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.
Maya art has expressed in unforgettable works—reliefs, frescoes, paintings, drawings, and carvings in jade, bone, and other materials—these two forms of sacrifice. The military and courtly manifestations appear with extraordinary force in numerous reliefs and, above all—at least for a modern imagination and sensibility—in the frescoes of Cacaxtla. This fortress sanctuary, situated far from the Maya realm, reminds me of the Templars’ castles of the Near East: constructions that were at once military and religious, they were monasteries that were also garrisons surrounded by enemies and palaces inhabited by aristocratic brotherhoods of warrior-priests.
In Cacaxtla two mural paintings, one facing the other, present in brilliant colors and skillful (though overwhelming) drawing the divinities of the two military orders, the Eagles and the Jaguars. In the central esplanade there is a vast fresco—somewhat damaged—depicting a battle. The conjunction makes one think of certain compositions of Uccello, as much for the rhythm and the arrangement of the figures as for the play of complementary oppositions of colors, lines, and forms. The brilliance of the uniforms of the combatants, the flash of lances, shields, clubs, and arrows: the battle evokes the pageantry of the Middle Ages. A ballet of vivid forms and colors, a dance both hallucinatory and atrocious: we see pennants, the rippling of blue-green feathers, pools of blood, eviscerated men, smashed faces. The fresco glorifies the “flowering war,” quite different from the medieval tournament, which was a courtly festival, erotic and cruel; the battle of Cacaxtla is the representation of a terrible rite, a drama that ends with the torture and sacrifice of the captured.
The other form of sacrifice is no less powerful: the ascetic and penitential practices of the kings and their wives. The monarchs were of divine blood; it was natural, then, that at certain ceremonies they should shed their own blood. The rite repeats the myth of the creation of the universe, and, in reenacting it, ensures the continuance of life. The blood of the king and his consort strengthens social ties, fertilizes the earth, and guarantees victory over enemies. In Cambodia the cult of the lingam (the virile member) of the god Shiva was identified with the person of the king; the monarch was the divine lingam. Among the Maya, the blood of the monarch was the blood of the gods: therefore it must be shed.
Self-sacrifice was the privilege of the kings and his consorts, but it also extended to the noble and priestly classes; there are various representations of high lords practicing the bloody rite. The sacrifice was literally a sacrament; thus it is not strange that the instrument used to perform it—a small lancet, usually the dorsal spine of a stingray—was deified. The incisions and perforations could be made anywhere on the body, but were usually in three zones: the tongue for women, the penis (foreskin) for men, and the ear lobes for both.2 With the sacred lancets the Maya kings, their wives and courtiers pierced and slashed their bodies. The blood was gathered in small cups, also sacred, which contained pieces of paper that were burned during the sacrifice. A union of blood and fire.
The ceremonies were public and private. The private ones were celebrated in the interior of the temples or in the secrecy of the royal chambers, probably witnessed by a small number of priests and courtiers. One of the reliefs of Yaxchilán (Lintel 24—now in the British Museum) is a stylized portrait of the king Shield Jaguar and his wife, Lady Xoc (see illustration on page 3). The king is dressed as a penitent: he wears a feathered headdress, the shrunken head of a sacrificial victim tied to his forehead. He grips an enormous torch, no doubt because the ceremony takes place at night or in an underground chamber. The torch illuminates a strange scene. Lady Xoc is kneeling, and richly dressed: she wears a diadem, an elaborate huipil dress with geometric designs, and earrings, necklaces, and bracelets. Her eyes are blank, and she pulls a long cord braided with thorns through her perforated tongue. The cord falls into a basket which contains paper soaked with blood. The glyphs indicate the date of the ceremony (October 28, 709), the names of the penitents, and the ritual act of taking blood from one’s own body.
