From Moon Goddesses to Virgins

[ Latin American Studies ]

From Moon Goddesses to Virgins

The Colonization of Yucatecan Maya Sexual Desire

By Pete Sigal

This highly innovative book decodes the process through which the colonization of Yucatecan Maya sexual desire occurred.



33% website discount price

This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.


6 x 9 | 344 pp. | 14 illustrations

ISBN: 978-0-292-77753-8

For the preconquest Maya, sexuality was a part of ritual discourse and performance, and all sex acts were understood in terms of their power to create, maintain, and destroy society. As postconquest Maya adapted to life under colonial rule, they neither fully abandoned these views nor completely adopted the formulation of sexuality prescribed by Spanish Catholicism. Instead, they evolved hybridized notions of sexual desire, represented in the figure of the Virgin Mary as a sexual goddess, whose sex acts embodied both creative and destructive components.

This highly innovative book decodes the process through which this colonization of Yucatan Maya sexual desire occurred. Pete Sigal frames the discussion around a series of texts, including the Books of Chilam Balam and the Ritual of the Bacabs, that were written by seventeenth and eighteenth century Maya nobles to elucidate the history, religion, and philosophy of the Yucatecan Maya communities. Drawing on the insights of philology, discourse analysis, and deconstruction, he analyzes the sexual fantasies, fears, and desires that are presented, often unintentionally, in the "margins" of these texts and shows how they illuminate issues of colonialism, power, ritual, and gender.

  • List of Illustrations
  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • Notes on Transcription and Translation
  • Searching for the Moon Goddess
    • To Desire the Moon Goddess
    • Sexual Desire
    • Colonial Maya Sexual Acts
    • Colonial Maya Sexual Ideas
    • The Historian's Method
  • Religion and Family
    • Religion
    • Family
    • Revisiting Hybridity
  • Framing Maya Sexual Desire
    • Defining the Hybrid Cultural Matrix
    • Sex,Gender,and War
    • Colonizing Sin
    • Performing the Hybrid
  • Fornicating with Priests, Communicating with Gods
    • Having Sex in a Church
    • Strategic Inversions
    • Excess Sex: Adultery, Rape, and the Commoners
    • Thinking of Sex
  • The Unvirgin Virgin
    • The Moon Goddess
    • The Appearance of the Virgin Mary
    • The Moon Goddess and the Virgin
    • The Language of Virginity
    • The Resilience of the Moon Goddess
  • Gender, Lineage, and the Blood of the Rulers
    • Bodies of Kings
    • The Blood of the Name
    • Blood, Naming,and Masculinity
  • Blood, Semen, and Ritual
    • Blood of the Vagina
    • Blood of the Penis
    • Phallic Motions and Transsexual Bodies
    • Gendered Blood and Transsexual Bodies
  • Transsexuality and the Floating Phallus
    • The Phallus without a Body
    • Transsexuality
    • Colonialism, Oedipus, and the Floating Phallus
  • Ritualized Bisexuality
    • Sodomites, Homosexuals, Bisexuals
    • Activity and Passivity
    • Pedagogy, Pederasty,and Political Power
    • Sexual Control
  • Finding the Virgin Mary
    • Sexual Acts, Symbols, and Desires
    • Theorizing Hybridity and Sexuality
  • Notes
  • Abbreviations
  • Bibliography
  • Index

In 1517 a conquest expedition left the island of Cuba on its way to Yucatán, a peninsula southwest of Cuba and southeast of what was to become central Mexico. This group failed in its attempt at conquest, but not before one of its members, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, was able to make a series of observations. Díaz, writing his recollections decades later, remembered the people of Yucatán primarily as a deceitful and hostile group who used priests to engage in threats and even to kill people. Yucatecan people, according to Díaz, celebrated sodomy, practiced human sacrifice, and enslaved men, women, and children. After several brief expeditions around the coast of the peninsula, the Spanish went on to conquer central Mexico before they returned, and in the 1540s they finally conquered much of Yucatán.

Yucatán of the early sixteenth century was populated by a group of the descendants of the people responsible for the religious/urban centers and pyramids most often associated with the Maya. Most of these centers emanated from the Classic period (A.D. 250-900), although several of the Yueatecan sites (Chichén Itzá and Mayapán, for example) were used primarily during Postclassic times. The Maya, however, by the time of the Spanish conquest, had abandoned the major sites and had settled into independent farming communities. Still, they maintained a society with significant social stratification. This Maya society was divided based on class, ethnicity, and lineage, a fact that did not escape its would-be conquerors.

Given Díaz's moral objections to certain aspects of Maya culture, one might think that the Spaniards would have placed great emphasis on changing these elements. Yet this was not entirely the case, and a complete spiritual and cultural conquest never took place. Instead, the Maya ethical system in place at the time of the conquest changed dramatically, but in a manner that Díaz and his fellow Spaniards could not have predicted. The Maya ethical system changed into a hybridized form, one in which the two systems (Maya and Spanish) mixed to create something which did not replicate either of the prior two. The new hybridized ethical system was based on broader cultural changes: the ways in which Maya people made sense of their world were colonized and forever altered.

