From cave art, to hieroglyphics, to modern gravestones, symbols have enabled humans to give life to, and immortalize cultural history, identity, and meaning, ever since they were first utilized. Broadly defined as “cultural representations” from which meaning can be interpreted properly within context, symbols can be found in every culture at some fundamental level (Mach 1993). The ancient Mayans are no exception to the practice of symbology. Particularly in their rituals during the Classic period, they immortalize their beliefs of death, resurrection, and deities. Discussed below are merely a few examples of the symbolism related to death in Mayan culture.
In many cultures, grave goods are a significant part of the mortuary practices. Whether the goods symbolize some sort of spiritual strength or they are just there for support for the dead in their afterlife, they remain a huge part of the archaeological record. These grave goods provide insight into the beliefs and customs of the once thriving society, which is the major reason why archaeologists spend so much time and money testing these materials. For the Maya culture in particular, through the study of their artifacts, archaeologists have concluded that they focus on the themes of wealth, water, maize, and centrality (Fields 1991). But the actual symbol found that represents these themes in death were jade. According to Taube, “Jade is often related to rulership and authority”. Jade also held more of a significance in terms of death because it was passed down in generations, but later used to communicate amongst ancestors (Taube 2005). Also it can be hypothesized that because jade was such a durable material of Mesoamerica but also such a precious stone, its presence in grave goods could demonstrate some sort of social standing. But overall as a death symbol, “jade was esteemed for its beauty and preciousness and as a rarefied embodiment of life essence…also as a physical manifestation of the breath spirit” (Taube 2005).
Cacao was an important beverage, a form of currency, and even a symbol of transitions (including, birth, death, and marriage) in Classical Mayan culture. Specifically, cacao played a role in the rebirth of several deities and mythical beings, as well as the Mayan creation story (Grofe, 2007). It was also ritual to for family members of the deceased to drink cacao during funerary rituals – archeologists know this because drinking vessels have been found in tombs (Prufer and Hurst, 2007).
No analysis of mortuary archaeology is complete without an inspection of the deities associated with death in the Mayan world. That being said, it is important to note that varying researchers and archaeologists have discovered countless examples of gods that deal with death, not all of which are interchangeable. Many of the references to Mayan death deities come from glyphs located on structures or in codices, and translations are not always perfect (Thompson 1958: 297). Gunckle (1897) discovered glyphs relating to two separate gods of death, neither of which were given proper names. Deity XI and Deity XVII were both associated with glyphs inscribed on structures in Palenque, Copan, and Chichen Itza; with the former being linked to God A (a purposed death god) and the latter being symbolically tied to maggots, and thus death (Gunckle 1897: 407, 409). In the Maya Dresden and Madrid Codices, Thompson (1958: 299) relates glyphs of the moon goddess, Ixchel, with a god of death named Yum Cimil. The Maya Dresden and Madrid Codices were considered divinatory almanacs and the references to Yum Cimil were interpreted as relating to potential future deaths (299). Ah Puch is yet another deity related to death who is also known as Hunhau or Hunahau. Often represented with the head of an owl and either a skeleton or bloated corpse for a body, there are disagreements as to whether Ah Puch is the same as God A (Lindeman 1997). The references to many different death deities, with very little overlap, weaves a complicated picture regarding death and religion.
The word “cham” was not the primary word for death in most Mayan languages, but it was often associated with mortuary practices. It could also be used as a word for any other change of state, implying a sense of passing or transition (Fitzsimmons, 26). This idea of death morphed into a tangible symbol, the death cham or death eye, during the classical period. The death cham evoked symbolism of the breath escaping the body through the nostrils at the time of death (Fitzsimmons, 26). The fact that breath escaped from the nostrils is thought to be eluding to flowers, and the fact that the soul is a breath of sweet air, rather than the stench of death and decay. Upon death, a person was thought to ‘exhale the perfume of the soul’ (Fitzsimmons, 27).
When studying ancient civilizations, it is impossible to fully reconstruct cultural identity, beliefs, and practices. However, through the practice of symbology, anthropologists and archeologists can attempt to partially understand complex beliefs and rituals of the time period. Without symbols, our knowledge of the past would be significantly limited. From jade, to cacao, to images of deities, the Mayans left their cultural mark through an elaborate array of death symbology—what traces will our civilization leave behind?
Fields, Virginia. “Sixth Palenque Round Table.” The Iconographic Heritage of the Maya Jester God. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1991. 167-74. Print.
Fitzsimmons, James L. Death and the Classic Maya Kings. 2009. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Frufer, Keith M. and Jurst, W. Chocolate in the Underworld Space of Death: Cacao Seeds from an Early Classic Mortuary Cave. Eurohistory. 54.2 (2007): 273-301. Web.
Gunckel, Lewis. “Analysis of the Deities of Mayan Inscriptions”. American Anthropologist. Vol. 10, No. 12 (Dec., 1897).
Grofe, Michael. The Recipe for Rebirth: Cacao as Fish in the Mythology and Symbolism of the Ancient Maya. 2007.
Lindemans, Micha. “Ah Puch.” Encyclopedia Mythica from Encyclopedia Mythica Online. March 3, 1997. <http://www.pantheon.org/articles/a/ah_puch.html>
Mach, Zdzisław. Symbols, Conflict, and Identity: Essays in Political Anthropology. Albany: State University of New York, 1993. Print.
Taube, Karl A. “Ancient Mesoamerica.” Cambridge Journal 16.1 (2005).
Thompson, Eric. “Symbols, Glyphs, and Divinatory Almanacs for Diseases in the Maya Dresden and Madrid Codices. American Antiquity. Vol. 23, No, 3 (Jan., 1958).