Maya Animalia, or Why Do Dogs Dress Up?

Stephen Houston and Andrew Scherer

To the memory of Robert M. Laughlin (1934–2020)

Quoting a psalm, Carl Linnæus began a major treatise on classification with words of praise for his Creator: “How great are your works! … how filled the Earth with your possessions!” A few pages in, citing Seneca, he laid out his vision of this divine plan (Linnæus 1758:6, 12). Deus creavit, Linnaeus disposuit — “God creates” but “Linnaeus disposes” (Reid 2009:23). For him, political metaphors such as “empire” and “kingdom” embraced, among other classes, the novel term of “mammalia” for creatures that nursed their young and dominated the regnum animale. In that broader kingdom were other creatures, including birds, amphibians, fish, insects, and, last and least, worms, creatures without feet or wings, eyes, ears or nostrils. But, unlike plants, all could sense and move. The most basic category, lapides or “rocks,” simply “piled” up (Linnæus 1758:6).

Mammalia had one ambiguous occupant. To Linnæus, humans were the final and most perfect of the Creator’s works. Tasked with venerating their maker, they lodged at the summit of his classification yet also jostled with “simians,” lemurs, and bats (Linnæus 1758:7, 18). For theological reasons, this was a claim with consequences, disturbing at the time to Linnæus himself ( Darwin, after all, lurked only a century away. Creatures so classified might represent a divine plan or share features arising from common descent. Each involved a different story or explanation. One had a sentient agent, an “author” of it all. The other unfolded in ways conditioned by gradual, unwitting process.

For Linnæus, relations between species and their settings—their “ecology”—was not of central concern, although he did pay attention to certain kinds of behavior. By an early theory of his, barn swallows left Sweden seasonally, not by flying south, but by wintering at the bottom of ponds (Reid 2009:23). Nor did he ignore time, for fossils clearly indicated some shifts from the past (Reid 2009:27). Folklore mixed with precise observation. In formative years, by some evidence, he might even have believed in trolls.

For those who do not live in 18th-century Sweden, or write to others in Latin epistles, Linnæus still offers four relevant queries: (1) what, in other places and times, is an animal?; (2) are their traits changeable?; (3) what stories account for such animals?; and (4) how, if at all, are humans animals or animals human? These are sovereign questions of science but especially for anthropology. Much recent thinking on these matters comes from those who look at the peoples of Amazonia. Philippe Descola (2013, 2017) and Eduardo Vivieros de Castro (1998) are central contributors here, although their subtle ideas and debates evade rapid summary (see Vanzolini and Cesarino 2014, also Fitzgerald 2013; Halbmayer 2013; on inter-species communication, Kohn 2013; for antecedents, von Uexküll 2010 [1934, 1940]).

One theme stands out. People everywhere follow “schemas” that link, contrast, and relate themselves to other beings (Descola 2013:112–116). Descola (2013:207–209, 233, fig. 2) posits several, which he organizes into a grid of attributes defined by their “interiorities” (souls or minds) and “physicalities” (outward form, matter, and behavior). In Mesoamerica, for example, “analogism” involves living things that possess multiple essences and bodies (Descola 2013:226). A plurality of souls or energies inhabit quite different beings, but those surging forces may also extend from one to the other. Their “interiorities” are dissimilar, as are their “physicalities.” Exemplified by Amazonia, “animism” presents a major contrast, consisting of humans and other creatures with “similar interiorities” and “dissimilar physicalities” (Descola 2013:233, fig. 2). Whatever their external appearance, often of great diversity, animals may be “human” too. They share an interiority with us, or perhaps, if they were once like us, they no longer are (Halbmayer 2013:13). Stories help to explain how that happened.

