In Focus

Maya Creation and the Stars

The following excerpt was written in 2003 by Carol Robbins, the former Ellen and Harry S. Parker III Curator of the Arts of Americas and the Pacific, for the publication Dallas Museum of Art, 100 Years.

Few works of art in the non-Western traditions speak as eloquently of the beliefs of the people who made and used them as sacred blades from the ancient Maya culture, which flourished in southeastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador between 250 and 900 CE (the Classic period). Blades can be appreciated on several levels: their material and the process by which they were made, their function, the recognizable shapes within their intricate silhouette, and the layered meanings that archaeologists and scholars have discerned during recent years.

Flint was the primary means of striking fire for the Maya and other peoples of Mesoamerica. It was thought to have been created where lightning struck. The Maya also perfected the art of chipping flint to make thin flat blades (tok') for sacrificial and ceremonial use. The complex shapes of many of these objects, which are too fragile for use as cutting tools, have earned them the designation "eccentric flints." Archaeologists have found them in elite tombs and in offertory caches associated with dedication and termination rituals for architecture and stone monuments. Such symbolically charged objects may also have functioned as talismans for living kings.

In the Museum's Eccentric flint depicting a crocodile canoe with passengers (1983.45.McD), the creature is simultaneously the Cosmic Monster and a canoe. The most common form of boat among the Maya was the dugout canoe, hollowed from a tree trunk and propelled by paddlers. Eminently practical, even over great distances, the canoe was also symbolic of the ultimate passage form the world of the living to the world of the dead. Among the riches buried with the ruler Hasaw-Kan-K'awil of Tikal in the 8th century were bone objects engraved with scenes of the Maize God in a canoe with paddlers and animals, journeying to the underworld. The flint shows a similar scene.

Maya scholars David Freidel and the late Linda Schele have interpreted the imagery of the flint depicting a crocodile canoe as representing a moment in the Maya story of creation: On the night August 13, 3114 BCE, a crocodile canoe, paddled by gods, took the soul of the sacrificed First Father to the place where he would miraculously be reborn as the Maize God. This creation story seems to have been closely connected with Maya astronomy, in which the movements of the stars annually reenact these events. Looking skyward on August 13, the Milky Way stretches from east to west, resembling the Cosmic Monster of the Museum's canoe. After midnight the orientation of the Milky Way gradually shifts, and the canoe appears to sink into the underwater spirit world.

In the continuation of the creation story at Palenque, First Father raised the sky on February 5, 3112 BCE—542 days after his rebirth—erecting a World Tree that linked the earth to both heaven and the underworld (Xibalba). At dawn on that day, the Milky Way has a north-south orientation, which the Maya probably saw as the World Tree with a crocodilian head at its base (similar in appearance to that of the Museum's canoe). This central axis of the world is called the Wakah-Chan, or "Raised-up Sky." A jadeite ornament in the Dallas Museum of Art's collections (1983.W.2) represents the personified mirror (tzuk), a symbol of the ordering of the cosmos at the beginning of creation, that marked the trunk of the World Tree. Because Maya rulers embodied the World Tree, wearing such an ornament would have affirmed their leadership.

Excerpt from

Carol Robbins, “Maya Creation and the Stars,” in Dallas Museum of Art 100 Years, eds. Dorothy Kosinski, et al. (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003), 46.

Related Multimedia

1993 Ancient Art of the New World lecture series; speaker is from the Department of Anthropology at Southern Methodist University
Collection smARTphone video; Carol Robbins discusses Eccentric flint depicting a crocodile canoe with passengers, from Mexico or Guatemala, Maya culture (DMA collection, 1985.45.McD)
1993 Ancient Art of the New World lecture series; speaker is from the Department of Anthropology at Southern Methodist University