Vessel with Diving God, Maya

    Quintana Roo, Mexico, or Belize, Post-Classic Period, 1000–1250 CE

    Vessel with Diving God, Maya, Quintana Roo, Mexico, or Belize, Post-Classic Period, 1000–1250 CE
    Polychrome ceramic, 5 x 5 ½ x 5 ½ inches (12.7 x 14 x 14 cm)
    Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Early Americas, Exploration and Navigation, Miami Dade College,
    MDC PC 2018.1.6

    This small ceramic vessel depicts the Diving God. Formed of an ochre clay with red, white, and blue markings, he wears a white-faced bird headdress and holds a cake of copal incense in each hand.

    Numerous theories attempt to explain the meaning of this strange and beautiful deity, found throughout Mesoamerica and especially associated with the Maya in the Yucatán, yet much about the Diving God, sometimes called the Descending God, remains unknown. He may be associated with the Maya God of the Bees or with the planet Venus descending. He may also represent a Yucatecan owl, which is seen on his headdress.

    A sacred bird, known for its ability to see in the dark, the Yucatecan owl is revered by the Maya people as a sign of good luck and a protective spirit animal, able to see into the future. The Maya also associated owls with death and the afterlife and believed that they guided souls to the underworld. They are guardians of the night and guardians of the smallest, most vulnerable creatures, including bees. According to Maya lore, the God of the Bees, named Ah Muu Zen Caab, the Descending God, gave the bees to the tropical forests of the Yucatán Peninsula. The ancient Maya kept the bee species Melipona beecheii and Melipona yucatanica, both stingless bees. Bees also symbolized a link to the spirit world. Historically, Maya priests harvested honey from bee colonies in logs or live trees twice a year as part of a religious ceremony. To ensure that the number of bees and hives increased, the beekeepers regularly divided the colonies.

    A staple export in Maya trade, honey was a major commodity around Yucatán and along the trade routes of Mesoamerica. Maya honey was used as a sweetener, antibiotic, and as a primary ingredient in balché, a fermented honey drink, like mead. The Maya used beeswax for casting works in metal, and later for seals and candles. Given the importance of honey and bees on the Yucatán Peninsula, we can easily see why the Descending God was located at major sites along the route where his protection of bees played an important role in daily and religious life.

    In addition to owls and bees, the Descending God was associated with Venus, war, and fighting. Battles would be planned around the rising and descending of Venus, the most frequently seen planet in our skies, as societies regularly warred for supremacy, indicating the Descending God’s importance to the political Maya world.

    The colors on this figure of the Diving God include a beautiful blue pigment known today as Maya Blue. Blue was the color of sacrifice for the ancient Maya. Humans were painted blue before they were ritually sacrificed. The Maya used this blue on murals, ceramics, copal incense, rubber, wood, and other items because it was a vivid, virtually indestructible color. While researchers have had a basic understanding of the color’s cultural significance and purpose for many years, the process through which the desired hue was produced remained a mystery until recently. Of particular interest has been the pigment’s resistance to aging, weathering, and even modern chemical solvents. It can retain its vibrant blue hue across centuries, an uncommon feat for any color, especially those obtained from natural ingredients. Scientists have attributed the stability and enduring nature of Maya blue to a unique chemical bond between indigo, a dye extracted from the leaves of the indigo plant, and palygorskite, a white mineral clay called sak lu'um, "white earth," by the Yucatec Maya. When heated together at temperatures between 300 and 400°F, they form a durable and stable pigment. Still, researchers have struggled to ascertain the exact process by which the Maya themselves could produce the pigment.

    Several remarkable works in the Kislak Center’s collection feature Maya Blue, a favorite color for Jay I. Kislak, who sought out artifacts with the still-vivid color, adding to our understanding of their significance as ritual objects.

    Exhibited: Culture and Change in the Early Americas, Kislak Center, Miami Dade College, May 20, 2018–January 31, 2021.

    Photos by Lynton Gardiner. © Kislak Center at MDC.