Human sacrifice in Maya culture

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Sculpture in the Great Ballcourt at Chichen Itza depicting sacrifice by decapitation. The figure at left holds the severed head of the figure at right, who spouts blood in the form of serpents from his neck

During the pre-Columbian era, human sacrifice in Maya culture was the ritual offering of nourishment to the gods. Blood was viewed as a potent source of nourishment for the Maya deities, and the sacrifice of a living creature was a powerful blood offering. By extension, the sacrifice of a human life was the ultimate offering of blood to the gods, and the most important Maya rituals culminated in human sacrifice. Generally only high status prisoners of war were sacrificed, with lower status captives being used for labour.[1]

Human sacrifice among the Maya is evident from at least the Classic period (c. AD 250-900) right through to the final stages of the Spanish conquest in the 17th century. Human sacrifice is depicted in Classic Maya art, is mentioned in Classic period hieroglyphic texts and has been verified archaeologically by analysis of skeletal remains from the Classic and Postclassic (c. AD 900-1524) periods. Additionally, human sacrifice is described in a number of late Maya and early Spanish colonial texts, including the Madrid Codex, the K'iche' epic Popol Vuh, the K'iche' Título de Totonicapán, the K'iche' language Rabinal Achi, the Annals of the Kaqchikels, the Yucatec Songs of Dzitbalche and Diego de Landa's Relación de las cosas de Yucatán.

A number of methods were employed by the Maya, the most commonly used were decapitation and heart extraction. Additional forms of sacrifice included ritually shooting the victim with arrows, hurling sacrifices into a deep sinkhole, entombing alive to accompany a noble burial, tying the sacrifice into a ball for a ritual reenactment of the Mesoamerican ballgame and disembowelment.

Methods[edit]

A variety of methods were used by the ancient Maya to perform human sacrifice:

Decapitation[edit]

Human sacrifice was relatively rare in Maya culture but important rituals such as the dedication of major building projects or the enthronement of a new ruler required a human offering. The sacrifice of an enemy king was the most prized offering, and such a sacrifice involved decapitation of the captive ruler in a ritual reenactment of the decapitation of the Maya maize god by the Maya death gods.[1] In AD 738, the vassal king K'ak' Tiliw Chan Yopaat of Quiriguá captured his overlord, Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil of Copán and a few days later he ritually decapitated him;[2] such royal sacrifices were often recorded in Maya script with the "ax event" glyph. The decapitation of an enemy king may have been performed as part of a ritual ballgame reenacting the victory of the Maya Hero Twins over the gods of the underworld.[1]

Sacrifice by decapitation is depicted in Classic period Maya art, and sometimes took place after the victim was tortured, being variously beaten, scalped, burnt or disembowelled.[3] Sacrifice by decapitation is depicted on reliefs at Chichen Itza in two of the ballcourts (the Great Ballcourt and the Monjas Ballcourt).[4] The Hero Twins myth recounted in the Popol Vuh relates how one of each pair of twins (the Hero Twins themselves and their father and uncle) was decapitated by their ballgame opponents.[5]

Heart removal[edit]

During the Postclassic period (c. 900-1524) the most common form of human sacrifice was heart extraction, influenced by the method used by the Aztecs in the Valley of Mexico;[1] this usually took place in the courtyard of a temple, or upon the summit of the pyramid-temple.[6] The sacrifice was stripped and painted blue, which was the colour representing sacrifice, and was made to wear a peaked headdress. Four blue-painted attendants representing the four Chaacs of the cardinal directions stretched the sacrifice out over a convex stone that pushed the victim's chest upwards;[7] An official referred to as a nacom in Landa's Relación de las cosas de Yucatán used a sacrificial knife made from flint to cut into the ribs just below the victim's left breast and pull out the still-beating heart.[8] The nacom then passed the heart to the officiating priest, or chilan, who smeared blood upon the image of the temple's deity. Depending upon the exact ritual, sometimes the four Chaacs would throw the corpse down the pyramid steps to the courtyard below where it would be skinned by assistant priests, except for the hands and feet. The chilan would then remove his ritual attire and dress himself in the skin of the sacrificial victim before performing a ritual dance that symbolised the rebirth of life. If it was a notably courageous warrior who had been sacrificed then the corpse would be cut into portions, and parts would be eaten by attending warriors and other bystanders. The hands and feet were given to the chilan who, if they had belonged to a war captive, wore the bones as a trophy.[6] Achaeological investigations indicate that heart sacrifice was practised as early as the Classic period.[9]