This book analyzes the hybridization of one complex element of this culture: sexual desire. For the Maya sexual desire was placed in a cultural framework centered around ritual. The rituals as a whole promoted warfare and sacrifice to maintain the gods. For the Spanish sexual desire was placed in a cultural framework related to sin. The hybridization of these two frameworks did not allow sex to be connected to sacrifice; nor did it subsume sex under the rubric of sin. Instead, for the colonial Maya, sex became connected with cultural system related to the shedding of blood, the maintenance of lineage, and the connection with supernatural forces. While this system certainly related closely to concepts of sacrifice and sin, the very definitions of these elements were changed by the centuries of colonization and hybridization.

This book is the first manuscript that I know of to use Maya-language documents in order to study sexual desire. The discussion is framed around a series of texts, mainly written by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Maya nobles, which were intended to show the history, religion, and philosophy of the Maya communities in Yucatán. In every case I find that the texts discuss, both directly and metaphorically, the genders, bodies, and sexual desires of the Maya peoples, often distinguishing the thoughts and actions of the people inside the local community from those of all others. Preconquest Maya ideas were used by individuals, lineage groups, and communities to gain various advantages over others. The same took place during the colonial era, although the context changed. The arguments were sexualized debates about political, social, cultural, and economic issues. I argue that by the late colonial period Maya sexual ideas, fantasies, and fears had changed dramatically. The alterations which took place were the results of a colonialism dominated by the force of hybridity (the development of something, in this case a culture, from the mixing of two other things where the resulting mixture was a new element—not just a structure which had some of the qualities of each of the other two), rather than a complete repression of Maya culture.

This book is organized around various aspects of desire and power. I strive both to give the reader an introduction to Maya ways of describing sexual desire and to create an understanding of the ways in which sex in general has been constructed. The reader may understand these dual purposes more adequately in each chapter, where theoretical models are critiqued on the basis of Yucatec examples.

The first two chapters are designed to introduce the material and orient the reader. The first chapter, "Searching for the Moon Goddess," provides an overview, focusing on the theoretical and methodological contexts for this study. The second chapter, "Religion and Family," provides the reader with an analysis of these two aspects of Maya culture. This chapter is designed to present the reader with the central elements of colonial Maya society which related to sexual desire. The context of Maya sexual desire during the colonial period was both a hybridized religion and a family structure based on preconquest Maya ideas of extended lineage groups and Catholic ideas of the smaller family unit.

Chapters 3 through 5 more specifically present the context and "reality" of Maya sexual desires during the colonial period. Even though this entire manuscript focuses more on mental processes than on behaviors, these chapters provide an analysis of the ways in which Mayas and Spaniards viewed what they perceived to be actual sexual acts. These chapters thus analyze elements of the struggle (related to sexual perceptions) between colonial rule and Maya tradition which led to the strategy of hybridization. Chapter 3, "Framing Maya Sexual Desire," relates the cultural frameworks of sin and warfare to sexual ideas. Chapter 4, "Fornicating with Priests, Communicating with Gods," analyzes the textual discussion of actual sexual acts. It begins with the topic of "strategic inversion," presenting a case made against four "fornicating priests," and goes onto discuss differences and similarities between Spanish and Maya ideas. Chapter 5, "The Unvirgin Virgin," discusses in detail the colonial coding of the Virgin Mary, of the Moon Goddess, and of virginity itself. In this chapter I deconstruct the Maya concept of virginity to make a series of points related to hybridity and conceptual translation.

Chapters 6 through 9 shift the focus somewhat from daily sexual activities and perceptions to ritual processes. The signification of ritual activity allows me to present the relationship that I have found between various rituals and the colonial coding of Maya sexual desire. It is in these chapters that the reader will find an analysis of colonial Maya fantasies and fears. For it is here that I am able to reconstruct rituals in such a way as to promote some understanding of Maya imaginations. Chapter 6, "Gender, Lineage, and the Blood of the Rulers," analyzes the relationships between political power and blood, showing the ways in which human sacrifice and kinship rituals presented gender to the Maya people. On these ritual occasions the Maya leaders showed the ways in which they imagined masculinity, femininity, and sex. Chapter 7, "Blood, Semen, and Ritual," emphasizes bloodletting and penis piercing. These rituals were related to the power of the shamans and curers, who presented to the people some fantastic and some frightening scenes which no doubt influenced the imaginations of the Maya. Chapter 8, "Transsexuality and the Floating Phallus," analyzes implications of transsexuality in the texts, particularly discussing the position of the phallus as a ritualistic signifier of the power of gender and sexual desire. Here Maya fantasies were presented as transsexual, and the Maya utilized transsexuality as a metaphor to explain the world. Chapter 9, "Ritualized Bisexuality," discusses the ways in which bi-eroticism and pederasty marked the political and religious texts. The rituals described here gave the Maya the opportunity to fantasize about bisexual desires but more often presented to them the fear of rape. These chapters, although focusing on fantasy, also show ways in which the fantasies (almost exclusively postconquest) were influenced by colonialism and hybridity.

