Saturday, July 28, 2012

Cinnabar -- A Dangerous Mineral

Cinnabar is a common name for mercuric sulfide (meaning it is made of mercury and sulfur) -- a mineral that can release mercury via the heat from hands. It was a trade item not only in Mesoamerica but also in South America. The most likely area the ancient Maya would have mined cinnabar is the highlands. They would use cinnabar in and of itself and for extracting the mercury from it.

What was the significance of this mineral? The ancient Maya may have thought cinnabar was sacred due to its color red. Red to the ancient Maya may have been associated with the east (which may be connected to the rising sun) and with blood, a sacred substance.

Funerary Rites
Cinnabar was also used in funeral rites. Skeletons covered with cinnabar (or sometimes hematite) have been discovered, and the ritual seems to vary. In some burials such as Tikal Burial 10, the head seems to be the most important part for the cinnabar covering ritual.

One famous example of cinnabar coated skeleton is lord Pacal. Another instance is of the "Red Queen" who was buried in tomb near lord Pacal's tomb. The reason they did this isn't entirely clear, but this practice may have been done in connection to the sacred color, possibly even meaning resurrection.

Other Rituals
Both mercury and cinnabar have been found in places where rituals were performed. According to Robert. J Sharer, "In rituals involving fire, the Maya priests would burn cinnabar, transforming it into metallic mercury with mysterious qualities."

Ancient Maya painters used different kinds of substances to make paints. Among these substances was cinnabar, cinnabar as a kind of paint. However, cinnabar tends to darken. Funerary goods, such as incense burners (and in one instance, lord Pacal's sarcophagus), were also sometimes painted with cinnabar.

Decorative Coating
Ancient maya craftsmen would sometimes use cinnabar on jade. They would coat the jade with a very thin layer of copal, and then apply cinnabar.

 Consideration: Containers of Mercury
At Belize, archaeologists found various items -- including about 0.67 ounces of cinnabar, a container with about 3.5 ounces of hematite -- and and other things on top of a pool of mercury. Two possible areas the mercury for this are the Matapan Formation (located in west Honduras) and the Todos Los Santos Formation (located in Guatemala).

Containers of mercury have also been uncovered from underneath mud. Archaeologists working at Guatemala's Lake Amatitlan uncovered two containers that possessed mercury. These containers are understood to be from the Early Classic period (around 300 AD to 600 AD).


"Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World: 1500 Years of Inventions and Innovations"; Emory Dean Keoke, Kay Marie Porterfield; 2009

"The Maya and Teotihuacan: Reinterpreting Early Classic Interaction"; Geoffrey E. Braswell; 2003

"Death and the Classic Maya Kings"; James L. Fitzsimmons; 2009

"Exploring Maya Ritual Caves: Dark Secrets from the Maya Underworld"; Stanislav Chládek; 2011

"Archaeomineralogy"; George Robert Rapp; 2009

"Mercury In The Environment: Pattern and Process"; Michael S. Bank; 2012

"Pulltrowser Swamp: Ancient Maya Habitat, Agriculture and Settlement in Northern Belize"; B.L. Turner; 2000

Monday, July 23, 2012

Copal Resin -- Sacred Incense

Copal resin (called pom in various Maya languages today) was one of the various substances the ancient Maya held to be sacred but also used in everyday taskes. Commonly, they used it as incense  -- other incense substances being rubber, chicle, and pine resin -- and as an adhesive.

The ancient Maya used different kinds of trees for copal resin, and today various kinds of tree resins are called copal. Via infrared spectometry, it is now understood that the most common kind of copal resin that the ancient Maya (as well as Mesoamerica in general) used comes from Bursera bipinnata, a tree with tiny leaflets. Other names for this tree include copal amargo, copalillo, copal santo and copal cimarrón. (However some sources write as though the most common copal is from the species Protium copal.)

This incense burner was made in the 300s AD, and
was uncovered in Guatemala. There are two parts:
the part with the ruler on it is a chimney for the
incense's smoke to go up as it burns in the base.
From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Sacred Offering
The ancient Maya believed that copal resin was very sacred. The ancient Maya burned the resin in balls or lumps, both lower and upper classes. Incence burners that the ancient Maya used ranged from ceramic and wooden burners to ones made from gourds. When the incense burned, the ancient Maya thought the gods came down to eat the smoke.

On a side note to this, one kind of glyph shows a god diving down with a ball of copal in each hand. This may have something to do with the idea that the gods came down for the smoke.
Unburned copal also seems to have been given as an offering. When the Well of Sacrifice at Chichen Itza was excavated, one of the things they found was balls of copal. These balls had been painted blue-green and sometimes had shaped pieces of jade -- such as disks and balls -- set into them.

