Left/right symbolism and the body in ancient Maya iconography and culture

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30 Scopus citations


Throughout Maya history the left and right sides of the human body, left/right spatial orientation, and handedness have had important cultural and symbolic meanings. This essay examines left/right symbolism in relation to the body, which is generally overlooked in studies of archaeological societies and material culture, and discusses how it relates to ancient Maya ideology and behavior. New information from Classic Maya iconography, plus corroborative information from Maya ethnography and cross-cultural investigations, support the proposition that left/right symbolic differences and hierarchies were present in ancient Maya society. For the Classic Maya, as with contemporary Maya peoples, the right hand or side of the body often signified "pure, powerful, or superordinate," and the left frequently symbolized "weaker, lame, or subordinate" in particular cultural contexts. Hence, in Classic Maya imagery, kings face to their right and use their right hands, while subordinates are oriented to their left and frequently use their left hands. Following comparative anthropological analyses, consideration of handedness and human body symmetry help explain the left/right dichotomy and the apparent primacy of the right in Classic Maya spatial reference, social order, and worldview. The findings of this study have important implications for the examination of left/right symbolism in material culture, images of the body, and ideology in other societies. Copyright

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)419-443
Number of pages25
JournalLatin American Antiquity
Issue numberPART 4
StatePublished - 2002
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology
  • History
  • Archaeology


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