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Ancient Maya Bloodletting Rituals

Royal Maya Blood Sacrifices

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Example of bloodletting spoon or perforator, Guerrero, Snite Museum of Art.

Example of bloodletting spoon or perforator, Guerrero, Snite Museum of Art.

Madman2001

Bloodletting--cutting part of the body to release blood--is an ancient ritual used by many Mesoamerican societies. For the ancient Maya, bloodletting rituals constituted a way to communicate with the gods and royal ancestors. This practice was usually performed by nobles through the perforation of body parts, mainly, but not only, tongue, lips, and genitals. Both men and women practiced these types of sacrifices.

Ritual bloodletting, along with fasting, tobacco smoking and ritual enemas, were pursued by the royal Maya in order to provoke trance-like state and supernatural visions and therefore communicate with dynastic ancestors or underworld gods.

Bloodletting Occasions and Locations

These rituals were usually performed at significant dates and state events, such as beginning or end of calendar cycles, when a king ascended to the throne, and at building dedications, as well as at other important life stages of kings and queens, such as births, deaths, marriages, and war.

Bloodletting rituals were usually carried out in secluded temple rooms on the top of pyramids, but public ceremonies were organized during these events and people attended them, crowding in the plaza at the bottom of the pyramid. These public displays were used by the rulers to show their ability to communicate with the gods in order to obtain advice on how to balance the world of the living and to ensure the natural cycles of the seasons and stars.   

Bloodletting Tools

Piercing of body parts during bloodletting rituals involved the use of sharp objects such as obsidian blades, stingray spines, carved bones, perforators, and knotted ropes. Equipment also included bark paper and copal incense, the first one used to collect the blood and then burnt with copal to provoke smoke. Blood was then collected in recepticals made out of ceramic or basketry. Cloth bundles were probably used to carry around all the equipment.

Bloodletting Imagery

Evidence of bloodletting rituals comes primarily from scenes depicting royal figures on carved monuments and painted pots. Stone sculptures and paintings from Maya sites such as Palenque, Yaxchilan, and Uaxactun, among others, offer dramatic examples of these practices.

The Maya site of Yaxchilan, Chiapas, offers a particularly rich gallery of images about bloodletting rituals. In a series of three door lintels from this site, a royal woman, Lady Xook, is portrayed performing bloodletting, piercing her tongue with a knotted rope, and provoking a serpent isionduring the throne accession ceremony of his husband.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Maya Civilization, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Adams, Richard E. W. , 2005 [1977], Prehistoric Mesoamerica. Third Edition. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Mc Killop, Heather, 2004, The Ancient Maya. New Perspectives. ABC-CLIO. Santa Barbara, California

Schele, Linda, and Mary Miller, 1986. The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. George Braziller, New York.

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