Thursday, May 31, 2012

Time for the Episcopal Church to Get Off Its Duff

815 Second Avenue, Episcopal Church HQ

In an excellent post, our own Episcopal atheist, IT, throws down the gauntlet and challenges the Episcopal Church as an institution and as a community, to speak out loudly and forcefully against the ferocious hate speech spewing from certain pulpits and going viral online.

... something like this, Pastor Curtis Knapp in Kansas:

It's but a short sharp step from this kind of violent rhetoric to real physical violence (also, it's rhetoric like this that makes me think that it is time to repeal "Godwin's Law").   As the poet Heinrich Heine pointed out, "Those who begin by burning books will end by burning people."  A few generations later, his fellow countrymen forcefully demonstrated the truth of his insight.  Are we going to wait around for Heine's insight to be proven again?

I think that these folks are so round the bend because they know that they've already lost.  The last respectable bigotry will die with them, and they know it.  Their own children are not with them on this issue, and in fact have turned against them (so many of these folks, even Fred Phelps, have offspring who publicly turned against them or came out gay themselves).  Their destiny is to join the racists in remote compounds and on the social margins.  Tomorrow does not belong to them.

That doesn't mean that they can't do a lot of serious damage in the meantime.  I think it more likely that they will strike out violently as they become more marginal and desperate.  Indeed, it may already be happening.  Anti-gay violence spiked last year.

I think IT is right.

It's time for the Episcopal Church to quit dithering and to speak out forcefully against this crap.  Like it or not, the Episcopal Church now plays a leadership role on gay equality.  The Church ordained open and partnered gay and lesbian bishops.  Episcopal bishops, suffragan and diocesan, speak out publicly for marriage equality.  Same sex marriages are becoming more common in Episcopal churches. The Episcopal Church has an army of openly gay and lesbian clergy.  Most of the gay-sympathetic theology out there was pioneered by Episcopal writers.  Episcopal congregations are continuing to prove themselves receptive and supportive of their gay members, and to provide a haven for gays and lesbians expelled from their own churches.  What's more, the Episcopal Church finds itself singled out and held up for scorn by large sections of the Anglican Communion for acting on its conscience.  The original intent of the Windsor Commission and the Anglican Covenant was to punish the Episcopal Church.

It's time for the Episcopal Church in its General Convention, by its leadership, and by its pew sitters, to speak out unequivocally against this verbal violence, not distance itself from it like the Southern Baptists and the Roman Catholic hierarchy, but oppose it in no uncertain terms, and make public that positive alternative it has created and kept secret for 30 years now.

I fear that much of General Convention's energy this July will be spent on responding to the Anglican Covenant (a dead issue as far as I'm concerned since the C of E voted to reject it in its diocesan conventions), and on administrative reorganization.  I'm so afraid that they will miss a golden opportunity to actually do something timely and relevant.  It would require Episcopalians to abandon their nice-at-all-costs reticence, and it might even require them to be rude, but it would be a great service.

In an age where public discussion about religion is dominated by fanatics and suicide bombers, polite thoughtful arguments just don't cut it anymore.

The Episcopal Church needs to make common cause (and be seen making common cause) with these people:

... and not these people (no matter how much we may like their hats and dresses):

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


I see more and more strikingly young veterans in my classes these days. Men and women still in their 20s who've already seen multiple deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, the Balkans, Djibouti, etc.

It seems to me that our wars over the last 50 years look less like previous American wars and more like the colonial wars of the British Empire in the late 19th century. They are mostly small ferocious wars for the sake of large and arcane political designs and commercial interests, what Robert Louis Stevenson called "The Great Game."
Those wars then and our wars now are fought by young people from poor and marginal backgrounds desperate for a new start, who find themselves shipped to some far corner of the earth that they've never heard of until they arrive there.
 The Iraq invasion and the Afghanistan War, like the Spanish American War (also an imperial adventure), were fought with a military manned primarily by the poor and by immigrants (not all of the veterans in my classes are citizens).

