At the beginning of November each year, people in Mexico, Guatemala, and many other Latin American countries gather together to remember their dead. They bring images, objects, and food connected to their deceased ancestors and set up a small ofrenda or offering to remember them.
The Late Classic Maya of the Guatemalan Highlands had their own practice of remembering their dead. Separated from much of the lowland Maya world, the Highland Maya had their own practices that were unique to that region. Archaeological excavations have turned up many large vessels that we have called urns– not because they contain ashes, but because they contain human remains. These urns were important parts of ancestor veneration for the Maya of this region, and are valuable windows to the past.
Funerary urns have mostly been found in sacred caves, where descendants of the deceased would leave their loved one after death, and journey to visit them in later years. When these urns were excavated, archaeologists noticed two general trends in the contents: some of them contained a full human body wrapped up into a bundle, and others contained loose bones that were what remained of the ancestor after descendants had re-entered the burial space. Archaeologists have also found miniature urns– much too small to hold a human body, but the perfect size for other offerings such as incense, rubber, or foodstuffs. Whether meant to hold a cherished loved one or offerings meaningful to them, these funerary urns played an important role in helping people remember and visit their ancestors.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of these urns is the imagery found on them. The most common elements on these urns are jaguars and the Jaguar God of the Underworld. The jaguars portrayed on the urns vary from fearsome snarling creatures to friendly felines that seem to wave at the viewer. Jaguars were strongly associated with the underworld, a dark, watery place from whence humans and animals were born, and to whence we return at the end of life. The Jaguar God of the Underworld (or JGU, for short, also known as God L) is considered by some to be the ruler of the underworld, although he might just be associated with it because of his feline features. JGU is known for his jaguar markings, supernatural eyes with a spiral iris, and a cruller that curls underneath his eye and twists at the bridge of his nose. In her MA thesis on these urns, Kathleen Garrett McCampbell argues that the iconography of funerary urns identifies them as a dark, heated space of rebirth, similar to ideas of the rebirth of maize.
Funerary urns of the Late Classic Highland Maya are a unique group of objects, rarely seen in the lowland Maya world. They allowed for easy transportation of ancestors, and provided a space where artists could depict beliefs regarding the function and importance of these urns.
If you are interested in learning more about funerary urns, here are some great sources for additional information:
Museo Popol Vuh, Guatemala City, Guatemala.
McCampbell, Kathleen Garrett, “Highland Maya Effigy Funerary Urns: A Study of Genre, Iconography, and Function” (Master’s Thesis)