The Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya
image: Maize God, Temple 22, 680-750

Maize God, Temple 22
Copan, Honduras, 680-750, volcanic tuff
Courtesy of The Trustees of The British Museum
© Justin Kerr

Learn more about the Maya Gods.

The Divine Court

At the heart of ancient Maya religious belief lies maize, the staple food of the New World, personified by the Maize God. The mythic story of the god of maize mirrors the annual planting and harvesting of the corn on which all Maya civilization depended. Like the maize plant, the Maize God was decapitated at harvest time but was reborn--fresh, young, and beautiful--at the beginning of each new growing season. The Maize God was thus a metaphor for life and resurrection.

At court, lords and ladies often portrayed themselves as incarnations of the handsome Maize God. Mothers strapped infants to cradle boards, gently molding their foreheads into the shape of tapered maize cobs. The Maya elite wore their thick, straight hair gathered in upswept hairdos that echoed the lustrous corn silk of the maize plant. For their formal costumes, they relied on two precious materials: jade and feathers. Adorned in jade jewelry and bedecked with headdresses of green quetzal feathers, rulers became one with the verdant, life-giving Maize God.

The Maize God was the preeminent deity in a pantheon that also included the god of cacao, or chocolate, and the underworld god of trade. Unlike maize, a necessity, chocolate was a luxury and the basis for a special drink favored at court. The god of trade, also associated with luxury, was an old and ruthless trickster made rich by his control of commerce and tribute. Maya rulers emulated his luxurious palace, where he is depicted sitting on a throne covered with a jaguar pelt and wearing the richest of costumes--valued goods garnered in his role as the merchant god.