Mayan Hacha

Mayan Fish Hacha, 6th-8th Century, Mexico (Veracruz), Stone with Traces of Plaster, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Mesoamerican ballplayers wore protective gear called dachas, palmas, and  yokes to protect their hips and abdomens from the impact of the game’s solid rubber ball . In painting and sculpture, the yoke is shown worn around the player’s hips, the palma or hacha attached at the front. Those used during active play were most likely made of wood or some other light material; stone versions such as this one were worn, if at all, during ballgame-related rituals, or placed on display. Given the distinctive design of each hacha, both those worn and those carved in stone may have served to identify teams or individuals.

Hachas also vary greatly in form and size, so much so that they qualify as a group only in contrast to the taller and thinner palmas. Hachas can appear in the form of human or animal heads, full figures, even representing a pair of human hands. The name hacharefers to the axe-like form of many (hacha is Spanish for axe), including the example seen here. In these, the back is slightly wider than the front where the sides converge in a sharp point. Facial features and any other details are carved on low relief, each side a mirror image of the other.

In other ways this stone hacha is unusual in both its subject and composition. In order to conform to the classic hacha shape, the artist has rendered the face, body and tail fin in consecutive, ascending registers of low relief. The artist has carefully rendered each scale individually, with increased depth of relief from front to back, mimicking how fish fins overlap in nature. The rounded form of the cheeks, slightly open mouth, and flared gills suggest the respiration and movement of the fish as it passes through the water.

In jarring contrast to this naturalistic image is the fish’s unusual profile. The inclusion of what looks like a very human nose suggests a composite being of the supernatural realm. The belief in a watery underworld inhabited by deities was widespread throughout Mesoamerica. At the Classic Veracruz city of El Tajín, scenes of ballgame-related rituals both on earth and in the underworld are carved on the walls of one of its many ball courts.

In one such scene, a man wearing a fish helmet sits in a water-filled temple, surrounded by supernatural figures. The unusual blending of fish and human elements on this hacha may reflect the widespread Mesoamerican belief that the ball court was a conduit, the game and its rituals a way of connecting humans to the deities dwelling in that realm. –Patricia Joan Sarro, 2017

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