A Liquid Passage to Manhood

by Stephen Houston

A few years ago I proposed that some of the most celebrated Maya vases were commissioned for young men in Classic society (Houston 2009: 166). My thoughts at the time: “pots with such labels could have been bestowed in the setting of age-grade rituals or promotions, a recognition of feasting and expensive drinks as markers of adult status, even trophies and material honours while in page service, ballplay or war.” The notion appealed to me on behalf of all those ungainly, ever-changing youth in past and present times—as a set, the boys and young men could be seen as an unexpected aesthetic locus, a target for what was arguably the summit of ceramic painting in the ancient New World. But this idea involved a second, very specific expectation. The painted vessels so-named and so-possessed would involve not only young men but youths at times of change, on transit through the rites of passage so familiar to comparative anthropology.

A fresh piece of evidence lends weight to this conjecture. An eroded and shattered cylindrical vessel in the Juan Antonio Valdés Museum in Uaxactun, Guatemala, contains the usual Primary Standard Sequence. The glyphs have a cadenced coloration of two red-painted glyphs followed by one left uncolored. This scheme recalls the Primary Standard Sequences on such luminous vessels as a bowl from the area of Tikal, now in the Museo Popol Vuh (Kerr #3395; the presence of Jasaw Chan K’awiil’s name on the bowl brackets it temporally to AD 682 ~ 734; see also K #595). The vessel in Uaxactun has the following sequence, somewhat occluded by the darkness of the photographs I have seen: ….u-tz’i ba-IL yu-k’i-bi ti-YAX-CH’AHB ch’o-ko AJ-?BAHLAM che-he-na SAK-MO’-‘o ?-?…., the final glyphs surely the name of the painter. Figure 1 reproduces a key passage, the name of the drinking vessel (yuk’ib), just before an expression ti yax ch’ahb, “for the first fast/penance(?).” Then, crucially, the name of the owner, a ch’ok or “youth.”

Figure 1. Passage on a vessel in the Juan Antonio Valdés Museum (drawing by author).

As Stuart and others have noted, the yax ch’ahb refers to a rite of passage for young males, perhaps most eloquently in a text from Caracol Stela 3 (Stuart 2008; also Houston et al. 2006: 131-132, fig. 3.30). There, a young prince, only a few months beyond 5 years of age, underwent this arduous rite. It formed part of his first bloodletting but probably involved much other pain besides, including the denial of food. The import is clear: the vessel at Uaxactun was intended specifically for an age-grade ritual, the first (presumably) of many sacrificial offerings from a noble youth. Did it offer a filling and restorative draft of liquid after penance? Was it a gift to others who might witness his ascent to adult duty? Of these matters we cannot be certain. But the likelihood is now stronger that most such vessels marked and materialized shifts of status: a liquid passage from boyhood to the obligations of elite men.


Houston, Stephen. 2009. A Splendid Predicament: Young Men in Classic Maya Society. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 19 (2): 149-178.

Houston, Stephen, David Stuart, and Karl Taube. 2006. The Memory of Bones: Body, Being, and Experience among the Classic Maya. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Stuart, David. 2008. A Childhood Ritual on The Hauberg Stela. Maya Decipherment webloghttp://mayadecipherment.com/2008/03/27/a-childhood-ritual-on-the-hauberg-stela/

