Saturday, March 31, 2018

Resplendent Quetzal Feathers

A male resplendent quetzal. Photograph by
Andy Wraithmell.
Of the species of quetzal out there, it is the resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) whose habitat included -- and still includes -- Maya area. They live in the highlands, in the upper canopy of a type of forest called a cloud forest. They are shy, and their main food is fruit. (They especially like avocado.) Both males and females have, among their plumage, iridescent feathers.

The male of the resplendent quetzal was a bird the ancient Maya liked to find, as they would take the long feathers that grow on the top side of its tail's base. These feathers -- which are classified as "coverts" -- were not only very valuable to the Maya but was part of their culture in other ways too.

The Coverts of the Male Resplendent Quetzal
The male quetzal has different colors of feathers on different parts of its body -- some of these feathers are a bright green and are iridescent. (When something is iridescent, it means that it shows different colors, depending on how the light hits it.)  Some of male's coverts, which can grow as long as 3.3 feet (around 40 inches,) are among the iridescent feathers of the male resplendent quetzal.

Another shot of a male resplendent quetzal by Andy Wraithmell.
Sources don't always agree on what colors the iridescent feathers display. The general idea I've been able to gather is this: it seems that depending on the light, the feathers may appear to be green, yellow, or blue. (One description says the blue color shows up when the light isn't as bright.)

Mesoamericans everywhere thought the male resplendent quetzal's coverts were beautiful and traded for them. The northern highlands is a known location for ancient Maya who traded these feathers.

Quetzals are not easy to keep. So the ancient Maya had to go out and find the quetzals to take their coverts. (Coverts do grow back.) During the Postclassic Period, quetzal feathers became even more popular across Mesoamerica. Among the ancient Maya, only elites were allowed to have quetzal feathers. (The Bonampak Murals and stelae are places to look for examples of how the ancient Maya used quetzal feathers as headdresses.)

Sometimes in Classic Maya art, you see a ruler near a bundle of items -- it's a scene of the ruler getting tribute. Sometimes among the goods are quetzal feathers.

In Religion and in Rulership 
The ancient Maya also looked at the corn god as being connected with quetzal feathers (as well as jade.) One theory think's it's possible that the quetzal was a form of the maize god's (god E's) wife.

The resplendent quetzal's coverts were also connected to the Principal Bird Deity.  (The ancient Maya believed that this being had a number of connections, including a connection to valuable things.) Speaking of which, from the Preclassic Period onward, these feathers were a popular choice of feather for adding to ancient Maya rulers' headdresses. There's a theory that the feathers -- when used as part of headdresses, were a symbol of the Principal Bird Deity.)

Other than rulers, gods wearing headdresses with quetzal feathers are something you can find in ancient Maya art. (On a related note, the ancient Maya liked to draw quetzals and macaws together. It may be that the ancient Maya somehow thought of these two birds as connected.)

Consideration: As a Name
The word for quetzal in the ancient Mayan language used by the elites is k'uk'. Archaeologists have found that k'uk' was a word that rulers sometimes used as part of their titles as well as their names. One example of a ruler who had k'uk' in his name is a ruler of Copan called Yax K'uk' Mo'. Another example is a ruler of Palenque whose name glyph is a mix of k'uk' and the word for jaguar (bahlam) -- archaeologists have a number of names for him, including K'uk' Bahlam I and Kuk.

Google Books: "Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas"; 2017

Springer Link: "Human Ecology" volume 44, issue 4: "Birds of a Feather: Exploring the Acquisition of Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) Tail Coverts in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica"; Cara Grace Tremain; August 2016

Hampshire College: “Birds and Environmental Change in the Maya Area”; Peter Stuart; May 2015
(Automatically downloads  to your computer)

"Google Books: DK Smithsonian "Wildlife of the World"; 2015

Cornell University: The Cornell Lab of Orinthology: Neotropical Birds: "Resplendent Quetzal Pharomachrus mocinno"; A. A. Dayer; 2010

Google Books: "Maya Sacred Geography and the Creator Deities"; Karen Bassie-Sweet; 2008

Google Books: "Animals & Plants of the Ancient Maya: A Guide"; Victoria Schlesinger; 2001

