Title:Over a Blood-Red Ocean
Date:April 12, 1991
Class:Foreign Cultures 58, Harvard University
Comments: This is the first paper at Harvard that I really "got". I didn't really understand how to write papers until this one.
  This is from a Mesoamerican archeology course, dealing with the Myan use of red. I got a bit obsessed with the Myan connection of blood to sea water because, basically, blood is just the evolution of sea-water, serving the same purpose to our cells that sea water does to primitive life.
  I missed one great example from the Popol Vuh which would have really nailed the thesis, but oh well.
Hook: Working Hemo the Magnificent into a Harvard paper had a certain perverse thrill to it.

Over a Blood-Red Ocean

“Mr. Scientist, I will listen to you talk about me if your can sum up my nature in two words.”

“Certainly, Hemo. ‘Sea water’.”

“Very well, Mr. Scientist, I will listen to you.”

   — A conversation between Blood and Science from Hemo the Magnificent

The Mayan use of the color red during the Formative and Classic periods linked together several key theological concepts: the form of the universe, the use of sacred space, and bloodletting. Red, as one would expect, symbolized the human blood which was so important to Mayan religion, but, less obviously, symbolized sea water and the Underworld. The Mayan conception of the cosmos, especially the red Underworld, combined with death mythology, explain much about their use and placement of sacred space.

The Red Dominated Universe

The Mayan world was conceived as having four directions, each represented by a color. North was white due to the cooling rains which came from the north. West was black as that was where the sun died as it set every day. Yellow was associated with the south because south was the best side of the sun. Red occupied the most important position — east — for that was where the sun was born (Schele and Freidel 1990:65). So important was east (and by extension the color red) that “in the Maya conception east, not north, should always be at the top of maps.” (Schele and Freidel 1990:66)

But the Mayan universe was more than just left and right. Like many other cultures, the Maya considered the cosmos to be constructed in layers. The Middle World, where the humans lived, was thought to be a caiman floating in the sea with everything living on it’s back (Joyce, lecture notes). Above was the heavenly region of the Upperworld. Below lay the forbidding Underworld, also represented as red. The reasoning for this coloration is that the Underworld was a watery world, a point which will be returned to.

Connecting the three layers was the Wacah Chan, the World Tree. It was seen as blue-green and traditionally was at the center of the world, although, in practice, could be about anywhere. Because this tree was a connection to the Otherworld and because “the sap that flows through the tree is blood,” (Schele and Miller 1986:394) it was a central component of ritual.

Blood as the sap of what was effectively the axis of the universe, would seem to indicate that blood was fairly important to the Maya. Indeed, bloodletting was without a doubt their most important ritual act; bloodletting instruments and references are found throughout Mesoamerica — in every period — not just in passing, but with intentional emphasis (Joyce, lecture notes). Very few occasions went by that the Maya didn’t shed blood. “…Every stage in life, every event of political or religious importance, every significant period ending required sanctification through bloodletting.)” (Schele and Miller 1986:176)

In this sense, blood was equated with power, or at least a means to powerful ends. This magic red fluid was access to the gods. “In the rapture of bloodletting rituals, the king brought the great World Tree into existence through the middle of the temple and opened the awesome doorway into the Otherworld.” (Schele and Freidel 1990:68-9)

But why was blood so powerful, and human blood at that? Why not a goat sacrifice or a burning bush? And what does the color red have to do with all of this, anyway? The answer to these questions comes from a seemingly unlikely source.

‘Sea Water’

“The Maya, unlike most other pre-industrial people, had an unlimited source of permanent, intense blue.” (Schele and Miller 1986:36) One would think, therefore, that most oceanic art would utilize this watery color; however, murals in Teotihuacan and Maya Early Classic basal flange polychromes showcase one of the more unique aspects of Mayan iconography: the ocean is depicted as red (Joyce 1989:59). Given the Mayan preoccupation with bloodletting, it seems logical to assume that the red of the ocean waters in these art works was meant to represent blood.

Nicholas Hellmuth supports this assertion with examples of art from burials. Early Classic funary art, including the basal flange polychrome ceramics mentioned above, show a very constant personality, which consists of “an undulating band decorated with encircled curls and double yokes. The presence of fish, water plants, herons or cormorants, turtles and frogs suggest that the serpentine layer is water.” (Hellmuth 1988:101) This band was often depicted in red. The same art also shows water lilies, which indicate clear and slow flowing water (Hellmuth 1988:101). Most importantly, “anemone-like plants and exotic fish add a sea water aspect,” (Hellmuth 1988:101) meaning that the band is sea water, and not just lake or river water. From this and other findings, Hellmuth argues that these bands represent not just sea water, but blood as well (Hellmuth 1988:102).

