Mayan gods, sacred chimerisms: unity and polymorphism in Mayan iconography

for my uncle Alberto, another father

The cosmogonic and cosmological thought of Mayan culture and philosophy developed from three questions that are mutually dimensioned, and that it was never necessary to pose as such, because those who could have conceived them sought to learn to use them as the same truth with power:

  • What and how is the universe?
  • What are the origins of things and time?
  • What is the human being and why does he exist?

According to the historian Mercedes de la Garza, in her book Faces of the sacred in the Mayan world, those whom we could call gods in this religiosity would be the representation of energies or materialities, perceptible only through the ordinary resource of the senses, for which reason they require a more subtle approach. It would be inappropriate to call them supernatural, being rather intra-factual to creation and ethereal.

They are captured in the Mayan style, between contrasting images and full of animal, vegetable and phenomenal elements, from where sometimes anthropomorphic faces and bodies emerge. The stars, the rain, hot rays, powerful beasts like the jaguar, birds, bats, vegetables like corn, wild plants, hallucinogenic mushrooms, minerals like quartz and the memory of community heroes and ancestors.

The religiosity of the Mayans was naturalistic or without important imprecise intellectual overtones. Their inspiration was their tropical environment, which they learned to predict with singular accuracy. Scope of the perceptible and non-perceptible universal, extended by astronomical curiosity towards the celestial regions. Fine notions about nature did not lead the Maya to abstraction, but to statements about what cannot be immediately noticedwith the most everyday sensibility, crosses towards the invisible.

This can become clearer from an appreciation of the philosopher and art critic Georges-Henri Luquet: starting from the idea (not shared by most researchers) that there are realistic pretensions in children’s drawings, he completely ruled out that a child can draw something that does not represent anything. We see what we draw, but we draw what we think we see or what we do not actually see. For today’s human being, a painting is understandable when it reproduces what his eyes see. But perhaps for a Maya, it was when he expressed what he thought he knew. A completely different notion of certainty.

While other peoples on the planet have been more inclined to develop notions more thought than seen, from the pure concept or sharp metaphors. Instead, the Maya resorted more to aesthetics, to a fanic semiotic content delimited by the monstrous, that is, chimerism. This does not imply a sum of the particular, but shows how something needs to be invisible in the visible, an ineffable unity that only has as its ontosophical path, love of being, a world full of things and forces, of sensuality and repulsion between the iconography of a culture as sacred ontography, writing of the real.

Fairly well polished and detailed Maya sculpture from the Middle Classic period found at Copan during the 1940s, currently on display at the Museo de Escultura Maya de Honduras

Mayan religiosity was a co-figuration of its basic animism and of a theism given by intercultural refinement. A realistic tautophany of nature in progressively more complex hierophanies, in a symbolic, mythical and ritual sense, up to the degree of personification of the frontier of the numenical. Definitions directed if it is taken into account that since the Classic period (250-950 AD) there was a very consistent polytheism.

The immortal gods and the mundane beings are distinguished: if the latter are thought of as composed of light matter and heavy matter; On the other hand, the first ones would only be light or, in other words, of a voluptuously represented degree of reality, but almost imperceptible to us. waking mental statescloser to sleep or trance.

The gods can be one or several at the same time, interspersed figurations and multiple names, always in accordance with their attributions and the historicity of the artists who created them. The god is so because of its richness and fanic complexity, that is, it manifests itself in many ways, not because of a moral assessment, that is, only humanized or humanistic, in the same way that natural phenomena are neither good nor bad per se. Theophanies can be evidenced celestial or earthly, be benefic givers or destructive malefic, chimerize from masculine or feminine typologies.

According to Mercedes de la Garza, this phenomenon led to very diverse plastic representations of the deities, typical of each region and each period of time, always altering their influence. This has been an important difficulty for the Mayans, however, there are constant symbolic elements throughout the Mayan horizon and in all periods.

Although the gods would be the superior among the many states of being or an ontic creative state, however, they were par excellence figured as imperfect, deformable and reformable beings due to their eco-dependence, open to birth and death from mythical, symbolic keys. and natural. The liturgical and iconolatric aesthetics of the Maya, as an inter, intra and exosensory vehicle, from the dense to the subtle, included the ritual delivery of offerings, in the understanding that the organic participation of the powerful gods was also a necessity for be fed to survive. Every element of reality consumes and can be consumed among a whole that eats itself in a cyclical evolution, different from time in the modern chronological or Judeo-Christian linear sense.

