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Food of the Gods

The Blood of Kings: A New Interpretation of Maya Art 17–August 24, 1986), and the Cleveland Museum of Art (October 8–December 14, 1986)

An exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas (May

The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art Worth)

by Linda Schele, by Mary Ellen Miller
George Braziller (in association with the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort, 335 pp., $28.00 (paper)


Our vision of the Maya world has been transformed by recent iconographic and epigraphic studies—a string of discoveries that has culminated in an extraordinary exhibition of Maya dynastic and ritual art, organized by Linda Schele and Mary Ellen Miller under the auspices of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. Schele and Miller also wrote the accompanying book, The Blood of Kings, a work as remarkable for its text as for the photographs and drawings that illustrate it.

The astonishing decipherment of the Maya script—a task that is not yet completed—allows us to see with new eyes the thousand and more years of their history. “The written history of the Maya begins in 50 BC,” the authors write, when hieroglyphics recording a king’s accession were carved into stone. After about 200 AD the Maya culture flourished. Pyramids and temples arose in forty or more cities, each with a population of at least twenty thousand people. Around 900 AD, the civilization collapsed and the cities were soon abandoned, for reasons that are still obscure.

The first and most important revelation of the new research is that the Mayas did not, as was generally believed until only fifteen years ago, dedicate themselves almost exclusively to the peaceful study of the heavens and the recording of time, leaving behind mainly inscriptions of astronomical and calendar notations. Rather, their reliefs and inscriptions relate a far different story—the histories of accessions to the throne, battles, victories, ceremonies, and the deaths of many kings—among them, the great Pacal, who ruled Palenque for almost seventy years, between 615 and 683.

The first of the recent advances in decipherment was made in the 1950s by the Russian linguist Yuri V. Knorosov, who had (according to Michael D. Coe in his preface to The Blood of Kings) “the audacity to revive the long-discredited ‘alphabet’ written down in the sixteenth century by Bishop Landa.” Although Knorosov failed in his attempts, his hypothesis was basically correct: Maya script, much like Japanese, combines ideograms with phonetic signs. A few scholars followed the track of Knorosov’s theory and, in 1958, Heinrich Berlin, in his study of Pacal’s sarcophagus in the Temple of Inscriptions in Palenque, demonstrated that the glyphs referred specifically to the figures depicted on the great carved lid. In 1960 Tatiana Proskouriakoff of Harvard University confirmed that the inscriptions were largely historical in nature. This led, in the following decade, “to the full or partial reconstructions of the dynastic histories” of the various Maya cities. At Palenque, Schele notes, “it has been possible to reconstruct twelve generations of kings.”

The history of these studies and discoveries has been rich, and the reader will find it amply described in Coe’s preface and in the book’s final chapter, “The Hieroglyphic Writing System.” Despite the great advances, however, we are still far from fully understanding Maya writing. The scholars have been able to read numerous inscriptions only because the texts appear on the reliefs, stelae, and painted vases alongside scenes portraying various personages. The function of the inscriptions is analogous to that of the titles and captions at the foot of a photograph or an engraving. Iconographic representation is invariably the subject of the inscription. Owing to the nature of their function, the texts are extremely simple, though often the Maya scribes’ love of wordplay makes exact interpretation of the glyphs difficult. The authors of The Blood of Kings confess that “texts not accompanied by an image directly related in content would not be decipherable.”

The first consequence of these discoveries has been the abandonment of the theory of the Maya as a culture of “peaceful theocracies”—an image promoted by the influential Mayanists Sylvanus G. Morley and J. Eric S. Thompson in the 1940s and 1950s. In its place has appeared a world of city-states, perpetually warring with one another, and ruled by kings who proclaimed their divine right. Wars were not fought to annex territory, but rather to impose tribute and capture prisoners. War was the duty and privilege of the kings and military nobles. The prisoners belonged to this same class and their final destiny was to be sacrificed, either at the top of the pyramid or during a kind of ball game.

For the prisoners this was not really a game, in the modern sense of the word, as much as a ritual ceremony that nearly always ended in the decapitation of the players, as one can see in the famous reliefs in Chichen Itzá, El Tajín, and in other sites inside and outside the Maya realm. At first glance, this rite, common to all of Mesoamerica, seems comparable to the sacrifice of the Roman gladiators. But there is an essential difference: the Roman sport was profane, while the ball game was a ritual that formed part of the religious logic of the “flowering war” in which the deadly harvest was the hearts of prisoners. The Maya city-states and their internecine wars are reminiscent of the Greek cities, the Warring Kingdoms of ancient China, the monarchies at the end of the Middle Ages, and the republics and principalities of the Italian Renaissance. Nevertheless, contrary to what occurred elsewhere, all of those centuries of war in Mesoamerica did not lead to the creation of a hegemonic state or a universal empire. Maya history is simultaneously hallucinatory and circular.

