ANCESTOR DEIFICATION IN ANCIENT MAYA RITUAL AND RELIGION LATE POSTCLASSIC COMMUNITY SHRINES AND FAMILY ORATORIES
Karl James Lorenzen University of California, Merced
Abstract This paper addresses the need for a deeper understanding of the function and meaning of miniature masonry shrines in Late Postclassic period Maya ritual and religion; particularly, their use in public versus private religious contexts and their proposed importance as sacred loci for the deification of ancestors in ancient shrine rites. New archaeological research carried out at the Late Postclassic center of El Naranjal, located in northern Quintana Roo, Mexico, treats these issues noted above. Findings from research in 1999 and 2001 address ritual shrine use in both public civic-ceremonial precincts and private domestic compounds. Twelve miniature shrine complexes (each composed of a single shrine and stairway set on a substructure, with a series of associated altars) are reported within the two square-kilometer core of El Naranjal. Functional interpretations are presented in the context of early historical accounts, recent ethnographic reports, previous archaeological description, and current research at El Naranjal and other sites. Using an ethnoarchaeological perspective, the author posits that the nature and significance of ritual evidence excavated from shrine complexes indicates their intensive use as religious loci for the performance of agricultural fertility-based ceremonies – rites and rituals tied to ancestor veneration that involved the actual deification of particularly revered familial lineage heads and esteemed community leaders.
Minature Masonry Shrines LATE POSTCLASSIC PERIOD MINIATURE SHRINES are diminutive structures less than two meters square in each dimension and too small to accommodate a person of even the most modest stature (as it is implicit, on occasion in the remainder of the text, the term “period” is omitted from Late Postclassic and other similar temporal designations) (Figure 2). Most commonly, these buildings are one-room constructions that feature single entrances, made of masonry and mortar covered with a thick layer of limestone stucco plaster. Shrine roofs are either masonry vaulted of cut stone or flat, consisting of wood-beams capped heavily with mortar. Variations on the more formal all-masonry version include shrines that exhibit walls and ceilings of wood-pole and palmthatch (Figure 1). Miniature shrines of all sorts are typically founded on bedrock, very low singlecourse cut-stone footings, formal raised masonry platforms, or atop recycled earlier-period architecture (Figure 2; Lorenzen 1995, 1999, 2003). Though not treated in this discussion, a less common type of miniature shrine, composite shrines, are larger structures containing a series of progressively smaller shrines, one within the other (see Andrews and Andrews  for a general discussion of Late Postclassic shrine construction and architectural variation). Almost always found directly associated with miniature shrines, are multiple stone altars set in front of and off the sides of shrine entrances and/or arranged at the base of stairways. Altars are made of
four vertically set skirt-stones veneering each side of a well-dressed square plug stone, and are at times found stacked in two or three tiers that closely resemble stepped-pyramids in miniature (Lorenzen 1995). Although diminutive shrines occur widely in both civic-ceremonial and residential contexts at Late Postclassic sites throughout the northern Maya lowlands, relatively little is known regarding their actual function and significance in ancient Maya society. The near ubiquitous presence of smashed ceramic human-effigy censers (called Chen-Mul Modeled) used to burn copal incense at shines, as well as stone idols and ritual caches found with altars and shrines, obviously identify these structures as oratories or temples in miniature to house diminutive representations of gods and deified ancestors made of ceramic, wood, and stone (Figures 5-6). Archaeologists agree that at least for elite residential compounds, shrines were ritual areas for the performance of private, lineage-based religious rites (Smith 1962, 1971a-b; Freidel and Sabloff 1984; Chase 1986, 1988; Masson 1997). Identical structures in exclusively nonresidential public precincts have for the most part been ignored, primarily because of their diminutive size, overshadowed by associated monumental architecture (Lothrop 1924; Proskouriakoff 1955, 1962; Andrews and Andrews 1975, 1980; Miller 1982). This lack of archaeological attention is directly attributed to our poor understanding of miniature shrines in public architectural contexts and thus, their central role in Postclassic Maya religion remains widely underestimated. Historical Interpretations Miniature shrines were first recorded pictorially by the ancient Maya themselves in screenfolding divinatory almanacs called codices, considered masterpieces of indigenous art and primary sources of native history and religion. As a result of the famous auto de fe enacted at the Maya city of Mani by the infamous Diego de Landa, appointed Bishop of Yucatan by the Spanish Catholic church in the late sixteenth century, all illustrated native texts were deemed satanic and burned in a great pyre with other idolatrous material. Only four of these books are known to have survived, including the Dresden, Madrid, Paris, and Grolier codices. Each of these manuscripts date to either the Late Postclassic or shortly following Spanish contact in AD 1521 and except for the Grolier, depict examples of miniature shrines that reveal aspects of architectural form, technique of manufacture, and materials of construction (Figure 1). These depictions are in many instances, consistent with information gathered from contemporary