Google Books; "The A to Z of Ancient Mesoamerica"; Joel W. Palka; 2000

San Francisco State University: "The Biogeography of the Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno)"; Paul Pribor; In progress 5/24/99

ResearchGate: "Revista de biologia tropical" Volume 42, Issue 2: "Spatial organization of the structural color system in the quetzal, Pharomachrus mocinno (Aves: Trogonidae) and evolutionary implications"; Julian Monge Nájera, Francisco Hernandez-Chavarria; January 1994

Mesoweb Encyclopedia: K'uk Bahlam I

Encyclopedia Britannica: Quetzal

Image Credit:
Flickr: "Resplendent Quetzal"; Andy Wraithmell; June 16, 2017

Flickr: "Resplendent Quetzal; Andy Wraithmell; June 16, 2017

Friday, March 23, 2018

The Principal Bird Deity

This is a censer stand from Guatemala 250 AD to 450 AD.
The face on it is the Principle Bird Deity's. From LACMA.

You can find it on the sarcophagus lid of Pakal, in the San Bartolo murals (on the West Wall) and other places. The Principal (or Principle) Bird Deity (or just the PBD) was a major god for a time in the ancient Maya civilization. Its heyday was the Preclassic Period and the Early Classic part of the Classic Period. The Maya connected this being with valuable things -- like jade -- as well as other things.


Artists in the Classic Period tended to draw the Principal Bird Deity's face like this: its eyes (and its pupils) were square-shaped. Its face also has a "beak-snout." (Another description I came across says that the being has an upper lip that's long.) It was also popular to draw it with a beard that had jewels in it. (The Classic Period way of drawing this being's face is the same as the way that Classic Period Maya drew the face of a being called Ux Yop Huun -- also known as the Jester God. The ancient Maya saw a connection between these two beings, but archaeologists don't quite know what it was yet.)
Part of an image in the Met's
collection. The artifact dates 
to the 400s AD or to between 
350 AD and 550 AD. It has two-
headed snake in its mouth. The 
two sources I found don't agree: only
one says it is the Principal Bird Deity.
As for its wings, sometimes the Maya drew things into them. One of these things was either snakes heads (from the side) or snake figures -- these are two separate descriptions, each from a different source. It may sound unusual to put snakes on wings, but the word for snake and sky are the same in Mayan writing, so it's possible that the snakes could actually represent the sky, in a way. Speaking of snakes, artists also liked to draw it having a snake in its mouth.

There are a number of important features that are related to its forehead and the top of its head. Its forehead has a mirror, and it may also have what's called an "ak'bal medallion." On top of its head, it may also have a shell ornament that's been carved -- it may have this and the medallion or just have either one. There are times where it wears a "ak'bal flower headdress," a headdress that Itzamná is commonly drawn wearing. 

There's a theory that this bird's appearance may have been based off of a real species of bird called the laughing falcon or guaco (Herpetotheres cachinnans.)

What It Was God Of
This jade figure (dated to the 200s AD to
500s AD) comes from Honduras is either of: 
a person impersonating the PBD, or a 
humanized version of the god. From the 
Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The ancient Maya thought of the Principal Bird Deity as connected with the valuable things that the earth had to offer -- two examples are quetzal feathers and either maize or maize fields (I've seen both mentioned.) 

However, the strongest connection the ancient Maya made with the Principal Bird Deity was jade: they thought it was a living version of the mineral. (Another valuable thing the ancient Maya connected with this being was water, including rain -- this was because the ancient Maya's connections with jade included water.)

Another association this god had was with rulers. By connecting themselves with the god, rulers were connecting themselves with control of valuable items -- as well as control of the economy.

Detail from a rectangular, ceramic
box that comes from Guatemala
and dates to between 450 AD and
550 AD. From LACMA.
The Principal Bird Deity was one of the gods that rulers would impersonate with the intention of being possessed. The point was to talk with the Principal Bird Deity, to get it to do things for the people. (Speaking of rulers and the Principal Bird Deity, artifacts depicting this deity were popular as grave goods for rulers.) 