As Mr. Scientist from the cult science film Hemo the Magnificent will tell you, on a functional level, sea water and blood do very much the same thing. Lower forms of life circulate sea water to every cell of their body to bring them nutrients and minerals. This eventually evolved into the more modern circulatory system of humans and other creatures. Mr. Scientist will go on to tell you that scientists used this fact to determine the amount of salt in the ocean before life walked the earth. While this may be interesting, it hardly sheds any light on why the Mayans, who probably didn’t know about evolution, would make this association.

According to the Popul Vuh, the Mayan book of Dawn. When the gods finally got around to creating humans successfully, they did it by bringing some various materials and foods together, along with water; “And these were the ingredients for the flesh of the human work, the human design, and the water was for the blood. It became human blood, and corn was also used by the Bearer Begetter.” (Tedlock 1985:163)

The gods had unsuccessfully attempted to make humans three times before the attempt described above, each time intending to create people who would worship and sustain them. The third of these failures, the straw or mannequin people, was close to success, but their creation did not do what the gods expected of it. “There is yet to find,” they said after this last failed attempt, “how we are to model a person, construct a person again, a provider, nurturer, so that we are called upon and we are recognized.” (Tedlock 1985:80) The failure of the straw people was, according to the gods, because their creation “had no blood, no lymph” (Tedlock 1985:83) From this, it would not seem to out of line to assume that the Maya thought that their blood was food for their gods; in fact, as Schele says in The Blood of Kings, “it is clear from Classic Maya art and inscriptions, as well as from the Popul Vuh, that blood drawn from all parts of the body… was sustenance for the gods.” (Schele and Miller 1986:176)

This alone says quite a bit about why blood was so important, but given some of the other concepts which the Maya symbolized with red — namely Xibalba, the Underworld — blood runs a bit deeper. Deeper than water, in fact.

Hell is for Hell

“The Xibalba of the Classic period was… a watery world that could only be entered by sinking beneath water or by passing through a maw in the surface of the earth.” (Schele and Miller 1986:267) It was not a fun place, needless to say. The underworld was home to various nasty disease-bringers and famine-makers. It was also where human souls went when they died, regardless of behavior.

Souls were supposed to follow in the footsteps of the heroic twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque, who went into the Underworld and defeated the Lords of the Dead. “Dead souls… had to confront the Xibalbans as the Twins did and emerge triumphant from treacherous trials in the Underworld.” (Schele and Miller 1986:267)

The Maya, like most cultures, tried to prepare and assist certain men for their journey into the Underworld. “At death, Maya kings were placed in richly furnished tombs that often displayed imagery of watery Underworld, their walls painted the color of blood or in blood symbols.” (Schele and Miller 1986:14–15) The funary art described by Hellmuth (above) is a good example of this. While Schele mentions only a bloody Underworld, Hellmuth suggests that the Maya thought of the Underworld as being four different seas, each a different color (red, black, white, and yellow — the colors of the four directions), one of these seas being made of blood (Hellmuth 1988:102). Regardless of which is correct, the bloody Underworld was most important, especially to the Mayan kings. The sarcophagus of one of these ‘kings’, Pacal (in the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque), provides quite a bit of information about Mayan views of the afterlife and cosmology (Schele and Miller 1986:268).

The lid of the coffin shows Pacal about to descend into Xibalba at the same time the sun sets. He and the Sun Monster are depicted as falling down the World Tree, which, as stated earlier, is manifested through the Mayan temple. The branches of the tree, the Upperworld, are blooming with blood and bloodletting bowls. “The trunk is marked by… another symbol of blood…. Sacrificial blood, then, is likened to the sap of the tree and is the medium through which the souls of the dead move from level to level in the Mayan universe.” (Schele and Miller 1986:268)

This places even more importance on blood, but also gives some reasoning of why Mesoamericans considered certain locations, like a temple or a tomb, to be sacred. Caves (ch’en) and mountains (vits) were sacred for the same reason: they were thought of a connection points to the Otherworld (Joyce, lecture). As both caves and tombs were seen as connections to the red depths of Xibalba, it is not surprising that caves were used as tombs in places like Tenochtitlan and the Mixtec area (Heyden 1981:122).

