Maya Threads: A Woven History of Chiapas

Maya Threads: A Woven History of Chiapas


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780983886068
Publisher: Thrums Books
Publication date: 02/15/2015
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 9.00(w) x 11.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Walter F. Morris, Jr. became a deep expert in the textiles and culture of the Highlands after traveling to Chiapas as a tourist in 1972. His fluency in Tzotzil and his extensive time in Maya villages have given him unique insights into the history and symbolism of Maya textiles. He is a founder of Sna Jolobil, a weaving collective based in San Cristóbal, which both supports weavers and fosters excellence in native textile arts. He received a MacArthur Award in 1983 for his work in textile symbology in Chiapas. Carol Karasik is a writer and editor who has been studying ancient astronomical alignments at Palenque. She is the author of The Drum Wars: A Modern Maya Story and The Turquoise Trail. Janet Schwartz is a native New Yorker who came to Chiapas in 1978 on a Fulbright Scholarship to study the Bonampak murals. She has gone on to become a clothing designer, a tour guide, and ultimately a journalist/photographer with thousands of bylines to her credit. They all live in San Cristóbal, Chiapas (Mexico).

Read an Excerpt

Maya Threads: a Woven History of Chiapas

By Walter F. Morris Jr., Carol Karasik, Linda Ligon, Janet Schwartz


Copyright © 2015 Walter F. Morris, Jr. and Carol Karasik
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-9964475-7-7


A Classic Family Dispute

Long ago, in the ancient Maya city of Yaxchilán, there lived a great queen named Lady Xook.

Her husband, Shield Jaguar (A.D. 681–742), defeated many nearby realms, and those he did not subdue he made his allies by marrying women of noble families. Thus, he acquired three foreign princesses, who assumed prominent places in the royal palace. Under his reign, Yaxchilán became one of the most powerful Maya city-states, commanding the lucrative trade routes along the Usumacinta River. As the city grew in wealth, the king erected magnificent temples and stelae boasting of his personal sacrifices, the humiliation of his enemies, and his divine right to rule.

Obscured in the public annals were the behind-the-scenes political struggles among the nobility, including the high-ranking family of Lady Xook, whose position was threatened by the king's foreign consorts. Shield Jaguar resolved these disputes by setting a new precedent. In addition to recording his direct patrilineal descent from Yaxchilán's founder, Yat Bahlam ("Jaguar Penis"), he also memorialized the divine lineage of his mother and his wives, in what was to become the most extensive series of portraits of royal women of the Classic period. While the hieroglyphic inscriptions relate the grand accomplishments of their husbands and sons, the queens mutely proclaim, through the elaborate garments they wove and wore, their political importance as well as their intimate knowledge of sacred designs.

In the beautiful temple Shield Jaguar built to honor Lady Xook, three stone lintels over the doorways depict the queen performing rituals that summon the ancestors. These rites celebrated the birth of Shield Jaguar's son and heir, Bird Jaguar, who was born to his third wife, Lady Evening Star.

In the first image (Lintel 24, opposite), Lady Xook is passing a rope of thorns through her tongue, spilling her holy blood onto the basket of papers below her. Her painful auto-sacrifice calls the ancestors into the presence of the expectant community. The brocaded designs on her huipil tell us that while performing her sacrifice she is not on the surface of the earth but in sacred space beyond this world. Every detail of her dress possesses cosmological significance.

The "sky band" designs along the edge of her huipil refer to the sun, moon, and planets. The eighteen rectangles containing crosses and X's represent the eighteen months of twenty days (plus one month of five days) in the 365-day Maya solar calendar.

The major design on Lady Xook's huipil contains a central cross pointing to the four directions. The cross rests inside diamonds that are surrounded by stepped frets, two on each side and one at each cardinal point, twelve all together. The center of the design represents the thirteenth point, coinciding with the thirteen layers of the Maya sky. Surrounded by a field of cosmological symbols, Lady Xook stands in the center of the universe, at the thirteenth level.

The repetition of the design reinforces this idea, as there are twelve rows from the base to the neck, where the thirteenth is hidden. In the swirling folds of her huipil on the floor, there are also twelve diamonds, with the thirteenth hidden under the basket that holds the bloody paper from her auto-sacrifice.