Arrow sacrifice[edit]

Some rituals involved the sacrifice being killed with bow and arrows. The sacrificial victim was stripped and painted blue and made to wear a peaked cap, in a similar manner to the preparation for heart sacrifice. The victim was bound to a stake during a ritual dance, and blood was drawn from the genitals and smeared onto the image of the presiding deity. A white symbol was painted over the victim's heart, which served as a target for the archers. The dancers then passed in front of the sacrificial victim, shooting arrows in turn at the target until the whole chest was filled with arrows. Sacrifice with bow and arrow is recorded as far back as the Classic Period (c. 250-900), and was depicted with graffiti upon the walls of Tikal Temple II.[6] The Songs of Dzitbalche are a collection of Yucatec Maya poems written down in the mid-18th century; two poems deal with arrow sacrifice and they are believed to be copies of poems dating to the 15th century, during the Postclassic period.[10] The first, called Little Arrow, is a song calling upon the sacrifice to be brave and take comfort.[11] The second is entitled Dance of the Archer and is a ritual dedicated to the rising sun; it includes instructions to the archer; the archer is instructed upon how to prepare his arrows and to dance three times around the sacrifice. The archer is instructed not to shoot until the second circuit, and to be careful to make sure that the sacrifice dies slowly. On the third circuit, whilst still dancing, the archer is instructed to shoot twice.[12] A similar scene is described in the Annals of the Kaqchikels, where an important prisoner is bound to a scaffold; the Kaqchikel warriors begin a ritual "blood dance" and proceed to shoot him full of arrows.[13] In the Late Postclassic K'iche' language drama Rabinal Achi, an important war captive is tied to a stake representing the mythological Maize Tree and is sacrificed by being shot with arrows; the text compares the archers to hunters and the sacrifice to game.[14]

Other methods[edit]

Late Classic graffiti from a structure buried under Group G in Tikal depicts a sacrifice bound to a stake with his hands tied behind his head; the victim was disembowelled.[15] At the Classic period city of Palenque, a woman in her twenties was entombed alive to accompany a deceased nobleman as a funerary offering.[16]

At the Sacred Cenote in Chichen Itza, humans were hurled into the cenote during times of drought, famine or disease. The Sacred Cenote is a naturally occurring sinkhole eroded from the local limestone; it is approximately 50 metres (160 ft) wide and drops 20 metres (66 ft) to the water surface, with the water another 20 metres (66 ft) deep. The sides of the cenote are sheer. Human sacrifice was practised right up until the Spanish conquest of Yucatán, well after the decline of the city.[15]

At times sacrifices were tightly bound into a ball and were bounced in a ritual reenactment of the ballgame.[16]

History[edit]

Classic period Maya vessel with a scene of human sacrifice

Classic period (250-900)[edit]

Human sacrifice is depicted in Late Classic artwork and sometimes involved torture; sacrifice was generally via decapitation. At times the sacrificial victim was dressed as a deer. The intended sacrifice may have been publicly displayed and paraded before the act of sacrifice itself. Images of human sacrifice were often sculpted into the steps of Maya architecture and such stairways may have been the site of periodic sacrifice.[3] Ritual decapitation is well attested from Maya hieroglyphic texts throughout the Classic period.[17] Evidence of mass sacrifice during the Classic period has not been recovered archaeologically.[18] Archaeological excavations at a number of sites, including Palenque, Calakmul and Becan, have uncovered skeletons that bear marks to the vertebrae and ribs consistent with heart extraction at the time of death using a long-bladed flint knife.[19] During the Classic period, the sacrifice of companions to accompany high-ranking burials is likely to have been widespread and performed using the heart extraction method, leaving little evidence on skeletal remains. Analysis of those remains that do bear marks suggestive of heart sacrifice indicates that during the Classic period the Maya used a method involving cutting across the diaphragm immediately below the ribcage and cutting the heart free.[20]

