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.