The Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya
image: Bloodletting Ritual of Lady Xok (Lintel 24), Structure 23, c. 725 image: Lady Xok Conjuring a Giant Serpant (Lintel 25), Structure 23, c. 725 image: Shield Jaguar, Lady Xok, and a Jaguar Headdress (Lintel 26), Structure 23, c. 725
image: Bloodletting Ritual of Lady Xok (Lintel 24), Structure 23, c. 725

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Women at Court

To a degree unprecedented in the ancient New World, Maya women played a prominent role at court. Though few became rulers in their own right, women held positions of substance and power as wives and mothers of kings. By the seventh and eighth centuries women had risen to a public role, commanding wealth and prestige. They appear as solo actors on stone monuments, wielding symbols of supernatural and temporal power and wearing the beaded jade costume of the Maize God, a costume that both men and women wore to demonstrate powers of life-giving regeneration.

In one extraordinary example, Lady Xok, principal wife of the king of Yaxchilan, dedicated a series of lintels to span the doorways of a building on the city’s plaza. Reunited here for the first time since the 1880s, these carved panels depict Lady Xok playing a central role in ritual life: conducting blood sacrifice, communicating with a venerated ancestor, and dressing her husband for battle. Recent excavation of burials--perhaps those of Lady Xok and her husband--within this building has yielded sharp perforators (awls) for bloodletting that bear Lady Xok’s name. The shedding of royal blood was an act of supreme sacrifice to gain the gods’ favor and thus perpetuate the cycle of human life.

Women addressed their prayers to Chak Chel, the patron deity of childbirth. Divine midwife and guarantor of fertility, she was also the patron of spinning and weaving, an important source of wealth for the Maya. In contrast to the elderly Chak Chel is the youthful Moon Goddess who is often portrayed in the role of seductress.