Every fall we attend the Maya at the Playa conference in Florida and hear leading Maya archaeologists share their latest discoveries. Here are some fun things we learned this year:
1. Nightmare beasts from the underworld: Maya art occasionally features strange mutant animals: monkeys with antlers, fire-eating peccaries, skeleton centipedes, tapirs with burning tails, deer with distended eyeballs, evil jaguars on sticks. These nightmare beasts are thought to be spirit monsters (called “way”) from the underworld. Maya rulers would send them to attack their enemies – like a curse. The spirit monsters give their victims deadly diseases and the description of the disease is much the same as the spirit monster that causes it. So just imagine what you’d be feeling if you were attacked by the burning-tail tapir…
2. Casper, Homer and the Headless Cat:When archaeologists discover a glyph that hasn’t yet been deciphered, they often give it a nickname based on what they think it looks like. It makes the glyphs easier to remember and talk about. “Casper” (the glyph on the left) is the nickname they gave to the name glyph of the first king of Palenque because it looks like a ghost. “Headless Cat” is what they call the glyph on the right. I would love to tell you that the glyph in the middle is called “Homer Simpson” – just look at those lips – but they’ve now figured out that it’s the name of a queen called Lady Wind God Star. In case you’re wondering, those big lips are what the wind god uses to make the wind blow.
3. Toads are made of jade: In Maya art, toads are often drawn with glyphs on their backs that translate as something like “shiny jade guy”. That’s not just because toads are often green. It’s also because, in the dry season, toads go into a kind of hibernation. They burrow into the ground and go still and hard. Traditional lore is that they turn to stone – and as a green stone they are associated with jade. They come back to life when the rains come.
4. 1300 year old snakes: The royal family of the Maya Snake Kingdom (Kan) was one of history’s longest lasting dynasties. They held power for 49 generations – a staggering 1300 years! They survived the collapse of their first great capital city El Mirador, overcame countless wars, built the massive imperial city of Calakmul and created one of the Maya world’s biggest empires. Their eventual defeat by Tikal was the beginning of the Maya’s eventual collapse.
5. Rabbits can swim on the moon: As you might have read in Middleworld, where we see a man in the moon, the ancient Maya saw a rabbit. And since, in the tropics, the moon looks more like a bowl than a crescent or half moon, the Maya thought of it as a vessel that filled and emptied with water as it waxed and waned. So if the moon rabbit was not going to drown in all that water, they figured it would have to be semi-aquatic. And that’s why ancient Maya drawings of rabbits often have the glyph for waterlily on their ears.