Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Bats and the Ancient Maya

This Guatemalan vessel, dated around 650 AD to 850 AD, has bat heads
painted on it. From LACMA.

All kinds of bats (or zotz (also spelled sotz') in a lot of Mayan languages) live in the Maya area. It makes sense then, that bats became part of the Maya civilization, including religious beliefs, their writing system, and their calendar.

What the Maya Thought of Bats
Two things the ancient Maya connected bats to were caves and the underworld -- they also thought that bats were messengers from the underworld. The Maya also connected bats with sacrifice -- they drew bats with symbols of sacrifice, like “death eyes” around their neck (or on their wings) and a sort of split scroll coming out of its mouth that might be a symbol for blood.

Three other possible views the ancient Maya may have had – according to a paper called Bats and the Camazotz: Correcting a Century of Mistaken Identity are: as a wahy, a choice for a city name, and as a pollinator.

The Bat God
Starting with Eduard Seler’s conclusion about images on a pot, it’s now thought that the ancient Maya believed in a bat god – archaeologists call this god Cama Zotz’. This name comes from a bat god in the Popol Vuh, a Quiche (also K’iche’) “bible”. This god was connected with death. (It must be said though, that Maya experts don’t have a lot of info about this god outside of vessels taken from burials found in the Maya highlands.)

However, the paper Bats and Camazotz not only has the view people interpret bat images as this deity too often – but also doubts that Seler’s conclusion was right. (This doubt comes from the fact that they haven’t found any pre-contact images of the Hero Twins in the House of Bats.)

Agricultural Significance
Speaking of pollination, a lot of plants that the ancient Maya used were pollinated by creatures (as opposed to wind pollination, like corn.) This includes certain kinds of bats, like Underwood's long-tongued bat (Hylonycteris underwoodi).

A detail from an image of Haab months
An Introduction to the Study of the

Maya Hieroglyphs. From Project Gutenberg.
In Mayan Writing 
The Maya had different glyphs (or perhaps versions of one glyph) that were bat heads – and they used these bat glyphs (or perhaps versions of one bat glyph) in different ways. For one thing, it looks like they may have used it (or them) for several syllables, including “xu” and “tz’i”. (As to whether or not there is more than one distinct bat glyph, that seems to be under debate.)

They also used a bat head glyph as a logogram, and when they did you will see descriptions that say you pronounce it zotz/sotz’. (There is a theory that in Classic Period inscriptions, though, it ought perhaps to be pronounced sutz’.) They used this logogram for the fourth month of the solar calendar (the Haab.)

A bat glyph was also used to represent "mother of" or “mother of child” in inscriptions -- specifically, for when the mother of that person was alive. For this, the bat glyph also has two syllable signs with it, one for “ya” and one for “na.”

Bat glyphs have also been used as part of “emblem glyphs” or city names. Both Calakmul and Copan had a glyph that was a bat head as part of their emblem glyphs. (Calakmul also had an emblem glyph that used a snake’s head instead of a bat’s head.) 

Consideration: Which Bat is the Bat Glyph?
According to a 2009 paper by Erik Boot, people tend to accept that that the model for the glyph was a species of leaf-nosed vampire bat. This paper also wonders if the model might have been the American false vampire bat because ancient Maya art liked to show powerful carnivores, like alligators and jaguars. (The American false vampire bat is the biggest you can find in North America – at the largest, its wingspan can be as wide as three feet!)


Image Credits:

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Starry Deer Crocodile

Image Credit: NPS/Chris Wonderly.

Seen in the Classic Period as well as the Postclassic Period, the Starry Deer Crocodile (or Starry Deer Alligator) is one of the wealth of "composite" beings that the ancient Maya included in their art and writings. Identified by Spinden in 1913 and given its current name by David Stuart, there are now various theories out there on it, including that it was a symbol or an aspect of another being, the Cosmic Monster.

The Starry Deer Crocodile has deer hooves for feet, eyes that have crossed bands (a sign for Venus) in them, a deer's ear, and eye-lids that have lines on them -- there are also times the Maya added an antler coming out of its forehead. It has water scrolls on its joints and has a shell under its ear. As for its body and head, they're like a crocodile or caiman's. You might see it drawn with a head on each end, though the ancient Maya didn't do that much.

A notable feature about the being's middle section is that one way the Maya liked to draw it was as a “sky-band” – in both ways, they put symbols connected to the sky on it.

The ancient Maya also liked to put one of several things on the Starry Deer Crocodile’s back. One of these things was the Principal Bird Deity (or PBD), which they would put on top of the Starry Deer Crocodile’s tail or make it part of the Starry Deer Crocodile’s back.

The other of these things was a symbol called the “Quadripartite Badge”. The Maya put it on the top of other end of the Starry Deer Crocodile. (This takes us back to the times the ancient Maya drew it with two heads. The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous's description of this symbol includes a skull as part of it. A description in a dissertation by Penny Janice Steinbach says the skull was something put under the Quadripartite Badge.)

Relation to the Sky
It may be that this being is an aspect of the being that archaeologists call the Cosmic Serpent or the Celestial Crocodile -- or was a different version of that other being. 

Within the view of the Starry Deer Crocodile being an aspect, it might be that it was the Milky Way at night, the Milky Way with clouds, or the Underworld's sky at night. You might also see it suggested that it was a symbol of the Underworld's night sky, and this also made it a symbol of the earth...this is because the Underworld's sky would be our ground, in the ancient Maya view. (One caveat though: it must be said, I've had difficulty separating when an author was talking about the Starry Deer Crocodile as an aspect and talking about it as a symbol.)

