Photo by Robbie Herrera on Unsplash
Photo by Robbie Herrera on Unsplash

Mayan Bloodletting and Piercing Rituals

Body piercing is insanely popular. Reasons for getting pierce vary from wanting pretty jewelry fixed somewhere on their body to a healing or an identity affirming experience. But how did this practice start? 

It’s hard to say exactly who started the practice of piercing because so many different places pierced different body parts at different points in world history, so let’s talk about one culture’s approach.

The Maya was a fascinating empire in ancient Mesoamerica seeped in rituals and practices. From sacrificing humans and animals to the gods for good fortune, to praying to the gods like people do today, the Mayans had many processes of asking the gods for things they needed. 

Many of their good-fortune rituals involved blood because they believed that blood contained the person’s life-force or soul, thus a perfect offering to the gods. 

Ritual tools included stingray spines, obsidian blades and knives, thorns, needles or spiked rope. Once a wound was cut, blood would be allowed to soak onto something before burning it with copal incense as an offering to gods. Often the blood drip from the wounds onto paper or a spiked rope would be pulled through the wound and then the rope would be burned. 

The Mayans would pierce almost anything, tongues, ears, cheeks, lips, nostrils, arms, legs, and the penis. These piercings and bloodletting practices were done not only for offerings to the gods, but also to communicate with the gods and their ancestors. To aid in their communication process, they would often pair the consumption of tobacco with fasting in order to achieve altered states of consciousness. 

Interestingly they did not only do piercing in a ritualistic atmosphere, people would also get piercings for non-religious reasons as decorative pieces. Both men and women would partake in this equally, but the piercings would often symbolize the wearers rank and status in the community. The types of materials they used in the piercings would vary heavily, and often also mirror the wearers rank. Precious stones were worn by the elites and wealthy people in the empire, stones like jade, jadite and nephrite. The common people of the empire would wear ceramic or wood jewelry, sometimes just twigs were worn.

Piercings and body modifications have been adored forever, and I think it’s fascinating to learn about the ways people use to do this practice and the reasons they did. Learning the history behind practices like these allows you to relate and appreciate the practice on a deeper, more personal level. 

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