 I don't really consider myself to be a pacifist. There are times when picking up a gun and fighting are necessary. But, the older I get, the more I agree with Chris Hedges who said that war is a betrayal of soldiers by politicians, of idealists by cynics, of the young by the old.
Contrary to Clausewitz, I see war not as another form of politics, but as the failure of politics. Hannah Arendt said that the resort to violence is always a confession of failure, that your cause has so little credibility and authority that you must resort to force in order to win. I've always said that the great genius of democracy is that people can struggle for power with a real chance of winning without having to kill each other.

 Over time, I'm becoming less and less patient with those who want to paper over the absolute pacifism in the Gospel with "Just War" doctrines.

We fight our wars the same way we live our lives; not as we should, but as we can.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day

 Tip of the fedora to Thers at Eschaton.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Great Mayan Cities

Stele from Palenque showing one of that city's dynastic rulers

I just finished reading Michael D. Coe’s book on the Maya, apparently a standard basic text on the subject and I enjoyed it immensely.   The subject is fascinating, and Coe genuinely loves the people and their civilization.  His book has gone through many editions, and the one I read is the eighth and latest with a lot of new discoveries and major revisions in Maya studies just in the last ten years. Our conception of the old Maya civilization changed a lot in the thirty years or so since I last read about them.

One of the world’s greatest civilizations slowly emerges from obscurity into the full historical record.  This once “lost” civilization now has a history (thanks to more than a century of effort on the part of scholars working to comprehend it and publish it) and a cultural legacy that turns out to be as durable than those of Egypt and Mesopotamia. The once mysterious ruins in the tropical forests now tell a tale of a great thriving urban culture that was once home to millions of people.  It’s accomplishments in art and science led the world at the time of its flourishing.

Probably the biggest change in our reconstruction of the Maya is the type of society that they lived in, and what kind of history they had.  Gone is the old idea of the Maya as a peaceable theocracy ruled by a priestly class.  The current image of the Maya looks more like ancient Greece, a collection of independent city states with fierce rivalries.  There appears to have been constant competition for hegemony and territory, and rivalries based on the lineage of their nobles among these cities.  Warfare seems to have been frequent.  All of the city states were not equal.  The great cities of Tikal and Calakmul appear to have been rival hegemons with numerous allies and dependencies among the other city states.


The great city of Tikal was the largest and one of the two most powerful Mayan cities.  At its height, it may have had a population of as many as 90,000 people making it one of the largest cities in the Americas before the Conquest.  While it has been completely mapped, most of it remains unexplored and unexcavated.  Only a small portion of the city center is excavated and restored.  Tikal, like most Mayan cities, appears to have grown haphazardly around a collection of ceremonial centers.  There were no streets except for large causeways that linked ceremonial centers, and large plazas that served as stages for religious spectacles, and probably as marketplaces.  Great palaces stood on top of high stone platforms, perhaps much more splendid versions of the houses of commoners, usually wattle and daub structures with thatched roofs built on high earthen platforms above potential flood waters.  Numerous reservoirs supplied water.  The surrounding countryside was largely cleared and divided into small plots for growing maize, beans, squash, chili peppers, and cotton.

The combs of the temples of Tikal poking up above the forest canopy, as they perhaps were intended

 Aerial view of part of the city center of Tikal


A map of Tikal showing the haphazard growth of the city.  By contrast, ancient Mexican cities like Teotihuacan were carefully planned along grids of streets and avenues.  The area outlined in green corresponds roughly to the view in the photograph above.

Temple I at Tikal, built around 730 CE as the tomb monument of Jasaw Chan Kawiil I, ruler of Tikal.  Mayan temples were masterful integrations of architecture and sculpted imagery.  The tall comb on top of the temple probably depicted the apotheosis of King Jasaw Chan Kawiil I.  The sculptures on these temple combs are far too eroded to reconstruct now, but they must have been brightly colored and vivid images looming above the forest and surrounding cityscape.  

An "acropolis" which may be a combination of temple complex and dynastic burial place.

A royal burial of Jasaw Chan Kawiil I from Temple I in Tikal reconstructed.  Note the jade ornaments and the copious number of ceramic vessels, probably made specially for this burial.  They contained food offerings of tamales, chocolate, and other prized delicacies.

A magnificent jade vessel found in a royal tomb in Tikal.  The lid bears a head that may be the Maize God.

Temple IV at Tikal that is only partially restored, like most of the rest of the city.

