Gender and Politics in the Classic Maya

There are obvious limitations to the study of gender in an archaeological context. Unlike biological sex, gender is something one does (Butler 1990); it exists in social interaction rather than in sexual dimorphism or other biological characteristics. Unlike sex, which is easily transmitted across time through bones, there exists no single, clearly understood archaeological artifact which can tell us in an instant about gender. This is partly because understandings of gender are culturally constructed, and just as cultures vary, so too do constructions of gender. Taking care not to essentialize, one must also recognize that these constructions may even vary within a culture, as competing ideologies of gender may be set forth by different actors (in groups, such as the elite, as well as by individuals).

Gender was clearly one of the organizing principles by which Mayans ordered themselves. Division of labor by gender existed. Different symbolic complexes existed to reinforce male and female economic, political, and religious roles. But gender is never simple: increasing evidence that points to the existence of third-genders “illuminates shortcomings in models based on binary biological sexes and their automatic equation with binary genders and gender roles” (Stockett 2005:570).

In the Classic Mayan context, gender has been studied using various approaches and evidences, such as paleoethnobotany (Helmke 2008), ethnohistory, comparative anthropology, epigraphy, and analysis of public monuments, burials, and art. Until recently, it had been assumed in Mesoamerican studies that men were by rule dominant, women were considered unclean, and that social gender correlated directly with biological sex (Ardren 2009). This view has been problematized as at least partially attributable to the androcentric lens the Spanish, as the first ethnographers of Middle America, viewed them through. For example, Bishop Landa, an early European reporter on Mesoamerican peoples, “assumed that men represented the active and meaningful segment of society and were morally and intellectually best suited to the conduct of public affairs” (Hendon 2004:313). Early European reports systematically underrepresented the female experience, as they ignored the primary locus of female productivity—the home—in favor of the loci of male activities, such as warfare and politics, that the Europeans themselves valued.

If European sources are not to be trusted, what about artifacts from the Classic Maya themselves, such as public monuments and burials? While it is fascinating to examine the mysteries these records put forth—such as, for example, the question of why a five-year-old male king would be installed to displace an experienced older queen—it must be remembered that they too come from interested actors presenting varying experiences of gender that depend on such factors as geography, class, and age. Artifacts often present a social reproduction of gender—a performance of gender (Butler 1990:186)—rather than an individual’s actual experience of gender (Ardren 2002:69). Ultimately, the goal is to understand social identity—of which gender is a part—by addressing “the ways in which [gender] works to connect or separate persons and groups in lived experience,” (Stockett 2005:574), that is, to analyze the practical implications of gender in Classic Maya civilization.

Men were definitely the predominant political actors in Classic Maya civilization. When women are mentioned, it is almost always in relation to a man (Marcus 2001:325). The obvious observation is that “ruling queens were exceedingly rare” (Houston and Inomata 2009:146). Men were more robust in terms of health than women, a sign of the day-to-day emphasis on keeping males well-fed (Ardren 2002:86). The state clearly presented violent male power and a hegemonic masculinity that offered a privileged status to those willing to embrace it (Ardren 2009:52). Institutionalized gendered violence is theoretically linked to state formation, as suggested by Rapp (1978:5), who sees in the subordination of women control of kinship-based households (c.f. p. 11). The natural conclusion to be made from these statements is that the Maya lived in a world of gender hierarchy. Yet that conclusion is fuzzy, as De Lucia argues “the expectation of gender hierarchy can result in misguided conclusions and unexplored alternative interpretations”; she goes on argue that, by comparison, gender at Teotihuacan (a city which included the early Maya in its sphere of influence) was not a large determinant of identity compared to ethnicity or household (2008:31). Ultimately she refers to a concept that has become instrumental in discussions of Maya gender studies: gender complementarity, a “worldview in which male and female were not necessarily seen as opposed but as collaborative” (2008:31; c.f. Stockett 2005). Paradoxically, this worldview turns out to be one promoted by the state, as will be explored later.

The realization that royal women, like cacao, obsidian, and jade, were an important resource to be controlled (Molloy 1974) kick started the closer examination of gender in Maya life. Women were productive economically as well as reproductively. Production itself was gendered, but equally engaged in by both men and women. Examination of remnants of early households finds that homes were conceptually divided to include a sphere of female economic production (Flannery 1976:45). Polygyny was restricted to elite men, but must have been lucrative, as women were so vital in making textiles as to be, if nothing else, an economic asset (Evans 2008:327). Access not only to the labor of the wife herself (who would prepare feasts) but also to the economic network of the wife would help to finance cargo rituals that correlated with social status (Devereaux 1987:94-5).

