Christina T. Halperin

Department of Anthropology, Université de Montréal, Montréal, Canada

Identifying humor in the archaeological record is enormously difficult, if not impossible, since laughter, irony, and fun are highly dependent on contextual circumstances. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that humor was a part of the past as much as it is a part of the present. This paper examines ancient Maya humor through the perspective of ceramic figurines. It argues that the materiality of Late and Terminal Classic (ca. 600-1000 CE) figurines was conducive to playfulness, making light of dark subjects, and the mocking of others. Similar to drawings and prints from other time periods, figurines embodied a visual art form that was, in relative terms, temporally fleeting, widely available, informal, and small in scale. The materiality of these figurines was particular to this moment in Maya history, as the subject matter, frequencies, and forms of figurines shifted during the Postclassic period (ca. 1000-1521 CE).

Keywords: figurines, Maya, Late Classic, Terminal Classic, Postclassic, materiality, humor, comedy, ritual clown, oral narrative, popular culture.


I wish to thank Juliette Testard and Brigitte Faugère for their kind invitation to be a part of this special section of papers on Mesoamerican figurines and for their patience during a year of global turmoil. In times of angst and great uncertainty, humor is often needed more than ever. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the conference “Past Laughter: Humor in Ancient America” at the Library of Congress in Washington (DC), and I would like to thank its organizer, Stephen Houston, for inviting me and providing a fun and stimulating space for thinking about ancient humor. I thank Prudence Rice and an anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments.

With a few notable exceptions (Beliaev and Davletshin 2006; Taube 1989; Taube and Taube 2009), the study of humor in ancient Maya society has been largely overlooked. There is good reason for this absence, as what makes one chuckle, break out into a smile, or laugh heartily is highly contextual. If humor is aroused by benign violations of the social norm, as Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren (2010) argue, it is hard to know when violations of the social norm are benign or outright offensive. In other words, there are a particular set of conditions that make something funny, from who the audience might be, the existence of a set of shared assumptions, to the historical circumstances of the moment. And as Simon Critchley (2002: 2) notes, “a joke explained is a joke misunderstood.” There is an inherent danger in overanalyzing what is meant to be fleeting, playful, and the antithesis of a serious study. Finding and understanding humor in the past is, thus, enormously difficult. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that humor was indeed a part of the past as much as it is a part of the present. Such an endeavor is enriched, in part, by drawing on ethnohistoric and ethnographic materials that mention the role of comedy, joking, and fun among Mesoamerican peoples. As Karl Taube (1989) and Rhonda Taube (Taube and Taube 2009) have shown, such humor can then be layered into the past through the iconographic analysis of ancient imagery, where “stock” characters, such as the duck-billed musician, the lecherous elderly man with the young maiden, the monkey grandmother, and the aged God N, are identified. In this paper, I draw from these types of analyses, but also underscore the materiality of humor. In particular, I argue that Late and Terminal Classic ceramic figurines (ca. 600-1000 CE) provided an ideal medium for eliciting a laugh, engaging in play, and highlighting the inversion of social norms—an aspect of their performative roles elucidated by the archaeological contexts of figurines themselves. Thus, which of the figurine characters may have been humorous? But also, how does humor emerge at the articulation of the material and immaterial? Materiality is about dynamic, affective, and highly contextual relationships between material objects and social experience (Malinowska and Lebek 2016; Miller 2005). Meaning, affect, and, for our purposes here, humor are not reducible to a particular material form or type of representation, but are generated at their intersection during particular moments in time and space. While jokes, the telling of funny stories, and impromptu comedic performances may not leave material traces, some Maya visual culture, and Late and Terminal Classic ceramic figurines in particular, were nonetheless likely entangled in the productions of humor in ancient Maya society. In comparing Late and Terminal Classic figurines with Postclassic figurines, however, I find that the materiality of figurines shifted, and their entanglement in the making of humor largely disappeared during the Postclassic period (ca. 1000-1521 CE).