A carved wooden lintel from Temple IV in Tikal showing the ruler Yik'in Chan K'awiil seated upon an elaborate palanquin while participating in a military victory celebration.  The glyphs date the victory rites on July 26, 743 CE.



This city was the great rival of Tikal in size and hegemony.  It had perhaps as many as 50,000 inhabitants.  Its main pyramid is one of the largest of all the Maya pyramids.  Most of this city remains unexcavated with some remarkable new discoveries made very recently. 

The largest temple pyramid at Calakmul and one of the largest of Maya pyramids partially restored

Discovered in 2004, vivid paintings beautifully preserved of activities in the markets of Calakmul; this is unusual subject matter for Mayan art.  This shows scenes from daily life rather than the activities of gods and rulers.

Detail from the newly discovered Calakmul murals showing a noble woman placing a large jar of corn meal or gruel on top of the head of a servant woman.

A jade burial mask from Calakmul


Palenque is a smaller Mayan city that is famous for the splendor of its art and architecture, created under the rule of a single dynasty featuring a number of distinguished rulers.  The most famous is Pacal the Great. 

A view of the restored city center of Palenque

The most famous building in Palenque, the so-called Temple of the Inscriptions, now thought to be a tomb monument for Palenque's greatest and most famous ruler, Pacal the Great

One of the most dramatic of all Mayan archaeological discoveries, the burial chamber of Pacal deep within the pyramid of the Temple of the Inscriptions.  A large tomb slab originally sealed the stone sarcophagus below.

The carving on the tomb slab of K'inich Janaab' Pakal, or Pacal the Great.  It shows Pacal in the jaws of death with the World Tree above.  Scholars usually describe the scene as a reference to Pacal's death, Pacal is swallowed up by the underworld.  Other scholars more recently describe the scene showing Pacal's resurrection.  Pacal, reborn as the young Maize god, emerges with the Tree out of the jaws of the underworld.  Indeed, Pacal is conspicuously young in this portrait, and in all of his portraits.  In fact, he died at age 80 on August 31, 683 CE.

Pacal's magnificent jade burial mask showing him as the young Maize God.

A very strikingly particular stone portrait of Pacal

Another remarkable portrait head of one of Pacal's successors.  It seems that the Maya and the Moche in the Andes were the only peoples in the Americas interested in portraiture.

The Palace in Palenque with its famous tower for celestial observations, or for security, or both.  The palace stands on a high stone platform perhaps reflecting the more modest earthen platforms that supported the adobe and thatch homes of the common people.

The so-called Sun Temple, a small masterpiece of Mayan architecture



Uxmal is a city from a later period in Mayan history, and stands in the middle of the dry scrub forests of central Yucatan.  It is home to some of the most splendid buildings that the Maya ever built.

The monuments of Uxmal loom above the dry scrub forest of the Yucatan.  The city flourished from about 700 to 1000 CE.

The "Pyramid of the Magician,"  an unusual oval shaped pyramid with minimal terracing

The "Nunnery,"  a palace complex

The Mayan genius for integrating architecture and sculpted imagery was never more brilliantly employed than in Uxmal.  The upper half to two thirds of these buildings are large sculpted friezes that beautifully harmonize imagery with architectural form.  They were once brilliantly colored.

One of the buildings in the "Nunnery"

Sculpted detail of The Governor's Palace showing what may be a Chak or a rain god amid stylized storm clouds

Carved masks on a building in Uxmal.  These may be images of mountain deities surrounded by stylized flowers.  These mountain paradises were the abodes of the gods and the noble dead in Mayan religion.  They make the building itself into a kind of paradise full of light and flowers.