Descola (2013: 129) absorbs plants into his classification, if lightly so, but he would not seem to entertain the possibility of other sorts of life. For some Maya, sources insist, malignant sewing machines, automobiles, evangelical music, scissors, rainbows, and ravenous outcrops harbor their own energies and willful minds, as, anciently, did water and whirlwinds (Houston 2006; Pitarch 2011:43, 44, 49; Stuart 2007). In a few of these, “[a]nger churns, along with an unforgiving appetite for vengeance” (cf. Houston 2014:79; n.b.: variation in such ideas and their underlying rationales are the norm, even within a single community [Laughlin 2000:105]). In general, Descola and Vivieros de Castro pass over the world of artifice and material culture, the objects and features not thought to be alive in Western thought (Houston 2014:78). Nor is it certain that one ontology excludes others, a point made by some Amazonian specialists in response to Descola (Coehlho de Souza 2013:427–428), or that the schemas fall into tidy Lévi-Straussian grids. This is not to discount the careful effort and intellectual ambition behind Descola’s work. Influenced by Keith Thomas (1983) on English animals, he has focused more recently on shifting relations between humans and birds (Descola (2001; 2017:118–121). Such creatures—talking, mimicking, emotional, intelligent, yet feathered and flying—serve as productive foils for people. No ideas on earth, not even ontological schemas, want for history (e.g., Atıl 1981; Boia 1995; Pastoureau 2005; Sahlins 2017; Salisbury 1994).

What is human or animal intrigued the Classic Maya and their descendants. Consider the terms for “animal.” In Colonial Tzotzil, they are tagged by locomotion or habitual position, with words relating to quadrupedalism. Thus: kot (Laughlin 1988, I:224) and, in other languages, koht (Tzeltal, Polian 2017:44, 87). In Ch’ol, there is a numeral classifier, kojt, for “animals,” as well as an intransitive verb, kojt, for standing on four legs (Hopkins et al. 2010:100, 103). In several languages, plants are “seeded” yet also planted, with no chance of mobility, whether on four legs or two (Ciudad Real 2001:479). Plants stay put. Curiously, Ch’orti’ employs a similar root for “person,” pak’ab’, perhaps because of pervasive beliefs about the vegetal, maize-like nature of humans (Hull 2016:322). The use of human anatomy to describe plants is common in languages such as Tzotzil. Humans and plants may be described by similar expression, hair equated to corn silk, or a lazy man to unproductive land (Laughlin 2000:tables 2–4).

Yukatek also contributes -kot for such “animals without reason” (Ciudad Real 2001:120), specifically quadrupeds (Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980:338; see also Common Ch’olan *kot, “bent over, crouching, like an animal [Kaufman and Norman 1984:123]). Possibly affected by Christian belief, Ch’ol refers, in an “obsolete” term, to animals by means of negation and a studied contrast with humans. They are creatures “without souls” (ma’ch’ujlel, Hopkins et al. 2010:138). In Q’eq’chi’, “animal,” xul, implies those who are unbaptized, wild, a label applied in rebuke to unruly children (Sam Juárez et al. 1997:420–421). Humans, by comparison, are winik. They have 20 digits, a sum implied by the fingers and toes tallied together. But they are also imbued with will and destiny in a calendrical framework organized in part by this number (Houston and Inomata 2009:57–58). People count with their bodies, a finger or hand at a time. Days are latent in those digits.

What binds rather than separates animals and humans is a sense that both are “born” of a female, al, and that both have “fleshy” bodies, bak’etel (Tzeltal, Polian 2017:119, 334, 684; cf. the possibly related Ch’orti’ arak’, “animal” [Hull 2016:40; cf. Wisdom 1950:453, arak, “domestic animal”; also in Yukatek, Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980:10; Ciudad Real 2001:62)]. Charles Wisdom notes that, in Ch’orti’, ar, “mammal, animal” is “opposed to plant” [Wisdom 1950:452]). Tzeltal speaks of “animals,” chambahlum, by seeming to combine two formidable creatures, “snake,” chan, and “jaguar,” bahlam, to encompass all animals (Polian 2017:178; cf. 138, 178; n.b.: by phonological assimilation, the nasal consonant n goes to m before a bilabial b; for “jaguar,” see Ch’ol bahlum [b’ajlum]; Hopkins et al. 2010:212).

