The young Maize God, from Copán, HondurasBritish Museum
Cycle of Life
The ancient Maya did not see death as the end of life, instead death was seen as part of a cycle, in which people die only to be born again. They linked the cycle of human life to that of maize.
Creation of mankind by Fernando Castro PachecoBritish Museum
In the Popol Vuh (the 18th century document recounting the mythology and history of the K'iche' Maya people) creation story, people were, after a few failed attempts, created from corn.
From scenes depicted on many Classic Maya (c. 250 to 900 CE) monuments, ceramic vessels, funerary temples and tombs we see, however, that this parallel between human life and the maize cycle existed much earlier.
Copan stela H (2019) by GMP teamBritish Museum
Death and resurrection
Maya kings often presented themselves as Maize Gods. For example, this Maya stela commissioned by Copan ruler Uaxaklajuun Ub’aah K’awiil (Stela H), portrays him as a Maize god and represents the theme of death and resurrection.
Drawing of Stela H, Copán (1844) by Frederick CatherwoodBritish Museum
On the stela, the king has a maize cob on the top of his head, symbolising the parallel between the cycle of human life (life/death/resurrection) and the cycle of maize (growth/harvest/planting).
Copan stela A_detail (2019) by GMP teamBritish Museum
The theme of death and rebirth is expanded and emphasised in the imagery of Copan stela A. The four sun deities summoned by the king represent the sun’s daily journey, again reflecting the death and rebirth...
Copan stela A_detail (2019) by GMP teamBritish Museum
...as does the skull sprouting maize on the top of the stela.
Apart from presenting themselves as maize gods on stelae and monuments, the ancient Maya also performed cranial deformation, possibly shaping their skulls to resemble a maize cob.
Altar R from Copán, HondurasBritish Museum
Ancient Maya understanding of death is also reflected in the evocative phrases they used to describe it.
One of the basic words for death is "cham-i" or "cham" “die”, which continues to be used in several Mayan languages today.
One of the most common death expressions found in the Classic Maya texts is a poetic-sounding phrase: k’a’ay u ?sak ik’il “extinguishes the white flower? breath”.
Text on the sarcophagus of K'inich Janaab Pakal (2019) by GMP teamBritish Museum
Another very common death phrase is ochb’ih – “enters the road” – possibly expressing a journey to the Underworld or Xibalba (seen here on the sarcophagus of Palenque's ruler K'inich Janaab Pakal).
Plate Depicting the Watery Underworld (650-800) by UnknownLos Angeles County Museum of Art
A similar phrase, ochha’ – “enters the water” – might express a journey to the Underworld, which according to Maya iconography seems to be associated with water...
...as shown for example on this plate with watery underworld imagery.
Temple of Inscriptions, Palenque (2018) by GMP teamBritish Museum
Och k’ahk’ tu mukil: "fire enters in burial"
There is also a burial-expression: muhkaj, meaning “he/she is buried".
The ancient Maya buried their dead underneath houses or, in the case of rulers and the elite, in specifically built funerary shrines, such as the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque which houses the tomb of the famous Maya king K’inich Janaab Pakal.
Tomb of K'inich Janaab Pakal (2018) by GMP teamBritish Museum
These burials were often revisited in the so-called “fire entering” ceremonies, which involved burning events in the burial chamber, and sometimes also the removal of bones from the tomb, as well as other changes to the skeleton and the grave furniture.
Something akin to "fire-entering" ceremonies in the Maya area today, might be the yearly cleaning and re-painting of colourful graves during the Day of the Dead at the beginning of November.
Grave of Alberto Ruz Lhuillier (2019) by GMP teamBritish Museum
When the present meets the past
The archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier, who found the tomb of K'inich Janaab Pakal, is buried at Palenque.
His grave is in front of the Temple of Inscriptions, which contains the tomb of Pakal.
Lintel 25 from Yaxchilán, Mexico; Am1923,Maud.5 by BM ImagingBritish Museum
Partly related to fire-entering ceremonies might be a conjuring ritual (also involving burning), in which gods or ancestors were summoned.
On lintel 25 from Yaxchilan we see Lady K'ab'aal Xook conjuring the vision of a centipede-serpent to commemorate the accession of her husband Itzamnaaj B’alam II to the throne.
From the mouth of the Vision Serpent emerges a warrior holding a spear and a shield (with attributes of the Teotihuacan deity Tlaloc, from Central Mexico), who most likely represents an ancestor.
Lady K'ab'aal Xook was the prominent wife of Itzamnaj B’alam II, but we know that he had more than one wife, as was common for Maya rulers. In fact, marriage was often a way to form alliances, as there are examples in which the ruler took a wife from the city he just conquered.
Yaxchilan lintel 15 (770/770)British Museum
Yaxun Balam IV, son and successor of Itzamnaaj B’alam, commissioned lintels with scenes copying those from his father’s reign, most likely in order to stress that he was the legitimate successor, despite the fact that he was not the son of Lady Ka’baal Xook but of another wife.
Here we see a scene similar to that on Lintel 25, with a conjuring being performed by Lady Wak Tun, the wife of Yaxun Balam IV.
Yaxchilan Lintels 24 and 17 (2019) by GMP teamBritish Museum
And we also see both Itzamnaj B’alam II and Yaxun Balam IV performing blood-letting rituals with their wives Lady K'ab'aal Xook and Lady Wak Tun on two different lintels, each from the ruler's reign.
All images ©Trustees of the British Museum, unless otherwise marked.
Text and image selection: Eva Jobbová, Senior Research Fellow: British Museum Google Maya Project.
Thanks to: Claudia Zehrt, Ana Somohano Eres and other British Museum Maya Project collaborators.