Rulers are also shown wearing a headdress made of the Principal Bird Deity. This headdress was worn as part of them taking the throne -- and was a tradition that lasted from the Preclassic Period to the Early Classic.

And, on a related note, from what's been seen of ancient Maya art, rulers liked to include quetzal feathers in their headdresses. Used this way, it's possible the feathers were meant to be a symbol of the Principal Bird Deity.

The Sun
The ancient Maya in the Preclassic Period tended to connect the Principal Bird Deity with the sun more so than the ancient Maya in the periods that came after. (There's also a view that says this only may been what happened.) 

The ancient Maya thought the Principal Bird Deity was a form of Itzamná. (No one knows for sure if the connection between the Principal Bird Deity and Itzamná started in the Classic Period. There's an idea that wonders if the belief that it was a form of Itzamná replaced the belief that it was connected with the sun. 

Archaeologists have found evidence that there were times where the Principal Bird Deity delivered messages for Itzamná. The name for the Principal Bird Deity as a messenger could be Muut Itzamnaaj. This phrase means "Itzamnaaj Bird."

There are some artifacts that say the Principal Bird Deity's name is Itzam Yej. This name is seen as evidence that connects the Principal Bird Deity with Itzamná. 

There's a possibility that Itzamná (god D) is actually a mix of yet another god, Pauahtun (god N,) and the Principal Bird Deity.

Creation Story
Another myth about the Principal Bird Deity has him being punished, and that his punishment was part of what happened before the creation of people. The Tablet of the Cross (at the site of Palenque) has a version of this creation myth. The tablet says that Hun Ajaw, one of the Hero Twins, was the one who punished the Principal Bird Deity -- who was self-centered enough to think it was bright enough to be a sun. After it was punished it used the World Tree to get to the sky. After all this, the real sun was able to rise.

If you've read about the Popol Vuh, then you probably are reminded of Seven Macaw (Wuqub Kaqix or Vucub Caquix.) Sometimes you may come across descriptions of the Principal Bird Deity that say this god is Seven Macaw. However, there is also a view that these beings were not the same, on account of how much of time that had passed.

The name Principal Bird Deity is also a term used for other bird beings. Not a lot is known about these beings.

Google Books: "Art and Myth of the Ancient Maya"; Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos"; 2017

Google Books: "The Origins of Maya States"; Loa P. Traxler, Robert J. Sharer (editors); 2016

Hampshire College: “Birds and Environmental Change in the Maya Area”; Peter Stuart; May 2015
(Automatically downloads  to your computer)

Google Books: "Maya Imagery, Architecture, and Activity: Space and Spatial Analysis in Art History"; Maline D. Werness-Rude, Kaylee R. Spencer (editors); 2015

LaGrange College: "Donning the Mask: Mayan Belief, Christianity and the Power of Syncretism"; Blakeley Coull; 2014

Leiden University: Leiden Repository "The Maya Ceramic Book of Creation: The Trials of the Popol Vuh Hero Twins Displayed on Classic Maya Polychrome Painted Pottery"; Laura Beukers; June 17, 2013

Mesoweb: Maya Archaeology Articles: "The Name of Paper: The Mythology of Crowning and Royal Nomenclature on Palenque’s Palace Tablet"; David Stuart; 2012

Google Books: "Spirit Possession and Exorcism: History, Psychology, and Neurobiology" volume 1 "Mental States and the Phenomenon of Possession"; Patrick McNamara; 2011

UC Riverside Electronic Theses and Dissertations: "A Study of Classic Maya Rulership"; Mark Alan Wright; January 1, 2011

MAYA VASE: "At the Court of Itzam Nah Yax Kokaj Mut: Preliminary Iconographic and Epigraphic Analysis of a Late Classic Vessel"; Erik Boot; October 30, 2008 

Google Books: "Ritual & Power in Stone: The Performance of Rulership in Mesoamerican Izapan Style Art"; Julia Guernsey; 2006

Google Books: "The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives"; Heather McKillop; 2004