and later ethnohistorical accounts, archaeological examples and modern ethnographic descriptions of Maya miniature shrines and oratories. In codical imagery, miniature shrines resemble small houses, associated with Maya deities such as Itsamnaj (considered the old creator god, a sorcerer coupled with agricultural fertility and plant regeneration) and Chaak (the supreme sky god of rain, thunder, and lightning, who is also closely allied with verdant growth and agricultural abundance) engaged in various ritual activities, shown standing in front of shrine entrances or seated inside the oratory itself as participant observers (Figure 1). Seated deities shown inside shrines with legs crossed and arms folded likely depict idols of wood, stone, and probably ceramic human-effigy censers, so frequently recovered archaeologically from miniature shrine contexts. Many of these images, both in material and pictographic form, represent deities characteristically associated with miniature shrines referred to in later Yucatec Maya historical accounts as the k’u na or “god house” (a term also given to larger temple-shrines) (Figures 1-2). The earliest known western record of Late Postclassic miniature shrines comes from the well-known sixteenth century Spanish historian, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, chronicler of the discoverer Hernando Cortez, who wrote of an excursion led by Juan de Grijalva in 1518 to circumnavigate the Yucatan Peninsula. Díaz (1982:23; Tozzer 1941: 14 – 16) described the discovery of numerous isolated shrines along the Campeche coast at Boca de Términos, an
extensive natural port and bay (Figure 3). In this account, Díaz reported many ceramic and wood idols (figures of women and serpents), and numerous deer antlers littering shrine fronts. Díaz further commented that Maya merchants and game hunters passing the coast in canoes entered the bay and made these remote shrines a stopping point for offertory sacrifices. This early account directly contributes to the idea presented here that miniature shrines were ritual-use areas for the performance of ancestor-based subsistence rites. And in this case, considering the extensive presence of deer antlers, were also ritual locations specifically used to invoke the gods of the hunt (called yumtzils as defined further on) and for making petitions to deities who controlled the availability of fish and game. The great Mayanist, Alfred M. Tozzer (1941: 9; Note 44), states these and other human and animal effigy idols of clay and wood give “…reason to believe that in a few cases, at least, these gods were Tribal gods.” Another highly regarded Maya ethnohistorian, Ralph L. Roys (Roys 1933, 1934; Scholes and Roys 1938: 609), noted these were “…gods of the different lineages or name groups.” Regarding one specific Maya lineage god called Sacal Puc, Scholes and Roys (1938: 609) state, We know him as one of the early Mexican conquerors of Yucatan and as the head of one of four lineages which came from heaven. Indeed, he still figures in the Maya prayers of modern yerbateros [folk curers] as the first man to offer posole [corn gruel] to the Chacs [likely during an agricultural rite or rain ritual]. Scholes and Roys (1938: 609) conclude their report on Maya ancestor veneration by stating that each are “dedicated to these family or lineage deities.” We can be fairly certain that these structures referenced by Díaz were miniature shrines and not small temples, given that he specifically refers to them as casas de adoratorios de idolos (oratory houses of idols) rather than templos or “temples,” which is consistent with traditional Yucatec Maya terminology for these structures. In addition, Díaz made no mention of entering inside these shrines or of interior details such as altars or wall murals, which are strikingly present in the majority of larger ceremonial structures and would have surely been noted if encountered. Moreover, in describing the location of these shrines Díaz stated that they were built directly on the ground (a common characteristic of miniature coastal shrines), as opposed to more substantial Late Postclassic temple-shrines frequently set on high substructures. Shortly following Spanish contact, Bishop Diego de Landa, the sixteenth-century chronicler, referred to miniature shrines in his invaluable account of Yucatec Maya history and religion (considered his saving grace). As noted in the opening quote, Landa (Tozzer 1941:108) reports the presence of shrines particularly in elite domestic settings exemplified at Mayapan, distinguishing them from larger public temples and isolated examples in radically different spatial contexts. Restricted to Maya nobility, Landa (Tozzer 1941) emphasized the function of these same adoratorios in elite residential compounds as being family idol-houses and places for the performance of private rituals, rather than general-use religious areas for traveling merchants, hunters far from home, and the wider community as described by Díaz. In this report, Landa (Tozzer 1941:131) details the very careful preparation of the dead and reveals that lineage shrines were used as reliquaries, for the veneration of ancestral remains, They used to cut off the heads of the old Lords of Cocom [rulers of Mayapan], when they died and after cooking them, they cleaned off the flesh, and then sawed off half the crown on the back, leaving the front part with the jaws and teeth. Then they replaced the flesh which was gone from these half skulls by a kind of bimuten [asphalt], and gave them a perfect appearance characteristic of those whose skulls they were. They kept these [human skulls] together with the statues with the ashes, all of which they kept in the oratories of their houses with their idols, holding them in very great reverence and respect.
