Until the recent past, scholars and archaeologists believed the ancient Maya were a peaceful and carefree people, whom had lived a utopian lifestyle. However, the decipherment of the Maya hieroglyphic script has shed new light on old and erroneous theories (Coe 1999).
In fact, the ancient Maya were a people whose belief system required blood to maintain fertile crops, appease the gods and to maintain the general order of life in the physical realm. Therefore, to all intents and purposes, the sacrifice of blood appears to have been a reciprocal condition between humankind and the gods.
This article will focus on the evidence provided from artistic expression, which is illustrated on monuments and iconography. Furthermore, it will predominantly use the Popol Vuh to decipher why the Maya practised ritual bloodletting in order to understand what caused the ancient Maya to let their blood. However, this article will not describe in detail all of the ritual bloodletting practises that were available to the Maya because the focus here is to understand why the practise was done.
In consideration of the knowledge, there has been considerable changes in the way people live since the time of the Spanish invasion of Mesoamerica. When it comes to pain response, and for example, the fears of children and the protection a mother or father offers their child, one does not believe there has been change. Can you imagine preparing your child for ritual sacrifice? Would it not horrify you? It was a common practice to let blood from the tongue, fingers or penis in ancient Maya society (Joralemon 1974: 59). In addition, decapitation and cutting out the still beating heart of sacrificial victims were common practice.
One has experienced a situation that may have had similar psychological effects. For example, when my child was three weeks old he had to have his tongue cut because he wasn’t able to swallow milk without exhaustion. The midwife asked me to hold my son still and hold his jaw open. She pulled out a scalpel and without anaesthesia; she sliced the ropey flesh under his tongue to enable him to feed and essentially grow strong. For a lack of a better description, the sacrifice was unavoidable. However, as a loving mother one was horrified and possibly screamed louder than my infant son had screamed.
In consideration of the latter, one ponders whether the Maya felt the same way when they sacrificed the blood of themselves, their children or their captives. Did they consider the sacrifice of their blood unavoidable and necessary for the earth to continue to provide fertile crops health and prosperity? (Joralemon 1974; 67; Chase 1991: 89-96; Rosemary et al 1986: 143-50).
Why the Maya let their blood
The Maya creation myth, which is recorded in the Popol Vuh according to Lynn Foster and Peter Mathews (2005: 184; Coe 2005: 65), helps to explain the origins and purpose of bloodletting and human sacrifice. The Popol Vuh [Book of Counsel] was beautifully written and produced by the K’iche Maya of Guatemala on paper bark during the colonial period (Foster and Mathews 2005: 188; Drury 2002: 253; Coe 1999: 72; Martin and Grube 2000: 15, 130, 221).
The Popol Vuh fundamentally reiterates the Maya oral traditions including describing the Maya people’s creation myth (Coe 2005: 65; Coe 1999: 72, 99-100, 200, 220-2, 226, 249, 268). For example, a couple of grandfather and grandmother creator gods named Xpiyacoc and Xmucane originally fashioned the Popol Vuh from a watery empty space or void. The universe had already been through a series of creation and destruction processes. However, each new world had imperfect beings. The gods had created the divided universe and filled the earth with birds, animals, fish, reptiles and forests to sustain them. The gods desired nourishment and veneration, which the animals could not provide. Therefore, the gods began the task of creating humankind (Foster and Mathews 2005: 184). Yet, the undertaking of the gods to create humankind was rort with problems. The gods initially tried to create humans from clay and wood. The last of these beings were doomed because they were made of wood and could not offer the gods what they desired, which was worship, admiration (Coe 2005: 65) subservience and blood. It was unsuccessful; however, the gods still required offerings and prayer to sustain them.
Towards the end of the creation cycle, a great deluge covered the entire world. The sky fell from above and landed on the earth, and the stars, the moon and the sun were extinguished. A great darkness befell the earth. From the darkness, an arrogant and hideous bird-monster declared and proclaimed himself the newborn sun and moon (Coe 2005: 65). Next, the old grandparent creator gods gave birth to a pair of twins. One of the newborn twins was a maize god named Hun Hunahpu or One Ajaw. However, his brother was a mere double, companion or reflection of Hun Hunahpu and he was named Seven Hunahpu (Coe 2005: 65). Seven Hunahpu later married and fathered two sons named Hun Chuwen and Hun Batz.
According to Michael Coe (2005: 65), further along in the creation story Hun Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu decided to play a game with a ball in the ball court. However, the lords of Xibalba, ‘The Place of Fright’ [otherwise known as the underworld], were annoyed and angered by the terrible ruckus and noise on their ceiling. Therefore, the lords of Xibalba summoned the twins and imposed a series of terrible and sufferable tests and experiments upon them. The tests and trials were conducted in several horror chambers and one of the terrible and horrifying chambers contained Death Bats (Coe 2005: 65). After many harrowing trials and tribulations, the twins were sacrificed and the Maize God’s head was hung in either a calabash or a cacao tree.
