Deathly Sport

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

On a scorching day in July 2006, my wife and I happened to visit a Roman necropolis at Carmona, just east of Sevilla, Spain – not for nothing is this called the sartén de Europa, with temperatures in excess of 46° celsius! But there, at Roman “Carmo,” the tombs were cool, richly painted in parts. Some dozens of meters away, we saw a triclinium (formal dining room) for funerary banquets and an amphitheater to house games in honor of the dead.

The ancient Mediterranean has a long tradition of such games. Homer, in the Iliad, speaks with appreciative bloodlust of the sporting events for Patroclus, the late, beloved companion of Achilles: “Raising their arms, their powerful fists, they [the participants] went at one another. Their hands exchanged some heavy punches, landing with painful crunches on their jaws. From their limbs sweat ran down everywhere” (Bk 23, lines 847-851, trans. Ian Johnston). Ultimately, the tradition passed to the Lucanians at Paestum, south of Naples —where the scene of a gladiatorial fray embellishes the walls of a tomb—to what may be the first gladiatorial contests, also funerary, held at Rome in 264 BC (Potter 2012:187-190). In all such cases, the games pulsed with recollection of once-vibrant dead. As John Bodel, a friend and Latin epigraphist reminds me, the nuances were further layered to include the most basic struggle of all, between life and death (see Ville 1981).

Was some Maya ballplay of a mortuary nature too? Did the hurly-burly of sacred sport—a celebration of chance but also of preparation and athletic skill—link to royal tombs?

The grimmer features of the Post-Classic (to early Colonial) ballgame bear repeating. The Xibalba of the Popol Vuh, an abode of gods with names like mortal diseases, thudded with ballplay. It was in a ballcourt that the lords of Xibalba buried the defeated brothers One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu (Christenson 2007:125). Hunahpuh and Xbalanque, miraculous sons of One Hunahpu, later played in the “ballcourt of their father,” “sweeping [it] clear” (ibid.:125). When they bested the lords of Xibalba, the twins “left behind” the “heart of their father [One Hunahpu]…at Crushing Ballcourt” (ibid.:191). “Here you will called upon’…‘They shall worship you first. Your name shall not be forgotten’” (ibid.:191).

The Popol Vuh, a much later source, does not always resonate with practices and beliefs of the Classic period. Yet here it might, in what appear to be precise or notional alignments between the central axis of a ballcourt and a known royal tomb.

The more precise examples:

(1) At Dos Pilas, Guatemala, the ballcourt composed of Structures L4-17 and L4-16 (Houston 1993:Site Map 1) defines an axis that passes directly south to a pyramid, Structure L5-1. Excavations in 1991 showed that the pyramid contained the tomb of Dos Pilas’ Ruler 2, in a crypt almost precisely aligned with the axis of the ballcourt (Figure 1; Demarest et al. 1991). The sculptures on the ballcourt, Panels 11 and 12, deploy a version of the Dos Pilas Emblem that dates a generation or so later than the pyramid (Houston 1993:Figures 3-17, 3-18).

Figure 1. Alignment of ballcourt and pyramid at Dos Pilas, Guatemala, with red rectangle indicating location of royal tomb (map by Stephen Houston).

Figure 1. Alignment of ballcourt and pyramid at Dos Pilas, Guatemala, with red rectangle indicating location of royal tomb (map by Stephen Houston).

(2) The small ballcourt near Temple I at Tikal, Guatemala (Structure 5D-74-1st), has a central axis aligning with Burial 116, tomb of Jasaw Kaan K’awiil, ruler of Tikal (Figure 2; Coe 1990:Figures 257b, 284-86). There is an earlier ballcourt—said vaguely to be “within a regional ‘Early Classic’ era (whatever this attribution may communicate to reader)” (Coe 1990:650). It aligns almost exactly with Burial 116. Conceivably, the earlier ballcourt dictated the placement of Burial 116, which is off-center in the pyramid, below ground level and towards the front. Again, the crypt lines up with the axis of Structure 5D-74-1st and 2nd.

Figure 2. Alignment of Str. FD-74 with Burial 116 under Temple 1; earlier ballcourt, where it survives, cue in green (map by the Tikal Project, University of Pennsylvania).

Figure 2. Alignment of Str. FD-74 with Burial 116 under Temple 1; earlier ballcourt, where it survives, cue in green (map by the Tikal Project, University of Pennsylvania).

Then the ballcourts with rougher alignments:

(3) The first ballcourt at Copan, Honduras, dating to ca. AD 470, has a central axis that points to the front stairway of the Margarita tomb, and to the vicinity of Hunal, the probable tomb of the founder (Figure 3; Sharer et al. 2005:Figure 5.2). The axes of the crypts have the same orientation as the ballcourt (Sharer et al. 2005:Figure 5-7).