Postclassic period (900-1524)[edit]

A Postclassic mass burial in Champotón in Campeche, Mexico, included skeletons bearing evidence of violent blows to the sternum that have been interpreted as evidence of heart sacrifice.[21] The Madrid Codex, a Postclassic hieroglyphic Maya book, has an illustration of sacrifice by heart extraction, with the victim stretched over an arched stone.[22]

Among the K'iche' of highland Guatemala, human sacrifice was performed to the K'iche' gods. Writing at the end of the 17th century, Francisco Ximénez described the tradition that upon the temple of Tohil, human sacrifices were tied before the representation of the deity, where the priest would open the victim's chest and cut out his heart.[23] After sacrifice, the victim's body was probably hurled down the front stairway of the temple where his head would be severed to be placed on a skull rack that was located in front of the temple.[24] In the K'iche' epic Popol Vuh, the god Tohil demands his right to suckle from his people, as an infant to its mother, but Tohil suckled upon human blood from the chest of the sacrificial victim.[25] The Popol Vuh also describes how the Hero Twin Hunahpu was sacrificed with both the removal of his heart and his head.[5] Human sacrifice was probably also performed to the K'iche' mountain god Jacawitz.[26] Human sacrifice is also mentioned in the K'iche' document Título de Totonicapán ("Title of Totonicapán"). A long passage describing human sacrifice is difficult to interpret but features heart and arrow sacrifice, the flaying of the victim and wearing of his skin in a manner similar to the Aztec rituals associated with their god Xipe Totec, and mention of the sacrificial knife of Tohil.[27]

A section of page 76 of the Madrid Codex, depicting sacrifice by heart extraction

The Kaqchikel Maya, neighbours of the K'iche', also practised human sacrifice. Ample evidence of human sacrifice has been excavated at Iximche, their capital. Human sacrifice is evidenced at the site by the altar upon Structure 2, of a type used in heart sacrifice, and by a cylindrical cache of skulls taken from decapitated victims accompanied by obsidian knives.[28] A pentatonic flute crafted from a child's femur was recovered from one of the temples and is also indicative of human sacrifice.[29] A sacrificial flint knife was also recovered from Structure 3,[28] and a circular altar at the site is very similar to those used for so-called "gladiatorial sacrifice" by the Aztecs and it may have served this purpose.[30] The Annals of the Kaqchikels record that around 1491 the rulers of Iximche captured the rulers of the K'iche', as well as the image of Tohil. The captured king and his co-ruler were sacrificed together with the son and grandson of the king, other noblemen and high-ranking warriors.[31] The same text describes how the Kaqchikel captured a powerful lord, called Tolk'om, who was tied to a scaffold and was shot with arrows during a ritual dance.[13]

Human sacrifice during the Spanish conquest (1511-1697)[edit]

In 1511 the Spanish caravel Santa María de la Barca set sail along the Central American coast to Santo Domingo from Darien under the command of Pedro de Valdivia.[32] The ship was wrecked upon a reef somewhere off Jamaica.[32] There were just twenty survivors from the wreck, including Captain Valdivia, Gerónimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero.[33] The survivors set themselves adrift in one of the ship's boats, with bad oars and no sail; after thirteen days during which half of the survivors died, they made landfall upon the coast of Yucatán.[32] There they were seized by the Maya Lord Halach Uinik. Captain Vildivia was sacrificed with four of his companions, and their flesh was served at a feast. The other prisoners were fattened for killing, although Aguilar and Guerrero managed to escape.[34]