A small lightly adorned masterpiece of Mayan architecture known as the Temple of the Turtles

A large ambitious masterpiece of Mayan architecture, the Palace of the Governors

The Maya were not quite as isolated as once thought.  They had regular trade contacts with ancient Mexico (turquoise from as far away as the American Southwest has been found in Mayan tombs).  The Maya suffered at least two major invasions from the Valley of Mexico.  The first seems to have been an invasion by the great imperial city of Teotihuacan sometime in the 4th century CE.  Many later Maya nobles traced their lineage back to these invaders, and generations later, appeared dressed in Teotihuacan style military costume in works of art; in many cases, decades and centuries after the fall of that great city.  It appears to me similar to the claims of Mongol ancestry by later Indian and Central Asian rulers.
The second invasion happened in 925 CE, the Toltec invasion.  An enormous Toltec army swept into the Yucatan and overthrew the last remaining Maya nobility and imposed something like Toltec culture and religion on the local population.  Over time, a hybrid Toltec Maya culture appeared centered in Chichen Itza, now understood to be a great imperial city that once ruled over all of the Yucatan peninsula and down into Central America.  This state appears to have disintegrated into smaller rival states and abandoned the capital city Chichen long before the Spanish Conquista of 1530.

Chichen Itza

The great Post Classic city of Chichen Itza was the capital city of an empire spanning all of the Yucatan ruled by a dynasty of Toltec invaders together with Mayan nobility in the role of vassals and in-laws.  Great cenotes, or sinkholes from collapsed caverns in the limestone plateau, supplied the necessary drinking water for this city, and others like it in northern Yucatan.  Chichen was long famed for its Sacred Cenote whose depths yielded up numerous treasures and sacrificial victims once thrown into the well.

The Sacred Cenote from with Chichen Itza gets its current name meaning "Well of the Itzas"

A magnificent hybrid of Toltec and Mayan architecture, the famous Castillo, built between the 9th and 12th centuries, a temple to that Toltec god that the Aztecs called Quetzalcoatl, and the Yucatan Maya called Kukulkan.

A beautifully preserved and brightly painted jaguar throne and Chac Mool concealed in an earlier temple inside the pyramid of the Castillo  The spots on the jaguar throne are inlaid jade.  These are both Mexican imports.  The Chac Mool may have held the hearts of sacrificial victims in its lap.

A very Toltec temple, the Temple of the Warriors, almost a duplicate of the great temple in the ancient Toltec capital city, Tula

Detail of the Temple of the Warriors showing the columned porch

The magnificent Chac Mool and feathered serpent columns of the Temple of the Warriors

An older structure that may predate the Toltec invasion, the Caracol (bearing a date of 906 CE) or "Snail," which probably served as a an observatory to track the motions of the planetary stars

Another import from ancient Mexico, a sculpted relief showing a tzompantli or skull rack displaying the skulls of sacrificial victims

One of the enduring mysteries of Mayan history is the Great Collapse in the 9th century.  The great Classical Mayan civilization changed in about 50 years from a series of flourishing city states with a population in the millions into a much reduced population of migrating refugees leaving once great and crowded cities completely abandoned.  The emerging archaeological evidence suggests some kind of catastrophic collapse.  There is evidence, especially at sites like Dos Pilas, of fierce and desperate warfare with major buildings demolished to build fortifications.  There are all kinds of explanations, and they may each contain a grain of truth.  There is evidence of a long and severe drought at the time, possibly exacerbated by over cultivation.  Some scholars speculate that the regular warfare between the city states may have gotten out of hand and overwhelmed them.  Others speculate that there may have been some kind of social uprising against the ruling classes, perhaps linked to the drought.  The Mayan rulers claimed their legitimacy by their ability to intervene with and influence the gods.  When they appeared to have lost that ability, then those they ruled might have decided to throw off their domination in a massive revolt.  Some scholars speculate that foreign invasions, disruptions of trade networks, outbreaks of disease, or some combination of those things, caused the collapse.  All that is known for certain is that great cities like Tikal, Copan, Calakmul, and Palenque that were once home to tens of thousands of people were completely abandoned to the forest, and never inhabited again.

A raid from the murals in the temples at Bonampak

Another big change in Mayan scholarship in recent years is our idea of the antiquity of the Maya.  Now, the consensus is that a fully formed Mayan culture appeared as far back as 1000 BC.  The Classic Maya period of great cities lasted from about 250 to 900 CE.   The Maya appear to have been deeply influenced by regular contact with that oldest of all Meso-American civilizations, the Olmec, who flourished beginning around 1400 BC.  Writing, the calendar, and astronomy were Olmec inventions inherited and fully developed by the Maya.  There appear to have been large Olmec settlements in the Maya south along the Pacific coast in what is now Mexico and Guatemala.

