Bloodletting and Piercing in Mayan Culture

Throughout the various empires and cultures in ancient Mesoamerica, the act of human and animal sacrifice was a common occurrence. The Maya practiced human and animal sacrifice as well, but had more of a fixation of auto-sacrificial bloodletting than the other surrounding cultures. The act of bloodletting (‘ch’ahb’ ’ which is roughly translated as ‘penance’) was not limited to gender, both woman and men practiced bloodletting. However, it was more common among the ruling and noble men. It was believed that blood contains a persons’ life-force or soul which made it the perfect offering to the gods. In particular, the blood of kings was believed to hold the most power due to the origin story that rulers were divinely made. Kings and rulers were expected to perform bloodletting rituals on many different events, such as important calendar dates, the choosing of an heir, and when asking the gods for rain. The most commonly used tools for bloodletting includes stingray spines (sometimes not thoroughly cleaned of venom), obsidian blades or knives, thorns, needles, and spiked rope. The most common areas for someone to use these tools include tongues, ears, cheeks, lips, nostrils, arms, legs, and the penis. The kings or rulers in the Mayan world were expected to perform penial bloodletting, in which they either used obsidian or stingray spines. The bloodletting ritual consists of an individual either bleeding into a bowl, using paper to catch the blood, or pulling a piece of rope or straw through their wound and then burning the blood with copal incense as an offering to the gods. The bloodletting ritual was used as a way to communicate with the gods and ancestors.

The piercing in bloodletting rituals was for religious reasons, but the practice of non-religious piercing was common in the Mayan world. The most popular places to get pierced included the ears, lips, septum, and nose. Both men and women participated in decorative piercings, but majority of women did not have lip or nose piercings. The Maya would use jewelry as a way to showcase their social status. Necklaces, bracelets, ear plugs, nose plugs, lip plugs, and ear flares were just some of the more popularly worn jewelry pieces. The elite and wealthy Maya would wear jewelry made from jade, jadite, and nephrite while the common people would wear jewelry made from ceramic, wood, or even just twigs.

The Maya also practiced other form of body modifications such as infant head shaping, crossed-eyes, dental alterations, body paint, scarification, and tattooing. Flat skulls and other disfigurements were considered to be a sign of nobility and social status. When a noble baby was born, it was a very common to re-shape their heads to flatten their head immediately after their birth. Disfigurements were closely related to the spiritual and supernatural world and were typically not viewed in a shameful light. Crossed-eyed were also sign of high social status and intelligence, thus parents would force their children’s eyes to become crossed. The Maya would also practice different dental alterations such as filing teeth into points or other shapes, drilling holes and placing precious stones within, and inputting inlays. The gems and precious stones placed in the drilled holes showed off an individual’s status and wealth. As for tattoos, both men and women could participate in getting them on their bodies, but men typically waited after marriage to get theirs. Another body modification that was commonly practiced was scarification. All of these body modifications, as well as bloodletting, were extremely painful and would eventually end in infection or disease. Due to the immense amount of pain that occurred during piercings, tattoos, and dental alterations, they were viewed as signs of bravery.