Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Avocados and the Ancient Maya

Avocados on the tree. From Pixabay uploader sandid.

Scientifically known as Persea americana, you may also know the avocado as the avocado pear or the more surprising-sounding alligator pear. Avocados (which grow on trees also called avocados) were in part domesticated by the ancient Maya, who used it in their diet -- and more.

Avocado in the Maya Calendar
The 14th month of the Haab', or solar calendar, was connected to avocados. The main part of the glyph was the glyph for avocado, which currently is thought to have been pronounced as "un." (On a related note, possible names for this month glyph are Uniw and Uniiw -- though you may have heard it called K'ank'in.) Below are drawings of K'ank'in as seen in a work by Sylvanus Griswold Morley called An Introduction to the Study of Maya Hieroglyphs.

In Religion
There was a belief among the ancient Maya that people who had died could come back as fruit trees -- and one such tree was the avocado. However, for this to happen, you had to have been important.

One place you can see the avocado tree in connection to a reborn ancestor is the sarcophagus of Pakal the Great (known by other names including Pacal.) Images of certain relatives of his were put on the sarcophagus, each one drawn near a fruit tree. Ix or Lady Yohl Ik'nal's (known by other names such as Lady K'anal-Ik'al and Lady Olnal) image is associated with an avocado tree.

The ancient Maya also had sacred groves, and they saw avocado trees as a worthy species to have in them.

Consideration: As a Place Name
In what is now Belize, a city-state seems to have been connected very strongly with the avocado. The name for this city-state -- or perhaps Pusilhá, one of its capitals -- included the glyph for avocado as its main part. In English, you may see Pusilhá called the Kingdom of the Avocado.

Google Books: "The Maya and their Central American Neighbors: Settlement Patterns, Architecture, Hieroglyphic Texts, and Ceramics"; Geoffrey E. Braswell (editor); 2014

Google Books: "Historical Dictionary of Mesoamerica"; Walter R.T. Witschey, Clifford T. Brown; 2012

ResearchGate: "Phyton" volume 29: "West Indian Avocado: Where Did It Originate?"; María Elena Galindo, Amaury martín Arzate; December 2010

University of Nebraska - Lincoln DigitalCommons@University of Nebraska - Lincoln: "Nebraska Anthropologist": "Domestication and Significance of Persea americana,the Avocado, in Mesoamerica"; Amanda J. Landon; 2009

University of California, San Diego: “Archaeological Settlement Patterns in the Kingdom of the Avocado”; Beniamino P. Volta; 2007

The Free Dictionary: Avocado

Mesoweb: Palenque Resources: Rulers: Genealogy of Rulers at Palenque

Mesoweb: Palenque Resources: Rulers: "The Rulers of Palenque" fifth edition; Joel Skidmore; 2010

Image Credits:
Pixabay: Hass Avocado, Avocados, Fruit, Food

Project Gutenberg: "An Introduction to the Study of Maya Hieroglyphs"; Sylvanus Griswold Morley; 1915

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Jaguar God of the Underworld

This is a rollout of a vessel that comes from Guatemala and dates to the 500s AD to the 600s AD. It shows the Jaguar God
of the Underworld. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Like the Waterlily Jaguar, the Jaguar God of the Underworld was a supernatural jaguar being that the ancient Maya believed existed. This god seems to be connected to the underworld (Xibalbá) and may have been an aspect of the sun god. Other names you might see used for him include the Jaguar Night Sun, the Jaguar War God, and JGU. 

Other than having jaguar features, the Jaguar God of the Underworld has some other characteristics of worthy of note. For one thing, his eyes were square. (This isn't unusual, because there are other ancient Maya gods also had square eyes.) The pupils of his eyes were spirals. (Archaeologists have found that underworld beings had spiral eyes.) Between his eyes, a twisted cord or rope goes up -- archaeologists call this a "cruller."

Then there was his teeth -- or more accurately, tooth -- as the ancient Maya drew him only with one. There were, however, two ways that they drew his tooth. One of the two ways they drew it was a fang. The second way was to draw it like a capital "T." (This "T" shape is an ik' symbol.) Both of these teeth were in the middle of his top gum, where a person's front teeth would normally go.

Finally, the ancient Maya drew this god with k'in signs. These are symbols of the sun.

The Jaguar God of the Underworld may have been the sun at night (when it was going through the underworld) and been connected to the Moon. As such, he may have been an aspect of the sun.

