The Media and the Message of the Temporal Ritual Practice

The subject of the powerful publically recorded “mise en scene” of ritual practices of time by the various lords’ leads us to how this message would be experience by his/her subjects. We can distinguish between two types of experiences of the ritual practice of time of the Long Count calendar for the classic Maya:

  • 1. A conducting, participating or a witnessing of the actual ritual proceedings. This means that the ritual is experienced first hand.
  • 2. A reading of the recorded inscription and observing the image(s) of the past ritual undertaking. The ceremony is in this case only experienced some time after the ritual proceedings.

The second category implies that the documented ritual was expressed in public. The rituals, depicted and described on stone monuments, were conveyed as a public message at many sites. The religious-ritual practice of time was accordingly staged so that the population of the city could witness it at least some time after the ceremonial proceedings were conducted. I surmise that the monumental stones had a prominent function in promoting the public messages of the k’uhul ajaw and/or the ruling aristocracy. Considering the public inscriptions and images of the ritual practices, it is probable that this was a ceremonial display for all social groups. The ritual practice of time was therefore not only a religious act of observance towards the deities or a divine temporal ontology (cf. discussion below) but in addition a political ceremony with the purpose to display the ritual-symbolic authority of the k’uhul ajaw and the dynastic nobility towards his/her subjects.

The narrative may consist of several episodes of past, present and future “period-endings” both in text and image. There were, besides an episodic narrative, short statements of ritual practice of time. Illiterates can obviously interpret images. But was the general public ignorant of the content of the inscriptions or was he or she able to understand the message of the inscriptions? Wichmann has made some rather interesting reflections on the question of literacy in classic Maya culture.[1] The lack of data is alas apparent. For instance, we do not know whether there were schools, which were accessible to all social groups. The office of the scribe (Aj Tz’ib) was prestigious. Data collected by ethnographer missionaries of the early colonial period convey that only the political and religious leaders were literate. It was thus probably not common for the general public to be able to read and write. It is easier to learn to read than to write. Wichmann contends therefore that the uniformity of the inscriptions, the use of illustrations often accompanying the texts and the nature of signs, which repeatedly depicts concrete artefacts, makes it relatively elementary to learn to read the inscriptions (Wichmann 2000: 18-22).

In her book about the Mesoamerican writing systems, Joyce Marcus argues that what she call the writing systems—despite differences in space, time and content—of the Aztec, Mixtec, Zapotec and Maya civilisations functioned as a political instrument (Marcus 1992: 3-4; 15-16). The images and inscriptions did, however, not communicate the same information. There are two categories of propaganda: horizontal and vertical. The first category constitutes propaganda towards the literate growing aristocracy and the second, propaganda towards the illiterate general public (Marcus

1992: 11-12). The inscriptions might then have been directed towards the growing and challenging Maya nobility in the late-classic period—despite the possibility that the message on the monuments could have been read aloud in public performances to manifest the religious-ritual power of the ruler—and the images were meant to keep the subject in awe of the religious-ritual authority of the k’uhul ajaw and the aristocracy to the commoners.

The title k’uhul ajaw and the direct mediation with the deities and sacred temporal reality may have constituted a charismatic quality (cf. Weber 1964: 358-359) of the classic Maya lords. The cardinal ritual practices of time of the Long Count calendar, documented on public stone monuments commissioned by the lord, presumably contributed to institute and upheld a charismatic authority in order to legitimise his/her claim to political power.

  • [1] Cf. also Houston and Inomata (2009).
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