Landa (Tozzer 1941: 18-19; Note 109) further notes, While the friar, the author of this book, was in this country, they discovered a building, which they destroyed, a great urn with three handles with silvercolored flames painted outside and enclosing the ashes of a burned body with some arm and leg bones of a marvelous size and three fine beads of a fine stone [blue jade] of the same kind which the Indians use for money [identifying them as human cremations]…These buildings of Izamal were eleven or twelve in all… These accounts by Landa grant a different perspective on the use of miniature shrine complexes and add a new facet to our understanding of their significance in Late Postclassic Maya society, principally, as multi-functional religious structures. These historical sources indicate that miniature shrines served not only as private ceremonial areas for elite Maya families in domestic contexts, but also functioned as public religious space in nonresidential locations for the performance of general rites by the wider populace. The versatility of these diminutive structures as multi-purpose ritual loci is extended to include those present in civic-ceremonial precincts as well, as demonstrated later for the performance of community-based rites. In 1601, Antonio de Herrera (Tozzer 1941:219) substantiated reports by Díaz and Landa of the widespread existence of adoratorios or miniature shrines, making specific mention of their proliferation in many post Spanish-contact Maya communities and households. Given that a number of early chroniclers of Yucatec history including Cogolludo (1867-1868), Lizana (1632), and Villagutierre (1983) described various temple/shrine types in their discussion of Native idolatry, only diminutive structures specifically referred to as adoratorios are considered here. Proposed Interpretations As part of a larger research project directed by Fedick and Taube (1995), focused on the human ecology of the Yalahau region in northeast Quintana Roo, Mexico, I began an intensive investigation of the ancient Maya center of El Naranjal to address concerns regarding the function and meaning of diminutive shrines as well as to answer questions related to architectural recycling and reuse (Lorenzen 1995). Field research continued at El Naranjal and surrounding sites in the summers of 1996 and 1998 (Lorenzen 1999). In 1999, Proyecto El Naranjal commenced and concluded with a final archaeological expedition in 2001 (Lorenzen 2003). This program of research was intended to comprehend the ritual significance and role of these poorly understood structures in Late Postclassic Maya religion. As a result, excavations were carried out around the base and at the summit of Structures 2, 7, 9, 14 and 21 (Figure 4). Each of these structures – collapsed basal platforms dating to the Early Classic (AD 300 – AD 600) – served as recycled substructures, reused during the Late Postclassic to support shrine additions and associated stairways and basal altars (Lorenzen 1995, 1999). Structure 7 – Lineage Shrine Excavation results from the 1999 field season at El Naranjal revealed the fact that ceramics and other ritual remains were not removed from shrine areas and cleaned off Structure 7, but instead were carefully stockpiled in front of and on either side of the miniature shrine in antiquity, suggesting an ancient act of curation. Evidence of post-breakage sherd burning was evident on the broken surfaces of many ceramic fragments. This, coupled with the fact that very few sherds (pieces of broken fired ceramics) were recovered from excavations around the basal platform of Structure 7, is remarkably similar to contemporary material remains reported by Barbara Tedlock in Highland Guatemala at important Quiché Maya lineage shrines (Tedlock 1992: 76-82). The contemporary ritual curation of ceremic sherds is well-documented ethnographically by Tedlock
(1992: 76-82). The modern Quiché stockpile ritually smashed vessels next to public and special lineage oratories called “mountain-place” and “water-place” shrines to venerate ancestral deities who control human, animal, and plant fertility (ibid). These sherds are used as incense burners and in their “curated” context also note the passage of time (a possible explanation for the high density of sherds found accumulated around the shrine atop Structure 7). In essence, intentionally shattered vessels become a readable history of previous family rituals, reflected in the words of a Quiché lineage-priest “these shrines [and sherds] are like a book where everything – all births, marriages, deaths, successes and failures [in planting and harvest] – is written down (Tedlock 1992 177).” Sherd caches also work to increase progressively the collective power and importance of individual shrines with successive shattering and curation rituals. Closely linked to water, caves, mountains and family-owned land, continually