There's another idea though. The Jaguar God of the Underworld may have been a fire god. The cruller may represent a rope used for a fire-making tool called a fire drill. And there are images of certain elites doing rituals connected to fire -- dressed as the Jaguar God of the Underworld.

This supernatural being was connected to several other things, one of which was war. (On a related note, one place you can see an image of the Jaguar Sun of the Underworld is the "Tablet of the Sun" at Palenque. On the tablet, his image is on a shield.) Art and Myth of the Ancient Maya says that the Maya in the Classic Period believed this god was a patron god of war. And that wasn't the only thing he was patron of -- he was also the number 7's patron god.

Connected Beings
Another supernatural jaguar being that the ancient Maya believed in was the Jaguar Baby (Unen Bahlam or Unen B'alam.) This being was an aspect of the Jaguar God of the Underworld, a form of him as a baby.
This is an stone carving of a "GI type deity."
It was made from limestone or marble around
100 BC to 100 AD and comes from Mexico.
From the Yale University Art Gallery.

Another god that the Maya at Palenque believed in, which archaeologists call GI, may also bee connected to the Jaguar God of the Underworld. GI could be the sun when it is rising -- and therefore be the Jaguar God of the Underworld turning into the sun god again. 

As Part of Glyph C
In monument inscriptions, the ancient Maya would take the time to write down calendar-related information. This included glyph C, which was part of a series of glyphs that talked about the moon. Part of glyph C could be one of three different images, depending on where the moon was at in its cycle. One of these, it seems, was the Jaguar God of the Underworld.


Google Books: "Mortuary Landscapes of the Classic Maya: Rituals of Body and Soul"; Andrew K. Scherer; 2015

Image Credits:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Vessel, Seated Deities

Yale University Art Gallery: Jaguar head of a GI type deity, probably an inset from a waist or chest assumblage

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Baby Jaguar

This vessel came from Guatemala and was made between the 600s AD and 700s AD. It's style is the codex style. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The ancient Maya believed in different kinds of supernatural jaguar beings, such as the Water Lily Jaguar and the Jaguar God of the Underworld. Yet another was a being known as the Baby Jaguar or Unen Bahlam. (You might also see Bahlam spelled as B'alam.) The Baby Jaguar l
ooks like it may have been connected to sacrifice, the sun, and rain.


This particular jaguar was drawn three ways, from all jaguar and half-jaguar to human. (There's a theory about why they drew it three ways, which suggests that there were three beings the Maya were drawing.) There's a cord that goes out from somewhere around his eyes, which archaeologists call a "cruller." 

Also, this being was drawn with a tooth in the middle of the upper part of his mouth, where you normally have your front teeth. This tooth was either a a fang or a tooth that you may see called an "ik' tooth" -- a tooth shaped like the ik' symbol. (This symbol looks like the capital letter "T.")

There is a kind of pottery called "codex style" pottery. "Codex style" means that the painters drew images the same way that images are drawn in the codices. The ancient Maya only made codex style pottery around the beginning of the 700s AD, though they made a lot of it. A scene they liked to draw on this kind of pottery is one that has the Baby Jaguar being sacrificed in it. (There were actually two Baby Jaguar scenes they painted, but they preferred the sacrifice scene.)

And the ancient Maya didn't just use images. They also wrote about the Baby Jaguar. Tikal especially seemed to like writing about it, in the Early Classic.

The Baby Jaguar may have been part of a myth that was connected to the belief in divine rulers. This is because archaeologists haven't found any records about a Baby Jaguar myth from the records that date to the time of contact with the conquistadors. (Belief in divine rulers had become less and less common before the conquistadors arrival -- so it's possible myths connected to the rulers began to disappear.)

The Scene(s)
The basic idea of the scene has two gods, the Baby Jaguar, a witz (a living mountain,) and water moving around on the ground. As for the gods, they are described somewhat differently, depending on the source. One god is either a rain god, the rain god, Chaak, or a version of Chaak called First Rain Chaak. The second god is either a death god or the death god -- and one source (a 2015 dissertation by Penny Janice Steinbach) calls this being a death spiritThe basic scene has all these beings be outside, and the time is between sunset and sunrise. 

It looks like the death god or spirit has thrown the Baby Jaguar to the mountain. As for the rain god, who the ancient Maya liked to draw wearing eyeballs around his neck in the scene, there are two possibilities. One is that he is going to open a door to the underworld (Xibalbá) so the Baby Jaguar will end up there. The other is that he's going to remove the Baby Jaguar's head. 

