Patron Gods and Patron Lords: The Semiotics of Classic Maya Community Cults

Patron Gods and Patron Lords: The Semiotics of Classic Maya Community Cults

by Joanne Baron


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In the first comprehensive treatment of Classic Maya patron deity veneration, Joanne P. Baron demonstrates the central importance of patron deity cults in political relationships between both rulers and their subjects and among different Maya kingdoms. Weaving together evidence from inscriptions, images, and artifacts, Patron Gods and Patron Lords provides new insights into how the Classic Maya polity was organized and maintained.
Using semiotic theory, Baron draws on three bodies of evidence: ethnographies and manuscripts from Postclassic, Colonial, and modern Maya communities that connect patron saints to pre-Columbian patron gods; hieroglyphic texts from the Classic period that discuss patron deity veneration; and excavations from four patron deity temples at the site of La Corona, Guatemala. She shows how the Classic Maya used patron deity effigies, temples, and acts of devotion to negotiate group membership, social entitlements, and obligations between individuals and communities. She also explores the wider role of these processes in politics, arguing that rituals and discourses related to patron deities ultimately formulated Maya rulership as a locally oriented institution, which limited the ability of powerful kingdoms to create wider religious communities.
Applying a new theoretical approach for the archaeological study of ideology and power dynamics, Patron Gods and Patron Lords reveals an overlooked aspect of the belief system of Maya communities.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781646420049
Publisher: University Press of Colorado
Publication date: 10/28/2019
Edition description: 1
Pages: 244
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Joanne P. Baron is lecturer in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and a consulting scholar at the Penn Museum. Her research, which has been funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the National Geographic Society, and others, investigates ancient Maya politics. She is the director of the La Florida Archaeology Project, based in northwestern Guatemala.

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Patron Gods and Patron Lords

The Semiotics of Classic Maya Community Cults

By Joanne P. Baron

University Press of Colorado

Copyright © 2016 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60732-518-5


The Classic Maya and Their Political System

When Chakaw Nahb Chan acceded as ruler of the small Classic Maya kingdom of La Corona in the mid-seventh century, he immediately began his reign by commissioning three temples. Dedicated a month after his accession, these temples housed three deities — "Firstborn Lord," "Yellow Rain God," and "Great Temple Rain God." The rapid completion of this building project, recorded in hieroglyphic inscriptions, draws attention to these gods. What was their significance? Why did Chakaw Nahb Chan make their temples a top priority? Archaeological and epigraphic evidence at La Corona paints a picture of a protracted power struggle within the kingdom, in which these temples played an important role. But La Corona was not the only Classic Maya community to possess such local patron gods, and Chakaw Nahb Chan was not alone in sponsoring the building of temples for them. Many Maya rulers wielded rituals and narratives of patron deities as political tools in order to influence their peers and subjects. This book explores Classic Maya patron deity cults and how they were used in power relationships within and between communities.


In the mid-twentieth century, it was widely held that the ancient Maya were a unique and exceptional civilization. Other early societies built populous cities, engaged in military conquest, and intensively farmed fertile soils. But the Maya, the story went, had low populations living in dispersed hamlets around vacant religious centers where priests recorded esoteric calendar rituals on carved monuments. They rarely fought one another except for religious purposes, and they supported their low numbers with slash-and-burn agriculture in a marginal jungle environment (see Becker 1976). Over the course of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, new ideas about Maya society have replaced those of Maya exceptionalism. Decades of excavation and mapping have revealed the high populations of Maya sites. The decipherment of Maya writing has shown that carved monuments recorded historical narratives about political leaders. And new insights into the Maya economy have revealed intensive farming techniques that allowed them to thrive in a diverse tropical landscape.

