The Mayan Beauty Ideal

by Michael Sones

The Mayan civilization developed across southern Mexico, Belize and Guatemala where their descendants live today. This area covers over 100,000 square miles and is slightly larger than the United Kingdom. Like the Olmecs they farmed beans, corn and squash. Chocolate, made from cacao beans, was a favored drink. They also hunted wild pigs, deer, and other animals. There is evidence that they raised turkeys but otherwise dogs were the only domesticated animals.

Early Mayan settlements date from about 1500 BC with large pyramids being built between 600-400 BC but by about 200-250 AD they had highly developed cities such as Uaxactun, Copan, Tikal, Bonampak, Palenque, and Rio Bec. The city of Nakbe, from 600-400 BC, was constructed with finely finished stone buildings on platforms. These cities had plazas, temples, and pyramids made from quarried limestone. Many of the pyramids had small temples on top.

During part of what is called the Classic Period of Mayan culture, from about 250 AD until 900 AD, the city of Tikal may have had as many as 100,000 inhabitants. The Mayans were skilled architects, astronomers, and mathematicians. Mayan priests marked the passage of time through studying how the planets and stars moved. The Mayans had a highly elaborate and complex society. By modern standards theirs was a very cruel religion central to which the worship of natural elements like the moon, sun, and corn played a central part. Human sacrifice, torture, and bloodletting were central to this religion.The Mayans also developed a hieroglyphic writing and books. Much of their hieroglyphic system has now been deciphered. The surviving books are called codices.

Mayan civilization began a rapid decline around 900 AD. A city called Chichen Itza, in what is now called the Yucatan peninsula, became a center of Mayan culture from about 900-1200 AD. After the decline of the city-states the remaining Mayans lived in agricultural communities until the Spanish conquered them. The exact reasons for the decline of the Mayan civilization are not known but it is thought the Mayan cities warred on each other in a rather bloodthirsty manner and this combined with overpopulation, exhaustion of the surrounding natural resources, and competition from surrounding peoples led to the collapse.

There were four significant themes in Mayan art:

1) the ritual bloodletting by rulers
2) war and the fate of prisoners
3) the accession of rulers to the throne
4) the ball game in which the players had to get a rubber ball through a hoop on a wall by hitting it with their hips, elbows or knees. Losers of the ball game were often ritually sacrificed.

The Mayans seem to have been particularly interested in the beauty of the body and had an ideal of the body which is reminiscent of that of Greek and Roman art. This photograph depicts the characteristics of the Mayan ideal of beauty with the high cheekbones, aquiline nose, and thin lips. Contrast it with the entirely different characteristics of the Olmec heads with their thick lips, thick noses and much fuller cheeks. Mayans also practiced cranial deformation on their children so that the profile of the nose and front formed an angle of 180 degrees or greater. This was done by binding the newborn infant’s head between two boards. Enough pressure was exerted permanently change the shape of the skull. One suggestion is that the idea behind this was to make the head elongated so that it resembled and ear of corn. The Mayans also found cross-eyes attractive.

On Mayan wall art it is characteristic that human figures are often larger than those which are thought to represent supernatural beings. The art primarily focuses on the human rather than the supernatural world with many depictions of actual rulers, their wives, and captives. What could be called the “fickleness of power” is a predominant theme in that the portrayal of victims, often captured aristocrats from neighboring states, figures strongly. The ruler who captures another ruler and then sacrifices him knows that he too may one day be captured and sacrificed. It is of interest to note how the mutilation of the body as practiced by the Mayans, both in their bloodletting rituals and the torture and sacrifice of victims, contrasts with their ideal of bodily perfection.

Reclining sculptures of human figures, chac mools(meaning ‘Red Jaguar’ in Mayan- ), such as that found at Chichen Itza and later carved by the Aztecs were used as altars and offerings of incense or hearts were often placed in them.

Typical Chac Mool


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