Figurine characters and benign violations of the social norm

Although it is impossible to know for sure when artistic works were benign violations of the social norm, certain themes emerge as probable candidates (Critchley 2002). Among these are animal-human reversals, in which animals take on human-like characteristics or humans take on animal-like characteristics that allow for social commentary and highlight the playfulness of crossing boundaries. Monkeys, in particular, play this role nicely as they are so closely human without being human. In sacred Maya lore, such as the Popol Vuh, they are the ultimate tricksters and social deviants who are said to look “funny” with their bulging bellies (Tedlock 1996). In Classic period imagery, they appear as performers, sometimes hold musical instruments, wear cloth ear pendants characteristic of liminal figures, expose their male genitals, and cavort about (Figure 1) (Benson 1994; Halperin 2014: 127-130; Taube 1989). On the five festival days at the end of the year (uayeb), the Tzotzil Maya impersonate monkeys in public dance-dramas and street theatre. As Victoria Bricker (1973: 9) notes, these monkey performers “ignore the normative code in an orgy of drinking and obscene behavior. It is against this background that performances of ritual humor occur.” They make noises, taunt the audience with their jeers, and joke that they will carry the girls off to their tree branches, to the response of giggles and laughter from the audience (ibid: 94-95). Other animals in both contemporary and Classic periods play similar roles, such as the coati, the opossum, and dogs (Taube 1989; Taube and Taube 2009). Like monkeys, these animals are inherently playful, and lend themselves to ritual clowning and buffoonery. Figure 1 – Late and Terminal Classic period monkeys: a. monkey figurines from the Motul de San José region (Chächäklu’um, CHA1A-1-1-2a and Motul de San José, MSJ15A-26-1-1a; drawing by Luis F. Luin); b. monkey figurine with cloth ear pendants, Motul de San José, MSJ2A-40-5-4d (photograph by C. T. Halperin); c. monkey figurine with cloth ear pendants, Altar de Sacrificios (MUNAE7889; 43[d]-8; photograph by C. T. Halperin); d. monkey figurine with cloth ear pendants, Nixtun Ch’ich’, NC011 (photograph by C. T. Halperin); e. monkey figurine with cloth ear pendants, Nixtun Ch’ich’, NC035 (photograph by C. T. Halperin); f. monkey figurine with cloth ear pendants and tripartite headdress, Ceibal (MNUAE1602, photograph by C. T. Halperin); g. effigy goiter flute of monkey with cloth ear pendants and bulging belly (drawing by Luis F. Luin after Becquelin and Baudez 1982: fig. 268j); h. monkey with cloth ear pendants, Altar de Sacrificios (MUNAE7889; photograph by C. T. Halperin); i. monkey with cloth ear pendants, necklace, and erect penis, Altar de Sacrificios (MUNAE10097b; photograph by C. T. Halperin); j. macabre monkey way figure with cloth ear pendants and dish of eye ball, hand, and other body parts (drawing by Luis F. Luin after K1203). Outside the Maya area, some of the Colima dog figurines from the Late Preclassic period appear to exhibit a playful side. The most standard examples are with their four paws on the ground in an attentive, standing pose (Figure 2a). Deviations from this common composition may be reason for pause, self-reflection, and perhaps even humor. A few examples show two dogs playing or tickling each other. One striking example is in the standard dog pose, but with a mask of a human, inverting animal-human roles of who can imitate whom (Figure 2b). Were some of these dog figurines humorous? Figure 2 – Late Preclassic Colima dog figurines, West Mexico: a. standing dog, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, M.72.116 (25.72 × 15.88 × 35.88 cm); b. standing dog with human mask, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, M.86.296.154 (21.59 × 39.37 × 17.78 cm). Some Late and Terminal Classic figurines are also suggestive of comical reflection through imitation. As Rhonda Taube and Karl Taube (2009) have underscored, dwarf figurines sometimes hold balls at their hip, insinuating that they, too, play the ballgame (Figure 3e). Yet, the playing of the ballgame by dwarves, known trickster figures in contemporary Maya mythic traditions, was not likely a serious endeavor, as their small stature and squat form would have made such playing more ridiculous than competitive. In a rare scene of dwarves in the context of a ballgame from Step VII of the hieroglyphic stair at Yaxchilán, the play of the game would appear serious—and even macabre as the ball is made of a human captive—if it were not for two squat dwarves at the edge of the scene who pass gas from their buttocks (Figure 4) (Houston 1992). Figure 3 – Late and Terminal Classic dwarf figurines: a. molded figurine-ocarina, Nakum NKFC155; b. dwarf figurine head with animal ears, Nixtun Ch’ich’, NC092; c. dwarf figurine head with animal ears, Nixtun Ch’ich’, NC104; d. dwarf figurine-ocarina body, Nixtun Ch’ich’, NC09207; e. ball playing figurine-ocarina, Tikal, 68L-10; f. molded dwarf head, Seven Temples Complex, southern structures 90, 91, 92, Tikal, PP7TT134; g. molded dwarf figurine head with plug for insertion into molded or modeled body, Seven Temples Complex, southern structures 90, 91, 92, Tikal, PP7TT104; h. molded dwarf figurine-ocarina, Nixtun Ch’ich’, NC033 (all photographs by C. T. Halperin). Figure 4 – Flatulating dwarves on Yaxchilán hieroglyphic step, Panel 7, Structure 33 (courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University []). During the Late and Terminal Classic period, Fat Men were also part of the trickster and ritual clowning complex, as they appear to have sung and danced with dwarves (Figures 5, 6). They were also abnormally squat, fat, and short but differ from the dwarf in their jowly fat cheeks, closed or squinting eyes, and cotton body suit (Grube and Nahm 1994; Miller 1985; Taube 1989). In donning this cotton body suit, Fat Men imitate warriors who wear the cotton body suit for protection from lances and darts. Like the dwarf, their allusion to warriors through costume was likely not to indicate that they, too, were warriors, but a way to emphasize ridiculousness and comedic effect (Taube and Taube 2009). The possibility of such comedic imitations does not necessarily detract from their simultaneous sacred character, as ritual clowns elsewhere in the world, such as among the contemporary Hopi and Maidu, are considered both to be sacred and to serve as buffoons (Babcock 1984; Brightman 1999; Tedlock 1975). Such Fat Men did not always play the role of buffoons and ritual clowns, as their Late Preclassic versions in the form of potbelly stone sculptures and other media do not show any indication of their performative roles as dancers, as engaged in mimetic play, or as masked performers (or as the masks of human performers; see Figure 8d, f, g; Guernsey 2012; Taube 2004: 156-166), and thus underscore the historicity of what is potentially funny and when. Figure 5 – Dancing dwarf (left) and dancing Fat Man (right) flanking a Maya