If she is in heaven, she must also address hell, the Underworld, which the sun passes through every night, a passage her ancestors had to repeat in order to dwell in the other world. There are nine layers to the Maya Underworld. The front of Lady Xook's huipil shows eight diamonds; the ninth is either hidden under the waves of cloth on the ground, under her hand, or under the basket receiving her blood sacrifice. Pointedly, the queen gestures toward the king's sash, which is adorned with the design of the Underworld portal.

Lady Xook's robe reveals the spiritual aspects of her world as well as her political position in Yaxchilán society. Who else at Yaxchilán wears the diamond-shaped design of the universe?

Only foreign women. The third wife of Shield Jaguar, Lady Evening Star, a foreigner from the powerful Maya city of Calakmul, is seen wearing this design on Lintel 32, but it is a poor imitation. The Yaxchilán noblewoman who later married the royal heir, Bird Jaguar, never wears this design. Yet Bird Jaguar's three foreign wives, who came from three minor cities in the Petén region of Guatemala, do wear variations of this cosmic pattern.

Lady 6 Tun turned the design ninety degrees to make the diamonds into squares. Nevertheless, her gown remains a copy of Lady Xook's huipil.

Lady 6 Sky Ahau (Lintel 5) and Lady 6 Balam of Itz Witz appear twice in similar variations of the diamond design. On Lintel 17, the central element has four rather than twelve extensions. This symbol is called a quatrefoil; we'll get back to it.

On Lintel 41, Lady 6 Sky Ahau wears a simple diamond surrounded by rays while Lady 6 Balam of Itz Witz wears a design with a more complex center and eight extensions. All of these designs are brocaded, a weaving technique that creates precise geometric designs with straight lines and no curves.

Bird Jaguar's three foreign wives paid tribute to Lady Xook by creating variations of the design she wore in her public ritual and on the carved lintels placed inside her temple. Lady Xook did not invent this design; it appears on clay stamps and seals made more than a thousand years earlier. Lady Xook wove one of the most complex versions of this motif and made it a symbol of her authority and that of her royal house. Foreign women had to pay homage to Lady Xook if they wished to live peacefully at Yaxchilán.

Bird Jaguar's principal wife, Lady Great Skull Zero, was not a foreign prize but a woman from an important Yaxchilán lineage. Her garments interpret local tradition in a completely different manner.

Lady Great Skull Zero's huipil is unique in design and technique. Whereas Lady Xook's designs are lightly pecked into the stone, indicating that the cloth is flat with additional brocading, Lady Great Skull's designs are at least half an inch above the background and appear to be three-dimensional. To achieve this raised effect, the original dress may have been made by appliquéing multiple strips of fabric onto the base cloth to create greater thickness. More likely, the deep bas-relief is the artist's exaggeration of Lady Great Skull's woven statement. In effect she is saying: I am not Lady Xook; I am more important.

In several other scenes, Lady Great Skull Zero appears in a simple white huipil with a decorated hem (Lintel 54). Her mother-in-law, Lady Evening Star (Lintel 32), wears a similar huipil on the front of her memorial stela, which stands in the temple dedicated to her by her son, Bird Jaguar. Here the hieroglyphic texts refer to her auto-sacrifice in honor of her son's ascension to the throne. And here she demonstrates her loyalty to her daughter-in-law's house by dressing in a plain white huipil. Elsewhere (Lintel 53), she appears in a poor approximation of Lady Xook's diamond-patterned huipil. As the co-wife of Lady Xook and the mother-in-law of Lady Great Skull, Lady Evening Star wears the huipil of both houses.

On the back of her memorial stela, hidden from public view, Lady Evening Star is dressed in a rare brocaded huipil that must be emblematic of her noble house in Calakmul. Raised in a polity with a different interpretation of Maya traditions and slighted in her husband's official records, the queen nevertheless presented the aged king with an heir. This portrait is Bird Jaguar's magnificent tribute to his mother, as well as Lady Evening Star's final statement; the splendid robe she brought from home was probably her burial shroud. The knotted squares running diagonally across the huipil are variants of the crossed-bar design, which signifies the sky. The rectangle on top of two rectangles is an ideograph for water piled on water, or waves. In Classic Maya images from Tikal, the dead are shown being carried acoss water and finally sinking into the waves. Modern Tzotzil Maya myths speak of a black dog that carries the soul across a river to the land of the dead. Water imagery is associated with the Underworld and confims what is known from the dates of this sculpture: Lady Evening Star had died before this portrait was commissioned.