This being might also be part of a theory about a possible creation myth. In this myth, the Starry Deer Crocodile was not only connected with destruction (via flood) but also with creation. This possible myth might not have just been a myth among the Maya either – it could have, with some differences, been a myth throughout Mesoamerica. 

This being was also a symbol. It is understood that when it was drawn with sky-related symbols for its body, the Starry Deer Crocodile was a way the ancient Maya drew the sky.

Calendar Functions
The Starry Deer Crocodile had two calendar functions, one in the Tzolk'in or sacred calendar and one in the Haab or solar calendar. With the Tzolk'in, the Maya used its head as another way of writing "Lamat", the eighth day of the Tzolk'in. With the Haab', it was the patron of Yaxk'in, the tenth month of the Haab.

Function for Royalty
Rulers seemed to like to use images of the Starry Deer Crocodile in connection to taking the throne. To them, the image of the Starry Deer Crocodile was a symbol of power and of taking the throne.

Consideration: Zoomorph P at Quirigua
Some examples of where you can find the Starry Deer Crocodile -- either in writing or drawn -- include Stela 9 at Lamanai, Temple 22 at Copan, a codex-syle plate called the "Cosmic Plate", and Stela 1 at Yaxchilan.

One side of zoomorph P at Quirigua -- the photo was 
taken by Alfred Maudslay. From the NYPL Digital Commons.
You can also spot this being at Quirigua. As for where exactly, I've come across a bit of snag. Several works I've come across don't say that a carving at the site -- zoomorph P (the Great Turtle or Monument 16) -- has the Starry Deer Crocodile on it. In fact, The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous says another zoomorph at the site -- zoomorph O -- is the only thing you can find the Starry Deer Crocodile on there. However, Art and Myth of the Ancient Maya says zoomorph P does show the being.


Google Books: "Cosmology, Calendars, and Horizon-Based Astronomy in Ancient Mesoamerica"; Anne S. Dowd, Susan Milbrath; 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; 2013

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

Maya Exploration Center: "Astronomy in the Tortuguero Inscriptions"; John Major Jenkins; 2010

Google Books: "Palenque: Recent Investigations at the Classic Maya Center"; Damien B. Marken (editor); 2007

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

Mesoweb: "A Cosmological Throne at Palenque"; David Stuart; 2003

Google Books: "Mesoamerica's Ancient Cities" revised edition; William M. Ferguson, Richard E.W. Adams; 2001

The Free Dictionary: Striation

Image Credit:
Flickr: Arches National Park: "Milky Way from Garden of Eden Viewpoint"; Chris Wonderly; 10 September 2015

NYPL Digital Commons: The Great Turtle. Quiriguá, Guatemala

Monday, October 15, 2018

Causes of the Collapse

Author’s note: No one can say for sure what the causes were or how the causes were connected. A newer view of the collapse says that each site has to be looked at on its own to see why it collapsed. Theories may be changed as new tests get better results, and archaeologists are able to ask better questions using these better results.

This is zoomorph P/the Great Turtle. It's at the site of Quirigua, and dates to
around 795 AD, during the time called the collapse.

For a chunk of time that lasted 200 plus years -- around the late 700s AD to around the early 900s AD -- the Maya area went through hardships and changes – a time that you may see called a collapse. Currently, it looks like more than one cause created this collapse. What were the causes? There are lots of theories and studies about what they might have been: drought, war, over-population, bad farming, changes in how trading happened, disease, and pollution. This post focuses on the first five, which you might commonly come across.

Evidence has been found that there may have been a bunch of really bad droughts that helped make the collapse happen. (Droughts were just part of ancient Maya life, but these possible droughts were a lot worse than usual.) The droughts may have been a very large cause of the collapse. When did they happen and how long were they?

As happens when dating ancient times, the dates of these droughts depend on the source. One book you can find dates for these droughts in is Why Did Ancient Civilizations Collapse?. This book says the droughts happened from 760 AD to 910 AD. It also says there were four droughts and that each of these droughts went on for three to nine years.

As for whether or not the droughts encouraged another possible cause -- war --, there is evidence that wars were going on before the droughts.

The population grew in the Maya area in the Classic Period. (More than one possible reason for the large population exists.) Because there were so many people, it may be that there wasn’t enough food to go around. And that might not have been the only kind of over population.

 This other kind of over-population that may have happened involved immigration. Too many people may have moved to places that were doing better, which made it harder for everyone in those places to get what they needed.

Bad Farming
This is related to the cause of over-population. Farmers may have started farming in ways that were bad for the environment, because there were so many people to feed. For example, they may have cut down too many trees to make room for fields. They may have also farmed so that they caused soil erosion.

With this possible cause, elite families getting bigger and bigger meant that it was getting harder to have “enough” of things that elites thought they had to have. From this tension, they may have started wars with each other more often, in order to get “enough” of these things.

Speaking of fighting, there are other theories about war – that is, it wasn’t just elites going to war against other elites. There’s a theory that commoners actually rose up against the elites – and that there may have been “Mexican” invaders (invaders from north of the Maya area).

Change in Trade
Another thing that may have helped make the collapse happen is a change in trade. It may be that the ancient Maya traders began to use sea routes way more than land routes. (There are a number of theories about how the ancient Maya did their trading.)

(Takes you to the abstract, which also has a link to the full paper.)