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Maya woman scribe showing tattoos on her body

RESOURCE: Maya tattoos

Nobody doubts that tattooing - painting the human body permanently - was a practice found throughout Mesoamerica before the Spanish invasion, going back at least to Olmec times, though the few images we have to go on point to it having been far from common. In part we find evidence in codices, ceramics and stone representations of individuals: however, it’s often very difficult to tell if the image we’re looking at depicts body paint or a tattoo. The ancient Maya appear to have indulged in tattoos more commonly than other Mesoamerican peoples... (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Detail (main picture above) of a sculpture of a Jaina woman scribe from Campeche, representing a seated Maya noble woman, her body permanently altered by cranial modification, scarification on the face, and tattoos. Late Classic period (600-900 CE)
Pic 1: Detail (main picture above) of a sculpture of a Jaina woman scribe from Campeche, representing a seated Maya noble woman, her body permanently altered by cranial modification, scarification on the face, and tattoos. Late Classic period (600-900 CE) (Click on image to enlarge)

Some of the clearest evidence of the Maya tattooing tradition comes from the testimony of Spanish chroniclers writing in the 16th century. Friar Diego de Landa, for example, dedicated a paragraph to the practice in his book Relación de las cosas de Yucatán (translated as ‘Yucatán Before and After the Conquest’), written in 1566:-
They tattoo their bodies and are accounted valiant and brave in proportion to its amount, for the process is very painful. In doing it the craftsman first covers the part he wishes with colour, and then delicately pierces the pictures in the skin, so that the blood and colour leaves the outlines on the body. This they do a little at a time, on account of the pain and because of the disorders that ensue; for the places fester and form matter. But for all this they ridicule those who are not tattooed...
De Landa went on to note that Maya men would tattoo their bodies and faces, but only after they had married. Women too bore (more delicate) tattoos (see picture above) but only on the upper part of their bodies, and always excluding their breasts.

Pic 2: Statue to Gonzalo Guerrero, Akumal, Mexico
Pic 2: Statue to Gonzalo Guerrero, Akumal, Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

We can tell too that being tattooed gave prestige to its bearer - usually a successful warrior - thanks to the writings of conquistador Bernal Díaz de Castillo: commenting on the fate of the two Spanish shipwrecked adventurers who fell into Maya hands in 1511, to be found alive later by Cortés, the second, Gonzalo Guerrero, chose to stay on amongst the Maya - and indeed to fight for them as a war captain - instead of joining his compatriots, telling his fellow survivor Gerónimo de Aguilar ‘I am married and have three children... I have my face tattooed and my ears pierced, what would the Spaniards say should they see me in this guise?’

Pic 3: Sculpture of Xochipilli, adorned with flowers
Pic 3: Sculpture of Xochipilli, adorned with flowers (Click on image to enlarge)

As well as being a status symbol, we also know that the Maya used tattoos as a form of punishment: if a person of a certain social rank was found guilty of stealing, for instance, both their cheeks would be tattooed with a design indicating their misdoing.
Since a tattoo generally indicated a member of the élite, it doesn’t surprise us that by extension it could also point to an association with the gods. The famous stone sculpture of the Mexica deity Xochipilli (‘Prince of Flowers’ - god of song, music, games, and of fertility and vegetation) has several flowers of different species painted or tattooed all over his body (pic 3).
One of the best examples of pre-Hispanic tattoos is the figure known as ‘El Adolescente’ (The Adolescent), a Huastec sculpture from the Postclassic period from the region of San Luis Potosí. The young man’s body is profusely adorned with motifs alluding to agricultural fertility, including flowers, ears of maize and birds (pic 4, left).

Pic 4: ‘El Adolescente’ statue, front and back (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City) (L); Huastec man with tattoos, Florentine Codex Book 9 (R)
Pic 4: ‘El Adolescente’ statue, front and back (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City) (L); Huastec man with tattoos, Florentine Codex Book 9 (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

Whilst tattoos appear to be much rarer among the Mexica/Aztecs, the Florentine Codex, in discussing the art of precious metalworking, includes an interesting reference (Chapter 16, Book 9), both in text and imagery, to ‘a Huaxtec, perhaps a stranger, one with a pierced, perforated nose, an arrow across the face, painted [tattooed] upon the body with obsidian serpents’ (pic 4, right). This and other evidence certainly indicates that tattooing (and nudity) were relatively common practices among the Huastec people.

Pic 5: Detail from mural depicting an Aztec market scene, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 5: Detail from mural depicting an Aztec market scene, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Returning to the Aztecs, the jury appears to be well and truly ‘out’ on this one. Whilst there is evidence that Mexica prostitutes decorated their bodies with designs (pic 5), Warwick Bray has neatly summarised the state of our knowledge in his classic book Everyday Life of the Aztecs: ‘Men painted their faces and bodies on ceremonial occasions, but it is not certain whether the Aztecs followed the example of their Otomí neighbours who covered their arms and chests with tattooed designs.’

Sources consulted:-
• Vela, Enrique: ‘Decoración Corporal Prehispánica - tatuajes’, Arqueología Mexicana, edición especial, Dec. 2010, no. 37, pp. 56-61
• Morley, Sylvanus G.: The Ancient Maya, Stanford University Press, California, 1947
Mayas - Revelation of an Endless Time, INAH, Mexico, 2015
• Toby Evans, Susan: Ancient Mexico & Central America: Archaeology and Culture History, Thames & Hudson, London, 2004
• de Landa, Fray Diego: Yucatan Before and After the Conquest, trans by William Gates, Dover Publications, New York, 1978
• Coe, Michael: The Maya, Thames & Hudson, London, 2011
• Foster, Lynn V.: Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, OUP, 2002
• Sahagún, Fray Bernardino: Florentine Codex, Book 9 - The Merchants, trans Charles E. Dibble & Arthur J.O. Anderson, University of Utah, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1959
• Bray, Warwick: Everyday Life of the Aztecs, B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1968

Picture sources:-
• Main/pic 1 & pic 5: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 2: photo of statue of Gonzalo Guerrero in Akumal, Mexico, courtesy of Edward Ferguson
• Pic 3: image downloaded from http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/xochipilli.htm
• Pic 4: photos (left) downloaded from http://culturahuastecaob.blogspot.co.uk/2015/11/blog-post_2.html; image from the Florentine Codex (right) (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Oct 17th 2017

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