Maya Deities and Nobles in Living Jade

By Reina GattusoJuly 202215 Minute Read

A Jadeite-albitite crown ornament carved in Maya style. The ornament features a deity in profile with a bulging eye.

Unknown, Crown Ornament (Hu’unal), 250-900. Cleveland Museum of Art. In Mesoamerica, elites wore jade on their royal garb as a connection to the spiritual realm.

Ancient Maya people revered jade as a living stone that embodied sacred water, breath, and regeneration. Representations of deities and nobles in jade reveal the ancient Maya cosmovision. To understand these artifacts in context, modern people must question the colonial legacy in Mesoamerican archaeology.

Introduction

The ancient people that archaeologists call Maya built complex city-states in what is now southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, and Nicaragua. They built some of their largest monuments during the so-called classic period, from 250 to 900 CE.1

The many groups we now call Maya would not have considered themselves to belong to a common identity. They spoke different (though related) languages, and frequently conquered each other’s cities in bids to become regional power brokers.2

However, ancient peoples of the region were united by a shared view of the universe, or cosmovision.3 Maya peoples developed a complex astronomical system, calendar, and writing system. They worshiped similar deities, whom elites and semi-divine rulers had special access to. They revered maize, their foundational crop. And the Maya esteemed the most precious of Mesoamerican materials: luminous, life-giving jade.

Ancient Maya peoples considered jade a living stone. They associated its vibrant green surface with water, corn, and sacred breath — and thus nobility and divinity. Jade artifacts, ranging from deity figurines to elite adornments, offer insights into ancient Maya peoples’ cosmovision.

Mesoamerican Archaeology and Colonization

All of the objects featured in this essay are currently in the collections of U.S. museums. Most have passed through multiple white owners’ hands. None of them have publicly available information detailing where they were found and by whom. It’s thus difficult to discern how local Maya people may have related to them.

The continued alienation of these objects from their cultures reflects the colonial origins of archaeology, which continues to be a white-dominated field.4 To understand the objects of pre-Columbian people—including Maya jade objects—we must understand how European colonization harmed American Indigenous peoples, and shaped the field of archaeology.

Historians estimate that within the first decade of colonization, Spanish colonizers and their diseases killed upwards of 90% of the population in the Maya-ruled Yucatán Peninsula.5 Spanish colonizers murdered, stole the land of, and forcefully converted ancient Maya people. Catholic priests burned Maya codices, texts written on bark paper. Only four Maya codices exist today.6 Postcolonial states also committed violence against Maya peoples, including the Guatemalan genocide.7

While colonization resulted in a devastating loss of life and culture, it’s incorrect to say — as many archaeologists have — that the Maya were “lost” after about 1000 CE.8 In fact, due to fierce resistance, some Maya cities remained independent of the Spanish until 1697.9 Contemporary Maya people relate to their ancient history, and to the category of “Maya” itself, in diverse ways.10 Many draw on their cultural heritage in struggles for social justice and self-determination.11

Surviving codices, architecture, oral histories, and art — including objects in jade — paint a vibrant picture of the ancient Maya world.

Jade in Maya Geology and Cosmology

Olmec artists made the earliest jade objects in Mesoamerica, starting around 900 BCE. Maya artists followed suit.12 Artists throughout Mesoamerica and Central America, including the Maya, frequently reworked jade objects from older cultures, and then passed them down as heirlooms.13

A small, rectangular, blue green jade pendant. The pendant has a large hole in the middle and two smaller ones above it. Carved heads with large eyes border the pendant.

Unknown, Trophy Head Pendant, 4th–7th century, Central Region, Costa Rica. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ancient Costa Rican warriors took their opponents' heads as trophies, emulated in their art.

Trophy Head Pendant
3
Trophy Head Pendant
4th–7th century

Mexica people, the ruling class of what we now call the Aztec Empire, also valued jade. Indeed, when colonizer Hernán Cortés first met Moctezuma II, the ruler offered him a gift of jade, saying it was worth “two loads of gold” in contemporary measurement.14

Social and Geologic Jade

The ancient Maya actually used several kinds of green stone that archaeologists group under the category “social” or “cultural” jade. This includes serpentinite, amazonite, quartz, and malachite. Of these, jadeite is the only stone geologists call jade. Jadeite is much harder and more durable than other green stones.15

The only known major jadeite deposit in Mesoamerica is located in the Montagua fault of what is now Guatemala. Maya peoples developed elaborate trade networks in order to obtain the mineral.16

