This is the fourth round of workshops in our educational project together with the local NGO Loq’laj Ch’och’ or “Sacred Earth” in Q’eqchi’ Maya, funded by the Gerda Henkel Stiftung.
There is an intriguing scene painted on Classic Maya vessels: a young and half-naked Maya woman strangled within the coils of a huge Boa Constrictor. The tail of the snake ends in a small, young deity called K’awil and from the enormous wide-opened jaws of the ophidian an old and bold god appears, stretching out his hands to the young woman, often to her breasts. It was obviously a popular theme in Classic times because we have many examples of this type of pottery called Codex Style. Many of them were painted in Calakmul, one of the main Maya centers ruled by a lineage named Kaan or Snake. This city has been in the news lately and documentaries make mention of the Snake Kingdom. There are scholars who interpret the formidable snake in this pottery scene as the nawal or companion-spirit of this lineage.
I wondered if there was anything left of this particular scene in traditional beliefs of modern Q’eqchi’ Maya. So I had them investigated about the Boa Constrictor. Turns out that everyone knew the snake. He’s called Ajaw Chan, a loan from the disappeared Classic Maya language Ch’ol, meaning Lord of Snakes, obviously evoking its supremacy. In Spanish he’s called a mazacuata – another loan, this time from the Nahuatl language – literally meaning Deer-Snake, either called this way because he can even devour a deer, but also because the snake grows an antler, like a deer, as many participants claim. In reality there is no such a Boa Constrictor but on the Classic Maya images on the vases the animal also appears with antlers, and very often with the ear of a deer.
At first sight it appears that the poor young woman is caught by the serpent and doomed to die. Not at all; the additional hieroglyphic texts suggests that she is the one who conjured up the snake. That’s what the people are still telling. The woman is the young Moon goddess called Qana Po in Q’eqchi’, Lady Moon, and it is still a very familiar tale that all snakes are born from her body, especially from her menstrual blood, including Ajaw Chan. Female participants explained that there is still a strong belief that, by exposing their genitalia to snakes, or other animals, they can tame their power and will. The small creature K’awil, which they would call Ch’ip, the youngest Lightening god, in addition defines the animal as a thunder serpent. Ajaw Chan can create a rainbow with its breath, if he wishes to hold off the rain or thunder, they said. The rainbow is strongly associated with the Moon goddess.
These are but a few of the fascinating data provided by modern Q’eqchi’ Maya about a Classic scene going back in time for more than a thousand years. It may help to interpret this intriguing pottery scene. It surely strengthens my conviction that one should investigate Maya history and religion with the Maya themselves.