These distinctions, of habitual posture, relative mobility and wildness, or fleshiness, extend to certain plants. A late 6th-century vase in the Mint Museum–Randolph shows a variety of “just-so” stories worthy of Rudyard Kipling (Figure 1). One collection of Mayan tales calls them “‘how’ and ‘why’ stories” (Shaw 1971:24). The scene to the left could have been called “How the Jaguar Got Its Spots.” Holding a conch, ink receptacle and brush, a rodent applies (one presumes) the spots on a feline—in all likelihood, a visual story that serves as etiology, an account of cause-and-effect. The pliant jaguar is in the kot position, if resting on its haunches. He sits atop what may be the Jaguar God of the Underworld, en face, with three stones in its mouth. A possible participant to the right—see the rodent’s tail reaching out, tendril-like, to touch this image—is a seated figure with hand raised to the forehead. Long ago, David Stuart identified this pose as the lamentation gesture associated with skeletal death gods or beings in distress (personal communication, 1983). Such a pose occurs with the Maize God, sinking in his canoe, on the incised bones from Tikal Burial 116 and also with a foreign day sign for “Death” on Jimbal Stela 1:B4. [1] On the vase are three stones just beneath this figure. Around his body flares an aureole of the serrated but succulent leaves (pencas) of the agave plant. From this plant comes the alcoholic beverage pulque, chih in Classic Ch’olti’an (Houston et al. 2006:120, 122, fig. 3.16). This is extracted from fluids (aguamiel) that pool, after human scraping, at the core of the plant (Parsons and Parsons 1990:35–45).

Figure 1. How the jaguar got its spots, and the agave plant full of woe (close-up, K1558, photograph courtesy Justin Kerr).

The figure in woe is personified agave, often shown with bony features or, in alternate form, with the head of the rain deity, Chahk (Figure 2; see also Ek’ Balam, Room 29sub, Mural of the 96 Glyphs, V1, On occasion, the penca may be a variant of that god, with the syllable ‘o on its forehead (Houston et al. 2006:123, fig. 3.19; note, however, that this sign may simply be a stylized agave leaf). The agave plant appears to be ground, as agave can be, to process its fibers in either a green or burned state (penca cruda or penca asada); eventually, the strands will be plied into netting and cloth (Stuart 2014; see also Parsons and Parsons 1990:152). Possibly, the skeletal nature of the agave plant relates to the death-like, unconscious states induced by alcohol or the rooting of agave in hard, rocky landscapes (David Stuart, Karl Taube, personal communications, 2020); Chahk too has stony associations in the context of certain month names, perhaps because of lightning strikes by this god and its vitalizing effects on bedrock (cf. La Muerta Monument 1, Guatemala [Suyuc et al. 2005:fig. 9]). [2]

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Figure 2. Head of O’ Chahk(?) as agave for grinding or roasting (left, K1882), and personified agave in partly skeletal form (K1558, photographs courtesy Justin Kerr).

Or the metaphor of death ran deeper. By tradition, the tool for cutting the plant, a hooked blade known in highland Mexico as a tajadera, bears an eerie resemblance to hooked blades in Teotihuacan that snag hearts or drip with clotted, sacrificial blood (cf. Parsons and Parsons 1990:28, pls. 21–22; O’Neil 2017:fig. 25.5; Sugiyama 2017:pl. 61). Perhaps this was an agricultural trope for bloodletting and sacrifice. Slicing away at a penca to pry at its center recalled a similar act on a human torso. Because of its slashing, intrusive nature, the extraction of pulque killed the plant that yields it. For humans, heart extraction did the same (see Dehouve 2014).

Conceivably, the dark area around the agave deity represents the collecting node of raw liquid, aguamiel, the three stones below an allusion to the roasting of the plant for grinding into spinnable fiber, or even to a witz or hill (Parson and Parson 1990:152, 160–163). The evident pairing with the rodent and feline remain a mystery. What possible story was being told? The three stones under the agave plant and the jaguar suggest some commonality of hearth-like heat, beyond the speculations about the roasting of pencas and the stony, dry soil on which agave thrives. Taube wonders if those stones were simply allusions to witz or hills (personal communication, 2020). But most important here: the immobile plant bears arms, legs, fleshy body (if skeletal head). He wears a loincloth, has a mouth for eating, drinking, and talking, eyes to see. That the companion scene appears as an etiological image, an explanation for why the jaguar has spots, suggests it operates in the same domain of first things. To exist in a story, to interact with others, the plant must be animalized or made partly human.

Two observations: first, almost all creatures in Maya imagery are conventionalized; and, second, their visual treatment likely accords with a concept of “mythic prototypes” (Houston and Martin 2012). Classic images of animals can show remarkable sensitivity to behavior, a spider monkey scratching its armpit or a dog using its hind leg to relieve an itch in a hard-to-reach place (Figure 3). But armadillos (Dasypus novemcinctus) have many more armored bands than in Maya images, which greatly reduce the number of triangular osteoderm scales. Conventionalization isolates and enhances an essential identifier. But no bat known to the Maya flashed eyeballs or, in some cases, cross-bones on their wings, nor did most scratching dogs have jaguar paws. These highlight another feature, the mythic prototype, a “first exemplar” or, with the jaguar-dog, a distinct hybrid like nothing in nature: “[t]o see and depict such things and beings might have been, for the ancient Maya, a binocular process. It perceived the specific in the general, and the general amidst the wondrous particulars of ever-present myth” (Houston and Martin 2012). Less an armadillo, than the armadillo, or that armadillo, not any bat, but a very particular bat or monkey of which stories were told.

