Guatemalan Masks

British Museum

Guatemalan stories told through the British Museum's mask collection

A Guatemalan Tradition
In Guatemala, masks have been made and worn for millennia. Over this time they have undergone numerous adaptations in the ways they are made, what they represent and how they are used. Masks continue to play an important role in ceremonies, rituals and performances today.
Olmec Mask
This extraordinary stone mask was carved by the Olmec around 2,500 years ago. With no eye holes, and being too small to be worn on the face, it was probably used as a pendant rather than as a mask.

The Olmec and subsequent Mesoamerican cultures did not use metal tools. Instead, this mask, which is made of very hard serpentine rock, would have been worked into shape over a long time using stone tools and abrasives.

On either side of the mouth are two abstract motifs incised into the surface. These represent the early foundations of a hieroglyphic writing system that would be adapted and perfected by the Classic Maya centuries later (250AD - 900AD).

The Olmec culture was predominantly centred on the Gulf Coast of what is now Mexico.

And yet, this mask was discovered in the Petén region of modern-day Guatemala.

It is thought that this mask was treasured as an ancestral heirloom by the Ancient Maya of the Petén region, many hundreds of years after the Olmec Civilisation had ceased to be.

Masks and the Ancient Maya
The Ancient Maya used masks in a variety of ways. Lords would often impersonate gods or supernatural beings by wearing a mask and costume. 

This stela from the very early ‘pre-Classic’ Maya site of Kaminaljuyu shows a masked figure in military dress.

The person is shown in profile, making it easy to see the mask superimposed over the face. The mask is one of the earliest known depictions of the Principal Bird Deity, who became one of the most important Ancient Maya gods.

For reasons that remain disputed, the great cities and monumental art that characterised the Classic Maya period began to wane after around 900AD, particularly in areas within modern day Guatemala.

But the Maya people continued to live in the same landscape, continuing beliefs and practices that had been shaped by their ancestors.

The Maya continued to trade and interact with their neighbours, including the Aztecs in the Valley of Mexico. It was from Moctezuma, the Aztec emperor, that the K'iche' Maya heard about the arrival of the Spanish.

Conquest Masks
Fired up by his victory against the Aztecs, the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés set his sights on the lands of the Mayan-speaking peoples to the south. The story of the conquest of the K'iche' Maya is told in the Dance of the Conquest, which plays out as follows...

Pedro de Alvarado, a leading figure in the conquest of Mexico, is dispatched by Cortés to lead an army to Guatemala.

News of the Spanish approach reaches Q'umarkaj, the capital of the K'iche' Maya in Guatemala. A warrior, Tecún Umán is summoned to lead the K'iche' resistance against this new enemy.

Alvarado and Tecún Umán meet on the battlefield. Tecún Umán kills Alvarado's horse but to his surprise, Alvarado himself does not die. Instead, he gets to his feet and kills Tecún Umán. The battle over, the Maya convert peacefully to Christianity.

The Dance of the Conquest was encouraged, possibly even imposed by Guatemala’s colonial officials and friars, as it painted the outcome of conquest and conversion to Christianity in a positive light. Over time, it has become accepted as tradition, and remains one of Guatemala's most well-known dances.

Conquest dances are not unique to Guatemala. Mexico has it's own versions, such as the Danza de la Pluma from Oaxaca. Many aspects of the dance are thought to have been carried over from pre-Conquest times, such as the great feather headdresses seen here. Like in Guatemala, they adapted the dance to be palatable to the conquering Spanish. Many of the characters also overlap between the Dance of the Conquest in Guatemala and those in Mexico.

Doña Marina
Doña Marina, who is often known by the derogatory name La Malinche, was the indigenous woman who acted as interpreter for Cortés during the conquest of Mexico. She has been widely despised as a traitor to her people, but recent opinion is shifting towards considering her a remarkable survivor. She features widely in traditional dances across Central America, particularly in Conquest dances. 
Deer Dance
Before the arrival of Europeans, who brought with them domesticated pigs, sheep and cattle, the Maya mostly relied on wild sources of animal protein. It is likely that they did raise turkeys and ducks for ready consumption, but deer, rabbits and other native mammals were usually hunted. Although they weren’t domesticated, deer might have been ‘tamed’ and accustomed to human presence from a young age, which would have made them easy prey for hunters. 

The deer hunt was often a group activity in which animals were rounded up with the aid of dogs and whistles and killed with spears propelled by atlatl. Based on archaeological evidence, deer appear to have been the Ancient Maya’s favourite meat, but it is not known whether they were consumed routinely or only on ceremonial occasions.

For the Maya, deer were powerful embodiments of natural forces, like the sun and the rain, and their ritual sacrifice and consumption is associated with annual renewal festivals and the accession of new rulers. The deer dance probably originated with the pre-Columbian deer hunt and remains symbolic today.

A Mask for all Seasons
Masks in Guatemala are used in countless traditional dances and celebrations, many of which are regional, or even specific to a particular village. They continue to be adapted and created for any number of events as tastes and traditions shift. This witch mask, acquired by the British Museum in 1981, might be an early example of the adoption of the North American Halloween celebration.

Devil masks such as this one are used in the Dance of the Legion of 24 Devils. Devised by friars to educate the Guatemalan population about Christian virtue after the conquest, each devil mask represents a particular sin.

In Guatemala, masks like this one, with long noses and large moustaches are frequently used to send up their Mexican neighbours.

This very fine mask depicts a person contorting their face into a grimace. It is not a known character, so may have been created specifically for a particular event.

Monkeys make frequent appearances in traditional dances and are a favourite of tourists purchasing masks as souvenirs.

The craft of mask making has been in the hands of specialists for hundreds of years, and is often a skill transmitted between family members.

Older masks tend to be made of hard woods and would have been carved over a period of weeks.

Straps might be made of any number of materials, from leather to string. Here, a shoelace has been used.

The most accomplished and celebrated mask makers 'signed' their work with their initials, in this case 'PV'.

Quality masks were highly prized and cared for over generations. They were often repaired, re-painted, or re-purposed.

Over time, this mask has been re-painted so many times that it is now thick with paint. We can see how different colours have been used through time, to the extent that the mask might once have looked quite different, or represented another character entirely.

This mask was also highly prized. It has evident signs of repair - a broken off section has been nailed back into place.

And despite having suffered over the years...

...from woodworm...

...and flaking paint...

...the quality of the workmanship is plain to see.

Millenia of continuity
This exhibit began with a 2,500 year old Olmec mask. The date of the Guatemalan mask shown here is uncertain - it was probably already an antique when it came to the British Museum in 1981 - but it shows the continuity of style that has characterised Guatemalan masks for hundreds, even thousands of years. This mask displays 'flame' eyebrows, a feature which is considered a classic identifier of Olmec art.

And so we have come full circle, from the Olmec mask to this very large ceremonial Olmec celt, and those characteristic flame eyebrows.

Credits: Story

All images © Trustees of the British Museum
Text and image selection: Kate Jarvis, British Museum
Thanks to: Jonathan Mortemore, Christos Gerontinis, Claudia Zehrt and other BM Google Maya Project collaborators

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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