In another relief one sees Bird Jaguar, the son of Shield Jaguar, practicing the same rite. He is accompanied by his cahal, that is, the administrator of a subordinate territory. The king is dressed in a sumptuous manner; on his back he wears the mask of his father, Shield Jaguar. The king’s penis, covered by a divine lancet with a plume of feathers, drips the blood that Bird Jaguar scatters with his hands and lets fall in a basket that contains the paper that later will be burned. Perhaps this ceremony took place in public and outdoors. One can imagine the scene: the sun, the cloudless sky, the tall pyramids painted in vivid ritualistic colors, the crowds, the whiteness of the capes and the colors of the plumes, the musicians and dancers, the headdresses and the copal censers, the nobles and the priests. Among the latter, many have passed through a period of fasting, privation, and loss of blood in analogous ceremonies.
At the exact moment of the favorable hour determined by the conjunction of the stars and planets, the king and queen appear. Dressed in ritual robes that reveal their divine nature, they take their places at the center of the high platform and “in full public view, he pierces his penis, she her tongue.” The blood soaks large strips of paper which the acolytes gather in cups and braziers. The bloody paper is lit, turns into a column of smoke, and rises to the sky. The participants, says Linda Schele, are prepared psychologically and physiologically—the fasts, the bloodlettings, the faith, the enthusiasm, the terror—to experience a visionary trance.
The bloody rituals had a double purpose: to assure the continuance of life through a rite that was a symbolic reenactment of the divine creation, and to provoke a vision of the other world. It is known that a considerable loss of blood produces chemical and psychological reactions favorable to hallucinatory experience. The Mayas also used drugs and enemas to induce visionary states. Although Maya art has left innumerable representations of these experiences, it is only recently that we have begun partly to understand their meaning.
This work of interpretation is, without a doubt, one of the great merits of Schele and Miller’s book. In a relief from Yaxchilán (Lintel 25, also in the British Museum) that is part of the Shield Jaguar series, the same Lady Xoc appears in a trance (October 23, 681). She is again kneeling, dressed in a huipil, and wearing a diadem arrayed with symbols. She is adorned with a large jade necklace, a breastplate, and other fineries. With her left hand she holds a plate containing bloody paper and two lancets; she extends her right hand in a gesture of offering. At her feet, as usual, are the basket with the paper stained with blood, the lancets of the self-sacrifice, and the cord of thorns. From the basket sprouts a fantastic serpent with two heads entwining in the air. Blood has turned to fire, and fire to smoke that has materialized into a vision. Xoc looks up; between the enormous jaws of the serpent appears a warrior with the attributes of the rain god Tlaloc, armed with a shield and a spear pointed at the queen. Is the warrior an ancestor or a god? Perhaps both: Xoc was of divine blood. The god who visits her is one of her ancestral spirits.
This Vision Serpent appears on reliefs, stelae, painted vases, and other objects. Among them there is one that is particularly remarkable: a conch shell. By means of crosshatching and engraving, the artist has given the shell the form of a human head that represents a god announcing the appearance of the divine serpent. The object could be called, without exaggeration, the sculpture of a scream; that is to say, the scream, instead of being lost in the air, is incarnated in a human face. At the top of the head, there are incised lines forming two very fine drawings. Inverting the shell, the lines reveal the figure of a young hero, seated on a cushion that serves as a throne, and before him, the sign of the lunar goddess. Curving into the shell, the lines trace another figure: a youth who embraces a fantastic serpent, his head raised and waiting for the vision from the serpent’s great jaws. The young hero is none other than Hunahpu, one of the divine twins of the Popol Vuh.
Here the divine rite reiterates the human one; the gods too pierce their bodies and invoke the serpent, giver of visions. The image of the serpent is repeated with obsessive frequency; the visions do not arise from the individual imagination but rather have been codified into a ritual. Contrary to our own dreams and visions, they are the expression of a collective belief. The serpent is a true archetype. A channel of transmission between the world of people and the infernal world, both gods and ancestors appear between its jaws.
