Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Attaining Immortality: The Glorified Hero In MesoAmerican Art

Native American peoples have been representing the exploits of heroes and champions and the events which affected their ancestors for many millennia. Petroglyphs found in remote places in the Americas are a testament to the power of the creativity of individuals and the accepted and established standards of virtue and honor which have been endemic to a particular tribe or nation as human beings migrated from the Bering Strait south in the northern and southern hemispheres seeking game and land to settle upon. The excellent quality of Native artists is evident in their creative talent- carvings from the Inuit and Eskimo of Alaska and Canada and Northwest peoples of modern British Columbia and Washington State as well as their talent for painting, the fine bead work that decorates Native traditional clothing across the continent, the Wampum of the Northeast, the list goes on. The excellent embroidery and depictions of battles and everyday events such as hunting, fishing or farming counters any idea that hunter gatherer societies had little time to create beauty. Human beings have been creating articles of beauty, composing song and reciting ballads long before recorded history.

In central and southern America Native peoples brought forth several examples of high cultures such as the Olmecs, the Moche and the Maya, or established empires such as those of the Inca or the Aztecs. All of these civilizations created art that reflected the lives of the nobility and the common people and portrayed myths and their gods as well as events through their art. Much Aztec art was reflective of their religious life, ruled by a powerful priesthood who demanded human sacrifice to appease the gods. Closely tied to this religious life however was the way of the warrior, as the Aztecs developed a sophisticated military for the purpose of expansion, conquest and control, much like the Romans who prized war as a necessity for survival.

The Aztec myths tell us that the Mexica, as they were originally known by their tribal name, wandered aimlessly much like the ancient Hebrews in the Middle East until a prophecy informed them that as the gods were pleased with their behavior in the world, there was a promised land waiting for them. At a place where they found an eagle perched upon a cactus, clutching a serpent in its beak and claw, there they erected a temple to the gods and built their city. The goddess Coyolxauhqui was said to have been one of the wanderers in the time when the Mexica were nomads of the deserts. She became angry with her mother Coatlicue, who was possibly an elder of the tribe, and revolted against her rule. She and her band of rebels entered into a battle with the Mexica loyal to Coatlicue but was defeated by her brother Huitzilopochtli who defeated her forces and killed her. The many blows of his macuahuitl during their fierce hand to hand encounter, a terrible Mesoamerican club studded with obsidian blades and in the myth described as a blade of sheer fire and light, dismembered the warrior princess resulting in her death. In Mexica mythology she would become the Moon which, after becoming full, forever slowly seems to be dismembered as it wanes, defeated as it were by the power of the Sun. This is a founding story the Aztecs treasured highly and it inspired generations of warriors to set out and conquer an empire. 

The Aztecs subdued many of the neighboring tribes and built an extensive empire in central Mexico. Their rise mimics the growth of the Romans who began as an obscure tribe in Italy who would eventually create an empire that dominated the much of western Europe, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. The Aztecs and the Romans prized military ventures and warrior virtues above all else. Ironically, both civilizations were obsessed with the spectacle of gladiatorial combat, pitting prisoners of war against one another. The lavish Roman gladiatorial games were a means to provide entertainment to the masses utilizing criminals, slaves and war captives specially trained in this kind of combat. Among the Aztecs, when there was a lull in the sacrificial rituals that were deemed necessary to appease the gods, a captive prisoner who displayed bravery in battle was honored by being given a chance to fight for freedom, though his legs were tied to a rope which limited his ability of movement. Sometimes the prisoner achieved victory by slaying his opponents, but most often he was eventually killed by his adversaries who were high ranking members of various elite military orders, such as the order of the Eagle or the Jaguar. In both the Roman and Aztec cultures, these ferocious games of bloodletting were dedicated to the gods. 

Many texts known singularly as a 'Codex' or plurally as Codices have been preserved after the European conquest though many more were destroyed by the over religiously zealous Spaniards who thought the books and the art which depicted human sacrifice and other scenes of violence were the work of the Devil. Thus, many of these ancient Codices did not survive but those that were preserved, sometimes by Spanish friars themselves as many were scholars. It is from these codices that we get a glimpse of the Pre Colombian world. 