Practical Uses
Copal resin also had other uses. In order to get cinnabar to stick to greenstone carvings, the ancient Maya would use copal as a glue. They would place a thin layer of copal where the wanted the cinnabar to stick. Similarly, they used copal as a binder in their paint.

Copal resin was also part of the ancient Maya's medicine. In the Yucatan area, before European contact, copal was used for various things such as curing headaches.

University of Texas at Austin: Mesoamerican Copal Resins

"Gardens on Hills: Ancient Maya Terracing and Agricultural Production at Chan Belize"; Andrew R Wyatt; 2008

"Plants and Animals of the Ancient Maya: A Guide"; Victoria Schlesinger; 2001

"Breath on the Mirror: Mythic Voices and Visions of the Living Maya"; Dennis Tedlock; 1993

"The Maya Tropical Forest: People, Parks, & Ancient Cities"; James D. Nations; 2006

"Chicle: The Chewing Gum of the Americas, From the Ancient Maya to William Wrigley"; Jennifer P. Mathews, Gillian P. Schultz; 2009

"Historical Dictionary of Ancient Mesoamerica"; Joel W. Palka; 2000

"Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture:A Symposium at Dumbarton Oaks, 7th and 8th October 1994"; Stephen D. Houston; 1998

"Words of the True Peoples/Palabras de Los Seres Verdaderos: Anthology of Contemporary Mexican Indigenous-Language Writers: Volume Two/Tomo Dos: Poetry/Poesía"; Carlos Montemayor, Donald H. Frischmann, George O. Jackson, Jr.; 2005

"Trees of Guatemala"; Tracey Parker; 2008

Image Credit:
Metropolitan Museum of Art:  Censer, Seated King

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Controversial Artifact -- The Grolier Codex

The Grolier Codex is one of the four currently known codices that survived the climate and the invaders from Spain. More controversial than the other three -- the Madrid, Dresden and Paris codices -- the Grolier Codex's authenticity has been a matter of debate.

The Grolier codex's origin is unclear. It may have been found in the southern region of Mexico-- possibly in the state of Chiapas in a cave somewhere near Tortuguero. It is possible that it was uncovered by looters.

In 1965 it ended up in a Mexico City flea market where someone bought it. The person who bought the codex, a collector, gave it to the Grolier Club so the club could use it in an art exhibition in 1971. Later, in 1973 the Maya specialist Michael D. Coe published a catalog of this exhibition. Now the Grolier Codex is part of Mexico's Biblioteca Nacional de Antropología e Historia (in Mexico City).

Whether or not this codex is real has been a matter of debate among archaeologists, partly because of the its untrustworthy origin. Two notable archaeologists in the debate include J. Eric Thompson and Michael D. Coe. Thompson disbelieved that the codex was real while Michael D. Coe was one of the Maya specialists who believed it was real (Coe was also the one who named the Grolier Codex).
It is now thought that the Grolier Codex is an authentic Maya codex. This is due to the codex dating from around 1230 -- give or take 130 years -- and the fact that the art style of the glyphs seems authentic. However not everyone's suspicions have been put to rest.

Like the other codices, the Grolier Codex contains information on astronomy. Specifically the Grolier Codex contains calculated intervals concerning Venus, which the ancient Maya regarded as a god. However it doesn't have any written explanation about these intervals. By comparison to the Dresden Codex, the Grolier Codex's information isn't as impressive.