I find Maya art surprising in two ways. First, for its realism or, more exactly, its literalness: the images it presents us can be “read.” They are not illustrations of a text: they are the text itself. The opposite of modern art, they are not purely images; they are sign-images. The artist, arranging and grouping them according to a fixed order, gives us a text. This literalness refers, first, to historical and actual fact: battles, processions of captives, sacrifices, scenes of the ball game or episodes of daily life, some tender, others horrible, still others comic. But the literalness also extends to the supernatural world and to the syntax of symbols, that is, to the forms in which they interact to create conjunctions which are actual discourses and allegories. For example, upon seeing the triumphal dance of the king Chan-Bahlum in the underworld, we also read that he has conquered the gods of death and that he will ascend to the world above; this same act of seeing-reading, simultaneously emotional and intellectual, is repeated before the great stone of Pacal’s tomb, although here the complexity of symbols is far greater; in the same manner, studying the rites of Lady Xoc, we read her serpentine vision and hear, figuratively, the message of her divine ancestor.
The second surprise, more unusual and more intense, is the Mayas’ transformation of literal realism in objects that are metaphors, palpable symbols. The image-signs, without ceasing to be signs, are entirely grounded in the forms that express them. A marriage of the real and the symbolic is expressed in a single object. The conch shell I mentioned before is a good example. Its practical function is that of a trumpet, probably used in some ceremony of self-sacrifice. But the shell-trumpet also changes into a god, the god into a scream, and the scream into a face. It not only offers us the crystallization of an idea in a material object, but is also the fusion of the two into a true metaphor, not verbal but emotional. An idea is transformed into matter: a form which, when we touch it, turns into thought, a thought we can hold and hear resounding.
This kind of fusion of literal and symbolic, matter and idea, natural and supernatural reality, is a constant factor not only in Maya art but in that of all the Mesoamerican cultures. It seems to me that Maya art is a particularly valuable key to its civilization. It is impossible, for example, to consider the function of pre-Columbian merchants and trade in purely economic terms. As we have seen, trade takes us, on the one hand, to politics and war; on the other, to religion and ritual. The same is true of war; it is not only an aspect of the foreign policy of the city-states but also a religious expression, a rite. The axis of this rite is double: the sacrifice of the prisoners and the self-sacrifice of the rulers. In turn, the ascetic practices are entwined with visions of the other world. Finally, the imaginary supernatural has been codified by a collective religious thinking that surprises us with both its rigor and its fantasy.
Mesoamerican civilization is, like its art, a complex of forms animated by a strange but coherent logic: the logic of correspondences and analogies. The history of these cultures—whether economic, political, or military—is expressed, or rather materialized, in rites and symbols. Like the conch shell, its history is both a material object and a symbol: a sculpted scream. Mesoamerican history can be seen as an immense and dramatic ritual ceremony. The theme of this ceremony, tirelessly repeated in countless variations, is none other than the myth of origin: creation/destruction/creation/destruction/creation….The abolition of linear and successive time. Myth (history) repeats itself again and again like the days and nights, the years and the eras, the planets and the constellations.
During the last fifteen years researchers—Qnearly all of them North Americans—have solved many of the great mysteries of Mesoamerican history. Although their work has been prodigious, many questions remain to be answered. Among them one has been foremost for generations of historians: How and why did Mesoamerican civilization of the classical period suddenly decline? In all of the territory, almost at the same time, the city-states collapsed, and in less than a century became abandoned ruins. Nevertheless, the recent discoveries have been substantial enough to allow us to alter the traditional perspective and pose the question in a radically different manner.
Let me explain. The transition between the civilizations of the Classic period and those of the Postclassic was, until recently, summarized by this simple formula: the theocracies (inexplicably) came to an end during the 900s and the militaristic and expansionist city-states were born. The archetype of these latter was Tula, and later, its image and double, México-Tenochtitlan. Today we know that the Classic period was also a time of wars and that these struggles were carried on by city-states with political regimes not unlike those of the Postclassic period. In both eras the central political reality was the king surrounded by a military-priestly class. The myths, rites, and cosmologies as well as the artistic styles of both are quite similar. In general, the creations of the Postclassic period are derivations and variations of those of the Classic. The same can be said of the economy and other aspects of social life. Thus the opposition between one and the other becomes weak and at times completely disappears. The old classifications and nomenclatures crumble. Is it not time to rethink the history of Mesoamerica?
