Rulership and ritual:
Maya relief of royal blood-letting
13 May – 11 July 2010
The Asahi Shimbun Displays
Objects in focus
Come and witness a striking scene of self-sacrifice from the Maya civilisation.
The dramatic image on the carved stone lintel shows the king and queen of Yaxchilán, with the queen pulling a thorny rope through her tongue. Yaxchilán was one of many Maya kingdoms stretching across what is now Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and parts of Honduras and El Salvador.
Maya civilisation reached its peak around AD 300 to 900, and Yaxchilán was ruled by Shield Jaguar III (the Great) between AD 681 and 742. Queen Xook was his wife and her pierced tongue allowed her blood to flow as part of a ritual communication with gods and spirits. This sacrifice mirrored the Maya story of creation, when the gods let their blood to create the human race. By choosing to take part in the ritual, the queen demonstrated both her moral and physical strength to the people, and her suitability as a Maya royal.
The site of Yaxchilán was only rediscovered in the 19th century as it stood in the midst of the dense tropical forest, and Maya glyphs only began to be translated in the 1960s. Through this amazing carved lintel, the display presents a chance to understand a formidable ordeal that was an essential part of being Maya royalty.
Limestone lintel relief from Yaxchilán, Mexico. A queen pulls a thorny rope through her tongue as part of a sacred ceremony. Maya, Late Classic period (AD 600–900).
© Trustees of the British Museum