maintained lineage shrines serve as representations of solidarity and ancestry by extended Quiché descent groups. Incidentally, massive sherd dumps similar to stockpiled sherds at modern Quiché shrines as well as the Late Postclassic shrine on Structure 7 at El Naranjal, have also been recorded in numerous caves throughout the Maya area, most notably by Thompson (1959: 129) and later by Pendergast (1966, 1969). In these examples, archaeological sherd deposits represent deity offerings that involved the ritual shattering of ceramic vessels as a constituent part of religious sacrifice. Structure 21 – Community Water Shrine Structure 21 is located at the northern tip of the civic-ceremonial center at El Naranjal, resting on a low rubble mound set at the margin of a seasonally inundated wetland and linked to the site core by a kilometer-long sakbeh or raised stone road (Figure 4). This shrine features two altars placed at plaza-level, between the stairway and terminus of the causeway. Structure 21 exhibits the most complete evidence from which we may draw a conclusive interpretation regarding the Prehispanic practice of water, rain, and agricultural fertility rites performed at miniature masonry shrines. Archaeological data from Structure 21 indicate that this shrine functioned as a community water shrine. This proposal is based on a number of key factors: 1. The intentional placement of Structure 21 on the wetland margin, revealing the direct connection of the site center to a significant onsite sacred water-source; 2. The relative isolation of Structure 21 from other monumental structures, indicating a specific and unique ritual purpose; 3. Smashed human-effigy censers of both the “generic ancestor” variety as well as depictions of the fertility-related gods Chaak and/or Itsamnaj. I contend that at least for Postclassic Yucatan, important and highly revered ancestors were depicted generically (as opposed to in portrait) on Chen Mul Modeled ceramic human-effigy censers (Figure 6) – distinct from censers that clearly represent well-known Maya gods such as Chaak and Itsamnaj (Figure 5; see Thompson 1957 and Rice 1999 for examples of ceramic censer deity representations); and 4. The ritual use of speleothems (cave flow-stone) at Structures 2 and 21, linked explicitly with rainmaking, the conjuring of rain deities, and regenerative forces associated with sacred caves (see Lorenzen [N.D., 2003] for a detailed explanation of the ritual significance of speleothems, their incorporation in ancient and contemporary rain rites, and their connection to agricultural fertility).
Modern ethnographic research among various Maya groups over the last century demonstrates the continuity of miniature shrine function as shelters for religious images, today referred to as santos, and ritual loci for the performance of private family religious rites (Aguilera 2000a, 2000b). Apart from modern cemetery “shrines” seen throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, contemporary indigenous miniature shrines in the bush for the most part are no longer made of masonry and are principally relegated to domestic rural settings rather than public contexts; however, their general form, appearance, religious significance and purpose have remained relatively unchanged since prehispanic times. During the Yucatan Medical Expedition mounted by the Carnegie Institution of Washington from 1929 to 1931, private family shrines of this perishable nature (though somewhat larger than their Late Postclassic equivalent) are reported being present in nearly every residential compound among the Santa Cruz Maya of Xpichil and Xyatil in Quintana Roo (Shattuck 1933:74, 174-180, Plates 47: B-C, 48:C-D). Miguel Aguilera (2000a-b), as part of a more comprehensive ethnographic study in Maya ritual and religion, documented the contemporary use of private religious structures among the Chan Santa Cruz of central Quintana Roo. According to Aguilera (personal communication 2000), freestanding family shrines, referred to as santuarios and chan iglesias, literally “little churches,” house wooden santos in human effigy, painted green and ritually adorned with plain white cotton cloaks (the traditional dress of Maya men). Many of these are found embroidered with brightly colored floral designs identical to those on huipiles (formal dresses worn by Maya women). Regional variants of these shrines and their different ritual uses have been documented ethnographically among other Maya groups such as the Lacandon, Quiche, Chorti, Tzotzil and Tzeltal (Girard 1949, 1962; Gossen 1974; McGee 1990; Tedlock 1992; Tozzer 1907; Vogt 1990, 1993; Wisdom 1974). In a clear demonstration of continuity in religious practice from the prehispanic period to the present, Diaz (1982: 25) records that the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado wrote, following a visit to the deserted Maya