Bloodletting-cutting part of the body to release blood-is an ancient ritual used by many Mesoamerican societies. For the ancient Maya, bloodletting rituals (called ch'ahb' in surviving hieroglyphs) were a way that Maya nobles communicated with their gods and royal ancestors. The word ch'ahb' means "penance" in the Mayan Ch'olan language, and may be related to the Yukatekan word ch'ab', meaning "dripper/dropper." The blood-letting practice usually involved only the highest nobles who would perforate their own body parts, mainly, but not only, their tongues, lips, and genitals. Both men and women practiced these types of sacrifices.
Ritual bloodletting, along with fasting, tobacco smoking, and ritual enemas, was pursued by the royal Maya in order to provoke a trance-like state (or altered state of consciousness) and thereby achieve supernatural visions and communicate with dynastic ancestors or underworld gods. The trances were to petition their ancestors and the gods for rain, good harvests, and success in warfare, among other needs and desires.
Bloodletting Occasions and Locations
Bloodletting rituals were usually performed on significant dates and at scheduled state events through the Maya ritual calendar, especially at the beginning or end of a calendar cycle; when a king ascended to the throne; and at building dedications. Other important life stages of kings and queens such as births, deaths, marriages, and the beginnings and ends of war were also accompanied by bloodletting.
Bloodletting rituals were usually carried out in private, within secluded temple rooms on the top of pyramids, but public ceremonies celebrating the bloodletting rituals were organized during these events and masses of people attended them, crowding into the plaza at the base of the main pyramid of the Maya towns. These public displays were used by the rulers to demonstrate their ability to communicate with the gods in order to obtain advice on how to balance the world of the living and to ensure the natural cycles of the seasons and stars.
A statistical study by U.S. archaeologist Jessica Munson and colleagues (2014) found that most references to bloodletting on Maya monuments and in other contexts are from a handful of sites along the Usumacinta River in Guatemala and in the southeastern Maya lowlands. Most of the known ch'ahb' glyphs are from inscriptions that refer to antagonistic statements about warfare and conflict.
Bloodletting ToolsStone Seat with Polychrome Reliefs Depicting Self-Sacrifice (Zacatapalloli), House of Eagles, Templo Mayor, Mexico City, ca. 1500. De Agostini / G. Dagli Orti / Getty Images
Piercing body parts during bloodletting rituals involved the use of sharp objects such as obsidian blades, stingray spines, carved bones, perforators, and knotted ropes. Equipment also included bark paper to collect some of the blood, and copal incense to burn the stained paper and provoke smoke and pungent odors. Blood was also collected in receptacles made out of ceramic pottery or basketry. Cloth bundles are illustrated on some of the murals, thought to have been used to carry around all the equipment.
Stingray spines were definitely a primary tool used in Maya bloodletting, despite, or perhaps because of, their dangers. Uncleaned stingray spines contain venom and their use to pierce body parts would have caused a great deal of pain, and perhaps include deleterious effects ranging from secondary infection to necrosis and death. The Maya, who regularly fished for stingrays, would have known all about the dangers of stingray venom. Canadian archaeologist Haines and colleagues (2008) suggest that it is likely that the Maya either used stingray spines that had been carefully cleaned and dried; or reserved them for special acts of piety or in rituals where references to the necessity of risking death was an important factor.
Bloodletting ImageryLate Classic Limestone Lintel at Maya Yaxchilan. Arild Finne Nybø
Evidence for bloodletting rituals comes primarily from scenes depicting royal figures on carved monuments and painted pots. Stone sculptures and paintings from Maya sites such as Palenque, Yaxchilan, and Uaxactun, among others, offer dramatic examples of these practices.
The Maya site of Yaxchilan in Chiapas state in Mexico offers a particularly rich gallery of images about bloodletting rituals. In a series of carvings on three door-lintels from this site, a royal woman, Lady Xook, is portrayed performing bloodletting, piercing her tongue with a knotted rope, and provoking a serpent vision during the throne accession ceremony of her husband.
Obsidian blades are often found in ceremonial or ritual contexts such as caches, burials, and caves, and the presumption has been that they were bloodletting tools. U.S. archaeologist W. James Stemp and colleagues examined blades from Actun Uayazba Kab (Handprint Cave) in Belize and compared the microscopic damage to the edges (called use wear) on the archaeological blades to those produced during experimental archaeology. They suggest that they were indeed bloodletters.
- DePalma, Ralph G., Virginia W. Hayes, and Leo R. Zacharski. "Bloodletting: Past and Present." Journal of the American College of Surgeons 205.1 (2007): 132-44. Print.
- Haines, Helen R., Philip W. Willink, and David Maxwell. "Stingray Spine Use and Maya Bloodletting Rituals: A Cautionary Tale." Latin American Antiquity 19.1 (2008): 83-98. Print.
- Munson, Jessica, et al. "Classic Maya Bloodletting and the Cultural Evolution of Religious Rituals: Quantifying Patterns of Variation in Hieroglyphic Texts." PLoS ONE 9.9 (2014): e107982. Print.
- Stemp, W. James, et al. "An Ancient Maya Ritual Cache at Pook's Hill, Belize: Technological and Functional Analyses of the Obsidian Blades." Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 18 (2018): 889-901. Print.
- Stemp, W. James, Meaghan Peuramaki-Brown, and Jaime J. Awe. "Ritual Economy and Ancient Maya Bloodletting: Obsidian Blades from Actun Uayazba Kab (Handprint Cave), Belize." Journal of Anthropological Archaeology (2018). Print.