After some time passed, one of the daughters of an underworld god walked under the tree and noticed a head hanging from it. She paused and looked up at the head of Hun Hunahpu and it spoke to her (Coe 2005: 65). She raised her hand to the head, it spat on her and she became impregnated. Six months later the daughter of the underworld lord was kicked out of the underworld in disgrace because, she was carrying a child of the Maize god within her womb (Coe 2005: 65). After being expelled and sent to the earth’s surface, she was given refuge in the creator god grandparent’s house. The creator god grandparents were the soon to be grandparents of her underworld children (Coe 2005: 65). Eventually she gave birth to the Hero Twins who were named Hunahpu and Xbalanque. According to Michael Coe (2005: 65), they were blow gunners, hunters, ball players and tricksters. The Hero Twins half brothers, Hun Batz and Hun Chuwen were jealous of them and by method of trickery, the Hero Twins turned their half brothers in to monkeys or monkey-men (Coe 2005: 65). The monkey-men half brothers were apparently later considered demi-gods and patrons of music, dancing, writing, carving, and in fact, all of the Maya arts (Coe 2005: 65).
According to Coe (2005: 66), the main function of the Hero Twins was to rid the world of monsters and incongruities. The Hero Twins went on to destroy the bird-monster and two other monsters, which were a volcano and the creator of earthquakes. Then the gods took pause and waited until the Hero Twins defeated the underworld gods of death and decay, which would allow the creator gods to receive the best materials to model humankind on (Foster and Mathews 2005: 184).
Time passed and the Hero Twins, like their father and uncle before them, decided to play a ball game in the ball court. Again, the ruckus on the death god’s underworld ceiling disturbed the underworld gods greatly (Coe 2005: 66). The twins were summoned to the underworld and placed in the horrifying death chamber. However, unlike their father and uncle before them, they were able to turn the tables on the lords of death in the underworld and defeat them (Coe 2005: 66). This was done by trickery, nimbleness and by defeating the gods at the ball game (Coe 2005: 66). However, the Hero Twins must have realized they would be dealt the same fate as their uncle and father before them. Therefore, they committed suicide (Coe 2005: 66). Fortunately, the gods of the earth or upperworld were unhappy and disappointed by their tragic deaths because they favoured the twins greatly. Hence, the gods resurrected the Hero Twins who promptly went about the task of slaying the death lords of the underworld. Furthermore, whilst in the underworld the Hero Twins resurrected their father Hun Hunahpu the Maize God (Coe 2005: 65).
With the deathly lord of the underworld defeated the earthly gods set about creating the perfect human beings once again. Foster and Mathews (2005: 184) suggest during the next attempt to create the earth to their liking, the gods designed humans from a doughy mixture consisting of ground maize and blood. The people that were made of maize and blood were the Maya and they were suitably grateful to the gods for their creation (Foster and Mathews) 2005: 184). They were suitable because they were grateful and offered the gods respect, praise, worship and the ability and willingness to sacrifice their blood to the gods.
In describing blood and maize as the material sustenance for human flesh, according to Foster and Mathews (2005: 184), the creation myth allowed for the connection between the chief domestic crop of corn, which was eaten by the Maya, and human blood, which was the primary sacrifice to the gods. Hence, human sacrifice became the primary source of tribute or payment to the gods, which in turn provided the Maya with fertile crops and agricultural nourishment. Therefore, the Hero Twin creation myth implies the Maya did think of sacrifice or autosacrifice as unavoidable and a necessity for their lives to flourish with fertile crops health, harmony and abundance.
There are several hypothesis’ regarding why the Maya sacrificed their blood. Yet, there is no consensus amongst Mayanists. More information will have to become known before one knows exactly why the Maya believed the letting of blood was necessary. However, the epic creation myth does seem the most likely cause or reason.
The creation myth suggests the Maya let their blood to provide fertility to the land and its people (Sharer and Traxler 2006: 744; Joralemon 1974: 67; Scarre 2005: 599; Coe and Koontz 2002: 110). Furthermore, the myth suggests that bloodletting was a reciprocal act to the gods for giving the substance of life. The substance was blood and corn (Haines et al March 2008: 83; Chase 1991: 89-96). Scarre (2009: 599) suggests that the Maya and in fact most of the ancient Mesoamerican people believed the creator gods made human kind from maize and blood. Therefore, ritual sacrifice renewed and mimicked the life cycle of the maize plant, which is possibly, why maize deities were so important to the Maya. Scarre also (2009: 599) suggests ritual decapitation was mimicking or considered as a metaphor for harvesting ears of maize.