It is important to realize, however, that “the hallowed character of a cavern was often determined by the existence of water inside.” (Heyden 1981:122) This comes back to the conception of the Underworld and the nature of its watery connection to the Middleworld. Places like these caves were highly relevant to and revered by the Maya. So much so that many were made even more sacred by what the Mayans built on and around them.

Red Mountains

“During the Late [Formative] period, architecture was the principal artistic medium.” (Schele and Miller 1986:129) As such, architecture tells much about the ideas of the Maya. Perhaps the best Classical example the Mesoamerican method of melding the architecture to surrounding natural features is Teotihuacan.

Teotihuacan was held to be the place where the sun and the moon rose into the heavens, thus beginning the present cycle of human existence (Millon 1981:174). These two beings emerged from a cave. This cave became very special indeed. It is on this cave that the inspiring Pyramid of the Sun is built (Heyden 1981).

One of the main works of art at Teotihuacan, the Tepantitla mural, has as its central figure a large tree-like figure (which looks suspiciously like the World Tree) situated above a cave from which water flowed. “It would not be surprising if this painting were telling the story of the very cave that acted as the center of the Teotihuacan world.” (Heyden 1981:106) This mural, which occupied a prominent space in Teotihuacan, once again unites the concepts of water and caves.

The actual cave under the Pyramid of the Sun contained a gutter system of U-shaped stone channels and stone drain covers (Millon 1981:178). This by itself would tie in nicely with the idea that it was water that made caves extra special, but within this cave — which, remember, was so important that a pyramid of the largest place of worship at that time was built on top of it — “water did not ever flow naturally.” (Millon 1981:178) The architects of Teotihuacan went out of their way to bring water into the cave, where it was “artificially made to flow through drain channels as part of the ritual performed there.” (Millon 1981:178)

“To the uninitiated, [the cave] would have been a terrifying place. By it’s nature it never could have been accessible to more than scores, at most hundreds of people.” (Millon 1981:178) Yet Teotihuacan had a population easily over 20,000 (Joyce, lecture notes). The connection with the watery underworld in this cave was probably considered very strong if only a very few could gain access to it. The water flow made it all the stronger.

With water and the underworld figuring so highly in architecture, it should follow that red played a role the architecture of Formative and Classic Mesoamerica as well. It did to a point, but the red in architecture isn’t quite as hooked to water and the Underworld as it is in art. It was, however, used to adorn some of the most visible and impressive human made features in Mesoamerica: pyramids.

After the completion of the stone work on the pyramid at Cerros, it was covered by white plaster. “While the plaster was still damp, they painted these surfaces bright red…” (Schele and Freidel 1990:111)

At La Venta, almost the entire site was painted red. The site was built in four stages over a century or so. After each stage was completed, key features were painted in different colors. Once again the colors of the four directions were used, with light blue being used instead of black. The final stage (and, one would assume, the most important) was painted red. (From a film shown in section.)

While it is true that pyramids, or at least the rituals that took place in and around them, were a link to the Underworld, there is nothing to suggest that red pyramids made the connection to the underworld any better. Still, as red represents the blood which formed the connection, perhaps they did.


Red is just a color, of no real importance in and of itself. But colors, like all symbols, can be very powerful when culturally important events and practices are associated with them. Mayans held red, with its natural and primary association to blood and secondary connection, through blood, to sea water and the Underworld, to symbolize some of the most central elements of their cosmology and religion.


Heyden, Doris. Sourcebook. “Caves, Gods, and Myths: World-View and Planning in Teotihuacan.” From Mesoamerican Sites and World Views, edited by E. Benson, pp. 1–39. (Referenced pages are the numbering of the sourcebook). Dumbarton Oaks, 1981.

Hellmuth, Nicholas. The Surface of the Underworld. PhD Diss. Germany: U of Hamburg, 1988.

Joyce, Rosemary. Sourcebook. “Decoding ‘Olmec’ Iconography.” Diss. Boston University, 1989.

Millon, René. Sourcebook. “Teotihuacan: City, State and Civilization.” Handbook of Middle American Indians, Supplement, edited by V. Bricker, pp.198–243. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Popul Vuh. Trans. Dennis Tedlock. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985.

Schele, Linda, and David Freidel. A Forest of Kings. New York: William Morrow, 1990.

Schele, Linda, and Mary Ellen Miller. The Blood of Kings. New York: George Bruziller, Inc., 1986.

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