dancers fantastically disguised as gods of wind and water, accompanied by an orchestra of rattles, drums, turtle carapaces and long trumpets. Perhaps the culminating scene is the great sacrificial dance performed to the sound of trumpets by noble men; in preparation, white-robed Maya ladies seated on a throne draw blood from their tongues, and a strange, pot bellied, dwarf-like figure standing on a palanquin is carried on-stage.

In Palenque we find relief tablets carved with long hieroglyphic texts exhibiting the motif of two individual males, one taller than the other, falling each other on either side of a ceremonial object, which in one case is the mask of the Jaguar god of the underworld, the sun in its night aspect, before two crossed spears, and in the other case it shows a branching bejewelled world tree surmounted by a supernatural bird. The temple of the inscriptions had the same function as the pyramids in ancient Egypt. The discovery of Pakal’s crypt, of Tikal’s temple I, of Fiery Claw in Calakmul, suggest that temple-pyramids functioned as sepulchral monuments, dedicated to the worship of deceased kings. In Altunha, it was found the “Sun god’s tomb,” where the corpse had then been placed on a wooden platform, accompanied by skins of jaguars, pumas, matting and cordage, and necklaces and pendants of jade and spondylus shell.

In the relief carving of the sarcophagus the youthful-appearing Pakal the Great falls through gigantic fleshless jaws into the underworld; above him rises the world tree, surmounted by the bird-monster Wuqub Kaquix. A beautiful jade mask lies there. A large jade was held in each hand and another was placed in the mouth, a practice documented in late Yukateko Maya, the aztecs and the Chinese. Pakal, whose real name was K’Inich Janahb Pakal or Great Sun Flower-shield, governed for a long period. Pakal’s grand son, Ahkal Mo’Nahb, was also an interesting character. He had some extraordinary artistic talent shown in 2 Maya reliefs. In one of them, the revenant Pakal the Great, the reincarnation of a legendary ruler, holds in his hand a large stingray spine for self-sacrifice. Flanking there are two gods with rodent heads. All of this implies passage to Xibalba, to the underworld.

In the Maya area, on the postclassic period, there was a Toltec invasion. These were a group of Northern Mexicans of Nahuatl speaking language of non-agricultural barbarian Chichimec origin. Toltecs paid respect to the war god Tezcatlipoca, smoking mirror, and had animals such as eagles, jaguars or coyotes as emblems. Myth states that the Toltec city of Tula was founded by the leadership of Topiltzin, who claimed the Quetzalcoatl title, and after a struggle between him and his adherents in one hand, and warriors on the other, Tezcatlipoca was forced to leave Tula, to return to its redemption after leaving to the gulf coast. From the influence of this culture, there appears figures such as Chac Mool in Chichen Itza, related to the cult of heart sacrifice or the feathered snake columns found in front of ball games, a doorway of the temple of the jaguars.

At the arrival of the Spaniards, we have records of how was the Maya world. If we look at the life cycle within Mayan society, it seems that immediately after birth, Yukateko mothers washed their infants and then fastened them to a cradle, their little heads were compressed between two boards in such a way that after two days a permanent fore-and-aft flattening had taken place, which the Mayas considered a mark of beauty. After this, the anxious parents went to consult with a priest so as to learn the destiny of their offspring and the name he or she was to bear until baptism, a ceremony after which women became marriageable.

Boys and young men stayed apart from their families in special communal houses where they presumably learnt the arts of war and other things such as sex. Other youthful diversions were gambling and ball game. Girls were strictly brought up by their mothers and suffered grievous punishments for lapses of chastity. Marriages were arranged by go-between as among all peoples with exogamous clans of lineages, with strict rules about those with whom alliances could or could not be made. Death was greatly dreaded, as deceased did not automatically go to paradise. Ordinary folk were buried beneath the floors of their houses, their mouths filled with food and a jade bead, accompanied by idols and the things that they had used while alive. Priests were buried with books.