The San Bartolo murals, dated from the 1st century BC, are the oldest known Mayan murals.  They were discovered in 2001.

Detail from the San Bartolo murals showing the Maize God receiving offerings of water and tamales from a group of women.  His features are a little hard to read, but he is looking back over his shoulder at a woman praying to him (his nose and forehead are white).  In this painting, his features are very Olmec inspired.

The decipherment of Mayan texts is an ongoing process.  The Mayan language is still spoken and still very much alive.   It is not one language but several, varying by region and by clan.  A lot of progress has been made in deciphering Mayan glyphs, but many remain unknown.  It appears to be a very complex system of writing combining ideograms with syllabic phonograms together with special symbols indicating place and rank.  It seems to be a writing system similar to Chinese where there are many variations, perhaps a thousand, on a limited number of symbols.  Also, numbering plays a major roll in Mayan inscriptions.  Much of the introduction of a Mayan inscription is dating.

Glyphs from Palenque

A vase covered with glyphic inscriptions

The Mayan calendar, like most ancient Meso-American calendars, is a wonder; incredibly sophisticated and very complex.  The Mayans were one of the few premodern peoples who could predict eclipses of the sun and moon with reasonable accuracy.  There are the cycles of numbered days together with named days, cycles based on the solar year, the moon, the planet Venus, and even the 9 months gestation of pregnancy.  There is the 52 year Calendar Round in which every possible combination of all those cycles plays out.  Unique to the Maya is the Long Count with cycles of thousands of years.  These dates are remarkably specific and accurate.  According to an inscription on a carved lintel from the city of Yaxchilan, the blood-letting ritual portrayed took place on October 28, 709 CE.

Carved lintel from Yaxchilan showing the ruler of that city, Itzamnaaj Bahlam II holding a blazing torch while his wife, Lady Xok drawing a rope studded with cactus thorns throw a piercing in her tongue to draw blood.  An open book lies before her.

As the glyphs become legible once again, then the Maya emerge more and more as a people with a recorded history.   We are learning more about their social and political history, and about their religious beliefs and practices, though there is still much that remains mysterious.  We now have lists, in chronological order, of most of the rulers of most of the cities.  Some of those rulers are beginning to emerge with full biographies.

The Mayans probably kept whole libraries of books, and the keeper of those books, a combination librarian and archivist, was a person of great power and authority.  Most of those books were written on paper made from tree bark.  A few others were written on deerskin.  Out of what must have been thousands of texts, only four books survive, and they are all from the very end of ancient Mayan history on the eve of the Spanish Conquest.  What happened to them all?  Most of them were probably already gone long before the Spanish arrived and destroyed the remainder.  There are indications that books were buried with the noble dead, but that they disintegrated in the tropical conditions.

Pages from the Dresden Codex

Record keeping mattered vitally to the Mayan nobility.  They based their claims to authority on lineage and on the antiquity of their ancestry.  Many of those books probably contained family records.  The Mayan scribal class apparently wielded great power and enjoyed great privilege (I suspect in a manner similar to ancient Egypt or to the ancient Chinese civil service).  This class seemed to include the artists and craftsmen who painted the books and murals, carved the monuments, and built the buildings.

A magnificent terra cotta figurine  of a bare breasted woman;  The Maya rank with the ancient Greeks and ancient India as masters of the human form.

Murals in Bonampak from about 790 CE

Mural from Bonampak showing Yajaw Chan Muwaan, the King of Bonampak standing over captives taken in battle.  One captive pleads for his life before the king, while another faints in terror at his feet.  The captives are bleeding from having their fingernails torn out.

The magnificent figure of the fainting captive at the feet of the king

A human bone with a splendid engraving of a captive

Two sides of The Ball Player vase.  The Maya prized these painted vases as much as we do.  Sometimes they were made specially for royal burials, other times they were highly esteemed trade items.  They bear comparison to Greek vase painting.  The figures are just as splendidly drawn, but with more color, and a much wider variety of form.

A roll out photo of the Ball Player Vase

A beautifully drawn scene with two scribes discussing a book in a linear monochrome style known as "codex style."

