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Ancient Maya stilt walking, Codex Madrid fol. 36

RESOURCE: Maya stilt dancing

Rarely, but still performed today, the Maya have kept up a centuries-old tradition of walking - indeed dancing - on wooden stilts. Though the original meaning has been lost, there’s no doubt that the ceremonial use of stilts is an ancient Maya custom, probably linked to the agricultural cycle and the need to call on - perhaps to reach as high as? - the rain gods to ‘perform’ in return... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Maya stilt dancer, re-drawn by Donald Cordry from the Codex Madrid
Maya stilt dancer, re-drawn by Donald Cordry from the Codex Madrid (Click on image to enlarge)

The image at the top of this page is a detail (fol. 36) from the Codex Madrid, one of the precious few pre-Hispanic codices to have survived the Spanish Conquest. Clearly visible is a person walking on wooden stilts. He wears a simple loincloth round this waist and what appears to be an elaborate ceremonial animal headdress. Donald Cordry, in his classic book Mexican Masks thinks it’s a ‘she’, as does Sylvanus G. Morley in his equally classic work The Ancient Maya. They take their cue from Friar Diego de Landa, the Spanish bishop who is notorious for trying obsessively to stamp out as much of ancient Maya culture as he could in the middle of the 16th century. Yet ironically, he also wrote a book (Relación de las Cosas de Yucatan, 1566) which has since been relied on by modern-day historians of the Maya as one of the most important sources of information on ancient Maya beliefs and customs...

Masked stilt dancers photographed in 1941 in a village festival near Oaxaca, Mexico; the festival (Day of San Pedro) is held every June 29th
Masked stilt dancers photographed in 1941 in a village festival near Oaxaca, Mexico; the festival (Day of San Pedro) is held every June 29th (Click on image to enlarge)

Half way through his book, in a section on the Count of the Yucatecan Year, de Landa describes the ‘blessings’ and ‘misfortunes’ that befell the Maya depending on the year in question: every year in the Maya calendar had to have one of four ‘year-bearer’ names (Kan, Muluc, Ix, Cauac), each ruled by a different Bacab deity, ‘four brothers placed by God when he created the world, at its four corners to sustain the heavens lest they fall’. The second of these, Muluc, marked the East and was a favourable year sign. However, in order to avoid the ‘ills’ in the coming year of no rain and poor maize crops, de Landa records that the Maya had to perform ceremonies and give sacrifices, including having dances on tall stilts, with offerings of heads of turkeys, bread and drinks made of maize. They had to offer clay dogs with bread on their backs, the old women dancing with them in their hands, and sacrificing a virgin puppy with black back.

Stilt dancers, Maya Day, Belize, 2012
Stilt dancers, Maya Day, Belize, 2012 (Click on image to enlarge)

Though the codex character looks distinctively male, and isn’t carrying a dog of any kind or food on his back, this is the only (visual) reference we have of ancient Maya stilt dancing. Interestingly, there is a further reference to this in the 16th century Maya Book of Counsel/Council the Popol Vuh, which mentions Walking-on-Stilts - a dance performed by the Hero Twins in their guise as vagabonds.

By following the link below you can see a short video clip of stilt dancers performing today in Belize, as part of a celebration of Maya culture.

Sources:-
• de Landa, Friar Diego: Yucatan Before and After the Conquest, translated from the Spanish with notes by William Gates, Dover Publications, New York, 1978
• Morley, Sylvanus G.: The Ancient Maya, Stanford University Press, 1946
• Cordry, Donald: Mexican Masks, University of Texas Press, 1980
Popol Vuh, translated by Dennis Tedlock, Touchstone Books, New York, 1996.

Picture sources:-
• Main image from the Codex Madrid, scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1967
• B/W images scanned from our copy of Cordry’s Mexican Masks (above)
• Colour photo of stilt dancers in Belize, from Recycled Minds: Maya Day 2012: a Photo Essay from Belize (link below).

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Sep 01st 2014

‘Maya Day in Belize’. The video lasts 12 minutes. The stilt dancing is at minute 9.00
Learn more about/from ‘Maya Day 2012: a Photo Essay from Belize’
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