Figure 3. Conventionalized and mythologized animals: armadillo (upper left), Yaxha Offering 10 (YXMM 098, Wurster 1999[?]:30); bat (upper right, Museum of Fine Arts Boston MA 1988.1187, photograph courtesy Justin Kerr); spider monkey (lower left, K7525, photograph courtesy Justin Kerr); and hybrid dog (lower right, K7525, photograph courtesy Justin Kerr).

The monkey and the hybrid dog in Figure 3 are a kind of being identified some 30 years ago in Maya texts and imagery: the way, dream-“alter” or companion spirit (for decipherment and initial catalogue, Houston and Stuart 1989; Grube and Nahm 1994). For Descola (2013:208–217), such creatures in Mesoamerica embodied “analogism,” although it is doubtful he knew (or knows) of the glyphic evidence. The Mayanist literature on these beings is large, as is the number of controversies about their precise nature or role (for an excellent, illustrated review, see Just 2012, esp. pp. 131–132). Most appear in single registers (e.g., K531, K771, K1181, K5512, K9291), or they float in multiple registers, a few on a ground line. Several fly because they are creatures of the air, birds, bats, insects; others disobey gravity (K791, K927, K1211). A few lie almost on their bellies, constrained by the low height of a bowl that displays them (K1203). The format controls the scene, not vice versa. Hinting at unpredictability, they whip up to wild or indecorous motion (K3392). Mouths often gape; they are noisy, shake rattles or blow flutes and conches.

And they do things. One bowl displays, in order, a man-bat throwing stones, a person cutting off his own head, a small jaguar lashed to a stick held up by a human-animal, a partly defleshed jaguar brandishing an enema syringe and the olla to hold that liquid (K3395). They are never just a jaguar, just this or that animal. They involve hybrid, combinatory, naturally impossible creatures that exist in different times of day (dog and jaguar) or parts of the forest (deer on the ground, monkey in trees). Or they are beings, like skeletons, that should not walk but do. Making the impossible possible, they go to the essence of dreams and the physical liberations and unease of that experience. Notably, none have anything to do with each other. They are seemingly heedless of their neighbors on the pots. In a few cases there are subtle graphic integrations between them. A vase at the Princeton Art Museum shows a triadic pattern of sight-lines that plays out across the surface (Figure 4). These are probably a nod, too, to three viewing frames on a cylindrical vessel. Unlike the entire image, they could be seen without pivoting the vase. The standing figures are probably not in that position because of any hierarchy of spirits, but to “pace” and configure the graphic triads.

Figure 4. Interlocking eye-lines across field of way spirits, Ik’ kingdom (triangles added to K791, The Princeton Art Museum, Princeton, NJ PUAM# y1993-17, photograph courtesy Justin Kerr).

Others sport with discrete, non-integrated figures that nonetheless retain the dominant orientation of reading: starting at left, moving right (Figure 5). Note that the final figure—the first figure correlates, probably, with the beginning of the rim band text—swivels awkwardly, despite his body orientation, to match the other faces. All are hybrid animals, tapir-cats, fire-snorting peccaries, deer with eyes swinging out of their orbits. Yet none exhibit the kot, four-legged position that should confirm their animality. The bipedalism reinforces another element: they wear clothing, their privates are covered. The personified agave plant from the Mint Museum–Randolph has a loin cloth as well (Figure 2).

Figure 5. Facial orientation of way (K1743, photograph courtesy Justin Kerr).

