Monday, April 30, 2012

The Madrid Codex

The Madrid Codex -- once known as the Tro-Cortesiano Codex -- is one of the four surviving codices from the ancient Maya civilization. It was rediscovered in Europe in the 19th century, and is now in the possession of the Museo Arqueológico, in Madrid.

Physical Features
The codex is a 56 “page” work that was possibly produced by about 8 Mayan scribes in the Postclassic period. It is page size measures about 5.72 by 9.44 inches, and when unfolded completely it reaches about 21.98 feet in length.

History of Rediscovery
Taken from the Maya and ending up in Spain, rediscovery of the Madrid Codex occurred in the mid to late 1800s. A man named Juan de Tro y Ortolano once came possessed a manuscript, known as the Troano Codex. This codex ended up in the Museo de América de Madrid when he died. Another man named José Ignacio Miró bought another codex in 1872 that was known as the Cortesiano Codex, and this too ended up in the museum. A third man, Léon de Rosny went to see the Cortesiano Codex in the museum, and discovered that these codices were in fact two parts of the same codex. (This is why the Madrid Codex used to be known as the Tro-Cortesiano Codex.)

However, the Madrid Codex may not be what it seems. In 1999, an archaeologist -- also an author of books on the ancient Maya -- named Michael Coe questioned the total authenticity of the codex. Coe believes that page 56 has a piece of European-style paper dating from 1600s. Despite this, the codex is still generally understood to have been created before theConquest. 

And what does the Madrid Codex contain?It has religious writing that ranges from information on divination and rituals (such as rituals to complete on New Year’s) to information on the beings called Pauahtuns -- gods of the cardinal directions. Astronomical information in the Madrid Codex includes astronomical tables, though it does not have as many as the Dresden Codex. It has almanacs on things such as marriage, weaving, deer trapping and hunting, beekeeping and how to make it rain.

University of Arizona Libraries: Mayan Codex Facsimilies

"The Ancient Maya"; Robert J. Sharer, Loa P. Traxler; 2006

"Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World"; Lynn V. Foster; 2005

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Cacao (Chocolate)

Author’s note: A lot of the information on how the Maya viewed and ate and drank cacao comes from the Classic period. This is because this period has the most text information from painted texts and pictures on ceramics, which come from the context of what is understood to be the elite class. The Maya codices, understood to be from the Postclassic period, are another source of information on the Maya view of cacao.

Other than corn, one of the foods most talked about when it comes to Maya cuisine is cacao. It comes from the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao), also known as the chocolate tree. The ancient Maya cultivated the cacao tree for its fruit as well as for the fruit's seeds, which are the basic item required to make cacao. The ancient Maya viewed cacao as a precious substance, and used it as food as well as for religious and economic purposes.

The Tree
Found only in wet, tropical lowlands, the cacao is found in Mesoamerica and the Amazon Basin. The tree has leathery and long leaves and a wide trunk. The tree produces pink flowers on its trunk and branches—flowers whose smell repels human noses. After these bloom, the tree produces its edible, red-brown fruit pods with sweet flavored flesh and twenty to fifty seeds.

The ancient Maya, who in the Yucatan Peninsula at least, grew plantations of cacao trees, possessed methods to grow the trees well. They pruned the trees to make them grow more seedpods (this happens with some other plants as well), and they had to keep the trees out of direct sunlight.

It is understood that the ancient Maya began using cacao seeds as a food source 2,000 years ago or so. Based on a vessel with a spout that comes from Belize, cacao consumption started somewhere around 600 BC to around 400 BC.

Cacao usage has been found throughout the Classic period in the southern lowlands of the Maya world. But in the northern area of the Maya world, the Yucatan Peninsula, archaeologists have only found cacao consumption as far back as the Late Classic.

The Process
To begin the process of making cacao, the Maya first opened the seedpod and removed the seeds, which were white in color and bitter. Then they fermented the seeds for several days, decreasing the bitterness and bringing out the chocolate flavor. After fermentation, the seeds were roasted and shelled. The ancient Maya then mashed the seeds into a paste and it was this paste that they used for in food.

Four hundred seeds makes a pound of chocolate -- a bag of baking chips is about twelve or fourteen ounces, four to two less ounces than a pound. This means it takes about 10 to 20 pods to make a pound of chocolate.

