Mayan masks were used to celebrate the end of different cycles, which marked the Mayan calendar


The masks of the Mayan site of Acanceh, in Yucatan, were used as monumental censers during rites in which the ahaw or sovereign venerated his ancestors, deified as invocations of the solar god K'inich Ahaw. Thus, by burning the offerings, sustenance was sent to the divinities in the form of sacred smoke. In these ceremonies, the ahaw personified the center of the world (Tsuk Te') and established the four directions of the universe.

Mayan masks are protected. Funerary mask, from Calakmul, Campeche. Photo Mauricio Marat, INAH.
Mayan masks are protected. Funerary mask, from Calakmul, Campeche. Photo Mauricio Marat, INAH.

The rites included animal and/or human sacrifices, the burning and extinguishing of bonfires in open squares, as well as walking over the embers. All of the above suggests that the pyramidal temples -whose function was to serve as links between men and the supernatural- were related to rituals involving fire and anniversaries of the date of Maya creation (4 Ahaw 8 Kumku) in cycles of 60, 260, and 18,980 days.

As such, the pyramid known as Structure I of Acanceh, was the scene of public worship in which the ahaw or lord celebrated the end of various cycles that marked anniversaries of the base date of the Mayan calendar, as revealed by the iconography of the six masks preserved in this pre-Hispanic building.

The iconography displayed on the stucco masks (approximately 3.50 meters per side and made between 300-600 A.D.) of the pyramid served as a frame for such rites, artificially recreating the same extraterrestrial places where the gods carried out the events of creation. At the same time, the mask panels served to honor the ancestors of the ahaw, deified as the solar god K'inich Ahaw.

Acanceh, 25 kilometers southeast of Merida, is located within the town of the same name, also known as "The City of the Three Cultures" because pre-Hispanic, colonial, and contemporary architecture coexist there. It is now known that the ancient Maya settlement must have covered an area of approximately three square kilometers.

Due to its dimensions and characteristics, Acanceh is related to the Mayan sites of Cerros, in Belize, and Uaxactún -specifically with Structure E7-Sub-, Guatemala.

The structure I reveals that for the Early Classic (300-600 A.D.), Acanceh was an important site because it had specialized people for the erection of these constructions, which were ordered by the group that was in power, in order to consolidate it. The high-ranking Maya had the privilege of erecting public monuments to solve the problems of legitimization of their descendants, celebrating public rituals where the lord was related to the supernatural.

These rituals were part of the regular festivals of Maya life as strategies of political competition, always linked to sacred power. The Acanceh masks carry circular ear flares, each of which is adorned by a pair of knots that frame them vertically. This type of knot has been denominated "royal knot" since it is associated with the glyphic phrases of access to the throne of the Mayan rulers.

The lower faces of these masks do not represent the Monster of the Earth but the first true mountain Yax Hal Wits, they are individual entities, particular invocations of the same concept: the four cardinal directions and the central point that divides them and whose human incarnation is the K'uhul Ahaw ('Sacred Lord').

Source: INAH