The way beings exhibit another quality. They have a visual history. The glyph for them is attested in Early Classic texts, if mostly in what appear to be references to the Holmul area or temples (WAY[bi], loci where deities lay dormant until “awokened” (Estrada-Belli et al. 2009:246–248, fig. 10; Houston and Inomata 2009:fig. 2.3). The list of where way do not appear is impressive. It localizes to a very few kingdoms or regions: the Ik’ territory (named after the main component of its Emblem glyph), centered on the western reaches of Lake Peten Itza in Guatemala, in and around the so-called “Mirador” basin, but also north to Calakmul, Naranjo, and especially the polity of El Zotz. That city and its surroundings innovated this form of spiritual display. Several of its way occur on a number of pots—the reasons for their co-occurrence are unclear. Some are unique, as on K9254 (Figure 6). It displays a tailed, part-human, moving acrobatically, legs aloft, the hands doing the work. Indeed: the text describes him as mi-bi/BIX?-ni?, “no road/no goes [walks?],” followed by a reference to his status as a way (for BIX, see Stuart 2012). The way glyph materializes in a variant form, with infixed “ajaw,” that was first identified by David Stuart (personal communication, 1990). Karl Taube (2005:25–28, figs. 2–3) suggests it might be a version of the acrobatic Maize god, a form of a world tree that would be disinclined to move.

Figure 6. “Walking” (or not-walking”) on hands (excerpt, K9254, photograph courtesy Justin Kerr).

The first appearance of such tableaux at El Zotz, and hence of the Classic period, date to the first years of the 7th-century AD. They last for only a few generations, culminating sometime between AD 625–650. Most of the painters must have known each other, or they came from ateliers working over a relatively short span. The ceramics have a red background (a hallmark of local ceramics [de Carteret 2013]), unprovenanced but of similar date, highlighting an unusual graphic variant of a pronoun in their rim band texts; polychrome accents embolden their texts. The El Zotz vases also reveal a wide gradient of execution and legibility. The most skilled have regular spacing and a careful discharge of brush ink (K4922, K7525). Others display legible texts, but maladroit use of ink and diminished control over glyph sizes (K5084, K7720, K9098). At the far end is bare competence and sometimes worse (K1379).

There were regional emphases of way in these sets of drinking vessels. In the menagerie: ti-IL HIX, “Tapir Feline/Jaguar” (perhaps linked to Xultun, Guatemala); K’an Baah Ch’o “yellow pocket-gopher rat” (found modeled in stucco on the wall facade at Tonina, Mexico); a deer with extruded eyes on optical stalks (found also on “codex-style” vases to the north of El Zotz); a deer-monkey, ‘o-chi-la MA’X; a kind of fox, CHAK? ta-na~TAHN-na wa-xi~xa, “Red Chest Fox”; a hunter’s bundle with his conch and a deer head extruding a snake; a feline with enema equipment; and a fire-breathing bat and peccary. Why these way and no others were featured here has not been explained.

A well-known attribute is their relation to exalted dynastic titles and, on occasion, to places. At El Zotz, for example, a hunting death god was the way of local kings (Figure 8). Yet the vague, generic use of the royal titles, without reference to specific historical figures, raises the chance the way do not exist in contemporary time—i.e., they may not have a direct connection to dynastic figures of the Late Classic period. On one vase, a way is associated with Naah-5-Chan. This was the celestial abode of the so-called “paddler” gods, named after their service in a canoe with the Maize God (K791, Figure 4).

Figure 8. A local way of the kingdom of El Zotz; note the wasp-nest in his antler (excerpt, K2023, photograph courtesy Justin Kerr).

Only one figure, a male in swirling water with fishes (HA’-la wi-WINIK-ki, “watery man/person”), appears to relate intrinsically to an Emblem, one with bubbling, swirling fluid as a key component (Figure 9, K1256; see Helmke et al. 2018). In fact, all scenes potentially relate to mythic periods, their red background indexing ancient times when such gatherings took place: an ordering of gods (tz’ahkaj) at the “place of the sun,” K’IN-chi-IL (e.g., K7750). What had been a local aesthetic preference for red backgrounds may have acquired the symbolic nuance of “pre-dawn” events in a dim realm on the verge of sunlit ordering (Hamann 2002).

Figure 9. A Way, “Watery Man/Person” with Emblem glyph of swirling water (excerpt, K1256, photograph courtesy Justin Kerr).