We become intimate with the scenes of battles or personal combat between opponents, which in the case of Aztec art can be rather visceral. We notice some curiously curvy, snake-like marks near the mouths and heads of the combatants as they engage one another, these curvy marks signifying words being spoken or shouted as the duel to the death takes place. Aztec lords took pride in glorifying themselves as godlike in appearance, commissioning their artists to create a likeness that made them appear like deities. Modern Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera in the 20th century created beautiful murals that depict the history of Mexico, resplendent with images of Olmec, Toltec and Aztec life and warfare. To this day, artists continue to use Native motifs, themes and designs as they portray and preserve ancient Mexican art traditions. In this way, a civilization is never lost but lives on in the imagination of the young. 

The Maya inhabited central America in what is known as the Yucatan, modern Belize, Guatemala, Hondouras and part of Nicaragua. Their descendants still live there today, speak their native language and maintain their culture and religion under a facade of Roman Catholicism. They still maintain the tradition of time keeping, for it is a Mayan belief that when the last shaman dies and no one keeps a record of days, years, centuries and millennial cycles, the entire universe will cease to exist and implode upon itself. So sophisticated were Mayan mathematics and astronomical calculations that they came up with the concept of zero on their own without contact with the rest of the world. They excelled in astronomy and charted the course of heavenly bodies across the heavens. Their architecture- giant pyramids, temples and structures buried under mountains of mud and overgrowth after having been neglected after the Spanish conquest, reveal that there were many cities and urban areas carved out of the jungle. With few rivers one would be surprised how a civilization could arise in this environment without a supply of water, but the Maya built their cities near dzenotes, openings on the surface of the Earth which led to underground rivers which supplied ample water for a city to thrive. These dzenotes were considered holy and magical, defended by beings appointed by the gods themselves. 

Because of the intellect, culture and science in which they excelled, for a time the Maya were thought to be a super civilization who had achieved perfection and a near uptopian state of existence. However the reality was something else. Unlike the Aztecs or the Inca of south America, the Maya didn't build an empire with a central capital or government. In this they resembled the ancient Greek city states, each city vying with another for power, sometimes conquering the foe or themselves being conquered after a destructive war. Each city state existed as a separate entity in competition with the other, making alliances or going to war with a neighboring state. Mayan architecture and art discovered at the various archeological sites reveals a style unique to that particular city, again much like the variety we witness in the styles of ancient Greek art. Like the Aztecs, the Maya did practice ritual sacrifice of human victims to appease the gods. For them, the Sun rose at dawn because during the night he and his forces went down into the underworld the Mayans called the Xibalba to do battle with the Nine Bolantiku lords who ruled that dark realm. The Sun emerged every morning victorious and shed his light and mercy upon the Earth for another day, until at sunset the process of a military-like invasion and battle with the lords of darkness would be repeated, until the end of days. The Mayan epic the Popol Vuh describes how humans were the final effort of the gods to create a race who understood the responsibility of being the bearers of the burden of time. The text is replete with tales of the gods of the underworld tricking goodly individuals such as Hun Hunahpuh into competing in the cosmic ball game Pok Ta Tok. Angered that Hun Hunahpuh wins the game, the lords of the Xibalba sentence the champion to death. His sons The Hero Twins are born and learn all about the crooked ways of the evil lords and they too descend into the underworld and defeat the Xibalba host, only to likewise be sentenced to death. 

Blood is understood as being a sacred and holy liquid and the Maya are obsessed with it. The Maya were therefore well inspired through their religion and mythology to engage in sacrifice and war and they depicted such events in their art. The gods battled one another in the heavens and in the underworld so it was natural for the Mayan nobility to engage in the same undertakings, though war initiated by a Mayan lord was meant to acquire land and prisoners for sacrifice and had little or nothing to do with the struggle between light and darkness. The Maya achieved a high level of civilization and built many illustrious cities that still amaze the archeologist and the historian, but like many if not all ancient human civilizations it was tainted with warfare, barbarous practices and the contamination and destruction of the environment which would eventually contribute to their own downfall. We can say that societies are influenced by their religions or narratives, but in reality a society evolves due to climate, geography and the events they experience. reaction to these entities are what influences a people's view of the world.

