The Vision Serpent is an important creature in Pre-Columbian
The pre-Columbian era incorporates all period subdivisions in the history and prehistory of the Americas before the appearance of significant European influences on the American continents, spanning the time of the original settlement in the Upper Paleolithic period to European colonization during...
Mayan mythology is part of Mesoamerican mythology and comprises all of the Mayan tales in which personified forces of nature, deities, and the heroes interacting with these play the main roles...
, although the term itself is now slowly becoming outdated.
Serpent in Latin means: Rory Collins :&, in turn, from the Biblical Hebrew word of: "saraf" with root letters of: which refers to something burning-as, the pain of poisonous snake's bite was likened to internal burning.This word is commonly used in a specifically mythic or religious context,...
was a very important social and religious symbol, revered by the Maya. Maya mythology describes serpents as being the vehicles by which celestial bodies, such as the sun and stars, cross the heavens. The shedding of their skin made them a symbol of rebirth and renewal.
They were so revered, that one of the main Mesoamerican deities, Quetzalcoatl
Quetzalcoatl is a Mesoamerican deity whose name comes from the Nahuatl language and has the meaning of "feathered serpent". The worship of a feathered serpent deity is first documented in Teotihuacan in the first century BCE or first century CE...
, was represented as a feathered serpent. The name means "precious serpent".
The Vision Serpent is thought to be the most important of the Maya serpents. "It was usually bearded and had a rounded snout. It was also often depicted as having two heads or with the spirit of a god or ancestor emerging from its jaws." During Maya bloodletting rituals
Bloodletting was the ritualized self-cutting or piercing of an individual’s body that served a number of ideological and cultural functions within ancient Mesoamerican societies, in particular the Maya. When performed by ruling elites, the act of bloodletting was crucial to the maintenance of...
, participants would experience visions in which they communicated with the ancestors or gods. These visions took the form of a giant serpent "which served as a gateway to the spirit realm." The ancestor or god who was being contacted was depicted as emerging from the serpent’s mouth. The vision serpent thus came to be the method in which ancestors or Gods manifested themselves to the Maya. Thus for them, the Vision Serpent was direct link between the spirit realm of the gods and the physical world.
The Vision Serpent goes back to earlier Maya conceptions, and lies at the
center of the world as they conceived it. "It is in the center axis atop the World Tree
The world tree is a motif present in several religions and mythologies, particularly Indo-European religions, Siberian religions, and Native American religions. The world tree is represented as a colossal tree which supports the heavens, thereby connecting the heavens, the earth, and, through its...
. Essentially the World Tree and the Vision Serpent, representing the king, created the center axis which communicates between the spiritual and the earthly worlds or planes. It is through ritual that the king could bring the center axis into existence in the temples and create a doorway to the spiritual world, and with it power."
The Vision Serpent is prevalent in Bloodletting ceremonies, in Maya religious practices, Maya jewelry, pottery and their architecture.
Bloodletting ritualsMany have attempted to explain the manifestation of the Vision Serpent in association with Maya bloodletting. One conclusion is "that massive blood loss causes the brain to release an abundance of natural endorphins, which are chemically related to opiates. As the body goes into shock, a hallucinatory vision occurs." Once the actual bloodletting was over, the blood soaked ceremonial papers were burned, releasing a column of smoke. The smoke provided the perfect medium for the Vision Serpent to appear. Every major political or religious event involved bloodletting because it provided a medium by which the gods could be called upon to witness and actually participate in the ceremony. Sometimes the spirits of ancestors were also called upon to give guidance. The Hauberg Stela (A. D. 199) from the Maya Lowlands "is one of the first dated monuments that depict the Vision Serpent's connection to bloodletting". http://www.webwizzard.com/anahuac/cat003.html
Lintel 25 depicts one of the bloodletting rituals. "One of Shield Jaguar
Itzamnaaj B'alam II
Itzamnaaj B'alam II was a Maya king who ruled in Yaxchilan from 681 until he died in the year 742. He is also called Shield Jaguar II by modern writers and commonly referred to simply as Shield Jaguar based on his name glyph before the phonetic name was deciphered...
's wives, is seen gazing up towards an enormous bicephalous Vision Serpent. In her left hand, she holds a bowl containing a stingray spine, an obsidian lancet, and papers spattered with blood. The Vision Serpent appears to be emanating from the bowl. From the jaws of the Vision Serpent, spews forth an ancestral Tlaloc warrior complete with spear and shield".
