Posted by: Johan Normark | November 2, 2011

Breasts as index of women’s power

I have written a forthcoming article on gender and body-politc during the Classic period which hopefully will be published before the end of the year. Today I read a recent article on ancient Maya corporeality by Andrea Stone whose conclusions I would like to have had included in my own text. It is too late for that now so I will comment on the interesting article here instead. Here is the abstract:

This paper discusses the importance of female breasts in gender construction in Maya art and explains artistic conventions and choices in their deployment. The visual analysis focuses on Late Classic pictorial vases and ceramic figurines. Rather than reflecting a natural body, the female breast was filtered through a cultural lens that drove its highly conceptual rendering in Maya art, mirrored in a breast hieroglyph. Through the principle of contrast, including morphology and absence vs. presence of breasts in specific pictorial contexts, Maya artists constructed female personae varying in age, class, supernatural status, and gender ambiguity. In order to flesh out the layered meaning of the breast, the paper turns to ethnographic studies of modern Maya medicine concerning the hot-cold system. It is argued that ethnographic data on women’s bodies in medical discourse shed light on how the breast served as an index of age-based female stereotypes.

Stone’s article covers similar topics as my old study Genderized Time and Space in Late Classic Maya Calendars (2000). Here is a short summary of that study. The similarities to my study relate to the discussion of bodily conceptions based on the hot/cold system in Prehispanic Mesoamerica and that certain life stages were of crucial importance. Fertile women are hot and post-menopausal women are cold in this conceptualization. Stone focuses on female breast and the way they appear or are hidden in various contexts. Basically, female deities usually have exposed breasts in art. Historical figures, such as elite and royal women, do not have exposed breasts on public monuments. The forms of the breasts are also argued to be indexes of the woman’s status as they mirror their life stages affected by changes in their “hotness” and “coldness”. Young and fertile women are depicted with larger and rounded breasts whereas post-menopausal women are depicted with sagging breasts and often without teeth.

Female bodies in Classic period art were usually depicted as large and hefty. When we have male-female complementary pairs the women are often just as large or even larger than their husband. Stone “doubt that their corpulence simply mirrors an aesthetic appreciation of fat, but rather invokes women’s physical strength and health” (p 178). Here I disagree with Stone. After spending several field seasons in Mexican and Belizean villages my subjective feeling is that this “corpulence” also is an index of the woman’s age and perhaps how many children she has given birth to. Hence, I do believe these women are no longer youths but perhaps not yet post-menopausal.

Another possible index of depicted women’s age is their clothes. If I may make an analogy with the contemporary Tzutujil Maya, Prechtel writes that at the time of birth all memories of the creation layers that the child has passed through are lost. Through life an individual will gain access to these lost memories and acquire layers of remembrance (literally speaking in the form of clothing acquired at initiation rituals). At the time of death an old man or woman is a living memory that returns to the Earth as an offering since the ancestors feed on memories. Hence, if this analogy is valid for Prehispanic royal contexts, there is a possibility that wearing several layers of clothes in Classic Maya monumental art (which covered the breasts) also is an indication that the women were no longer youths.

Stone writes that the so-called “scooped neckline garment,” that on ceramic figurines show their breast, but which also can be seen on Lintel 26 at Yaxchilan (no exposed breasts), appears to “encode feminine beauty associate[d] with women in their youthful reproductive years, and by extension, female fertility” (p 170). On this lintel Lady K’abal Xook is holding a shield and a helmet. Stone points out that ethnographic accounts suggest that “fertile women were believed to possess innate power that could affect things with which they came in contact” (p 171). Sometimes this power was dangerous to men but here maybe her power was transmitted through a ritual act. Stone suggests that there was “something beneficial happening from female contact with male-gendered objects” (p 171).

