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Gender Performances in the Initial Series Group at Chichén Itzá

Matthew Looper, California State University, Chico, Summer Fellow 2009/10

My project explored aspects of gender performance at the Maya site of Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico, specifically as represented in architectural sculpture programs of the Initial Series Group. This major Late Classic to Early Postclassic period complex features a profusion of sculptures that relate to this theme, including a series of tenoned phalli and extensive narrative friezes that depict males performing ritual dance and genital autosacrifice. In the Initial Series Group, many of the figures engaged in bloodletting are Pawahtuns, aged deites associated with the earth, mountains, and rain, as well as patron gods of Chichen Itza's rulers. Other reliefs include references to emergence and fecundity as well as the acquisition of luxury trade items as a result of the deities' ritual performances. These images emphasize the symbolism of publicly performed male bloodletting dances as a means of achieving lineage continuity, fertility, wealth, and supernatural blessing. The construction of a dance platform as part of this group demonstrates that male dancers actually impersonated these gods in performance. This platform provided the focal point for rites of royal accession and annual renewal that took place in association with adjacent structures. The sculpture programs of the Initial Series Group commemorated the ceremonies of divine intervention through sacrifice that supported the power of the resident patrilineage of the Initial Series Group. I am currently finalizing this essay (co-authored with Laura Amrhein) for inclusion in an edited volume on sacred space in Mesoamerica.

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