July 6, 2016

Jade in Ancient Meso-American & Chinese Funerary Rites

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The two images above of the funerary mask of Lord Pakal (603-683 A.D.), a Mayan ruler, and the burial suit of Prince Liu Sheng (c.135-113 B.C.) of the Chinese Han dynasty represent the different ways in which ancient civilisations utilised jade in their funerary rituals. In both ancient China and pre-Columbian Meso-America, jade was revered as not only precious but sacred and reserved for royalty, especially in their deaths.

Several Meso-American civilisations used jade in their funerary practices, including the Olmec (1000-400 B.C.), the late Yucatec Maya (100 B.C-900 A.D.), the Aztec (1000-1521 A.D.), and the Zoned Bichrome Period peoples of northern Costa Rica (300 B.C.-300 A.D.). Figurative jade pieces that have been excavated from Olmec burial sites in the present-day Mexican state of Tabasco show that the Olmecs preferred jades of a translucent blue-green quality, while the Mayans preferred bright green ones. Linguistically, as is the case in Aztec Nahuatl, many Mayan languages considered ‘blue’ and ‘green’ the same colour but regarded them as different hues. This provides one reason for why the Mayans painted their gods blue in their temple reliefs, as opposed to the skins of mortals, which they painted red: if ‘blue’ and ‘green’ were the same colour to them, then green jade and blue paint would have served the same purpose of indicating sacredness. The same sacred significance was also placed on Costa Rican jade, however, unlike the Mayans who used jade in both domestic and mortuary contexts, jade in Costa Rica was restricted from personal adornment and used solely for funerary purposes.

The death mask of Lord Pakal was found alongside a trove of other jade adornments when it was discovered in 1952 in a crypt below the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque in Mexico. With the mask found inside the Mayan ruler’s sarcophagus were jade ear-spools, necklaces, and rings. A large jade was held in each hand and another was placed in the mouth, a practice also documented for the Aztec and Chinese.

The Chinese reverence for jade dates back to the Neolithic era and still continues to this day. During the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), jade cicadas were placed in the mouths of deceased royals as symbols of cyclical resurrection, and jade pigs were placed in their hands. Jade burial suits such as the one above were also made for the nobility, although the type of thread used to hold the jade pieces together differed according to the status of the individual. According to the Book of Later Han (後漢書), gold thread was reserved for emperors; silver thread for princes, princesses, dukes, and marquises; copper thread for the sons or daughters of those given silver thread; and silk thread for minor aristocrats. Amusingly enough, despite the material worth of jade, Emperor Wen of Wei in 223 A.D. apparently ordered the practice of jade suits to be stopped because they attracted tomb looters who would burn the suits to harvest the gold thread.

 

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