Research: Dance and death in Mayan art

Updated: Jan 20

Dance and death among the Maya: analysis of iconographic representations of dance on polychrome vases

Research as part of a seminar on pre-Columbian Mesoamerica

"The objective of this analysis is first to examine the different types of Mayan dances and then to determine to what extent death, in the broad sense of the term, occupied an important place in the context or the themes of these dances. The analysis of the iconographic representations of dance on the polychrome vases made it possible to determine, by means of a deductive approach, which proportion of these representations was centered on the theme of death. In order to place these representations in context and to obtain a broader picture of the types of Maya dances, this analysis was supplemented by the contribution of ancient sources (written and iconographic) and recent works.

We will therefore begin with a brief description of the general context of Mayan dances. We will see by whom they were performed, in which places, which musical instruments accompanied them and finally, what types of costumes were worn by the dancers. Then, we will briefly discuss the contribution to our analysis of iconographic representations, ancient sources and recent works. Thereafter, we will briefly describe the different types of dances not directly related to death, finally emphasizing and examining in detail the types of dances which seem to have had a more direct connection with the theme of the death.


The analysis of iconographic material, ancient sources and recent works have allowed us to obtain a clearer, if not exhaustive, picture of Mayan dances and their context. Indeed, through this study we were able to detect a large number of dances linked, at least indirectly, to death and the underworld. Indeed, the mythological contexts of the Popol Vuh and the corn-god, the contexts of sacrifice and war, the context of communication with supernatural beings and the context of hunting ceremonies within calendar festivals show us an important link between the dance and death. We find a very large majority of polychrome vases illustrating the epic of the corn god, dances of kings which in various contexts allowed communication with the beyond and the maintenance of the spiritual, social and political structure of Mayan society."

(2002) Abigaëlle Richard. La danse et la mort chez les Maya : analyse des représentations iconographiques de danse sur les vases polychromes, séminaire de maîtrise, Université de Montréal, Montréal.

Photo © Justin Kerr, Le dieu maïs, Kerr, Maya Vase Collection : K5379

Full text in French PDF

Presentation in French PDF