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Double Meanings




Lion of the MayaLion of the Maya

“Double meanings” in  art  - that’s a surprising idea for many people, that is often not recognized. Native Americans of the Southwest sometimes say about their rock art (not entirely in jest) “There are two levels of meaning : one, for the children and the white men, and the second, for those who have been initiated.” It is believed that one must prepare, and become ready to receive sacred knowledge. But sometimes the so-called "double meaning" is not intended; instead, it comes from our own preconceived notions and oversimplifications of ancient culture.

Bonampak Mural of Mayan Royalty

Our first example, above, comes from the beautiful Mayan murals at Bonampak. In the Southwest there’s a very direct tie with Mesoamerica, particularly with the Mayan culture. Once we get a better handle on Mayan concepts, then we will gain better understanding of rock art meanings here. This panel illustrates the pitfalls of interpretation of ancient art when we see through the foggy glasses of our own cultural preconceptions. Look at the first painting, and observe what you will. If you have some prior knowledge of Mayan culture, you will probably realize that this mural depicts Mayan royalty engaging in ritual bloodletting , using stingray spines or pulling a cord through tongue punctures. To the right is the container full of burning blood soaked papers, from which visions may arise. You may even surmise that the small child in the lower left is the new heir to the throne. We cringe at the thought of inflicting such pain upon ourselves. We would agree with the National Geographic writer who interprets the scene as a “poignant rite of passage “ as this child “spreads his fingers as if in preparation for his first bloodletting”. Poor little guy, we think. But we are missing something important.

Bonampak Mural of Young Maya Ruler

Look again, at the close- up. This time, the “double meaning” comes from us! The panel shown is part of a series that presents the new heir to the court and also to the spirits of the ancestors. In this panel, the young heir is shown to have the spiritual powers necessary to a royal Mayan leader- the ability to see visions and communicate with spirits. How do we know this? Follow his line of sight. He stares into a rectangular container of sacred cornmeal, where a ghostly apparition is beginning to materialize. His hand gestures have meaning also; his open hand means “to show” or “to reveal” and the other hand displays the sign associated with this ritual . He’s not at all the pitiful victim- instead he is a young king who is displaying his budding ability to communicate with the spirit world.

Here's another example, from a Late Classic Period Maya vase. The entire panel (illustration not currently available) shows a somewhat haughty looking Lord, most likely a ruler, gazing into a mirror held by a servant. From the somewhat foppish hand position, we may be tempted to assume that this Lord is the epitome of vanity.

Lord of the Maya

Look again, at the close up of the Lord's hand gesture. This is a deliberate sign, and signifies  war. Furthermore, the mirror held up to his view is the "Smoking Mirror", a metaphor for Tezcatlipoca, the omnipotent god of rulers, sorcerers and warriors. Far from being  a self-centered primping session, the gaze into the mirror is the serious and prayerful decision  made to initiate a war.

Mayan Lord From Bonampak