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This article took some time to finish, I was quite surprised to find that very few Mayans today know what the symbols on their clothes mean. When I asked about the symbols, people would often answer quite simply that they were ancestral inheritance or something their parents had given them. I had to dig deeper and ask around a bit more to find out what all these symbols actually meant. Here is what I finally could find out, thanks to what the local people told me:
The traditional costume of Xela : The costume is made up of ornate huipil, decorated with geometrical representations of the symbolic bird of Guatemala, the Quetzal. The colors vary from yellow to red, violet and black and are inspired by the 4 colors of corn that grows in the region of Xela. We can find these same colors on the strap embroidered onto the huipil, called “randa”. At the ends are embroidered flowers that represent the local flora. The scarf that the young woman is wearing in the picture is called a “peraje”. The scarf shows whether the woman is married or single, depending on which shoulder you choose to cover with it.
The traditional hairdo of Xela, worn here by “Reyna Indigena”, is made from a huge ribbon curled up on itself. The ribbon is 20 meters long, in reference to the 20 days of a month according to the Mayan calendar.
Almost all the indigenous women of the country wear ribbons or long straps of silk in their hair that they often wear as a plait. This hairstyle is related to Ixchel, the goddess of the moon and of weaving, depicted with a serpent in her hair. The ribbons remind us of the serpent, a symbol of intelligence in Mayan mythology.
At Chichicastenango, a village in Guatemala, the traditional huipil is made of 4 different embroidered parts, each depicting the 4 seasons of the Mayan calendar. A sun is embroidered around the neckline. If a woman in the village just became a widow, she would wear her huipil without the sun around the neck, because she would have lost her sun… I dare you to find something as poetic in the European wardrobe.
In Todos Santos, a village hidden in the mountains of the highlands of Guatemala, men and women wear traditional costumes on a daily basis. If the embroidery around the neckline of a woman’s huipil matches that of a man’s, it means the couple are married.
Let’s take a look at the embroidery and weaving patterns. To the left, triangles in the huipil worn by this lady from Santa Cruz La Laguna represent the many volcanos and mountains that we see around her village. To the right, on the fabric from Chichicastenango, the V shaped patterns along with the triangles represent the god Gucumatz, or the “feathered serpent”. This god is often depicted with zigzags and V shaped patterns in woven work and is said to be the creator of the universe in the Mayan context.
On the left, on a huipil from Huehuetenango, the diamond shapes are a symbol of the farming land, the crosses representing the 4 winds or the 4 cardinal directions. The dotted lines are a reference to a furrow in the fields and the rain. On the right, on a huipil from San Martin, this time, there are stars woven into it, bodies of light that guide us in the night.
We can now move on to one of the most common patterns : birds. Considered to be messengers between heaven and earth, they are worn as often by men as by women. The most popular is Questzal, emblem of the country that we can also see on the national flag.
Sparrows, ducks, parrots, hens, turkeys, peacocks and owls… all types of birds have their own little place in patterned clothing. The owl stands for death and destruction, the doves are considered as queens of paradise. Many different kinds of birds don’t have a particular meaning but are inspired from the local species.
On the left, the two headed eagle embodies Kablicok, a god that stands for the duality between the good and the evil. On the right, a bat is embroidered on the back of this local resident from Solola and serves as a protection.
Finally, on the left, on a typical piece from Santa Catarina Palopo, the deer symbolizes renewal, with its horns that are compared to the tree of life. The human silhouettes like those on the right are also quite common, they often depict farmers in the fields wearing hats to protect them from the sun.