Metropolitan Museum of Art: Deity Figure

Metropolitan Museum of Art: Deity Face Pendant

Mesoweb: Lords of Creation: Supernatural Patrons

Image Credits:
LACMA: Censer Stand Depicting Principal Bird Deity

Metropolitan Museum of Art: Double Chambered Vessel

Metropolitan Museum of Art: Deity Figure

LACMA: Carved Box with Deities

Friday, March 16, 2018


This image of a Classic Period vessel (specifically dated to between
600 AD and 900 AD) shows a scribe holding a container of paint. It comes from the
Mexican state of Campeche. From Yale University Art Gallery.
Ah tz'ib (also spelled ah tz'ib and ah ts'ib) -- a translation of this is "he who writes or paints." It is one of the terms the ancient Maya used for scribes. Scribes worked different kinds of materials to make images as well as inscriptions. They used their artistic skills to express information, including the activities of their rulers.

Job as a Scribe
A page from the Madrid Codex.
From An Introduction to the Study
of the Maya Hieroglyphs.
Scribes made messages and pictures with materials like limestone and stucco as well as in codices. Scribes got to be kind of artistic when it came to which version of glyphs to pick. (Archaeologists have found artifacts that scribes put their names on -- signing them. There are also artifacts where the scribes put in their family history too!) 

A page from the Dresden Codex.
From An Introduction to the Study
of the Maya Hieroglyphs.
Part of being a scribe meant learning a lot of different things . Scribes learned the calendar system, social rituals, different kinds of art, math, scientific information, and history as well as religious rituals and myths. They learned the language used by elites: and this was the language they wrote in -- though there are times when they slip into other ancient Maya languages. (These slips are thought to have been slips into the scribes' native languages.)

In the Late Classic, archaeologists know there were ranks for scribes. (And scribes could even have more than one title.) One title with a lot of status was aj kuju'un (spelled other ways, including ah k'u hun.) One translation of this term is "he of the holy books" and could mean something like "royal librarian." Only really good scribes were given this title. Scribes who had this title may have had a lot of responsibility -- they may have done things like make treaties, train other scribes, keep track of tribute, watch over rituals, and do marriage negotiations. They may also have been astronomers.  (Another of the titles in the Late Classic was itz'at, ("sage," "wiseman.") It was title that gave a scribe a lot of status.)

In the Classic Period, scribes had another job too, which they shared with other royalty: the job of warrior.

Ancient Maya scribes made their ink wells out of conch shells, which they cut in half. As for what they drew with, they used pens made of quills for thin lines, and brushes for thicker lines. For stone, scribes, of course, used chisels, themselves made of stone. 

In ancient Maya art, there are certain features that you can search for to see if a person in the image you're looking at is a scribe. One is if there is stylized "paper" with spots that go out from under their arm. (An example of this "paper" can be seen in the image at the top of the post.) Another is if they're holding an ink well.

When drawn, an aj kuju'un has certain clothing. One is a sarong that is tied around the waist. The other was a headdress that these images wore. This headdress has a "stick bundle" set in a knot that is tied at the forehead; one of two items would be set into the headdress: a waterlily or a tool used for writing. (You may see a description of this headdress given to scribes in general.)

Consideration: Place in Society
There's some disagreement about whether or not scribes belonged to the elite -- they either may have been or were part of the elite. One view says that their families were royal: if you were a son of a ruler, but you weren't the "crown prince," then you would be a scribe. (However, there were also rulers who were scribes.)

Speaking of society, you may be wondering: were there female scribes?  This seems to depend somewhat. There isn't strong evidence for it, goes one line of thought. Another says that, among the scribes who were rulers, there were female scribe-rulers.

Gods Connected to Scribes
This vessel dates from around 700 AD to 800 AD, and was
made in Mexico. This side shows a monkey scribe god. (The
other shows K'awiil, who you may see called god K. From Yale
University Art Gallery.
Scribes -- and other ancient Maya who had jobs connected to art -- had monkey gods who were patron gods. These gods were believed in in both the Classic Period as well as -- at least in the northern lowlands -- the Postclassic Period.

Other than the monkey gods, the young aspect of the Maize God is thought to have been a patron god of scribes. Itzamná (god D)  A scribe himself, he was connected to lots of things, including scribes -- and may be a patron god of scribes. 

