What Essences Were Ritually Sealed Through Maya Cranial Modification?

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Presented in the session "Cultural Meanings of Head Treatments in Mesoamerican and Andean Societies.” Over the past 10 years researchers in Mesoamerica have increasingly come to agree that cranial modification was a normal part of growing up in Maya society. One component of cranial modification appears to have been ritually sealing one or more of these animating essences in infants’ heads. Bodies in Mesoamerica were both permeable and partible and contained multiple animating essences associated with various aspects of personhood, animacy, and illness. Thus, one current question is identifying precisely what was being sealed in cranial modification. In this paper I review animating essences among the Maya to discuss which appear to have been the most likely candidates for sealing through cranial modification. The two most relevant essences are baah and ik’. Baah is a conflation of personhood and the head, could be interacted with by other individuals after corporeal death, and appropriated by enemies. Ik’ is breath soul and could exit the body from various orifices. Although baah is explicitly associated with the head among the Maya, here I argue that ik’ is at least as likely as baah to have been targeted for sealing through cranial modification.


Austin, TX

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