Xenophobia and Grotesque Fun


Stephen Houston, Simon Martin, and Karl Taube

In the Ming dynasty of China, one document attracted much amused interest. This was the Luochung Lu (臝蟲錄), a treatise on “naked creatures” or barbarians that sold widely at the time (Yuming He 2011:45­–46). Not surprisingly, readers and editors in the later Qing dynasty, itself of foreign origin, found it displeasing in parts.  Intended to be comprehensive, the Luochung Lu organized information about exotic humans into a zoological schema. People could be categorized like so many “bugs, worms, insects, reptiles,” including, as one set of “critters,” those living in the “Country of Japan” or “Dwarf Land,” a place much inclined, it seems, to banditry (Yuming He 2011:50).

The preface of one edition explains the nature of all such exotics: “[b]ecause they do not have ethical principles, love war and battles, take life lightly, and delight in death, they share the nature of tigers and wolves. Because they…are fond of licentiousness, just like the behavior of incestuous deer, their nature and disposition are truly distant from the human” (Yuming He 2011:71).

The pejorative categorization of foreigners is nothing new.  There is, in the recent past, a doubled xenophobia in references, by John Oliver, the comic, to “Drumpf.” Oliver ridicules a xenophobe for the odd-sounding origins of his family name. Or, in the nineteenth century, there are Thomas Nast’s monstrous representations of drunken Irishmen, seen by many in newspapers of the day. We can dig deeper, all the way back to New Kingdom Egypt. The difference is that these depictions mingle contempt for conquered or foreign peoples with an evident pleasure in their exotic beauty.  The canes in the tomb of Tutankhamun show a Nubian and an Asiatic, neither grotesque but obviously non-Egyptian (Figure 1). Tutankhamun probably needed these canes—the pharaoh was not, by latest report, a very healthy person. But even he could rub and squeeze these captives as though he had taken them himself.  A few centuries later, beautiful foreigners of all sorts marched, in terracotta form, across a frieze at Ramses III’s temple at Medinet Habu (Hölscher 1941).  The exotic can be hateful, repulsive but also, in artful hands, appealing and even sympathetic. Their rich clothing and ornament elevated their captor. Such people were worth conquering. Or, as in the Luochung Lu, they might be figures of fun.

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Figure 1   Tutankhamun’s walking stick, 18th dynasty, KV62, Egyptian Museum, Cairo (photograph copyright Kenneth Garrett).

Classic Maya relations with foreigners mostly concern Teotihuacan (see Stone 1989, Stuart 2000, and Taube 2003; contacts with Tajín civilization are grossly understudied, perhaps because the evidence of that contact is, by contrast, material and stylistic, without historical detail).  These references fall into three categories: (1) contemporary contacts between still-vital civilizations (Tikal Stela 31); (2) retrospective accounts of contact long after Teotihuacan went up in flames (Piedras Negras Panel 2); and (3) fusions of royal Maya identities with martial elements of a long-gone city (Bonampak Stela 3).  The positive, even prestigious features of that contact receive most of our attention, with good reason. The accounts are textual, vibrant, and imbued with personality.

Yet not all was positive in the Maya perception of Teotihuacanos. There are hints of xenophobia or, much like the Luochung Lu, a comical distaste for foreigners. The first is on the lid of an Early Classic vessel (Binoche and Giquello 2016:#44; also Berjonneau and Sonnery 1985:pl. 350; said to have been in a private collection in Brussels by 1960). The vase appears to be Balanza Black from northern Peten, Guatemala, but with bright polychromed stucco of an avian in Teotihuacan style. What attracts our attention is the head on the lid. Notably non-Maya, it has dark skin, a broad face with flattened head like so many Teotihuacan masks, matted hair sticking upright, snub nose and open mouth.  Grooves run between the brows, the eyes sit far into their orbits. The lips open slightly in song—in fact, the tossed-back position is more bestial than human.  Because of its date, this pot fits into category #1, evincing contact between a still-vital Teotihuacan and the Maya.

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Figure 2.  Stuccoed vessel, northern Peten, Guatemala, c. AD 500 (Binoche and Giquello 2016:#44).