Chapter 10, "Finding the Virgin Mary," offers some concluding remarks on the relationships between sexual desire and colonial Maya cultural histories. The first and last chapters decode the symbolic irony of searching for the sign of the Moon Goddess and finding in her place the sign of the Virgin Mary.

Yucatecan Maya leaders understood and used Spanish/Christian concepts of proper and improper behaviors. Maya nobles took these notions and applied them both to their own histories and to their ongoing disputes with individual Spaniards and other Maya nobles. They also interpreted Spanish/Christian ideas related to proper sexual and gender roles in ways that undermined many of the foundations of those very ideas. In this book the reader will see that the Virgin Mary was reinscribed as a "virgin" goddess who had sex with many other gods. Mayas and Spaniards engaged in struggles over definitions, cultural and political structures, and behaviors themselves.

As students of the Maya begin their course of study, they notice in the Dresden Codex, a Yucatec Maya manuscript written before the Spanish conquest, at least one figure that appears to many of them a bit out of place. There she is, a female figure engaged in what we are told were sexual acts with several others. We also are told that this female figure was a representation of the Moon Goddess, and indeed she was pictured in enough other places that we know this to be accurate. The Moon Goddess had sex with other gods, and we are told that in doing so she was able to reproduce and thus to create the Maya people. Who was this Moon Goddess, and what did she mean to the various people we call the Maya? How did her meaning change during the colonial years? As I began my journey into Maya studies, these questions loomed large. I have found that the Moon Goddess was a central signifier of Maya self-identity, gender, and sexual desire.

This book is a study of desire and power. Why did the Maya desire the Moon Goddess, and how, during the years of Spanish colonial rule, did they come to desire the Virgin Mary? The Moon Goddess and the Virgin Mary both were encoded figures that signified many things related to religion, gender, and sexuality, to name but three. This book reconfigures these codes and then focuses not on the Moon Goddess and the Virgin Mary themselves, but rather on what they, as encoded figures, had to say about sexual desires.

The present work is about the Maya of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in late colonial Yucatán. These centuries represented a time of significant change for the Maya people. Recovering from the demographic collapse (due to disease) of the sixteenth century, the Maya were attempting to rebuild a society that had never entirely been destroyed. At the same time, with the economy of the Spanish colonizers in an upswing, more demands were placed on the people as a whole. They came into more daily contact with non-Maya people. The Maya during this time period produced a large number of documents in the Roman alphabet and the Maya language. Spaniards in Yucatán also produced a significant number of texts that related directly to Maya history. These texts presented a picture of a dynamic, changing, and rather tense society. The tensions were representative of the changes which were taking place regarding sex and gender, the Moon Goddess and the Virgin Mary.

To Desire the Moon Goddess

I am Moon, born to rule, to provide my people with the appropriate life. I do this through my statement of the Maya Word (mayathan), and through my role as mother of all. As I give birth to the leaders of the world, I present the people with a chance to survive. Without me survival is impossible, for it is I who provide the appropriate lineage to the nobles, those who will allow for the communities to continue to exist. Indeed, as Moon, I will provide light to guide the way of the people as they traverse the night skies. When I am angry I will not appear, and the people will need to provide me with some elements for my sustenance. I am a goddess, and all will provide me with the respect to which I am obliged. I am goddess of all life processes, of birth, disease, marriage, and death.

As a child I engaged in youthful sexual experimentation in order to learn my role in society. When I grew to an adult, my role became more clear as I ascertained what was needed to enable my people to survive. When the Sun began to court me, he gave me many precious gifts, and my power increased. I am married to the Sun and, despite my tumultuous relationship with him, I remain the mother of my people, more powerful than even my husband. At one point I ran off with the King Vulture. The Sun, angered by my behavior, dressed himself in a deer skin and pretended to be dead. He sent a blow fly to attract a vulture to the dead deer. Once the vulture arrived, the Sun forced him to take him to the King Vulture's palace, where the Sun made me return with him Despite this outrage, my power has not been abated, and I continue to engage in marriages with many of the gods. I shall be worshipped as Ix Chel, the Moon Goddess of my people.

The story of the Moon Goddess was replete with important codes for Maya Society. It provided the nobles with legitimacy, developed an important story about the mother, inspired moral stories related to deception, gave one ethnic group a symbol to colonize others, and suggested a story if not a method of resistance. It was a tale of colonialism and an anticolonial struggle, all rolled up into one, and all centered around particular concepts of gendered performance and sexual desire.