Such are the way: asocial or even anti-social, active in wild ways, loud, far from the decorum of kings, composite in nature, the impossible made possible, gravity itself in question, and possibly timeless in their nature and depiction. The political grafting in some cases—a ruler mentioned for the dynasties of Tikal, Palenque, etc.—was projected far backwards, to unnamed, generic holders of high titles. Or rather, the assumption that such figures are depicted in dynastic time, when the pots were painted, is unproven. They are just as likely to exist in myth or some “other-time,” an alternative, parallel state. The historical references to their owners have few secure ties to the scenes on the body of these ceramics. A pot from the area of El Zotz refers to the local way; the renowned “Altar de Sacrificios” vase, clearly from Lake Peten Itza, and the territory of 13 K’uh, mentions its regional way, Chak Bahlam (with blood-gorged mouth; K3120, MNAE 07901). But these are the exceptions. Their association with other spirits on pots continues to baffle.

Why do these spirits occur, and in a particular order? The apparently random arrangements are highlighted on a vase in the Princeton Art Museum (Figure 10; cf. Figure 4). A courtly scene is explicable, a social hierarchy made visible—these are even clear in the divine analogies to courts that appear to have been “established” at the beginning of the Era, on 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk’u (K2796 and its expansion on K7750). The spatial organization of way conform to no sure rules.

Figure 10. Disposition of Emblems and place names with way on Late Classic vase, Ik’ kingdom (K791, The Princeton Art Museum, Princeton, NJ PUAM# y1993-17, photograph courtesy Justin Kerr).

Behind Linnæus was not just the meticulous comparison of formal, anatomical features or broad behavior. There was the Old Testament, a story, if one to be doubted at his peril. (Dismissal of the Bible was a bold step he had no interest in taking.) Stories as gendered as those of the Book of Genesis seem also to have configured Classic Maya practice. Time and distance shaped such story-telling. In Maya writing, all supposed speech acts, those that report conversations, are either in times somewhat past—those on Piedras Negras Panel 3 may involve people no longer alive at time of carving (Houston and Stuart 1993; Law et al. 2013; Zender 2017). Or they occurred in mythic time, long past, or in some alternative, concurrent stream of existence.

Some are a distinct subset, the y-ala-j-iiy expressions recording one-way comments between gods, hummingbirds, dwarves, rabbits, dog-coatis, kinds of parrot, and receptive ladies (e.g., K2026, K4999, K7727, K8885). They are hardly conversations, which imply give-and-take. In emotional tone, they veer from solemn to comical, and many involve that exalted personage, God D. Typically, hierarchs speak to subordinates, no back-talk allowed. Exceptions include lowly beings reporting on some disconsolate failure, a dearth, or having too much of something else (K2026). In texts, the conversation comes first, then its social contextualization. One incised alabaster bowl has that quotative contextualization on its bottom, only legible when the object is lifted for imbibing its contents (Princeton University Art Museum, 2002-370, K3296).

Two features of these interactions are worth noting. In fact, they apply to most animals in Classic Maya imagery. First, creatures in active interaction with humans usually wear human clothing. A few vases exhibit journeys—of a duration indicated, perhaps by sequent day names (the reversed day names, Ak’ab, Ik’, Imix, suggest a return trip or some more subtle unspooling of time). A spotted dog pads along beneath a lord’s litter as his evident companion, sounding alarms, sniffing out game (Figure 11). In the image to the left, a dog is a dog. In that to the middle, it may paw its master’s foot (God D’s) in entreaty, but it sits as a human might and wears a loincloth and cross-tie bracelets; the rope around the neck is an indication, along with the white cloth, of its captive, controlled state. To be truly interactive, in mythic contexts, the animals adopt human attributes. Presumably, this transformation enabled intelligible speech. Dogs dressed up because, this implies, full sociality requires some human attributes. An interactive ecology grounded in field and forest is transposed to human courts and built space.

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Figure 11. Animals that do and do not dress up, two dogs and a ti-la ch’o-ko, “tapir youth” (left and center photographs courtesy Justin Kerr, “Aussie Pot,” photographer unknown).

With that interaction made possible, human females can have affective relations that range from nursing or coddling a small mammal to embracing a rabbit lover (Halperin 2014:fig. 4.28b), or they might be carried off (ku-cha-ja) by randy deer equipped with the pectorals, collars, and belts of human males (K1182, K2794); wrapped with masculine loincloths, woodpeckers may speak to herons (K4931). They dress like people, they sit like them too. This is a matter of shared interiority, with acknowledgement of a dissimilar physicality that nonetheless blurs with humans. It also relates, in a manner consistent with Vivieros de Castro, to a “time when the cosmos’ multiple entities shared a generic human condition and were thus able to communicate with each other,” only to suffer, at some point “severe disruption, which results in the transformation of the numerous types of humans that existed…into the different present-day species of animals” (Vanzolini and Cesarino 2014). Writing of Tzotzil beliefs, Robert Laughlin (1979:2) observes: “[a]t a later stage in the history of the world animals still talked and men travelled as thunderbolts. Spooks and jaguars were rampant” (see also Shaw 1971:12). For the Classic Maya, this was not about a dominant schema, whether of animism or analogism. Depending on story and setting, it had aspects of both.