Numerous studies have demonstrated the importance of deer to the Maya diet, and symbolic and ethnohistorical evidence suggests that women were the caretakers of deer. Venison was an important source of protein in a mostly vegetarian diet, and was a common offering to the gods, and was therefore embedded in the feedback loop between the sacred and the quotidian. According to Ardren (2002:81), young females were brought into a symbol complex tied to semidomesticated deer, and women were buried in some sites (notably Yaxuna) with deer bones. Females raised and cared for deer, the most important  Mayan source of dietary meat, just as they raised and cared for children, reinforcing the link between women and reproductive power.

Women are closely associated with weaving in the Mayan context, as they are around the world (Evans 2008:327). Bell relates that prominent women were sometimes “buried with…all of the materials and tools to prove her skill as a master weaver in the afterlife,” demonstrating the centrality of weaving to feminine identity (2002:99). Woven materials were produced both at a mass level, in households everywhere, but also at a specialized, elite level. Women who worked at an elite level could produce valuable goods that figured prominently in Mayan trade of luxury goods. Noblewomen “created wealth for the dynasty through dowry and by making the textiles glimpsed in Classic imagery” (Houston and Inomata 2009:148). Women may also have been “possible producers of pottery or shell ornaments” (Ardren 2002:81). Trade presumably was valuable not only for securing exotic goods but also for strengthening ties between distant cities.

Women were also the focus of another way of strengthening ties between distant cities: through intermarriage.             Enigmatically, imagery of royal women—queens, consorts, and princesses—“achieved prominence only relatively late, with the first, unequivocal references appearing in the final decades of the Early Classic period” (Houston and Inomata 2009:146). One probable answer to this lies in the development of centralized hierarchical society. Marcus notes that “at their peaks of consolidation…states had large pools of nobles from which rulers could be chosen” (2001:324). As cities developed hierarchies and became able to support an enlarged pool of nobility, there was an increased need for identification of lineage on both sides in order to figure out the legitimacy of claimants to the throne and other offices. While it is debated how exactly lineages were reckoned and what their importance was in the Mayan culture (see Gillespie 2000), it is clear from archaeological evidence that one’s matriline could be a factor in one’s ascent to the throne in Maya polity. The growing importance of the matriline to one’s claim to the throne is demonstrated by the emergence of artifacts like the three-figure compositions at Palenque, which shows rulers receiving regalia from mother as well as father (Joyce 1996:185; Schele 1979). At Las Monjas in Chichen Itzá one finds evidence that women could supply important legitimacy to a rulership. There, women are frequently mentioned in hieroglyphic inscriptions in association with ruling males through the title k’ul ah ton le wah, which tied male rulers from the foreign-born Itzá dynasty to the native ton lineage (Krochock 2002:168).

Women were politically important as brides for their linkages backwards in time—to their own patriline, which may have been more prestigious than the groom’s—as well as forwards in time, as potential bearers of regal offspring. “Marriage between dynasties at different capitals secured alliances, and in some cases legitimated or energized a lineage fallen on hard times” according to Evans (2008:326) and cases are “well documented in the hieroglyphic corpus” (Ardren 2002:83), occurring when “Cancuen gave a bride to Dos Pilas, Dos Pilas to Naranjo, Calakmul to El Perú, and so on” (Houston and Inomata 2009:148). For smaller sites, a bride from a prestigious, larger site brought valuable political capital that solidified the credentials of the ruling family: for example, “Copan’s ruler 18 Jog claimed that his mother was from Palenque, but never mentioned his father” (Marcus 2001:325). Hypogamy—in which the bride’s status outranks the groom’s—was therefore an important tactical endeavor in Mayan politics.

One dynamic story of hypogamy in intermarriage is that of Pacal, from Palenque, whose mother was the enigmatic Lady Zac Kuk. Zac Kuk is portrayed in public architecture handing the crown to her son, Pacal, suggesting that she was the prior seat of political power (Hewitt 1999:255). This suspicion is further supported by the fact that the husband of Lady Zac Kuk had actually taken on some of her titles at marriage (Josserand 2002:126), a sign that women could act as vessels of dynastic prestige.

