Of Gods, Glyphs and Kings: Divinity and Rulership among the Classic Maya

By Houston, Stephen; Stuart, David | Antiquity, June 1996 | Go to article overview

Of Gods, Glyphs and Kings: Divinity and Rulership among the Classic Maya


Houston, Stephen, Stuart, David, Antiquity


'the mere fact of royal divinity was not so important as the relations which the king formed with other gods and men, and the contexts in which he was able to assert his divinity'.

(BURGHART 1987: 237)

New hieroglyphic decipherments now allow us to address several fundamental questions about the conceptual and religious underpinnings of Maya rulership. We can now explore the Maya concepts of relationships between deities and kings. Of particular interest are the ritual expressions of these relationships in the political and social arenas of various kingdoms. We can also attempt to delineate how relations between royalty and divinity changed over time in the Maya area, most notably after the fall of numerous kingdoms at the dawn of the Post-classic era.

The implications of these issues reach far beyond the Maya region. Scholars studying cultures from Ancient Egypt to China have confronted the question: how can rulers embody characteristics of both the human and the divine? Comparative studies show this question to be relevant to many traditional systems of authority, since rulers may tend to connect themselves with an immutable, divine order 'which transcends mere [human] experience and action' (Bloch 1987: 272). The power and mystery of divinity provides the ultimate sanction of worldly authority. There is, however, an apparent difficulty with attributing godhood to human rulers, namely, the fact that rulers are observed by their subjects to undergo the same processes as commoners do. Rulers are born, they live and die, demonstrating mutability and frailty as they do so. Some scholars have suggested that rulers may seek identification with the divine precisely because of their mortality and evident human weakness (O'Connor & Silverman 1995a: xxiii).

And yet, despite what many researchers consider to be the paradox of the concept of divine humans, cultures ruled by such hybrid divinities do not seem to find any inherent contradiction in it. As this article will make clear, a large part of the 'paradox' is created by scholarly preconceptions of what a 'god' is. The Western concept of a god as one who is all-powerful, without faults, whose existence is not marked by either birth or death, is at times indiscriminately applied to other cultures. In a belief system where gods or supernaturals are born and can die, are changeable and even capricious, and have their own vulnerabilities, it is less necessary for a ruler to explain away these qualities in him- or herself.

In 19th-century Fiji, the 'stranger king' and his family were established as beings that were ontologically and historically separate from their subjects. Rulers did not 'spring from the same clay as [their] people' (Sahlins 1981: 112). In other parts of Polynesia, rulers were likened to sharks travelling on land, rapacious, unpredictable, wholly foreign in origin - dangerous (Sahlins 1981: 112). In a very different place and time, legal theorists in Tudor England found it useful to distinguish between the king's 'body natural' and his 'body politic', the domain of 'certain truly mysterious forces (which) reduce, or even remove, the imperfections of . . . fragile human nature' (Kantorowicz 1957: 9). These societies framed authority in terms of mystical and religious forces, vested in a king 'who reigns not by force, still less by illusion, but by supernatural powers . . . [within] . . . him' (Kertzer 1988: 52).

Throughout the world's history, culturally accepted linkages between rulers and the supernatural fall into recognizable patterns, demonstrating the ease with which such associations could be made in a context of appropriate beliefs and values. Cross-culturally, arrogating divinity and its attributes directly to the ruler occurs in three typical ways.

1 The ruler claims to be divine, in direct descent from other divinities, or receives divine honours after death (Price 1987: 104).

2 The ruler is rhetorically described in terms of qualities and 'epithets appropriate to a deity', although remaining recognizably distinct from a true god (Moertono 1968: 43-4; Liebeschuetz 1979: 238). …

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