A second image comes from some 200 years later, on a vase owned by a youth or ch’ok (K6315). There is repainting on parts of this vessel, which comes from the Ik’ kingdom near Lake Peten Itza in northern Guatemala. By this time, Teotihuacan was long past its prime. A Late Classic Maya ruler sits on his throne, conversing with a standing lord. To the front are three other figures. One, in full Maya dress, holds two rattles. Behind him prance two dancers, singers too, to judge from their open mouths. They are slathered in black paint from toe to thick, spikey hair. Hands splay out, the brows are bulbous, noses snubby or retroussé. Their heads and body twist in almost yogic discomfort. The awkward movements are anything but the norm in Maya dance postures. Aside from a red element in the short, dark feathers, the effect is bichromatic, a severe black-and-white. A Teotihuacan emblem, a k’an cross, repeats on their hip-cloths. The glyphs above are difficult to read, but the final element may be ch’o’, perhaps “rat” or “rodent.”


Figure 3a. Late Classic chocolate vessel with scene of dance, Ik’-kingdom, Peten,  Guatemala, c. AD 730 (Jay Kislak Foundation, Miami, K6315, photograph copyright Justin Kerr).

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Figure 3b.  Close-up (Jay Kislak Foundation, Miami, K6315, photograph copyright Justin Kerr).

A third dates to about the same time, consisting of, among other figurines, two boxing dwarves (Figure 4; Freidel, Rich, and Reilly 2010). One has broken-off limbs; the other, more complete figurine, shows a dwarf in blocking motion with its left hand extended. His right hand clutches a round sap or bludgeon. Otherwise identical, the dwarves differ in their headdresses. In Figure 4 one has a simple panache of feathers.  The example on the left displays unmistakably Teotihuacan head-gear, with goggle-eyes and a curving obsidian blade in the style of that city. Perhaps a Maya boxer was matched up against a “Teotihuacano,” in allusion to some broader conflict between east and west in Mesoamerica. To viewers, boxing dwarves were likely to be droll, a diversion at court.

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Figure 4.  Boxing dwarves from Burial 39, El Peru, Guatemala.

For the Classic Maya, Teotihuacan represented, according to most evidence, a refined and forceful polity. It was envied, remembered, extolled, and probably feared.  Yet these images offer another view. In them, Teotihuacanos are notably non-Maya, but unattractively, even repulsively so.  Their faces run counter to all Maya standards of beauty; their movements lurch in awkward, almost clownish twists—the motion comes close to Aztec depictions of the disabled, the “vagabonds” tossed cruelly from home and hearth (see the Codex Mendoza, folio 70r). If performers, were they thought comical? Were they ancient counterparts to stock roles like the Spaniard or lecherous bishop in Highland Maya festivities? Did they babble and speak unintelligibly like the bárbaros of ancient Greece?  At the least, in Maya minds, not all Teotihuacanos were majestic or regal. Some could be grotesque, laughable, to be mocked more than feared.


Justin Kerr showed his customary generosity by sending along a high-resolution image of a rollout.


Binoche, Jean-Claude, and Alexandre Giquello. 2016. De l’ancienne collection Vanden Avenne, importante collection d’art précolumbien, Mercredi 23 Mars 2016. Paris: Drouot.

Berjonneau, Gérald, and Jean-Louis Sonnery. 1985. Rediscovered Masterpieces of Mesoamerica: Mexico-Guatemala-Honduras. Boulogne: Éditions ART 135.

Freidel, David, Michelle Rich, and F. Kent Reilly III. 2010. “Resurrecting the Maize King.” Archaeology 63: 42–45.

Hölscher, Uvo. 1941. The Mortuary Temple of Ramses III, Part I. Oriental Institute Publications, Vol. LIV. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stone, Andrea. 1989. “Disconnection, Insignia, and Foreign Expansion: eotihuacan and the Warrior Stelae of Piedras Negras.” In Richard A. Diehl and Janet C. Berlo, eds., Mesoamerican After the Decline of Teotihuacan AD 700-900, 153–172. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks.

Stuart, David. 2000. “‘The Arrival of Strangers’: Teotihuacan and Tollan in Classic Maya History.” In David Carrasco, Lindsay Jones, and Scott Sessions, eds., Mesoamerica’s Classic Heritage: From Teotihuacan to the Aztecs, 465–513. Niwot, CO: Colorado University Press.

Taube, Karl. 2003. “Tetitla and the Maya Presence at Teotihuacan.” In Geoffrey Braswell, ed., The Maya and Teotihuacan: Reinterpreting Early Classic Interaction, 273–314. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Yuming He. 2011. “The Book and the Barbarian in Ming China and Beyond: The Luo chong lu, or ‘Record of Naked Creatures’.” Asia Major 24: 43–85.