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Identity and Prestige in Mayan Textiles

Designs as Symbols
Mexico or Guatemala<br/> Ceremonial Spindle Whorl, 10th–15th century<br/>  Stone<br/> Minneapolis Institute of Arts<br/> Gift of Mrs. Stanley Hawks<br/>
  Mexico or Guatemala
Ceremonial Spindle Whorl, 10th–15th century
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Gift of Mrs. Stanley Hawks


The clothes you're wearing might bear a design, like an animal print, flowers, or soccer balls. Are the designs symbolic of something else? What do they say about you?

As in many cultures, the sun was and is a powerful symbol of energy and creation for the people of Guatemala and Mexico. This ceremonial stone spindle whorl features sunrays above a beaming sun face. A spindle whorl is set atop a wooden stick to form a tool; it is used to spin natural fibers into thread for weaving and other textile production. The spinner, most likely a woman, set the spindle in motion by spinning the stick between her hands, or in a ceramic bowl made for the purpose. The whorl provides the weight necessary for the fibers to spin around each other and lock together, resulting in thread. This particular spindle whorl, however, seems to be too heavy for that task; instead, it may have been used in ceremonies, or perhaps buried with a weaver or person of high rank.

The act of spinning can refer to the Mayan goddess Ixchel (ee-shell), who is considered the goddess of weaving and associated with the beginning of the world. So not only is a spindle whorl a tool, it is also a symbol for the creation of the world, birth, and weaving. It might have served as a reminder that the sun, spinning, and weaving all produce something, and are all connected.

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1. This bright bag features popular representations of birds and horses, along with a repeating stripe design. Guatemala, El Quiché, Santa Maria Nebaj, Man's Bag, 20th century, cotton, acrylic, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Gift of Richard L. Simmons in memory of Roberta Grodberg Simmons
2. The gold and purple brocaded birds and trees are commonly found in weavings from Quetzaltenango. This tzute would have been used in special saint's day celebrations. Guatemala, Quetzaltenango, Cofradia Tzute, 1955–60, cotton; supplementary weft patterning, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Gift of Richard Simmons
3. These pants were once worn with a ceremonial jacket and would have made a powerful statement about the wearer's importance. The intricate circular design evokes the sun and is surrounded by a profusion of plants. Guatemala, El Quiche, Santo Tomas Chichicastenango, Man's Ceremonial Pants, c. 1960, wool, silk, cotton, embroidery, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Gift of Richard L. Simmons in memory of Roberta Grodberg Simmons


September 2012