6 thoughts on “A Liquid Passage to Manhood

  1. Sebastián Matteo May 9, 2012 / 1:45 PM

    Muchas gracias Stephen para esta nota muy interesante!
    Como lo subrayó Stephen, esa vasija muestra similitudes gráficas y cromáticas con las vasijas K3395 y K595. Las similitudes con la cerámicao K3395 existen por una razón muy simple: el pintor del cuenco Castillo (K3395, en las colecciones del Museo del Popol Vuh) es el mismo que realizó la decoración de la vasija del Museo Juan Antonio Valdés. En una pequeña nota que fue terminado todavía, hemos subrayado que Sak Mo’ era también mencionado en el texto de una tercera vasija (K1256, en colección privada). Hay de añadir que Stanley Guenter llegó independientemente a las mismas conclusiones en su tesis sobre el hiato en Tikal (2002, Under a Falling Star: The Hiatus at Tikal, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia). Cuando Stanley Guenter realizó su estudio, no podía conocer la vasija de Uaxactun. De hecho, Guido Krempel (comunicación personal del 9 de Mayo de 2012) nos informó que la vasija llegó en las colecciones del museo J.A. Valdés (dirigido por Doña Neria) durante el año 2009. Durante el mes de abril de 2012, la vasija fue conservada fuera de la sala de exhibición por razones de seguridad, esperando su restauración.
    Se puede entonces observar el nombre de Sak Mo’ en tres vasijas muy parecidas. En dos ocasiones (K3395 y vasija del Museo J.A. Valdés), su nombre esta seguido por un bloque que puede leerse waxak pat (8-pa-ta). Otro punto muy interesante, es que las vasijas K1256 y K3395 representan à seres wayob. De hecho, en todo el corpus de cerámicas mostrando wayob, existen solamente dos vasijas firmadas, y justamente, son estas.

    Fotografías de los vasos:
    K3395: http://research.mayavase.com/kerrmaya_hires.php?vase=3395
    K1256: http://research.mayavase.com/kerrmaya_hires.php?vase=1256

    • mayoid May 9, 2012 / 3:31 PM

      Nice observations — and, of course, all these vessels are owned by young men, although the great Popol Vuh bowl is a Chak Ch’ok, which may be relevant. The Popol Vuh bowl is also for /ul/, not /kakaw/; K1256, a vessel for chocolate, has the usual cylindrical shape.

      I do think the Popol Vuh bowl needs closer study. Its long text has much to offer – it was where, in ’84 or so, it became clear to me, from “Ruler A”‘s name, that the sign Chris Jones had been reading as ka-ka, for “ah kakaw,” was a different glyph. It could not cue a [ka] syllable. Had to be something else. I believe Dave Stuart first proposed the [sa] alternative.

      But I remain puzzled about the final che-he-na “signature,” which is not that of Sak-Mo’ (see below). Fully 4/5 of its rimband text requires further study. Those of us who have looked at the original know that it is hard to read — the pooled red paint, a red-on-red, makes it difficult to reproduce in legible fashion. A good candidate for a drawing or a heavily Photoshopped image. …and a good paper topic for someone who wants to have fun.

      Several other comments:

      — There appears to be no overlap in the wahy on the Popol Vuh bowl and K1256. For me, this kind of distribution has yet to be explained — why do certain wahy cluster on vessels, and what undergirds that placement? The Ik’-site wahy on the Popol Vuh bowl appears, of course, on another bowl in their collection, the one with the “4 Winds” wahy.

      — The three vessels mentioned by Mr. Matteo present an issue in what Berenson called “scientific connoisseurship,” i.e., the vessels have similarities to be sure (the pervasive animation of [ba] syllables), but there are also minute discrepancies in glyph style: note, for example, the IL ‘bird’ on the Popol Vuh vessel in comparison to the IL on the vase from Uaxactun. Were these painted at different times in the life of a single painter, the old “Amico di Sandro” problem? (An invention of Berenson’s: he had failed to recognize the evolving style of Filippino Lippi.) Nonetheless, there is a strong chance that K1256 has some repainting — the ancient repair holes are surrounded by a seamless surface. Quite impossible without significant, modern conservation. That is why the Popol Vuh Museum holdings are so useful — few have much over-painting or excessive restoration.

  2. Jefferson Chance May 11, 2012 / 6:10 PM

    Hi Dr. Houston; I was wondering, being that these would have been such strong cultural ceremonies (strong enough, as you proffer, to be the main theme of the vases) and would likely have continued on culturally even after the art and language were destroyed, if such passage rituals and rites are still seen in the various existing Maya cultures, as some ancient Maya ceremonies are (e.g. Chaac festival)?

    Thanks for the article.


  3. Odak May 12, 2012 / 1:52 AM

    It’s unfortunate that we’ve lost these primal rites of passage in our modern age. Not that boys need to bleed but part of the passage into manhood is an initiation by the men around him and the imparting of wisdom. There don’t seem to be enough good transitions these days to turn boys into men and the ancient traditions are of little use to modern kids. It’s up to modern men to find new ways to initiate boys and pass on the wisdom of life.

    My favorite book about manhood is David Deida’s Way of the Superior Man which I recommend to all guys.