Figure 3. Alignment of Copan ballcourt with the Margarita building, Hunal building marked in blue (map by the Early Copan Acropolis Program, directed by Robert J. Sharer).

Figure 3. Alignment of Copan ballcourt with the Margarita building, Hunal building marked in blue (map by the Early Copan Acropolis Program, directed by Robert J. Sharer).


(4) A suggestive example comes from Ceibal, Guatemala (Figure 4). Hieroglyphic Stairway 1, in Structure A-14, refers to the “fire-entering” of a tomb on Nov. 4, AD 747 (Graham 1996:59, Tablet 5:DD1). Presumably, the tomb lay nearby, perhaps behind the stairway, which seems to have been re-set in Classic times. Across from the stairway, but not precisely aligned with its axis, is the Structure A-19 ballcourt; its orientation leads to the join between Structures A-12 and A-14. Takeshi Inomata, who has been digging at Ceibal over the last years, kindly reports on what his project found. Digging in the southern end of Structure A-12, they discovered that the “construction mass dates to the Late Preclassic. Thin Late and Terminal Classic layers were sitting on the Preclassic building”; Takeshi also noted some evidence of an earlier Late Classic building beneath Structure A-14 (personal communication, July 2014). The question remains whether there is still a tomb to be found. The hieroglyphic text would indicate so (Stuart 1998:398, fn. 13).

Figure 4. Alignment of Ceibal A-19 ballcourt with possible tomb to the east (map by Ian Graham, Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project).

Figure 4. Alignment of Ceibal A-19 ballcourt with possible tomb to the east (map by Ian Graham, Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project).

(Incidentally, we have long assumed that the tomb mentioned on the Hieroglyphic Stairway belonged to a figure from the Early Classic period—someone named K’an Mo’ Bahlam. But I see no compelling reason to believe this, as the only date here is firmly Late Classic. To be sure, there is an Early Classic lord of Ceibal mentioned on Tablet 7, position MM1, of the Hieroglyphic Stairway, but with a different name. Notably, he is said to have played ball, pi-tzi!)

(5) A final example appears at the more distant location of Chichen Itza, Mexico, with a date some centuries later than #1-4. There, the Great Ballcourt lines up, at least approximately, with the enigmatic but suitably named Osario or “High Priest’s Grave,” the sole locus of attested royal burials at Chichen (Figure 5; Ruppert 1935; also Thompson 1938). The Great Ballcourt and the Osario date to about the same time, c. AD 1000-1100 AD (Braswell and Peniche May 2012:238).

Figure 5.  Alignment between the Great Ballcourt and the Osario at Chichen Itza (map by J. O. Kilmartin and J. P. O’Neil, with emendations by Karl Ruppert, Carnegie Institution of Washington).

Figure 5. Alignment between the Great Ballcourt and the Osario at Chichen Itza (map by J. O. Kilmartin and J. P. O’Neil, with emendations by Karl Ruppert, Carnegie Institution of Washington).

An empirical pattern doth not a theory make. Yet, at some sites, the Maya may have configured two buildings in unison. One contained a known or likely tomb or tombs, as at Chichen. (There must have been sustained knowledge of sub-surface remains.) The other was a ballcourt, its corridor pointing to a tomb, often at the same orientation. Several alignments seem more notional than precise, uncertain to satisfy a skeptic. And a few, as in my excavations with Héctor Escobedo at Structure K-5, Piedras Negras, could even be cenotaphic (Houston et al. 2008). A ballcourt, Structure K-6, lines up with a pyramid to a deceased queen but not, alas, to her tomb…or at least not one that we could find! (It could still lie off-axis, as we were only able to dig by means of a 2x2m shaft.) We do know the pyramid came first, and that the ballcourt, with its famous image of boxers, was a slightly later construction. In a personal communication, David Stuart also wonders whether Monument 171 at Tonina might be relevant (Stuart 2013): it shows a deceased lord playing with one still living.

Wendy Ashmore has written about ballcourt locations, emphasizing their southern position as “underworld” places of “transition” (Ashmore 1992:178, 179). I would mute her emphasis on “south” and suggest instead the dead could be to the north, south, and east too. Direction did not matter in these examples. Far more important was a specific mortuary intent and not, in Wendy’s words, a “cosmic template.” The fact that the glyph for tombs so often resembles half of the sign for a ballcourt—distinguished solely by the skull inside, nestled within a dark space (Stuart 1998:Figure 13)—raises the specter of a proposal. As in the Popol Vuh, some ballcourts bustled with the living but directed that activity towards the dead.