As the story goes, the Moon Goddess reproduced Maya lineages which were associated with her own community, a group among the Itzá, perhaps the people of Cozumel From this base, the Moon Goddess was to her geopolitical power. By engaging in many sexual acts with the other gods the Moon Goddess was able to reproduce many lineages and assert control over other communities. These acts, in fact, increased the Moon's power over the various Maya peoples. For peoples so concerned with lineage, any of the Moon Goddess's reproductive sexual acts became a primary element in an Itzá colonialism. But how did she convince the other gods to engage in sexual acts with her? The ethnic groups that created those gods certainly wanted to maintain their power over their own communities. They wanted to continue to establish this power in local gods and goddesses. This allowed them to maintain a certain sense of authority. But in the end many of the gods were shown engaging in sexual acts with the Moon Goddess, thus allowing her to be positioned as the mother goddess for almost all of the Maya peoples. She became, for a while, perhaps the most powerful god of all, surpassing the power of the Sun.

There are six parts to this tale that are relevant to a deconstruction of the power of the Moon Goddess. These elements add up to the status of the Moon Goddess as a privileged signifier that represented the transformation of Maya society during the colonial years. The six parts of her story are central to the theoretical framework of this book. In sum, all of the changes in gendered presentation and sexual desire can be related to these six parts of the Moon Goddess story:

Part I: The Goddess of Life and Death
By declaring her ability to give birth and to destroy life, the Moon Goddess was represented as one who both was desired and feared.
Part II: The Mother
As the Mother Goddess, the Moon asserted her power through her children. The desire for her was one of respect for one's mother. This was used to assert nobility and privilege.
Part III: The Goddess of Sex
The sexual desires of and for the Moon Goddess allowed her to reproduce, making her into the mother goddess. These desires also asserted a classic Oedipal triangulation as the Maya writers of the Dresden Codex clearly intended to portray their own sexual desires for their mother goddess.
Part IV: The Goddess of Colonialism
As the Moon Goddess was used by the Itzá to colonize the Maya region, she became a goddess of colonialism. Her reputed ability both to betray and to seduce helped her engage in colonial acts of domination.
Part V: The Goddess of Resistance
During the colonial years the Moon Goddess at times was used as a goddess of resistance, an assertion of traditional Maya (or Itzá) culture. Religious millenarian movements, while stronger in Peru than in Mesoamerica, maintained active resistance in the Mayan regions through the nineteenth century and until today.
Part VI: The Goddess of Hybridity
During the colonial years, more often than becoming a goddess of resistance, the Moon Goddess was conflated textually with the Virgin Mary, thus becoming a hybrid Christian symbol, recoded in such a way as to lose her original meaning, but also in such a way as to change the meaning of the Virgin Mary (and of Christianity itself).

The Virgin Mary Moon Goddess hybrid signified a colonial coding of gendered performance and sexual desire. This signification developed meaning only through the cultural matrix in which it existed. This cultural matrix was a colonial hybrid.

Sexual Desire

At the first class meeting of my sexuality in the Americas course, I ask my students one central question: "What is sex?" Many students find the question ludicrous (or at least surprising) as they consider the answer to be obvious. Yet, as we begin on the first day to analyze non-Western societies, the students quickly learn that the question is complex. The Maya considered various acts to be sexual, including many (e.g., anal and vaginal intercourse) that define sex in the modern West. For other acts (e.g., hugs and kisses), there is no evidence that the Maya would have considered these sexual, and for yet others (e.g., ritualized intercourse between humans and gods), there is no place in modern Western discourse. The problem is that the boundaries of the answer to this question (what is sex?) are sociohistorically constructed. The modern constructions of sexuality and sexual desire can be used to understand the colonial Maya only if we contextualize these analytical categories in terms of power.


I analyze the ways in which sexual desire was presented in the texts of the Maya of Yucatán, a colonized people. Two premises of this study are that sexuality is a socially constructed phenomenon, and that all sexual desires have been influenced by sociohistorical forces. People's desires are not simply based in biology and nature, but rather are influenced by the societies in which they live. Family, community, media, work, and politics all influence whether and what people seek for erotic fulfillment. Western society, since the nineteenth century, has developed taxonomies, lists designed to categorize what people do sexually, and, importantly, to make people believe that those sexual desires are internal to their senses of being. The colonial Maya had no such taxonomic obsessions. Nor did the Maya at the time of the Spanish conquest understand sexual behaviors and ideas in the same ways as their European conquerors, who were developing the notion of sexuality as a discrete category of experience. The sociohistorical creation of sexuality as an ingrained identity based on a set of shared experiences was a complex process, and the Maya did not view sexual desire with the same types of taxonomies as either modern Western (categorizing people as either homosexual or heterosexual) or early modern European (classifying acts as sinful or nonsinful, and within certain parameters, basing identities on these acts) peoples. Although there were many similarities in these understandings, the Mayas and Spaniards approached sexual desire in very different ways because of their different historical experiences.