lord, unprovenanced column, Worcester Art Museum (drawing by Luis F. Luin). Figure 6 – Fat Men figurines: a. Terminal Classic molded Fat Man figurine-ocarina, Seven Temples Complex, southern structures 90, 91, 92, Tikal, PP7TT059; b. molded, paired Fat Men figurine-ocarina in dance poses, MNUAE8143; c. molded Late or Terminal Classic Fat Man figurine holding a fan in his right hand, Nixtun Ch’ich’, NC118 (note: scale bar applies to [a] and [c] only; all photographs by C. T. Halperin). In addition to dwarves and Fat Men, Late and Terminal Classic figurines showcase a seemingly infinite array of exaggerated, gruesome, and abnormally featured supernatural characters that stray from the conventional depictions of many Maya deities (Figure 7). They were undoubtedly part of a rich tradition of mythical trickster figures, ritual clowns, and spirit-companion characters. These figures also appear frequently on polychrome pottery with some named as way (or wahy), the evil spirits and co-essences of humans who have the capacity to inflict illness and who evoke the chaotic realm of darkness and the Underworld (Grube and Nahm 1994; Helmke and Nielsen 2009; Houston and Stuart 1989). These way figures also transgress social norms in that some are depicted as drunkards, as vomiting, sticking out their tongues, and unable to control their bodily functions. Yet they also have a macabre side in which they engage in ritual sacrifice, wear necklaces strung with eyeballs (Figure 1j), hold containers full of body parts, and are painted with signs of darkness (Grube 2004). In this sense, they may have had the capacity to make light of dark subjects. Figure 7 – Grotesque figurine fragments with wrinkles, exposed teeth, and gruesome and/or sunken faces: a. Motul de San José, MSJ17B-14-2-2a; b. Motul de San José, MSJ36F-2-2-3d; c. Motul de San José, MSJ46A-5-1-1a; d. Motul de San José, MSJ17B-15-2-2a; e. Trinidad de Nosotros, TRI10D-10-3-2c; f. Nakum, NKFC068; g. Ceibal, MNAE1292 (drawings by Luis F. Luin, photographs by C. T. Halperin). These figures have counterparts in Maya oral tradition today, such as the Zinacantan Blackman or h?ik’al, the Yucatecan alux and xtabai, the ijk’al or ñek among the Chol, and Wall Demon or špak’inte? among the Tzeltal (Hrdy 1972; Hopkins, Josserand, and Cruz Guzmán 2016; Laughlin 1977; Redfield 1962; Stross 1978; Thompson 1930). They, too, have physically exaggerated features. The Zinacantan Blackman or h?ik’al is short and black-skinned, has curly hair, and is endowed with a six-foot-long penis. The alux is a mischievous goblin-like figure about a foot high, lives in ancient pottery idols and mounds, and plays tricks on humans, such as braiding their hair during the night (Redfield 1962: 119-120). The Yucatecan xtabai is a crying female or ghost-like forest figure who is occasionally described as having a hollow back and who walks backwards. These mythical characters prey on drunks, test humans who veer from social norms, and are sexually licentious (Hrdy 1972: 147-150; Stross 1978: 35-36). While their abnormal physical appearances attest to their alterity, it is in the context of the telling of stories that their features, pranks, and inverted behavior stimulate laughter (Hopkins, Josserand, and Cruz Guzmán 2016: 145, 152). Likewise, it may have not always or necessarily been the Late and Terminal Classic figurines’ visual image itself that elicited humor, but rather their relational role in enriching the tradition of oral narratives whereby image and story helped conjure one another.