Acknowledgements: Takeshi Inomata of the University of Arizona generously responded to my questions about his excavations at Ceibal; Dave Stuart, too, helped with comments, as did John Bodel. I prepared some of these remarks for a workshop on Piedras Negras at Dumbarton Oaks, as facilitated by Dr. Colin McEwan, Joanne Pillsbury, and Mary Pye.


References Cited:

Ashmore, Wendy. 1992. Deciphering Maya Architectural Plans. In New Theories on the Ancient Maya, edited by Elin Danien and Robert J. Sharer, pp. 173-184. University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Braswell, Geoffrey E., and Nancy Peniche May. 2012. In the Shadow of the Pyramid: Excavations of the Great Platform of Chichen Itza. In The Ancient Maya of Mexico: Reinterpreting the Past of the Northern Maya Lowlands, edited by Geoffrey E. Braswell, pp. 229-263. Equinox, London.

Christenson, Allen J. 2007. Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Coe, William R. 1990. Excavations in the Great Plaza, North Terrace and North Acopolis of Tikal. Tikal Report 14. 6 vols. University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Demarest, Arthur, Héctor Escobedo, Juan-Antonio Valdés, Lori Wright, Kitty Emery, and Stephen Houston. 1991 Arqueología, epigrafía y el descubrimiento de una tumba real en el centro ceremonial de Dos Pilas, Peten, Guatemala. U tz’ib 1(1):14-28.

Graham, Ian. 1996. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 7, Part 1: Seibal. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Houston, Stephen D. 1993. Hieroglyphs and History at Dos Pilas: Dynastic Politics of the Classic Maya. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Houston, Stephen, Héctor Escobedo, and Zachary Nelson. 2008. Encontrando el contexto para la historia y la historia para el contexto: Excavaciones en la estructura K-5 de Piedras Negras, Guatemala. Mayab 20: 45-63.

Pontrandolfo, Angela, and Agnès Rouveret. 1992. Le tombe dipinte di Paestum. Franco Cosimo Panini, Modena.

Potter, David. 2012. The Victor’s Crown: A History of Ancient Sport from Homer to Byzantium. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Ruppert, Karl. 1935. The Caracol at Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 454. Carnegie Institution of Washington, DC.

_____________. 1952 Chichen Itza: Architectural Notes and Plans. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 595. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Sharer, Robert J., David W. Sedat, Loa P. Traxler, Julia C. Miller, and Ellen E. Bell. 2005. Early Classic Royal Power in Copan: The Origins and Development of the Acropolis (ca. A.D. 250-600). In Copán: The History of an Ancient Maya Kingdom, edited by E. Wyllys Andrews and William L Fash, pp. 139-199. School of American Research Press, Santa Fe.

Stuart, David. 1998. “The Fire Enters His House”: Architecture and Ritual in Classic Maya Texts. In Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, edited by Stephen D. Houston, pp. 373-425. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington D.C.

Stuart, David. 2013. Tonina’s Curious Ballgame.

Thompson, Edward H. 1938. The High Priest’s Grave, Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico. Anthropological Series, Field Museum of Natural History 27(1). Chicago.

Ville, Georges. 1981. La gladiature en Occident des origines à la mort de Domitien. Bibliothèque des écoles françaises d’Athènes et de Rome, fasc. 245e. Ecole française de Rome, Rome.

Courtesans and Carnal Commerce

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

Diego Rivera was clearly fascinated by the riches of the Aztec market at Tlaltelolco. His mural, painted in 1944-1945, visible today on the second floor of the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City, glories in the vibrancy of an imperial economy. Vendors hawk while merchants bicker, counting with upright fingers. Nearby, slave-traders examine the teeth of human stock. Tortillas are there, too, close to belly-up frogs. Dogs, deer, iguana, and fish lie in good order or, like a fat little xolo dog, they mewl and squirm—all soon to be purchased, cooked, and eaten.

Figure 1.  Prostitute in the Market of Tlatelolco, Diego Rivera, 1944-1945, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City (photograph by S. Houston).

Figure 1. Prostitute in the Market of Tlatelolco, Diego Rivera, 1944-1945, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City (photograph by S. Houston).

The most arresting figure, however, is a woman in white (Figure 1). Central to the composition, she hikes her skirt and invites the attention of several leering men. One of them, to upper left, looks like a Rockefeller! At Rivera’s coy insistence, we are all voyeurs. Almost alone in the murals, the woman’s body faces the viewer. Her bright red lipstick, elaborate costume, and long loose hair, described and illustrated in Aztec sources, heighten the wanton allure. Never one for the nuance, Rivera surrounds the lady with an aureole of calla lilies, likely to be Rivera’s coded image for female privates (his portrait of Natasha Zakólkowa Gelman, painted a year earlier, in 1943, uses the same framing device).