The Dresden Codex, a city in Germany, with its multiple deities consists of 39 plates, with writing on both sides. Dating from the 11th or 12th century

The Dresden Codex, a city in Germany, with its multiple deities consists of 39 sheets, with writing on both sides. Dating from the 11th or 12th century

The tempernic (term of Raimon Panikkar) underlies the doctrines, mythical narrative and chimerism of the Maya, the visible support for the invisible in their ideas and rites, that is, their inquiries into the parallels of this world, whether they exist under the surface of the earth or beyond the stars. What was understood by eternal in this mentality would be the re-existence and univocity of relational discrepancies and interconcealments, the magnification of a way of being that is not one among others, but its living intimate codegenealogical, its creative realization and order.

For this very reason, looking for the keys to monotheism at some point in the development of Mayan religiosity would imply not only interpolating an alien concept into it, but also an error of metaphysical and iconographic analysis, since that principle of the world that does not depend on it, as was seen in this part of the world and historical moment, it would be beyond number, being impersonal, indescribable and unknowable.

Alain Danielou maintained that monotheism is about a projection of the human self to the divine place, a psychological monotheism that almost always replaces respect for conjunction, pondering a notion of truth over reality. On the other hand, in my opinion, reverence for the latter was very typical for the Mesoamerican peoples, devoted to a cyclical-immanent recollection, destined for a uni, poly and trans divine center, semantically and visually explicit conditionalities and coordinates. Some examples offered by Mercedes de la Garza in this regard are the Mayan notion of a tetra-theandric Earth or linked to the four seasons, the fanic center of the ceiba as world axis and its four colors based on the cardinal directions, plus the so-called fifth direction, the morpho-cosmogonic center linked to the quadruple flower glyph of the Sun, ruling star changing time by versioning space in four with its exit, route, celestial setting and disappearance.

Creator god Itzamná, two-headed dragon, Dresden Codex, 4b-5b

Creator god Itzamná, two-headed dragon, Dresden Codex, 4b-5b

For this reason, as paradoxical as this may sound: the Mayan iconography with its faces was neither precisely synthetic nor just symbolic, but and above all very careful and teratologicalIn other words, it reinvents normality. This from the non-distinction of nature or religious polytheism neither as signifiers nor as signified.

A hierophany for the Mayans was nothing more than the discovery of the continuous authentic condition of an element in the world. The contingent would have to become necessary and vital. This is how nature was not a concept for them, so neither can one speak of a Mayan humanism or theology, at least properly.

However, there is a mystical revelation: of the natural through the empiricist human, of the human through the gods, ethereal intelligence, and of the divine through iconography. However, this revelation would not have taken place only by personifying, because for the Maya there was no great god who found his unity as a person, but rather an active, mediated and mediating order of all natural, social and spiritual contingencies.

Interpreting Mercedes de la Garza from the perspective of the Maya, if polytheism is a divine personality, it is only suggested. A mysterious ignorance that becomes indirect or oblique intuition, namely, relationship and surrender before a polymorphic deity or among many polyvalent deities. Something that can approach the human, as much as it can violate it. The multiplicity that this non-personal god would be is both a particular theophany with its iconic evidence, and the expression of thousands of iconoformative hierophanies. They all have the same origin, foundation and goal. as the yes of present and past lifeits transcendental and transforming continuity.

If that personality was endowed with names, mythologies, signs, images, or a series of sensory attributes, such an intention did not make the Maya a personalist. Rather, he assured her of a relationship with the ontological-morphic source of Creation, the indescribable behind birth and death between the empirical and the ontographic.

The Mayan theophany was and is a suggested and never declared search for personality in the impersonal, not under monolatric principles, but adual, Advaitists would say Vedantic Hindus, under daily activity and ritual as devotion, not to a person, but to a trans-origin, an indirect god like everything that can be directly deified.

Alejandro Massa Varela (1989) is a poet, essayist and playwright, as well as a historian by training. Among his works is the book The Created Being or Exercises on mysticism and hedonism (Plaza y Valdés), with a prologue by the philosopher Mauricio Beuchot; the poems The Aroma of the dart or Poems for a shunga of fantasy (Camelot Editions) and the plays Vastness or Who came to devour Jacob? (2015) and The body of the Sun or Dialogue to make Hell fall in love (2018). his poetry has been recognized with various awards in Mexico, Spain, Uruguay and Finland. He currently serves as director of the Association for Revolution and Serenity Studies.

Author’s YouTube channel: Revolution and Serenity Studies Association

From the same author in Pajama Surf: Pure Christianity from Africa: The Ethiopian Orthodox Church

Top image: Stucco mask of Kinich Ahau or God G, face of the Sun, Kohunlich, Quintana Roo, Mexico, related to the quadruple solar flower glyph.​

Mayan gods, sacred chimerisms: unity and polymorphism in Mayan iconography