Another fascinating case is that of Lady Six Sky of Naranjo, who is “thought to have been a daughter of a ruler from the neighboring site of Dos Pilas who was given dominion over Naranjo.” She is the “only Maya woman to be depicted in the position of explicit dominance” of standing triumphantly on a captive (Hewitt 1999:255). Josserand suggests that Lady Six Sky’s military success—she embarked on major campaigns against Ucanal and Yaxha after arriving from Dos Pilas—is due to a military alliance with Dos Pilas created by her linkage to both sites, and that “what one gets when one exchanges women in a marriage alliance may very well be military support from the wife’s family” (2002:143). Lady Six Sky must have been capable on the home front, as well, and though her son was crowned at age 5, it seems clear that she continued to rule as regent until he finally began waging his own wars 13 years later (Ardren 2009:51).

Finally, there is Lady Ik Skull of Yaxchilan, who is inferred to have ruled during a ten-year gap in the record due to her taking titles normally reserved for male rulers (Marcus 2001:328). Her husband, Shield Jaguar, had brought her from Calakmul, a very prestigious site, though she was probably not his first wife. When he died, the power of her lineage—whether literal or metaphorical—was able to prevail through the chaos of succession. She ruled long enough to install her own son on the throne. Hypogamy in this case provided a mechanism through which a woman (Ik Skull) could endeavor to effect her own political will.

Females could be rulers, if only in the interim. This interim could occur due to the lack of male heirs, in which case the queen might rule as regent until she herself produced a male heir. In the absence of male heirs, prominent princesses, through their potential to marry an eligible nobleman and therefore shift the linkage of dynasty and patrilineage, were powerful political chess pieces and sometimes, in extraordinary circumstances, actors. The scene at Tomb 2 in Yaxuna attests to this power: a king, old and immobilized by arthritis, with no male heirs, is buried with two young princesses, the elder of which is buried with ornaments identical to those the king at Tomb 1 carried. In the final calculus, this scene is perhaps more grisly than regal, as skeletal analysis suggests that the elder princess was defleshed before burial—an indication of how powerful a threat she was to the usurpers, who also smashed her father’s skull (Ardren 2002:83).

One of the ways women accessed power, as in several of these examples above, was through gender-bending. Three Maya women who were rulers, including Lady Six Sky and Lady Zac Kuk, did not use feminine appellative prefixes such as na (“mother,” Hewitt 1999:252), instead opting for masculine titles. Another site of gender-bending is in public art. Females portrayed with male attributes, such as flat chests, follow what Stone refers to as “social impersonation” in which the Classic Maya “engaged in impersonation that involved switching gender and status roles” (1991:195). This suggests that by adopting physical costumes, appellative styles, and so forth, women could impersonate and access power.

As agents, Lady Six Sky and Lady Zac Kuk proactively presented themselves as strong, capable rulers, but perhaps only by tapping into ambiguities in the current structure as presented by the dominant social order. In critical moments, women translate their position as “dynastic links” into an ability to actuate financial, social, and military support (Josserand 2002:119). Against the tide as it is, this social engineering was the exception rather than the norm. Women were important, but in many instances this importance was as an asset for male manipulation, as in intermarriage and production, and it was only under extraordinary circumstances that women were able to break free of this web.

So there existed avenues through which women might articulate themselves, if only by appropriating symbols of maleness (such as symbols associated with rulership). But how did Maya civilization value femininity itself?

Starting with religion: contrary to early European suppositions, Maya women participated extensively in ritual and religious life. This religious life celebrated both womanhood in and of itself and as part of gender complementarity that stressed the interdependence of both genders. Informally, women participated in household and kinship rituals on a daily basis, not only on their own but also as part of a corporate unit with their husbands (Josserand 2002:129). Formally, women held some specialized religious offices such as ix mol, who ceremonially encouraged girls to become skilled in their work (Hendon 2004:316). Even female productivity in weaving, which may seem quotidian, was imbued with religious, cosmic significance: skillfully woven designs in Maya dress “mark the wearer as well as the maker with supernaturally sanctioned authority” (Ashmore 2002:240).

Women were not only worshippers but also worshipped: for example, examination of one buried noblewoman leads Bell to conclude that “she was buried at the focal point of subsequent construction and became the focus of an elaborate program of offerings” (2002:99). There were also a number of female deities, including Ix Chel and the Moon Goddess. Gender complementarity is interwoven with Maya cosmogony in the vision of the mythical founders, First Mother and First Father (Bell 2002:104), mirrored by the corporate unit of husband and wife. This is illustrated in practice by the Quiche practice of referring to elected heads of kin groups as “mother-father, mirroring the bi-gendered quality of the ancestors from whom his authority derives” (Gillespie 2000:478).