Rivera’s lady is, of course, an Aztec prostitute or āhuiyani, someone who gives pleasure but in debased or self-indulgent ways, a “flower woman” (Karttunen 1983:8; McCafferty and McCafferty 2009:198). She “lives in wickedness….she goes about in gaudy dress, drunk, besotted,” “shamelessly, presumptuously, conspicuously washed and combed”; she “sells her body” and “paints her face…her hair falls loose”; she goes “about…in the market place,” “places herself at the market, adorns herself at the market place” (Sahagún 1950-1982 [Book 10]:12, 13, 55, 89). Yet, the stern judgment in these phrases from the Florentine Codex—its main promoter was, after all, a Franciscan—does not offer a complete picture, for such women performed openly in sacred dances with warriors (Sahagún 1950-1982 [Book 2]:93, 98-99, 102, 110; see also Durán 1971:435, in a somewhat opaque source that may refer to more elevated “kept women” who had their own “guardians or duennas”).

Figure 2. Prostitutes in the Florentine Codex, Book 10, f39v.

Figure 2. Prostitutes in the Florentine Codex, Book 10, f39v.

The “harlot” could also comfort a sacrificial captive. She “caressed him….made him forget his sorrows. And when the time came for the bathed one to die, the harlot took everything…[t]hat which he wore he placed upon her; that which he had when he had been living in the likeness of another, had walked with his head high…had gone in high esteem” (Sahagún 1950-1982 [Book 2]:155). A peculiarity, drawn to my attention by Karl Taube, is that depictions of young and older harlots in the Florentine Codex show them standing on water, grasping flowers in one hand and, curiously, the glyph for water in the other (Figure 2). It is possible but, on reflection, unlikely that this sign merely reinforces the first letter in āhuiyani (from ā-tl, “water”). Underfoot, gripped in the hand, the symbols hint at deeper and more complex meaning.

For a Mayanist, this evidence raises an obvious question. Did such women exist in the Classic period? And, if so, what ambivalences, if any, surround such commercialization of the female body? Most treatments of female identity among the ancient or Colonial Maya do not mention prostitutes (e.g., Joyce 2000) or allude to them in secondary citations (Ardren 2008:8). One source does describe the prostitute in Yucatan but as a being “constructed as an ethnic outsider and an enemy” and, in the Books of Chilam Balam, a figure whose very label is an insult to be thrown at others (Sigal 2000:68, 223).

Yet the early dictionaries refer widely to such figures. For a rapid cull of terms:

Colonial Tzendal (Ara 1986:319, 504): Most terms relate to adultery or fornication but also, when postfixed by xichoc (“man”), to sodomy.

putañero                                lav
putañear                                lael

Colonial Tzotzil (Laughlin 1988, I:221, 253, 263-264): roots based on sexual penetration (kob) and, perhaps, scourging (maj) and “lust” (mul), with the added nuance of concubinage.

whore                                    ‘ix ta majel; kobvan; majavil ‘antz
whoremaster                        mulavil xinch’ok

Colonial Yukatek (Bolles 2001): associated with agouti or hares (tzub), the latter a well-known attribute of the Moon Goddess and a symbol of procreation. For tzub, the meaning is quite explicit: “la muger mala de su cuerpo ora sea publica ora no…Ah con tzubul: puta que ella se comvida y vende” (Bolles 2001); ya’om ties to pregnancy.

manceba (concubine)           tzub
mala mujer de su cuerpo     ya’om
puta pública                           ix kakbach

It could be that these words express a purely colonial preoccupation, a priestly concern for rooting out vice and controlling sexuality. By that view, little prostitution existed before the Spaniards. Such words merely reflected the prurience of missionary minds. But this cannot be the whole story. Speaking of young men, not long after the Conquest, Diego de Landa refers to the wide use of prostitutes: “bad public women”…“who happen to ply this trade among this people, although they received pay for it, were besieged by such a great number of young men, that they were harassed to death” (Tozzer 1941:125). Possibly, as some suggest for the Aztec evidence, the Colonial sources conflated a more accepted Pre-Columbian practice of marketable sex with later versions seen in negative light (Arvey 1988; McCafferty and McCafferty 2009:200). As to price, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, writing of Nicaragua, records that the going rate for such acts was 8 to 10 beans of chocolate (Tozzer 1941: 95fn417). To put this in perspective, buying a slave was only 10 times that much (ibid). In all likelihood, sex work was a lucrative business throughout Mesoamerica.