The hem of her huipil has two designs, the first an elaborate zigzag. If you were to take the design out of its borders, copy and invert it, then put the two together, you would have the diamond design, much like that worn by Lady 6 Sky Ahau. This technique, of taking a horizontal slice of the diamond design to form a pattern for the hem, is still used by weavers in San Andrés, Chiapas. The lower edge of the huipil is decorated with a T-shaped design that was either woven or cut out of the hem (probably the latter). Both techniques are represented in Yaxchilán bas-reliefs. Again, this design is only half of the complete design: a quatrefoil, or four-lobed cross.

Cutting cloth is a rare occurrence in Maya weaving; only neck holes, T flaps, and quatrefoils on ceremonial staffs were cut out of the fabric. Considering how much time it took to spin cotton into thread (much longer than weaving the piece), cutting the cloth was a sacrifice of time and labor. Cloth was woven to size and finished top and bottom so not a thread was wasted. Clothing was not tailored: no tucks or pleats or pattern cutting involved. The complete rectangle of cloth from the loom was folded in half and sewn up the sides, with small openings left for the arms. In order to wear the huipil, all a woman had to do was cut a circular hole large enough for her head to pass through.

Cloth was cut with the same tool used for cutting earlobes and other parts of the body for auto-sacrifice — an obsidian blade. The edge of an obsidian blade is only one molecule thick, which is as sharp as you can get. Nevertheless, cutting a circular hole or a T flap with an obsidian tool would have required a cutting board and some way to hold the cloth steady. What seems like a simple process was in fact difficult and fraught with associations of sacrifice and emergence from the other world. The Maya took cutting cloth seriously.

There is one other design that may have been cut out of the cloth. In Lintel 24, Lady Xook has begun her blood sacrifice under the watchful gaze of her husband, Shield Jaguar. Her little finger points to the mask of the Sun Lord, and, as mentioned earlier, her index finger touches the design adorning the king's sash. This quatrefoil design was probably cut out, with strips of fabric appliquéd to form the mat design in the center. The knot in the middle of the quatrefoil tells us why she is pulling a thorned rope through her tongue: She is about to open the four-petaled doorway to the other world.

Lintel 25 depicts Lady Xook's supernatural vision. Emerging from the jaws of a double-headed serpent is the ancestral founder of the dynasty, summoned from the other world through Lady Xook's ritual bloodletting. The mythical serpent, when shown in front view, has four jaws extending in the four directions; its mouth, the portal to the other world, is a quatrefoil.

The design on Lady Xook's huipil is a quatrefoil with a plaited design in the center. The plait work resembles that of a mat. Because kings sat on palm mats laid on an elevated throne, the mat came to symbolize royalty. Since the personage emerging from the "Vision Serpent" is royal, it is appropriate that the sign for royalty would be in the center of the quatrefoil design. Lady Xook is wearing a symbolic representation of her vision.

The other world is both heaven and hell. The Nine Lords of Night live there, causing disease and death. The gods also dwell there, along with the ancestors, including the royal ancestor being addressed by Lady Xook. The ancestors continue to exist in a place with palaces and servants, but to reach that place after death they must pass through the nine layers of the Underworld and trick the nine lords of Xibalba. Thus, Lady Xook wears nine repetitions of the quatrefoil and mat design on her huipil. This design may have been cut out of the weave. Since it represents a portal, cutting out the design and making it an actual opening would enhance its meaning.

The "flap-staff," which appears in numerous rituals at Yaxchilán, is the clearest example of a quatrefoil design cut out of cloth. On Lintel 33, Bird Jaguar holds a pole wrapped in cloth and topped with a bouquet of feathers. Here there is no doubt that the quatrefoil is cut out, because Bird Jaguar puts his hand through the design to hold the staff. The quatrefoil design was cut on both sides, leaving a thin strip in the center. Then the flaps were stitched together to make the flaps stiff. Strips of fabric were then twisted and attached to the sides. This is how the design on Lady Xook's huipil, in Lintel 25, was probably made, except the whole quatrefoil was cut out and there were no flaps.