Jade Workers

The Maya favored brilliant, saturated green stones. Archaeologists call these colors “apple green” and “imperial green,” since the latter color was vital to Maya royal regalia. Maya artists often cracked open the extremely hard rock to find the most vibrant parts for their artwork.17

Mesoamerican artists hit jade with other rocks to shape it. They cut it with saws made from flint blades or knotted fibers bound with ground stone, then polished the finished shape. Jade is as hard as steel, so this process took an incredible amount of time, skill, and patience.18

A small jade pendant featuring a lord seated crosslegged on a dais. The figure turns his head to his left and wears a feathered headdress. He wears a necklace, bracelets, and anklets. His left hand is raised to his chest.

Unknown, Pendant with Seated Lord, 7th–8th century. Metropolitan Museum of Art. A young lord is depicted in profile, a style characteristic of Mayan portraits.

Pendant with Seated Lord
1
Pendant with Seated Lord
Mesoamerican Classic period

Vibrant green jade was important to Maya conceptions of nobility. The creators of this pendant chose to use the greenest part of the stone for the noble’s upper body, demonstrating their high esteem for the color.19

Jade in Maya Cosmovision

Maya people valued jade because it was rare and because artists worked it with immense skill. But the brilliant blue-green stone also held a deeper meaning, associated with fertility, divinity, nobility, and life itself.

Ancient Maya cosmovision was structured around the four cardinal directions with the tree of life as the sacred center. The tree of life formed a vertical axis connecting the terrestrial world with the underworld and heavens.20 Maya communities revered powerful divinities including the Principal Bird Deity, the Moon Goddess, and the maize deity or deities.21

The Yucatec Maya word yax means the colors green and blue. Yax represents both the air, including the vivid green feathers of the quetzal bird, and cool, lifegiving water. The word also represents maize, the Maya staple crop. The maize god embodies cycles of germination, growth, death, and rebirth.22

The Mexica believed that jade emitted a fresh, moist vapor that made plants around it grow even greener.23 The Maya believed jade was water and breath in solid form.24 The Spanish documented a 16th century Maya death ritual in which nobles’ attendants rubbed “precious stone” on a dying noble’s mouth to capture “the breath, soul, or spirit.”25 Archaeologists theorize that water droplets from breath condensing on jade’s surface inspired this association with moisture.26 Jade didn’t just symbolize fertility and life force to the ancient Maya—it embodied these qualities.

Deities

Jade’s sacredness made it the ideal medium for Maya carvings of deities. The iconography for both deities and nobles typically included ear flares, necklaces, pendants, and other jade ornaments.

A Mayan jade carving of a deity. The figure is seated crosslegged with its hands up to its chest. Their face has avian features. The figure wears ear gauges, necklaces, bracelets, and anklets.

Unknown, Deity Figure, 3rd–6th century. Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Mayan Principal Bird Deity, likely represented in this jade work, embodies the richness of the sacred stone.

Deity Figure
2
Deity Figure
Mesoamerican Classic period

Archaeologists call this figure the Principal Bird Deity. The figure represents either a humanized version of the god or a human wearing the god’s mask. The deity is associated with the earth’s riches, including green corn fields, emerald quetzal feathers, and sacred jade.27

This figure is discolored, which is rare in a jade object. Archaeologists theorize people coated the figure with cinnabar pigment, and then burned it in a ritual. Cinnabar becomes mercury under heat and pressure, and mercury discolors jade. The red cinnabar likely symbolized blood sacrifice, while the ritual evoked death and rebirth.28

The Principal Bird Deity figure, like other Maya gods, wears heavy jade ornaments. This includes a necklace similar to the one above, which features jade beads and pendants, including a pendant of a figure that resembles the maize god.29

Deity Face Pendant
1
Deity Face Pendant
Mesoamerican Classic period

Maya rulers wore pendants of deities on their paper headbands. These pendants, called hu’unal, invoked rulers’ direct connection to the gods.

One hu’unal pendant, pictured here, included the face of the Principal Bird Deity, and the glyph meaning “paper.” This pendant likely evoked the headband’s material, and represented paper’s living essence. The pendant also references the first human king, whom the ancient Maya believed to be enthroned by the gods.30

Crown Ornament (Hu’unal)
2
Crown Ornament (Hu’unal)
Mesoamerican Classic period

When rulers wore hu’unal pendants, they proclaimed their connection to the gods who enthroned the first human king.31

Nobles

Jade depictions of the Maya ruling class reinforced kings’ and queens’ association with the gods. Rulers, like the deities they channeled, wore elaborate jade adornments decorated with images of gods. Nobles were often buried with ornate jade jewelry, sometimes including lifelike jade masks.

