Ancient Mesoamerica


(Rab'inal Achi in its historical and symbolic context)

Ruud  van Akkeren a1
a1 Center for Non-Western Studies (CNWS), University of Leiden, Nonnensteeg 1–3, P.O. Box 9515, 2300 RA Leiden, The Netherlands


In pre-Columbian times the famous dance drama, known as the Rab'inal Achi, but whose indigenous name is Xajoj Tun, ended in a human sacrifice. A comparative study of the native documents shows that the victim, an important prisoner of war, died by being shot with arrows. The tun dance was part of a larger festival, which served propagandistic aims. The ritual of the arrow sacrifice highlighted crucial political moments, for example, when new lords were installed, titles were handed out, or glorious battles that led to the power and hegemony of one or more ruling lineages were commemorated. In the case of the Rab'inal Achi, it is the heroic past of the Toj lineage, rulers in Late Postclassic Rab'inal, that proves to be the main subject. Interestingly, when focusing on the language used to describe the arrow sacrifice, we see that the victim, who was tied to a scaffold, a stake, or a column, was considered game, and the archers as hunters. The stake had a symbolic meaning, as well. It represented a tree of life, a tree we have come to know as the World Tree growing in the center of the earth and holding up the sky. In the Rab'inal Achi, that tree, the place where the Warrior of K'iche' is shot, is named the Maize Tree, the same fictitious tree that is depicted on the Tablet of the Foliated Cross of Palenque.