This leads to a discussion of gender complementarity in Maya culture, particularly in public art. This is summarized by Joyce’s statement: “Variation in gesture between paired images places the emphasis on the action, and suggests the necessary interdependence of individuals of distinct gender. Paired figures with different gestures illuminate complementary gendered actions” (1996:179). The practice of placing males and females in spatial relationships to one another—for example, left and right—reinforces the difference that exists in relation. Complementarity pervaded practice as much as it did art: it has been suggested that complementarity is actually at the root of male penis sacrifice, as a social imitation of the parallel biological phenomenon in women, menstruation.

At some point, however, complementarity blurs the lines between two distinct genders, and examinations of third genders become necessary. Both genders become embodied in one actor, as in the case of the “mother-father” referred to by Gillespie, and participants stress a dual gender identity (Joyce 1996:179). Public art typically deemphasized sexual differences (Looper 2002:173), suggesting that “many images of Maya rulers negotiate a fluid mixed-gender realm.” In this way a male ruler could assume “rights and responsibilities customarily reserved for those of contrasting genders” (Ashmore 2002:235). The phenomenon in reciprocal, in that just as “male rulers were depicted as embodying the female characteristic of fertility…masculine traits on politically important women made them suitable agents of power” (Hewitt 1999:251).

Third-gender power and reciprocity is best captured in its male aspect as the Maize God and in its female aspect as the Moon Goddess. The ruler could then exploit this androgynous field to present himself as a paradigmatic ruler. For the ruler, these complementary gods encompass fertility in both practical aspects: as the quality that fed (Maize) and perpetuated (Moon[1]) his people. While in most cases the Maize God is emphasized in succession art, in cases like that of Palenque, when legitimacy in succession comes from a woman, the Moon Goddess is appealed to (Looper 2002:198). This interpretation is supported by Bell’s case study of a royal tomb in Copan, which found a woman buried with the costume of the Moon Goddess (Bell 2002:99). Complementarity and removal of gender from sex is captured in the net-skirt costume, which is found both in monuments as an item of dress for both women and the young Maize God (Joyce 1996:170; Taube 1985).

One must not fail to problematize the neatness of this discussion of gender, for much remains to be explored. Status obviously served as a mediator of gender roles, and there is reason to believe that the experience of gender was bifurcated along elite and non-elite lines, the non-elite lacking access to several of the articulations mentioned above. The muting of female independence implied by gender-complementary ideologies put forth by state public art may have had darker implications, as well. Women in art were depicted in paradoxical ways in accordance with the differing interests and ideologies of the respective artists. The noteworthy lack of sexual dimorphism in Classic Maya public art (in comparison to other media, such as cave art) is therefore immediately traceable to its makers, the elite, and their strategy of power construction. Not only did this pervasive imagery fail to acknowledge the productive abilities of women, it may have “represented as permanent a particular gender construction that served the purposes” of the governing elite (Joyce 1996:190).

There is the possibility that gender-complementarity is really a strategy to  systematically undermine the particular contributions of women (i.e., reproductive power) by making them available to men. It stands to reason that men had much to gain from the control of women when one considers women’s roles in economic and political dealings. The state, producing as it was art bordering on the sexless, may have been structurally disinclined towards the reproductive and lineal power held by women. As explored by Iannone, kingship (male) and kinship (female) are fundamentally at odds due to their differing time horizons (2002:68). If this is true, it would appear that gender is (as we must have always known) not entirely unrelated to biological sex and reproductive faculties.

Women were undoubtedly important to the workings of Maya civilization, both as passive assets (in production or as political brides) and as active participants (in rulership and religion). Active pursuit of power may have been accompanied by “a transformation of the public perception of their gender” perhaps motivated by those women themselves, as a means of accessing previously off-limits capacities (Hewitt 1999:253). Women who adopted a gender role not correlated with their biological sex seem to be accommodated (Stockett 2005:571), if only because they often did so in times of crisis and in the interim. Men as well as women attempted to access powers particular to the opposite gender, leading to new gender categories, including third genders. Displays of gender complementarity by the Classic Maya demonstrate that if nothing else there was a distinct understanding of the power of both masculinity and femininity. These displays, however, must be problematized as they stand at odds with popular representations and may represent a distinct point of view articulating a particular construction of gender for a self-interested purpose, the likes of which remain to be investigated.



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[1] Through the moon’s association with the menstrual cycle


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