There are also vessels that show a lord being shown the Baby Jaguar. Vessels that have this scene are not common.


More than one theory is out there on what the Baby Jaguar sacrifice scene means. One theory says it's about an offering in order to conjure up another god, who is old. Another says the scene shows a sacrifice to make rain happen.

There's also a theory that's based off of part of a vessel that came from the site of Calakmul. The theory says the images are showing a ritual that a royal child next in line to be ruler had to do in order to be able to do conjuring magic.

Consideration: The Jaguar God of the Underworld
The Baby Jaguar looks like its connected to the Jaguar God of the Underworld. The Jaguar God of the Underworld was a god that may have been connected to different things, including the sun when it goes through Xibalbá. The Baby Jaguar may have been a form of the Jaguar God of the Underworld.


Image Credits:

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Water Lily Jaguar

In the middle of this rollout image is the Water Lily Jaguar. It is on a witz (a living mountain) in between a wahy on the left and Chaak on the right. (There's also a serpent that is coming out of the witz.) The vessel was made between 600s AD and 700s AD, either in Mexico or Guatemala. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Known today as the Water Lily Jaguar, this underworld (or Xibalbá) god was one of the more major ones the ancient Maya worshiped. It was associated with royalty and libation (pouring liquid as a sacrifice.) The Water Lily Jaguar is still a puzzle for archaeologists, and there are different theories about what the ancient Maya believed about it.

This vessel was made between the 600s AD to the
700s AD, in Guatemala. It's style is the Chamá style.
From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Water Lily Jaguar looks like a jaguar that has water lilies on it or next to it and a collar of eyeballs, which could mean the god was connected to sacrifice.

As for the water lilies' placement, sometimes they're on the god, sometimes there's just one flower on its head (and its ears are water lily leaves,) and sometimes they're around it. (One description -- in a paper by J. Andrew McDonald and Brian Stross -- also says that you can find images of the god with a water lily "blade" is on its head, instead of a water lily flower.)

When the flowers are around or all over the Water Lily Jaguar, there are also symbols for Venus, but not just any Venus symbols. These were drawn so they look kind of like water lilies.

There's another notable feature of the Water Lily Jaguar: its teeth. The ancient Maya drew supernatural jaguars' teeth two ways. One way was to draw a fang in the middle of the mouth. The other way was to draw them with a tooth shaped like an ik' sign. But not the Water Lily Jaguar -- the ancient Maya drew it with regular canines.

Connection with Royalty
It looks like the ancient Maya believed the Water Lily Jaguar protected royalty. Another theory about this god's connection to royalty says it might have been a god of male lines of royalty. (Speaking of royalty, there's a burial at Tikal called Burial 196 that had a jade figurine of the Water Lily Jaguar  -- it weighs 3.5 pounds!)

Connection with Libation
Images of elites making libations show them with certain features. One feature is that the elites wear water lilies in their hair. The second feature is that they have jaguar spots on their skin.

Other Connections
One theory about the Water Lily Jaguar says that the god may have been connected to the rainy season. (Because water lilies bloom in the rainy season.) Another theory says that it was a god of plants as well as fertility. Meanwhile, the same theory that suggests the Water Lily Jaguar was a god of male lines of royalty also suggests that it was connected to fire.

Google Books: "Mortuary Landscapes of the Classic Maya: Rituals of the Body and Soul"; Andrew K. Scherer; 2015

San Francisco State University: Mark C. Griffin Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology San Francisco State University: "Jaguar Manifestation in Mesoamerica and Peru"; Amandine Dorian Castex; August 2014

Journal of Ethnobiology": "Water Lily and Cosmic Serpent: Equivalent Conduits of the Maya Spirit Realm"; J. Andrew McDonald, Brian Stross; Spring/Summer 2012

Britannica: Libation

The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Vessel, Mythological Scene

The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Vessel, Throne Scene

Image Credit:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Vessel, Mythological Scene (Second additional image)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Vessel, Throne Scene (Fourth additional image)

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Sweat Baths

Composite image made with a photo from the Library of Congress and a photo
from the CIA World Factbook. See the Image Credits section below for more on
the original photos.