settlement of Santa Maria during the early 1500’s, “in an Idol house there were some altar ornaments made of old clothes and some little chests containing diadems, Idols, beads and pendants of gold [likely to adorn the idol].” Chan Santa Cruz santos are highly esteemed possessions, watched over and venerated on special table-top altars, passed down as heirlooms to family descendants (Miguel Aguilera, personal communication 2000). In many ways these santos share striking similarities to private family idols made of cedar mentioned by Landa: “The wooden idols were so much esteemed that they were considered as heirlooms and were (thought of) as the most important part of the inherited property” (Tozzer 1941:111) . This was likely due to the fact that prehispanic wooden idols held the cremated remains of deceased relatives venerated in effigy (Tozzer 1941:110-111, 131). Landa (Tozzer 1941: 131), writing of the deceased, says: The rest of the people of position made for their fathers wooden statues of which the back of the head was left hollow, and they then burned a part of the body and placed its ashes there, and plugged it up; afterwards they stripped off the dead body the skin of the back of the head and stuck it over this place and they buried the rest as they were wont to do. They preserved these statues with a great deal of veneration among their idols. Ancestor Veneration and Rain Making Given the fact that many Classic Maya building mounds contain dynastic and lineage-related burials, in light of the ancient Maya belief that pyramids are mountains and the home of ancestors, and the likelihood that Chen Mul Modeled human-effigy censers (the most characteristic artifact recovered from Late Postclassic miniature masonry shrines) depict deified ancestors, makes certain that many deities venerated at diminutive shrines were ancestral and
directly tied to prominent lineages in the Yucatan peninsula. This is particularly apparent at residential shrines where evidence indicates the adoration of lineage founders deified at death. As stated earlier, osteological evidence from Mayapan suggests that at least for household shrines, small family oratories served as ritual loci for ancestor veneration (Smith 1962: 221; 1971a: 107108). This practice was corroborated by Landa (Tozzer 1941: 131) in his detailed account of the interment and adoration of bones and fleshy parts from dead relatives, among both elite and lower-class Maya in contact-period Yucatan – little more than 100 years after the fall of Mayapan. Moreover, Landa tells us of the Cocom family elite whose crania were preserved at death, made life-like for display and venerated in residential shrines, . . . on all the days of their festivals and rejoicing, they made offerings of foods to them [dead relatives], so that food should not fail them in the other life, where they thought that their soul reposed and where their gifts were of use to them [Tozzer 1941: 131]. This reference by Landa relates directly to the contemporary observance of the Days of the Dead, particularly evident in its focus on the veneration of family ancestors (Aguilar 2001; Morrison 1998; Romero 1949). As in central Mexico where extensive research regarding the Days of the Dead has been carried out, the ancient and contemporary practice of venerating the dead serves to preserve the memory of ancestors (Nutini 1988, 1991). As with many modern rites and rituals in Middle America, more current research on this celebration of the dead has traced the continuity and origin of its practice to prehispanic times (Brandes 1998; Carmichael and Sayer 1991; Nutini 1988, 1991; Scheffler 1976, 1999). For instance, the Yucatec Maya of Chan Kom and Tusik, as most traditional Maya today, refer to the annual celebration of the dead as hanal pixan or “the dinner of the souls,” carried out partially at gravesites and home shrines on All Souls Day (Aguilar 2001; Morrison 1992; Redfield and Villa Rojas 1934: 119, 202-204, 322324; Villa Rojas 1945: 104, 151-152; Romero 1949). As already noted for the prehispanic Maya, contemporary Yucatec Maya still venerate the remains of their ancestors by placing the bones of dead relatives, particularly the cranium and long bones, in miniature house-like shrines modeled after modern residences and brought out for display and adoration during certain celebrations such as the Days of the Dead. This practice has been recorded at Maya communities throughout the peninsula such as Dzibalché, Dzodzil, Calkini, Chan Kom, Pomuch, and Tenabo (Redfield 1941; Redfield and Villa Rojas 1934; Repetto-Tio 1995: 429-489; Tiesler-Blos 1999: 202-207; Tiesler-Blos et al. 1999). In like fashion, contemporary Lacandon Maya maintain ossuary shrines in caves and rock alcoves for the deposition of not only family skeletal remains but also “dead” ancestral-deity censers (the broken pieces of which are considered the “bones” of the