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Left/Right Symbolism and the Body in Ancient Maya Iconography and Culture

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 January 2017

Joel W. Palka
Affiliation:
Department of Anthropology and Latin American and Latino Studies Program, University of Illinois, 1007 W. Harrison St., Chicago, IL 60607

Abstract

Throughout Maya history the left and right sides of the human body, left/right spatial orientation, and handedness have had important cultural and symbolic meanings. This essay examines left/right symbolism in relation to the body, which is generally overlooked in studies of archaeological societies and material culture, and discusses how it relates to ancient Maya ideology and behavior. New information from Classic Maya iconography, plus corroborative information from Maya ethnography and cross-cultural investigations, support the proposition that left/right symbolic differences and hierarchies were present in ancient Maya society. For the Classic Maya, as with contemporary Maya peoples, the right hand or side of the body often signified “pure, powerful, or superordinate,” and the left frequently symbolized “weaker, lame, or subordinate” in particular cultural contexts. Hence, in Classic Maya imagery, kings face to their right and use their right hands, while subordinates are oriented to their left and frequently use their left hands. Following comparative anthropological analyses, consideration of handedness and human body symmetry help explain the left/right dichotomy and the apparent primacy of the right in Classic Maya spatial reference, social order, and worldview. The findings of this study have important implications for the examination of left/right symbolism in material culture, images of the body, and ideology in other societies.

En este ensayo se propone que la división simétrica de izquierda y derecha del cuerpo humano, el diferente uso de cada mano, y los sentidos direccionales de izquierda y derecha tienen significados importantes en la larga historia de la sociedad maya. Aquí se analiza el simbolismo de izquierda y derecha, que es generalmente pasado por alto en estudios de las culturas pasadas y sus culturas materiales, y se discute como se relacionaba a la ideología maya. El argumento está basado en nuevos datos e interpretaciones de la iconografía maya clásica junto con información etnográfica maya y de estudios de otras sociedades. En la cultura maya antigua se encuentran diferencias simbólicas y jerárquicas de izquierda y derecha: la mano y el lado derecho del cuerpo significan “poderoso, puro y superior” mientras que la mano y el lado izquierdo simbolizan “debil, impuro y inferior” en ciertos contextos culturales. Por ejemplo, en muchas imágenes del periódo maya clásico, los gobernantes y protagonistas de las ceremonias son mostrados mirando a su lado derecho en donde se encuentran los subordinados, quienes están orientados hacía su lado izquierdo. Estas imágenes también muestran a los gobernantes usando sus manos derechas y a los subordinados frequentemente usando sus manos izquierdas. Por ejemplo, en los murales mayas de Bonampak, México, los guerreros locales están mostrados usando sus manos derechas mientras que sus enemigos son surdos. De acuerdo al estudio antropológico comparativo, la diferencia entre las dos manos y la simetría del cuerpo humano ayudan a explicar el simbolismo de izquierda y derecha y la preferencia por el lado derecho en la jerarquía social, la referencia espacial, y la cosmología de los mayas. Este simbolismo de izquierda y derecha junto con la importancia de la derecha han sido importante en la organización y estructuración de la iconografía, la arquitectura, y el orden social de los mayas, al igual que en otras culturas y merecen más atención.

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Copyright
Copyright © Society for American Archaeology 2002

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