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Lords of Creation

Origins of the Sacred Maya Kingship

By Janis Johnson | HUMANITIES, September/October 2005 | Volume 26, Number 5

Among the ancient Maya, kings had sacred powers, which they used to intervene with ancestors and other deities to ensure abundant harvests. In the last twenty years archaeologists and anthropologists have dug deeper and uncovered new clues about how sacred kingship developed in Maya society two thousand years ago. Their work forms the center of an exhibition opening in September at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "We are finally getting a better handle on the beginnings of civilized life and the significance of divine kingship among the Maya," explains Virginia M. Fields, cocurator of "Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship."

Because of the way the Maya built their cities--new structures on top of old--most knowledge about the Maya has been centered on the latest period, or the peak of their civilization between 550 and 850 CE. But since the 1980s archaeologists have peeled back new layers in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. "Maya science is finally going below the surface," says Fields, "helping us better understand how the Maya defined their kings and how their kings defined themselves."

In the exhibition 152 works of art and artifacts created during the Maya Late Preclassic to Early Classic periods (400 BCE-550 CE) express the theme of sacred power. When Maya kings dressed as gods and other spiritual beings during ritual performances, they assumed the identities of these supernatural beings and wielded divine powers. The Maya believed that some deities, such as the Maize God, played a critical role during the creation of the cosmos. A video in the exhibition shows the tradition's endurance. In it, a contemporary religious dance in Guatemala uses maize symbolism to recreate the world.

"In cultures around the world, divine kingship often emerged as societies became settled agriculturalists versus nomadic hunters and gatherers," Fields says. For the Maya, the maize plant served as the foundation of the economy--it was the essence of life--giving the plant a central role in Maya cosmology. The role of the leader "was to act as an intermediary between the human community and the supernatural realm to ensure the abundance of the maize harvests and manage the wealth for the well-being of society," says Fields.

In her 1989 doctoral dissertation, Fields linked the iconography of Maya kingship to the older Olmec civilization in Mesoamerica. The Olmecs were the earliest complex civilization in Mesoamerica, flourishing along the Gulf Coast lowlands of what is now Mexico from 1200 to 400 BCE and building a society dominated by an elite group employing a system of governance known as divine kingship. On display in the exhibition is a replica of a 100 CE mural discovered last year in San Bartolo, Guatemala, which links the Maya to the Olmec. The mural shows a beautiful young man appearing as the Maize God with a face painted in the style of the Olmec civilization that existed a thousand years before.

Fields sees further connections. The word ajaw, or ruler, a title found on Maya architectural facades, appears in Olmec art, as well. Cruciform-shaped or quincunx-patterned caches making sacred spaces appear in both Olmec and Maya sites. They signify the king's capacity to center the cosmos, says Fields.

A third similarity is the trefoil crown. In Olmec and Maya societies, the trefoil crown symbolized maize leaves, identifying rulers with the Maize God and drawing a parallel between the authority of the earthly ruler and the sacred power of the deity. Often these crowns were decorated with jadeite and other greenstones, which, along with shells and cacao, were used as precious commodities for trade and gifts.

For the Maya, jade and shell were especially important because they were linked to the cosmic power flowing through the rulers, according to David Freidel of the Department of Anthropology at Southern Methodist University, who is one of the exhibition's catalog contributors.

Besides the Maize God, another deity links the Olmec and early Maya kings: the Principal Bird Deity, which first appears in Olmec art around 900-400 BCE. Because it could fly, the bird had access to the cosmos and rulers taking on bird powers could act as an intercessor with the gods. This supernatural avian is depicted on numerous vessels in the exhibition, for example, in a dish depicting a ruler in Tikal around 411-456 CE.

The exhibition presents well-known and new objects in the context of the still-developing understanding of Maya kingship-from the nature of the Maya cosmos to the artistic symbolism used by the rulers.

Maya kings reigned over a cosmological domain comprising three vertical levels--the celestial upperworld, the earthly middle world, and the watery underworld. Linking the levels was a great world tree, represented by a ceiba tree or maize plant, or sometimes the form of the king. A granite monument dated 200-50 BCE from Guatemala shows one of the earliest Maya rulers in divine disguise as the pillar of the cosmos and the bridge to the supernatural.

Maya kings used architecture to replicate the topography of the universe--a pyramid as a sacred mountain and flanking plazas as symbolic bodies of water--with a rich repertoire of small objects conveying cosmic principles through iconography.

Royal portraits, hieroglyphs, and official paraphernalia such as portable sculptures, pectoral jewels, and belt plaques reinforced the king's divine status. A calendar system known as the Long Count documented linear time, enabling rulers to record their achievements and their genealogies over centuries.

Royal portraits appear as stucco masks on facades and in the iconography on vessels. "A function of the palaces was to create all these works of art to validate the king's status and to use as gifts," Fields says. Many of the artists signed their works. At the death of the king, they depicted his ritual journey to the underworld and reemergence in the guise of the Maize God.

The last gallery of the exhibition focuses on the king's journey into the underworld. Here, when the kin died, he followed the path of the Maize God. The Maya believed that the Maize God was decapitated by the lords of the underworld and then resurrected by his sons to return to the earth's surface. Some of the artifacts focus on the king's journey itself, such as a lidded vessel with the figure of a canoer representing the soul surrounded by the dark waters of the underworld. Incised on the lid of the same vessel is a reminder of the sacrifice necessary for rebirth-the Maize God's head surrounded by three blades used for sacrifice. "In Maya cosmology," says Fields, "the human life cycle paralleled that of maize--birth, maturation, death, rebirth--and the most important rituals performed by the king reenacted the events of creation."

Janis Johnson is a writer in Playa Vista, California.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art received $141,130 from NEH to create the exhibition "Lords of Creation: Origins of Maya Divine Kingship" and accompanying catalog and public programs. The exhibition opens September 10 in Los Angeles and travels to the Dallas Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2006. Virginia M. Fields and Dorie Reents-Budet are cocurators of the exhibition.