Anthropological archaeologists have also contextualized the ancient Maya within theoretical scholarship about the nature of pre-modern political evolution. In the 1960s and 1970s the "New Archaeology" championed evolutionary and cross-cultural models of chiefdoms and archaic states, and Mayanists looked for comparisons with other ancient civilizations. Should the Maya be considered a chiefdom-level or a state-level society? And, since the general consensus came out on the side of the state, what kind of state did the Maya constitute? How centralized and integrated? In spite of this turn toward scientific and anthropologically-based approaches to the past, the Maya have continued to provoke public and scholarly fascination with their seemingly exceptional accomplishments. Their sophisticated writing system, complex calendar, exquisite art, and breathtaking architecture are all immediately recognizable cultural traits. And their political system continues to inspire heated debates among archaeologists and epigraphers.

Were the Maya unique? Was their political organization different from that of other ancient societies? Were their governing institutions distinct from those of other pre-modern peoples? The answer, I argue in this book, is yes. But this claim is not as outlandish as it may appear at first blush. Over the past few decades, a number of archaeologists have shown dissatisfaction with the evolutionary models of ancient polities that were developed in the 1960s and 1970s (e.g., Pauketat 2007; Smith 2003, 2011; Yoffee 2005). Do traditional definitions of chiefdoms and states, they ask, actually obscure the differences between early social systems? Might it not be more useful to look at how authority was actually constituted in different cultural contexts? Or how historically contingent circumstances contributed to the rise of political institutions? Might the concept of a cross-culturally applicable definition of a chiefdom or a state actually be a delusion? Instead, these archaeologists are increasingly looking at the ways that politics in all ancient societies (not just the Maya) were shaped by unique cultural and historical factors.

But how to systematize this vast collection of uniqueness? Does this approach diminish the comparative project of anthropology? In this book I argue that a semiotic approach offers a mode of analysis and a common vocabulary with which cultural and historical factors can be explained and compared without reducing them to a set of universal typologies. Semiotic anthropology — born from the philosophy of Charles S. Peirce and developed by linguists, ethnographers, and archaeologists — examines how human beings mediate social relationships through signs. These signs can be linguistic or material in nature, ephemeral or highly durable. And their social effects can be felt long after the moment of their use. Semiotic anthropology breaks apart culture — that familiar tool of anthropological analysis — like splitting the atom to reveal its constituent parts. Its methodologies allow archaeologists to describe culturally and historically contingent circumstances in ways that are intelligible to colleagues working in other parts of the world.

This is a book about the ancient Maya. It offers new data and interpretations of Maya deity cults and should therefore be of interest to scholars working in that area. But I wrote this book for all archaeologists interested in studying ancient complex societies. And although I claim that the Maya were unique, they were no more unique than any other human society studied by archaeologists and anthropologists. In chapter 2 I describe what I believe are the most useful insights of semiotic anthropology for archaeologists. Over the course of the book I apply this model to the study of Maya religious practices and offer a new look at Maya political relationships. It is my hope that by demonstrating the utility of this approach to my own work, I encourage other archaeologists to use it as well.

But first I must provide some background on the ancient Maya. Who were they? What is the state of knowledge about their religion and political organization? And what questions still remain that a semiotic approach can address?


The Maya are one of many groups considered part of a wider phenomenon known to scholars as "Mesoamerica." This region consists of parts of Mexico and Central America, where indigenous peoples shared certain cultural traits such as religious beliefs, artistic styles, and political institutions (Kirchoff 1943). Throughout their history, the Maya visited, exchanged, and borrowed from other Mesoamerican groups and vice versa. Nevertheless, they are recognizably distinct as an ethnic group, particularly by their languages.

The word "Maya" was originally the indigenous place-name for the northern Yucatan Peninsula at the time of Spanish contact (Zender and Skidmore n.d.). The term may have derived from the name of the city of Mayapan, a late Post-classic capital near modern-day Merida. Spanish colonists eventually adopted "Yucatan" as the name of the province, but "Maya" stuck as an ethnic designator for the indigenous inhabitants, their language, and their immediate ancestors. As anthropologists and archaeologists began to investigate the history of the region, they noted clear linguistic similarities to other indigenous groups in Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, and the Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas. Originally calling these languages "Mayoid" and later "Mayan," the scholarly community began to conceptualize the Maya as a single family of related ethnic groups spread out across this region. Not only do they share linguistic features, they also have many cultural traits in common, such as religious practices and material culture. The ancient Maya also shared these linguistic and cultural characteristics and were the ancestors of today's modern Maya groups. But the use of a single ethnic designator for all these modern communities as well as the entire history of Maya civilization can artificially obscure the diversity that in fact characterizes the ancient and the modern Maya.

