Women in Maya society

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Ancient Maya women had an important role in society: beyond propagating the culture through the bearing and raising of children, Maya women participated in economic, governmental and farming activities. The lives of women in ancient Mesoamerica were not well documented: "of the three elite founding area tombs discovered to date within the Copan Acropolis, two contain the remains of women, and yet there is not a single reference to a woman in either known contemporary texts or later retrospective accounts of Early Classic events and personages at Copan," writes a scholar.[1]

Women play a very important role in rituals, cooking food for consumption and sacrifice. Whether women participated in said rituals is unknown. Women also worked on all of the textiles, a very important resource and product for Maya society.

The status of women in Maya society can be inferred from their burials and textual and monumental history. Maya societies include Toniná, a city which developed a matrilineal system of hereditary descent after the reign and death of the powerful leader, Lady K’awil. She had assumed the mantle of power after the failure of the two male leaders.[2] Lady K'awil's reign is documented by murals that depict her seated on a throne with captives at her feet.


Statue of Ixchel in Teotihuacán

Women participated in the food economy. Deer played an essential part of the Mesoamerican diet; most of the meat consumed by the ancient Maya was venison. Society depended on deer meat, and women played a large role in making sure there was an abundant supply of deer. Evidence shows that deer sometimes lived inside households. While it was the man’s responsibility to hunt and kill deer, it was necessary for the women to make sure there would be enough deer to kill.


The importance of the Moon goddess is seen through her depiction in the codices and in ancient murals. Another often depicted goddess is Ixchel. Textiles were an important aspect of ancient Mayan life, and while it is not known whether all women produced textiles, those textiles that were produced were created by women. Women used different objects in the spinning and weaving processes depending on their social class. Noble women could use dye in textiles. Also, the products that were used in the spinning were different; the noble women used higher quality fibers.[citation needed] Craft and fiber evidence from the city of Ceren, which was buried by volcanic ash in 600 C.E., indicates that by that time, women's textile work was considered art, not simply crafts woven for a specific household purpose. The creation of the works of art suggests there was a market for them. Women held power in their ability to work thread and to create something that retained a value.

Women's Roles in Ritual[edit]

The social, economic, and political rank of ancient Maya women is a growing center of debate in the archaeology of gender. To date, lines of evidence are based chiefly on investigation of material culture (e.g. monumental sculpture and iconography, ceramic art), use of space (residential architecture and activity analysis and, to a lesser extent, mortuary data). The principle of complimentary, i.e. that men and women played separate, but equally important, roles in the function of society, is found in many studies that define an ideological basis for various expressions of female power, including complementary male/female pairing and gender combination. For example, in the iconography of Classic period public monuments in which elites are represented it can be argued that although women are seen as pieces or male histories in the texts of monuments depicting the lives of rules, the images on the same monuments de-emphasize sexual characteristics. Males and females are identifiable only by their clothing and decoration, which shows a ‘unified elite identity’, in which male/female pairs are dichotomous. Grave goods, inscriptions, and texts also provide evidence of complimentary via the authority elite women gave to ruling lineages often through marriage alliance outside their natal homelands.

Food is both macronutrients and metaphor, its literal and organic character can be transformed by cultural means and imbued with ideological meaning; such that nature becomes integrated with nurture. The process of producing, preparing, cooking, distributing, and consuming food involve cultural practiced and rules governing them to differentiate individuals and groups. In this instance, the differentiation is between genders and socio-economic classes. Ethnohistoric and archeological evidence indicates that the production and distribution of food was an important source of agency and power for ancient Maya women. Although it is believed that elite women controlled food used in rituals, isotopic measures of diet from a variety of sites representing different environments and time periods indicate that they ate fewer ideologically valued food than males. By contrast, non-elite women appear to have consumed the same food as their male equivalents. This finding may suggest that: women did not participate in ritual consumption of food in the same way or to the same extent that men did; or that food consumption was associated with gender identity. Preferential access to ritual food by males ceases after the Spanish conquest but males continued to have more carnivorous diets. This phenomenon could be caused by the conversion of public rituals to private or the assimilation of Spanish gender values, or underlying ideology that is maintained in gender dietary differences. Virtually all rituals involved feasting and women were in charge of the preparation of food and drink used as offering and for consumption, as well as providing offering of cloth (see below). Feast and rituals were visible and significant means used by competing Maya elites to demonstrate their status. Whether or not women were active participants does not belie the social, symbolic and political meaning of their contribution [3]

In addition to the ideological basis for high female’s status, women exercised agency through their labor during the historic period. The labor of women was very important, both socially and economically but their participation in public ritual was limited; because of the potential ethnocentric and geographic bias. There may have been temporal and/or regional differences in the degree of female participation in ritual. [4]

