Vase with Eleven Figures located in Guatemalan Highlands

GUATEMALAN HIGHLANDS. Nebaj region. Late Classic Maya, AD 600–900. Polychromed orange-gloss ceramic. K1490. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

This Maya vase from the Guatemalan Highlands dates from 600–900 AD, the Late Classic Maya period. Experts believed that scenes such as this represented gods from the Underworld, but recent scholarship has clarified the role of these horrific creatures as animate spells and personified illnesses sent out by sorcerers.

Scholar's Commentary

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this vase is the striding skeletal figure holding outstretched in one hand an obsidian lancet and in the other hand grasping by the hair a decapitated human head. There are a lot of grisly and nightmarish aspects on this vessel. We see a bat swooping down from the glyphs on the rim of the vessel and just underneath the bat we see another figure holding a flint knife in one hand and another decapitated human head.

Behind this figure strides another one holding another one of these flint lancet and two individuals who by the cigarettes in their mouths tell us that this is indeed a night-time scene. A final floating figure above or in front of the skeleton is a lightning bug or a firefly who also tells us that this is a scene set in night and set in darkness.

These kinds of vessels with scenes from mythology and scenes from Maya ideas of the underworld and the other world were sort of focal points for stories and narratives that would have been told as these drinking vessels were passed around a campfire or a group of individuals sitting and talking about Maya myths and stories late into the evening.

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