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Guatemalan Maya Indian man and woman design motifs

Teaching the Maya - RESOURCE: design motifs

We’re sincerely grateful to our good friend Krystyna Deuss for giving us generous permission to reproduce here two or three of her superb illustrations from her classic book Indian Costumes from Guatemala, published in London in 1981, together with her accompanying text (very slightly adapted). She writes: ‘The extent of pre-Conquest influence on motifs in use today is largely unknown. Some designs, such as the horse, peacock and chicken, are obviously post-Conquest in origin, as these animals were introduced to the Americas by the Spaniards. Others, such as the snake, the double-headed bird and sun and moon symbols, were motifs used by the Maya...

Pic 1: A beautiful Guatemalan huipil, from the region of Nebaj
Pic 1: A beautiful Guatemalan huipil, from the region of Nebaj (Click on image to enlarge)

Man and Woman Motifs
The male and female figures on textiles [top picture], called muñecas (dolls), are of unknown origin. The female figure appears more frequently than the male, generally with arms akimbo. Rows of small dolls decorate the huipils [women’s tunics] of the Cobán area whereas larger, individual figures are prevalent in the weavings of Chichicastenango and Nebaj (see our example, pic 1).

Pic 2: Bird motifs; figs m and n represent birds from the Ixil culture (that includes Nebaj)
Pic 2: Bird motifs; figs m and n represent birds from the Ixil culture (that includes Nebaj) (Click on image to enlarge)

Birds
The most common bird motifs are those of hens, peacocks and turkeys, but it is often impossible to differentiate between the various species as full rein is given to the imagination, and five- or six-legged creatures are not at all unusual. One easily recognisable design, however, which could represent a sacrificial bird, is the so-called dead-turkey motif [see pic 2a], a bird with a bent neck often found in ceremonial huipils... The bird-on-plant motif [pic 2b] ... could relate to an incident in Maya mythology in which the Sun God, while courting the Moon Goddess, turned himself into a humming bird to flutter round a tobacco plant in the courtyard where she was weaving.
Double-headed birds are motifs frequently used for decorating ceremonial garments... [see pic 2j,k,l] and though they appear on Maya clay seals, could equally be drawn from the double-headed eagle of the Spaniards, granted as an emblem to a branch of the Quiché Indians in the sixteenth century.

Pic 3: Animal motifs; fig j is a lion
Pic 3: Animal motifs; fig j is a lion (Click on image to enlarge)

Animals
With a few exceptions animal designs pose less of an identification problem than bird motifs: dogs [pic 3a,b,c], rabbits [pic 3i], horses [pic 3d,e] and deer [pic 3f,g] are relatively easily recognisable. Deer held particular significance in Maya mythology and the Dance of the Deer, originating from pre-Conquest times, is still performed at festivals today. The coyote [pic 3k] features prominently in North American Indian mythology and is also mentioned in the Popol Vuh as one of the animals who brought corn to man. The opposum (a manifestation of the Maya God of Dawn) is a common motif in some villages [pic 3h], whilst the monkey is a widely used figure, easily recognisable by its conventionally raised forelegs and long tail [pic 3l,m,n]. Like the deer, the monkey features both in the Popol Vuh and the ritual dances performed today.

Pic 4: Corn-plant motifs
Pic 4: Corn-plant motifs (Click on image to enlarge)

NOTE: ‘Patterns based on the diamond shape were particularly popular with the Classic Maya and are also widespread today... It’s interesting to note that the designs which were used by the [Classic] Maya are now found more often on ceremonial garments than on everyday clothes. To what extent this in fact establishes a link between the ancient priests and the religious brotherhoods of Maya communities today remains a tantalising question...’

Pic 5: Detail from Yaxchilan lintel, British Museum; look at the intricately carved geometrical shapes at the foot of Lady Xok’s huipil...
Pic 5: Detail from Yaxchilan lintel, British Museum; look at the intricately carved geometrical shapes at the foot of Lady Xok’s huipil... (Click on image to enlarge)

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jul 26th 2014

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