Of gods,glyphs and kings

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Of gods, glyphs and kings: divinity and rulership among the Classic Maya
The ANTIQUITY prize-winning article in the last volume addressed writing, its varying nature and role in early states. Now that the decipherment of Maya writing is well advanced, we can know more of the records of kingship, From them we m a y discern the concepts and beliefs that defined theauthority of these holy lords, as we seek the source of the power of rulers like ‘Sun-faced Snake Jaguar’.
‘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 questionsabout 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, mostnotably after the fall of numerous kingdoms at the dawn of the Postclassic 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, sincerulers 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 sameprocesses 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 allpowerful, without faults, whose existence is not marked by either birth or death, is at times indiscriminately applied to other cultures. In abelief 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 ‘springfrom the same clay as [their] people’ (Sahlins 1981: 1 1 2 ) . In other parts of Polynesia, rulers were likened to sharks travelling on land, rapacious, unpredictable, wholly foreign in origin - danger-

* Stephen D. Houston, Department of Anthropology, Brighain Young University, Provo UT 84602-5522, USA. David Stuart, Peabody Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge MA 02138, USA. Received 6 June1995, accepted 3 September 1995, revised 2 December 1995. ANTIQUITY (1996): 289-312 70

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ous (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 ‘bodypolitic’, the domain of ‘certain truly mysterious forces (which) reduce, or even remove,the...
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