Of Wooden Masks and Woven Dolls: Guatemalan Handicrafts of Lore
Mayan handicrafts all tell a good story. Their creative folk art is a true celebration of a vibrant, enduring culture that withstood a turbulent history spanning thousands of years.
Of the Mayans’ many art forms, it is their hand-carved wooden masks that reflect the Mayans’ ever-continuing relationship with the earth and the skies. The Mayans believe that the sky-world, underworld, and the natural world are all connected.
Wooden Masks: Immortalized Gods and Divine Animals
Since time immemorial, humans have always been fascinated by the sky. The ancient Mayans were no different. Long before black holes were discovered and quantum mechanics were realized, the ancient Mayan people were skilled observers of the universe. As advanced astronomers of their time, they were able to read the stars and the motion of the planets. They mapped out constellations, calculated the path to Venus, tracked the sun and other celestial bodies, and eventually measured the passage of time and crafted the iconic Mayan calendar we know today.
Among all the calendar systems in the ancient world, the Mayan system, along with other Mesoamerican calendars, is regarded as the most complex, intricate, and accurate.
There is a unique element to the astronomers of the ancient Mayan world. They were not only scientists; they were also priests. The Mayan astronomer-priests, with the help of forked sticks and shadow-casting tools, observed celestial movements and recorded them in their codices. Profoundly spiritual and religious, they believed that the gods controlled the movement of the universe, especially the motions of the planet Venus.
In Mesoamerican culture, Venus has always been particularly significant; Quetzalcoatl, a major god in Mayan and Aztec religion, is strongly associated with this planet. Thus, it’s no surprise that their antique ceremonial buildings, especially temples, pyramids, and plazas, were precisely aligned with it, along with certain constellations. It is also well-established that the ancient Mayans waged religious warfare triggered by the movement of Venus. During these battles, they wore wooden masks, which were heavily inspired by their deities and sacred animals.
There is still a lot of debate among anthropologists and archaeologists whether Mayan warriors used the masks to intimidate their enemies, whether they’re meant to protect themselves from the blows of the battle, or whether they served a more ethereal function. However, if you look into their extensive pantheon and what their gods and divine animals represent, it can be assumed that all these reasons stand valid.
One of the most popular avatars in Mayan masks was the jaguar. In Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, the jaguar was seen as a principal god, second only to the snake god in terms of religious importance in their complex pantheon. The jaguar was believed to be the ruler and gatekeeper of the Underworld. That said, it represented darkness and the night sun.
However, the power of the jaguar was not limited to the afterlife. It also embodied valor and ferocity. As jungle cats with keen vision, jaguars were also associated with the ability to see at night and to warn of incoming disaster. For the Mayan warriors of the past, wearing a jaguar helmet mask granted them the ability to face their enemies with courage, strength, and foresight.
Aside from the jaguar, battle masks also depicted reptiles, especially serpents. To the Mayans, reptiles stood for dominance and strength. More than anything else, the primary Mesoamerican deity, Quetzlcoatl, was a feathered serpent.
Snakes were also described as cosmic vehicles that carry celestial bodies across the heavens. Furthermore, the shedding of snakeskin represented rebirth and renewal in traditional Mayan religion.
Other prominent figures in wooden Mayan masks were lions, coyotes, owls, rabbits, bulls, horses, and elephants. The reasons why ancient Mayans wore masks were as diverse as their stunning and whimsical designs and styles. Whatever the purpose, scholars are able to gather essential information about the past of the Mayan people through the surviving antique masks. In the present day, Mayans observe an interesting religion that mixes Catholicism with the ancient Mayan ideas of animism, and Guatemalan artisans continue this engaging tradition by carving the ancient symbols into their intricate work.
Mayan Skull Masks
If you have ever seen the way people of Central and South America celebrate Dia De Los Muertos, you will see that skulls take the center stage in this November festivity. The symbol can be seen in wooden masks, sugar carvings, and even in makeup.
Although the Day of the Dead is more widely known as a Mexican holiday, the celebration has its roots in Mayan, Aztec, and Toltec culture. Skulls, or calaveras, are popular symbols in Mesoamerican societies since the ancient times. This is because the Mayans regard skulls as a representation of rebirth into the afterlife. Even during the Pre-Columbian era, images of skulls and skeletons were depicted in a plethora of artwork, including pottery and paintings.
Today, you can have your own custom-made calavera in the form of sugar skulls and wooden skull masks. These carved masks, abundant in availability and unique in detail, make these an awesome collector’s item.
Woven Wonders Connecting the Past and the Present
Showcasing ornate patterns and brilliant colors in every vivid shade imaginable, Guatemalan textiles are definitely something that can steal your attention. They come in various forms: woven bags, worry dolls, and even stress balls. However, what makes these keepsakes unique from the others is the fact that the textiles used have been woven in a method that’s as old as their civilization.
The Mayans’ proud tradition of weaving can be traced as far back as the ancient times. In Pre-Columbian Mayan settlements, their stone houses were adorned with carpets and rugs bearing bright colors and geometric and animal patterns. Traditional Mayan clothing also involved multiple layers of woven robes with colorful motifs. These woven items kept houses warm and Mayans clothed, but the significance of weaving in Mayan culture goes far beyond that.
According to numerous legends, it was the Mayan moon goddess, Ixchel, who taught the first woman how to weave. This transformed the act of weaving from a necessary trade and means of livelihood into a delicate, spiritual process. Even to this day, weaving remains as a sacred ritual passed down from mothers to daughters for generations since the Pre-Columbian times.
Where to Find Traditional Mayan Handicrafts
The fascinating blend of culture, history, astronomy, and religion has given life to the symbols and patterns we see on the Mayan handicrafts of today. The intricate process involved in carving and weaving these historically significant beauties also empower traditional Guatemalan craftsmen.
If you’re looking for wholesale Mayan handicrafts that remain true to their incredible origins, you’ve come to the right place. Handicraft Products La Selva, S.A. (From the Mayan People to You) has manufactured and exported a variety of Guatemalan handicrafts since 1986. Our offerings include worry dolls and wood masks, among others. We source them from the only hands that can craft Mayan art in the tradition of their great ancestors: the artisans living in the mountains of Guatemala.
Together with these beautiful people, we bring these wonderful handicrafts to the rest of the world so you, too, can hold these culturally rich treasures. If you have any questions regarding our custom products, give us a message and we’d be more than happy to connect you to the colorful Mayan handicrafts.