A red monochrome vase from 700 CE found in Belize showing elaborately dressed Maize Gods by an artist named Ah Maxam who signed his work

An "eccentric flint" elaborately carved to be used as a religious offering

The Mayan religion is still a big mystery to me, and a lot of the ancient religion remains unknown. Like most ancient religions, the Mayan religion apparently had no set of doctrines and no single sacred scripture.  The task of religion was to make the gods happy and to insure their continuing benevolence and protection.  The Western idea of “belonging” to a religion would have been alien to the ancient Maya (and seems to be alien to the modern Maya who still pray to the old gods before entering their churches). There are many gods that appear in Mayan art that remain nameless to us.  Scholars assign them letters like God L.

The 7 Gods Vase

Roll out photo of the 7 Gods Vase showing "God L," apparently an underworld deity, holding court with 6 other gods

A magnificent codex style vase showing an elderly looking God L enthroned like a ruler on the right surrounded by concubines with a rabbit scribe below.  On the left, on the other side of the vase in this roll out photo is a scene of human sacrifice.

Mayan art has a remarkably visionary quality, perhaps inspired by hallucinogens used by the Mayas and many other ancient American peoples to make contact with the spirits, the ancestors, and the dream world.  Here in a carved lintel from Yaxchilan, Lady Xok has a vision during a blood letting ritual of a warrior appearing in the jaws of a great serpent, perhaps an ancestor or a war god. 

A spectacular example of the visionary quality of Mayan art, the entrance to a temple at Ek' Bahlam made into the mouth of an immense monster with teeth in the foreground and small figures seated or standing in the eyes above the toothed door frame.

  We moderns find the bloodiness of ancient Mayan religious life to be very alienating.  In this the Maya were hardly unique.  Human sacrifice, bloodletting, and ordeal seem to have been common throughout the Americas.
The Mayans appear to have been relatively temperate in their ritual bloodletting compared to their neighbors in Mexico and far to the south in the Andes of South America.  There appear to have been no mass human sacrifices, though nobility captured in war could expect to be ritually beheaded (tearing hearts out of chests appears to have arrived with the Toltecs much later in Mayan history).  The captured rank and file soldiers could expect to go through some kind of ordeal like having their fingernails torn out and then sold into slavery.  When a king or a noble died, usually two or three adolescents, girls and boys, were sacrificed and put in the tomb with the deceased as servants and concubines in the afterlife.  Children were considered especially desirable for sacrifice with records of slave children purchased for just such a purpose.  The Mayan nobility not only inflicted pain upon others, but upon themselves.  Men drew blood offerings by piercing their penises, and noble women passed a rope with cactus thorns through a hole in their tongues.

A warrior noble, possibly one of the Hero Twins, drawing blood by piercing his penis.  To the right lies a large bird sacrificed before an unseen deity to the right.

The wife of the king of Bonampak, seated upon a throne, pierces her tongue with a stingray spine to draw blood.  A spiked vessel lines with bark paper waits to receive her blood.  An attendant kneels holding another spine.

The Spanish used these bloody rituals to justify their brutal treatment of the peoples that they conquered. 
Before we recoil in utter horror, let us ask ourselves just how exceptional was this?  Human sacrifice of one kind or another seems to be universal in ancient cultures.  In ancient China, whole populations of servants and retainers joined their Shang and Zhou Dynasty emperors in their tombs.  The British archaeologist Leonard Wooley found the remains of an entire dance and music troupe sacrificed to join the king of ancient Ur in the underworld.  Egyptian monuments show victorious Pharaoh dispatching captured kings or whole companies of captured enemy soldiers by grabbing them by the hair and clubbing them to death with a mace.  There is a famous passage in Homer’s Iliad describing the Trojan captives sacrificed at the funeral of Patroclus.  The Bible is full of references to human sacrifice (eg, Abraham and Isaac, the story of Jeptha’s daughter, etc.).  And what is the Christian Mass but a kind of sublimated human sacrifice?  The doctrine of Penal Substitution Atonement, that a blood sacrifice is necessary to atone for the sins of humankind, would sound very familiar to the inhabitants of ancient Mexico (and it did).  Before the secularists among us start feeling too superior, you don’t need religion for human sacrifice.  Just what are soldiers in full dress uniform but sacrificial victims adorned and offered up for Our Country and Our Cause?  Since the French Revolution, the rhetoric of ideological politics is full of sacrificial imagery.