Figure 3.  SE-SI Scene, Chiik Nahb Structure Sub 1-4 (drawing by Simon Martin, Proyecto Arqueológico Calakmul, Ramón Carrasco, Director).

Figure 3. SE-SI Scene, Chiik Nahb Structure Sub 1-4 (drawing by Simon Martin, Proyecto Arqueológico Calakmul, Ramón Carrasco, Director).

For the Maya, a key piece of evidence came to light with the discovery of the Chiik Nahb murals at Calakmul, most of which date to the 7th century AD (Carrasco Vargas and Cordeiro Baqueiro 2012; Martin 2012). Concerned with trade, these paintings appear within what must have been a market facility built at the height of competition between the great cities of Calakmul and Tikal (Carrasco Vargas and Cordeiro Baqueiro 2012:Figure 2; for the standard source on this conflict, see Martin and Grube 2000:104-111). The viewer wonders at the erotic beauty of the serving ladies, their body paint, their jade jewelry. The women pour drinks, offer atole while dressed, at times, in diaphanous clothing that reveals breasts, areola, and plump thighs (Figure 3).

Figure 4. Vending lady (drawing by Karl Taube, after Dieseldorff 1926:pl. 8, no. 28).

Figure 4. Vending lady (drawing by Karl Taube, after Dieseldorff 1926:pl. 8, no. 28).

It is difficult to avoid the sense that the woman offer hospitality and welcome accommodation or participate in marketing, but in subtly sexualized ways. Karl Taube has noted similar trading ladies in figurines from the Alta Verapaz, also bejeweled, gowns slung low, hair carefully coiffed (Figure 4; Houston et al. 2006:110, fig. 3.4). Vending women have been seen, too, in other traditions of Lowland Maya figurines (Halperin 2014:fig. 3.36). Many wear hats, perhaps to show that they came from far distances, but possibly to protect a delicate complexion. They both are and are not a standard vendor, involved in trade yet outfitted in ways that appear anomalous.

Unfortunately, the glyphs associated with the principal lady in the Calakmul paintings, the “Lady in Blue,” resist easy decipherment (Martin 2012:78-79). A more overt example of “good time gals,” from a bowl dating to about AD 600 may connect to a term for “water-place,” IX-HA’?-NAL (Figure 5, Coe 1978:pl. 11; Houston et al. 2006:fig. 5.18). These women, certain to be goddesses, service older deities. They stroke their sides, fan faces or hold up mirrors while the men daub their mouths or faces. Most carry exactly the same name—a token of shared identity?—or use a sparse description, IX, “female.” The watery attribute of Aztec prostitutes seems more than a coincidence. It may reflect some widespread notion of “watery women” or “women of watery locales” whose sexual behavior differed, in unsettling, less controllable ways, from that of other ladies.

Figure 5. Supernatural ladies of pleasure (K530, photograph © Justin Kerr, Coe 1978:pl. 11).

Figure 5. Supernatural ladies of pleasure (K530, photograph © Justin Kerr, Coe 1978:pl. 11).

Another term occurs with paramours of God L on the celebrated “Princeton Vase” (K511, Coe 1978:pl. 1). Repainted in parts, their glyphic labels involve two securely deciphered signs, IX, “lady,” and NAAH, “building”—the finale female, just by God L, is described as one of “five” (HO’) such women, quite a harem. The less clear sign is the head variant of the number “two.” It could read CHA’, suggesting a homophone for “metate,” cha’, thus linking the ladies to a gendered place, a “house of grinding stones.” But there is another possibility. The head variant has a human fist, fingers obscured, atop the head of a youth or young woman. The fist corresponds exactly to the glyph for OCH, “enter” (Stuart 1998:fig. 8) and may spell out a term for “entered” (“penetrated”?) lady. Thus, by this second analysis: IX-OCH-‘Female’-NAAH, “lady of the entered/penetrated-female house”…or “brothel.” Still, it is unclear how this would relate to a semblant deity name on Palenque’s Tablet of Temple XIV:C9.

The main point is that these women are unlikely to be spouses. A plausible view is that they traffic in generous reception and consumption, with more than a hint of physical favors to come. Two ideas arise. The first is that, at Calakmul the Lady in Blue embodied, if not a real historical person, then the essence of gracious hospitality. Or, as a bolder suggestion and a nod to the eroticism of the murals, she operated as an exemplary or deified procuress, patronized rather than punished by the state, a facilitator who attracted other kinds of business. She labored, it seems, away from direct male supervision; she took charge. There was no partner, no husband. In one image, a young woman, a mere drab, perhaps a unique depiction of a Maya slave, served as her assistant (Figure 2). The Florentine Codex says of the procuress: “She is of a house…She induces, seduces with words, incites with others. Adroit of language, skilled of speech, she is a fraud…She receives guests. She secures recompense, payment from others. She robs one—she constantly robs one” (Sahagún 1950-1982 [Book 10]:94). However, if present at Calakmul, such a woman discharged a role of dignity and importance.

