Life and Death in
The term Mesoamerica (lit. “Middle America”), was introduced by anthropologist Paul Kirchhoff in 1943 to define a huge geographic and cultural area that included the central and southern portion of Mexico, all of Guatemala, Belize and part of El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Mesoamerica is home to many different cultures that flourished here before and after the contact with European people.
Some of the cultural traits that define Mesoamerica as a culture area are the presence of specific linguistic groups (Uto-Aztecan, Otomanguean, Totonac, Mixe-Zoquean, Mayan, Tarascan, Huave), specific agricultural techniques and crops, pictographic and hieroglyphic writing systems, combination of a solar and ritual calendar, communal important deities, human sacrifices and auto-sacrifices via bloodletting, and long-distance trade of items.
The civilizations of Mesoamerica, while individualistic in many ways, all featured religious and cultural practices that enforced a cycle of life, death, and rebirth. These practices mimicked the lifecycle of maize, which was not only a food staple but also a plant of ideological and spiritual significance. The world was envisioned as a maize field, and it was widely believed that the gods created humans partly from maize. Both the Maya and the Olmec worshipped maize deities who were high ranking within the pantheon of gods. Due to the importance of cyclical life, Mesoamerican art frequently depicts symbols of death as well as fertility objects meant to convey life and renewal.
Skulls and the Ballgame
Skeletons and skulls appear regularly in Mesoamerican sculpture, both as freestanding statues and carved in bas- relief on walls or altars. Mayan depictions of skulls appear often as architectural decoration, as can be seen at the Copan Ruins in Honduras and the Temple of Pacal Votan at Palenque. The Mixtec occasionally crafted skulls out of gold, but these retain human features including eyes, noses, and ears. The majority of Aztec and Toltec versions were carved from stone (usually basalt), which were subsequently covered with stucco and painted. Many of these carvings reference gods, several of whom were depicted as skeletal creatures, including the Aztec god of the dead, Mictlantecuhtli, as well as Xolotl, the Aztec god of lightning and death and patron of the ballgame. For the Aztecs, skeletal imagery was not considered an omen of death but rather a symbol of abundance that reflected the cyclical nature of both maize and human life.
Because of the close association between skulls and the life cycle, they oftentimes appear in connection to the ballgame. Ball courts appear in Mesoamerican civilizations as early as 1400 BCE, so the game is at least this old. Played on a flat surface, the game consisted of teams of players striking a rubber ball through either an “end zone” or through a stone ring set high up on the sidewalls of the court. While the ballgame could be played for purely recreational purposes, the court itself was seen as a liminal plane that connected the earth with the underworld. Accordingly, some games took on great cosmological significance and others involved the human sacrifice. Decapitation is the form of sacrifice most closely associated with the ballgame, and therefore severed heads appear both in architectural decoration as well as protective emblems thought to have been worn by the players. Stone versions of these protective skulls have been found in tombs, including the limestone Mayan skull now in the Museum of Toronto, Canada. This would have enabled the deceased to continue playing the game in the underworld alongside the gods, underlying the ability of the ballgame to encapsulate and transcend life and death.
The Mesoamerican Ballgame: http://sievertapworld.wiki.farmington.k12.mi.us/wikiprojects+mesoamericanballgame
Lost king of the Maya, ballgame, life and death (54 min. long): “In an ancient Mayan arena, enemies of notorious King Yax KÕuk Mo square off in a ball game that appears much like modern soccer. But in this fateful contest, winners live and losers lose their heads.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CeVI-tzku6k
Chichen Itza, National Geographic (3:29 min. long): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyvw6G9Max0
Ballgame, ESPN, (1:10 min. long): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGUgq3gqii4
Multimedia presentation about the Pok ta Pok, the ancient Mayan Ball Game, Spanish language ballgame video, (1:58 min. long): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QswvSOjmueU&feature=fvsr
Fertility and the Cycle of Life and Death
Renewal was an intrinsic part of the life cycle within Mesoamerican culture. Symbols of fertility, including representations of pregnant woman and the bloodletting ritual, were created by Mesoamericans as a way to showcase the cyclical nature of life within their cultures. Blood was considered the mortar of Mesoamerican civilization, and ritual offerings of it appeased the gods and protected the inhabitants of the vast kingdoms. Mayan bloodletting was usually performed by nobles through the perforation of body parts; mainly tongue, lips, and genitals. Both men and women practiced these types of sacrifices.
Mayan royalty not only performed ritual bloodletting, but also endured fasting and ritual enemas in order to induce a trance-like state and create supernatural visions that would allow them to communicate with ancestors or gods. These rituals were usually performed on important dates and state events including the beginning or end of calendar cycles, the ascension of a new king, at building dedications, and to mark important life stages of kings and queens. Blood could also be required of a king if drought or flooding threated the seasonal planting or harvesting of corn.
Piercing of body parts during bloodletting rituals involved the use of sharp objects such as blades carved of obsidian, stingray spines, carved bones, and ropes embedded with thorns. Blood was then collected onto bark paper placed within baskets or ceramic containers. The blood-soaked paper was then set on fire, creating smoke from which a vision serpent would arise and release the head of an ancestor or a god who would impart their wisdom to the king. Bloodletting rituals were typically carried out in isolated temple rooms on the top of pyramids, but community ceremonies were planned to coincide with these rites. These public ceremonies demonstrated the ability of the sovereign to communicate with the gods.
Evidence of bloodletting rituals comes primarily from scenes depicting royal figures on carved monuments and painted pots. Stone sculptures and paintings from Maya sites including Palenque, Yaxchilan, and Uaxactun, offer dramatic examples of these practices. In a series of three door lintels from the Yaxchilan site, a royal woman, Lady Xook, is portrayed performing bloodletting by piercing her tongue with a knotted rope to gain a serpent vision during the throne accession ceremony of her husband.
Because of this emphasis on the power of blood, Mesoamerican fertility statues often take the form of a heavily pregnant woman or a woman giving birth. The blood released during birth, as well as the physical act of labor, would have made these figures powerful representations of life beginning anew because of blood offerings to the earth. Again, this mimics the annual growth of maize ensured through the ritual offerings of royal blood.
Fertility statues were also made out of jade, a highly symbolic material in many Mesoamerican cultures. Known as the “blood of the gods”, this luminous green stone was important because the color mimicked that of new maize, which is green while still within the husk. Accordingly, jade (as well as jadeite) became symbolic of new life and was used to create not only fertility statues but also ear spools and necklace beads. In the Mayan culture, jade’s precious nature made it indicative of royal authority and a much more highly valued material than gold or silver, which were called the “excrement of the gods”.