Performance and Power
FIGURE 16. Lord 2 Water dances (sings with his feet), from page 32 of the Codex Nuttall.
FIGURE 17. Lord 10 Rain sings a 7 Flower song, from page 20 of the Codex Nuttall.
FIGURE 18. Plazas and temples at the early Postclassic site of Mayapan, in the Yucatan peninsula. Photo by Byron Hamann.
FIGURE 19. The musical competition of Lord 1 Lizard and Lord 8 Grass, from pages 13-14 of the Codex Bodley.
FIGURE 20. Lord 1 Lizard drives away Lord 8 Grass (left); Lord 2 Motion and Lord 8 Grass sing with their feet as they leave in defeat (right), from page 14 of the Codex Bodley.
FIGURE 21. Front cover of Fray Francisco de Burgoa’s 1670 Palestra Historial.
FIGURE 22. Marriage celebration of Lady 6 Monkey and Lord 11 Wind on page 7 of the Codex Selden: on the left, elders and deities perform a circling dance around a drum, holding flowers in their hands; to the right, bride and groom are bathed in a river.
FIGURE 23. Lord 1 Grass sings, from page 34 of the Codex Nuttall.
The screenfolds are documents whose contents were written in order to be performed (Figure 16). But who were they performed for? The question of “who watched the screenfolds?” is an important one for understanding why these manuscripts were created, and why they were important in Ñudzavui culture. The creation of a screenfold was a major undertaking. Months probably elapsed between the application of the first layer of white gesso and the final tracing of black outlines. Why was so much effort invested in something small enough to be held in one hand? One reason that the Ñudzavui elite chose to invest so much time in the painting of the screenfolds may have been because these documents were instrumental in creating and maintaining their own noble status.
Throughout Mesoamerica, one of the ways elites demonstrated and reinforced their power was through artistic production. Classic Maya elites painted pottery and carved stela; Postclassic Ñudzavui elites painted screenfolds.3 In addition to producing these material signs of skill and status, Mesoamerican elites also created more ephemeral works of beauty through the performance of dance, music, and song (Figure 17).
The dramaturgical aspects of prehispanic elite life are important, because throughout Mesoamerica performance was much more than something enjoyed during spare time. Performance was a means of contacting the gods and one’s deceased ancestors. Performance was a way to both express and maintain political power.4 The Ñudzavui elite followed this pan-Mesoamerican pattern by using performance as an important vehicle for demonstrating and affirming their status and authority. Although the full range of Ñudzavui performative genres is unknown, it is certain that at least one of these genres would have involved the performance of screenfold narratives.
The importance of performative spectacles in political life is not unique to Mesoamerica. Some scholars have argued that “theater states”—political systems where elite power was maintained through acts of public song and dance—were important throughout Southeast Asia. One classic discussion of the “theater state” focused on the Indonesian island of Bali in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In his Negara: The Theater State in Nineteenth-Century Bali, anthropologist Clifford Geertz describes the nature of Balinese elite power as follows:
The expressive nature of the Balinese state was apparent through the whole of its known history, for it was always pointed not toward tyranny, whose systematic concentration of power it was incompetent and not even very methodically toward government, which it pursued hesitantly, but rather toward spectacle, toward ceremony, toward the ruling obsessions of Balinese culture: social inequality and status pride. It was a theater state in which the kings and princes were the impresarios, the priests the directors, and the peasants the supporting cast, stage crew, and audience. The stupendous cremations, tooth filings, temple dedications, pilgrimages, and blood sacrifices, mobilizing hundreds if not thousands of people and great quantities of wealth, were not the means to political ends: they were the ends themselves, they were what the state was for. Court ceremonialism was the driving force of court politics; and mass ritual was not a device to shore up the state, but rather the state, even in its final gasp, was a device for the enactment of mass ritual. Power served pomp, not pomp power.5
Drawing analogy to the Indonesian negara, Arthur Demarest argues that the Classic Maya also practiced dramaturgical strategies of rulership. The pyramid-filled ceremonial centers for which the Maya are so well known would have provided epic backdrops for the enactment of elite spectacle (Figure 18):
The bulk of Maya labor was spent in the construction of the elaborate stages of their ceremonial centers—plazas, temples, facades, monuments, costumes, exotics, and paraphernalia—all for these ritual events…Thus the ideological role of leaders cannot be dismissed as their own “emic” delusions; they were a very real, direct source of prestige, charisma, and , thus, access to labor and resources. A recent study by Monaghan  of contemporary and ancient Mixtec sacrifice and tribute shows how elites acquired resources through direct payment for religious services. These “gifts” often took the form of status-reinforcing goods that symbolically defined membership in the ruler class. In exchange for privilege and power, the elites provided religious services and their role as intermediaries with the spiritual world. Similarly, the impressive public displays carried out on the stage of Maya ceremonial centers were a direct source of support—not merely legitimating, but generating power.6
As this quotation indicates, anthropologist John Monaghan has also discussed the relationship between ritual and elite power in both contemporary and ancient Ñudzavui culture. In the following paragraphs, we will consider the specifically performative nature of ancient Ñudzavui ritual and the way in which those performances may have been used to support elite authority.
