A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
How painted bodies, flattened foreheads, and filed teeth made the Maya beautiful
Pakal's jade burial mask (Jorge Perez de Lara)
The ancient Maya went to extreme lengths to transform their bodies. They invested vast amounts of wealth—and endured unspeakable pain—to make themselves beautiful. Through their artwork and the study of their physical remains we can begin to understand what motivated their search for physical perfection. What did ancient Maya men and women hope to see when they looked in their pyrite mirrors?
Perhaps the men wanted to look like K'inich Janaab' Pakal (Pakal the Great), who ruled the city of Palenque. Few ancient Maya remains have been as thoroughly studied as Pakal's. His tomb within Palenque's Temple of the Inscriptions provides a clear view of the standard of beauty to which ancient Maya men aspired.
The ancient Maya pressed and bound their skulls into a variety of shapes that probably reflected an individual's place in society. (Courtesy Vera Tiesler/Dirección de Antropología Física)
Ancient Maya of all social classes filed their teeth in decorative patterns, but jade inlays were usually reserved for the elites. (Courtesy Vera Tiesler)
The earliest image of Pakal, a profile carving on an oval tablet found in his royal palace, emphasizes his flattened forehead. His simply rendered body reveals a slim physique. Pakal also had luxuriant hair, which he wore in thick, layered tresses trimmed to blunt ends in the front and tied in the back. His hair flopped forward like corn silk surrounded by leaves at the top of a healthy maize plant. Because each kernel on a cob requires a strand of silk to be pollinated, abundant corn silk pointed to a healthy cob of maize—and Pakal's hair indicated his maize-like perfection.
Maya standards of beauty based on the Maize God applied to women as well as men. Pakal, for example, is shown on the lid of his sarcophagus wearing the Maize God's jade skirt. It is the same skirt his mother is shown wearing on an oval tablet from the royal palace at Palenque. Women's skulls were also bound into elongated shapes, and they filed their teeth or drilled holes in them to hold inlays of jade, pyrite, hematite, or turquoise. Another fashion that men and women shared was painting their bodies with abstract designs.
A stone carving from the city of Yaxchilán portrays the powerful Lady Xook with tattoos or scars around her mouth to symbolize singing or eloquent speech. (Courtesy Mary Miller)
Beauty was enhanced by piling on elaborate jade jewelry or by wearing fashionable clothing. Paintings at both Bonampak and Calakmul, along with sculptures at Yaxchilán and Piedras Negras in southern Mexico, confirm women's interest in fashion. Those of high status wore gauzy cotton dresses over contrasting underskirts, brocaded dresses cinched at the waist, and patterned shifts and blouses draped over wrapped skirts. Two of the most prominent ancient Maya women, the queen of Yaxchilán, Lady Xook, and the queen of Piedras Negras, Lady K'atun Ajaw, favored stunning woven patterns in their clothing. The stone carvings commissioned by Lady Xook for her building on the site's main plaza show her wearing three different outfits in a conspicuous display of her taste in fashion. Beaded dots of face paint or scarification are similar to other artistic representations that symbolize elegant speech or song.
Beauty was a way to display social, if not moral, value among the Maya. The wealth they invested and pain they endured to create bodies that reflected their social beliefs make our modern-day obsession with beauty seem less excessive. Like us, the Maya indulged in self-deception about appearance, preferring to let artistic depictions conform to their ideals rather than reality. Although hearty and robust for an old man of 80, Pakal's depiction never aged; he remained a youthful Maize God, just on the cusp of maturity. The Maya saw what the Maya wanted to see when they looked into their pyrite mirrors: green and blue jewels, perhaps a few daubs of red paint, and the youthful vigor of agricultural fertility.
Mary Miller is the author of The Art of Mesoamerica and dean of Yale College.