Maya Bloodletting Rituals - Ancient Sacrifice to Speak to the Gods

Royal Maya Blood Sacrifices

Bonampak Murals, Room 3: Royal Family Performing a Bloodletting Ritual
Bonampak Murals, Room 3: Royal Family Performing a Bloodletting Ritual. Mattia di Paolo

Bloodletting--cutting part of the body to release blood--is an ancient ritual used by many Mesoamerican societies. For the ancient Maya, bloodletting rituals (called ch'ahb' in surviving hieroglyphs) constituted a way for Maya nobles to communicate with the gods and royal ancestors. The word ch'ahb' means "penance" in the Mayan Ch'olan language, and may be related to the Yukatekan word ch'ab', meaning "dripper/dropper".

This practice was usually performed by nobles through the perforation of their own body parts, mainly, but not only, tongue, lips, and genitals. Both men and women practiced these types of sacrifices.

Ritual bloodletting, along with fasting, tobacco smoking and ritual enemas, was pursued by the royal Maya in order to provoke a trance-like state and supernatural visions and therefore communicate with dynastic ancestors or underworld gods.

Bloodletting Occasions and Locations

Bloodletting rituals were usually performed at significant dates and state events, such as at the beginning or end of a calendar cycle; when a king ascended to the throne; and at building dedications. Other important life stages of kings and queens such as births, deaths, marriages, and war were also accompanied by bloodletting.

Bloodletting rituals were usually carried out in private, within secluded temple rooms on the top of pyramids, but public ceremonies were organized during these events and people attended them, crowding into the plaza at the base of the pyramid.

These public displays were used by the rulers to demonstrate their ability to communicate with the gods in order to obtain advice on how to balance the world of the living and to ensure the natural cycles of the seasons and stars.

An interesting statistical study by Munson and colleagues (2014) found that references to bloodletting on Maya monuments and in other contexts are predominantly from a handful of sites along the Usumacinta River in Guatemala and in the southeastern Maya lowlands.

Most of the known ch'ahb' glyphs are from inscriptions that refer to antagonistic statements about warfare and conflict.

Bloodletting Tools

Piercing body parts during bloodletting rituals involved the use of sharp objects such as obsidian blades, stingray spines, carved bones, perforators, and knotted ropes. Equipment also included bark paper to collect some of the blood, and copal incense to burn the stained paper and provoke smoke and pungent odors. Blood was also collected in receptacles made out of ceramic pottery or basketry. Cloth bundles were probably used to carry around all the equipment.

Stingray spines were definitely a primary tool used in Maya bloodletting, despite, or perhaps because of, their dangers. Uncleaned stingray spines contain venom and their use to pierce body parts would have caused a great deal of pain, and perhaps include deleterious effects ranging from secondary infection to necrosis and death. The Maya, who regularly fished for stingrays, would have known all about the dangers of stingray venom. Researchers Haines and colleagues (2008) suggest that it is likely that the Maya either used stingray spines that had been carefully cleaned and dried; or reserved them for special acts of piety or in rituals where references to the necessity of risking death was an important factor.

Bloodletting Imagery

Evidence of bloodletting rituals comes primarily from scenes depicting royal figures on carved monuments and painted pots. Stone sculptures and paintings from Maya sites such as Palenque, Yaxchilan, and Uaxactun, among others, offer dramatic examples of these practices.

The Maya site of Yaxchilan in Chiapas state in Mexico offers a particularly rich gallery of images about bloodletting rituals. In a series of carvings on three door lintels from this site, a royal woman, Lady Xook, is portrayed performing bloodletting, piercing her tongue with a knotted rope, and provoking a serpent vision during the throne accession ceremony of her husband.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Maya Civilization, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Edited and updated by K. Kris Hirst