Vessel with a mythological scene

Vessel, Mythological Scene, 7-8th century C.E., Maya (Classic Maya), 14 x 11.4 cm, ceramic (1978.412.206) (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the Maya galleries at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at a spectacular cup. It’s ceramic and it dates to the 8th century.

Dr. James Doyle: [0:13] This is a drinking cup that likely was part of the vessels that were used in feasting at a royal ancient Maya ceremony, and then placed in the tomb of a deceased ruler.

Dr. Zucker: [0:25] This comes from the Classic Period.

Dr. Doyle: [0:27] We call it that because it was the pinnacle of ancient construction of monumental buildings and the time from which we have the most hieroglyphic texts.

Dr. Zucker: [0:37] This particular cup is such a spectacular example of the very fine calligraphic art that is associated with the Classic Maya.

Dr. Doyle: [0:44] We call this style the Codex Style. Codex is the term we use for the Maya books, which were screenfold bark paper or hide documents that were mostly destroyed by the Spanish in the 16th century. The four that still exist are painted in this grayscale calligraphic style with washes and frames of red color and other polychrome applications.

Dr. Zucker: [1:07] These cups are especially important since so few codex survive.

Dr. Doyle: [1:11] We have to infer a lot of the Maya narrative tales from ceramic vessels.

Dr. Zucker: [1:17] This is not only a register of the mythology, but it was an object that would have actively been used.

Dr. Doyle: [1:23] Because it’s a cylinder, it invites the user to turn the vessel around at a close view to see all the characters and texts. During a feast or during a ceremony, the viewer or user would be invited to tell the tale that’s represented in this mythological scene.

Dr. Zucker: [1:40] I’m not sure that I would say that there’s a front, but one of the most significant figures is a rain god, who takes up almost the entire height of the cup.

Dr. Doyle: [1:48] This rain god is a youthful version of the deity we know by the hieroglyphic name of Chahk. He is present in very early Maya art and was very important into the colonial period. The deity of falling water, of course, in an area where there’s a pronounced dry and rainy season, was very important.

Dr. Zucker: [2:08] What strikes me is how animated he is. He raises up his right leg, his left arm, and he seems almost to be dancing.

Dr. Doyle: [2:14] The pose where the heel is lifted, one leg is off the ground, he’s throwing an axe back behind him with his right hand, and he holds an animate stone in his left hand which he’s raising, this is most likely associated with a dance or ceremony that could be a representation of combat.

Dr. Zucker: [2:33] His youth is so beautifully represented in that noble profile. If you look closely, you can see that he’s got very large ear spools.

Dr. Doyle: [2:40] The rain god is often depicted with Spondylus-shell ear spools, which reinforces and underscores his role in fertility, related to watery environments. The deity is often portrayed with wild hair or watery vegetation sprouting from his head, and that’s part of this unpredictability of rain. The axe is symbolic of lightning.

Dr. Zucker: [3:01] If you look very closely just under his thighs and along the back of his calves, you can see a scaly motif that is meant to represent [a] reptilian quality.

Dr. Doyle: [3:10] This is also repeated on the being in front of him, and it’s to, again, evoke this shimmery, watery realm.

Dr. Zucker: [3:18] Let’s take a peek at that rather extraordinary creature in front, because this figure is challenging.

Dr. Doyle: [3:22] It is the representation of a mountain known in the hieroglyphic inscriptions as witz, and it is in profile. The creature’s head is an expanded hieroglyph for stone itself.

Dr. Zucker: [3:36] Those half-circles of dots are a hieroglyphic reference to that stony quality.

Dr. Doyle: [3:40] The “great bunch” markings, as they’re known, are also referencing the surface of the stone.

Dr. Zucker: [3:46] Help me untangle the really complicated imagery on the left side of this mountain creature.

Dr. Doyle: [3:52] The mountain creature’s upper lip reaches up and curls towards the rain god, and from its mouth is emanating this smoky, watery essence that is shown by the wash.

Dr. Zucker: [4:04] Reaching down is a kind of emanation, almost like a tongue, coming out of the mouth.

Dr. Doyle: [4:10] This could be part of the mountain creature’s mouth or it could be representing liquid that’s flowing from its mouth.

Dr. Zucker: [4:17] Probably my favorite part of this cup is the infant that lies on the mountain creature.

Dr. Doyle: [4:22] This is affectionately known as the baby jaguar. It’s an infant deity, which is a theme we see across Mesoamerica, shown with a supernatural face and a jaguar tail and hands and feet. This posture of reclining is often seen when the artist is evoking birth or rebirth. This scene is interpreted as the birth of the baby jaguar.

Dr. Zucker: [4:45] This makes a lot of sense when we look at the figure to the right of the baby. This figure stands in sharp contrast to the rain god at the left.

Dr. Doyle: [4:52] This is a skinny, skeletal, spindly death god that’s shown with a skeletal head and a lot of interesting attributes, including extruded eyeballs that decorate his skull.

Dr. Zucker: [5:05] He’s meant to represent decay, and he’s a perfect opposite to the vitality of the rain god.

Dr. Doyle: [5:10] When we have the opposing forces of rain, and fertility, and life opposite death and decay, and the baby jaguar is born in between, it’s that necessary interaction of rain and decayed material to produce the new growth or new individual.

Dr. Zucker: [5:28] This god of death does not show up alone. He’s got with him two other creatures. There’s a wonderful dog-like figure below and a firefly above.

Dr. Doyle: [5:37] The firefly probably signifies that this event may take place at night. The firefly holds in his left hand a torch, which for the Maya was an imitation of the bioluminescence of the actual fireflies.

Dr. Zucker: [5:51] We know that light itself was an important indicator of the divine. One can imagine the important role that a firefly would play.

Dr. Doyle: [5:58] They are shown very often in scenes of mythological importance across other painted vessels.

Dr. Zucker: [6:04] Just above the baby jaguar are glyphs. In many cases, glyphs can help orient us in terms of the mythology that’s being presented.

Dr. Doyle: [6:12] Unfortunately, this vessel has a text that’s a little bit opaque. The artist chose to create a date that is not real. We think that the artist was trying to signify that this event was happening in supernatural time, not in human time.

Dr. Zucker: [6:27] Very much the way a children’s book might say, “In a land far, far away.”

Dr. Doyle: [6:31] Exactly. The Maya also sometimes marked vessels by their particular owners, but this one is very nonspecific.

Dr. Zucker: [6:39] The calligraphy itself is spectacular. There is a kind of energy that’s represented for all of these figures that makes this cup a joy to look at.

[6:47] [music]

Key terms and concepts:

  • Classic Maya
  • hieroglyphic text
  • calligraphy
  • codex style
  • ceramic vessels
  • mythology

Cite this page as: Dr. James Doyle and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Vessel with a mythological scene," in Smarthistory, February 7, 2017, accessed July 18, 2024,