Other gods connected to scribes were the Paddler Gods and Pauahutun (god N.) A god known as the Fox God may have been a patron of scribes as well, though it may be he was really a patron of sculptors.

Google Books: "World Prehistory and Archaeology: Pathways Through"; Michael Chazan; 2018

Google Books: "Philosophy of the Ancient Maya: Lords of Time"; Alexus McLeod; 2018

Google Books: "Art and Myth of the Ancient Maya"; Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos; 2017

University of Texas at Austin: SALSA: "The Scribe’s Hand Betrays His Tongue: Diglossia Among the Ancient Maya"; Mary Kate Kelly

Google Books: "Encyclopedia of the ancient Maya"; Walter R.T. Witschey (editor); 2016

Mesoweb: Ancient Cultures Institute: The PARI Journal 16, Volume 2; 2015; "The Maya Goddess of Painting, Writing, and Decorated Textiles"; Timothy W. Knowlton

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

Google Books: "The Technology of Maya Civilization: Political Economy and Beyond in Lithic Studies"; Zachary X Hruby, Geoffrey E. Brasswell, Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos (editors); 2011

Digital Collections at Texas State University: "Maya Scribes who would be Kings: Shamanism, the Underworld, and Artistic Production in the Late Classic Period "; Barry B. Kidder; December 2009

Google Books: "Maya Calendar Origins: Monuments, Mythistory, and the Materialization of Time"; Prudence M. Rice; 2007

Google Books: "The Ancient Maya" sixth edition; Robert J. Sharer, Loa P. Traxler; 2006

University of Florida: "Mayan Writing"; Andrea M. Ranada
(Power Point that downloads.)

University of Maine Hudson Museum: The Underworld

Yale University Art Gallery: Vessel with Scribes

Image Credits:
Yale University Art Gallery: Vessel with Scribes

Yale University Art Gallery: Bowl with a Monkey Scribe and K’awiil, God of Lightning

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

Saturday, March 10, 2018


A sample of hematite. Credit goes to the Brigham Young University Geology
Department and Andrew Silver, the photographer.

An important iron ore, hematite (Fe2O3) is a mineral that is mostly metal and comes in more than one form (one of which is specularite/specular hematite.) For the ancient Maya, this mineral was useful as a coloring for different things, including in burials.

A sample of specular hematite. Courtesy US 
Geological Survey/photo by Scott Horvath.
Processing It
The ancient Maya turned hematite into powder -- then to paint with it, they added powder. Turning hematite into powder was not easy. Because it wasn't easy to make, hematite powder wasn't cheap, so it was easier to get if you were an elite Maya.

Hematite was one of the things that the ancient Maya inserted into their teeth as a fashion statement. (Another mineral they inserted into their teeth was jade.)

The ancient Maya used it as one of several pigments for coloring people's bodies or the cloth used as their shroud after those people had passed on. (The other was cinnabar, which is less easily found than hematite -- it's more dangerous as well, because part of its makeup is mercury. Sometimes the Maya used both.) How this was specifically done depended somewhat on the site. Elites were the ones who did had their bodies colored red most often. This was because they were able to afford it.

Other than for bodies of the dead, the ancient Maya used hematite to color things. They used it as paint for ceramics, murals, and cloth. They also used it as a red body paint for living people -- a known example of body painting is images where elites are painted different colors. (On a related note, at Joya de Cerén, a site in El Salvador, it was found that all the houses had a container of hematite pigment -- some had more than one.)

Hematite was also a material that the ancient Maya would use to make mirrors. (Based on what's been found in burials, the Maya in the highlands made mirrors more than the ones in the lowlands.)

There's a theory that the ancient Maya thought of hematite as having a symbolic meaning. They may have thought of it as being like blood.

Google Books: "cosntructing Power & Place in Mesoamerica: Pre-Hispanic Paintings from Three Regions"; Merideth Paxton, Leticia Staines Cicero (editors); 2017

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

Google Books: "The Ancient Maya Marketplace: The Archaeology of Transient Space"; Eleanor M. King (editor); 2015

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

Google Books: "Field Guide to Rocks & minerals of Southern Africa"; Bruce Cairncross; 2004

Image Credits:
USGS: ScienceBase - Catalog: Hematite

USGS: Specularite; Scott Horvath

Friday, March 2, 2018

The Milky Way

A composite of an image from the CIA World Factbook
and an image by Lian Law from the Joshua Tree National Park's Flickr.