The concept of desire is used here for the purpose of elucidating particular aspects of Maya society and culture. Many scholars from several different disciplines, at least since the days of the classical Greek philosophers, have debated the importance and meaning of desire, a broad analytical category which describes the state of mind needed for a person willingly to commit a wide variety of actions. But desire here does not and cannot mean a set of feelings free from power, free from the political, economic, social, and cultural implications of any such thoughts in any society. Desire is part of the societal codes created in order to develop meanings out of people's thoughts and actions.

Colonial and colonized desires related directly to conceptions of sexuality and libido in that the colonial construction of hybrid desires in fact created the sexual desires of the colonized. This is not to say that the colonized did not have desires of their own. Nor is to say that such desires were constructed only by the process of conquest and colonization. Rather, sexual desires did not (and do not) exist without social constructs, and these social constructs during the colonial years were by definition colonial. Many colonial desires (to defeat the opponent, to extract wealth, to differentiate colonizer from colonized, to alter the colonized in a variety of ways) were scripted onto the human body along with sexual acts.


Scholars in this postmodern age almost incessantly debate questions of power: what is it, who holds it, how is it constituted, and how is it deployed? The texts that I discuss in this manuscript were colonial productions, and thus were implicated in the creation and maintenance of a colonial society, so they were evocative of colonial power. This, of course, does not mean that the texts (mostly written in the Maya language) were intended to support the power of the colonizers. Instead, the texts were part of the colonial framework; they were cultural productions within a broader colonial cultural matrix. Power is understood in this book as a mode of analyzing thoughts and actions utilized by people or groups in order consciously or unconsciously to gain dominance over the actions and thoughts of others.

In a colonial society power is manipulated in a wide variety of ways in order for the colonizers to gain as much effective control as possible over the colonized. In that sense, hybridity, the mixture of cultural traditions, is formed as a result of colonial power and its interaction with the traditional power relationships of the dominated groups. Colonial hybridity formed sexual desires and acts which were no longer Maya, but nor were they Hispanic: they were formed by the interactions involved in colonial power relations.

Colonial Maya Sexual Acts

For the colonial Maya a person may have engaged in particular behaviors, but she or he most often did not receive a specific, unchangeable identity based on this behavior (at least until his or her death). Without such an identity, the concept of the homosexual or the heterosexual as a category of person was unimaginable. The Maya used homosexual sodomy to understand particular historical stories, and they condemned other groups because of a supposed endemic sodomy. They thus understood (or at least played out) a connection between sodomy and power, but not one between sodomy and identity politics. Identity i~ the Maya world was a highly ritualized affair. One's identity was based on one's relationship to the lineage, the political hierarchy, the community, and the gods. None of the colonial documents show any terminology used to separate heterosexuals from homosexuals. Rather, many show that sex was divided between appropriate sexual behavior, which maintained society, and excessive sexual behavior, which destroyed Society. These were attempts at creating, understanding, and controlling desire and power through discourses of hierarchy and conquest.

The Maya, like other early modern peoples, did not discuss sexual behavior extensively, but they, like others, did leave evidence of a wide variety of sexual acts. The Maya at the time of the conquest knew of and participated in vaginal and anal (between men and women, men and men, and men and youth) intercourse, oral sex, masturbation, pederasty (with boys and girls), bestiality, and unspecified sexual acts between women. They engaged in sexual acts with gods and in ritualized sexual acts between shamans and other people. They appear to have known of and participated in digital stimulation. The commoners were supposed to practice serial monogamy, and all but the higher levels of nobles engaged in monogamous marriage. Polygyny was the rule for kings and the higher-level nobles. Divorce was readily available for most of the population. The Maya had defined categories for adultery, incest, and rape.

Colonial Maya Sexual Ideas

This book does not attempt to reconstruct Maya sexual behavior, as any such reconstruction necessarily is problematic. A social historian might look at the criminal trials and Inquisition cases to understand more about colonial Maya behaviors. However, the documentation of these behaviors specifically focuses on those who fall outside of the perceived "norms." Instead, I focus here on the cultural matrix behind the creation of the norms related to desires, fantasies, fears, and ideas regarding sex (and the elements with which sex was associated in Maya discourse). More than "what did the Maya do?" the two central questions for me are "what did the Maya think?" and "why did they think what they thought?" The analytical concept of the cultural matrix is important here, as it describes the underlying organizational principles present in a given culture. The cultural matrix of the colonial Maya was developed by a hybrid discourse. This matrix was created through psychocultural and psychosocial processes in which Maya minds were altered: the very forms of Maya thinking were changed in this process.