Cacao Drinks and Foods
The ancient Maya made different kinds of drinks (hot and cold ones) via the medium of cacao. They would flavor their chocolate drinks with such things as chilies and seeds such as annatto. Another ingredient that the ancient Maya would sometimes use is honey.

Of the different kinds, a well-known kind of drink the ancient Maya made included chocolate and corn, and was a frothy/foamy drink that was savory. The foam was considered the best part of this drink.

However, drinks weren’t the only food the ancient Maya used cacao for. They also used cacao in gruels.

The vessels that the Maya used for the serving of cacao-based drinks come in a range of shapes. The most common kind of vessel the Maya used for chocolate is a basic cup. More rare is the spouted vessel that looks like a teapot.

In the ancient Maya religion, cacao seeds were a kind of offering to the gods. In the Popol Vuh – a book recording Quiche Maya myths – chocolate was something that came out of the mountain Paxil, when it broke open. Beyond mythological meaning, it is also understood that people drank the foamy chocolate drink during their wedding ceremony.

Other than having a religious significance, cacao also served a function in the ancient Maya economy: cacao seeds were used as a kind of currency.

Some of what is known about what the Maya made using chocolate comes from chemical analysis of residues on the bottom of ceramics. Hershey Corporation was the first to discover the chemical signature of chocolate in 1990, using a lidded vessel discovered in Rio Azul.

The Free Dictionary: Encyclopedia: Cacao

"Food, Farming and Hunting"; Emory Dean Keoke, Kay Marie Porterfield; 2005

"Chocolate - History, Culture, and Heritage"; Louis E. Grivetti, Howard-Yana Shapiro; 2011

Friday, April 20, 2012

Short Count

Though the ancient Maya had been using the Period Ending version of the Long Count they eventually shortened it further by the Postclassic period. This even shorter version does not count a group of katuns like Period-Ending. The Short Count -- whose dates are called katun-ending dates -- only stated the date a katun ended and used a very simplified version of the Tzolkin. This second version was a cycle that didn’t repeat until 256.25 years had passed.

Instead of the regular way of counting the Tzolkin, days were counted using the numbers 1 through 13. Each day had the name Ahau, and was paired with a number between 1 through 13. But it wasn’t just a simple matter of successively counting higher to 13 and starting over. Each day skipped two numbers in the sequence.

An example of the way the Short Count’s dates are written goes like this: katun 13 Ahau. The next katun would be written katun 11 Ahau, after that would be katun 9 Ahau and so on. Once you get to katun 1 Ahau you count down two to get katun 12 Ahau, then 10 Ahau, et cetera.

The Short Count is the kind of time keeping that the authors of books like the Chilam Balam used. In these books, the katun date would be recorded in the u cahlay katunob or the “count of the katuns”. Katuns were named after the last day that they fell on.


“The Ancient Maya”; Robert J. Sharer, Loa P. Traxler; 2006

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Period Ending

As time passed and the ancient Maya civilization declined, the Long Count became less used in its full form. Instead a shorter form known as Period-Ending began to be used.

The ancient Maya used the Period-Ending version of the Long Count at least since around the Late Classic period. Period-ending dates counted katuns and the day the katuns ended on. Period-ending dates still used both calendars of the Calendar Round. The period-ending dates form a cycle that does not repeat for around 19,000 years.

An example of the period-ending date format goes like this. If it was the 8th katun and it ended on 4 Ahau 13 Cumku, then it would be written katun 8 4 Ahau 13 Cumku.

The Period-Ending version was itself eventually replaced by an even shorter version of counting katuns. This second version is called the Short Count.


“The Ancient Maya”; Robert J. Sharer, Loa P. Traxler; 2006

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Popol Vuh

The Popol Vuh (book of the mat counsel or book of the counsel) is a centuries old book that contains myths of the Quiche Maya, in the north-central highlands of Guatemala. This book began as a secret attempt at cultural preservation. Later it turned into a translation project, and now it is a widely known literary work that is a part of half a million Quiche Maya’s religion.

