By Justin Jennings, Associate Curator, Department of World Culture.
For the Classic Period Maya (250-900 CE), high priests had a special connection with the heavens and underworld. Most of these priests were male and they often wore blue face and body paint to signify their sacred status. To demonstrate their links to other worlds, priests often wore headdresses, masks, and even elaborate costumes depicting fantastic creatures. The bodies of high priests were sometimes taken over by gods and ancestors during ceremonies – for a brief moment the spiritual world was given flesh and interacted with the living. In Maya art, priests are often shown carrying the incense, knives, mirrors, and other tools that they used to make contact with the divine world.
In one stunning example from the ROM’s exhibition Maya: Secrets of their Ancient World, three rulers of the city of Palenque are flanked by two priests dressed as were-jaguars. These jaguar-like creatures were associated with power of the underworld. In this scene, they are giving bouquets of tobacco leaves and paper to two of the rulers. By giving the bouquets, the were-jaguars offer their support to Palenque’s ruling dynasty.
Coming face to face with a high priest would be a rare experience for most people in Classic Maya society. To stare into his eyes was to look into the eyes of someone that had not only travelled to other worlds, but had also lived to tell the tale. He was intimidating – after all, high priests sacrificed animals and, more rarely, humans – but ultimately reassuring figure that kept the world working in proper order.