Lew is an American expat living in Honduras. A former gold assayer, he is now a photographer and conservator of Central American culture.
The Importance of Jade
Jade was very important to the ancient Maya of Copán, being carved into innumerable items of jewelry and personal decoration as well as many small idols for veneration in various shrines. Gods and kings demanded the best, although some of the uses were not always with the best intentions.
The Quest for Jade
Jade comes in two varieties, Nephrite, found in Asia, and Jadeite from Central America. They are stones of different compositions though both are “jade”. Asian Nephrite is glassy, translucent, and easily faked. Many jade lovers have turned to Jadeite which is denser, heavier, rarer, and comes in many interesting colors and textures. For this writing, I will use the term “jade”, with the implication that all Central American varieties are jadeite.
All the jade of ancient Copán came from the Motagua River Valley in modern Guatemala, about 25 miles away. During the Classic Era, the kings of Copán kept strict control over this valuable resource and controlled its production, fighting occasional battles with other tribes who came to get some of this precious stone. Before the start of the Classic Dynasty in Copán, another group of Maya from Guatemala established the new city of Quiriguá in the Motagua Valley. This new kingdom became a vassal state of the more powerful Copán, supplying jade to their new masters. Disputes arose, battles were fought, and eventually a major war resulted in the capture and beheading of the most famous king of Copán, 18-Rabbit. Quiriguá now controlled all jade production, and the new ruler of Copán, Ajaw K'ak' Joplaj Chan K'awiil (Smoke Monkey) could do nothing to prevent it. This left Copán with no source of jade unless they bought it from Quiriguá.
An Exclusive Mineral
During the Late Classic era, the value of jade was prohibitive and prohibited to all but the kings and nobles. Commoners could neither buy nor possess jade. Peasants could no longer use small jade beads as money. The new means of exchange became cacao beans, harvested by the people but owned by the king. Jade became a royal plaything. The nobles with the most jade were the richest. Some larger pieces were re-carved into several smaller ornaments or jewelry items, thus giving the owner the appearance of more wealth.
Spirituality, Religion and Superstition of Jade
Jade has always held a mystique that often borders on religion, especially for the ancient Maya. That spiritual aspect continues to this day even among supposedly “enlightened” modern urbanites. Jade jewelry and shrine figures are bought and cherished for good luck, good health, prosperity, and a thousand other metaphysical ideals. Below are a few pieces from Copán artisans, and a few of the attached superstitions.
Jaguar Mask Amulet
This small carving of a Jaguar face is for personal adornment. A jaguar effigy gave its wearer courage, power over enemies, and visual acuity. The jaguar was a god of the underworld, a creature of the night and darkness. Wearing this amulet vanquished fears of the night and also gave one the ability to see into the darkness of another person's heart and know the evil within the souls of men.
Ix Hun Ahau – Patroness of Adulterers and Lechers
She was the first goddess of “free love”, and with a split personality. Among the more conservative Maya she was bad enough but became much more sordid when she evolved into Tlazolteotl, Aztec deity of vice and sexual sin. She encouraged adultery and sexual perversion, imbuing men with the most intense desires for illicit sexual acts. The goddess of lust and lechery, she probably had a shrine in many a Classic Era noble's abode.
For every illicit joy in life, there is a price. Tlazolteotl made no exception. Along with the joys of sin, she was also the carrier of filth and sexual disease. It seems there were several in the Americas even before the Spanish brought their own versions from Europe. This black-hearted lady excelled at spreading her STDs far and wide.
But Ix Hun Ahau/ Tlazolteotl also had another side and was not entirely evil and perverse. Once someone contracted one of her infamous infirmities, she provided instructions for a cure involving a series of steam baths, herbal medicines, and a rite of purification.