Culture Preservation Attempt
During the 1500s (perhaps between 1554 and 1558), in the town of Quiche -- now Santa Cruz --, some Quiche Maya (possibly three “lineage leaders”) decided to preserve their culture. Using the Latin alphabet and either fig bark or deerskin, they made codices that recorded their myths, using couplets as their writing structure. These codices were smuggled to -- and kept secret in -- a town known as Chuu Lai that is now Chichicastenango.

Over one hundred years later, in 1701 one of these codices was discovered. A friar named Francisco Ximenez, the finder of the codex, knew the language of the Quiche. He copied the codice, then translated it into the modern Spanish of the time (from this Spanish translation, people have made English translations.) The book Ximenez made its way to Paris and now resides at Chicago’s Newbury Library.


First Part of the Creation Story
The Popol Vuh starts with the creation myth of human kind. Two gods, Heart of Sky and Sovereign Plumed Serpent make the earth but want a creation that will praise them. They make animals and trees, but these don’t praise the gods so they try to make men out of out of mud (or clay) but this doesn’t work.

They talk with two “diviners” Xpiyacoc and Xmucanc about what they should do, and the diviners say they think wood would work, but it doesn’t. However after the attempts of creating people out of mud and then people out of wood, the book switches to stories about the diviners descendants.

Seven Hunahpu and One Hunahpu
The first story involves Xpiyacoc and Xmucanc’s twin children, Seven Hunahpu and One Hunahpu (Hun Hunahpu), who gets married to a woman named Xb'aqiyalo. Xb'aqiyalo has twin sons Hun Chuwen (One Artisian) and Hun B'atz' (One Monkey). Seven Hunahpu, One Hunahpu, Hun Chuwen and Hun B’atz’ -- along with Heart of Sky’s falcon messenger who like to watch -- like to play the ballgame in a ballcourt in the east.

The Lords of Death, the gods of Xibalba (the Underworld), get mad at them for being loud. The underworld gods Seven Death and One Death (the most important of the Lords of Death) use owl messengers to issue a challenge to a ballgame in Xibalba’s ballcourt in the west of Xibalba.

Seven Hunahpu and One Hunahpu accept, and begin to travel to Xibalba’s ballcourt. Challenges meet them on their way, but they fail to overcome them. Due to their failure, the Lords of Death Sacrifice them and bury their bodies at the Place of Ballgame Sacrifice. One Hunahpu’s head was put in a tree at the roadside near the Place of Ballgame Sacrifice, and this tree becomes a calabash tree.

The daughter of Blood Gatherer (a Lord of Death) -- known by the name of Blood Woman or Blood Moon -- walks by the tree, One Hunahpu spits in her hand and she becomes with child. When Blood Gatherer finds out what has happened, he gets mad and tells owl messengers to sacrifice Blood Moon and bring back her heart. However, Blood Moon speaks with the owls and they agree to send back a piece of incense instead. The owls help her get to the earth’s surface.

Blood Moon finds Xmucane, tells her she’s her son’s wife. Xmucane doesn’t buy it, and sets a challenge for Blood Moon: gather corn from the garden. Blood Moon succeeds this challenge and Xmucane believes her.

Blood Moon gives birth to twin sons, Xbalanque and Hunahpu, who are known as the Hero Twins. They have a good life except for the fact that Hun B’atz’ and Hun Chuwen are hostile towards them. The Hero Twins trick the unkind pair into climbing trees they said game birds had fallen into after being shot. Once they got up in the trees, the Hero Twins make the trees grow so that Hun B’atz’ and Hun Chuwen are trapped. Hun B’atz’ turns into a howler monkey, and Hun Chuwen turns into a spider monkey.

Seven Macaw and His Sons
This story takes place sometime during the last one (the book is not clear). Heart of Sky wants the Hero Twins to get rid of Seven Macaw and his sons, who are arrogant.

The first Hero Twins story talks about how Xbalanque and Hunahpu try to destroy the arrogant Seven Macaw and his sons who are also arrogant, Earthquake and Zipacna. First they try to kill Seven Macaw with a blowgun but fail (they only break his jaw). Then they work with Seven Macaw’s doctors: the doctors pull out Seven Macaw’s teeth and take away the metal disks Seven Macaw wore around his eyes. When this happens, Seven Macaw turns into the Big Dipper. Scarlet macaws are seven macaw’s descendants.

