Interpreting Maya myths through art: Q&A with Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos

The “old goddess” is a paradoxical character in Maya mythology. She is the grandmother who raised the infant gods, but in most accounts, she hated them, and finally tried to kill them. Despite her significance, she rarely appears in ancient Maya art.

“We find her portraits here and there, but she is not a favorite,” said Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos, assistant professor of anthropology at Yale. “Still, her depictions are consistent with descriptions of old goddesses as patrons of childbirth, midwifery, and the sweat bath — a facility that is still used for pre- and post-partum treatments in Maya communities. Understanding the old goddess is key to understanding Maya mythology.”

The old goddess is among several mythical characters Chinchilla Mazariegos examines in “Art and Myth of the Ancient Maya,” his new book published by Yale University Press. Using sources from across Mesoamerica, he seeks to fill gaps between written sources and ancient Maya artworks.

Chinchilla Mazariegos spoke to YaleNews about his work. An edited version of the conversation follows.

How did you come to write this book?

A serious discussion of mythical representations in ancient Maya art began several decades ago with the work of Michael D. Coe, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Yale, who did pioneering research on the representations of mythical subjects in Maya ceramics. Professor Coe found that there were similarities between ancient artworks and mythical narratives that were recorded in Mesoamerica during the colonial period, particularly in the Popol Vuh, a 16th-century text written by indigenous authors in the Guatemalan highlands. It is a very rich text that recorded an important trove of knowledge about mythology and the origins of people.

I became engaged with these topics while working as a curator at the Popol Vuh Museum in Guatemala, which has a collection of important ceramic vessels depicting mythological scenes. Part of my job was to understand the scenes, and I began generating ideas that were different from traditional views. I started diving deeper and deeper into the topic.

Hopefully, some of the methods and interpretations I propose will lead to new ways of thinking about Maya art and mythology.  

What are the primary challenges in interpreting mythology in ancient Maya art?

When we look at a representation in Maya art — and this applies to representations in any artistic tradition — we need to understand what is being depicted. That’s not always very clear. We can make intuitions that may or may not be true, but the challenge is to approach artistic representations in methodical ways.

The problem is that we usually don’t have written texts that explain what is being shown. We do in some cases. There are a few instances in ancient Maya art where they painted a mythical representation and then added hieroglyphic texts that at least provide some names or some facts about the characters depicted and, in very few instances, there are narrative passages that relate to the scene. That’s very rare.

One major challenge is to bridge the gaps between several different sources of information that span many centuries. We have artistic representations from the Classic Maya, dating mostly from the 6th to 9th century A.D., and then we have texts such as the Popol Vuh from the early colonial period in the 16th century.  We also have mythical narratives that are preserved in modern indigenous communities in Guatemala and Mexico. We need to find connections among these different sources of information.

How does your interpretation differ from the prevailing interpretations of mythology in ancient Maya art?

I am building on previous views that come from Professor Coe and others who followed him, but I think we need to have a more nuanced view of what the myths are about. When interpreters take a character from the Popol Vuh and correlate it in a one-to-one manner with a character depicted in ancient Maya art, they are implying that artists from many centuries back knew myths that were essentially identical to what is described in the Popol Vuh. That is just very unlikely.

In my view, we have many variants of mythical narratives across Mesoamerica. They are different from each other, but they share “nodal” subjects. In this, I follow the theoretical structure set forth by Alfredo López Austin, a Mexican scholar who has done considerable work on Mesoamerican myths. I’m taking much from his theoretical point of view and applying it to the interpretation of ancient Maya art.

For instance, I compare the Popol Vuh with other known narratives from across Mesoamerica, including modern narratives. There are surprising parallels among all of them. This has been pointed out in the past, but the significance of those parallels is not yet fully realized. As López Austin tells us, we should be looking at the commonalities, the subjects that appear repeatedly in narratives from different communities and, therefore, are likely to be more resilient and perhaps more likely to have been present in ancient versions of myths.