After the disastrous Spanish-led assault on Uspantán in 1529, captives taken by the Uspanteks were sacrificed to Exbalamquen, one of the Hero Twins.[35] In 1555 the Acala and their Lacandon allies killed the Spanish friar Domingo de Vico.[36] De Vico, who had established a small missionary church in San Marcos (in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala), had offended a local Maya ruler;[37] the indigenous leader shot the friar through the throat with an arrow; the angry natives then sacrificed him by cutting open his chest and extracting his heart. His corpse was then decapitated;[38] the natives carried off his head as a trophy, which was never recovered by the Spanish.[39] In the early 1620s a Spanish party received permission to visit the still independent Itza capital at Nojpetén, headed by friar Diego Delgado who was accompanied by 13 Spanish soldiers and 80 Christianised Maya guides from Tipu, now in Belize. The party was seized when they arrived at Nojpetén and were sacrificed with their hearts cut out, they were then decapitated and their heads displayed on stakes around the city; Delgado was dismembered.[40] The main Spanish party was ambushed at Sakalum in January 1624 and slaughtered; the Spanish Captain Francisco de Mirones was sacrificed using the heart extraction method.[41] A number of Spanish missionaries were sacrificed at Nojpetén. In February 1696 Franciscan friar Juan de San Buenaventura and an unspecified Franciscan companion were taken to Nojpetén during a skirmish between the Yucatec Spanish and the Itza on the west shore of Lake Petén Itzá. The Itza high priest AjKin Kan Ek' later related that he had the Franciscans bound in the form of crosses and that he then cut out their hearts.[42] About a month later a Guatemalan Spanish expedition was ambushed and slaughtered; Dominican friars Cristóbal de Prada and Jacinto de Vargas were taken across to the island of Nojpetén and were similarly bound to X-shaped crosses before having their hearts cut out.[43]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d Sharer and Traxler 2006, p. 751.
  2. ^ Miller 1999, pp.134–35. Looper 2003, p.76.
  3. ^ a b Miller and Taube 1993, 2003, p. 96.
  4. ^ Gillespie 1991, pp. 321-322.
  5. ^ a b Gillespie 1991, pp. 322-323.
  6. ^ a b c Sharer and Traxler 2006, p. 752.
  7. ^ Sharer and Traxler 2006, p. 752. Read and González 2000, p. 139.
  8. ^ Sharer and Traxler 2006, p. 752. Wild 2008, p. 46.
  9. ^ Tiesler and Cucina 2006, p. 493.
  10. ^ Edmonson 1982, p. 173.
  11. ^ Edmonson 1982, pp. 201-202.
  12. ^ Edmonson 1982, pp. 205-206.
  13. ^ a b Akkeren 1999, p. 283.
  14. ^ Akkeren 1999, p. 281.
  15. ^ a b Sharer and Traxler 2006, p. 753.
  16. ^ a b Miller and Taube 1993, 2003, p. 97.
  17. ^ Schele and Freidel 1991, pp. 311-312n6.
  18. ^ Miller and Taube 1993, 2003, pp. 96-97.
  19. ^ Tiesler and Cucina 2006, pp. 493, 501, 503.
  20. ^ Tiesler and Cucina 2006, p. 506.
  21. ^ Tiesler and Cucina 2006, p. 495.
  22. ^ Vail et al December 2003, p. S108.
  23. ^ Carmack 2001, pp.356-357.
  24. ^ Carmack 2001, p.360.
  25. ^ Miller and Taube 1993, 2003, p. 170.
  26. ^ Carmack 2001, pp. 369-370.
  27. ^ Akkeren 1999, pp. 284-285.
  28. ^ a b Guillemin 1965, p. 30.
  29. ^ Guillemín 1965, p.31.
  30. ^ Guillemín 1965, p.32.
  31. ^ Schele and Mathews 1998, 1999, pp. 295, 297.
  32. ^ a b c de Díos González 2008, p. 25. Gómez Martín June 2013, p. 56.
  33. ^ de Díos González 2008, pp. 25-26.
  34. ^ de Díos González 2008, p. 26.
  35. ^ Lovell 2005, p. 65.
  36. ^ Caso Barrera and Aliphat 2007, p. 53.
  37. ^ Salazar 1620 2000, pp. 38, 52. ITMB 1998.
  38. ^ Salazar 1620, 2000, p.39.
  39. ^ Salazar 1620, 2000, p.35.
  40. ^ Sharer and Traxler 2006, p. 774. Means 1917, pp. 79-81. Jones 1998, pp. 47–48.
  41. ^ Sharer and Traxler 2006, p. 774. Jones 1998, p. 48.
  42. ^ Jones 1998, pp. 227-228, 303.
  43. ^ Jones 1998, pp. 233, 479n59.