There are many different forms of ritual bloodletting and human sacrifice, which are depicted in Maya iconography (Coe 2005: 82, 113, 118, 126-7, 152-3, 223; Sharer 1996: 111-13; Kirchhoff 1943: 17-30; Haines March 2008: 83-99). For example, the Mesoamerican ball game was favoured by the Maya, which is evident in the archaeological remains of ball courts in many Maya sites (Coe and Koontz 2002: 140-2; Scarre 2005: 599; Coe 2005: 13; Sharer and Traxler 2006: 42, 168, 214, 298). According to Coe and Koontz (2002: 140-2), the inhabitants of El Tajin were completely obsessed with the ball game, human sacrifice and death. Their obsession with the ball game and ritual sacrifice is possibly a reflection of their belief in the Hero Twin creation myth.
The El Tajin ball courts range up to 197 feet in length and are surrounded by two stone surfaced vertical or battered walls (Coe and Koontz 2002: 140). Six of the iconographic depictions in the South Ball Court elaborately describe a series of rituals in relation to sacrifice. For example, there is evidence of the loser of the game being decapitated, which according to Coe and Koontz (2002: 142), could only happen if the victors had been successful in securing captives.
There is abundant iconography of the ball game, for example, a Maya vase dated to between 600 and 800 CE illustrates the symbolic significance of the game and the sacrifice of the loser (Scarre 2005: 599). A stelea from Aparicio, Veracruz illustrates a seated ball player with his head cut off, and furthermore, illustrates the Olmec practised the same ritual, which supports evidence of the longevity of the ritualistic ball game. It is quite possible that the ball game was an important ritual because it emphasised the Maya connection to the creator gods and most importantly, the maize god, fertility, and the reciprocal relationship between the Maya, their gods and blood.
According to Haines, Willink and Maxwell (March 2008: 83), the Maya considered autosacrifice a sacred duty. For example, Ruler 3 otherwise known as Master of Sun Jaguar is depicted on the Dos Pilas Panel 19 (Martin and Grube 1999: 61). The panel illustrates him supervising the young boy K’awiil Chan K’inich, whilst blood is let from his penis and caught in a ritual bowl (Martin and Grube 1999: 61; Stuart March 27 2008: online). The panel further illustrates that blood sacrifice was an important duty of the Maya elite and was an important part of the ascension to the thrown process. Further support of the latter statement may be found in the Temple of the Cross (Martin and Grube 1999: 169). For example, sometime in 692 CE, Kan B’alam of Palenque appears to have provided a spiritual focal point for the ascension of the rulership of royal lines. This is demonstrated, supported and featured in an enclosed shrine that shows a flowering world tree growing from a sacrificial bowl, which is flanked by the king illustrated first as a child and then as a grown man. Again, the ritual sacrifice and royal ascension appears to relate back to the Hero Twins epic creation myth and the reciprocal relationship between man and god. Furthermore, the panel demonstrates the divine connection between Maya kings and the creator gods.
Stingray spines were often used in ritual bloodletting according to Haines et al (March 2008: 83). The issue with the use of stingray spines is they could have caused lasting irreparable damage to the flesh. However, according to Joralemon (1974: 59-66; Haines et al March 2008: 83-99), greater pain and damage inflicted, reflects the high esteem that was given to the bloodletter. In other words, one was considered brave and revered for their powers of pain endurance. The latter was possibly due to the heroic deed of the Hero Twins.
It appears that the ancient Maya practiced ritual bloodletting so that they could maintain fertile crops, appease the gods and prove their own valor and bravery whilst undergoing immense pain. The Hero Twins epic creation myth provides the reason for blood sacrifice. Furthermore, it also appears apparent that the deeds of the Hero Twins were continually mimicked through the ritual sacrifice of blood. One therefore, concludes that the purpose of ritual bloodletting was to appease the gods through reciprocal behaviour and to ensure there was an abundance of fertile crops, in particular corn. Furthermore, I found no evidence that the Maya resented or feared the act of autosacrifice. Although it does seem apparent the Maya considered the deed a means to assert their power, bravery, valour and to ensure their right to rule as lords or kings.
Header Image : Sculpture in the Great Ballcourt at Chichen Itza depicting sacrifice by decapitation. The figure at left holds the severed head of the figure at right, who spouts blood in the form of serpents from his neck : WikiPedia
Written by : Jasmyne Pendragon
HeritageDaily : Archaeology News : Archaeology Magazine
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