The area that is today inhabited by speakers of Mayan languages is composed of diverse landscapes, ecological zones, and natural resources (Figure 1.1). The Yucatan Peninsula — also called the northern lowlands — has a low elevation and hot, humid climate. Although there is comparatively less rainfall here, the Maya of the Yucatan were able to practice rain-fed agriculture just as their southern neighbors. The southern lowlands — stretching across Tabasco, Campeche, Quintana Roo, northern Guatemala, and Belize — have more rain and can support higher tropical forest. To the south of these are the highlands, a band of mountains running through Chiapas, southern Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. This region is cooler and is home to many valuable mineral commodities such as obsidian, jade, and volcanic ash used to temper pottery. Finally, a hot, humid strip of land hugs the Pacific Coast, a premier region for growing chocolate.

Today Mayan language speakers inhabit all of these regions, though this was not always the case. These groups originally emerged from a smaller population of Proto-Mayan speakers and spread out to absorb or displace Archaic populations. The origins and spread of the Maya have been traced linguistically and archaeologically. Kaufman (1976) proposes that the Proto-Mayan homeland may have been in the Cuchumatan Mountains of southwestern Guatemala. Using glottochronology, he suggests that this language broke up at the end of the Archaic period or Early Preclassic period, around 2000 BCE. Greater Tzeltalan, one of the branches of the Mayan language family, may have spread into the lowlands around 1000 BCE (Figure 1.2). He also proposes that this linguistic dispersal corresponds archaeologically to the appearance and spread of the Mamom ceramic tradition, which replaced earlier ceramics in the lowlands. Of course, as archaeologists long ago realized, it is dubious to assume an absolute one-to-one correlation between a particular language group and a particular feature of material culture like ceramics (Andrews 1990:2).

By the Late Preclassic period (400 BCE to 250 CE) many of the most celebrated features of Maya material culture had emerged across the whole region (Freidel and Schele 1988). These include carved monuments with the famous long count. This calendrical notation recorded the amount of time that had elapsed since the mythical beginning of the world in 3114 BCE. The earliest examples of the long count on Maya monuments come from the highland and Pacific sites of Tak'alik Ab'aj, Chalchuapa, and El Baúl during the first centuries BCE/CE. The lowland site of San Bartolo records the earliest legible Maya hieroglyphs, dating to around 200–300 BCE (Saturno, Stuart, and Beltran 2006). Maya-style monumental architecture, which had emerged in the earlier Middle Preclassic period, reached a grand scale at sites like Kaminaljuyu in highland Guatemala and El Mirador in lowland Guatemala. Political institutions like hereditary rulership are also evident in the archaeological record, with depictions of enthroned rulers. Ideological narratives justifying the ruler's power can also be traced back to this period, in particular on the murals of San Bartolo, where the accession of the site's ruler is framed as part of mythical cycle involving the birth of the Maize God.


The Classic period is so named because of scholars' admiration for the cultural achievements of the Maya of this era, which they equated to classical Greece and Rome. It was once defined as the period in which the Maya carved long count dates on stone monuments from 292 to 909 CE. Of course, earlier long count dates have now been identified on Preclassic stelae, and archaeologists have acknowledged that the institutions and material culture of the Classic period are an outgrowth of Preclassic developments. Nevertheless, the Classic period was a circumscribed chronological era.