Ritual clowns

In addition to oral narratives, Mesoamerican peoples, alongside their neighbors in the US Southwest, have a long tradition of humorous performance genres in which ritual clowns play a central role (Babcock 1984; Bricker 1973; Brightman 1999; Tedlock 1975). From his visit to the Mexica royal court, Bernal Díaz del Castillo noted that Montezuma’s entourage included humpbacked dwarves who entertained the royal court at his meals. As he remarked, “These were his jesters. There were other Indians who told him jokes and must have been his clowns, and others who sang and danced” (Díaz del Castillo 1963: 227). Similarly, Ah Bam from the Colonial Yucatecan Cantares de Dzitbalché also notes that performers at Maya Uayeb ceremonies consisted of musicians, comedians, dancers, contortionists, jumpers, and hunchbacks, who gathered together in the main square to entertain spectators (Barrera Vásquez 1965: 71). Contemporary Maya dance-dramas, carnivals, and festivals indicate that spectators and more informal participants may also participate in the ritual clowning and antics of public festivities. For example, contemporary Maya carnival festivities in Chamula in Chiapas, Mexico, include the participation of “dependent” monkeys who possess formal performative roles alongside other stock characters, such as the Spanish Lady, the Ritual Advisor’s Wife, and the Passions. More informal “independent” monkeys, however, are also present and can be played by anyone who wants to dress up and engage in festive antics (including children). They mock authority figures and cause general disruption (Bricker 1973: 93-98, fig. 13). These more informal performers add to the more chaotic, spontaneous, and humorous aspect of the festivities (see also Hutcheson 2009). In turn, some indigenous dances, such as the masked dances of the convites of Momostenago, Guatemala, are highly receptive to change and improvisation. Rather than conforming to a fixed narrative and plot, they incorporate the very latest sources of social reflection and commentary, with dancers wearing masks of current world leaders and the latest horror movie characters alongside more traditional masked figures of monkeys and those inverting social roles (i.e. men portraying drunk women), to create comedic effects within an indigenous Maya cultural logic of performance (Taube 2009). Late and Terminal Classic figurines also underscore the public performative nature of many of the figurine characters, indicating that these animal-like and supernatural beings were not just characters in oral traditions, but also came to life during ancient festivities, ceremonies, and dance-dramas (Halperin 2014: 94-142; Houston 2006; Inomata 2006; Looper 2009: 215-219). Figurines often depict characters holding dance fans (Figures 4, 6c), playing musical instruments, and positioned in dance poses (Figure 6b). Likewise, a suite of Late and Terminal Classic figurines have been shown with masks or represented as masked performers. While many ancient masked dances and dance-dramas were likely sacred and highly serious, the fact that some of the masked figurines also include monkeys, Fat Men, and other grotesque and trickster-like figures suggests that some ancient performances may have had a lighter side as well (Figure 8). In one unprovenanced Late Classic figurine from the Princeton University Art Museum (Halperin 2014, fig. 4: 10), a dwarf is depicted in dance pose with a mask of a dwarf—an unusual twist in which the ritual clown appears to be imitating himself! Indeed, trickster figures in Native North American folktales, such as Coyote, are known to make themselves the butt of their own jokes (Erdoes and Ortiz 1984: 335-386). Figure 8 – Masked performers: a. removable figurine mask with tongue sticking out, Aguateca, #120 AG31A-9-1-1 (drawing by A. Román, courtesy of Reiko Ishihara-Brito); b. masked monkey figurine, Altar de Sacrificios, MUNAE10089c (photograph by C. T. Halperin); c. masked monkey figurine, Altar de Sacrificios, MUNAE10089b (photograph by C. T. Halperin); d. removable figurine mask with puckered lips, puffy cheeks, and tripartite mohawk, Trinidad de Nosotros, Petén Lakes region, TRI10D-9-1-3a (drawing by Luis F. Luin); e. ritual clowns with puckered lips and puffy cheeks similar to Trinidad de Nosotros figurine [d] (drawing by C. T. Halperin from detail of Late Classic Ik’ style vessel, K2025); f. figurine-ocarina of man with Fat Man mask on his head, Aguateca (drawing by C. T. Halperin after Inomata 1995: fig. 7.3); g. Fat Man mask, Aguateca, FG189 (drawing by A. Román, courtesy of Reiko Ishihara-Brito).

