Barbara’s Gallery- The Underworld

The underworld, or Xibalba, is the Mayan domain of the dead, entered and exited through a cleft in (the navel of) the earth. Housing revered ancestors, as well as the lords of disease and death, Xibalba is where rebirth is made possible. In Maya mythology One Hunahpu descended into the underworld to die so that a new generation could appear and be capable of overcoming death. Thus, death was seen as a necessary part of life. For example, in order for maize to grow and produce, a seed must first die and be buried in the earth.

Incense Burner Chimney, seated figure with protruding umbilical cord.
Late Classic
Terra-cotta stuccoed; vestiges of paint visible

The cycle of life, death and rebirth, the foundation of Maya iconography and cosmology, is reflected in this rare sculptured full human seated figure, from whose navel sprouts a seed, probably either a maize or cacao seed, both fundamental to Maya life and rituals. The umbilical cord sustains new life, just as the navel of the earth brings rebirth from the underworld. In the Classic period, “god pots” (clay effigy incense burners) functioned as portals to the underworld. They were painted with the blood-red dye of the achiote, ensouling them with life force. This incensario lid may be a late version, and would explain the remnants of red paint still visible. It has been suggested that this figure represents the Long Nosed Rain God who makes life sprout from the earth. If correct, yet another level is added to the multilayered interweaving of metaphor and myth housed in this object.

Metate (grinding table) in the form of a Jaguar
Date unknown
Unknown metal

The jaguar was the largest carnivore and the most powerful animal of ancient Mesoamerica, Jaguars roamed the groves of shaded cacao trees, surely placed there by the gods as protectors. Jaguars represented power and authority such that preclassic and classic Maya princes wore the skins and claws of jaguars as insignia of their rank. The jaguar also symbolized warfare, night and the underworld, for K’inich Ajaw rises in the east as the sun god but sets in the west into the underworld as the Jaguar god. This metate, then, symbolizes the power of the jaguar in the underworld, and also recognizes his place on earth by serving as a fundamental tool for grinding maize, cacao and other essential foodstuffs for the maintenance of human life on earth. This metate reveals decades of use for grinding. Perhaps it was reserved for ritual use at funerals grinding cacao for chocolate.

Maya (Chamá region, southern highlands, Southern Guatemala)
Cylinder vessel with Camazotz’ (the bat deity of the underworld).
c. 672-830 CE.
Ceramic with orange, red, brown, cream and black slip paints
Museum purchase

Considered one of the finest known examples of bat iconography, this funerary artifact was part of a high lord’s interment. Two species of bats from the leaf-nosed group were very importance to the Maya. One was the vampire bat that fed on the blood of animals and humans. As can be seen here, bat iconography combined these two species, giving them a pronounced “leaf” nose, and two sharp upper incisors. The red substance emitted from the mouth of Camazotz’ has been described as flame, but it is much more likely to be blood, since bats are linked in Maya cosmology to sacrifice. The vampire bat not only drinks the blood of its victims, but also injects an anti-coagulant to create abundant blood flow. For the Maya, blood is the most precious substance; it contains the essence of the ancestors and of the founding deities from whom the ancestors descended.

Leaf-nose bat (L); Vampire bat (R)

We end our presentation at Xibalba, the site of rebirth and resurrection where the cycle begins once again. Nevertheless, the absolute interdependency of the three realms must be reemphasized. It would be possible to view each artifact in this gallery as belonging to each of the three realms in some significant way. For example, consider the “Man and fruit effigy vessel, 1000-1476” presented in Caroline’s gallery of The Natural World. The figure of the man may be the Maize God, one of many gods Maya princes can be seen representing on artifacts. The cacao seed is the source of important ingredients that are always used in funerary offerings.

We invite you to visit each realm once again and consider how each artifact is significant for the other two realms.