The Maya at the time of the conquest did not devise a discrete category of sexuality which divided sexual acts from other elements of life. This, of course, does not mean that the Maya would not have understood the concept "sex." However, this concept was subsumed under a set of other ideas which related sexual desires to a panoply of things: bloodletting, curing ceremonies, communion with the gods, various forms of sacrifice, and warfare. The broader category for the Maya had to do with the creation of life (amidst the threat of death) through some sort of ritualized penetration. As the Maya were colonized, they were faced with a radical rupture of these activities and ideas, a rupture which created hybridization. Given this context the reader may legitimately ask how it is possible to understand "sexuality" among a people seemingly so far removed from the current Western notion of a sexual identity. Here I follow other historians and anthropologists in discussing the frameworks of sexual desire, rather than allowing the concept of identity to be the core of the analysis. The acts cited here did not and could not correspond to modern Western notions of sexuality because the colonial Maya did not have a similar way of conceptualizing and categorizing sexual desire.

Ideas of gender for the Maya at the time of the conquest were related closely to their concept of sexual desire. Gender formed a category in which male dominance was the rule. The Moon Goddess's power did not extend to any significant power for women. And, in fact, much of her power was based on aspects of Maya life that were associated with feminine submissiveness. The Maya metaphorically gendered much of the world and the cosmos by asserting supposed male aspects as dominant and female aspects as submissive. Gendered culture and society thus had a strictly defined hierarchy. However, gender in colonial Maya culture did not correspond to that of the contemporary West as genders and anatomical bodies did not always agree, particularly in ritual contexts. Gods often had two genders and occasionally changed from one to the other. The metaphorical language of the texts accentuated the gender dualism present in Maya religion.

Many of the Maya ideas portrayed throughout this book were unconscious formations, and thus the book is about the ways in which the culture interacted with psychological processes related to sexual desire. The reader should not get the idea that the Maya were less or more homophobic or sexist than people in the contemporary West. The Maya would not have understood these ideas as they simply did not develop cultural categories in the same way. In general gender was strictly hierarchical and people were punished severely for gender and sexual transgressions. However, Maya unconscious formations of sex and gender were different from their European counterparts.

The Historian's Method

As a historian I necessarily rely primarily on written texts. Formerly many historians have suggested that scholars should use these texts to reconstruct the past. I do not believe that such a reconstruction is possible. Instead I propose, along the lines of some of the more recent cultural and political histories, that scholars provide a new corpus of knowledge based on an understanding of the uses of discourse, language, and texts. Here I seek to deconstruct the codes, presented in the texts, which were used by those in power to maintain their power and by others to challenge that power. I rely on ethnohistorical research and textual analysis to uncover the codes that the Maya (and any peoples with whom they had contact) used to make sense out of sexual desires. It is through the act of decoding that I have discovered relationships between sex and the other elements of desire and power that are discussed in this book.

I seek to understand many of the changes in meaning which took place during the colonial period. As writings related to gender, sexual desire, and the human body became infused with European ideas, I explore the development of those ideas. However, because I am more interested in the cultural matrices underlying sexual attitudes, I am not attempting to show linear changes in those attitudes themselves. I seek to discuss language, culture, and power, thus invoking some ideas related to the unconscious phenomena which occurred in Maya minds. These unconscious structures were developed through a colonial matrix designed to change and conquer indigenous minds. In this attempt, a colonial hybrid unconscious was formed.

I am analyzing documents that primarily come from what has been termed "high culture." These texts were representative of the views of a sector of noble men. The narratives were infused with masculine upper-class power and privilege. In my analysis I work to understand how these power dynamics functioned. My method comes from anthropology, literary criticism, philosophy, and psychology as well as history. This method, while unconventional to historians, allows me to understand sexual desire.

The New Philology

One brand of cultural/social history that has been most influential in studies of the indigenous peoples of colonial Mesoamerica has been what James Lockhart has dubbed the "New Philology." In this brand of work, scholars translate and reproduce indigenous-language documents for the reader. Those documents then are categorized and interpreted. A scholar may use texts which were reflectively philosophical or which were more "mundane" notarial texts to reconstruct various aspects of indigenous culture and society. I use philology in order to introduce the reader to some Maya texts and to allow me to understand both the direct and most often less consciously reflective uses of language in some of the more mundane documents and the more metaphorical language of the broad array of historical and philosophical documents.

