Bloodletting--Cutting part of the body to release blood--is an ancient ritual used by many Mesoamerican societies. For the ancient Maya, bloodletting rituals constituted a way to communicate with the gods and royal ancestors. This practice was usually performed by nobles through the perforation of body parts, mainly, but not only, tongue, lips, and genitals. Both men and women practiced these types of sacrifices.

Example of bloodletting spoon or perforator, Guerrero, Snite Museum of Art.

The picture above is an example of bloodletting spoon or perforator, Guerrero, Snite Museum of Art.

Ritual bloodletting, along with fasting, tobacco smoking and ritual enemas, were pursued by the royal Maya in order to provoke trance-like state and supernatural visions and therefore communicate with dynastic ancestors or underworld gods.

Bloodletting Occasions and Locations

These rituals were usually performed at significant dates and state events, such as beginning or end of calendar cycles, when a king ascended to the throne, and at building dedications, as well as at other important life stages of kings and queens, such as births, deaths, marriages, and war.

Bloodletting rituals were usually carried out in secluded temple rooms on the top of pyramids, but public ceremonies were organized during these events and people attended them, crowding in the plaza at the bottom of the pyramid. These public displays were used by the rulers to show 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.   

Bloodletting Tools

Piercing of 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 and copal incense, the first one used to collect the blood and then burnt with copal to provoke smoke. Blood was then collected in recepticals made out of ceramic or basketry. Cloth bundles were probably used to carry around all the equipment.

Bloodletting Imagery

Evidence of 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, Chiapas, offers a particularly rich gallery of images about bloodletting rituals. In a series of 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 isionduring the throne accession ceremony of his husband.

Yaxchilan Lintel 24

Lintel 24 from Yaxchilan, Chiapas, Mexico

Lintel 24 is one of three limestone door lintels from Temple 23 at the Mayan site of Yaxchilan. Temple 23 is dedicated to Lady K’abal Xook, the principal wife of Itzamnaaj Balam III (also known as Shield Jaguar), a king who ruled the Maya city of Yaxchilan from AD 681 to 742. A lintel is the load-bearing stone at the top of a doorway, and its massive size and location was often used by the Maya (and other civilizations) as a place to show off decorative carving. The three carved lintels in Temple 23 feature Lady Xook (Lady Shark, sometimes spelled Xoc and pronounced "Shook") and her husband in a series of ceremonies related to the king throne ascension.

Temple 23 is located on the southern side of the main plaza of Yaxchilan, and was built about AD 726. Recent excavations by the Mexican archaeologist Roberto Garcia Moll identified two burials under the temple floor: one of an aged woman, accompanied by a rich offering; and the second one of an old man, accompanied by an even richer one. These are believed to be the tomb of Itzamnaaj Balam III; Lady Xook's tomb is supposed to be in the adjacent Temple 24, because it features an inscription with the record of the queen's death in AD 749.

Lintel 24 is the easternmost of three door lintels which covered respectively the eastern (Lintel 24), the central (Lintel 25) and the western (Lintel 26) doorways of Temple 23. The lintels were rediscovered in 1886 by the British explorer Alfred Maudsley, who had the lintel cut out of the temple and sent to the British Museum where it is now located. These three pieces are almost unanimously considered among the finest stone relieves of the whole Maya region.

Royal Bloodletting Ritual

Lintel 24 features a scene of bloodletting ritual performed by Lady Xook, and the hieroglyphic text places the event on October AD 709. The two personages depicted are Itzamnaaj Bahlam III and his wife. The king is holding a torch above the queen who is kneeling in front of him, suggesting that the ritual is taking place at night or in a dark, secluded room of the temple. Lady Xook is passing a rope through her tongue, after having pierced it with a stingray spine, and her blood is dripping onto bark paper in a basket.

The textiles, headdresses and royal accessories are extremely elegant, suggesting the high status of the personages. The finely carved stone relief emphasizes the elegance of the woven cape that wraps up the queen. The king is adorned by a pendant portraying the sun god and a severed head, probably of a war captive, adorned is headdress.

Bloodletting in Central America

Bloodletting: Maya Lady Xoc Passing a Spiked Rope through her Tongue

The picture represents Bloodletting: Maya Lady Xoc Passing a Spiked Rope through her Tongue.

Bloodletting or autosacrifice was a cultural trait of most of the societies in Mesoamerica, beginning with the Olmec perhaps as early as 1200 AD. This type of religious sacrifice involved a person using a sharp instrument such as an agave spine or shark's tooth to pierce a fleshy part of his own body. The resulting blood would drip onto a lump of copal incense or piece of cloth or bark paper, and then those materials would be burned. According to historic records of the Zapotec, Mixtec and Maya, burning blood was one way to communicate with the sky gods.

Artifacts associated with blood letting include shark's teeth, maguey thorns, stingray spines, and obsidian blades. Specialized elite materials--obsidian eccentrics, greenstone picks, and 'spoons'--are thought to have been used for elite bloodletting sacrifices in Formative period and later cultures.

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