Gender roles[edit]

Men and women performed separate but equal tasks: "males produce[d] food by agricultural labor, but females process[ed] the products of the field to make them edible."[5] In addition to raising deer when necessary, women had religious responsibilities related to household rituals. Women held important daily roles in this aspect of life. While young boys were being taught hunting skills, "the girl was trained in the household, and she was taught how to keep the domestic religious shrines."[6]

Women were associated with the ritual practice of religion, as well as the beliefs themselves. The Moon Goddess is one of the most prominent gods in the Maya pantheon. Through her relations with the other gods, she produced the Maya population. The local rulers claimed descent from the Moon Goddess.

A Maya woman, souvenir maker

Gender in ancient Maya art is ambiguous; it is difficult to ascertain the gender of some figures simply because one couldn’t survive without the other[citation needed]. In some images of heir recognition, this duality is explicit: there is a male figure on one side of the newly-anointed, and a female figure on the other side.


The prevalence of females in rituals reflects the importance of women to Maya social structure during the Classic period (AD 250– AD 900). Women were the primary weavers of textiles, which formed a major part of any ancient Mesoamerican economy. Based on ethnohistory and iconography, the Maya were huge producers of material for both internal and external use. However, the archaeological classification of textile production is complicated in any tropical region because of issues of conservation.

Evidence for Textile Production at Caracol, Belize[edit]

The evidence for the production and distribution of cloth that is found in the pre-Columbian Maya area and a large contributing site of archaeological data relative to textiles from the ancient Maya is in the city of Caracol, Belize. Archaeology at Caracol has been carried out annually from 1985 to the present and has resulted in the collection of data that permits insight into the economic production and social distribution of cloth at the site. This is accomplished through examining the contexts and distributions of spindle whorls, bone needles, bone pins and hairpins, bone awls, and limestone bars. All of these artifacts can be related to weaving, netting, or cloth in some way.

Spindle whorls are the artifacts most clearly associated with textile production. At least 57 have been recovered at Caracol, 38 of them in 20 different burials. Several of these interments are of high-status women placed in the most important architectural constructions at the site. The contextual placement of these burials stresses not only the link between women and weaving, but also the high status associated with such an activity, thus signaling the importance of cloth and spinning in ancient Maya society.[7]

Child bearing[edit]

Bearing and rearing children was an integral part of society. The mythology and power associated with the ability to create life was one which men tried to emulate. Men participated in bloodletting their own genitals to create something new from their blood.[8] Instead of giving birth to life, they would give birth to new eras through the symbolic gesture of menstruation. This act was highly ritualized; the objects used to pierce the skin were "stingray spines, obsidian blades, or other sharp instruments."[8] The blood was allowed to drip on cloth, which was burned as part of the ritual.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bell, E. E. “Engendering a Dynasty: A Royal Woman in the Margarita Tomb, Copan,” In Ancient Maya Women, ed. Traci Ardren. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, 2002
  2. ^ Ayala Falcon, M. “Lady K’awil, Goddess O, and Maya Warfare," In Ancient Maya Women, ed. Traci Ardren. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, 2002
  3. ^ Robin, C. “Gender, farming, and long-term change: Maya Historical and Archaeological perspectives,” In Current Anthropology, Wenner-Gren, 2006
  4. ^ White, C. “Gendered Food Behavior among the Maya,” In Journal of Social Archaeology, Sage Journals, 2005
  5. ^ Josserand, J. K. Women in Classic Maya Hieroglyphic Texts.” Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, 2002.
  6. ^ Sigal, P. From Moon Goddesses to Virgins: The Colonization of Yucatecan Maya Sexual Desire. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.
  7. ^ Chase, A. and Chase, D. “Textiles and the Maya Archaeological Record,” In Ancient Mesoamerica, Cambridge University Press, 2008
  8. ^ a b Gustafson, L. S. “Mother/Father Kings,” In Ancient Maya Gender Identity and Relations, ed. Lowell S. Gustafson and Amelia M. Trevelyan. Westport: Bergin & Garvey, 2002


Bruhns, Karen Olsen; Karen E. Stothert (1999). Women in Ancient America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-3169-1. OCLC 41540119. 

Rosenbaum, Brenda; Christine Eber (2007). "Women and gender in Mesoamerica". In Robert M. Carmack, Janine Gasco, and Gary H. Gossen (eds.). The Legacy of Mesoamerica: History and Culture of a Native American Civilization. Exploring Cultures series (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/PrenticeHall. ISBN 978-0-13-049292-0. OCLC 71833382.