The Mayan textile weavings of Guatemala are detailed with exquisite patterns and symbols which hold representative meanings for indigenous population. Many indigenous women continue to wear the traditional Mayan clothing of the huipil (the blouse top section of the Mayan dress) and the corte (skirt). These garments can signify the origin, class, occupation and status of the wearer and form part of the indigenous identity. Over the past 500 years many of the original meanings of the weavings have lost significance, influenced by several factors including the Spanish occupation and more recently the tourism industry. However, certain symbols have held their meanings, particularly those which represent good and evil or fertility and agriculture.
The serpent is a motif which appears frequently in Mayan textiles. Snakes are common throughout Guatemala, however the serpent symbolised in weaving pays homage to the plumed serpent deity Gucumatz. Gucumatz is believed to be the creator of the world from silence and darkness, and is present in textiles through an S shape both vertically and horizontally. Spiritual iconography is prevalent in Mayan textiles, demonstrating the cultural importance of religion from Mayan mythology and Christianity.
The double headed eagle is a second example of religious symbolism. However, it held double meanings for the Mayans and the Spanish Conquistadors. The double headed eagle in Mayan mythology represents the Great God with two faces, one looking to good and the other to evil, or to heaven and earth. The same eagle held significance to the conquistador’s as a representation of the Coat of Arms of Charles V. Over time, the Eagle changed its meaning for the indigenous population to represent an evil bird that came from far-away lands. It signified to women that they should not bear children in its presence, because it was a cruel and unforgiving bird and their children would suffer under its rule. This adaptation of symbolism and its associated meanings is a poignant reminder of the suffering inflicted by the conquistadors on the indigenous population.
Similarly to the double headed Eagle, the representation of the cross portrays both Pagan and Christian symbolism. The cross is indelibly tied with Christianity, and as Catholicism the dominant religion in Guatemala it forms a notable reflection of cultural identity. The cross takes on several pagan symbolisms for life, with the four points on the cross denoting the four directions of the winds and heavens which are the life giving elements for crops and in turn, man. Additionally, the Milpa (corn patch) is characterised through the same four points of the cross. Corn plays a fundamental role in the Mayan life, in addition to being a staple food source, Mayan mythology believes that man was created from corn. Corn and agriculture is a common thread across weavings from different regions of Guatemala, with chickens and birds representing a food source and a symbol of livelihood.
Many symbols and patterns hold specific meanings to each region in Guatemala. Similarly colours have distinctive meanings to the regions where the cloth is woven. For example, in weavings from Solola, the navy blue colour represents the natural wonder of Lake Atitlan which is located in that area. Other colours are consistent in meaning across different regions including yellow, red, white and black which are symbolic of the cardinal points on the compass; south, east, north and west respectively, and purple which represents the suffering of Christ.
All of the symbols found in Mayan textile weaving originally held a representative meaning. These intricate details formed an important part of defining the identity of the wearer. Today, although some of the representations have lost their traditional meanings the skill of weaving these beautiful patterns is carried forward in indigenous communities, and hopefully this cultural knowledge will preserved into the future.
De Jonch Osborne, L. (1965). Indian Crafts of Guatemala and El Salvador. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.