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The immolation of the hero twins, known from the Popul Vuh and other narratives, may have been re-enacted in the fifth-century AD Maya city of Tikal. The twins in this image were drawn from an ancient Maya ceramic piece.

Sacrifice of Maya boy and man may have reenacted birth of sun and moon

About 1,600 years ago in the Maya site of Tikal, a boy and a man were sacrificed in an elaborate ritual. A new study suggests they were sacrificed and burned to re-enact the legend of the twin heroes who immolated themselves to be reborn as the sun and moon. Variations of the myth are still told in Mexico and Central America.

The researchers, who published a paper in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal , say human sacrifice in Mesoamerica was often tied to myth and ritual but it has been hard to associate specific myths with the remains of sacrificed people.

The current study relates to an archaeological finding at Tikal known as Burial PP7TT-01, which contained the remains of a boy aged 10 to 14 years old and a man aged 35 to 40. One of the individuals had a flattened forehead and shortened skullcap, which appears to have been modified through binding, a practice common in Maya lands of that time.  The burial showed obvious signs of sacrificial ritual. They had been thrown in a pit, especially dug for the purpose, and then burned.  The researchers do not know whether they were burned alive, or whether they were killed or wounded first before having their bodies burned.

Artist’s reconstruction of Burial PP7TT-01: (a) outline of cremation pit; (b) Individual 1B; (c) Individual 1A; (d) sherd fragment; (e) obsidian points.

Artist’s reconstruction of Burial PP7TT-01: (a) outline of cremation pit; (b) Individual 1B; (c) Individual 1A; (d) sherd fragment; (e) obsidian points. (Drawing: Belem Ceballos)

“We can only speculate about how and where the two individuals met their death,” write Professor Owaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos and his team. “The presence of obsidian knives and blades in the deposit, and the lesion in the rib of Individual 1A, suggest that they may have been killed right before or during their [placement] on the pyre, by stabbing, heart extraction and/or throat slashing. Full decapitation is unlikely … There is also the possibility they were wounded but still alive when thrown into the pyre.”

The authors noted that the ritual pit was dug near structures related to the solar cycle or calendar, lending support to their theory that the sacrifice and partial cremation was linked with the solar and lunar myth of the divine twins. The structures, called E Group, include a square pyramid and a long rectangular platform arranged along the lines of the rising and setting sun. 

“The axial location of the cremation pit that contained Burial PP7TT-01, on the compound’s eastern side – associated with the sunrise – appears to be an appropriate place for a ritual performance that alluded to and reenacted the immolation of the heroes that became the sun and the moon,” the authors wrote in their paper.

Pyramid of Group E, this western face has been restored.

Pyramid of Group E, this western face has been restored. (Simon Burchell/ Wikimedia Commons )

Explaining the link to Maya myth, the authors wrote, “In Maya communities, the daily path of the sun is a basic ordering principle, related with notions about the shape of the world, the yearly agricultural cycles and the human life cycle. The movements of the sun are not conceived as those of an inert celestial body. Instead they are explained in terms of the life cycle of the sun god as expressed in mythical beliefs and narratives. The origin of the sun and moon are major topics in Maya myths recorded from colonial times to the present. There is a strong possibility that related solar myths were widely known in the Maya Lowlands since ancient times …”

The myths are not recorded in Lowland Maya hieroglyphics of the time. Such writings contain just short mythical passages. But Classic Maya art shows correspondences to the twin heroes who transformed into the moon and sun, as told in the Popol Vuh , the authors said. The Popol Vuh is a 16th century highland Maya text.

All around the world the sun plays a central role in myth. In this folk art modern representation of an ancient Aztec calendar, the solar disk or sun stone is portrayed.

All around the world the sun plays a central role in myth. In this folk art modern representation of an ancient Aztec calendar, the solar disk or sun stone is portrayed. ( Wikimedia Commons )

“In the Popol Vuh, the heroes reached their destiny as luminaries only after they died by throwing themselves in a pit oven provided with heated stones and burning coal. … The fire sacrifice of the Popol Vuh heroes finds parallels in numerous myths about the origin of the sun and moon,” they wrote.

They say the retelling of the story in various iterations in colonial and modern times is “deeply rooted [in] religions traditions that may go back to the origins of settled communities in Mesoamerica.”

An aerial view of some of Tikal’s structures

An aerial view of some of Tikal’s structures (Dennis Jarvis/ Wikimedia Commons )

The two hero figures differ in their characteristics in Classic and Pre-Classic Maya art and later Mesoamerican solar and lunar heroes. The lunar god is handsome, rich with ornament, surrounded by willing young women, often seen in watery places. The solar god is a simple hunter and may have done painful bloodletting. He is not shown consorting with women and is marked with black spots that may have represented pustules or sores.

Featured image: The immolation of the hero twins, known from the Popul Vuh and other narratives, may have been re-enacted in the fifth-century AD Maya city of Tikal. The twins in this image were drawn from an ancient Maya ceramic piece. (Lacambalam / Wikimedia Commons )

By Mark Miller

Comments

Moonsong's picture

This is strange. I did not know that the Mayans had two twin male-heroes representing the sun and moon, usually the sun is identified as a male god and the moon with the female aspect, as in for example Roman mythology, Greek mythology, Celtic mythology etc.

 

- Moonsong
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A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world ~ Oscar Wilde

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