It is possible that these bloody displays played a role in establishing the legitimacy of rulers.  The historian Mark Edward Lewis points out that in ancient China, a ruler’s authority was based on ritual forms of violence in the hunt, in warfare, and in ritual sacrifice.  We may be seeing something similar here with the Mayan nobility.  Indeed, hunting and warfare played large roles in legitimizing Western royalty.  In these rites of sacrifice and bloodletting, the Mayan nobility may well be trying to fulfill the expectations of their subjects.  The ruled at the very least expected their rulers to be strong and powerful in order to protect them from aggression, crime, and misfortune.  What better way to publicly display power and strength than in ritualized violence?  The ruler drawing his own blood was the ultimate display of noblesse oblige.

Blood played a central sacramental role in Mayan religious life.  The gods themselves bled.  The Maize God appeared every planting season as a beautiful young man with long hair.  Every harvest, he was beheaded, like a captured king, like the ears cut off of a maize plant.  He appeared reborn again every planting season (he reminds me of Egypt’s Osiris, likewise a god who died and rose again, and was associated with vegetation).  In the Mayan creation stories, the gods made human beings out of cornmeal mixed with their own blood.  The Hero Twins endured ordeals in the Underworld and made offerings of their own blood to the gods.

The Maize God, a tenon sculpture from the side of a temple in Copan

A painted bowl from the 8th century CE showing the Maize God Hunahpu rising out of the earth shown as the carapace of an immense turtle.  He is resurrected by his sons, the Hero Twins, one of whom pours out water from a jar as though he was watering a maize plant.  So much of Mayan religion, including the calendar, revolved around the planting and harvesting cycles of maize.

Time played a major role in Mayan religious life.  It was once thought that the Mayans deified time itself.  As more discoveries are made, it appears that their intricate calendar was for astrology and divination; what days were propitious and what days were unlucky.  In common with all ancient American thought, the Mayans believed in cycles of time, that everything had its season, its lifetime, even their temples.  Like most ancient American peoples, the Mayans regularly rebuilt their temples, collapsing the roof of the old one, filling it with rubble, and building a new one around it.  Like most other peoples of ancient Meso-America, the Mayans believed that time itself had its seasons.  The Maya, in common with their ancient Mexican neighbors, may have observed the end and beginning of every 52 year calendar cycle with the Ritual of the New Fire in which all the lights and fires in the city were put out, and then lit again from a single flame lit at an important altar.  The Long Count was about “suns,” eras of thousands of years under the reign of a particular deity who assumes the role of the sun.  The present Great Cycle in the Long Count began August 13, 3114 BC that the Maya believed was the date of the Creation under the current sun.  It will end December 21, 2012 (the exact dating is still controversial).  What will happen?  According to the colonial era compilation of Mayan religious texts known as the Popol Vuh (“The Book of Counsel” written in the Mayan language with the Latin alphabet), our era is the 4th Creation, the 4th Sun.  The gods destroyed the previous 3.  Because of this reference in this one source (and probably misread), many people conclude that the world will end on December 21st.  However, inscriptions at Palenque and other sites refer to future dates well beyond December 21, 2012, and make no mention, or implication, anywhere of a coming apocalypse.  It appears to be simply the end of a calendar cycle to be commemorated with rituals and monuments as were the conclusions and beginnings of 52 year cycles.  I have no intention of changing my holiday plans this year, though I might be talked into a New Fire ceremony (minus the bloodletting).

The eclipse listings from the Dresden Codex

It used to be assumed that Maya cities were theocracies ruled by established priesthoods.  Now, a number of scholars doubt that the Maya ever had anything like a separate priesthood before the Toltec invasion.  The Toltecs, like other ancient Mexican peoples, did indeed have a distinct priesthood complete with separate monastic lodgings and vows of priestly celibacy.  Priestly duties among the Maya seem to have been distributed among the nobility and the scribal class.

