Monday, 16 May 2016

#9: Mayan bloodletting carving

A lintel is a horizontal support over a door or arch. They are sometimes decorated and this lintel carving, on display in the British Museum’s Mexico Gallery, is the most disturbing object I know in the museum. It seems to show some kind of consensual masochism. An elaborately dressed woman kneels in front of a man, who holds a flaming torch over her head. A spiked rope coils down from her mouth to a container below. Both are lavishly and intricately attired with headdresses and jewels, and seem entirely accepting of this ritual and to know what it is for. The label is determinedly factual: ‘Lady Xoc pulls a thorn-lined rope through her tongue. The rope falls onto a woven basket holding blood-soaked strips of paper cloth.’ 

These are the Mayan rulers Lord Shield Jaguar and his consort Lady Xoc, in the city of Yaxchilan. Lord Shield Jaguar had a long reign – from AD 681 to AD 742. The lintels were part of one of the buildings he put up to celebrate 60 years in power. They were probably for a temple dedicated to his wife, and would be seen by only a few people. 

The Mayan civilisation covered present-day Honduras, Belize, Guatemala, and southern Mexico. It lasted from 500 BC, when the first cities were built, to about 900 AD, and Mayan cities could have many thousands of inhabitants. 

By letting blood and inflicting pain on herself, Lady Xoc could go into a trance to induce a vision of the spirits of her husband’s ancestors. And indeed, the next lintel shows a sacred serpent rising from a bowl of blood, the image of an ancestor appearing from the serpent’s mouth. Rulers based some of their power on this process. In another carving in the same room Lord Shield Jaguar is about to let blood by piercing his penis.  

‘Horribly disconcerting’ is how ex-director of the BM Neil McGregor describes the sculptures in the 2010 radio series A History of the World in 100 Objects. Psychiatrist and writer Susie Orbach contributed a specifically female perspective to that broadcast: ‘if we examine the practices that we are involved in, they are often practices that if they were examined from outer space, they’d say ‘why would women be involved in these practices?’ It’s that women experience their sense of self by doing these things, by enacting them. They give them the sense of their own identity, and I’m sure that was true for her.’ Orbach also suggests that if one creates great pain in oneself and survives it, it gives you a sense that ‘you can do something rather special’.

The sculptures’ current home is Room 27 in the British Museum, where they are arranged neatly along a wall with a line on the floor to stand behind when you look at them and alarms which sound when you get too close. Nearby is a dolls house-sized reconstruction of the building they would have been part of, known as ‘Structure 23’ by the museum. The labels explain how it was aligned with the summer and winter solstice so that rays of the sun fell on particular sculptures at certain times of year. 

Strangely enough, I feel this bare and objective environment, with minimal interpretation, is one way of paying respect to the carvings; that too much research or contextualisation can neutralise the essential weirdness of this practice. And yet I want to understand it. The British Museum’s mission under Neil McGregor has been to show customs and artefacts of many cultures as different facets of what it means to be human, and indeed the History of the World broadcast includes the screams of a present-day Filipino man inflicting pain on himself as Lady Xoc did. But such a sympathetic treatment can, if not done sensitively, induce a kind of homogenisation of cultures which neutralises differences. And I would like this difference to remain.

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