The Milky Way Galaxy or the Milky Way for short, is our galaxy -- a "barred spiral" galaxy to be specific. When the night sky is dark enough, you see part of the Milky Way as a band of light, which people also call the Milky Way. To the ancient Maya, what was this band of light? So far it looks like it was a variety of things, from a supernatural road, symbol of the World Tree, and a crocodile-deer creature, to an aspect of the god Itzamná. Let's learn more.

The Starry Deer Crocodile
One of the "composite" beings that the ancient Maya would carve and draw was a being that you may see called the Starry Deer Crocodile. Among its notable features, this being was a crocodile except for its feet, which were deer hooves, and its ear, which was a deer ear. (Another one of its notable features was that its eyes had Venus/star signs.)

This being has connections to different things, including the Milky Way. There are a few ideas out there on the Starry Deer Crocodile -- one is that it was an aspect of another being called (among other names) the Cosmic Monster and was the Milky Way at night. 

Connection to the World Tree
There was a belief among the ancient Maya that the "World Tree" -- the tree that was the center of everything -- was a ceiba. (It went through all three levels of reality. It grew out of the underworld, Xibalbá, and up into the upperworld.) But in the ancient Maya's minds, they connected the World Tree with the Milky Way and used it as a symbol of the tree. 

Supernatural Road
It's possible that the ancient Maya thought that the Milky Way was a path on which people who had died traveled. This same theory thinks that the ancient Maya may have even had a travel-related term for death: och bih, which means "entering the road." However, it's still not clear.

There's a theory that the south and north sky-eagles represent the sky at night -- maybe the Milky Way too or some kind of path at night. A tomb that might be evidence that this theory is right is Tomb 12 at the site of Rio Azul. The tomb has four walls, and on every wall there is one of the four direction glyphs (north, west, south, and east.) The "south" sky-eagle has a star sign (ek') as part of it. The "north" sky-eagle has the sign for moon as part of it. The two of them might be referencing a path in the sky at night.

On a related note, the Popol Vuh, a religious text of the Quiché (also spelled K'iche',) one of the various groups of Maya today, says that a dark part of the Milky Way is the road to the underworld, Xibalbá. 

As an Aspect of Itzamná (God D)
To the ancient Maya, Itzamná (God D) was a god of different things, including foretelling the future and scribes, and was also a creator god. One of his aspects of the Milky Way.

Google Books: "Philosophy of the Ancient Maya: Lords of Time"; Alexus McLeod; 2018

Google Books: "Astronomy in the Ancient World: Early and Modern Views on Celestial Events"; Alexus McLeod, Butler Burton (series editor); 2016

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

Google Books: "Cosmology, Calendars, and Horizon Based Astronomy in Ancient Mesoamerica"; Anne S. Dowd, Susan Milbrath (editor); 2015

Google Books: "Astrology in Time and Place: Cross-Cultural Questions in the History of Astrology"; Nicholas Campion, Dorian Gieseler Greenbaum (editors); 2015

The University of Texas at Austin: Texas Scholar Works: University of Texas Libraries: "Sacrificing the Jaguar Baby : understanding a classic Maya myth on codex-style pottery"; Penny Steinbach; May 2015 (Click on the PDF icon for it to download.)

Google Books: "The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous"; Asa Simon Mittman, Peter J. Dendle (editors); 2013

Google Books: "Re-Creating Primordial Time; Foundation Rituals and Mythology in the Postclassic Maya Codices"; Gabrielle Vail, Christine Hernandez"; 2013

The Free Dictionary: Bicephalic

The Free Dictionary: Milky Way

NASA: Imagine The Universe!: The Milky Way Galaxy

Image Credits:
CIA World Factbook: Mexico (image 12)

Flickr: Joshua Tree National Park: Night Sky InstaMeet 5.23.15; Lian Law