One reason for this is that the Classic Maya themselves saw their era as different from what came before. Martin (2003:5) notes that in addition to stylistic changes in architecture and iconography, Classic Maya dynasties traced their origins to founders who lived in the first few centuries CE. Archaeological evidence shows that the end of the Preclassic period corresponded to a series of demographic shifts. El Mirador, the largest Maya city ever built, saw a dramatic decrease in population, as did the highland city of Kaminaljuyu, though it eventually recovered. Classic period hieroglyphic inscriptions contain sparse historical references to this time of change, remembering a place called "Maguey Grinding Stone" and a person epigraphers have nicknamed "Foliated Ajaw" (Stuart 2003, 2014).

In addition to being chronologically circumscribed, the Classic Maya phenomenon was also geographically circumscribed. To be sure, Mayan-speaking groups inhabited the entire Maya region for the duration of the Classic period. However, the southern lowlands were characterized by a unique suite of features. This included a particular elite artistic and architectural style. It also included a fluorescence of hieroglyphic writing, which, though present at some other Maya sites, was concentrated in the southern lowlands. Not only did these sites share a set of orthographic conventions, they also recorded the same specific language, known today as Classic Ch'olti'an (Houston, Robertson, and Stuart 2000). Still unclear is whether the Classic Maya of the southern lowlands were linguistically homogenous, or whether this language constituted an elite lingua franca among a more diverse commoner population. Finally, in addition to these similarities, the Classic Maya of the southern lowlands shared a common geopolitical system that integrated their communities into a single large network. So while this region clearly engaged in economic and cultural exchanges with other Mayan and Mesoamerican groups, its synchronized historical trajectory and the inward-looking geopolitical focus reflected in its historical records allow it to be treated as distinct from other areas.

The beginning of the Classic period saw a proliferation of small kingdoms across this southern lowland area. It is likely that this political landscape in fact represented a fragmentation of the more consolidated Preclassic polities (Martin 2003). Classic period kingdoms were centered on the royal court, which consisted of the residence of the ruler, religious structures, and administrative buildings. The court was surrounded by homes of lower-class individuals, most of whom engaged in maize farming. Each of these courts had its own hereditary nobility, though they often intermarried. Many of these kingdoms produced carved hieroglyphic monuments, demonstrating that they had their own unique historical and mythological narratives, creating an emic distinction between the different polities.

The Classic period ended in a dramatic fashion with the famous Maya collapse. During this period, the southern lowlands were largely abandoned, though they had seen their highest populations shortly earlier. This demographic shift seems to have been precipitated by an abrupt event just after 800 CE, after which many sites ceased to record hieroglyphic inscriptions. This was followed by a slower decline over the next century, in which lower-class populations gradually left their homes.

During this period of decline, called the Terminal Classic (800–900 CE), sites elsewhere in the Maya area saw greater populations and an increase in wealth and political influence, especially in northern Yucatan. One of these was Chichen Itza. Archaeological evidence and later written chronicles indicate that it was probably founded around 750 or 800 CE. During the first century of its occupation, the nobility of Chichen Itza commissioned monumental architecture that showed both continuities with typical Classic Maya sites as well as inspiration from other Mesoamerican groups in Central Mexico. The hieroglyphic writing of Chichen Itza was also dramatically different from that of the southern lowlands, with a less ornate style. It also records the Yucatec Mayan language rather than Classic Ch'olti'an. However, these inscriptions are still legible and thus constitute a continuation of the orthographic system in use during the Classic period. They also reflect political institutions of hereditary rulership similar to those of the southern lowland Classic sites (Boot 2005). Most relevant for this book, these inscriptions also discuss devotions to patron gods. For these reasons, I have included Chichen Itza in my analysis of Classic Maya patron deity cults.


Excerpted from Patron Gods and Patron Lords by Joanne P. Baron. Copyright © 2016 University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures ix

List of Tables xiii

Acknowledgments xv

1 The Classic Maya and Their Political System 3

2 Words and Things: Semiotics and the Archaeological Record 19

3 Semantics: Defining Patron Deities 45

4 Pragmatics: Using Patron Deities 75

5 Patron Deity Introduction at La Corona, Guatemala 117

6 The Classic Maya Polity 165

Appendix: Patron Deities of Classic Maya Sites 173

References Cited 189

Index 219

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