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What did Blue Mean to the Mayans?

What did Blue Mean to the Mayans?


Maya blue is a medium shade of turquoise cyan, evoking the clear Mesoamerican sky above the surrounding ocean. The Maya associated this bright color with the rain god, Chaac, who was thought to create thunderstorms by throwing his axe at the clouds. During periods of drought they painted objects and human sacrifices in Maya blue before throwing them down the Sacred Cenote of the ancient Mayan city of Chichén Itzá as offerings to the rain god. Maya Blue is found on sculptures, decorations, and codices—in particular, the Codex Madrid, much of which focuses on the rain god and also the maize god. Until the late 1960s, the composition and remarkable resilience of the Maya blue throughout the centuries was a deep mystery to archaeologists; and not only did 1,6000-year old murals at Chichén Itzá still retain their vibrant Maya blue, blue itself was a rare color in 17th century European art. The secret ingredients of Maya blue were of course plundered along with the entire rest of the New World during European colonization of the Americas, yet its resilience to centuries of weathering and the harsh sun stands as a testament to the continuity of Mayan genius and influence through the ages, no matter how much European colonizers attempted to categorize, subjugate, and blot them out. 

The archaeological encounter with Maya blue

According to Edward R. Littman’s research on new perspectives of the pigment, the term “Maya blue” was first used to describe the wall paintings at Chichén Itzád and was then recorded in and around the Mayan civilization, including “Mayapan, Bonampak, Vera Cruz, Oaxaca, the lower Valley of Mexico, and Cozumel, as well as Palenque, Piedras Negras, Seibal, and Tikal” (Littman). Maya blue is also found extensively on sculptures, such as Jaina figures—depictions of the elite. 

Unknown. Standing Female Dignitary, Earthenware; with polychrome pigments, Mount Holyoke College Art Museum 

In the early 20th century, a Mayan tripod bowl containing incense was discovered in the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá by explorer Edward Thompson, who found the bottom of the sinkhole to be 14 feet of blue sediment. Within the incense were specks of white and blue, which, with the help of a microscope, were discovered to be indigo and palygorskite, also known as attapulgite, clay. The blue dye produced by the añil plant, mixed with this rare clay with a binder such as tree resin, resulted in paint that would resist fading from the surface it adhered to for thousands of years. Along with the three-legged ceremonial bowl, more than a hundred skeletons were also discovered at the Sacred Cenote—suggesting, as consistent with the Mayan codices and subsequent research, that people were sometimes covered with Maya blue paint and sacrificed to Chaac to invoke rain. However, it was more common to throw in painted pottery instead of humans to please the rain god, according to Gary M. Feinman, the curator of anthology at the Field Museum in Chicago, where the original bowl has been sitting for decades. 

Maya blue in the Madrid Codex

One of the four existing Maya codices, the Madrid, is full of Maya blue and contains large, beautiful illustrations dedicated to Chaac, the rain god. The Madrid Codex, which comes from the Classic period of the Maya, appears to be drafted by primarily Yucatec speakers given the prominence of Yucatec morphology in the manuscript, with a strong Western Ch’olan influence (Vail, Aveni). These languages become important in the discussion of the Mayan experience with color, characterized by certain approaches to describing the color of objects and nature with terms intentionally made broad and nonspecific to accommodate and welcome a spectrum of different interpretations. 

Besides this, the Madrid Codex contains a formidable collection of practical farmer’s almanacs concerning agriculture and hunting, beekeeping, and weaving. Dates are recorded in 260-day ritual cycles for divination purposes and religious ceremonies, including those dedicated to the rain god. The Maya venerated rain as the centerpiece of life. Chaac was a popular god, and in addition was understood to be four different gods at once, the Chahks. Each of these gods guarded a cardinal direction during the rainy season and were associated with frogs, animals of the rain. 

Madrid Codex page 30a and 30b, image courtesy of FAMSI. 

Madrid Codex page 31a and 31b. 