Postcolonial Studies

Studies of colonialism most recently have developed a methodology heavily influenced by both poststructuralism and cultural Marxist theory. Postcolonial studies theorists argue that colonialism cannot be understood simply as an outside society attempting to destroy, dominate, and make dependent a conquered group. Debates about colonialism must go beyond the dualism of a domination/resistance paradigm. For if the Maya and Nahua peoples all unequivocally had allied with each other and resisted Spanish colonization, it is unlikely that the Spanish would have been able to dominate the indigenous peoples as effectively as they did. The Spaniards developed a way of using and incorporating indigenous systems of meaning in their attempt at dominating the conquered groups. The same occurred with European conquests in Africa, Asia, and other areas of Latin America. The conquerors reinscribed traditional signs with new meaning. According to cultural theorist Homi Bhabha, describing the British colonization of India, the result of this reinscription is "the effect of an ambivalence produced within the rules of recognition of dominating discourses as they articulate the signs of cultural difference and reimplicate them within the deferential relations of colonial power." Colonialism works primarily through disavowal and reinscription. "The trace of what is disavowed is not repressed but repeated as something different—a mutation, a hybrid." The creation of this hybrid entity serves to colonize the cultures and minds of the colonized. For the Maya, this does not mean that the Spaniards ever established hegemony. The Spaniards, however, were able to colonize the unconscious minds of many of the Maya so that desires, fantasies, and fears were altered. In order to study these changes, I have chosen to use the deconstructive methods of postcolonial theory. As such, I understand the texts that I read as literary devices which I decode in order to represent the cultural matrix.

Gender Studies/Queer Theory

Recent works in gender studies and queer theory also have been influenced by poststructuralism. These works have shown that gender and sexual identities are constructed in a matrix of power relationships. Gender and sexual desire have been seen as "performative effects, unrealized potentialities," and other such signifiers. Those gender studies scholars and queer theorists that have studied colonialism have found that Europe asserted fictions related to the ideas of "geographies of perversion" and that "white men are saving brown women from brown men." These theorists have recognized that colonialism was deployed partly as an assertion of white masculinity. This book uses an analytical technique, advocated by gender studies scholars and queer theorists, that works to understand the ways in which gender and sexual desire have been deployed in texts.

Colonial Latin American historical studies until recently rarely touched on the subject of sexual desire, and even more rarely were influenced by gender studies or queer theory. Anthropologists, however, have researched sexual symbols in several Latin American societies, and, more recently, historians, art historians, and literary critics have studied desire in a variety of contexts. It is only recently that the poststructuralist gender studies and queer theory influences have been felt in this field. The research on sexuality has shown that sexual behaviors and desires historically have been given different meanings in Latin America than in the United States and Europe. Indeed, comparing the various works, one finds that the meanings given to sexuality in such a place as Mexico City are very different from sexuality in the Maya lowlands and the central Andean highlands.

The Historian's Imagination

This section on historical methodology would be incomplete if I did not discuss the defining metaphors used in my work. Defining metaphors, in Hayden White's terminology, are those that represent the historian's purpose of study. How does the historian relate his or her discourse to conditions of the present? The metaphors used are relationships established between the historian's imagination, the historical evidence (documents), and the present interests of the historian. I theorize about the past, bring my defining metaphors and paradigms to the foreground, and I seek to understand my own use of texts as narratives. I theorize about the ways in which sexual desire was used as a trope in the texts under consideration. I use my historical imagination on three levels that add to the methodology I describe here:

  1. Reading: The documents had particular purposes, and the Maya told something about how they used these documents, but in order not to efface the human faces behind the documents, in order not simply to place the Maya writers in a framework that does not relate to Maya thoughts about their own actions/writings, the historian must work to define the cultural matrix which the texts display. As I read, I work consciously to develop and spell out the metaphorical relationships that are presented in the texts.
  2. Telling: The historian necessarily tells a story, and that story is dependent only partly on the documents chosen. The historian uses his or her own thought processes in telling the story. In a few places in this book, I invoke the genre of fiction to establish a temporarily fixed model for explanation. That genre is designed to help explain the conscious and unconscious motivations behind the texts. The creation of these fictions is based on my reading of the language of these bodies of evidence.
  3. Understanding: The historian attempts to understand particular issues that she or he believes to be important. Those issues may be framed in ways that have little importance to the subjects of his or her study. My choice of topics has most relevance to analyses of sexual desire, gender, and power as cultures come into conflict. I am working to understand the ways in which desire, power, discourse, and text worked to construct a cultural matrix around which real people organized their thoughts and actions/writings regarding sex. I am attempting to understand the ways in which desire and power are connected, so it should be clear that my choice of topics was not arbitrary in any way: it came out of my own desire to explain a set of issues.


Primary documents in Yucatecan Maya, supplemented by some relevant items in Spanish, provide the source base for this book. The documents manifested a variety of strategies, often not conscious to the authors, which were based on specific traditions and represented an effort to deal with the local ethnographic situation. The Maya-language corpus includes many testaments, petitions, bills of sale, and other formal notarial sources. This group of documents also includes several historical, medical, and religious ritual texts, most of which were anonymous and undated. Over 1,700 Yucatecan Maya-language documents now have been found. These documents center around the period 1770-1820, although there are some sixteenth- and more seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century texts.

Most of the documents used here are seventeenth- and eighteenth-century historical and religious ritual documents. These vague dates are based on the language in the texts; the authors did not date the documents. Even with these proposed dates, the texts present the problem of asserting change through time. As an ethnohistorian, I compare the use of sexual desire in the narrative to uses of sexual desire during other time periods and in other cultural contexts. While this alone does not allow me to analyze specific changes through time, I find many cases of general changes from preconquest to colonial to postcolonial times. Specific time changes are less important to me than the ability to theorize about the more general cultural changes of a colonized people.