After the erosion of so many ideas and concepts, what remains? In the first place, there is the unity of Mesoamerican civilization. This is a fact that need not be proved: it leaps before our eyes. Not only has there been a continuous inter-relation and influence among the various societies and eras—Olmecs, Mayas, Zapotecs, the people of Teotihuacán and El Tajín, Tula, Cholula, Mitla, Tenochtitlan—their cultural forms and expressions have been similar, from their cosmogonic myths and artistic styles to their political and economic institutions. Alongside its unity we can observe, as its natural complement, extraordinary continuity, a continuity of more than two millennia. Of course there was change in Mesoamerica, but not the sudden ruptures or revolutionary transformations of other continents. Mesoamerica did not know religious conversions like the abandonment of pagan polytheism for Christian monotheism, the appearance of Buddhism or of Islam. Nor were there the scientific, technical, and philosophical revolutions of the Old World.
We should not confuse continuity with immobility. The Mesoamerican societies moved, but in a circular motion. With cyclical regularity the city-states fell, victims of internal and other upheavals; one after the other, new, semibarbaric peoples assimilated the older culture and began anew. Each new beginning was a reelaboration and a recombination of inherited principles, ideas, and techniques. Re-creations and superimpositions: Mesoamerican history has the circular and obsessive character of its myths.
The causes of this circularity are numerous. Nevertheless, I must repeat what I have said elsewhere: the determinant factor was the lack of contact with other civilizations. The story of a people is the history of its encounters, combinations, and clashes with other peoples and other ideas, techniques, philosophies, symbols. Like biology, history is repetition and change; mutations are almost always the result of grafts and interbreeding. The immense and prolonged historical solitude of Mesoamerica is the reason for its grandeur and its weakness. Grand because it was one of the few truly original civilizations in history: it owed nothing to the others. Weak because its isolation made it vulnerable to that essential experience, the same in social life as in biology: the encounter with the Other.
Isolation was the principal cause of the fall of the Mesoamerican cultures, and from it derive other causes, biological and technical, military and political. Susceptibility to the European viruses and epidemics decimated the indigenous population; their technical and cultural inferiority made them fall victim to the firearms, cavalry, and iron weapons of the conquistadors; no less crucial were the internecine rivalries, so skillfully manipulated by Cortés. About this last I must add something that the histories generally omit: that the divisions among the Indians were the natural result of the circular nature of Mesoamerican history. The battles between the city-states lasted as long as the civilization lasted, that is to say, two thousand years. Nevertheless, these struggles did not lead to the creation of a universal state as they did in other parts of the world. Neither México-Tenochtitlan nor its predecessors—Tula and Teotihuacán—ever succeeded in creating one. Did they actually intend to? I doubt it: among the philosophical and political ideas of the Mesoamericans, the notion of a universal empire did not exist.
I have neglected to mention the most serious and decisive factor: the psychological paralysis, the torpor that immobilized Mesoamerican societies when they confronted the Spaniards. Their confusion was the terrible consequence of their inability to imagine them. They could not imagine them because they lacked the intellectual and historical categories in which to place these beings who had come from no one knew where. To classify the strangers, they had to use the only category available to them for dealing with the unknown: the sacred. The Spaniards were gods and supernatural beings because the Mesoamericans had only two categories for people: the sedentary civilized and the barbarians. As the Nahuas would say: Toltecs and Chichimecs. The Spaniards were neither one nor the other, therefore they must be gods, beings who came from beyond. For two thousand years the Mesoamerican cultures lived and grew alone; their encounter with the Other came too late and under conditions of terrible inequality. For that they were destroyed.
—translated by Eliot Weinberger
February 26, 1987
In his article “Tenochtitlan,” published in Mexico in the journal Plural (June, July, August 1973). ↩
Little work has been done on the anatomy and physiology of the Maya, which were no doubt magical and symbolic, and linked with the cosmic myths. Some important studies in the Nahua area have been made by the historian López Austin. ↩