Pages 24 through 31 of the Madrid Codex contain, in fact, 21 almanacs concerning rainfall, planting crops, and even agricultural pests. The last few pages of the almanacs, as shown above, are not divided into compartments like the traditional Mayan format, but do contain clearly defined and distinct pictures—one in each corner, for each of the frogs and guardians of the cardinal directions. Chaac, who is said to bring the rain by not striking the clouds but also by his urine and vomit, is depicted in the middle with water gushing down from between his legs. There is also a calendrical parallel in this almanac with that of the Borgia Codex; for example, “The date in the lower register of Madrid 31 is 13 Ahau, which is the day before 1 Imix (= 1 Crocodile in the Aztec calendar), the date in the lower right compartment of Borgia 27” (Hernández, Christine, and Victoria R. Bricker). This counterpart nature between the two codices “suggest that the two almanacs on Madrid 31 were intended for years separated by a 13-year interval, as is the case for the corresponding panels on Borgia 27” (Hernández, Christine, and Victoria R. Bricker), which calls to mind the observation of the difference in cultural conceptualization of time in the Mayan understanding compared to that of the West, which is mainly linear and developmental, and that of the East, which is cyclical and concerned with repeating seasons. In contrast, in the words of Professor Couch, the Maya thought of time as a path braided into the fabric of the universe, reminiscent of the thrones of woven mats upon which the leaders sat, rather than a straight forward-moving line or a circle of interlocking years. This would help conceptualize the parallelism and calendrical relationship between the Mayan codices. 

Besides inter-manuscript parallelisms, there is also a relationship between pages 30 and 31 of the Madrid Codex, in both the depictions of Chaac with water gushing from his legs and the presence of large snakes on page 30a and 31b. These were understood to be destroyers of corn, fulfilling the theme of agricultural pests also found in the Borgia Codex.

According to Lillie U. Dao’s research on the theme of rain in the Mayan codices, rain was “a fundamental-part of Maya religious practice as: 1) a symbol of fertility, 2) a phenomenon that people actively sought to control through religious practice and 3) as a fundamental building block of the Maya universe, construed broadly to encompass both the natural and divine elements of the universe” (Dao), explaining the deep cultural significance of the ritual sacrifices at Chichén Itzá. Many almanacs included in the Madrid Codex are devoted to Chaac and Chel, the rain goddess, who are pouring the rain out from ceramic jars down onto the earth on page 30 of the manuscript. As with the majority of this almanac, the drawings are saturated with Maya blue, and outlined in black and red. Water flows from the rain goddess’s body, evoking the symbol of fertility in the agricultural and reproductive sense and establishing rain as the aforementioned “fundamental building block of the Maya universe”. Not only is rain the supplement of life and sustenance, it is a gift of fertility from the gods. Therefore special sacrificial rituals were carried out during prolonged droughts, Maya blue accompanying. The enduring pigment found in the incense bowl, which dates from around the year 1400, speaks to the enduring centrality of rain in the Maya universe. 

Chemical composition and variability of Maya blue

The symbolic resilience of Maya blue is due to the palygorskite clay to which the añil plant is bound, making it a combination pigment of both organic and inorganic ingredients. Dean Arnold of Wheaton College in Illinois suggested that copal, a sticky resin used by the Maya as incense, was used to bind the two ingredients. These three components were also used for medicinal and ritual purposes, which fittingly symbolizes the interconnectedness between Maya blue paint and the key cultural elements of healing, invoking rain, and relationship with the gift of fertility. The research of Shades of blue: non-invasive spectroscopic investigations of Maya blue pigments explains the porous quality of palygorskite clay, which is what allows the indigo color to bind to it so closely and create the almost permanent paint. When heated to a temperature of 100 to 150°C, the indigo is forced into the tubular channels of palygorskite clay; evidently, the Maya had figured out how to heat the ingredients into a pigment. Copal was then used as a binder and helped the paint adhere to tree-bark paper, stone, and clay. A noteworthy variation to this formula is “type 2” Maya blue, which leans more toward a rich emerald green, occurring when the indigo and palygorskite are heated to 130°C. 