Postclassic Ñudzavui society can be divided into three basic social categories: the common people, the elites, and the gods.7 A Ñudzavui ruling couple would have needed support from all three of these levels in order to maintain their authority. Although little documentation for the audiences of elite performance exists, the information that we do have indicates that all three levels of society witnessed acts of elite dance and song.
The first audience for elite performance—and no doubt an audience that was always felt—was composed of the gods and of the departed ancestors. The Codex Bodley provides the one explicit image of an elite performance for a supernatural, and it is shown in Figure 19. On the left, Lord 8 Grass sings and plays a slit log drum. On the right, Lord 1 Lizard shakes a rattle. Their music is directed to the objects drawn between them. A sacred bundle, no doubt containing statues of the gods or bones of deceased ancestors, and a fanged earth spirit (ñuhu in Dzaha Dzavui) receive this offering of music.8
The context for this performance in the Codex Bodley’s narrative is a fascinating one. The two performers are brothers, and as they sing and play they are competing for control of the throne of Tilantongo. In the next image on the page, we see the outcome of this competition for elite power. Lord 1 Lizard drives his brother from a temple, and Lord 8 Grass’s footprints follow him as, defeated, he departs from the polity whose throne he has lost. But even in defeat, Lord 8 Deer and his companion continue to perform. Song scrolls emerge from their feet, indicating that they are dancing (Figure 20). A performance for supernatural beings and ancestral relics, then, is shown to be a crucial feature in the competition between elites for political office.
We know from other sources that a second audience for elite performance was composed of other elites. In fray Francisco de Burgoa’s account of the Ñudzavui from the seventeenth century (Figure 21), we are told that the screenfolds were unfolded and their contents displayed during elite assemblies:
And they used to put these papers or tables of cosmography hung fully extended in the halls of the nobles, for greatness and vanity, priding themselves in the discussion of these matters at their meetings and visits, as the Catholics would do with their lives of the saints.9
As records of rulership and succession going back centuries, the screenfolds may have been used by competing elites in order to establish which had a more legitimate claim to the throne. Such assemblies may have witnessed the performance of a number of different versions of history, each version crafted to show how the elite who performed it was clearly the proper heir (or perhaps the “truth” of the claims in these performances was less important than the aesthetic quality of the performance itself; beauty was truth).10
Finally, an excerpt from a circa 1570 Relación Geográfica about the Ñudzavui community of Zacatepec suggests that elite performance was also held for the common people (compare with Figure 22).