Lintel 17 refers to "Bird Jaguars as Blood Lord of Yaxchilan
Yaxchilan is an ancient Maya city located on the bank of the Usumacinta River in what is now the state of Chiapas, Mexico. In the Late Classic Period Yaxchilan was one of the most powerful Maya states along the course of the Usumacinta, with Piedras Negras as its major rival...
" and shows him preparing to draw blood from his penis with a stingray spine. Opposite Bird Jaguar is Lady Balam-Ix, who proceeds to pass coarse rope through a gouge in her tongue. The blood is being collected in the vessel near Bird Jaguar's feet. The Vision Serpent's mouth is green and, the trickles of blood characteristic of bloodletting are red".
Lintel 15 depicts the appearance of this Vision Serpent. "The serpent can be seen rising out of the bowl with trickles of blood along a column of blood scrolls. This lintel shows the queen of Yaxchilan involved in a visionary experience following an elaborate bloodletting ceremony. She holds the ritual paraphernalia in her arms while the vision serpent rises from a bowl of blood stained paper."
Maya religious ritesThere was a Vision Serpent named Och-Kan, lord of Kalak'mul.
One of the most common rituals associated with the Vision serpent involved invoking ancestral sprits. Especially during coronation rites, the kings would contact the spirits for guidance and blessings. It is the Vision Serpent who provides the medium for contacting these deities.
It is believed that Lord Pakal's sarcophagus lid, which was located at Palenque
Palenque was a Maya city state in southern Mexico that flourished in the 7th century. The Palenque ruins date back to 100 BC to its fall around 800 AD...
, is probably “the single most comprehensive image which relates the Vision Serpent to Maya religion.” It depicts the death of Pakal and his descent into the Underworld. “The bicepalous serpent bar is placed horizontally on the World Tree and is the conduit for this transition. In the same way that the Vision Serpent represents a conduit between the physical world and the spirit realm of the ancestors, this bicephalous serpent bar represents a conduit between the realm of the living and the realm of the dead.” http://www.webwizzard.com/anahuac/cat003.html
Maya jewelry and potteryA piece of Maya jewelry depicts an “anthropomorphic
Anthropomorphism is any attribution of human characteristics to animals, non-living things, phenomena, material states, objects or abstract concepts, such as organizations, governments, spirits or deities. The term was coined in the mid 1700s...
, bicephalous serpent.” It is believed to have been worn during a bloodletting ceremony. It clearly shows the arrival of an ancestor from the spirit realm.
The portrayal of the Vision Serpent was very prevalent in Maya pottery. Vessels used during bloodletting ceremonies, depict the Vision serpent. The vessels below are excellent examples. They are carved in stone and are “some of the earliest depiction of Vision Serpent iconography
Iconography is the branch of art history which studies the identification, description, and the interpretation of the content of images. The word iconography literally means "image writing", and comes from the Greek "image" and "to write". A secondary meaning is the painting of icons in the...
. Blood spews forth from the open jaws of the front head. Although the rear is not physically attached, it sits just above the serpent's tail and also represents blood”.
Maya architectural motifsThe Vision Serpent also finds a place in Maya architecture and is especially prominent in the decoration of pillars on the interior and exterior of Maya temples.
”In the palace at Labna
Labna is a Mesoamerican archaeological site and ceremonial center of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization, located in the Puuc Hills region of the Yucatán Peninsula. It is situated to the south of the large Maya site of Uxmal, in the southwest of the present-day state of Yucatán, Mexico...
, serpents adorn the corners of the principle facade. Characteristic of the Vision Serpent, there appears to be either an anthropomorphic deity or the spirit of an ancestor emanating from the gaping jaws of the serpent's mouth”.
Contemporary observancesRemnants of the Vision Serpent have survived until modern times. Around 1930, J.E.S. Thompson noted in San Antonio, Belize
Belize is a constitutional monarchy and the northernmost country in Central America. Belize has a diverse society, comprising many cultures and languages. Even though Kriol and Spanish are spoken among the population, Belize is the only country in Central America where English is the official...
, that the Q'eqchi'
Q'eqchi or Kekchi may refer to*Q'eqchi' language, a Mayan language spoken in Guatemala and Belize*Q'eqchi' people, an indigenous Maya people...
Maya still performed a ritual very similar to the vision quest
A vision quest is a rite of passage in some Native American cultures.In many Native American groups, the vision quest is a turning point in life taken before puberty to find oneself and the intended spiritual and life direction. When an older child is ready, he or she will go on a personal,...
of the classic Maya, although in a different context. The ritual marked the initiation of a new shaman for the village. The participant came into direct contact with a giant serpent, Ochan (Och-Kan). It was through this experience that he completed his initiation rites and gained the knowledge that is needed to become a powerful shaman.