Materiality of humor

Certain types of media lend themselves more freely to a smile or a chuckle. Media that are temporally fleeting, widely available, informal, and small in scale are particularly conducive to laughter and social introspection. It is no coincidence that a 2018 exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington (DC) entitled “Sense of Humor” and featuring comical and satirical visual art from the Renaissance to the 20th century showcased not sculptures or paintings but prints and drawings. They included the works of William Hogarth, James Gillray, and the Guerrilla Girls, among various other artists.[1] As the curators professed: try to think of a painting that is funny—you can’t, they hardly exist. Leonardo da Vinci, who was known for some of the Renaissance’s most famous and austere paintings, for example, also created caricature drawings that distorted human features for humorous effect—the playful antithesis of his mathematical search for ideal beauty (Clayton 2018). Likewise, Miguel Covarrubias, who is one of the most renowned contemporary Mexican painters, was also a skilled caricaturist, making fun of politicians, socialites, and even himself with his exaggerated and simplistic drawings (Figure 9) (Cox and Jones Anderson 1985). Many of his drawings were featured in Vanity Fair and the New Yorker during the 1920s and 1930s, underscoring their role in popular print media. Figure 9 – Mocking self-portrait with an Olmec-style head, drawing by Miguel Covarrubias (drawing by C. T. Halperin after the digital original). Just prior to Covarrubias, however, visual humor soared in Mexico with José Guadalupe Posada’s printed broadsides during the Mexican Revolution. Printed by Antonio Vanegas Arroyo on cheap tissue paper and sold by book vendors and on the street for a penny, these prints made fun of the elite, politicians, soldiers, and they inverted the angsts of Mexican society in depicting contemporary figures as calaveras. These skeletal figures were often accompanied by poems and songs with funny lyrics. The Calaveras del montón, for example, makes it clear that anyone can be debased through ridicule, even Francisco Madero, the Mexican revolutionary leader and later president of Mexico (Figure 10). Similar to Classic period Maya way figures depicted on polychrome pottery and ceramic figurines, Posada drew humor from the macabre—the making light of dark things. While prints were an ideal medium for humor between the 18th and 20th centuries, it is undeniable that the internet and its memes are a hotbed for the funny during the 21st century. Indeed, the internet is the epitome of the temporally fleeting, widely available, and informal (Figure 11). Figure 10 – Calaveras del montón, número 1 print (40.1 × 29.5 cm); artist, José Guadalupe Posada; printer Antonio Vanegas Arroyo; Library of Congress, 1910LC-DIG-ppmsc-03450. Figure 11 – Westly from The Princess Bride predicts Covid-19, internet meme, 2020 (, accessed on 30/06/21). During the Late and Terminal Classic periods, Maya ceramic figurines were some of the smallest and most temporally fleeting, widely available, and informal of visual media. An understanding of this materiality, however, is best illuminated through its archaeological context of production and discard. While Late and Terminal Classic ceramic figurines were likely valuable and enchanting items that could, in most cases, play music as whistles, ocarinas, rattles, or flutes (Halperin 2019), they do not appear to have been inalienable possessions that were curated in the way that jade figurines and other lapidary sculpted works were curated over time (Kovacevich 2013; Mora-Marín 2008; Rich et al. 2010). Nor were Late and Terminal Classic figurines typical objects placed in temple caches, under stone monuments, or as offerings in the most formal, sacred contexts. Instead, they were discarded regularly in trash deposits from residential contexts and, in some cases, at the edges of ceremonial plaza spaces (Ekholm 1979; Halperin 2014: 186-202; Hammond 1975: 372-374). At many Southern Lowland and some Highland Maya sites,[2] they were ubiquitous items in household inventories. Sites that were rapidly abandoned reveal that both elite and commoner households had not just one figurine, but multiple figurines at a time—underscoring that they were not unique items (Brown, Simmons, and Sheets 2002; Inomata and Triadan 2010). In some cases, such as in the Petén Lakes region, households possessed multiple, identical figurines made from the same mold, and identical figurines made from the same mold or mold set were occasionally found both in elite palatial contexts and in modest households in site peripheries (Halperin 2014: 167-174). Most figurines from midden contexts are not drawn or photographed in publications since many are too eroded or fragmentary to provide details of their iconography. In turn, highly eroded and fragmentary specimens are never exhibited in museums. Yet the sheer quantity of figurines found as discarded items in trash deposits suggests that they were highly disposable items that could be replenished from regular markets, community vendors, and festival-fairs (Halperin et al. 2009). For example, excavations at the site of Pook’s Hill, Belize, recovered 171 Late and Terminal Classic figurines from a single, medium-sized household compound. All of the figurines were found in discarded contexts (midden, humus, collapse, and secondary midden), and none were recovered from any of the burial or caches from the site (Halperin 2014: Appendix 5.2). Excavations (1998-2005) at the site of Motul de San José and environs recovered 2,767 figurines primarily from discard contexts with only 0.11% from cache or burial contexts (Halperin 2014: Appendix 5.1). Excavations