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/

A Childhood Ritual on The Hauberg Stela

In a few Classic Maya texts we find records of coming-of-age ceremonies involving royal children, where bloodleting seems a dominant theme. These ritual events haven’t yet been collectively discussed or analyzed in the literature (at least as far as I know) so I hope this brief post might help point the way for further thought, especially with regard to the interpretation of an important ealry Maya monument known as the Hauberg Stela (see the third and last image, scrolling below).

We can first turn to the vivid but damaged depiction of one such childhood rite on Panel 19 from Dos Pilas, shown here.


At center stage we see the young prince shedding drops of blood into a dish, standing before a kneeling priest who holds a stingray spine — the instrument of choice for genital bloodletting in much of ancient Mesomerica. The boy’s mother and father (Ruler 3 of Dos Pilas) look on from the left, as do also two attendants at right, one called the “guardian of the boy.” The main inscription is too damaged to read in full, unfortunately, but it does mention the ch’ok ajaw title (“prince”) as well as the fact that the ritual was witnessed by “the twenty-eight lords.” Evidently this sort of youth ceremony was a major political event in its own right.


Texts at other sites seem to describe very similar sorts of episodes. In a passage from Stela 3 of Caracol, show here, we read of a ceremony called yax ch’ab, involving the five-year old youngster named Sak Baah Witzil — he would would later reign as the important ruler Tum Yohl K’inich (also known as “Kan II,” in Martin and Grube’s Chronicles of Maya Kings and Queens). As others have noted, yax ch’ab is surely a bloodletting ceremony, literally meaning “first penance” or “first creation.” Ch’ab alone is a key term used for adult bloodletting ceremonies, as best seen on Yaxchilan, Lintel 24. According to the Caracol passage, the boy’s father oversaw the ritual according to the same passage, making for an even more precise parallel to the Dos Pilas scene.

(Another yax ch’ab ritual is recorded on the side of Tikal’s Stela 10, a much eroded monument, but the context is not so clear; it too could well refer to a childhood bloodletting ceremony.)


This brings us the remarkable Huaberg Stela, a key Early Classic sculpture dating to about 200-300 AD, now in the collections of the Princeton University Art Museum. The miniature stela shows a standing figure in supernatural attire, cradling a long serpent that arches above his head. Images of conjured ancestral figures climb the body of the snake, and another likely ancestor image emerges from the gaping maw above. The main verb in the accompanying text is again yax ch’ab, “first penance,” leading me to consider the Hauberg Stela as a commemoration of a young boy’s first bloodletting, perhaps involving also a performance of deity impersonation. The unusual small size of the monument — it’s only about 80 cms in hieght — may be due to it being a “child-size” stela.

Published studies of the Hauberg Stela don’t mentioned this connection to youth ceremonies, so my take on it goes against established wisdom in some ways. For example, the entry in the Lords of Creation exhibit catalog (Fields and Reents-Budet 2005) repeats the long-held view first tentatively advanced by Linda Schele (1985) that the Hauberg Stela depicts a king named “Bak T’ul” in a bloodletting “vision quest” (a term, by the way, I strongly object to). Bloodletting it certainly is, but based on a closer reading of the glyphs and drawing key comparisons, I think a good case can be made that the Hauberg Stela instead celebrates a royal child’s auto-sacrifice, a “First Penance.”

(By the way, “Bak T’ul” is not the correct reading of the personal name in any case, whether it be a child or adult. It looks instead to be CHAK, “red,” before an undeciphered animal head sign erroneously analyzed before as a rabbit, t’ul.)

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Further reading:

Fields, Virginia, and Dorie Reents-Budet. 2005. Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship. Los Angeles: LACMA

Schele, Linda. 1985. The Hauberg Stela. Bloodletting and the Mythos of Maya Rulership. In Fifth Palenque Round Table, 1983, edited by M.G. Robertson and V. Fields, pp. 135-150. San Francisco: PARI