References[edit]

Akkeren, Ruud van (July 1999). "Sacrifice at the Maize Tree: Rab'inal Achi in its historical and symbolic context". Ancient Mesoamerica (New York, USA: Cambridge University Press) 10 (2): 281–295. doi:10.1017/s0956536199102104. ISSN 0956-5361. OCLC 364022517.  (subscription required)
Carmack, Robert M. (2001). Kik'ulmatajem le K'iche'aab': Evolución del Reino K'iche' [Evolution of the K'iche' Kingdom]. Guatemala: Iximulew. ISBN 99922-56-22-2. OCLC 253481949.  (Spanish)
Caso Barrera, Laura; and Mario Aliphat (2007). "Relaciones de Verapaz y las Tierras Bajas Mayas Centrales en el siglo XVII" (PDF). XX Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, 2006 (edited by J.P. Laporte, B. Arroyo and H. Mejía) (Guatemala City, Guatemala: Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología): 48–58. Retrieved 2013-04-24.  (Spanish)
de Dios González, Juan (2008). "Gonzalo Guerrero, primer mexicano por voluntad propia" [Gonzalo Guerrero, First Mexican by his Own Free Will]. Inventio: la génesis de la cultura universitaria en Morelos (Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico: Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Morelos) (4): 23–26. OCLC 613144193. Retrieved 2013-12-17.  (Spanish)
Edmonson, Munro S. (1982). "The Songs of Dzitbalche: A Literary Commentary". Tlalocan 9: pp.173–208. ISSN 0185-0989. Retrieved 2013-03-31. 
Gillespie, Susan D. (1991). "Ballgames and Boundaries". In Vernon Scarborough and David R. Wilcox (eds.). The Mesoamerican Ballgame. Tucson, Arizona, USA: University of Arizona Press. pp. 317–345. ISBN 0-8165-1360-0. OCLC 51873028. 
Gómez Martín, Jorge Angel (June 2013). "El Descubrimiento del Yucatán". Revista de Estudios Colombinos (Tordesillas, Valladolid, Spain: Seminario Iberoamericano de Descubrimientos y Cartografía) (9): 53–60. ISSN 1699-3926. OCLC 436472699. Retrieved 2013-12-17.  (Spanish)
Guillemín, Jorge F. (1965). Iximché: Capital del Antiguo Reino Cakchiquel [Iximche: Capital of the former Kaqchikel Kingdom]. Guatemala: Tipografía Nacional de Guatemala.  (Spanish)
ITMB Publishing Ltd. (1998). Guatemala (Map). 1:500000. International Travel Maps (3rd ed.). ISBN 0-921463-64-2. OCLC 421536238.
Jones, Grant D. (1998). The Conquest of the Last Maya Kingdom. Stanford, California, USA: Stanford University Press. ISBN 9780804735223. OCLC 9780804735223. 
Looper, Matthew G. (2003). Lightning Warrior: Maya Art and Kingship at Quirigua. Linda Schele series in Maya and pre-Columbian studies. Austin, Texas, USA: University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-70556-5. OCLC 52208614. 
Lovell, W. George (2005). Conquest and Survival in Colonial Guatemala: A Historical Geography of the Cuchumatán Highlands, 1500–1821 (3rd ed.). Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 0-7735-2741-9. OCLC 58051691. 
Means, Philip Ainsworth (1917). History of the Spanish Conquest of Yucatan and of the Itzas. Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University VII. Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. OCLC 681599. 
Miller, Mary Ellen (1999). Maya Art and Architecture. London, UK and New York, USA: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-20327-X. OCLC 41659173. 
Miller, Mary; and Karl Taube (1993, 2003). An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-27928-4. OCLC 28801551. 
Read, Kay Almere; and Jason González (2000). Handbook of Mesoamerican Mythology. Oxford, UK: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 1-85109-340-0. OCLC 43879188. 
Salazar, Gabriel (1620, 2000). "Geography of the Lowlands: Gabriel Salazar, 1620". In Lawrence H. Feldman. Lost Shores, Forgotten Peoples: Spanish Explorations of the South East Maya Lowlands. Durham, North Carolina, US: Duke University Press. pp. 21–54. ISBN 0-8223-2624-8. OCLC 254438823. 
Schele, Linda; and David Freidel (1991). "The Courts of Creation: Ballcourts, Ballgames, and the Portals to the Maya Otherworld". In Vernon Scarborough and David R. Wilcox (eds.). The Mesoamerican Ballgame. Tucson, Arizona, USA: University of Arizona Press. pp. 289–315. ISBN 0-8165-1360-0. OCLC 51873028. 
Schele, Linda; and Peter Mathews (1999). The Code of Kings: The language of seven Maya temples and tombs. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-684-85209-6. OCLC 41423034. 
Sharer, Robert J.; with Loa P. Traxler (2006). The Ancient Maya (6th (fully revised) ed.). Stanford, California, USA: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-4817-9. OCLC 57577446. 
Tiesler, Vera; and Andrea Cucina (December 2006). "Procedures in Human Heart Extraction and Ritual Meaning: A Taphonomic Assessment of Anthropogenic Marks in Classic Maya Skeletons". Latin American Antiquity (Society for American Archaeology) 17 (4): 493–510. JSTOR 25063069.  (subscription required)
Vail, Gabrielle Vail; Victoria R. Bricker, Anthony F. Aveni, Harvey M. Bricker, John F. Chuchiak, Christine L. Hernández, Bryan R. Just, Martha J. Macri, and Merideth Paxton (December 2003). "New Perspectives on the Madrid Codex". Current Anthropology (Chicago, Illinois, USA: University of Chicago Press). 44 (supplement) (S5 Special Issue Multiple Methodologies in Anthropological Research): S105–S111. doi:10.1086/379270. OCLC 820604805.  (subscription required)
Wild, Paul H. (Winter 2008). "William S. Burroughs and the Maya Gods of Death: The Uses of Archaeology". College Literature (West Chester, Pennsylvania, USA: West Chester University) 35 (1): 38–57. doi:10.1353/lit.2008.0009. ISSN 0093-3139. JSTOR 25115477. OCLC 4638208566. Retrieved 2013-03-29.  (subscription required)

