In "Rituals," we examine what constitutes ritual and explore four important interrelated ritual cycles from Palenque: the period-ending rites of K'inich Janaab' Pakal recorded in the Temple of Inscriptions, the rite of passage rituals that royal youths undertook on their way to the throne, the puluy (censing) cycle of ceremonies beginning on 2 Kib' 14 Mol recorded in the central tablets of the Temples of the Cross Group, and the 5 Eb' 5 K'ayab' house dedication event or ochi k'ahk' "fire enters" ceremony.
What is Ritual?
What is ritual and what was ritual for the Maya? To answer these very basic questions we must approach the data from two different perspectives in a sort of pincers maneuver. On the one hand, over the last century anthropologists have documented the rituals of many different peoples and have developed theoretical models to understand ritual's place within society. On the other hand, if viewed within a particular society there are sometimes not even words for what we would call ritual or religion. This is not because there exists no comparable kind of social behavior, but, rather, because each culture has a different way of understanding these behaviors and the beliefs that inform them, including of course even those of the anthropological researcher. We call these two perspectives—one from outside the culture, the other from within—etic and emic. In the following discussion, I will approach Maya ritual from each perspective as well as outlining how we reconstruct ancient ritual through the surviving archaeological, art historical, epigraphic, and ethnographic resources and by doing so begin to answer the above questions.
As researchers of Maya ritual we must always bear in mind that we do not have the luxury and privilege of witnessing ceremonies first hand; rather, we must piece them together through a record often unintentionally created simply through the accumulation of cultural artifacts over time, the vagaries of preservation, and the randomness of archaeological discovery. Form these records we must then construct a story that best accounts for the data with the knowledge that new discoveries will alter our perspective and possibly force us to amend our theories.
Maya Ritual Depicted
We know that the actions we call ritual and the social institutions we call religion were important aspects of Maya life and were tied inextricably to other spheres of social life. Over the course of Maya history many resources and much time were invested in the building of temples, the production of sculpture, in stone, terracotta, and wood, and the recording of ritual in hieroglyphic inscriptions and narrative imagery. Exotic and costly items were also used in ritual, such as specially prepared or rare foods for feasting, incense, and clothing. These ephemeral commodities were no less critical in Maya religious practice than the objects that have survived archaeologically. We know about the use of ephemera in ritual because the Maya often depicted ceremonies in narrative art and described them in their literature. Moreover, the residue of these activities has been painstakingly recovered through careful excavations. These materials along with colonial and modern ethnography are our major sources for understanding the general features of ancient Maya ritual.
To clearly see how the Maya understood ritual and art’s role within this context let’s look first at three ancient depictions of ritual before turning to more theoretical discussions of the subject later in this section. The above photographic rollout of a Late Classic ceramic vase (K1377) depicts a graphic scene of sacrifice. The image presents a courtyard defined by two temple structures in which a sacrifice occurs upon a stone altar. Moving from left to right, we find a stylized building in profile within which a figure sits on a throne. Before this structure a priest stands presiding over the sacrifice. A dancing figure follows this scene to hand a rope to another figure depicted as a bust, a standard visual device for the representation of deceased ancestors. Throughout the image creatures of darkness abound lending a supernatural air to what otherwise seems to have been a real ritual occurrence.
Let’s return to the sacrifice. This central scene depicts an incensario stand perched on the cracked chest of a prone victim devouring his viscera. From the top of this Palenque-style censer flames sprout to illuminate the darkness of this nighttime ritual, as indicated by the black background of this vessel. The priest looks directly into the eyes of the censer and gestures to it. That is, he interacts with this object as if it were an animate entity, which, of course, it is within the reality presented by this painting. This scene demonstrates the animate nature of incensarios and suggests that, human sacrifice was undertaken to "feed" these objects, much as the modern Lacandon "feed" their god pots in order to renew and animate them (see below).
In a less graphic but equally revealing narrative, Kerr vessel 3844 depicts a procession of penis-pierced dancers approaching a temple housing an enshrined headdress or bundle. A flaming incensario stands before the headdress. We see upon close inspection that an effigy of an infant or an actual infant rests within the volutes of fire and smoke that project above the incensario. Imagery such as this demonstrates that incensarios, in addition to being the focus of ritual devotion, also played a significant role as instruments within major ritual events. Moreover, as on the previous vessel, the imagery of Kerr 3844 also strongly suggests that sacrifice was an important aspect of the ritual activation of icons.
We find another image of sacrifice on Kerr Vessel 8351, only in this case the focus of the sacrifice is probably a period-ending that is materially manifested through the erection of the stone stela and altar depicted in this image. The victim has been placed on an altar that stands before a wrapped stela. The painting is thus a representation of the events that surrounded the numerous actual stela and altar pairs found at many ancient Maya cities, such as the one from Copan illustrated below.
The rituals depicted on K1377, K3844, and K8351 represent some of the many different kinds of rituals performed at Palenque and other Maya cities, where sacrifices were made at auspicious times of year or for the dedication of particular buildings or objects. Each of these images demonstrate that ritual is not merely one act, but is rather a composite of different events, including dance and sacrifice set within a religious hierarchy of officiating priests and other religious specialists. It is important to note that for each of the rituals depicted by these vessels archaeologists have found material remains that attest to their actual performance. We have found bones of infants in association with Palenque’s incensarios and the stone altars upon which sacrifices occurred are common over much of the Maya world. Thus, when combined with archaeologically recovered materials these images allow us to reconstruct ancient Maya ritual practice more accurately than if we were to only rely on a single source of information.
Glyphic texts are another major resource for understanding Classic period ceremonialism that compliment the previously mentioned art historical and archaeological materials. In the subsections of "Rituals" I will review in more detail the glyphic evidence for some of the major rituals at Palenque. But suffice it to say that without the inscriptions it would be impossible to tie particular ritual events to specific dates or to know the individuals involved in their performance.
Finally, another critical component for understanding ancient ritual is the extensive ethnographic record of the colonial and modern Maya. Parallels with ethnographically documented practices, if applied cautiously, can improve our understanding of ancient Maya ritual and devotional images, such as those found in the above scenes. In the following section, we will take an extended look at one of the best-documented ceremonies of a Maya group through a close examination of one of fifty-one chants recorded by the anthropologist Alfred Tozzer (1876-1954) during the winters of 1903-5 while he was working with the Lacandon, until recently a group of Maya living in isolation in the forests of Chiapas.