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THE SYMBOLISM OF JADE IN CLASSIC MAYA RELIGION

  • Karl A. Taube (a1)
Abstract

The Classic Maya esteemed jadeite not only for its preciousness and beauty but also as stone of great symbolic import. This paper examines the religious significance of jade and certain types of jade artifacts among the Classic Maya. In this study, I note that the Classic Maya ascribed a number of meanings to jade, including maize, centrality, and rulership, as well as a material embodiment of wind and the vitalizing breath soul. Because of its close relationship to the breath spirit, jade was an important component of funerary rites and the ritual conjuring of gods and ancestors. Carved in floral form, jade earspools were considered supernatural sources or passageways for the breath spirit, frequently portrayed as a bead or a serpent emerging from the center of the jade flare. A common Classic Maya death expression, och b'ih, pertains directly to resurrection of the soul through the symbolism of earspools. Many of the symbolic meanings and imagery found with Classic Maya jade also appears with other cultures of ancient Mesoamerica, including Teotihuacan, Xochicalco, and the contact-period Aztec. Rather than being wholly of Classic Maya origin, many aspects of this jade symbolism and related artifacts can be also found among the earlier Middle Formative Olmec.

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E-mail correspondence to: taube@ucr.edu
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