Is it really possible to draw links between ancient mythology and sources that originate hundreds of years later?

The ancient Maya knew versions of the myths that we find in later sources, but it is very unlikely that those versions survived unchanged.

Scholarly attitudes have varied a lot over time and there has been a tendency by some to simply reject the possibility that there could be any links between Classic Maya art and modern myths or 16th-century texts like the Popol Vuh, which was produced after the Spanish conquest of Guatemala. Religious beliefs and myths could have changed significantly between the Classic period and the post-colonial era. The Spanish brought Christianity, which could have influenced post-conquest texts. There are similar concerns with relying on modern narratives created 500 years after the Spanish conquest. How do we justify using a modern myth to interpret scenes like the one recreated on the cover of my book, which was produced in about 100 B.C.? It is a big stretch.   

The other extreme is just taking it for granted that at a scene on a painted vessel from the ancient Maya is linked to a passage recorded in the Popol Vuh, as if myths had remained unchanged through centuries and across geographic and ethnic boundaries.

What’s an example of a myth that spans Mesoamerican cultures? 

Some of the most important myths have to do with the origin of the sun and the moon. The sun and the moon are portrayed as young heroes who have a series of adventures and eventually rise into the sky as the luminaries. Some features of the myths are fairly constant across Mesoamerica. For instance, the solar hero is often described as sick, particularly suffering from skin ailments like pustules, rashes, or buboes (a term used in colonial sources to describe the swellings that accompany bubonic plague, although that disease was not present in the New World). He was a miserable guy — the most unlikely character to become the sun. Eventually, he becomes the sun and he does so by throwing himself onto a pyre. There were others who tried to throw themselves in the flames but failed. The solar hero entered into the fire and emerged as the sun.

This story is best known from the Aztecs in 16th-century highland Mexico, because several versions of the story were recorded in that region in early colonial times. I have studied variants of the story from modern ethnographic sources and it’s distributed across Mesoamerica, including the Maya area. The Popol Vuh contains a passage in which the heroes throw themselves onto a pyre, but the text doesn’t mention that the hero had a skin ailment. Either they omitted it or they knew a version in which the hero didn’t have a skin ailment. Still, the heroes throw themselves on a pyre and one of them became the sun.

How is the solar hero represented in ancient Maya art?

There is a character in ancient Maya art that has black spots all over his body. These have never been understood as the skin lesions of the solar hero. For various reasons, scholars beginning with Professor Coe, had recognized the spotted character in ancient Maya art as a counterpart of the character in the Popol Vuh who throws himself in a fire and becomes the sun, but nobody had interpreted the spots as the “buboes” that usually afflicted Mesoamerican solar heroes. Realizing this brings a new perspective to the spotted god of ancient Maya art: who he is and how he relates with Mesoamerican solar heroes in general. Rather than establishing a one-to-one link between the ancient Maya god and a particular character in the Popol Vuh, I see both as variants of Mesoamerican solar heroes.

How much ancient Maya artwork survives?

There is a very substantial corpus that includes many hundreds of carvings, sculptures, painted murals, and stone monuments, such as stelae. There are few surviving books, called “codices,” which have representations of gods and associated texts. Those date from the Post-classic period — a few centuries before the Spanish conquest at best. We also have hundreds, if not thousands, of ceramic vessels that have preserved fairly well. The ceramics provide a very important sample of mythological representation because the stelae and sculptures are more concerned with royalty and nobility — the portraits of kings and nobles, and their deeds. The stelae may contain allusions to mythical subjects, as kings were always keen on relating themselves to the gods, but they feature only short textual passages describing mythical events. 

Unfortunately, many of the ceramic vessels were not documented in their original context by archaeological excavations. They were removed and put on the art market, and many have been restored, not always with the best results. We would be able to tell much more about them if we knew their original contexts, but that is part of the challenge that we confront in studying ancient Maya myths.