“They Were Hoist By their Own Petard”

Posted: December 1, 2011 - 16:02 , by ROM

They organized extravagant spectacles, each more lavish than the next. They built imposing monuments, ever larger to outdo their predecessors and rivals. Over centuries, the Maya leaders elevated themselves far above their subjects. Yet in the end, these all-powerful rulers were caught in a trap of their own making.

Picture of a maya party event

Dr. Justin Jennings commented on this mural depicting a special occasion: “Some of the Maya events were violent, but this looks like a party I'd like to go to. They had people in costume, maize beer, drum and flute music, and someone waving giant crab claws around.”

“The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Rulers of the Maya World” was the subject of ROM Curator Dr. Justin Jennings’ sold-out talk on Tuesday night, the first of six lectures complementing the exhibition Maya: Secrets of their Ancient World.

The story starts in modest villages in the Yucatan Peninsula, around 2000 BCE. Although much surrounding these early years is speculative, it’s believed that the village ball courts and the games played in them functioned as allegories of the struggle of life over death. So the early Maya weren’t just batting the ball around: this was spiritual activity intended to generate outcomes favourable to the village.

It’s thought that hierarchy gradually developed as leaders were needed to organize the construction of the ball courts and make sure the appropriate spiritual requirements were fulfilled.

From there, you can imagine how the leaders built up their power over the generations, constructing their identity first as rulers, then as shamans, then as gods: Since we are representing the village to the sacred realm, we need to look smart – so we should have the nicest homes –> Really, we are the guardians of the portals from the sacred world to this one – so we have a special relationship with the gods –> Actually, it is we who control the flow of cosmic energy which makes the crops grow – so we ourselves are a sacred connection –> We join the realm of the gods after our death –> We are equal to the gods.

As cities emerged and regions competed, each ruler had to convince not only the ordinary people, whose labour he needed, but also his ever-expanding court, whose support enabled the show, that he was the one with the strongest connection to the sacred. Maya visual language and architecture reveals the leaders inserting themselves into their own mythology, and closer and closer to the gods, as time went on. In later years rulers modified their appearance, flattening their heads and crossing their eyes in order to differentiate themselves from ordinary people and more closely resemble the gods.

So what went wrong?

Things didn’t go well for the Maya people for about 150 years. It was costly to support the ever-expanding class of nobles, trade routes shifted, and warfare increased. Overpopulation and drought caused famine. Naturally, the people expected their god-like rulers to do something.

Not much help was forthcoming. Despite all the magnificent temple complexes and monuments, despite centuries of hard labour on behalf of the rulers who were so closely connected to the divine, when their turn came the gods did not pony up.

People suffered a crisis in faith and the culture shifted such that warriors, not rulers, were celebrated. Religion became less mixed with the political structure and rulers lost their sacred status.

Justin concluded his lecture by remarking that the later Maya leaders saw the dilemma coming–and they knew they couldn’t just keep having ever-more-extravagant parties–but how could they change how they had legitimized their rule after two thousand years? It’s as true today as it was six hundred years ago: if you frame the discussion you have to live by the terms.