A festival of “humanimals” appears on the “Vase of the 31 Gods” (Figure 12). Not endowed with texts, it implies them in abundance, the exclusive reliance of imagery perhaps being the point. Viewers had to know these tales, relations, motivations, and outcomes of this bustle of intense conversations. The animals show surface dissimilarities, but many human properties too, including an upright, seated posture, loincloths, collars, and bracelets. The red background points to some far time.

Figure 12. Vase of the 31 Gods (K1386, photograph courtesy Justin Kerr).

Yet, despite the absence of glyphs, there is both a quasi-textual parsing and quasi-textual sequencing in the multiple ground-lines and presumed top-to-bottom ordering (Figure 13). The viewer needed to understand a great deal about the outcomes of these various meetings. The huddles could not have taken place at once, for God D makes several appearances. In possible self-reference, the images may even allude to the bowl that exhibits the images: three such receptacles occur in lower registers to the right, once in the company of a jaguar offering an enema syringe. This is a convivial assembly. And more than most, the complex, multi-frame scene offers a compendium of “humanimals,” with much still to decode.

Figure 13. Presumed grouping and “reading order”; contrastive outlines highlight distinct sets of interactions; “star” indicates possible beginning (photograph courtesy Justin Kerr).

The second observation confronts an overlooked attribute of Classic Maya images. Where genitalia are visible, or clothing worn, they seem all to be male or, at least gender-neutral or male default. Clothing is highly gendered in Maya imagery, serving as a surrogate for a less discreet display of penises or other primary or secondary characteristics. The deer that carried off human females: male. Scribal monkeys: male. The dogs discussed above: male. Lovers of women: male. The visual cues to females, principally by showing them with their young, are almost non-existent in Maya imagery, including the figurines of wide use and, in some sites, wide distribution (Halperin 2014:fig. 4.17, 4.23). Tales assembled by various scholars refer generically to this or that animal, yet, to curious extent, females of those species are scarcely mentioned. [3] Tricksters, found throughout the region, seem also to be masculine (cf. the Amazon, Basso 1997:111, 216.226, which nonetheless draws a line from tricksters to normative male aggression; Allen Christenson also comments to us that the K’iche’ Título de Totonicapán refers to one of the trickster “hero-twins” as female). Males or the gender-neutral appear to be the default in story-telling. Yet the effect is not always laudatory. Rendering animals as male underscores the androcentricity (male-centered quality) of Classic elites. It also implies that human males are more prone to animal-like behaviors and unchecked desires.

Images that pair male and female animals can be counted on one hand (Figure 14). A whistle from El Kinel, Guatemala, identifies a male turkey by his wattle and ostentatious jewelry, including a necklace. The female is, as in nature, of plainer, less strutting sort. A finer point may be discerned, that royal males were frequently shown in eye-catching display, “peacocking” in a word. But for cultural and aesthetic reasons: it would be an overreach to invoke evolutionary theories about securing mates (Prum 2017). Or, for animals and captives, the display of penises related to their innate bestiality, as well as to deliberate acts of humiliation—a zoöphobic trope attested in other Maya evidence (Houston et al. 2006:207–219). When more human than animal, the privates are covered. When less human, or degraded socially, they are not.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is females2.jpg
Figure 14. Gender in animal depiction: (a) tom turkey and hen, El Kinel, Guatemala; (b) tom turkey figurine, Piedras Negras Operation 41D-21-2; (c) female monkey in human garb and pose, Piedras Negras Operation 46F-19-1; and (d) dog(?) in huipil (K3844, photograph courtesy Justin Kerr).

