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Metamorphosis and mortality: a Mayan perspective

In ancient cultures, creators portrayed the afterlife in many different ways through both storytelling and artworks. The result: a diverse conglomeration of the human imagination. Ancient people were constantly faced with and forced to confront their own mortality, thus making death a significant aspect of ancient culture.

An exhibit at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore City provides an interesting perspective on this view of the afterlife. Titled, “Transformation: Art of the Americas,” the exhibit explores the “metamorphosis of body and spirit” as portrayed in ancient Mesoamerican art. Walking into the exhibit, the viewer is surrounded by pottery and figurines portraying animals, most notably including jaguars, birds and monkeys.

One of the most striking pieces in the exhibit is a Mayan piece from Guatemala titled, “Urn with Jaguars and Skulls.” The urn is over a foot tall and contains many three-dimensional textures.  On the front of the urn is a jaguar figure standing upright with its claws extended. On either side of the jaguar figure are two humanoid heads on top of human skulls. Flanking the human skulls are silhouette humanoid figures.

The artists’ choice to represent the spirit as a jaguar is particularly powerful. The jaguar figure can be likened to a strong-willed person in life. Even though the scenery surrounding the animal figure is eerie and grim, the jaguar remains in a strong growling pose with its claws extended, refusing to be intimidated by death. This mindset of mortality is powerful as it suggests that death is not to be feared but rather to be faced with courage.

The use of animal imagery to represent the spirit gives the afterlife a magical aura and adds to the intrigue of the mystery of life after death. Nowadays it seems as though people fear the unknown, but what they often forget is that, by not knowing, a person has the freedom to create their own reality. In the case of death, humans do not know what happens in the afterlife, but, by not knowing, people can imagine and craft their own afterlives.

According to the piece’s description, “The Maya of Mexico and Central America believed that death was not an ending; instead it was the beginning of a new transformation into an ancestral spirit who bridged the physical and supernatural worlds.” If seen from the Mayans’ point of view, mortality might not be so scary after all.