of the Seven Temples Complex at Tikal recovered Terminal Classic figurines in discarded, fragmentary conditions (n = 195, 97.5%) in the domestic buildings at the southern side of the complex. In contrast, none of the many caches from the seven temples lining the eastern side of the complex contained figurines. And only a small quantity (n = 5, 2.5%) of figurines (all broken) were found in the middens in the temple or central patio zones of the complex (Halperin 2017: 532). Some spectacular exceptions to these typical archaeological contexts, however, certainly exist. Late or Terminal Classic complete figurines are occasionally placed in caches in residences, palaces, or burials. The most notable examples come from the island of Jaina, where complete figurines were commonly placed with the deceased, although other cases throughout the Southern Maya Lowlands reveal that multiple figurines were sometimes placed together in a scene or as part of an ensemble of characters (Benavides 2012; Cheong 2013; Freidel and Rich 2017; Miller 2019; Piña Chán 1968, 2001; Sears 2016: fig. 7.3, 7.5). In turn, these figurines tend to be the frequent subjects of museum exhibits and scholarly interpretation. With the use of molds, ceramic figurines were as easily produced as they were discarded (Figure 12). Unlike the mural painting traditions, the scribal arts, and the crafting of fine polychromes with glyphic texts and figural scenes, Late and Terminal Classic period Maya ceramic figurine production was not restricted to palace contexts or to the most elite of artisans. Figurine molds have been found in both elite and commoner households from sites throughout the Southern Maya Lowlands, indicating that their production could have been undertaken by both elite and common people (Halperin 2014: Appendix 5.7; 2019). While some free-standing figurines were a mix of finely modeled and molded parts and demanded both refined skills and substantial labor investments, the majority of molded figurines were easily made in vertical half-molds (Halperin 2014; Ivic de Monterroso 2002; Sears 2017). Figure 12 – Figurine molds: a. Terminal Classic figurine mold and positive impression of a dwarf head and crude face on the mold backing, Structure T241, Tayasal, TY164, Lot 81362; scale bar only applies to (a); b. Late Classic mold and positive impression of a Fat Man, unprovenanced, MUNAE5909 (all photographs by C. T. Halperin). Another part of figurine materialities was, of course, their small size, which is conducive to more intimate audiences and human-material engagements (Bailey 2005). Humor is situationally and context dependent. For example, Robert Redfield (1962: 191) noted that contemporary Yucatecan “men find jokes dealing with sexual experiences, defecation, and urination vastly amusing. The double entendre is common in anecdote and in riddle. Between the sexes [, however,] such jesting is in poor taste or worse.” Thus, more intimate engagements with figurines may have allowed for more subtle nuances in meaning, intention, and appropriateness of audience. As many have noted previously, the rich array of trickster, way, animal, and informal supernatural figures, as well as the broad range of human characters, appear primarily on small-scale imagery, such as ceramic figurines and polychrome vessels (Grube and Nahm 1994; Halperin 2009; Houston and Stuart 1989; Joyce 1993; Taube and Taube 2009). For example, an unprovenanced polychrome vase dubbed “The regal rabbit vase” (K1398) depicts a rare scene of what was likely a longer mythic folktale of a trickster rabbit stealing the loincloth and insignia of God L. The imagery depicts the rabbit standing over a humiliated and naked God L, and the hieroglyphic text records the rabbit saying to him: “Pulu ‘a-jo’l ‘uhtz’u ‘aw-itz k’uul-is Pah-’aat!” or “Tear off your head, smell the urine, penis, Pah-’Aat!”, further humiliating him with “low-brow” language atypical of glyphic texts (Beliav and Davletshin 2006: 25). As Dimitri Beliav and Albert Davletshin (ibid.) note, the owner of the vase, the Naranjo king K’ahk’ Tiliw Cha’n Chaahk, likely considered the vase funny and entertaining. Such a vase, however, was too small in scale to be available for widespread public consumption, and was probably shared only among select audiences. In contrast to both polychrome vessels and figurines, however, large-scale Maya sculpture and public works engaged with more formalized, canonical themes of rulership and sacred cosmologies. Although large sculptural works do have the potential to be humorous, such as the possibility of the dwarf figures from the hieroglyphic stair from Yaxchilán noted above, they are relatively rare (see also Halperin and Martin 2020: 822-825). Outside the Maya area, one may also point to other exceptions, such as the large fat bronze sculptures by 20th-century Colombian artist Francisco Botero, which are highly ambivalent, or a recently installed pair of bronze sculptures by Marc A. J. Fortier in Montreal’s Old Port that was inspired by the tradition of commedia dell’arte. The bronze sculptures stand on opposite sides of the main plaza, one representing an Englishman wearing a large snout mask in comedic fashion and a pug in his arms while the other represents a Frenchwoman also with a snout mask, but holding a poodle. Although they look away from each other in disdain, they portray the ironic connection between the Anglophone and Francophone worlds of Canada through their dogs, which look longingly at each other. To really “get” the irony, one must also have a sense of the historical tensions between these groups. Nevertheless, permanent public artistic traditions, both in the Maya area and elsewhere in the world, tend to avoid what can be a very fine line between funny and offensive.