vessel). The Lacandon Maya are direct descendants of the prehispanic Yucatec Maya and are considered the most isolated, ethnically and culturally, of all Maya groups today. These and other cave shrines dedicated to mensabak – the Lacandon god of rain; itsanok’uh – the god of hail and lakes; and kanank’ax – lord of the bush, reveal the affiliation of ancestors to rain deities and spirits who control agricultural plots and the release of game (McGee 1990: 57-59, Figure 5.4; Soustelle 1966: 94, Figure 58). Likewise, modern Chorti also closely associate rainmakers with ancestors, reflected in altars used exclusively for the performance of rain ceremonies and ancestor veneration rituals (Wisdom 1974: 383). Cross-culturally, the Aztec believed that certain dead were transformed into cloudmakers and allowed to live in the paradise of Tlalocan, accompanying the rain tlalocs (Furst 1983; LopezAustin 1988a: 1: 331-340, 1998b; Parsons 1939: 1018). This concept also existed in Pre-conquest Tlaxcalan ideology, where deceased nobility were thought to return to living descendants as water-bearing clouds (Mendieta 1970, 1971: 97). This idea is equally seen in Mixtec thought,
where dead relatives are perceived as ancestral deities who play a crucial role in bringing rain (Monaghan 1995). In greater Mesoamerica, Tewa, Hopi and other Puebloan peoples in the American Southwest, believe that at death, ancestors return to the place of emergence and dependent on their actions in life, become rain bringers in the form of ancestral katchina spirits, returning to their living descendants during annual rain ceremonies (Schaafsma 1999: 184-187). As we see, the perception of ancestors as rain bringers was and is a widely held Mesoamerican tradition, if not Pan-American among New World societies. Given similarities in cross-cultural rain symbolism and water lore, a like analogy may be proposed for the role of Yucatec Maya rain gods, the lesser chaaks. These rain bringers are believed by contemporary Maya from the village of Chan Kom to assemble at the ancient site of Koba when summoned by the supreme Chaak who sits in the eastern corner of the sky, the place where all rain clouds and storms collect and move across the Yucatan peninsula (Redfield 1941; Redfield and Villa Rojas 1934). As the chaaks congregate in the skies above the massive lakes of Koba, they are thought to disperse throughout the land upon receipt of their orders, flying the clouds on celestial horses as they pour out rain from “inexhaustible” water gourds (Redfield 1941; Redfield and Villa Rojas 1934). Generally, most Maya believe, as in ancient times that chaaks also inhabit cenotes (limestone sink holes), lakes, wet caves, wells, and likely wetlands. Likewise, contemporary Tzotzil Maya associate the great Earth Lord Yahual Balamil with rain, thunder, lightning, clouds, caves, mountains, and fertility (Gossen 1984:21; Vogt 1993:17, 58), which in many ways, are aspects identical with Yucatec Maya and Central Mexican rain deities (chaaks and tlalocs) who are closely tied to earth, field, caves, mountains, and ancestors. The connection of Maya rain gods or chaaks with deified ancestors is reflected in their classification as yumtzil(s) – spirits referred to in lineage-related terms such as “fathers, protectors, or lords” (Barrera-Vasquez 1995; Redfield 1941; Redfield and Villa Rojas 1934). As the highest order of yumtzil(s), chaaks serve as rainmakers and distributors of agricultural fertility and game. And as I believe, in their prehispanic function, yumtzil(s) were ancestors deified at death by venerating descendants. As such, chaaks or more generally ancestral yumtzil(s), served as intermediaries between principal deities and the living, facilitating the petitions of descendants during various rites and rituals. Discussion Nearly all Late Postclassic Maya ritual references a basic idea rooted in Formative Mesoamerican thought – the concept of fertility. The earliest indication of a highly developed rain cult, as part of a wider fertility complex in the New World, is seen particularly among the Olmec (precursors of the Maya – considered by many to be the “mother-culture” of Middle America) in concepts related to agricultural production and material wealth (Taube 1995, 1996) and with numerous other Formative-period chiefdoms in the Valley of Oaxaca and Basin of Mexico (Benson and de la Fuente 1996; Diehl and Coe 1995; Flannery and Marcus 1976, 1983; Grove 1987; Orr 2001; Share and Grove 1989). The core of this ideological complex continued virtually unaltered for millennia, embraced by successive cultures throughout the Americas. Concepts basic to the fertility complex are broad in scope, incorporating cosmological referents such as the sun, moon and stars; the natural forces of wind, lightning and rain; physical landscape features including mountains, caves and large bodies of sacred water likened to the “primordial sea;” and other natural phenomena such as clouds, soil, flora and fauna. The need for water, food and procreation undoubtedly formed the impetus for these behavioral patterns in a drive to obtain, control and ensure the most fundamental requisites of life. Because fertility in all its forms is inextricably woven into ideological frameworks of survival, an overriding concern for rain and its procurement among horticulturists and agriculturists worldwide and through time is not