Two sets of texts make up the bulk of the source base for this manuscript. The Books of Chilam Balam and the Ritual of the Bacabs are anonymous and undated, and they were written by Maya noblemen. The main advantage of using these texts is that, as they presented disagreements and challenges to particular leaders, they offered extensive reflection on the contestation of colonial Maya cultural norms. These texts reflected on the sexual desires, fantasies, and fears of leaders, nobles, commoners, outsiders, and gods. However, the distinct disadvantage of relying on these texts is that they represented the views of their authors. They contained little information about the cultural views of commoners. However, I do not just portray the sexual rules that the elite distributed. Rather, I seek to deconstruct the language and arguments used in order to delineate the cultural values supported by the community, including those that were challenged by nobles and commoners. In these documents Maya nobles described commoner sexual desires, which cannot be taken as factual notions of commoner desire, but rather must be understood as elements designed to stress stratification, difference, and, occasionally, sameness.

This book uses several of the Books of Chilam Balam, extensive historical, philosophical and prophetic texts. The Chilam Balams were intended to record, for uses internal to the individual Maya community, much of their culture and history. The Maya nobles likely used these texts to teach themselves the history of the community and the rules that they and the commoners were supposed to follow. Most of the Chilam Balams were unknown to the Spaniards, and they were kept in the individual communities. Most of them purported to cover long periods of time, but skeletal entries nominally representing the preconquest period became steadily more complete through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For this reason the documents told more about the organization of late colonial culture and society than about preconquest social norms. From the language and format used, it is clear that the bulk of the Books of Chilam Balam were written during the eighteenth century.

The Ritual of the Bacabs was a collection of highly ritualized medical/religious texts in which the human body was presented as constructed from wood and stone. These esoteric texts were intended to accompany a shaman. The texts used magic and other types of medicine in order to cure the ill person. The curing rites maintained extensive ritualistic activity, related to the erotic, and placed great importance on the signs of blood, semen, and the phallus. Based on linguistic and structural similarities between this text, the hieroglyphic codices, and the notarial documents, it is very likely that this was another text authored by a series of notaries for the use of a particular community or group of communities. The texts intentionally were archaic, designed to represent preconquest rituals. Ralph Roys claimed that the texts were seventeenth- or eighteenth-century documents, and Ramón Arzápalo Marín dated the texts to the late sixteenth century. However, the intentional archaism of the texts recalls another two sets of documents, the Maya chronicles and Nahuatl false titles. These were seventeenth- and eighteenth- century land documents dated to the very early colonial period as a strategy to claim land ownership. It is plausible that a similar strategy was being used here, although the rationale is unclear. The mid-colonial period (the seventeenth century) seems a likely time, when the Maya still remembered the oral traditions of the preconquest rituals (several of which could not be performed any longer), but also had some reason to write them down: memory of the rituals was being lost.

Other documents, including Maya-language songs, historical chronicles, and more "mundane" notarial texts, as well as Spanish-language religious and secular chronicles and histories, also are important to a study of sexual desire. The collection of Maya-language songs signified many cultural changes related to sex. The songs were written in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries, although many appear to have been handed down through the centuries by oral tradition. They discussed many elements of Maya culture and focused on the symbols of the flower and virginity. Petitions, baptism records, confessional manuals, prayers, and testaments all were used to make particular points about the relationships between sexual desire, kinship, property, and political power. Matthew Restall used the widest variety of these texts, and, among other things, he was able to analyze gender, sexuality, and kinship. The work of Fray Diego de Landa, who was interested in wiping out "idolatry," discussed many Maya practices, including sexual ahd gender norms. Other Spanish-language documents, including chronicles and histories used by the Spaniards, analyzed various relevant themes.

The Hybridization of Desire

The late colonial period in Yucatán signified a time of cultural change amidst economic stagnation. Political and cultural power were negotiated in a system that developed hybridization. My analysis of a colonial Maya sexual culture shows that what happened was a tremendous mixture, a mestizaje of the mind as well as the body. It is only in this way that we can comprehend the importance of the Virgin Mary Moon Goddess hybrid. This figure was desired duning the colonial period as a result not of the "new mestizo race," but rather because of the infiltration of colonialism and the attempt to understand, accept, assimilate, cope with, and resist colonial rule.


By Pete Sigal

Pete Sigal is Assistant Professor of Latin American History at California State University, Los Angeles.

"This is a bold, fascinating, often highly original contribution to the field of Maya studies, and Maya colonial ethnohistory in particular.... Because of its subject matter, it will appeal to both specialists in Latin American history and academic and non-academic readers interested in the study of sexuality."

—Susan Kellogg, Associate Professor of History, University of Houston