War and Worship: Ancient Mayan Depictions

The Mayan civilization was at its peak during the Classic Period, beginning ca 250 AD and declining ca 900 AD. During this time, the Mayans worshiped the underworld, also known as Xibalba; sacrificing themselves and the lives of the young to ensure a healthy afterlife.  Mayans were incredibly expressive of their beliefs and rituals as they depicted their conquests, sacrificial rituals, and celebrations throughout their artwork. Stela carvings in limestone, paintings on vessels, and instruments made from ceramic and shell, were only a few of the ways that the Mayans used their artistic abilities to showcase their offerings to the Gods of the underworld. Common images viewed in their artwork surrounded bloodletting that was often performed in caves as they were viewed as gateways to the underworld. Additional images of Mayan culture were focused on leadership, and pass-times such as their deadly ball game. Through examining the images found on the following artifacts, one can attest that the Maya were a civilization built around war and worship. Which is undoubtedly expressed throughout the archaeological evidence found today in the areas that make up Central America.

Jade was a prominent material used to carve out scenes of Maya worship. Jade is often associated with the royals as it was a precious material, as opposed to the use of limestone and clay for other carvings that was more readily available. The scene on this plaque, shows a Maya lord or ruler seated on a throne with a smaller figure at his feet. The lord wears earplugs, a large pectoral, armlets, wristlets, a belt with a mounted head and an elaborate headdress decorated with long feathers. On his left arm he carries a shield with a representation of the Jaguar God, a god of the Underworld. Artwork by the Maya is a effective way of discovering how the Maya dressed, both the upper and lower class. Which we may not have been able to discover without these artifacts.
The Maya believed that life was produced by the Maize God. As a result the Maize God was often depicted throughout the artwork found on vessels like the one we see here. The Maize God was often shown dancing in a similar fashion as that of a stalk of corn in a field. This particular vessel is believed to have belonged to a Maya royal because of the colours used to decorate. Often polychrome vases were placed in burials as offerings to gods and were a form of prestige and value.
Cosmological images with texts were commonly depicted throughout Mayan artwork.The bottom inside of this dish is decorated with recurring themes of renaissance and fertility. A young man, personifying corn or representing eternal rebirth, comes back to life. He emerges from the skeletal-like head of a terrestrial monster, who is decorated with a water lily symbolizing the surface of the waters which separate our world from the underworld, Xibalba. The scene is surrounded by four motifs indicating the cardinal points as well as the way to the world below (probably through a cave), the source of fertility. The repeated images of re-birth through corn and the inclusion of water as a gateway to the underworld, are an indication that the Maya cared deeply in the birth and passing of their people.
This incensario, or incense burner, depicts one of the three deities known to the Maya. This in particular is a representation of the Sun Lord, with the trademark fish and shell designs around the mouth. The stacking of faces is also common with incense burners from the Maya. With the scents burned and smoke produced, there was an added theatrical visual element for their ceremonies. The incense burner is made from orange clay and shows how popular and elaborate the incising was as a form of decorating ceramics during this period.
Music was used within Mayan culture to officiate times of sacrifice and ritual. Whistles, also known as ocarinas, are impressive instruments with some known for being able to play up to 17 different notes. Male figured ocarinas such as this one, were more likely to play a lower note and females with a higher note.
This Conch Shell Trumpet is a unique artifact with it's meticulous carvings of faces and glyphs. It was most likely a representation of the ruler during the period of use. The sounds of instruments was not always a representation of happier, celebratory times like we may expect today. It was in fact a sign of an upcoming human sacrificial ceremony. The holes on the sides of this shell in particular are prominent in instruments used during the ritual ceremony of bloodletting.
Carved in limestone, this lintel is a depiction of a ceremony for the royal couples accession to the thrown. The ceremony consisted of both partners performing a blood letting ritual of pulling a rope through their tongue. A ritual such as this shows the gods that they were committed to ruling through life and death. It was most common for the sacrifices and ceremonies completed by the royals to be depicted throughout their royal pyramids to show the people of the community that they were willing to sacrifice themselves for the betterment of their kingdom.
This partiuclar Stela is a representation of the Ball Game that Mayans took part in as a religious and mythological event. In this image, the figure about to hit the ball is known as the ruler of the site. Although the other player is unknown, it is said to be the brother of the ruler. The Ball Game was not an exciting pass-time; it was a fight to the death game that resulted in the loser sacrificing ones self to the opponents kingdom. Captives in warfare, including the ball game, was a way that offerings were made to the gods through sacrifices. In most cases the ball used was not as large as the one shown in this image. The larger size is important to note as this ball game in particular must have been of high importance.
Jaguars were a common animal figure used within Mayan art to represent wealth and rulership. This container in the shape of a jaguar is believed to have been used to hold the human heart of a warrior who had been sacrificed. The symbolism of the heart being held by a jaguar figure is a way that the Mayans presented their offerings to the gods of the underworld. This particular container has two slots allocated for hearts, located on its back, meaning it was most likely used when multiple sacrifices were occurring.
Polychromatic vessels of the 'Codex' style, include images of glyphs, gods and various characters, with the colours red, black and cream used throughout. This vessel in particular was found in a burial site at Calakmul. The images are believed to be a representation of the underworld. It was at the time of construction of this vessel that Calakmul had gained enough strength to defeat Tikal, the reigning power at the time. This vessel was most likely included in a burial to represent what the ruler had achieved during their reign.
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