surprising. Much of Late Postclassic Maya ceremony may be reconstructed from archaeological data fused with historical evidence, granting a better understanding of the types of ritual activities carried out at shrine complexes. Very different from the highly centralized and elite-controlled religion of the Classic period, the state of Maya religion during the Postclassic was relatively decentralized (in using “decentralized,” I apply it to differentiate organized public or community religious practice versus private or family rites). Decentralization came after the fall of the Classic Maya (ca AD 900) and as one author contends, a possible scenario of this “fall” can be attributed to the societal response of the Maya to an extended drought, which led to famine, several other factors, and eventually death and desertion of large city-states (Gill 2000:96, 112, 119-120, 255-258, 314-318, 355-357). This decentralization is exactly what led to the religious differentiation in the character of Late Postclassic Maya religion: The Classic Maya were controlled primarily by the ideology of the state, highly organized by an elite few, and administered centrally; whereas, during the Late Postclassic religion became dependant on, involved, and revolved around the extended family through all social strata. Although Gill (2000:112) and others (Seavoy 1986:10) suggest economics, energy expenditure, maximization of labor, and a wide-variety of practical and logical ways of dealing with life-threatening issues such as drought, my focus is on the ritual and religious aspects of how the ancient Maya dealt with these annual grave and consequential issues. Strategies included the power and ideology of belief and how Late Postclassic Maya cosmology provided them with time-tested ways of addressing crises through specified ritual dictated by a world view that controlled not only the universe itself, but each individual living in it. The “secularization” of Late Postclassic Maya religion does not infer a reduction in religious devotion, but rather transfers the burden of spiritual observance to the individual. For purposes here, Late Postclassic ceremonial activity is divided into two categories: public and private ritual. In this context, public ceremonies include those rites whose outcomes would perpetually affect the entire community and require a religious specialist such as an ah-men (traditional Maya priest, literally “he who knows”), for cyclic rain rituals like the well-known ch’a chaak ceremony performed annually during a brief dry spell just before the final maturation of corn. On the other hand, private ritual incorporates those rites mostly tied directly to family-owned agricultural plots (milpas) like the u-hanli-col or “dinner of the milpa” (based on the primicia or “first fruits ceremony”), a private harvest rite that gives back to the gods a ritual portion of what was given to the family. Rituals such as these (as well as those carried out on more of an ad hoc basis) are and were performed by individuals and families at domestic altars and shrines erected in and near residences as well as in the milpa itself. Ethnographic research and ethnohistoric information coupled with archaeological evidence suggests that lower-status dwellings of even the most common variety likely featured informal ritual-use areas, centered on less elaborate interior altars (i.e., wooden table altars) similar to those in use today in many traditional Maya households. Inexpensive and easily constructed exterior oratories made of readily available yet perishable material such as palm thatch were likely used, modeled after more ela borate miniature masonry shrines found in elite residential contexts as well as in public precincts. Ethnohistoric accounts of miniature domestic shrines (Tozzer 1941: 18; Note 105) as well as those examples documented ethnographically at Xpichil, Xyatil, and among contemporary Chan Santa Cruz and Tusik Maya in east-central Quintana Roo (Aguilera 2000a-b; Shattuck 1933:74, 174-180; Villa Rojas 1934), parallel depictions of palmthatched shrines and small temples portrayed in the Dresden, Madrid and Paris codices as pointed out at the start. In either case, diminutive oratories of pole and thatch and/or interior house-altars of wood and stone served essentially the same ritual purpose as did freestanding miniature masonry shrines during the Late Postclassic.
