5596 - The Bowl of the Nine Gods - Some Observations on Ancient Maya Polytheism

The present study focuses on a group of nine supernatural beings represented by their glyphic portraits on an unprovenanced carved Early Classic Maya bowl. Now in the collection of the Ethnological Museum in Berlin (Germany), this vessel originally formed part of the grave-furniture of the tomb of an Ancient Maya ruler ( ajaw ). Comparative iconographic and epigraphic analyses reveal that these nine supernaturals are clearly associated with underwordly and liminal places. They further play important roles in Ancient Maya myths around the death, regeneration and resurrection of the Maize God. These myths, their agents and places, combine concepts of the underworld and death with those of regeneration and fertility and thus are important aspects of Ancient Maya ancestor worship. The belief in the regeneration of a deceased ruler as a divine ancestor is based on a model of the maize-cycle symbolized by the mentioned mythic episodes. A buried ruler impersonates the maize germinating and sprouting from the buried seed. Images or inscriptions referring to the nine beings occur on burial structures and shrines for the veneration of royal ancestors. Seemingly related to these nine entities is the epithet balun tz’akbu(l) ajaw in the nominal phrases of deceased rulers, as are certain place- or building-names containing the number nine, balun . These include names of burial places like balun ajaw nah , Nine Ajaw House, or balun et nah , Nine Figure(s) House. The latter refers to the Temple of the Inscriptions in Palenque housing K’inich Janab Pakal I’s tomb. That tomb's walls bear stucco reliefs of nine male figures wearing an ajaw -costume. In this context several theonyms such as balun tz’apal k’uh or balun yok te’ k’uh need further scrutiny regarding their possible origin from collective terms for groups of gods. Based on the mentioned analyses will be provided an overview of the specific attributes, role and function of those nine supernaturals in Ancient Maya maize-mythology.

Keywords: Maya, Mesoamerica, Polytheism, Religion, Iconography

Author: Wagner, Elisabeth (University of Bonn, Germany / Deutschland)


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