The economic impact of Maya blue on ancient civilizations

Interestingly, however, this is not the only formula for the blue paints used in Mesoamerican manuscripts. The extraction process of indigo, called xiuhquilitl in Náhuatl, is found in the Florentine Codex (an Aztech ethnographic study by Spanish Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún), but there is no recorded process of the actual production of Maya blue. The research of Grazia, C., Buti, D., Amat, A. et al explores the characteristics of Maya blue paint from 13 different codices, and found that the composition of the paint is not consistent throughout all 13 codices. In fact, there are four different types of Maya blue paint, one of which results from temperature variation (type 2) and two of which are achieved using alternative materials to palygorskite such as sepiolite and kaolinite clay, suggesting both the existence of the trade of pre-prepared Maya blue paint amongst regions of the Maya civilization with limited availability of resources, and also the experimentation with local materials to produce a shade similar to, but not exactly the same as, the “type 1” Maya blue made with palygorskite. The key mineral to make proper Maya blue, palygorskite clay—called sak lu’um, or white earth—has been found in the northern portion of the Yucatán Peninsula, “in or near the villages of Ticul, Mama, Sacalum, Maxcanu and Akil” (Arnold, Bohor). The palygorskite was mined from a chamber northwest of a cenote located near the village of Sacalum, thought to be one of the main sources of the mineral in pre-Columbian times. 

Maya blue therefore likely had an important role in the economic aspect of artistic practices in Mayan civilization and was present in the interaction between peoples of different regions, making it more than just an iconic pigment found in manuscripts and artifacts. Notably, the “proper” Maya blue was more widely found in later post-conquest manuscripts from larger areas of Mexico, suggesting the broadening of trade networks after the Spanish settled in Mesoamerica. 

Greenish “Maya blue” paints found in Codex Laud, which occurs when the indigo and palygorskite are heated to 130°C. 

As evidenced in the above images, Maya blue paint was flexible to variation in hues other than the iconic cyan blue. There was still color experimentation even in the early colonial era, where new colors previously not used to paint codices were created not only by varying the temperatures and clays in the original formula, but also layering simple dyes on top of proper Maya blue to create, for example, the color azurite in the Codex Borbonicus. 

The Mayan cultural significance of color

The variations in hues of Maya blue are consistent with the particularities of Mayan color in writing. The Mayans did not necessarily assign specific meanings to any one color. Classic Mayan written narratives appear to revolve chiefly around five ‘basic terms’ corresponding to red, white, black, yellow, and blue/green to indicate colors, without describing any one object with too specific of an indication of what color it is. In contrast, Ch’olan, Tzeltalan, and Yukatekan languages are characterized by “a tremendous variety of secondary color terms, which may refer to hue, brightness, saturation, texture, patterning, translucency, wetness, shape, and other properties of colored objects” (Tokovinine). Although it is considered that the Maya specifically assigned the color blue to sacrifice, evidenced by the painting of sacrificial victims before cutting out their hearts, color itself is apparently not at the center of the Mayan consciousness. Tokovinine explains the two primary classes of secondary color terms in Classic Mayan language as “single words with non-color primary meaning, and compounds with basic color terms”. Certain combinations of suffixes and root words with basic color terms create broadly interpretable descriptive words, such as “yá’ax-k’uk'(ul)—literally, “green/blue-and-quetzal(-like),” translated as a “fine green thing” (cosa de color verde y fino) and “dark green that is near blue” (verde oscuro que tira a azul)” (Barrera Vásquez et al. 1995:971). This particular term may be associated with the spectrum of Maya blue, which sits between green and blue and can slide closer to either end by variations in production methods. 

The logogram associated with the basic term meaning green and blue, YAX, might represent jade beads and jewelry, the shape of a water lily leaf, shells, the bubbly breath of underwater creatures, turtles, the resurrection of the maize god, and multitudes of other icons of the aquatic and the supernatural. From this one basic term it can be understood that “The poetical choice of Classic Maya narrators was apparently to go for the broadest meaning possible and let the reader appreciate the richness of possible significances of basic color terms, going well beyond what we would define as color” (Tokovinine). Color itself is material, inseparable from its object and context, in Mayan written narratives; it is not the particular hue that embodies meaning, but rather the relationship between earthly and celestial elements through a shared color that indicates how the color is to be interpreted. 

