Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea

Crocodile Rattle on view in Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea

Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea

August 29, 2010 to January 2, 2011

In 1986, the Kimbell Art Museum’s landmark exhibition The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art shed new light on the importance of royal lineage and blood sacrifice to the ancient Maya people of Central America. Nearly a quarter century later, the Kimbell presents Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea. This equally groundbreaking exhibition is the first to explore the profound influence of water on Maya civilization. Physically and spiritually bounded by the sea, the Maya envisioned their world as a turtle floating within a blazing basin of water known as the k’ahk’ nahb, or “fiery pool.” This concept refers to the sun rising in the Caribbean and setting in the Gulf of Mexico. On this “platform,” Maya society developed a distinctive perspective on the sea and its pervasive impact on all facets of life.

Over 90 extraordinary objects, including many recent archaeological discoveries never before seen in the United States, highlight our emerging recognition of water’s significance to the Maya. Shark teeth, stingray spines, sea creatures, and waterfowl appear in works of stone and clay; supernatural crocodiles breathe forth rain; cosmic battles take place between mythic beasts and deities—all part of a new and vivid picture of the Maya worldview.

The exhibition covers nearly 2,000 years of Maya art, from the earliest evidence of a unified Maya cultural identity in the first millennium b.c., through the rise and fall of their cities, to the first contacts with Europeans in the 1500s. This era includes great stylistic diversity and visual complexity, presented on painted ceramic vessels and sculptures, jade, shell, gold, and carved stone monuments.

With its magnificent architecture and a culture highly advanced in mathematics and astronomy, Maya civilization was among the most sophisticated of the ancient world. The Maya tracked the motion of the planet Venus from celestial observatories and developed a calendar based on 365 days. Maya culture arose among settled village farmers from about 2000 b.c. and expanded to hundreds of cities and smaller centers across the lowlands of the Yucatan Peninsula and highlands to the south, in what are today Guatemala, southern Mexico, Belize, and western Honduras. By a.d. 250 the Maya entered a period of great achievement in which they created substantial cities and massive, elaborately decorated pyramids and temples. Many of these monuments and artworks were adorned with their nuanced writing system, a highly developed artistic language that employed over 800 characters, or glyphs, to record the dynastic history of kings and narratives of their lives. While 90% of the glyphs are now understood, it was only in the late 1980s that a glyph for the sea, translated literally as “fiery pool,” was identified. Until then, the importance of the sea in Maya culture had not been fully studied or appreciated.

Water and Cosmos

In this section of the exhibition, works of art portray water in its various forms, including Chahk, the god of rain and storms, a central deity in the Maya pantheon. The Maya viewed water as a living and thinking force with the power to influence events. Painted ceramics and architectural fragments show water as the source of life and fertility, and the sea as a fearsome place of the unknown. Primordial beasts, such as the world crocodile and the world turtle, symbolize Maya conceptions of the sea and the origins of their world.

Creatures of the Fiery Pool

Many Maya depictions of objects from the sea are realistic, while others are highly stylized portrayals of mythic creatures whose powers and roles are little understood today. Along with fish, frogs, birds, and legendary beasts are a variety of precious shells that embodied the sacred life force of ancestors who had returned to the sea at death and rose from it again on the wind. Rulers wore such shells to “capture” the essence of these relatives and display hereditary connections through royal regalia.

Navigating the Cosmic Sea

The spiritual and physical realms of the sea were not distinct: the Maya navigated canoes through the cosmic world as well as along rivers and coasts. In this section, canoes modeled in clay, chased into gold, and painted on ceramic signify supernatural journeys and connections to sacred power. Luxury goods from the sea regularly became tribute to rulers of the great Maya cities. The sea is presented here as the locus of mythic battles and a destination for noble pilgrimages to secure power.

Birth to Rebirth

The final section of the exhibition addresses the cyclical motion of the cosmos as the Maya pictured it. The sun rose in the morning from the Caribbean in the east, bearing the features of a shark as it began to traverse the sky. For the Maya people, death in the west led to a trip through the Underworld, followed by rebirth in the cosmic clouds of the east. The Maize God, whose watery journey from death to resurrection was the central metaphor for Maya life, best embodied this worldview.

Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea is organized by the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts, and is made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional support is provided by ECHO (Education through Cultural and Historical Organizations). The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. The richly illustrated exhibition catalogue is published by Yale University Press, New Haven and London, in association with the Peabody Essex Museum.