What to make of the scenes at Calakmul? According to a recent, cross-cultural review, compensated or venal sex tends to divide by practitioner, ranging from streetwalkers and occupants of brothels to “well-educated and often financially secure” courtesans (Harnett and Dawdy 2013:43). Eroticized entertainment did not always lead to consummation. As an exalted outlier, the geisha or geiko of Japan seldom—at least in the ideal—consorted sexually with clients, especially after the system began to coalesce in the 18th century (Downer 2006:223). Whatever the status, sex workers left archaeological signatures in the form of cells or “cribs,” characteristic forms of consumption, such as “alcohol and luxury food consumption…in binge economies,” and, “in the case of high-end prostitutes, an investment in wearable wealth” (Harnett and Dawdy 2013:46). Indeed, a sexual purpose may explain the buildings with tightly packed, benched rooms near sweatbaths at Piedras Negras (e.g., Structure O-3; Child 2006:fig. 4.23; also Houston et al. 2006:117, fig. 3.13). Globally, the cultural impact was great. An entire volume of comparative scholarship extols the arts of the courtesan, from music to poetry and dance (Feldman and Gordon 2006).

Prostitution has been described as the “oldest profession” and as the “oddest,” an “illicit commerce in which it is the labor performed, rather than goods or distribution system, that is the object of state control” (Harnett and Dawdy 2013:43). Yet how “illicit” was such commerce? In Roman Pompeii, prostitution was quite “licit” if heavily exploitative (McGinn 2004:261-262). At the least, there is evidence of ambivalence. In Edo Japan, various shogun or city officials tried to restrict the “floating world,” the demi-monde of sex workers, musicians, and actors, to sectors like Yoshiwara, near modern-day Asukasa in Tokyo (Screech 1999:53). But this was not because of disdain for sex. The most likely reason was curtailment of possible places for intrigue or periodic anxiety that the values of the “floating world” would soften society.

Figure 6. A courtesan with pulque or enema jar? (Princeton Art Museum, Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund 2005-65 a-b, K8489, photograph © Justin Kerr).

Figure 6. A courtesan with pulque or enema jar? (Princeton Art Museum, Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund 2005-65 a-b, K8489, photograph © Justin Kerr).

More the point, the “Lady in Blue” raises basic matters of identification. Scholars often refer to “noble” ladies or “idealized elite” women and goddesses in imagery of the Classic Maya period. This applies to Jaina figurines, too (O’Neil 2012:409). But what if an entire category of Maya society has been overlooked? As Michael Coe observes, the females participating in enema rituals could have been ladies of pleasure (personal communication, 2014). Consider the fully-modeled container at the Princeton Art Museum, with its flower-markings, elaborate dress, and loudly painted lips and forehead (Figure 6). Or the Early Classic scene on an enema pot from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (#1993.441) and tapaderas on Early Classic food bowls (K1550, K189). Then there is the image, from the Princeton Art Museum, of an elaborately dressed woman giving an enema to a trader (Figure 7). Could “elite” ornament or jewelry only have been the commissions of dynastic figures and other nobles? Or, consistent with cross-cultural data, were some baubles ordered in quantity by courtesans?

Sex work has its own history. As one example from archaic Greece, the high-status hetaira—the most polished of courtesans—was probably fashioned under the impetus of aristocratic males, who sought to redefine their own masculinity by interaction with such females (Kurke 1997). Through women’s bodies and, tragically, through their abuse, men worked out what it meant to be men (Glazebrook and Henry 2011:9). Perhaps this same aestheticized redefinition of roles affected the “pretty ladies” of the Classic period.

Figure 7. Enema scene with traders (The Princeton Art Museum, Princeton, NJ PUMA# y1998-451, K1550, photograph © Justin Kerr).

Figure 7. Enema scene with traders (The Princeton Art Museum, Princeton, NJ PUMA# y1998-451, K1550, photograph © Justin Kerr).

The curious feature of the Calakmul evidence is its contrast with Rome, which was less involved in direct control of sex work and accorded it some degree of “autonomy” (McGinn 2004:263). If correctly identified, the practices shown there and elsewhere bear the heavy impress of polity. The building in which the murals were found can only have been a royal commission, involving painters and scribes of the highest and most inventive attainment. This was no casual commerce but a systematic use of female bodies for dynastic advancement.