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In the Yucatan area, every adult Maya had two names. The first one came from the mother, and it was always transmitted from women to their offspring. The second derived from the father, and was exclusively passed on in the male line. It was a system of matrilineage plus patrilineage. There were around 250 patrilineages in Yucatan at the time of the Spanish arrival. They were strictly exogamous, all inheritance of property was patrilineal, and they were self-preserving; all members had an obligation to help each other. The matrilineage acted within the marriage regulation system, encouraging to be married with the father’s, sister’s, mother’s or brother’r daughter. To be able to trace one’s genealogy in both lines to an ancient ancestry was an important matter, for there were strongly demarcated classes. At the top were the nobles or Almehen, “He whose descent is known on both sides,” who had private lands and held the more important political offices, as well as filling the roles of high-ranking warriors, wealthy farmers and merchants and clergy. The commoners were the free workers of the population holding in usufruct from their patrilineage a stretch of forest in which to make their milpas. At the bottom were the slaves, who were plebeians taken in war, prisoners of higher ranking being subject to the knife. Slavery was hereditary but these menials could be redeemed by payments made by fellow members of one’s patrilineage.

The Maya did not separate easily the profane from the divine world and everyday life was surrounded by ritual. Stories surrounding everyday activities linked humans to larger, primeval events. Planting a maize seed, a seasonal act, invoked mythic journeys of the maize god. Sweat-bathing renewed the human body. At Palenque it alluded to the birth of gods, an early reference to the current practice of burying placenta in steam baths. Humans existed within a larger set of expectations. The virtuous man was Toj, right and straight, at times a literal term that colonial Mayan languages tied to cleaning, confession and prophecy. The classical Maya applied the word to political duty. Tojil was the tribute payment owed to a lord.

To walk along a sakbih, white roads, was to move in acceptable, ritually decorous ways. To lay out a house was to place four corner posts and a central hearth, a cosmic pattern recognisable to the earlier Olmec. Whatever the scale, to define boundaries, directions and centres, was to create orderly space, whether of a house, field or universe. The Popol Vuh explains how the gods created humans out of maize but with an obligation for reciprocity towards deities, a reciprocity fulfilled by praising and sacrificing. This repayment could temporarily be made with incense, animals and even with elegant prayers or human sacrifices, by bloodletting from the mouth, penis, ears or flesh.

The Maya most provably imagined the universe as cyclical, just as many other mesoamerican communities. In post-conquest Maya sources, the last creation prior to our own, ended with a great flood at the end of which the sky fell on the earth, extinguishing light. A kind of interregnum ensued, a time of magic and heroism celebrated in the early chapters of the Popol Vuh, which tell of the doings of the hero twin-brothers before a new and more perfect world could be formed. The Mayas imagined the world as either a giant turtle or a crocodile floating on a sea. Plants, especially maize and cacao, sprouted from the backs or bodies of these creatures. In the primordial sea, before existence came to be, there were monstrous sharks that, when speared by gods, issued great spouts of blood. A variant tale from Palenque may ascribe such fluid and perhaps the sea itself to the decapitation of a mythic crocodile.

The sea, K’Ahk’ Nahb or Fiery Pool, was not clearly distinguished from bodies of fresh water and could both be portrayed with the salt-averse waterlily. Earth, Kab, was soft, marked in depictions with signs for musk or excrement to underscore its pungent smell. Firmament itself consisted of stone and earth. The earth took the bodies, as clear example of debt payment, but given them back as sustenance for the living.

Mayas inhabited above cave systems. Caves related to the rain god Chakh, as mouths, from where perhaps the Maize god extracted water in a gourd. This act was embodied by later Maya, who took virgin water from caves for certain ceremonies.

For the Maya the inanimate was animated. Stone could live. Water was a being, not a fluid. Stone could appear with eyes, mouth, nose and ears, as could flint and obsidian. Cavities dug in the ground were more than just holes, they were perceived as the voracious jaws of the centipedes, a poisonous arthropod that crept along the ground to avenge food. This can be seen on the sarcophagus lid of Pakal at Palenque, where the king grows from his jaws, like a maize kernel he has been inserted into a cavity, watered and reborn, in this case to become a majestic jewelled plant.