Schele and Miller emphasize the centrality of the institution of monarchy among the Maya, and the dynastic character of their history. Most of the inscriptions present facts about the rulers; similarly, many of the figures that appear on the reliefs of the monuments and stelae are stylized representations of the kings, their wives and retinues. It is a dynastic art close to that of the Egyptian pharaohs and the rajahs of ancient Cambodia. One also recalls the absolute monarchs of Europe, like the Sun King of France in the seventeenth century. Was the city of Palenque Pacal’s Versailles? Yes and no. The Maya cities were more than the residences of the king and his court. Of course a monarchy implies a court, and the Maya kings were the center of an aristocratic and refined society composed of high dignitaries, their wives and relatives. There is no doubt that these courtiers were mainly warriors, a common feature of all the monarchies of history. Common too in this type of society is the existence of military and semireligious brotherhoods composed of aristocrats. The marvelous mural paintings in the sanctuary-fort of Cacaxtla, clearly of Maya execution, depict the two military orders, the Jaguar and the Eagle warriors. The continuous presence of representations of these two orders, in various sites and in monuments from different eras, is an indication that they formed a permanent element in the Mesoamerican societies.

Once we accept the vision of the Maya world proposed by the new historians, we must revise it. Their purely dynastic and warlike model has obvious limitations. Carried away by the legitimate enthusiasm of discovery, Schele and Miller at times tend to minimize, in their remarkable and revolutionary book, certain aspects of Maya culture that seem to me no less important. Their picture of the Maya world is an inversion of the image presented by Thompson and Morley. For the latter, the true Maya history was that of the sky; down here, under the rule of the “peaceful theocracies,” nothing happened. In the new conception of Schele and Miller, history descends from the sky and returns to earth; and a great deal happens down here. But it is always the same thing: kings who ascend to the throne, battle to triumph or defeat, and die. One generalization has been replaced with another. Certainly the image that Schele and Miller present is a true one, but it requires more complex realities. The subtitle of their book, after all, is Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. The dynastic element entered into the ritual; in turn the ritual derived from a cosmogony, and was its symbolic representation.

Until recently it was believed that the Mesoamerican cities were not cities at all, but rather ceremonial centers inhabited solely by priests and a few functionaries. Today we know that they were indeed true cities, centers of economic, political, military, and religious activity. One of the most important of these recent discoveries is the existence of an intensive agriculture, without which the survival of the urban centers would have been impossible. And alongside intensive agriculture there were artisanal production and commerce. René Dillon, in his work on Teotihuacán, has shown that the city was a major manufacturing and commercial center, with sections composed of foreign artisans and artists whose products, from ceramics to arms and finely carved stones, were distributed throughout Mesoamerica.

The case of Teotihuacán was not unique; the great urban centers of Mesoamerica were also centers of artisanal production on a grand scale and the international distribution of those products. Trade requires the existence of a class of merchants specializing in that activity. International trade is indistinguishable from the foreign policies of a nation; and international politics and war are two manifestations of the same phenomenon, the two arms of the State reaching outward. There was not only a close relationship between the warrior and merchant classes, but a fusion of the two. Both spread abroad, to fight battles or to trade. Each opened the way for the other; in Tenochtitlan the merchants also served as spies. The figure of the courtier is a double one: warrior and merchant.

For the Mesoamerican cultures war and trade were inseparable from religion. It is impossible to ignore the primary function of ritual in the activities of the merchants and warriors. To be one or the other was not only a social category but a religious one. In order to understand the social function of the two, one must investigate the rites that were associated with these professions. The rites were manifestations of the myths, and the myths were expressions of the cosmogonies. What we know of the Mesoamerican religions allows us to say that, despite the diversity of the names of the gods and other differences, all of them are variations of the same cosmogonic myths and of the same theology. The common religious base for all of the Mesoamerican cultures is a basic myth according to which the gods sacrificed themselves to create the world; the mission of mankind is to preserve universal life, including one’s own, by feeding the gods with divine substance: blood. This myth explains the central place of sacrifice in Mesoamerican civilization. War not only had a political and economic dimension for the city-states, but also a religious one. War and trade were politics, and at the same time a rite.

One can draw a triangle: merchants, warriors, and priests. In the center of the triangle: the monarch. The king is a warrior, a priest, and in certain moments of the rites, a god. Ignacio Bernal has written, “In Tula and in Tenochtitlan there was a continual symbiosis between the ruler, the priest and the warrior.”1 And Schele and Miller note that the Maya kings always appear with the attributes and signs of the gods. In sum: the city brings us to trade, trade to politics and war, war to religion, religion to sacrifice. In the Mesoamerican myth of the creation, the double nature of the sacrifice appears with absolute clarity: the gods, in order to create the world, shed their blood; men, in order to maintain the world, must in turn shed their own blood, which is the food of the gods. The figure of the god-king is the visible manifestation of the duality of the sacrifice: the king is both a warrior (who sacrifices prisoners) and a god (who sheds his own blood). The sacrifice of the others is performed in the “flowering war,” self-sacrifice in the ascetic practices of the monarchs.

  1. 1

    In his article “Tenochtitlan,” published in Mexico in the journal Plural (June, July, August 1973).

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