Postclassic figurines

Maya figurine traditions continued into the Postclassic period, but the imagery depicted, their frequencies, and their meanings shifted. Dwarves and Fat Men disappeared as subjects of figurine imagery (Figures 13, 14). Molded female figurines, often with elaborate accoutrements and clothing denoting their high status, were especially prominent during the Postclassic period (Figures 13a, F14b, c) (Graham 1991; Halperin 2017; Ichon et al. 1980: 203-205; Masson and Peraza Lope 2011; Rands 1965). Male figurines were also present in smaller quantities, although such relative frequencies vary by region (Figure 13b). For example, modeled male figurines (warriors, penis blood-letting figures, musicians, etc.) and modeled zoomorphic figurines dominate the Postclassic assemblage at Santa Rita Corozal, Belize. These figurines were largely recovered from in situ cache contexts and represent offerings of some kind (Chase 1985, 1991; Chase and Chase 2008). Monkey figurines continued in the Postclassic period, although they are relatively rare in comparison to serpents, reptiles, different types of birds, and aquatic animals (Chase and Chase 2008: 86; Masson and Peraza Lope 2011: 130-131). Figure 13 – Postclassic figurines from the Petén Lakes region, Guatemala: a. molded elderly female figurine with double quechquemitl and feathered headdress, Ixlú IX005 (note perforated holes at lateral sides); b. molded and appliqued male figurine, possibly Xiuhtecuhtli, Museo San Bernabé, Lake Petén Itza (note perforated holes at lateral sides); c. female figurine nursing an infant, molded and modeled, Callejon Remolino, Flores (all photographs by C. T. Halperin). In general, fewer figurines were produced during the Postclassic period, and those that were produced appear to have been less disposable. For example, if we use ceramic-to-figurine ratios as an estimate, Petén Lakes region figurines were not as ubiquitous during the Postclassic period as they were during the Late and Terminal Classic periods (Halperin 2017: Table 3). Similarly, at the Postclassic site of Mayapan, Marilyn Masson and Carlos Peraza Lope (2011: 124; my translation) note that “the fact that our excavation sampling program of middens recovered few figurines suggests that they were curated and were not discarded in middens.” Figurines continued to be associated with domestic contexts during the Postclassic period and are sometimes associated with household altars (Halperin 2017: 533). One possibility is that they were part of divining or healing kits that were taken out and handled during times of need, illness, or life crisis rituals, as has been suggested for Postclassic figurines elsewhere in Mesoamerica (Brumfiel and Overholtzer 2009; Klein and Lona 2009; Smith 2002). Figurines also appear to have been more frequently found in household cache and burial contexts than during earlier times (Chase and Chase 2008; Masson and Peraza Lope 2011), although systematic temporal comparisons are lacking. Postclassic figurine forms also changed significantly. Although small zoomorphic figurine whistles continued into the Postclassic period (Figure 14a), most figurines no longer possessed musical functions. Many of the Postclassic hollow molded figurines could stand upright, but they often also possessed suspension holes at their sides, indicating that they could hang from rafters, tree branches, or people’s necks (Figures 13a, b; Figures 14b). In general, such changes in figurine imagery, frequencies, and forms do not mean that ritual clowning, humorous stories, and funny characters disappeared in Postclassic Maya society. As attested by the ethnohistoric and ethnographic data, they continued on in the context of public performances and folk stories, but largely without the aid of ceramic figurines as a discursive visual component of such traditions. Figure 14 – Postclassic figurines from the Maya Highlands: a. modeled zoomorphic whistle, Cauinal, Guatemala (modified after Ichon et al. 1980: fig. 190); b. molded female figurine with infant and animal (modified after Ichon et al. 1980: fig. 191); c. molded Early Postclassic Plumbate female figurine with quechquemitl, decorated skirt, and tubular nose ornament (after Shepard 1978: fig. 29g).


Relatively rare Late and Terminal Classic figurines from burials and in situ archaeological deposits provide stunning and enchanting figurines for contemporary audiences and scholars to contemplate their subject matters and to assess their depositional histories. Despite the significance of these finds, thousands if not millions of fragmentary Late and Terminal Classic figurines from midden deposits and construction fill contexts are, nonetheless, testimony to their temporally fleeting, widely available, and informal nature during ancient times. Such relative attributes do not signify that Late and Terminal ceramic figurines were always humorous—in fact, most figurines likely were not. Nonetheless, the materiality of these figurines during this particular period—combined with a subject matter that inverted social norms, exaggerated human and animal features, portrayed ulterior trickster figures, and referenced mimetic performances—forged a popular culture that had the potential to crack a smile or even be downright funny. In this sense, humor is not inherently produced from a specific material form or representation. Rather, it emerges at the intersection between these material affordances and oral narratives, cultural knowledge, the social context, and the historical specificity of the moment.


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[1], accessed on 30/06/21.

[2] Some regions of the Maya area, however, did not produce or consume figurines prolifically. For example, during the Late Classic period, figurine traditions were not strong in the northeastern Maya Lowlands or in certain parts of Belize.

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