Next comes Seven Macaw’s sons. First up is Zipacna, a dinosaur-like creature and oldest son of Seven Macaw. The gods of alcohol (the Four Hundred Boys) set a trap for Zipacna but he survives it and kills them (they become the Peleiades). The Hero Twins want to avenge their death so they stick a crab in a mountain crevice and when Zipacna goes to eat it, the mountain falls over on him: he dies and turns to stone. Then comes Cabracan (Earthquake). The Hero Twins cook a bird for him but cast a spell on it, and he dies. Cabracan is then buried in the east.

Underworld Ballgame: The Sequel
The Hero Twins get out One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu’s ballgame equipment and play at the same ballcourt. Again, the Lords of Death get mad at them because of the noise and challenge the Hero Twins to a ballgame. The twins use a mosquito to find out the Lords of Death’s names. They are clever and find ways to overcome the challenges of getting to the ballcourt.

The Lords of Death and the Hero Twins play the ballgame the next day. The Lords of Death use a ball that has a sacrificial knife in it. The ball breaks open and the knife tries to kill the Hero Twins but the twins overcome this situation. The Lords of Death and the Hero Twins agree to another game, except this time they will use the Hero Twins’ ball. Everyone agrees to bet flower petals on the game.

The twins loose the game on purpose, and the Lords of Death lock them up. The Hero Twins are successful at living through the night in the Razor House. Also, they are able to get the flower petals they owe the Lords of Death. After these trials, they survive being kept successively in the Cold House, Jaguar House and then the Bat House, though Hunahpu looses his head via a bat in the Bat House. To replace the lost head, Xbalanque puts a squash on Hunahpu’s shoulders.

An Unusual Interlude
The Popol Vuh then switches to another occurrence. Red light appears in the east -- it is dawn for the first time since the world began. An opossum (which the Popol Vuh calls “old man”) marks the sky with four black marks, which the book says represents the 20 day-names. It states that now there will be a 365-day solar year, and that the “old man” will start each year.

Back to the Ballgame
The book returns to the Hero Twins’ Xibalba story. The Hero Twins and the Lords of Death play the ballgame again -- with Hunahpu’s head as the ball. Xbalanque sends the head out of the ballcourt. The Lords of Death see a rabbit running around and think it is the ball. Xbalanque tries to substitute the squash with the head as the ball, but the Lords of Death realize he switched the two.

The Lords of Death then decide to kill them by setting up a trap: they take the twins to a fire pit, and begin to get some alcohol ready. The Lords of Death challenge the twins to a game of seeing who can jump across the fire pit. The twins accept but jump into the pit. The Lords of Death grind up the Hero Twins bones and put the powder in a river. The twins come back to Xibalba five days later as catfish and then turn into humans. They pose as dancers and illusionists. The Lords of Death ask the twins to entertain them.

Xbalanque “sacrifices” Hunahpu and brings him “back to life”. Seven Death and One Death want to undergo this kind of sacrifice. The Hero Twins sacrifice them, and this time the sacrifice is for real. The twins then declare who they really are. They state that the Lords of Death shall only accept animal sacrifices and incense.

The twins proceed to the Place of Ballgame Sacrifice. They try to bring Seven Hunahpu back to life but can’t. They then turn into the sun and the moon. For the first time since the world began, the sun rises and full daylight occurs.

Creation of Man
After the Hero Twins stories the Popol Vuh switches back to the creation story. Heart of Sky and Sovereign Plumed Serpent try to use corn to make people. The people made of corn are a success.

The Popol Vuh then relates how the population grew and tribes began to fight each other, with the Quiche coming out on top. The Popol Vuh finishes with a royal genealogy (a list of the rulers of the Quiche).


"Maya Calendar Origins"; Prudence M. Rice; 2007

University of Maine: William Palmer III Collection: Popol Vuh

Yale-New Haven Teacher Institute: Popol Vuh by Norine Polio

Westminster College: Summary of the Popol Vuh

California State University Fullerton: Professor Nancy Fitch: Popol Vuh

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Ballgame

Author’s note: There are several things to keep in mind when reading this article. One is that most information, on the ballgame comes from the Classic period. Another is that some facts rely on an archaeologist’s ability to interpret the meaning of an inscription/mural properly, and that interpretations are subject to change.

