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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

22 February 2007

Discovering the Maya with Sariah S. Wilson


I had only a rudimentary knowledge of the Maya when I started my research, so everything I came across was completely fascinating to me.

One of the things I found most interesting was what the Maya considered beautiful and the lengths they went to achieve it.

It’s easy enough to look at the pictures left behind in stone to see that they loved feathers, huge headresses and elaborate jewelry (and they had piercings all over - in their ears, nose, their tongue). What you can’t see is what else the Maya did to their bodies.

Tattoos were very commonplace, although obtaining one could turn deadly. Tattoos were made by literally engraving them on someone’s skin and filling it with ink. You can imagine how many infections this might have caused, and how painful it would be! For that reason, tattoos took a very long time to create. People could only tolerate so much at a time, and when a portion of the tattoo had healed they would return to do the next part.

The use of body paints was widespread - and the Maya decorated their faces and bodies with beautiful colors and designs. You had to be careful about your colors though - each color had a meaning. Sacrificial victims were painted in all blue, as blue was the color of death.

The Maya especially prized high, sloping foreheads. This was another beauty trick that caused a lot of deaths as mothers would take their newborn children and place them in a vise of two flat stone tablets. This would either give your baby the desired high sloping forehead or it would kill him. The Maya also shaved their hair at the top of their forehead in hopes that by moving their hairline back the forehead would seem even higher. And speaking of hair, both men and women wore their hair long and the nobility often wore colored ribbons, leather strips and gorgeous feathers in elaborate braids and coiffures. Slaves’ heads were shaved to signify their lowly status.

Head forming wasn’t the only thing done to babies - being cross-eyed was considered especially attractive, so mothers would put strings with a tiny bead or shell around the baby’s forehead. The bead would hang at the top of the nose, right between the baby’s eyes. It was hoped that by staring at the bead the baby would become permanently cross-eyed.

And for the Maya a beautiful smile did not mean even, straight white teeth. They like their teeth to be pointed, and they filed them so that they were. (It made me imagine very feral looking warriors when I first read that.) They also inset jewels and stones (jade being the most precious) into their teeth.

It seems no matter what time period or civilization you live in, people are almost always willing to go to extraordinary lengths to achieve the perfect look.

9 Comments:

Blogger Keira Soleore said...

I had to take a deep breath after I read that. I had thought the Masai of Kenya were extreme in their self-mutilation-as-beauty techniques. However, the Maya are very close.

Makes me glad of those pinchy-toed heels I sometimes wear or the waxing I endure. Thanks, Kalen. You make me feel good about the beauty torture I put myself through.

12:15 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Pointed teeth inlaid with jewels?? Now there's a heroine I would love to write about!

Thanks, Sariah! Very interesting.

1:43 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Eeee! I'd heard about the pointed teeth thing in other cultures, and I can't even imagine how SENSITIVE they'd become. Gives me the heeby-jeebies.

Thanks, Sariah. Great stuff!

1:46 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

Goodness. All I could think of while reading this post was how very painful it must have been! Ouch!

6:24 PM  
Blogger Sariah said...

Painful - and very often deadly. I wonder how many babies died from what their families put them through.

The self-mutilation extended beyond beauty rituals - they were also very important in sacrifices and such. Royalty routinely did what they called "blood letting" which basically consisted of running a piece of rope covered in thorns either through their genitals or tongue.

Makes all the waxing, plucking, dyeing and uncomfortable clothes not seem so bad, doesn't it? :)

6:01 AM  
Anonymous Janette said...

Wow, Sariah, that gave me the chills. I agree with the others--the beauty treatments we endure today are nothing compared to having your skin mutilated or your teeth filed. Yuck!

7:12 AM  
Blogger lacey kaye said...

Did you explain somewhere why you were researching this?

2:52 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Lacey, see her post from Feb. 20th! ;-D

6:22 PM  
Blogger Michelle Pillow said...

Great post, Sariah!

I believe that method of tattooing isn't completely gone, but still practiced in some cultures. As is rudimentary tattoo machines consisting of the tapping of a stick against another stick with a pointed end attached. A very long process esp. when considering the solid black tribal pieces they create.

The poor babies! That makes me thing of that foot binding they used to do in some Asian cultures. It'd be interesting to see what the futures says about our practices--like plastic surgery, lol.

9:43 AM  

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