In the third and last lintel, 26, we see why Lady Xook's tortured conversation with a long deceased ancestor is important on "the surface of the earth" where the living reside. Shield Jaguar is dressed for war with flint dagger and cotton armor. His wife is holding his jaguar headdress, and she points to him as the principal figure of the scene. He gestures back with an open palm, his index finger pointing to her mouth and the blood scrolls on her cheeks as if acknowledging her sacrifice.

The hieroglyphic texts confirm that this war event is related to his ascension to the throne, but Lady Xook's costume tells a different story. The pendant around her neck is a portrait of a female ancestor with stepped fret bangs. The design on her huipil is that of a toad. In Maya myth, toads are feminine, frogs are masculine. Toads represent rain, fertility, and the lunar month and are powerful shamans in their own right. Although her husband may go off to subdue the kingdom's enemies, it is her power, and that of her female line, which feeds and cares for the people of the kingdom.

There are many examples of elaborate Classic Maya dress that tell the same silent stories, stories that were never written down or spoken aloud. Twelve hundred years later, in the Chiapas mountains high above the ruins of Yaxchilán, women who marry outsiders adopt the dress of their husband's community although, like Lady Evening Star, they may keep their original costume for visiting their blood relatives. Women continue to express their opinions on prevailing fashions by wearing styles that either replicate the past or are creative variations of traditional designs. Underlying their fashion statements are well-considered religious and political views and a solid sense of identity. Lady Xook's designs — the world as a diamond with the sun passing overhead, the quatrefoil portal to the other world, and the toads singing in the rain — are still an essential part of Maya women's art and daily lives.


The Daughters of the Earthlord

— from Living Maya

The design of the universe is woven with clarity and purpose, line by line into Maya cloth. The weaver maps the motion of the sun through the heavens and the Underworld, through time and space. With the repetition of the "universe" design, the lordly sun is prompted to continue his journey. A Maya woman weaves the cosmos as it awakens.

Below the design of the universe, the Earthlord and his musician, the toad, dance in the cotton weave. On the flower design that covers the sleeves sits a scorpion, a creature that attracts rain. Through these characters the weaver has set the scene for a central drama. While the toad sings at the mouth of the Earthlord's mountain cave, the Earthlord's daughters prepare cotton, which will be transformed by a bolt of lightning into rain clouds. The scorpion is introduced into their midst to prick the lightning into action. The cotton huipil, perfectly animated, draws the powers that bring life-sustaining rain.

Each Maya woman weaves her own vision of the sacred universe and signs her works with a personal design. She also adds the special design that identifies her community. But all ceremonial huipils portray the world as a diamond. The four sides of the diamond represent the boundaries of space and time; the smaller diamonds at each corner, the cardinal points. East is above, where the sun emerges. West is below, the end of the day. North is on the left, because for the Maya north is insignificant; in the tropical skies the sun passes directly overhead, angling only slightly toward the north or south in different seasons. At night the stars also move directly from east to west, undistorted by Polaris, which lies near the horizon.


Excerpted from Maya Threads: a Woven History of Chiapas by Walter F. Morris Jr., Carol Karasik, Linda Ligon, Janet Schwartz. Copyright © 2015 Walter F. Morris, Jr. and Carol Karasik. Excerpted by permission of Thrums.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Chapter One Classic Family Dispute,
Chapter Two The Daughters of the Earthlord,
Chapter Three From Airy Gauze to Cutting Edge Fashion,
Chapter Four Origins of Maya Ceremonial Costume,
Chapter Five The Revival of Ancient Designs,
Chapter Six Patterns of Time,
Chapter Seven The Revolution And The Running Stitch,
Chapter Eight Cross Stitch Embroidery,
Chapter Nine Crossroads And Competition,
Chapter Ten A Foray Into Tojolabal Country,
Chapter Eleven Vestidos,
Chapter Twelve Chiapanec And Zoque Cultural Revivals,
Chapter Thirteen Living In The Twenty-First Century,
Illustration and Photography Credits,

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