Where There's Fire, There's Smoke: Contemporary Lacandon Maya Incense Burners and Ritual Transformation

Author(s): Joel Palka

Year: 2015


Lacandon Maya fabricate incense burners ("the gods’ ceramic vessels") found by archaeologists in Maya ruins, caves, and abandoned "god houses". Ethnographies and my field notes describe the incense burners and how they are made and used. The function and symbolism of the burners provide clues to the importance of fire and smoke in past Maya rituals, including cremation. The incense burners are formed from clay with human heads, arms, and legs. The anthropomorphic bowls become bodies of gods following firing and painting, like when humans were formed by gods, and after pebbles or seed "organs" are placed in their bowls. Gods inhabit the vessels to partake in burnt incense nodules shaped like people. The fire and smoke transmit these offerings as food or assistants to the gods. The burners die and their souls return to the gods after being exposed to fire to remove their paint and organs. Since Lacandon bodies are similarly viewed as vessels for souls, perhaps cremation by their ancestors released the souls of the dead to the gods. Death, rebirth, and ritual transformations through fire and smoke may ultimately be linked to the Maya slash-and-burn maize agriculture cycle.

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Cite this Record

Where There's Fire, There's Smoke: Contemporary Lacandon Maya Incense Burners and Ritual Transformation. Joel Palka. Presented at The 80th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, San Francisco, California. 2015 ( tDAR id: 395566)


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Spatial Coverage

min long: -107.271; min lat: 12.383 ; max long: -86.353; max lat: 23.08 ;