What’s the News in News about Roles of Maya Women?

Posted on March 2, 2012


I am waiting (impatiently) for yesterday’s UC Riverside press release to get picked up by the mainstream media. The press release tells us that

Contrary to popular belief, women played a central role in Maya society before the arrival of Spanish explorers in the early 16th century, a University of California, Riverside graduate student has discovered. That finding is significant for modern Mayan women, whose status in society rapidly diminished under Spanish colonial rule and remains so today, according to Shankari Patel, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology….

“Maya culture has been described by scholars as male-dominated. But I found many towns named for women, and female deities on the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula,” she explained. “I started asking how women came to be removed from religious institutions and activities, and from the history of the region.”

Full disclosure: I know Shankari Patel, I count her a friend, and I am a big fan of her work, so in no way is this post a disinterested one. I was extremely excited to see her research launched out into the wider world, and I am waiting, waiting, waiting for the New York Times to pick this up.

On the one hand, it isn’t really news to feminist scholars that women played significant roles in Maya society: that has been repeatedly demonstrated by generations of researchers, today including Traci Ardren, Julia Hendon, Anne Pyburn, Cynthia Robin, and oh yes, yours truly.

(I would make the obligatory apology for leaving out someone, but there really are so many researchers making this point that I have to leave out some– so consider this my personal beginning reading list for prehispanic Maya women and gender…)

But Patel has done some brilliant work that I especially appreciate, going back to early nineteenth-century museum collections for data. And she brings to that empirical work an especially sophisticated theoretical perspective.

How important is what she is doing? Let’s start with the broader framing, beginning with the published abstract of her 2010 abstract for the Society for American Archaeology, where she gave a paper titled Geography of Belief: The Iconography of Mesoamerican Cave Pilgrimage:

Caves and cenotes comprise the religious topography of many Mesoamerican pilgrimage locales. This paper investigates the iconography associated with pilgrimage and caves as depicted in the International art style which flourished throughout Mesoamerica during the Postclassic. Cave denotations were often metaphors for religious transformation legitimating elites’ political or economic power and symbolizing commoners’ connection to earth and ancestors. Representation of caves also subverted gender ideologies when combined with portrayals of pilgrimage practices. Through an examination of the religious codices, murals, and artifacts associated with this style, this paper highlights the importance of cave imagery to Mesoamerican Postclassic pilgrimage and religion.

Trent University archaeologist Paul Healy, reviewing a 2005 book including an article by Patel, wrote that she

documents a rich history of Pre-Columbian pilgrimages to Cozumel Island (Mexico). Ethnohistorians such as Francisco Lopez de Gomara (Simpson 1964), who chronicled Cortes’s 1519 expedition, noted that there were numerous temples across the Yucatan at which the Maya made sacrifices. Gomara indicated that the Cozumel shrines attracted religious followers from the mainland who came to worship, and Landa stated that the pilgrims to Cozumel were dedicated to Ix Chel, the Maya goddess of fertility, childbirth, divination, and medicine (Tozzer 1941:109).

While Pre-Columbian Cozumel has been characterized as an important Maya trade center, Patel suggests the island markets and centers here were related more to their religious, pilgrimage function (Sabloff and Rathje 1975). There is evidence for trade but Patel sees this as an outgrowth of religious traffic…. Patel (2005) shows that the caves exhibited evidence of ancient ritual use, and suggests they were an integral part of the ancient Ix Chel pilgrimage circuit. The caves were accessible from the specially built sacbe network, which facilitated a ceremonial circuit by the pilgrims on Cozumel. Essentially, the ancient inhabitants of Cozumel, not unlike modern counterparts, benefited economically from these sites and the associated activities of their visitors.

In my own review (in press) of the edited volume Maya Worldviews at Conquest, I singled out Patel’s contribution for particular praise as one of “the most challenging and rewarding” chapters, describing it as an “examination of Late Postclassic oracular ritual, pilgrimage, and their manifestation in shrines on Cozumel, [a] convincing contribution that helps the reader imagine real people doing real things that reproduced their understandings of the world”.

Central among those “real people” were women: “priestess oracles” who used spindle whorls in ritual practices.

Patel’s dissertation, which builds on her earlier published studies, is a fully realized product of a generation of work rooted in feminist and gender studies. She explores how participation in religious practices offered the potential for women to shape a degree of autonomy, status, and authority in late prehispanic Mexico. She argues that evidence for the lives of the women she is studying was “archaeologically ignored” previously.

Because the coastal shrines she studied were among the earliest sites in the region visited by archaeologists, there are masses of unstudied or understudied materials are curated in museums. Patel identified a major collection in the British Museum that contained a large number of ceramic figurines, images of women she suggests were used in funerary rituals, that had not been analyzed.

She argues convincingly that a large proportion of these unstudied images depict female ritual specialists who occupied important places in a network of coastal shrines, sites of pilgrimage that also became centers of economic exchange.

Previous studies of prehispanic Maya pilgrimage have emphasized the agency of noble men. Shankari Patel’s work shows that pilgrimage ritual practice was also an important arena of action by women.

In the best contemporary tradition, she connects her work to the real impacts of archaeology on the modern world:

“Women lost their status and authority with the advent of colonialism,” she said. “The Spaniards didn’t understand female leaders and they squashed pagan religions. They branded women healers and diviners as witches. They talked about them as improper women who spoke for their men.

“Our society is so patriarchal, and archaeologists often don’t realize how that affects the way they look at the past. What we say about the past is important to the people who live there today. It’s political how you talk about people in the past. If you say women are subjugated today because they always have been, that’s a way of justifying what’s happening today. If you can show that was not true, that it happened because of colonialism, there is opportunity for new interpretations of history and for change to occur.”

Sounds like news to me…