Once cured and purified, Tlazolteotl offers the former sinner her greatest benefit: forgiveness. The penitent man could go to a k'uhul ajaw, a high priest, and request a confession before the shrine of this goddess. The priest would do his ritual magic, the man would confess his sins and gain forgiveness for all past sexual misdeeds. Even in this altruistic offer, the goddess included a catch: in a man's lifetime he could only be forgiven ONCE. Should he revert to his former ways, even one time, he will be abandoned by the goddess and doomed to spend eternity in the dark watery underworld. He must be prepared to abandon party time forever.
The little idol of Tlazolteotl below is hand-carved from dark green “jaguar” jadeite from the Motagua Valley. This stone is quite a rarity; a dense and hard variety of jadeite highly valued by local artisans in Copán. The carving is heavy, being less than four inches tall, it weighs over 400 grams.
The Indiana Jones Connection
Trivia: The golden idol Indiana Jones ALMOST rescued from a crumbling temple in his first movie was Tlazolteotl, a bit out of place in the Amazon jungle, but the Goddess of Sin herself.
“El Baúl” - The B'alam
This is the god who has no name, at least not locally. This is the famous Seated Jaguar, one of the most commonly carved Mayan motifs. Known by art collectors worldwide as “El Baúl”, that is not its name, but merely the name of the Pre-Classic Mayan site in southern Guatemala where it seems to have originated. Local Maya usually call it The B'alam, the jaguar, but B'alam also has a religious significance.
The B'alam was revered by the ancient Maya from Pre-Classic times until this day in some locations. The Jaguar was a god of the underworld, but one that was friendly and beneficent to mankind. He guarded the homes and families of men, and statues or effigies were often put on four sides of crop fields to guard against destruction or theft.
El Baúl is probably the most popular Mayan carving sought by tourists and the most done by artisans in every material imaginable. The examples below are green semi-translucent jadeite, and more opaque “jaguar” jadeite, both from Copán. The large B'alam in stone is guarding the border crossing between Guatemala and Honduras at El Florido.
The Elongated Man
Whether the Olmec and Maya are related, or even the same people, has been debated among anthropologists for more than a century. We do know they coexisted for most of a thousand years. When the Maya migrated south and west into the highlands of Guatemala and eventually into the Copán Valley, they arrived with mature and preformed ideas about art, architecture, and religion. Ideas that had a definite Olmec influence.
One recurring theme among Olmec art was the “elongated man”, tall and thin with almond-shaped eyes. No one knows who this represents, or if it has mythological or religious significance, but it was common among the Olmec and early Maya. Several examples were excavated in the ruins of Copán. Below is a Mayan version, not elongated as in tall and thin, but appears to be an attempt to show the flattening of the forehead and elongation of the skull, popular in their culture from time to time. This figure keeps the Olmec-influenced eyes, wide nostrils, and turned-down, frowning mouth.
This figurine is a mottled green on white with thousands of tiny deep blue lines resembling straw. This is a rare and unique stone type for Motagua jadeite. Not as dense as the dark “Goddess of Sin”, this figure is almost six inches tall and weighs a little over 500 grams.
In modern times this deity is usually believed to be the God of Maize or Corn God, but this is not true. Yum Kaax is the god of nature, forests, and wild animal and plant life. This god comes in two versions, male and female, but usually depicted as a young male holding an ear of corn, or sometimes a corn plant. The Maya of Copán invoked the help of Yum Kaax, not to grow more corn, but to bring rain, and to protect their crops from incursions of wild animals that he controlled.
Ancient and Modern Fascination With Jade
The Ancient Maya of Copán valued jadeite highly. It was rare, unique, and beautiful. A stone worthy of their gods and their kings and valuable enough to fight wars and destroy kingdoms. Today the modern world is awakening to the beauty and mystique of jadeite. Its variety and rarity are being recognized and appreciated by collectors at last, and its price and value are skyrocketing. Guatemalan jadeite, a beauty to hold and behold. At least as long as the small deposit in the Motagua Valley lasts.
© 2018 Lew Marcrum