Impersonation of Supernatural Beings in the Ritual Practice of Time

Ritual impersonation of supernatural beings is a quite important feature of the religious systems of Mesoamerica. Was an impersonation of the creator deities observed in the ritual practice of time making a symbolic allusion to acts of recreation/renewal of time of the cosmogony?

Houston and Stuart have deciphered a logogram and a syllabic collocation representing an(ul)/anum, for an impersonation of supernatural beings in the classic Maya inscriptions. The expression u baah(il), “this is a depiction of portrait of”, is followed by an(ul)/anum (Yucatec: “famous”), subsequently the name of the deity who is impersonated and finally the name of the impersonator: “We interpret this expression as ‘(it is) the image of .... The famous “god’ followed by the name of the ruler, lord, or lady who impersonates the god” (Houston and Stuart 1996: 298-299).[1] [2] [3] [4] I completely agree with the decipherment, made by Houston and Stuart, but I propose another translation than “famous” for the impersonating term, a’n.54 The word a’n has also the meaning of “being”; “exist” in Maya languages^ which is also argued by Lacadena and Wichmann (2004: 137). It is probable that it is the “being” of the impersonated deity, possibly its sacredness k’uhul (classic Maya) or teoyotl (Nahuatl) (Hvidtfeldt 1958), which the impersonator ritually incorporates and represent in Mesoamerican impersonation ceremonies.56 My suggestion of the translation of u baah(it) a’n, name of deity succeeded by the name of ritual performer is the following:

This is the representation of the being of the god X, name of ritual performer


It is exciting that the identity of the impersonator is stated in the inscriptions of the classic Maya. One would assume that the impersonator would be anonymous, since it is not he or she whom are the ceremonial protagonist but instead the impersonated deity. It appears that it is the sacred connection between the named ceremonial actor and the impersonated god who is emphasised by the classic Maya. This has (alas unknown) implications for the meaning of the performed ritual since the deity and the impersonator share the ceremonial scene. It is, however, apparent that a declared identity of a human being with a deity elevates the status of the ritual performer and the sacred status of the ceremonial performance.

Some inscriptions contain information about the creator deities being impersonated in rituals of time. The inscription on the front side of Stela 30, Naranjo where K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Chak (693 AD - 728 ad), lord of Naranjo proclaims that he impersonates the Jaguar Paddler God. Stuart maintains that the lord is dressed as the Jaguar God of the Underworld performing a fire drilling at a “period-ending” ritual (Stuart 1998: 404; 407409). The inscription of Stela 30, however, does not enclose the name of The Jaguar God of the Underworld. Instead it states twice that K’ak’ Tiliw

Chan Chak is impersonating the Jaguar Paddler God. The inscription on Stela 30, Naranjo simply announces that, in the person of the Jaguar Paddler deity, K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Chak conducts a stone-binding ritual at the “periodending date” of 7 Ajaw 18 Uniw.[5] [6]

Many ritually impersonated supernatural beings as part of the religious ritual practice of observing time are recorded in the inscriptions. But ritual impersonations were, like other ritual techniques, not exclusively an affair of ritual practices of time. Moreover, the religious specialist could take the identity of a wide array of supernatural beings, where not everybody was associated with creation, in order to observe the ritual practice of time.58 The coincidental occurrence of an impersonation of creator gods and other deities in the ritual practice of time undermines the theory of a recreation or renewal of the world or time as explaining these ceremonials.

  • [1] Cf. Nehammer Knub et al. (2009) for an extensive list of examples of ritual impersonation expressions in classic Maya inscriptions.
  • [2] Cf. Lacadena and Wichmann for the spelling of this lexeme (2004: 110; 128; 137).
  • [3] An, “Ser, existir, estar” (Barrera Vasquez 1980: 16); ‘an, to be, estar, existir (Hopkins,Josserand and Guzman 2010: 10).
  • [4] Houston (Houston 2006: 146-149; Houston et al. 2006: 276) prefer “deity concurrence”instead of “deity impersonation”. He argues that the performer keep his/her identity whileportraying the deity during the ritual.
  • [5] A rather bizarre impersonation of both of the Paddler Gods by one ajaw is recordedon Stela 13, Naranjo. A k’altun ritual celebrates “the period ending” of But howcan it be explained that the inscription states that K’ak’ Chan Chak impersonates both theJaguar Paddler and the Stingray Paddler at the same time? These two deities may haverepresented a totality attributable to the fact that the signs k’in and ak’ab’, which are epithetsof the Paddler Gods, symbolise completion (Stuart 2003b).
  • [6] For instance, from the inscriptions on two stelae in Copan we have evidence of aritual impersonation performed to celebrate a time period. But, here neither the PaddlerGods nor other recognisable creator deities are impersonated. The inscription on Stela 4,Copan (A7-B9) announces that Waxaklajun Ubaah K’awil observes the time unit of 15winikhaab not as himself but under the identity of the supernatural being K’uy Nik’. Alsoaccording to the inscription on Stela B, Copan (B5-B13) a deity not involved in the knowncreation stories is impersonated. 15 winikhaab was again celebrated by Waxaklajun UbaahK’awil, but by performing a ritual blood sacrifice through the disguise of the god K’awil-?-?-nu-K’awil.
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