Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Rabbit Scribe's Adventures

One of the icons on the Ancient Scripts home page is a rabbit scribe, a seemingly anthropomorphic bunny using a brush to jot down some ceremony he is witnessing. It is my favorite characters out of all Maya painted works, not only because it is so well executed artistically but also because of the story that is hinted. A story of whimsy and humor.

I have had the pleasure to see this rabbit in person. The pottery that he resides upon, a tall cylinder cup used to drink chocolate, was on exhibit a few years ago at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco and I managed to see the collection. I was quite surprised to see how small the cup was, and as a consequence, how fine the lines of the painting. It must've been a very experienced artist with a very sure hand who did it.

Fortunately, archaeological photographer Justin Kerr has taken rollout pictures of a good number of Maya vases and placed them on the web at And for your viewing please, this is the home of the rabbit scribe, the so-called Princeton Vase.

The scenery of the cup was very detailed. It is most likely a depiction of the Maya Underworld. The rabbit scribe is actually writing into a book bound in jaguar pelt. Above him, on the platform, is a group of women surrounding an old man in a wide-brimmed hat. To the left are two masked-and-head-dressed men wearing jaguar pelts in the processing of executing a bound prisoner on the ground.

The old man is likely God L (the name is still undeciphered), a god associated with trade, sorcery, and war. But despite his fearsome reputation, in this scene he looks nothing more than a lecherous old geezer, sweet-talking to the nubile woman in front of him. Behind God L is a lady eavesdropping on him, and below her are two girls, one pouring chocolate from a cylinder vase and the other waiting to drink the liquid. A really neat detail is the lady watching the execution is tapping the foot of the woman God L is hitting on with her finger.

The two men in masks are probably the Hero Twins, sons of the Maize God summoned to the Underworld to endure a series of trials and tribulations, all of which potentially fatal. According to the 16th-century Quiche Maya epic Popol Vuh, having realized they'll never be set free until they were dead, at their last trial they threw themselves into the fire and were burnt into ash. The ash were thrown into the river where they came back to life and became a duo of wandering entertainers that delighted the denizens of Xibalba by performing feats of magic such as sacrificing each other and then resurrect him. The lords of Xibalba heard of these magical feats and summoned them to their court, where they defeated Xibalbal by tricking God L's cohorts into offering themselves for sacrifice. The scene on the Princeton vase is most likely a moment from the disguised Hero Twins back in God L's court dispatching a god of underworld.

In most sources, both Popol Vuh and Classic vases, the narrative continues with the Hero Twins resurrecting their father, the Maize God, who was also killed by Xibalba many years earlier, transforming into sky gods (the sources don't agree on who becoming what), and leading to the beginning of the current world and of humanity.

But what happened to God L? In Popol Vuh, the equivalent of God L was killed, but it seems that in Classic times God L survived but is stripped of his clothes, jewelry, and hat and humiliated by the resurrected Maize God and the Hero Twins.

On the left that looks like one angry Maize God yelling and stomping on a lord of Xibalba. In the middle, God L is taking off his loincloth (!) which the dwarf is demanding. In Mesoamerica, complete nudity in males is a sign of complete defeat, and so the bare state of the lords of Xibalba indicate their defeat and humiliation.

The story continues in a vase from Naranjo with a reappearance of none other than the rabbit, who has stolen the bundle containing God L's possessions.

Starting on the right, the rabbit is holding a bundle in one hand and a staff and a headdress in the other. Note that staff is the same as the dwarf was holding earlier. He is standing on a mountain or earth monster in front of God L (in his godly appearance), who appears to be arguing with the rabbit to give back his possessions. This argument was apparently fruitless, as in the next scene on the left, God L has supplicated himself in front of the Sun God and the speech scroll emanating from his mouth says that the rabbit has stolen his possessions and he asks if the Sun God has seen the thief. In response, the Sun God says that the rabbit is not with him, and addresses God L as "grandfather", although whether that is an actual familial relationship or a figure of speech in reference to an older man is unknown. What is truly fun is that the rabbit is actually hiding behind the Sun God.

The story concludes in the final vase in which the rabbit is finally "apprehended".

In this scene, the Moon Goddess on the right (identified by a stylized moon) is holding out the rabbit, who still has the hat and cloak of God L (still in godly appearance and unclothed). The poor old God L is half-kneeling in front of the Moon Goddess. In all likelihood, the rabbit is forced to give back God L's possessions.

Does the rabbit get punished for this episode? Nobody knows. Maybe it was a light punishment, because the rabbit is also the constant companion of the Moon Goddess, as depicted in countless sculptures and vases. Maybe he got away without consequence at all. That trickster thief. But don't we all love a good ruffian, especially a cute and cuddly one? Or maybe he was the distant ancestor of Bugs Bunny?

On that note, it's back to the 21st century.

All images used on this post are copyright Justin Kerr.

Dialogue between God L and Sun God taken from:

"The First-Person Singular Independent Pronoun in Classic Ch’olan", Kerry Hull, Michael D. Carrasco and Robert Wald, Mexicon, Vol 31 No 2, April 2009,


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  4. Greeting, There is this vase in the where a rabbit is shown playing a drum with a monkey, i would love to know your thoughts about it.

  5. Greeting, There is this vase in the where a rabbit is shown playing a drum with a monkey, i would love to know your thoughts about it.