Blue in the other world

Although symbol families are still tied to certain colors today as they were in Classic Mayan texts, colors themselves carry their own meanings and psychological connections (for example, the color red meaning power and passion, and the color blue meaning sadness and tranquility) in contemporary and Baroque European understanding. Blue, which was such a widely available member of the Mesoamerican palette, was exceedingly rare in 17th century Europe, the time of Michaelangelo and Peter Paul Rubens. Before the invention of a synthetic, ultramarine blue was made from crushed lapis-lazuli, a semi-precious stone mined from Afghanistan and worth “more than its weight in gold”. Only the most famous artists of the richest patrons could afford the opportunity to paint with ultramarine, explaining the wide lack of blue from art in the Old World. The precious blue paint was reserved for depictions of holy or royal figures, as in the robes of the Virgin Mary in Rubens’ Adoration of the Magi. 

Rubens’s Adoration of the Magi, with sparing use of ultramarine blue.

On the other side of the globe in Mexico, colonial Baroque artists like José Juárez, Baltasar de Echave Ibia and Cristóbal de Villalpando created paintings dripping with blue despite having even less access to lapis lazuli and the exclusive ultramarine paint. And their non-holy, non-royal subject matters were also painted in blue. Colonizers accustomed to this artistic tradition were surprised to find Mayan murals and objects adorned with bright blue paint. The añil plant from which indigo was extracted would be among the many other riches of the New World plundered by newcomers seeking to take the advancements the Maya had to offer whilst destroying many objects and works of art considered to be idolatry by missionaries. 

 Cristóbal de Villalpando painted this cúpula of the major altar at the cathedral in Puebla, Mexico in 1688. 

What is art? 

The divide in meaning and implication of the color blue between the Old and New World lends itself to the related topic of what “counts” as real art. Pre-Columbian artworks, murals, and sculptures were “said quite categorically that in Renaissance times, [they] were wonderful curiosities, but not “art” (Pastorzy). No doubt that surprise at the abundance of blue in the Mayan palette came with the desire to plunder its secrets along with the rest of the wealth of the Mayan empire. 

Non-western art was criticized for its seeming lack of evolution and development, as well as the lack of differences in individuality and style. Art of the Mesoamerican societies is considered utilitarian, as opposed to aesthetic, given its nonconformity to that which is idealized and culturally idolatrized in the West: realistic representations of the human body, of nature, and artists’ rendering of heavenly figures, compared to the perceived abstraction and symbolism of Native American art. While the assumption that these societies lacked the concept of beauty is obviously untrue given the elaborate ornamentation of bodies and decoration of buildings and temples, and the admiration of colonizers at the unfamiliar abundance of the color blue, much of the appreciation of pre-Columbian works upon discovery were based in their striking elements of the exotic, the mysterious, and the violent and the sexual. Needless to say, art from the New World was only judged in terms of their excitability, “magical” (as opposed to scientific or scholarly) quality, and profitability—but not in the same terms as Old World art. 

The special quality of Mayan art is that it is actually a general exception from the tendency of most pre-Columbian art to lack a cult of the artist, which “gives it a straightforward, self-assured, and un-self-conscious quality sometimes much admired by aesthetically self conscious cultures such as ours” (Pastorzy). Instead, Mayan glorification of the individual  reflects the subject matters of conquest and achievement, bringing Mayan art closer to high art in the Western Classical sense. Theatrical aestheticism, a specialty of the Maya, plays a crucial role in how we understand the politicization of art in the culture of Mayan conquest. Analogous with propaganda art used by rising powers of any civilization throughout history, it can be thought that art was valued by the Maya not only for its aesthetic purposes but its strategic power. Theatrics may have been a tool of the state to advance the rhetoric of omnipotence and the possession of more property and power than it actually had. And of course, by ‘pretending’ to have more power than they did,  the Maya did acquire greater power by virtue of their art