Yet, an ultimate explanation for the gendering may have to do with a profound inequality of the time. Most documented makers of images were men, who seem to have devised and upheld an androcentric mode of depiction (Houston et al. 2006:51–56; Houston 2016). Among the few female animals are a monkey, dressed as a human but with simian face (Figure 14c), and what may be a dog or fox, robed in a huipil or female garment (Figure 14d). The red-background, “glowing” eyes produced by excision, and darkness on foregrounded figures bespeak a different state, perhaps a very different time. The glyphs nearby (Sak 3 Ook K’inich) do not indicate a female, however. Unlike others in the image, this figure may have no caption.

Animalia indeed: the evidence points to a thorough-going, masculine (or male-default) skewing, whatever the explanation. Almost all way are male, with only two exceptions (e.g., K2286), and those lack animal features or an explicit way designator. Trans-species sociality, however, including an ability to converse, scheme, and cavort sexually, needed more than that. There had to be human poses and raiment, a replication, with slight hints of animality, of human society itself.

Such dialogue was not of an everyday present. It took place in the far past, or in some alternative, even timeless existence that was nonetheless “true” (Shaw 1971:24): in Tzotzil, batz’i, “true” but also “‘primary’, ‘actual’, ‘essential’, ‘very’, and ‘principal'” (Gossen 1974:78). This separation was no less applicable to Maya deities. With few exceptions, they did not interact with historical figures in narrative scenes from the Classic period. Those that do seem to have been cradled or held as magical fetishes, as at La Amelia or the diminutive, squirming Chahk and flower-breathing jaguars at Xultun. [4] Others took the form of vitalized carvings, of which only a few survive (e.g., Fields and Reents-Budet 2005:158–159, 191–192, #58, #89).

Howard Bloch (2004:69–71), a specialist on Medieval France, stresses that the fables around interactions with animals are never timeless. They respond to reflections about tumultuous change, in his case the development of cities, courts, and urban spaces. Flourishing Maya courts, more and more congested cities, a distancing from untouched jungle, may have led Maya calligraphers and carvers to reflect with the intensity of Linnæus on what was human, beast or both.


[1] As noted by Stuart: the Jimbal glyph, with the number “13” and square, non-Maya cartouche. It is clearly the day sign “Death,” to judge from its position between 12 “Snake” and “1 Deer.”

[2] The syllable hi, which derives from his stone-like head, may come from a common term for “sand,” *hi in Common Ch’olan (Kaufman and Norman 1984:120). Possibly this was understood in Classic times as a material related to the vitrified product (fulgurite-like residues) of lightning strikes.

[3] For contrastive traditions with female-animal transformations and “animal-wives,” see Goddard (2018) and Kobayashi 2015). Consult Steiner (2005) for a less subtle claim about long-standing, Western beliefs in the equivalence of humans and animals. Sorabji (1993:10) reports on Plato’s view of animals as reincarnated humans, a clear assertion of spiritual parity. See also Shaw for Mayan tales (1971:17–18). On monkeys, Laughlin (1979:8, 41, 259), Thompson (1930, 1970:361–363), as well as Foster (1945) and Siegel (1943). George Foster does refer to female dogs in a non-Mayan, Popoluca tale (Foster 1945:226). For a thematic orientation to Maya myth, as based on distinct kinds of personage, see an insightful study by Chinchilla Mazariegos (2017). Allen Christenson (personal communication, 2020) observes that, in K’iche’, both humans and companion spirits are capable of reasoned thought, no’j. For useful sources on the “humanimal,” there are Mechling (1989), Ritvo (1997), Sax (1998, 2017), and Zipes (2012).

[4] The pose may correspond to the expression, 1-tahn, “first [thing] of the chest.” Usually, this applies to the relation of a mother to a child, perhaps from birth order, but a sense of intimate, physical custodianship may explain the gesture here. Rulers at Palenque, especially Kan Balam, employed such an expression with deities and buildings (Temple of the Inscriptions, West Panel:S11, Tablet of the Cross:G17).


This essay developed, along with other efforts, from a 2012–2014 Sawyer Seminar funded by the Andrew G. Mellon Foundation, “Animal Magnetism: The Emotional Ecology of Animals and Humans,” organized by Susan Alcock, John Bodel, and Stephen Houston; the sponsor was Brown’s Program in Early Cultures, which those three directed. In 2012, the kernel of this work was given by Houston as part of that Seminar. Charles Golden, David Stuart, and especially Karl Taube helped as always; Allen Christenson provided relevant evidence from K’iche’ sources. “K” numbers correspond to Justin Kerr’s indispensable archive of rollout photographs, used here with his kind permission.


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