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Brief Identification

Mayan Maize God

Maize God (Mayan, Copan 715 CE). Temple 22 of 18-Rabbit, 13th ruler of Copan (r.695-738 CE). Stone bust in the British Museum, London, England.

This limestone statue of a Mayan maize god was found in Copán , Honduras. It measures approximately 35.4” x 25.25” x14.2” and was made in 715 CE. The statue was commissioned by the 13th ruler of Copán , Waxaklajuun Ub'aah K'awiil, also known as 18-Rabbit. This was one of eight statues commissioned by 18-Rabbit to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of his accession to the throne. The statue currently resides in The British Museum.

Technical Evaluation

Due to the lack of metal instruments Mayan artisans used tools made out of flint, obsidian, granite, jade and quasite. The stone with which the monuments of Copán were made were quarried from a hillside about a half mile from the city. Since the Mayan had no work animals and did not know of the wheel they used wooden rollers to move the stone from a quarry, which was uphill from Copán [see Robicsek 1972, 47].

Compared to the bronze and iron tools being used in Afro-Eurasia the stone tools used by the Mayans were archaic. Bronze had been used for tools and weapons around the Mediterranean and in China 2000 years before this statue was made.

The statue was given to the British Museum by Alfred P. Maudslay . Maudslay carried out eight expeditions to the Maya area between 1881 and 1894. The Maudslay Collection, now in the Department of Ethnography, consists of over 400 plaster casts, paper and plaster moulds, glass negatives and journals written during his expeditions. It also includes nine stone sculptures from Copán (Honduras) and eight lintels from Yaxchilán (now Mexico).


Local History Context

The Maya civilization was one of the most sophisticated in the pre-Columbian Americas. It extended from southeastern Mexico across modern-day Guatemala, Belize and the western parts of Honduras and El Salvador. The Maya were never politically unified but lived in around sixty separate kingdoms, each with its own ruler. Relations between the kingdoms were complex. There was negotiation, trading and inter-marriage, as well as invasion and warfare.

Maya cities usually had a dramatic stepped pyramid topped by a temple sanctuary at their centre. Close by were the palaces of the royal court, which functioned as the centre of government and provided luxury accommodation. The Maya produced impressive artworks, including polychrome ceramic vases and carved stone monuments portraying their rulers. The Maya developed a sophisticated writing system and used an elaborate calendar system known as the Long Count to provide dates.

Copán began as a small agricultural settlement about 1000 BCE. It became an important Maya city during the Classic Period (c. ad 250–900), and at its peak early in the 9th century it may have been home to as many as 20,000 people. A dynasty of at least 16 kings ruled Copán from about 426 to 822, by which latter date the city had entered a serious decline. The Maya had completely abandoned the site by about 1200.

The golden era of Copán began with the accession to the throne of Moon Jaguar, the tenth ruler, in 533AD, and continued through the reigns of Smoke Serpent (578-628AD), Smoke Jaguar (628-695AD) and Eighteen Rabbit (695-738AD). This period of stable, long lasting governments allowed for unprecedented political, social and artistic growth. The carved relief style for which Copán is famous developed during the reign of Eighteen Rabbit, who also oversaw the construction of the Great Plaza, the final version of the ball court and Temple 22 in the East Court [see Elringham 1999, 436].

Most commoners living in Copán at this time engaged mainly in agricultural pursuits, but excavations show that many of them also practiced specialized crafts at least part-time. In the case of the chipped-stone industry, it’s indicated that state sponsorship of full-time craftsman also took place [see Andrews and Fash 2005, 4].

We know very little detail about individual Mayan sculptures. There were no names or biographies left behind, the only personal thing left was red palm-prints on some of the buildings made by the master architect [see Robicsek 1972, 47]. Although there was a powerful priestly elite, the pillars of Mayan society were the scribes, legal experts, military advisors and artisans. Many artisans rose to a high political position because they bestowed an aura of greatness on their rulers [see Tignor 2011, 315].

The main job of Mayan rulers was to make sure the gods got all the attention and reverence needed. Rulers sponsored elaborate public rituals to reinforce their divine heritages [see Tignor 2011, 315].

In Mayan mythology , the maize god was decapitated at harvest time but reborn again at the beginning of a new growing season. Myths about the death and rebirth of gods helped explain the cycle of the seasons and the return of maize, on which Mayan civilization depended. The myth of the maize god is just one example of how the development of agriculture led to major changes in how people across the world conceived their gods. For thousands of years the Mayans worshiped the maize god and believed that their ancestors were made from maize dough. Maize was the Mayan's most important food source.


World-Historical Significance

Although this particular maize god was unique to Copán , maize was such an important dietary staple in Mesoamerica that the Olmecs and later the Aztecs worshipped their own maize gods. These attitudes toward maize were just a small part of much larger movement making maize a part of people’s lives.

From the Andes, up through Mesoamerica, through Mexico, into the American Southwest eastern woodlands, corn made the higher cultures possible by permitting concentrations of population to remain in one place [see Johannessen 1994, 527].

One factor may be the extraordinary genetic flexibility of corn and it’s responsiveness to manipulation. With a few gene shifts, dramatic changes in cob color, size, and shape as well as in the quality of the grains can occur: flinty, floury, sweet. This capacity would have been easily noticeable and may have given corn an interactive quality with humans [see Johannessen 1994, 442].

Corn was more than a product: it was a valued food, a cuisine, and an identity [see Johannessen 1994, 443].


Suggested Bibliography


Coe, Michael. The Maya: Seventh Edition. New York: Thames & Hudson Inc., 2005.

Eltringham, Peter. The Maya World: The Rough Guide. New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1999.

Robicsek, Francis. Copán: Home of the Mayan Gods. Charlotte: Washburn Press Inc., 1972.

Andrews, E. Wyllys and William L. Fash. Copán: The History of an Ancient Maya Kingdom. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 2005.

Joyce, T. A., ed., Guide to the Maudslay Collection of Mayan Sculptures. Oxford: University Press, 1938.

Tignor, Robert et al., Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the World, Beginnings through the Fifteenth Century, VOLUME 1, THIRD EDITION. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.

Johannessen, Sissel, ed., Corn and Culture in the Prehistoric New World. Boulder: Westview Press, Inc., 1994.

BBC A History of the World, “Mayan maize god statue,” http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/Hvi54RDiQym6Pgd3_IsRKA

The British Museum, “Maya,” http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/world_cultures/the_americas/maya.aspx

The British Museum, “Alfred P.Maudslay," http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/article_index/a/alfred_p_maudslay_1850-1931.aspx

The British Museum, “Maya maize god statue,” http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/aoa/s/stone_bust_of_the_maize_god.aspx

Britannica Online, “Copán,” http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/136480/Copan