Stela I at Bonampak
Did the ancient Mesoamericans practice body piercing, as we know it? Well, not exactly . . .
Ever since the publication of Modern Primitives in 1989, and Wes Christensen’s excellent paper, “A Fashion for Ecstasy:Ancient Maya Body Modifications,” the Maya of Central America have been associated with piercing in common perception.
The Mayans, whose Classic period flourished from roughly 250 B.C. to 900 A.D., pierced their bodies, not as we understand it today in the sense of adornment; rather they shed their blood in rites of sacrifice to their gods, or as John A. Rush put it in his book, Spiritual Tattoo, “to keep the universe alive.” (p. 40.)
Like the Aztecs who followed, the earlier Mayans were no strangers to shedding blood in the name of their gods, and seemed to have been part of a cultural framework influencing the entire region. It’s well-established that rulers and others of the noble class practiced auto-sacrifice.
and not this kind. (Thanks to Hauke Sandhuas’s photostream at Flickr.)
The sacrifice of the king is a theme which is recognized world-wide and is celebrated still in many cultures and many religions. The Mayan king’s blood had special powers to restore and nourish the land. The ruler and his nobles would pierce their tongues and genitals using obsidian knives, awls, and spines from the stingray or the maguey cactus, letting the blood drip into bowls set with paper blotters, which would then be ceremoniously burned as offerings. Sting ray spines were often found buried near the pelvic regions of male rulers. I tell you, that male urge to Do Things To It is universal.
The Murals at Bonampak The pics below are from my copy of New World and Pacific Civilizations, American Museum of Natural History, and they show the murals from Bonampak in the Chiapas, Mexico. Bonampak is one of the great artistic treasures of the world. The murals of the Mayan Late Classic period are exuberant and very detailed, giving us a glimpse into the rites of the king and his nobles. Here’s a link to photos of Bonampak from Tulane University.
The first pic below shows ladies drawing blood from their tongues, by piercing them and pulling ropes through them, a sort of “withdrawing room” rite.
The second mural scene shows noblemen piercing their penises with “dancers wings,” whirling and spinning in an ecstatic trance, spattering their devotion on the ritual platform. (Traditional Peoples, p. 55.) One can imagine the powerful ritual effect, similar to ritual suspensions or the Phuket vegetarian festivals in Thailand. I couldn’t find an image of “dancer’s wings,” but they sound interesting.
Certainly the Maya people did pierce their ears and other areas for adornment as well as for self-mortification. From the sculpture and wall paintings we can see they loved abundant and luxurious ornamentation. They practiced infant head shaping, eye crossing, and body paint. Noses, lips, septums, and ears were all pierced and adorned with expensive jewelry to show the wearer’s status.
“Genital mutilation is well documented and referred to in frequent visual metaphors.” (Christensen, p. 80). Lips, noses, and earlobes were pierced and decorated with expensive jewelry. Body modification was also considered a badge of courage, as we deem it today.
They tattooed their bodies, and the more they do htis, the more brave and valiant they are, since the designs festered and matter formed.
(An early glimpse into aftercare, or lack of it!) (Christensen, p. 80-81).
Blake Perlingieri, in his book, A Brief History of Body Adornment, identifies jade, jadite, and nephrite ear ornaments and suggests that common folk would wear ceramic plugs and twigs (and, sorry, I lost my pic of that one).
But, aside from the limited evidence surviving, it’s hard to know the extent of their body ornamentation. The Native American people were so thoroughly killed off or subjugated by the Spanish, anything as distinctive and culturally definitive as styles of personal adornment would have been ruthlessly quashed. We are left with a guessing game and mis-identified museum pieces.
Mesoamerican piercing punishment
The above picture shows a disobedient priest being punctured with spines (M.P., Christensen.) Notice how very much it resembles our modern “play piercing”? (NSFW link to BME Encyclopedia.) Although I understand it’s important not to impose one’s own cultural standard on others, I think of these Mayans, showing devotion and making sacrifices as was their duty, dancing and bleeding, and I wonder . . .
. . . how many of them really, secretly enjoyed it?
AMNH, New World and Pacific Civilizations, Cultures of America, Asia, and the Pacific, Vol. 4, The Illustrated History of Humankind, 1984
Christensen, Wes, “A Fashion for Ecstasy; Ancient Maya Body Modifications” in Vale and Juno, Modern Primitives, Re/Search Publications, 1989
Perlingieri, Blake, A Brief History of the Evolution of Body Adornment in Western Culture: Ancient Origins and Today, Frog, Ltd., Berkeley, 2005
Rush, John A, Spiritual Tattoo: A Cultural History of Tattooing, Piercing, Scarification, Branding & Implants, 2003