Acknowledgements: Mike Coe, Simon Martin, and Karl Taube were most helpful with comments

Sources cited:

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Ardren, Traci. 2008. Studies of Gender in the Prehispanic Americas. Journal of Archaeological Research 16:1-35.

Arvey, Margaret C. 1988. Women of Ill-Repute in the Florentine Codex. The Role of Gender in Pre-Columbian Art and Architecture, edited by Virginia Miller, pp. 179-204. University Press of America, Lanham.

Bolles, David. 2001. Combined Dictionary–Concordance of the Yucatecan Mayan Language,, accessed June 2, 2014.

Carrasco Vargas, Ramón, and María Cordiero Baqueiro. 2013. The Murals of Chiik Nahb Structure 1-4, Calakmul, Mexico. Maya Archaeology 2, pp. 8-59, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Child, Mark B. 2006. The Archaeology of Religious Movements: The Maya Sweatbath Cult of Piedras Negras. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Yale University, New Haven.

Coe, Michael D. 1978. Lords of the Underworld: Masterpieces of Classic Maya Ceramics. Princeton Art Museum, Princeton.

Dieseldorff, Erwin P. 1926. Kunst und Religion der Mayavölker im alten und heutigen Mittelamerika. Julius Springer, Berlin.

Downer, Lesley. 2006. The City Geisha and Their Role in Modern Japan: Anomaly or Artistes? The Courtesan’s Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, edited by Martha Feldman and Bonnie Gordon, 223-242. Oxford University Press, New York.

Durán, Diego. 1971. Book of the Gods and Rites and The Ancient Calendar. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Feldman, Martha, and Bonnie Gordon, eds. 2006. The Courtesan’s Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Oxford University Press, New York.

Glazebrook, Allison, and Madeleine Henry. 2011. Introduction: Why Prostitutes? Why Greece? Why Now? Greek Prostitutes in the Mediterranean, 800 BCE-200 CE, 3-13. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.

Halperin, Christina A. 2014. Maya Figurines: Intersections between State and Household. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Hartnett, Alexandra, and Shannon L. Dawdy. 2013. The Archaeology of Illegal and Illicit Economies. Annual Review of Anthropology 2013 42:37-51.

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

Joyce, Rosemary A. 2000. Gender and Power in Prehispanic Mesoamerica. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Karttunen, Frances. 1984. An Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Kurke, Leslie. Inventing the Hetaira. Classical Antiquity 16:106-150.

Laughlin, Robert M. 1988. The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of Santa Domingo Zinacantán. 3 vols. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology, Number 31. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Martin, Simon. 2013. Hieroglyphs from the Painted Pyramid: The Epigraphy of Chiik Nahb Structure Sub 1-4, Calakmul, Mexico. Maya Archaeology 2, pp. 60-81, edited by Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2000. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Classic Maya. Thames & Hudson, London.

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McGinn, Thomas A. J. 2004. The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World: A Study of Social History and the Brothel. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.

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Mythic Prototypes and Maya Writing 2

by Stephen Houston and Simon Martin

A perennial attraction of Maya writing to the modern eye is its playful balance between convention and observed detail. A recent work does rich justice to the wit and fun that arose from Maya minds and hands (Stone and Zender 2011). But there may be another element to the creation of signs, of a sort that needs definition and testing. This is the conceptual connection that exists in ancient Maya thought between a unique exemplar and a more general class of thing or being.

John Milton would have understood the issue. For him, every man contained the essence of Adam, a singular prototype. Adam was Man but also a man. His companion in the Fall, Eve, was by that same logic both a woman and Woman. These beings were at once unique and susceptible to generalization. There is a reason, too, that Adam and Eve appeared in book called “Genesis.” They animated an explanatory story of origins and accounted for why descendants are as they are, ever willful by some views, ever disobedient to heavenly instruction.

There may be a more subtle matter at stake. For decades, ethnobiologists have considered the nature and hierarchical patterns of Maya classification (e.g., Berlin et al. 1974:153-157). What is missing, however, is the process, familiar to Plato, by which humans thought with equal effort about ideal forms and concrete reality. This might involve, to offer one case, an exemplary concept of “Tree” versus the many ways in which arboreal vegetation might exist, flourish, wither, scar or flower. To George Santayana (1915:ch. 1), “[t]he Platonic idealist is … so wedded to perfection that he sees in everything not the reality but the faultless ideal which the reality misses and suggests.”