The world was divided into colours and those colours had a value in space, so red was related to the East and the rising of the sun, while black was related to the West and the sun set, white was related to the North, yellow to the South and the centre was related to blue-green and to the Ceiba tree, the great tree, centre of the world. Also mythic hills, mountains and the deceased were placed in the middle, becoming the centre of the Universe. Eagles were thought to perch in each of the four directions, tied to celestial features such as the sun, moon, venus and the darkest night. In the classic Maya period the sky was represented in two ways, appearing as either the body of a crocodile or as a sky band, a sequence of signs for the sun, moon, stars or comets. These sky bands sometimes terminated in an eagle head, its body luminous and polished. This might have been the ecliptic, the apparent path of the sun, moon, Venus and other celestial bodies. In part, the sky was the habitual place of the gods.

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Gods in fact represented aspects of nature, such as Itzam, supporter of the sky, the wind god, having duck beak to show its aerial home, or the rain god Chakh. As I mention, Gods arose from Maya perceptions of nature. The Maize god for example is a dancer, laden with jewellery and surrounded by females. He embodied a high aesthetic ideal for the Maya. His journey involved waterly journeys, dressing and undressing and emerging as the main Maya food, to be born again as a seed. Another example is the aged goddess of midwives, often depicted with the feline skin of night deities, presiding over a supernatural birth. The umbilical cord of a young goddess splits into two serpents, and from them come a set of gods who were born already old. The experience of older women in healing and life passages may explain their presence at beginnings and endings. A third example is the younger counterpart of the goddess who was more sexualised, the moon goddess, who accords roughly with human menstruation, so the tie to procreation is logical.

It appears also the idea of ordering, Iz’Ak, achieved by the establishment and harmony of the opposites, which are presented in alternative spellings for the Tz’Az glyph. In the 96 glyphs found at the Palenque tablet, it shows the opposites sun-light, life-death, Venus-moon, wind-water. At other cities we have variants of those opposites, as green-harvested crops, sky and earth, cloud and rain, stingray spine and blood, lady and lord. These oppositions also mean deeper ideas, as in some cases the first element is a cause of the second element.

Spirits were not only gods, but were on the human body, or wahy (sleep), like composite creatures, which seem to be those that leave the body at night. Perhaps this has a relationship with the surreal experience of dreams, or diseases controlled by royalty, by sorcery, or royal self-knowledge beyond the ability of other mortals. The wahy might be connected to caves, leading down to Xibalba, the underworld. Caves in fact might have been somehow involved in rites of passage, as doors into the other world, which would have been used ceremonially for individuals to reach eternity.

Mayan Ruins Of Palenque Against Sky
Ancient Mayan temples in the ruined city of Palenque

Maya theology had different levels of understanding, with most people able to recognise major gods in the imagery. The esotericism in some texts seems purposeful, a method of preserving knowledge to elites. Gods had several supernatural features. Those associated with directions; those occurred singly and then fused (theosynthesis). An example is the God D, who was a synthesis of the Principal Bird Deity and Itzam. The Principal Bird Deity had wings and each wing represented the sun and the night, suggesting the dawn or twilight. Gods at times appeared in pairs like the hero twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, like opposites feeding and needing each other. Pairs are found in other American cultures, such as the Incas, where the leader had a mirror individual to support and to guard for the success of that leadership. The hero twins in fact define two different realms, one of humans, the other of animals, the latter a more disorderly, chaotic world outside of human control. The hero twins are also the paddlers, one with Jaguar-like features, the other with a stingray through the septum of his nose, often joined to row the Maize god on his watery journey into death and rebirth.

The collapse of the Maya civilisation occurred long before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors, in the ninth century, and the causes of that collapse are unclear. According to the writers it was related to epidemic diseases, invasions by foreigners coming from Mexico, a social revolution in the lowlands, earth quakes and hurricanes, and drought. Scholars though have just agreed on endemic intermecine wars, overpopulation and environmental collapse, and drought as main causes.

Based on the book The Maya by Michael D. Coe and Stephen Houston

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