It's great to be the king. Most of the time.

As the ancient Maya evolved from a rather simplistic hunting and gatherI-ling society into a more complicated way of life, certain specialists emerged. Throughout the Maya world these so-called shamans developed skills that set them apart from the common people. Through various means, the shamans intervened between humans and the gods and forces of nature. Their knowledge of medicines and illnesses and their apparent ability to communicate with the unseen forces that controlled day-to-day life, gave them a degree of power over other members of their society. Most scholars agree that the Maya shaman was responsible for the development of the calendar system and the hieroglyphic writing and mathematics skills required to maintain its accuracy.

As Maya society grew in size and sophistication, shamans became fullpractitioners and the elite ruling class saw that the power of divination and the manipulation of the powerful unseen forces could be very useful in supporting their own elevated status. (In modem terms we would consider this a convenient marriage between Church and State, a problem we are coping with daily on a world-wide basis.) Those aspects of shamanism that provided a measure of control over the general populace were embraced by the rulers and soon the shamans were a vital part of the elite ruling class. By this time the shamans had achieved priesthood status and often the Maya ruler would serve as head priest and shaman for his subjects, performing personally many of the rituals that ensured prosperity and security for everyone through the management of the supernatural forces thought to be in control of their destiny.

The priests directed a variety of public ceremonies designed to dazzle the commoners and ensure that they would be thoroughly subservient to the ruling class. These rituals usually included music, dancing, light displays, the burning of incense, (remember the "smoke and mirrors" discussed in the last issue of the Sun?) offerings, ritual bloodletting by the ruler/priests and occasionally human sacrifice The rulers direct participation ensured his political as well as religious leadership.

Perhaps the most interesting form of sacrifice was personal bloodletting by the ruler/priests. Classic sculptures and painting on pottery show rulers using various kinds of sharp objects (sting-ray spines, thin bone knives and obsidian blades) to pierce the foreskin of their penis. The resulting blood was sometimes poured onto bark paper upon which messages to the gods were written. The paper was then burned in special pottery vessels, sending the message skyward to the gods. Apparently the presence of the royal blood on the paper ensured prompt receipt by the gods. (Federal Express???) Although the Spanish reported blood sacrifice was carried out only by the male rulers, several Classic period scenes depict elite women drawing blood, frequently from the tongue. After piercing the tongue, a rope entwined with thorns was passed through the wound, ensuring a sufficient flow of blood. One of the three surviving Maya bark paper books shows a man and a woman drawing blood from their ears.

Here is a sixteenth century account of ritual bloodletting among the Maya as reported by a Spanish chronicler: "They make sacrifices of their own blood, sometimes cutting the edges of their ears in pieces ... other times they pierced their cheeks ... lower lips ... or their tongues in a slanting direction from side to side, passing pieces of straw through the holes with horrible suffering. They slit the superfluous part of the virile member (the foreskin), leaving it like their ears."

Perhaps this was the origin of the idea that while rank has its privileges, it also has its responsibilities. I'm sure it was great to be the king and everything, but gee whiz, those public ceremonies must have been tough!!!

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