I have another interpretation of this scene. I do not believe Lady K’abal Xook was fertile at the time when the monuments on her yotot was carved and dedicated. This is based on the calendar dates. The building was dedicated in AD 726 (GMT) and the earliest of the lintels was commissioned in 723. On Lintel 25 she celebrates her husband’s accession in 681. On the famous lintel 24, where she pulls the rope through her tongue, we find a date corresponding to 709. Lintel 26, mentioned above, describes a rite taking place in 724. Lady K’abal Xook died in 749 and she was buried inside this structure. This gives a period of 68 years from the first date to her death. She was most likely not an infant at her husband’s inauguration. Her husband died in 742 and at that time he was over 90 years old. This means that he was around 30 years old when he acceded to the throne. If we speculate that Lady K’abal Xook was around 20 years old when her husband became the king she was born around 660. This means that she was 60+ when she handled her husband the warrior equipment on Lintel 26. She would no longer have that “hotness”. In my study I argued that most of the women depicted as participating in rituals on monumental art were post-menopausal since they no longer was a threat to the man’s “hotness”. I suspect that what age is of importance here is her date at the time of the dedication of the monument or the building. She has the same look in 681 as she has in 724 despite the fact that 43 years have passed but the carvings were made within a much shorter time period. She was post-menopausal when the carvings were made and hence she could retrospectively be present in various earlier ritual occasions from that later position in her life, something that may have been impossible when the actual events occurred. We can therefore not be sure that she really participated in these earlier events if she was “hot” and therefore a threat. She might, however, have been pre-pubertal at her husband’s accession (and therefore not hot) but even if we subtract ten years from her age she would still have been postmenopausal when her building was dedicated.

I cannot remember any public monumental depiction of an old woman that looks like the ones found in ceramic figurines or codices, i.e. with wrinkled and toothless faces. Lady K’abal Xook was perhaps wrinkled and toothless when the lintels were carved but they depict her in an “ageless” fashion. The same goes for her husband. Perhaps the reason why most of the women in monumental art have their breasts covered is because they are post-menopausal and therefore as cold as men?

Stone, Andrea (2011). Keeping abreast of the Maya: A study of the female body in Maya art. Ancient Mesoamerica 22(1): 167-183.



  1. Johan, I have a different interpretation that I think may be simpler. Landa reports that women in some areas of Yucatan covered their breasts, while in other areas they didn’t. I wonder whether the fact that monumental images never show topless images reflects the fact that these images are pretty much always of royal women, while the older women with exposed breasts we get in figurine form (or on painted images) are, when identifiable, mythological women. I suspect that the Maya, like many ancient groups, had sumptuary laws and traditions of royalty wearing more and more luxurious clothes. In addition, modern Maya generally emphasize modesty as qualities they look for and respect in leaders. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Classic Maya had the belief that exposed breasts was vulgar and common, not to the same degree as those in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim West, but neither as open as the ancient cultures of South and Southeast Asia. Thus royal women might have been expected to cover their breasts as befitting their royal status, demonstrating that they were not “common” women, for whom covering their breasts was not as big a deal. Therefore, I am skeptical of the necessity of idealistic explanations requiring discussion of “hot” and “cold” bodies.

    One thing that has struck me as I continue to study Maya art is how idealistic it is. On the Oval Palace Tablet at Palenque we see Pakal receiving the crown from his mother, and yet though this occurred when he was 12 years old, he is shown as an adult. Maya art almost never depicts kings or queens as anything other than in their prime. The aged figures we see are inevitably aged deities, and since these are not depictions of royalty, the apparent exception to the prohibition on showing agedness may be explicable. As for the size of the women, I suspect that this again simply reflects a Maya aesthetic ideal, akin to that of the Polynesians that emphasized body proportions reflective of young women in their child-bearing prime.

    Given this idealism I think it is extremely difficult to make any claims to specific items of clothing in Maya art reflecting women of child-bearing age. Since royal women are almost never shown as younger or older, we are simply not in a position to say much on the subject.

  2. PS I notice in your tags for this article you include “Itzamnaaj Bahlam II”. I imagine you are referring to Itzamnaaj Bahlam the Great, husband of Lady K’abal Xook, but he is now known as Itzamnaaj Bahlam III as we have evidence from Bonampak for another king of this name ca. 600.

  3. That is indeed a simpler explanation and probably also a likely one as well. I am sceptical of ethnographical analogies in general nowadays, but I wasn’t back in 2000. I would have another approach nowadays. The hot-cold system may have existed in the Precolumbian past but most ethnographical examples today come from people with a completely different social status than divine kings and queens. Certainly there were different rules and beliefs for the rulers than for the commoners. Anyway, my mathematical exercise was mainly to show that Lady K’abal Xook was not very young when the lintels were carved, contrary to what Stone argued.

    I will use Itzamnaaj Balam “the great” in the future in case another king with the same name shows up.


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