The Maya are hardly a “lost” civilization.  The Maya people and culture are still very much around.  The language is still spoken.  People still pray to the old gods (there was much in the Catholic Christianity imposed by the Spanish that the Maya found familiar; a god who died and rose again and manifested himself in bread, the use of religious images, religious processions and pilgrimages, and copious use of incense; the Mayans simply merged the new Christian gods with their own ancestral gods; Christ and the Maize God are one and the same to them, the Virgin Mary is their old moon goddess).  There are approximately 10 million Maya today making them the largest of all indigenous American peoples.  They have one of the world’s oldest continuous cultures.

The Quiche Mayan town of Chichicastenango in Guatemala on market day.  The great Mayan cities must have appeared at least this busy with their markets.  Copal incense rises in front of the church today just as it once did before temples in ancient times.  

The feast of Saint Thomas, the local patron saint, in Chichicastenango.  Ancient Mayan religious processions may have looked something like this, parading a sacred image through throngs gathered on processional causeways.

Quiche Mayan women in Chichicastenango

A Mayan shaman making copious use of copal incense as did his ancient predecessors.  Mayan shamans still use the calendar for astrology and divination.

The Maya were the last people of Meso-America to be subdued by the Spanish.  They were not fully conquered and Christianized until 1697, more than 150 years after the Conquest.  They remain a stubbornly independent people resisting efforts by both Mexico and Guatemala to fully incorporate them into larger national identities. 
The Quiche Maya of Guatemala endured the worst catastrophe since the Spanish Conquest, a reign of terror by the ruling Guatemalan military regime that began in 1978 and ended only recently.  It is estimated that 150,000 Mayans died with another 40,000 “disappeared” (and almost certainly dead).  The Quiche found themselves in an impossible situation between a Marxist (and non-Maya) insurgency and a military regime that saw the Maya as chattel and cheap labor for the coffee plantations (some of that labor was forced and uncompensated).  The Marxist insurgents despised the Maya culture as a primitive throwback and the regime suspected the Maya of aiding and abetting the insurgency.  The regime, with American backing, waged a war of terror on the Quiche Maya in order to deny the insurgents any shelter or support.

Today, the military regime in Guatemala is no more.  There is still a smoldering native insurgency in neighboring Chiapas state in Mexico.  The Maya lands now face an onslaught of tourism (Cancun and Cozumel are in the middle of ancient Mayan territory), commercial development, and evangelical missionaries.  These new invaders have even less patience with Maya traditions than the Spanish.  Evangelical missionaries and commercial developers and shareholders with their imperial ambitions have no interest in recording or preserving Mayan heritage.  They each see it as part of the jungle to be cleared.
The pressures of poverty and decades of civil war drive tomb robbery and the large and lucrative traffic in stolen Mayan artifacts.  This trade threatens to erase the Mayan past at the very moment it is becoming known.

 The Castillo at Chichen Itza swarming with tourists

Will the Maya survive?  Mayan culture is deeply conservative with numerous religious and social constraints.  Like so many once isolated ancient societies, they have a hard time adapting to modern conditions.  The dissolution of their culture would be a tremendous loss to the world.  The Maya survived conquest by Teotihuacan, the Toltecs, and the Spanish.  They survived attempts to forcibly assimilate by both Mexico and Guatemala.  There is every reason to believe that they will continue.

Young Quiche Maya in Guatemala

*Most of this information is from Michael D Coe's book with help from Mary Ellen Miller's book on Mayan art.  Wikipedia was very helpful too.


How could I forget the most beloved of all Mayan gifts to the world?  Chocolate.  Cacao beans were used as currency among the Maya (one early Spanish chronicler describes a Mayan frantically searching for dropped cacao beans as if he had “dropped his own eyeballs”).  Chocolate was brewed from the cacao beans as a frothy bitter drink by the Maya heavily spiced with chili.  Sweet chocolate appeared when the Spanish mixed it with sugar.  The Maya highly prized the drink, offering it to the gods and to their dead in specially made ceramic vessels. 

An early Mayan "screw top" vessel for holding chocolate.  The top is not quite a true screw top, more like a slightly more complicated lid on a teapot.  You have to turn the lid to open it.

The Mayan nobility prized the serotonin rush of chocolate every bit as much as we do, and they have our everlasting gratitude.