One of multiple views of a vase that shows a ballgame happening. It
was made anywhere from the the 600s AD to the 900s AD. From LACMA. 

The ballgame -- which was a part of cultures across all of Mesoamerica -- was an important part of ancient Maya society, varying somewhat depending on the area. To the ancient Mayas, the ballgame possessed religious and political purposes as well as a possible recreational purpose, though this is not known for sure.

Ball Court
The Maya began to build ballcourts in the Late Preclassic. Two kinds of ballcourt are known to exist, the L-shaped court and the I-shaped court. Of these two the Maya more often used the I-shaped one.
In the I-shaped court, two large, solid walls or benches were built parallel to each other, forming a long space (or alley) between them (the vertical bar of the “I”.) These walls could either be sloping or vertical and tended to be built facing north-south. At each end of this long space, there was another, smaller space, the short bars of the “I”, and these usually didn’t have anything built around them. The long space was where the ballgame was played in the court.

Despite the differences in layout (which also includes the fact that some had stone hoops while others do not), ballcourts did have similar features. Such similarities included inscriptions on the ball court walls, north-south orientation and placing the ballcourt in the middle of the city.

Playing Gear
Like in football, players of the ballgame wore protective gear while playing. Players wore padding on their arms and legs, and would also wear something on their ribs and waists to protect them.
A ceramic figurine from around 550
AD to 850 AD, from the Peten region
(in Guatemala.) From LACMA.
Rib and waist protection was different depending on the region. In the southern highlands, players wore a kind of u-shaped belt -- known as a yoke --, which was heavy and may have made of something such as leather or wood, which would be tied on top a lining. In the lowlands they used padded belts for their waist protection.
An image of the back of thefigurine
as shown on the left. Also from LACMA.
The Ball
The ball of the ballgame was made of rubber. There was no regulation standard, and balls could be as large as a soccer ball or as small as a softball.

Rules of Play
Nobody alive knows all the rules for playing. It is possible that the rules changed with time. From what the archaeologists have seen through their studies, the games goes something like this: two teams of players tried to hit the rubber ball to the other team’s open space at the end of the alley.

This is a rollout of a vessel made in Honduras between 600 AD and 900 AD. From the Yale University Art Gallery.

How was the ballgame religious or political? The religious aspect is thus: it is understood that ancient the Maya relied on reenacting mythological events as part of their rituals for keeping the world in balance. It is possible that ritual ballgames reenacted a myth in which two figures, the Hero Twins, defeated the Lords of Death in a ballgame. The ball court itself was a bridge between Middleworld (where people lived) and Xibalba, the Underworld (where the Lords of Death lived).
The political use of the ballgame was as a medium of conflict resolve. If there was an argument between two communities, it could be settled through a ballgame. An argument inside a community could be settled with a ballgame also.

Sacrifice and the Ballgame
Human sacrifice may have been part of the ballgame. However, it is not clear and sources do not always agree. Various claims have been asserted in different publications: some state the losers were sacrificed, while others state the winners were sacrificed. Still others state that it is unknown whether or not sacrifice was really part of the game at all.

Google Books: "Space and Sculpture in the Classic Maya City"; Alexander Parmington; 2011

Google Books: "Do All Indians Live in Tipis?: Questions & Answers from the National Museum of the American Indian"; Smithsonian Institution; 2007

Google Books: "Handbook To Life In The Ancient Maya World"; Lynn V. Foster, Peter Mathews; 2005

University of Maine: William Palmer III Collection: Ballgame

Library of Congress: Pre-Contact America: Ritual, Ceremonies and Celebrations

The University of Arizona Press: The Mesoamerican Ballgame

University of Nevada, Las Vegas: Marjorie Barrick Museum: Mesoamerican Ballgame

El Pilar: Nohol Trail 11

LACMA: Vessel with Ballgame Scene

LACMA: Ballplayer Figurine in Costume

Image Credits:
LACMA: Vessel with Ballgame Scene

LACMA: Ballplayer Figurine in Costume

Yale University Art Gallery: Tripod Vessel with Ballplayers (fourth view)