When some festival had to be celebrated, many people gathered together, and they brought presents of blankets, chickens, deer, rabbits, precious stones, jewels, and feathers, and all these presents they brought before the cacique[ruler]; and from these, the cacique sent the presents that belonged to the priests, and the said priests invoked their idols, and then the priests said if a fiesta had to be celebrated. And, then, the cacique and the rest performed a dance, which lasted a day or two, and afterwards they returned to their houses…11
According to this quote, when “the people” wanted to hold a festival—perhaps for a marriage or baptism—they brought tribute to the cacique (indigenous ruler) and his priests. This tribute seems to have been offered, in part, to determine if the proposed date for the festival that the people wished to hold was an auspicious one (since the priests invoked their idols for an approval of the festival). Then, if approved, “the cacique and the rest” would perform for two to three days.
What the above quote does not answer for us is the following: for whom are “the cacique and the rest” dancing? Who are “the rest”? One explanation might be that the cacique and the priests performed only for the eyes of other elites, or for the gods as an extension of sacrificial tribute offerings. In such an explanation the cacique would play no part in non-elite festivities. The festival of the common people, we can speculate, was held after everyone returned to their houses.
A second explanation would suggest that in this quote we are given an intriguing insight into the role of the elite in the lives of the common people. The description from Zacatepec may illuminate a reciprocal relationship between the Ñudzavui elite and the commoners over whom they ruled. In exchange for tribute in precious foods and materials, the cacique would perform at commoner festivals. After two to three days of performance, both commoners and elites returned to their respective homes. The common people would bring the elites tribute, and the elites would give the common people something equally precious in return: calendric information and performance.12
These three sources on ancient Ñudzavui audiences suggest that the performance was a source of power for the Ñudzavui elite in their relations with all members of the society in which they lived. Performances allowed the Ñudzavui elite to maintain contact with the gods and with their ancestors, to maintain relationships with other elite families, and fulfill their obligations to the commoners who were their subjects (Figure 23).
Text by Byron Hamann
3 Stuart 1995, 80-81; Pohl 1994.
4 Basic texts on performance in Mesoamerica include Kurath and Martí 1964; King 1990, 1994; Monaghan 1990, 1994; Grube 1992; Houston 1997; and Freidel, Schele, and Parker 1993.
5 Geertz 1980, 13.
6 Demarest 1992, 147-148.
7 Spores 1967, 9-10.
8 Caso 1960, 44. The calendric date 4 Alligator is connected to this cache of holy objects. It may refer to Lord 4 Alligator, founder of the dynasty of Tilantongo.
9 “y solían poner estos papeles, o como tablas de cosmografía pegados a lo largo en las salas de los señores, por grandeza y vanidad, preciándose de tratar en sus juntas y vistas de aquellas materias, así lo hicieran los católicos de las vidas de los santos…” Burgoa 1989 , 210. For Burgoa’s full discussion of screenfolds, see the Mesoamerican Screenfolds tutorial. See also discussion of Burgoa in León-Portilla 1992, 326. The format of the screenfolds supports Burgoa’s claim that they were meant to be seen unfolded; macro-visual patterns emerge when multiple pages are viewed at once, from a distance. See Hamann 2004 and Bakewell and Hamann 2011.
10 In Hawaii, too, the formal qualities of a genealogy’s performance were as important in judging the legitimacy of a ruler as the genealogical information claimed in the chant. Valerio Valeri describes performed Hawaiian genealogies as “spells” with the power to sway audiences: “beautiful chants put form before content; they are effective not because their dazzle illuminates but because it blinds.” See Valeri 1990, 103.
11 “Y cuando alguna fiesta se había de celebrar, juntaban mucha gente, y traían presentes de mantas, gallinas, venados, conejos, piedras, joyas [y] plumerías, y todo este presente traían ante el cacique; y, de allí, enviaba el cacique el presente que pertenecía a los sacerdotes, y los dichos sacerdotes invocaban a sus ídolos, y luego los sacerdotes decían si se había de hacer la fiesta. Y, luego, hacían sus bailes el cacique y los demás, [lo] que duraba un día o dos, y después se iban a sus casas” (Acuña 1984, 319-320; see discussion in Monaghan 2007).
12 For an archaeological discussion of elite-commoner relations in the Postclassic Mixteca, see Levine 2011.