The sweat bath or steam bath was a type of sacred sauna that the Maya civilization built for a wealth of uses. A word for it in the Classic Period was pib' naah/pib na, which has been translated various ways, including "oven house." Archaeologists -- who have had to use post-Contact accounts a lot for understanding the ancient Maya view of sweat baths -- have come across different kinds of sweat baths all over the Maya area.

The oldest sweat bath that archaeologists have found yet is at a site in Belize called Cuello. It dates back to 900 BC -- this means that it was built during Preclassic Period, in the part called the Middle Preclassic. The ancient Maya kept building sweat baths through their history, into the Postclassic Period. Archaeologists have found that it was common for elites to build sweat baths in two types of places: cities' ceremonial centers and patios near their homes.

(Somewhat related to the history of the ancient Maya sweat bath, there's a theory that the ancient Maya affected the development of the sweat lodge in North America.)

Some Features of Note
The ancient Maya would build their sweat baths' roofs so the steam would be vented out. As for doors, when building a sweat bath, the Maya tended to use different kinds. There were times they also put in a drain. Archaeologists have also found remains of sweat baths that have benches in them.

For making steam, the Maya would build a hearth in the room called a firebox. This feature was put either in the middle of the room or in a wall. In the hearth, they would put rocks that had been heated. They would pour water on theses rocks to make the steam.

Sometimes the Maya made a sweat bath inside another building, and when they did this they had other rooms that were connected with the sweat bath, such as a room for changing. There was also a kind of sweat bath that was built with these other rooms -- but was not inside another building. (This last style looks like it was a lowland style.)

The ancient Maya used sweat baths as a way to help keep themselves healthy. They also had other uses, including when someone was giving birth, religious purifying rituals, and when someone was sick.

The Maya thought they could use sweat baths as a way of getting to the underworld. They thought sweat baths let them talk not only with previous generations that had died but gods as well.

Consideration: Possible Gods of the Sweat Bath
Speaking of religion, there's a theory that there were two deities that, among their different connections, were deities of sweat baths. Specifically, sweat baths in connection with giving birth.

One of them was goddess O. She was a goddess drawn as aged woman from the Postclassic Period that may or may not have been connected to the moon.

The second deity was Pauahtun (god N). Pauahtun was a god connected to the earth who was drawn as a man who, like goddess O, had reached old age.

Symbolic Sweat Baths and Other Symbolism
It's possible not all sweat baths were sweat baths, exactly, but symbolic ones. These are sweat baths that don't look like they ever had a way of heating them. It's possible that these sweat baths were somehow used for gods.

Speaking of symbolism, the ancient Maya thought that both leaving and entering a sweat bath had a meaning. Leaving was like a rebirth. Entering was like being eaten. (Archaeologists think the ancient Maya looked at entering a sweat bath as like being eaten because of some doors they found. These doors were built to look like the mouths of certain beings. There were also doors made to look like bellybuttons -- these also had the same meaning as the doors that look like mouths.)

Google Books: "Encyclopedia of the Ancient Maya"; Walter R.T. Witschey; 2016

Google Books: "The Maya of the Cochuah Region: Archaeological and Ethnographic Perspectives on the Northern Lowlands"; Justine M. Shaw; 2015

Google Books: "Mortuary Landscapes of the Classic Maya: Rituals of Body and Soul"; Andrew K. Scherer; 2015

Boston University: "A Tale of Three Plazas: The Development and Use of Public Spaces in a Classic Maya Ritual and Residential complex at Zultun, Guatemala"; Jennifer Carobine Groeger Wildt; December 2015

The Pennsylvania State Unversity: Cite Seer X: "Earth. Water. Sky.: The Liminal Landscape of the Maya Sweatbath"; Catherine Annalisa Miller; April 12, 2013

Google Books: "Historical Dictionary of Mesoamerica"; Walter R.T. Witschey, Clifford T. Brown; 2012

Oklahoma State University: Edmon Low Library & Branch Libraries: Digital Collections: "The Effects of Sweat Therapy on Group Therapeutic Factors and Feeling States"; Stephen A. Colmant; December 2005

University of Illinois College ofLiberal Arts & Sciences: "A Place for Pilgrimage: The Ancient Maya Sacred Landscape of Cara Blanca, Belize"; Lisa J. Lucero, Andrew Kinkella

Image Credits:
CIA World Factbook: Mexico

Library of Congress: Smoke Stacks (LOC); Alfred T. Palmer; c. 1939