Perhaps the best example of Mayan martial art can be found viewing the fabulous murals of Bonampak, a once powerful Mayan kingdom in the modern Mexican state of Chiapas which reveals that city's nobility and court life and the affection for war its leaders engaged in. Action packed battles are depicted as bloody and visceral. Defeated prisoners are painted groveling at the feet of their conquerors, no doubt wishing for a grant of mercy or pardon which most likely never came, sacrifice being more in line with the fate of a defeated enemy. Kings are glorified with trumpet blasts alongside dancers dressed as various animal gods who serve to justify that noble's existence, placing him in the level of the heavens. 

Sculpture and 'stelae', huge rock monoliths carved with the effigy of the ruler and a list of his deeds or laws were common in many kingdoms. The city of Quirigua in Guatemala is renown for tall, sculpted pieces honoring kings who made no excuses for being the monarchs they were. The ruler was glorified like a god, as were rulers in every ancient realm across the world. The connection with the heavens is also represented in these monoliths, and astronomical calculations and mathematics figures in the description of the king and his place in the universe. There is no lack of ego among the rulers of these ancient societies, their deeds recorded in art and literature as well as in song and story. 


Mayan sculpture depicts gods and humans as otherworldly but also at times with a very humanistic touch and ethos as one witnesses in the sculpture of India. They can be depicted as proud and haughty for sure but also meditative, contemplative, even compassionate. Mayan art is undoubtedly rich and quite varied and their artists were talented individuals who sought to unify heaven and Earth. Yet, like all ancient civilizations, warfare and military perfection was considered the epitome of virtue and nobility, the highest calling being to fight and die for the state, the kingdom or the empire. All of this was connected to the all important ritual of sacrifice and what it stood for- the attainment of eternal glory for one in the name of the nation, so that the nation might live and the Sun continue to illuminate the world. 

As many more archeological discoveries are being made thanks to the use of infrared technology, we are becoming aware of aspects of this civilization that are novel discoveries and revelations every day, changing the preconceived views and opinions about who the Maya were and what they were all about. In the early 20th century a discovery of a ruin was happened upon by chance- a farmer stumbling on a stone carving, a strange overgrown mound in the middle of flat terrain, or the odd possibility that someone in an early airplane looked down and saw the top of some ancient temple. Infrared technology has changed all that and we now know that there are yet tens of thousands of unexplored Mayan sites in central America. Those of us fascinated by this ancient civilization eagerly await the revelations of these sites. 

Ancient civilizations glorified warfare and the acts and deeds of champions in battle, and the cultures of Mesoamerica were no different. It seems to have been a pattern of all human civilizations to create such art and maintain the narratives which defined similar virtues and principles to live by. The glorification of the human being through art, praising the beauty of the body fired by a zeal for honor and fame by which one can achieve immortality is a fascinating topic for study indeed. We, the human species of our current time, are ever ready to announce our disapproval of war and all things associated with it. To be fair, it is an assessment of something very terrible and awful. Yet we humans have been obsessed by warfare and the narrative of conflict for as long as we can remember. In this, the ancients were certainly more honest than us. 

Images, from top:
Mayan painting, digitalized
Petroglyph, Warrior Ridge Utah
Aztec lintel of goddess Coyolxauhqui 
Painting depicting Aztec gladiatorial combat
Aztec battle scene, from Dresden Codex
Spaniards and Aztecs in battle, Diego Rivera mural
Modern Mexican painting, mythological scene
Lintel of Mayan goddess Ixchel
Mayan painting of the Hero Twins
Mayan painting of battle lords
Three murals from Bonampak
Stone lintel, Bonampak
Carved stelae from Quirigua, Guatemala
Mayan maize god, Hondouras

Bottom photo: ~Echoes Of Antiquity~ image
Mayan warriors with battle mural background
From left: Cheryl Gal-Zur & Vivimar Luz
Original photograph by Elena Olivo

Copyright Ismail Butera, 2024

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Attaining Immortality: The Glorified Hero In MesoAmerican Art

Native American peoples have been representing the exploits of heroes and champions and the events which affected their ancestors for many m...