Mayan influence today

The infamous foretelling of the end of the world on December 21, 2012 based on assumptions about the Mayan calendar was unfortunately the biggest recent popular awareness of Mayan genius and advancement in mathematics. The astounding resilience of the recently demystified Maya blue pigment and all of the artifacts and manuscripts on which it’s found, however, are all further evidence of the fact that the Mayan civilization of the Classic period—and indeed in its other eras including the present—carried as much fortitude and scientific innovation as Rome, for example, is popularly thought to have done. Subjugated and plundered by white colonizers as they were, the Maya still left plenty of evidence of their legitimacy through their iconic blue pigment, which can endure the harsh sunlight and dry winds that beat down for centuries. As the Mayan codices with their images and illustrations washed with this cyan color show us today, blue represents far more than what we may even be able to define as blue. Despite the attempts by colonizers and subsequent white authorities and population to somehow fit Native Americans into a comprehensible category in all different aspects of their lives—in scholarly understanding, in the legitimacy of their claims to the land, in their artistic expressions and the ownership of their works—Maya blue exemplifies what it means to refuse to submit even to the commissioner of an indigenous manuscript that must include depictions of the downfall of the artist’s own civilization.

As a final note, these same implications can be applied to our own experience of learning about Maya blue in class during the COVID pandemic. The resilience of Maya blue is reflected also in people, from the hardworking staff members, dining hall workers, janitors, and COVID testing center workers, to the faculty who designed their courses this semester to accommodate a new style of learning, and to the students who diligently complied with safety regulations in their social interactions and in-person classes, and did their best to learn in Zoom classes. Like I said earlier, Maya blue exemplifies what it means to refuse to submit. Perhaps this is the most profound contemporary example of the reason behind unchaining color from words in Classic Mayan language to allow for the richest possible appreciation of “blue”. 

What did Blue Mean to the Mayans? Written by: Jacqueline Kim

Works Cited

ARNOLD, DEAN E., and BRUCE F. BOHOR. “Attapulgite and Maya Blue: An Ancient Mine Comes to Light.” Archaeology 28, no. 1 (1975): 23-29. Accessed December 9, 2020.

Dao, Lillie U., “The role of rain in postclassic Maya religious belief” (2011). HIM 1990-2015. 1216. 

Famsi. “Maya Codices – The Madrid Codex.” FAMSI. Accessed December 7, 2020.

GARCÍA, ÉLODIE DUPEY, and MARÍA LUISA VÁZQUEZ DE ÁGREDOS PASCUAL, eds. Painting the Skin: Pigments on Bodies and Codices in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. TUCSON; MEXICO CITY: University of Arizona Press, 2018. Accessed December 2, 2020.

Grazia, C., Buti, D., Amat, A. et al. Shades of blue: non-invasive spectroscopic investigations of Maya blue pigments. From laboratory mock-ups to Mesoamerican codices. Herit Sci 8, 1 (2020).

Hecht, Jeff. “Mystery of ‘Maya Blue’ Dye Tied to Human Sacrifice.” New Scientist, February 27, 2008.

Hernández, Christine, and Victoria R. Bricker. “The Inauguration of Planting in the Borgia and Madrid Codices.” In The Madrid Codex: New Approaches to Understanding an Ancient Maya Manuscript, edited by Vail Gabrielle and Aveni Anthony, 277-320. University Press of Colorado, 2004. Accessed December 11, 2020.

Littmann, Edwin R. “Maya Blue. A New Perspective.” American Antiquity 45, no. 1 (1980): 87-100. Accessed December 11, 2020. doi:10.2307/279662.

Maldonado, Devon Van Houten. “The Rare Blue the Maya Invented.” BBC Culture. BBC, August 17, 2018.

The Maya Codices, October 11, 2018. 

Pasztory, Esther. “Aesthetics and Pre-Columbian Art.” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 29/30 (1996): 318-25. Accessed December 10, 2020.

TOKOVININE, ALEXANDRE, and CAMERON L. McNEIL. “Colored Things, Chromatic Stories: Searching for the Pigments of the past.” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 61/62 (2012): 279-82. Accessed December 7, 2020.

Vail, Gabrielle, and Anthony Aveni, eds. The Madrid Codex: New Approaches to Understanding an Ancient Maya Manuscript. University Press of Colorado, 2004. Accessed December 11, 2020.

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A warrior with Azul Maya on the background

Constantino Reyes –