Friday, July 13, 2012

The Paris Codex

Once part of Paris's the Bibliothèque Impériale and now a part of the Bibliotheque Nationale, the Paris Codex --  also known as the Codex Pérez and Codez Peresianus -- is one of the four known surviving Maya codices. Drawn and mentioned by various people it wasn't commonly known of for a while.
At some point after contact between the Spanish invaders and the Maya was established, the Paris Codex mysteriously ended up in Europe. In 1832 the Bibliothèque Impériale's bought the codex and this is where it remained for some time.
It was drawn about three years later by Augistine Aglio, and Aglio's work was put in Vol. 10 of Kingsborough Antiquities of Mexico. This volume wasn't published as Kingsborough died.
1849 saw a man named Joseph M.A. Aubin publish a reference to this codex. Six years later or so, a man named José F. Ramírez came into contact with the Kingsborough publication and saw the illustrations of the codex. After that he made the observation that the Paris Codex and the Dresden Codex shared features, but no one knew of his observation for nearly 100 years.
About four years later a man named José Pérez published two descriptions of the Paris Codex, and one of them had an illustration. That same year the Paris Codex was officially rediscovered by a man named León de Rosny. He found it in a chimney corner that had a basket of papers. During the 1860s brought public attention to it.
Physical Features
The Paris Codex has twenty-two pages: its eleven physical pages are painted on both sides. It understood to have been part of a larger codex. It is very damaged, as a sizeable amount of its plaster coating (on which the glyphs were drawn) having crumbled away.
In the first half of the Paris Codex, a series k'atuns is written down along with the rituals and ceremonies that must be done on them. Two pages -- page 19 and page 20 -- talk about year bearers, days that would land on the first day of Pop. The Paris Codex also talks about how k'u (god C) influences things. Other pages talk about the spiritual forces in the ancient Maya religion such as the Pauahtuns and the death gods. Still others talk about the weather. Beyond this, the codex has a zodiac that has 13 animal signs (they represent constellations the ancient Maya saw in the night sky.)
In 1933 a man named Theodore A. Willard took pictures of the Paris Codex. These images from these pictures can be found at Northwestern University's digital library here.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Maya Gods and Goddesses

Author's note: after I wrote this post I have found conflicting sources on the current Schellhas list of gods.

The ancient Maya gods are not well understood -- in colonial and later writings, 250 names have been written down as names of various gods. Classifying them is difficult due to the fact that the gods seem to have various 'aspects', depending on the situation, and in in the case of some gods are several beings at once. Also, regional differences in religion complicates figuring out which god was which. Because of this only a few gods have been classified by archaeologists.

Schellhas Classification System
Currently, a system is in place to help identify the gods. This system is called the Schellhas system. In 1904 a man named Paul Schellhas looked at the Maya codicies -- Postclassic Yucatan folding books --, and focused on what the gods looked like, what they were wearing and what they were holding. When he thought he had identified a god from the rest, he gave each different god he identified a letter of the alphabet. He also did the same with mythical animals he saw in the codices. While in some Maya writings there are gods referred to by name, archaeologists still use the Schelhaus classification system.

A List of Schellhas Gods
-- God A (called Cizin or Kisin) was a death god whose name is translated as flatulent one.

-- God B was Chac, most commonly known as the god of rain. God C is k'uhul, a god that represents sacredness.

-- God D is the god Itzamná, a creator god.

-- God E is the maize god who has at least two aspects, the "Tonsured Maize God" and the "Foliated Maize God".

-- God G is K'inich Ahau, the sun god.

-- God I is the moon goddess Ix Chel in her young form.

-- God K is K'awil -- who may also be Bolon Tz'akab and the mannikin scepter god -- who is associated with rulership, lightning and fire.

-- God L is a merchant god, who may have been worshipped during the Classic period.

-- God M is a merchant god, Ek Chuwah, possibly worshipped in the Postclassic period.

-- God N is a term used for two ways: the Pauahtun a four-part god who held up the sky, or another god.

-- God O is the moon goddess in her old form.

-- The identity of God P, whose form only appears in the Madrid Codex, has several theories concerning its identity.

-- God S is found in the Dresden Codex and may be a Hero Twin.

-- God U is found in Almanac 8 and Almanac 43 of the Dresden Codex, and is possibly related to God K.

-- God Y -- whose name may be Ek' Zip or Ah Uuk Yol Xip -- is a deer god.

-- God Z, found in the Madrid Codex, is a scorpion god whose name may be Ah Tzul.

Reforming the Schellhas Classifications
Since he created his lists, some of the gods that Schelhaus classified have been reclassified (and the list of mythical animals has been expanded upon). A god called god F is now understood to be three different gods: god A' (possibly a violent death god); god R whose name may be Buluk Kab (a god possibly connected with floods); and god Q, whose name could possibly be Lahun P'el (a god possibly connected to the idea of "termination").

What Schellhas understood to be one god -- god H -- is now known to be two gods: god CH and God H. God H might be a god of wind.

Other Gods
There are also other seeming gods, as the Hero Twins are depicted as gods. In some images there are two paddlers depicted as gods that are  called by archaeologists "The Paddler Gods". One paddler, named by  Mayanists as Old Jaguar Paddler, at the font and Old Stingray Paddler,  another recently given name, at the back. Thought to represent day and  night, respectively, Certain creation stories involve the Paddler Gods as setting up the Cosmic Hearth (Jaguar Throne Stone) in a place referred to as Five-First-Sky.


"Handbook To Life In The Ancient Maya World"; Lynn V. Foster; 2005

"Mesoamerican Mythology"; Graham Faiella; 2006

Missouri State University; MAYA GODS AND GODDESSES