Fire and Smoke in Postclassic Petén: Human Remains, Deity Effigies, and Codices

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Fire and smoke were fundamental ritual forces in Mesoamerican religious worldview. Found in varied contexts (funerary processing, animation ceremonies, and desecratory rituals), fire and smoke were applied to multiple media (human bodies, architecture, and ceramics). In the Postclassic (AD 950–1524) Maya lowlands, burning both processed honored ancestors’ remains and violated enemies’ remains. Ceramic incense burners with deity effigies were used to burn resins to communicate with supernaturals. Here we consider whether fire and smoke were applied in similar fashion to human bodies and censer effigies in the Petén lakes region of northern Guatemala during the Postclassic period. Specifically we document and compare (1) archaeological contexts in which human remains were burned (or have associations with burning), (2) archaeological contexts of ritual use of effigy censers, and (3) descriptions of ritual contexts involving the use of fire and smoke from codices and ethnohistoric and ethnographic accounts. Comparing human remains to representations of bodies suggests that both were subjected to similar ritual processes but that the former were particularly necessary under some political, and religious and calendrical circumstances.


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