The Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya

image: Chocolate God Bowl

Bowl with images of the Chocolate God
Mexico or Guatemala, 400-600, stone
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections
Washington, D.C.


image: Shell cacao beans in bowl, AD 600-900Cacao grows in very moist tropical environments, usually under the high canopy of rainforest. Dried, roasted cacao was ground into chocolate powder and blended with chili, maize gruel, honey, and water to make the most valued beverage of ancient Mexico. Cacao beans became a kind of currency; the white shell replicas from a Maya tomb provided cash for the afterlife.

According to the Popol Vuh, the Maya creation myth that was written down in the sixteenth century, maize and cacao were both discovered when the god K’awiil hurled a lightning bolt at a mountain, breaking it in two and revealing the two plants growing inside. Cacao and maize are therefore closely linked in Maya mythology. The Chocolate God may even have been a special aspect of the Maize God, or perhaps his brother.

Maya Gods

The Maya worshiped hundreds of gods. Many could appear old or young, in human or animal form. Before we could read Mayan writing we did not know their names, so a scholar in the nineteenth century called them God A, God B, and so on. Some are still known that way.

image: Maize God, Temple 22, 680-750 Maize God
No god was more important to the Maya than the Maize God. He is the ideal of beauty, always handsome and young. His head tapers like an ear of corn, and his hair flows like corn silk . The slightest breeze rustles the leaves--and the Maize God dances. Corn’s  cycle of planting, growth, harvesting, and replanting is the cycle of life itself--birth, death, rebirth.

image: God DItzamna (God D) ruled the sky and was one of the creators. He is usually considered the chief god, and according to Maya legend he invented writing. He is shown as an old man with distinctive square eyes and a squinty gaze.

image: Cylender vessel with underworld scene (Ruthless God L was a prince of the underworld as well as a wealthy god of commerce and trade. He is an old god, sometimes with the ear of a jaguar. He’s prosperous and fat, and smokes a cigar. Like Maya kings he sits on a jaguar pelt. You can also spot him by his large feathered headdress in which his messenger owl nests.

Chak Chel was the patron of women, a weaver (with cotton skeins tied in her hair) but also a warrior. Her name means "great" or “red rainbow,” but don’t think that is a lucky omen--the Maya saw rainbows as dangerous signs from the underworld.

image: Cylinder vessel with Itzamna, Moon Goddess, and scribe (detail), 700-800Moon Goddess
Women also prayed to a young Moon Goddess. You’ll see her sitting in the curve of a crescent moon, holding a rabbit. The Maya don’t see an old man in the face of the moon--they see a rabbit! So do other people in Mesoamerica and Native Americans of the southwestern United States--and the Chinese and Japanese.

image: Scepter of K'awiil, 600-900K'awiil (God K) was a god of lightning, with one snake foot. Because he also was a protector of royal lines, you'll often find him on kings' scepters.

Chaak, a god of rain, played an important role in sacrifice. The bloodshed in sacrifice was as necessary to nourish the gods and the earth as rain was. You’ll recognize Chaak by his reptile-like face, with a down-turned snout and large fangs.

K’inich Ahaw, the sun, was also an old god. Look for a hooked nose and a curling mark on his cheek. His dangerous, nighttime self was the Jaguar God of the Underworld. In climates where the sun is harsh and drought a danger, sun gods are feared.