In fact, recent discussion regarding the role of miniature shrines in ancient Maya religion suggests that oratories or shrines of some sort were not exclusive to the Late Postclassic and as extended into their contemporary, yet somewhat altered use today, but played an active part in structuring the practice of ancestor veneration from its inception. Archaeological evidence traces the presence of family shrines to Classic-period households and compounds at Barton Ramie, Copán, Tikal, and Uaxactún as reported by Leventhal (1983). Furthermore, the assumed use is indicated even earlier as demonstrated by McAnany (1990, 1992, 1993a, 1993b, 1995), suggesting the practice of Preclassic ancestor veneration among the Formative Maya. Conclusion For the archaeologist, a dichotomy in upper status versus lower status domestic religious material-culture is expected, in part, because Maya elite enjoyed privileged access to more elaborate and costly ritual paraphernalia, which in most cases consisted of exotic imports, made of stone, shell, and fired ceramic. Obviously, these items tend to preserve better in depositional contexts, and thus make the recognition of less durable, although functionally identical, ritual objects quite difficult, particularly if they constitute reused utilitarian items (Deal 1988). If one is cognizant of potential socio-economic differences through the anticipation of status-sensitive ritual markers in recovered material culture, the substantiation of lower-status Maya household religious practice is probable – the principal difference being not the practice itself, nor the intrinsic nature of the rite, but the quality, quantity, and type of material used and its depositional context. Contextual recognition such as this was begun with recent archaeological investigations at Postclassic households on Cozumel, Laguna de Ón and Santa Rita (Chase 1986, 1988, 1992; Freidel and Sabloff 1984; Masson and Rosenswig 1999; Smith 1962:220-222), and at El Naranjal in extensive midden deposits directly associated with multi-room Late Postclassic household(s) (Lorenzen 1997). Most recently, research by Masson and Peraza (2004) confirmed the use of compound or household plaza oratories and associated ritual paraphernalia outside the perimeter wall surrounding the elite sector of Mayapan. This, in essence, demonstrates that family-based religion was not restricted to ruling elite living within the confines of the Mayapan civic center; one of the principal conclusions of the extensive Carnegie report on Mayapan (Pollock et al. 1962). These findings support the premise presented here of regular and frequent family religious practice among lower status Maya households, likely tied to ancestor deification and the veneration of particularly revered descendants (esteemed lineage heads or similarly admired family leaders). Since the vast majority of our knowledge regarding the use of miniature shrines and their religious significance during the Late Postclassic derives almost exclusively from their investigation in elite domestic contexts, ongoing and future archaeological research in El Naranjal and major Late Postclassic centers such as Mayapan, promises to substantially further our understanding of miniature masonry-shrine function and meaning; particularly in ancestor deification and the veneration of esteemed descendants who likely served integral roles in Maya ritual and religion from all periods of history: pre-hispanic, colonial, and contemporary (Lorenzen 1995, 1997, 1999, 2003, N.D.; Masson and Peraza-Lope 2004). REFERENCES Aguilar, Manuel 2001 Aguilera, Miguel 2000a 2000b
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Figure 1: Depiction of a K’u Na or “God House” (miniature shrine) in the Dresden Codex. Chaak, the Maya god of rain, lightning, and agricultural fertility is shown hovering above the shrine, which holds an idol representation of God C, a deity associated with sacredness (Dreden Codex, Page 64, Forstemann 35, Section A).
Figure 2: Miniature masonry shrine at ground-level at Xelha, Quintana Roo, Mexico (photograph by Karl James Lorenzen).
Regional map of the Yucatan Peninsula (adapted from Coe 1999).
Figure 4: Site map of El Naranjal, Quintana Roo, Mexico (Drawing by Karl James Lorenzen).
Figure 5: Chaak human effigy censer sherds (Chen Mul Modeled) recovered from Structure 21, El Naranjal, Quintana Roo, Mexico (photograph by Karl James Lorenzen).
Figure 6: Unprovienenced â€œgeneric ancestorâ€? human effigy censer eye, face, and foot fragments (Chen Mul Modeled) found by a Maya family of El Naranjal, Quintana Roo, Mexico (photograph by Karl James Lorenzen).
This paper addresses the need for a deeper understanding of the function and meaning of miniature masonry shrines in Late Postclassic period...