But it is unlikely that the ancient Maya were Platonists. The originals were not ideals, but, as argued here, for a number of examples, highly specific things or creatures that were extended to identify a general class. Reciprocally, the general class of such things might fold back in reference to a mythic prototype. Robert Laughlin comes closest to this groove with his stories of Tzotzil plant lore. Weeds, “the ancestors’ corn and beans, were so fussy and complaining that Our Lord banished them to the wilds” and “[c]hili sprouted from the drops of Christ’s blood” (Laughlin 1993, 105, 106). Implicit in such stories are theories of origins and causation, but also of first things and their inescapable bearing on the present.

Much of this is intuitively obvious to Mayanists. The Ajaw face, a youthful, male profile, headbanded, check with distinctive spot, is both every lord read AJAW, and a particular being of mythic stamp and story, often paired with a similar figure, but with jaguar pelage. As Karl Taube (2003) showed so cogently, the first exercises dominion over humans, the second over animals, although the name of the latter remains elusive. The head for woman, IXIK, may similarly refer to a First Woman. The clearest cases are where glyphic terms are those of natural categories of animal—as confirmed by full phonetic spellings or complemented forms—yet the logographic versions of the same depict supernatural beasts. A partial list would include the following (illustration below):

—the jaguar: both general, for the “jaguar,” BAHLAM, and eponymous, as a water-lily jaguar sprouting a water-lily from its forehead (Figure 1a). (A few such cats appear to be read HIX, as on Copan St. 13:E5, or to be depicted as this, possibly more generic feline, as in the jade from Tikal Burial 196; Coe 1967:65.)

—the Xook shark: both general, for a fearsome “shark,” XOOK, and eponymous, as monstrous fish speared in primordial times (Figure 1b).

—the crocodile: both general, for the reptile AHIIN, and eponymous, as a being with cross-bands in its eye, a mythic, sacrificial prototype (Figure 1c).

—the snake: both general, for the reptile KAAN/CHAN, and eponymous, as a specific being with flower-like element in its forehead (Figure 1d). —the trickster rabbit with marked ear: both general, as T’UHL, and eponymous, as an oversexed and cunning creature who, among his many deeds, bests the god of trading (Figure 1e).

—the eagle/bird: both general, as TZ’IKIN/MEEN?,” as an everyday category of avian, and as supernatural bird linked to the sun (Figure 1f). This is part of a larger phenomenon of words and concepts that are ostensibly prosaic, yet always realized in mythic or metaphysical terms.

—the so-called “Patron of Pax”: both general, the glyph TE’, most often as a numeral classifier, and eponymous, as the base of a mythic world tree, te’, perhaps the primordial ceiba (Figure 1g; see David Stuart, 2007,

—the sky-eagle: both general, in reference to a denizen linked to the sky, CHAN, and eponymous, as a bird that defines the lustrous arc of the sky. Or, in a related form, a solar eagle associated with war-flints, as at Tonina (Mon. 91:pB1, Karl Taube, pers. comm. 1985; Figure 1h).

A reasoned proposal might be made that each of these, some more secure than others, are not merely a set of generic words signs. In tandem they evoke a singular mythic prototype, a First Exemplar—implying a compendium of etiological, causational stories—along with everyday incarnations of that prototype. To 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.

Figure 1. (a) Copan Altar K:J1 (drawing by Barbara Fash, CMHI Project, Harvard University); (b) Tikal Cache 198:F1, Str. 5D-46 (drawing, University of Pennsylvania Museum); (c) Tikal Stela 31:F11; (d) Copan Stela A:H5 (drawing by Barbara Fash, CMHI Project, Harvard University; (e) K1340:C1 (photograph by Justin Kerr, Kerr Associates); (f) Río Azul Tomb 12, north wall (photograph by George Mobley, courtesy, George Stuart); (g) Copan Hieroglyphic Stairway (photograph from Barbara Fash, Copan Hieroglyphic Stairway Project, Peabody Museum, Harvard); and (h) Copan Stela A:G3 (drawing by Barbara Fash, CMHI Project, Harvard University).

References Cited

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Coe, William R. 1967. Tikal: A Handbook of the Ancient Maya Ruins. Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania.

Laughlin, Robert M. 1993. Poetic License. In The Flowering of Man: A Tzotzil Botany of Zinacantán, by Dennis E. Breedlove and Robert M. Laughlin, pp. 101-108. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology No. 35. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Santayana, George. 1915. Egotism in German Philosophy. New York: Scribner’s.

Stone, Andrea, and Marc Zender. 2011. Reading Maya Art : A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting and Sculpture. London: Thames & Hudson.

Taube, Karl. 2002. Ancient and Contemporary Maya Conceptions of the Field and Forest. In Lowland Maya Area: Three Millennia at the Human-Wildland Interface, edited by A. Gómez-Pompa, M. F. Allen, S. Fedick, and J. Jiménez-Moreno, pp. 461-494. New York: Haworth Press.