One ancient Maya ruler, Queen Tz’akbu Ajaw, was buried with an elaborate mask. Her husband, K’inich Janaab Pakal I of Palenque, was buried wearing a mask and jade ornaments totaling over three kilograms.32

Artists spent an enormous amount of time shaping each individual piece of jade so they would fit together perfectly. In K’inich Janaab Pakal’s mask, for example, the artists placed darker pieces of jade by the hairline and lighter shades near the cheekbones, to create shading. The jade masks ensured that rulers would become gods after death, resurrecting like the maize god.33

Figural Pendant
1
Figural Pendant
450

Artists also carved jade pendants representing nobles. The noble figure in the pendant seen above is carved with large ear flares, a spiritually potent form of jewelry.

Pair of Earflare Frontals
2
Pair of Earflare Frontals
Mesoamerican Classic period

Ancient Maya nobles used beads or sticks to keep the hollow flares in place in their earlobe holes. Polished jade emits a sonorous, metallic sound when struck. Ancient Maya people also believed that jade emitted perfumed breath. Ancient Maya people likely regarded these flower-shaped ear flares as living beings emitting sound, scent, and moisture. Wearing ear flares was thus a sacred sensory experience.34

Earflare Set
1
Earflare Set
Mesoamerican Classic period

The ancient Maya believed that holes, caves, and bodily orifices were passages into spiritual realms. In fact, the Mayan glyph for a common euphemism for death, “to enter/go on the road,” is a snake moving through an earflare. The flower petals carved on one set of ear flares point to the four cardinal directions. The hole at the center forms a portal or tree of life. Ear flares thus used the power of jade to transform the wearer into a sacred portal to the divine.35

Community Archaeology

Scholars and the general public continue to be fascinated with ancient Maya art and culture, including artifacts in jade. However, modern-day Maya peoples are often excluded from the profits of cultural tourism. “We realize that we have a great history, that we are held up as an example, and people make a lot of money off our name,” said Maya activist Alfaro Yam Canul to the Associated Press. “But that money never shows up in our communities.”36

Maya people have used the art of their ancient ancestors as potent symbols of resistance. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation, most of whom are Maya,37 often uses Maya symbols in their revolutionary iconography. These include maize38 and the caracol, or snail shell, which Zapatista leaders say represents the ancient Maya practice of blowing a conch shell to gather community.39 Maya diasporic organizations draw on ancient Maya cosmovisions as part of their vision of social justice.

Maya archaeologists, and some non-Maya, have sought to collaborate with Indigenous communities to recenter descendents’ relationships with ancient objects.40 Ancient Maya jade work elaborates a conception of the universe that remains culturally and politically potent for many descendant communities today.

Reina Gattuso

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11.

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16.

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22.

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29.

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30.

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31.

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32.

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34.

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35.

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36.

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37.

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38.

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39.

Urban, Thomas. “Caracol de la Resistencia: Zapatista Symbol References Maya Past.” Studio Michael Shanks, Stanford, 21 August 2007, https://web.stanford.edu/group/archaeolog/cgi-bin/archaeolog/2007/08/21/caracol-de-la-resistencia-zapatista-symbol-references-maya-past/. Accessed 29 April 2022.

40.

Nicholas, George, ed. Being and Becoming Indigenous Archaeologists. Left Coast Press, 2010. Google Books, https://www.google.com/books/edition/BEING_AND_BECOMING_INDIGENOUS_ARCHAEOLOG/dGsMlWLc0bEC?hl=en&gbpv=0. Accessed 29 April 2022. See also: InHerit. https://in-herit.org/. Accessed 29 April 2022; “Special Issue: Maya Anthropological Archaeology.” Heritage, 2020-1, https://www.mdpi.com/journal/heritage/special_issues/maya_archaeology. Accessed 29 April 2022; McAnany, Patricia. Maya Cultural Heritage, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016, https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442241282/Maya-Cultural-Heritage-How-Archaeologists-and-Indigenous-Communities-Engage-the-Past. Accessed 29 April 2022.

Reina Gattuso

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