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Drawing From the Past
Maya Antiquity Through the Eyes of Frederick Catherwood

Plate 1: Idol at Copán

Plate 1, Idol at Copán

Plate 1, Idol at Copán
(on stone, by H. Warren)

The overgrown jungle of Copán is the backdrop for a formidable stone statue erected in the early eighth century. Standing more than three meters high, the figure on the stele wears a net skirt, beaded jewelry, and a large headdress; masks hang from an ornate belt. He also holds a scepter with two protruding serpent heads.

When Stephens and Catherwood excavated this sculpture, the dress and the absence of a beard led them to believe this was a woman. Yet Maya men did wear long tunics in religious ceremonies, and scholars now accept that this is one of Copán’s most famous rulers, King Waxaklajun Ub’aah K’awiil, in the guise of a maize god.

Sacrifice was a significant part of Maya religious life because the gods sacrificed themselves to create the world. The iconography of the maize gods and serpents on this stele relates to this tradition. Four maize gods hang from the sides of the figure, and a maize cob and husks are depicted directly above the headdress. Serpents often represent sacrifice. On one side of the sculpture, two serpents intertwine and hold a grotesque figure and a blood-letter (an instrument that allowed one to draw one’s own blood for sacrifice to the gods). Performing sacrifice was sacred and vital to the Maya for honoring the maize gods, as well as others. [Spanish version].

MORGAN MIDDLEBROOK

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