Further reading[edit]

Graulich,Michel. "El sacrificio humano en Mesoamérica" [Human sacrifice in Mesoamerica]. Arqueología mexicana (Mexico City, Mexico: Editorial Raíces) XI (63): 16–21. ISSN 0188-8218. OCLC 29789840. Archived from the original on 2010-03-14.  (Spanish)
López Luján, Leonardo; Guilhem Olivier, Alfonso de María y Campos and Alicia Mayer (2010). El sacrificio humano en la tradición religiosa mesoamericana [Human sacrifice in the Mesoamerican religious tradition]. Mexico City, Mexico: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) and Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas. ISBN 978-607-484-076-6. OCLC 667990552.  (Spanish)
Moser, Christopher L. (1973). Human Decapitation in Ancient Mesoamerica. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology 11. Dumbarton Oaks: Trustees for Harvard University. JSTOR 41263421. OCLC 940436.  (subscription required)
Tiesler, Vera; and Andrea Cucina (2007). New Perspectives on Human Sacrifice and Ritual Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society (Kindle). Interdisciplinary Contributions to Archaeology. New York, US: Springer. ISBN 978-0-387-09524-0e. ISSN 1568-2722. OCLC 755866469. 
Vail, Gabrielle; and Christine Hernández (2007). "Human Sacrifice in Late Postclassic Maya Iconography and Texts". In Vera Tiesler and Andrea Cucina. New Perspectives on Human Sacrifice and Ritual Body Treatment in Ancient Maya Society. Springer. pp. 120–164. ISBN 9780387488714.