Notes on a Sacrifice Scene

by David Stuart, The University of Texas at Austin

The Late Classic cacao vase K8719 (from Justin Kerr’s The Maya Vase Database) depicts one of the more grisly scenes of human sacrifice known from Maya art. (Happy Halloween!). The surrounding imagery and texts provide some interesting tidbits of information about the timing and setting of such events, and also how they related to the pomp and circumstance of royal performance in the courts of the Classic era.

Figure 1. Rollout of vase K8719  (Photograph by Justin Kerr).
Figure 1. Rollout of vase K8719 (Photograph by Justin Kerr).

In the scene we see a king seated upon what looks to be a portable throne and looking on a scene of decapitation sacrifice.  The victim, perhaps a war captive, lies prone upon a stone altar and before a small stela. His head lies atop the stone monument, placed on a surface of amate paper-cloth (huun) and suggesting some sort of corporeal metaphor involving the upright stone (see Stuart 1996 for a further discussion of stela-body symbolism). Judging by similar scenes (see K8351), the familiar stela-altar pairing one so often see at Maya sites was often a formal place for human sacrifice. Indeed, I suspect that most stelae-and-altars erected in the plazas (Figure 2) were conceived as settings for the execution of prisoners, much as we see on this vase. To the left of the dead victims are two performers in fantastic animal costumes, wearing red scarves. As Elliot Lopez-Finn points out to me, similar portly animal performers are depicted on other vessels (see K1835, K4947. K4960). And elsewhere many similar clawed figures with red scarves are explicitly identified as wahy beings, who I have interpreted as the spooky embodiments of witchcraft and dark forces wielded by Maya rulers and elites (Stuart 2005). On this vessel the costumed figures are performing in an extraordinary setting of courtly sacrifice, perhaps as executioners that embody the animated forces of the king’s power and control over life and death.

Figure 2. Uncarved stelae and altars at Tikal.
Figure 2. Uncarved stelae and altars at Tikal.
Figure 3. Main text caption from K8719. (Photograph by J. Kerr)
Figure 3. Main text caption from K8719. (Photograph by J. Kerr)

A lengthy text runs down the middle of the image above the slain victim (Figure 3). Unfortunately it shows considerable modern repainting and “touching up” by someone who knew nothing of hieroglyphs. Nevertheless, we can see that it is a complex name caption for the seated king, opening with a CR date and then perhaps the possessed noun u baah, “the person of…” (A2 and B2). The date looks to me to be 4 Ahau 13 Yax, correspond to the k’atun ending 9.15.0.0.0. (August 16, 731 A.D.). The royal name and accompanying titles extend down into the vertical column. At B3 we see the well preserved sequence CHAN-na-K’INICH, after an initial name glyph that is largely illegible. This may well be the name Tayel Chan K’inich, in reference to the Late Classic king of the Ik’ polity who is named on a number of other vessels (Just 2012:102-123, Reents-Budet, Guenter, Bishop and Blackman 2013, Tokovinine and Zender 2013). A possible Ik’ emblem glyph might be at block A7, though again much garbled by the vase’s “restorer.”

A date of 731 A.D. agrees well with Tayel Chan K’inch, who we know from other sources to have been in power by 726 and seems to have ruled for at least a decade afterwards, perhaps a good deal more (Tokovinine and Zender 2012: 43). The 9.15.0.0.0 k’atun ending would have been among the major ceremonial event of his reign, and I suggest that the scene on this vase depicts at least one of the ceremonies from that very day.

Ascribing this vessel to the Ik’ polity and its workshops also is in keeping with the general style and color palette of the scene. Orange-colored glyphs are known from other pots of this style. We also see elaborate animal costumes worn by rulers and other performers on many other Ik’ vessels (K533, 1439, among others). As already noted, I suspect that this pair of weird-looking performers are the sacrificers responsible for the beheading. The white color here, also worn by the king, may be significant, as we find white sacrificers also shown on K2781 and K8351.

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Figure 4. The glyph aj laj, “finished one,” near the victim. (Photo by J. Kerr)

Placed near the stela and just above the legs of the sacrificial victim is a lone hieroglyph (Figure 4) readable as AJ-la-ja, for aj laj. This presumably is an agentive noun based on the root laj, meaning “end, finish, die,” found throughout lowland and highland Mayan languages (Kaufman [2003] reconstructs the common Mayan form as *laj or *laaj). The connections of this word to death are widespread, and are particularly acute in colonial Tzotzil, where we find laj meaning “be dead” and the nominalized form lajel, “death” (Laughlin 1988,I: 241). There can be little doubt that here we are meant to read the glyph on the pot as a somewhat obvious descriptor of the slain figure as “the finished one, the deceased.” As far as I am aware this is a unique example of such a title used to refer to a sacrificial victim.

Overall this vessel offers a remarkable and maybe even surprising look into the nature of Maya calendar ceremonies. Written records of k’atun endings, for example, feature the ritual acts of kings who “bind the stone” or “cast the incense.” They never directly mention human sacrifices nor the bloody anointing of stelae, and why they don’t raises an interesting issue worth pondering further. The wider canvas of a portable cylindrical vase perhaps allowed for such grisly displays, more so than the stiff and narrow face of a stone stela set in a plaza. For whatever reason, cacao vases that circulated at the courts of the Late Classic period were deemed a more appropriate media for the display of some darker subject-matter, including the gorier aspects of royal ceremony and performance.

Sources Cited:

Just, Bryan. 2012. Dancing into Dreams: Maya Vase Painting of the Ik’ Kingdom. Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton.

Kaufman, Terrence. 2003. A Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictionary. PDF ms.

Reents-Budet, Dorie, Stanley Guenter, Ronald L. Bishop and M. James Blackman. 2013. Identity and Interaction: Ceramic Styles and Social History of the Ik’ Polity, Guatemala. In Motul de San Jose: Politics, History, and Economy in a Classic Maya Polity, edited by A. E. Foias and K. F. Emery, pp. 67-93. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Stuart, David. 1996. Kings of Stone: A Consideration of Stelae in Ancient Maya Ritual and Representation. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, nos. 29/30, pp. 148-171.

___________. 2005. Glyphs on Pots. Sourcebook for the 2005 Maya Meetings. Department of Art and Art History, The University of Texas at Austin.

Tokovinine, Alexandre, and Marc Zender. 2013. Lords of Windy Water: The Royal Court of Motul de San Jose in Classic Maya Inscriptions. In Motul de San Jose: Politics, History, and Economy in a Classic Maya Polity, edited by A. E. Foias and K. F. Emery, pp. 30-66. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.