Classic Maya wahy: Spirit denizens of the underworld and personified disease

This week it is Halloween for all of my US-based readers, and Día de los Muertos for those who are reading from Latin America! 

There were so many topics that I could cover to go along with these fantastic holidays, especially since Día de los Muertos has Pre-Columbian roots. In the end, I decided to write about the Classic Maya concept of wahy– some of the creepiest creatures imaginable. 

Meaning of wahy

Wahy, also spelled as way or waay in earlier scholarship, is a pervasive idea throughout Maya art and writing. It has traditionally been given the rough definition of “spirit companion” or “alter-ego” because of references in the Maya glyphs that some kings had “spirit companions” from the underworld. 

However, in recent years scholars have begun to think that there is a different possible meaning for wahy: that of personified sickness and misfortune. Different sources, both from the Classic period and from later colonial manuscripts, name the wahy figures things like mok chih or k’ahk’ ohl may chamiiy, which mean “pulque fever” and “fire-heart snuff death”, respectively. These names refer to ailments suffered by people, whether by natural causes, personal decisions or even the result of sorcery. 

The wahy glyph

The wahy glyph in Maya hieroglyphic writing is easily recognizable due to its standardized form. Many see it as a face looking straight ahead at the viewer, with one perfectly round eye and a round mouth visible. The face is actually remarkably similar to the ajaw sign that references rulership. The right half of the “face” is covered with a spotted mask that resembles jaguar skin: it is composed of large black spots and smaller dots. 

The wahy glyph. Source: Macri and Looper 2003:67

This representation is what led scholars to the theory of spirit companions: the jaguar is a denizen of the underworld and a frequent companion to rulers, so it seems natural that kings would have access to an “alter-ego” of sorts that is embodied by one of the most powerful residents of the underworld. 

A new theory brought to my attention by Marc Zender is that the wahy glyph is actually not a face, but a zapote seed. This seed has the same shape and coloration of the wahy glyph, and the Mayan word for the zapote seed is extremely similar to wahy. However, this doesn’t mean that the wahy glyph refers to seeds– just that it uses the image of the seed to help the reader know which word to pronounce.

Depictions of wahy

Classic Maya depictions of wahy are fascinating! These creatures are always doing something, and it’s never something dull. Here are two of my favorite representations of wahy

“Turtle-Foot Death”

At the site of Tonina in Chiapas, Mexico, there is a stucco frieze that depicts one of the most frightening wahy figures ever: “Turtle-Foot Death”. 

Turtle-Foot Death. Source: UncoveredHistory.com

Turtle-Foot Death is a tall, stalking skeletal figure who is shown in motion. His skeletal face is framed by a head of flowing hair. Despite the fact that he is a skeletal figure, he is wearing “gloves” and “socks” made of human skin- likely the result of a sacrificial flaying. Sure enough, in one hand he holds a decapitated head by the hair, confirming his association with sacrifice. Finally, on his fleshy foot-gloves he wears rattles made of turtle shells, giving the very clear impression that as this deathly creature sneaks up on you from behind, you will be able to hear the ominous sound of each footstep. 

Drawing property of Linda Schele Drawings Collection, FAMSI.

“Gluttony Death”

Gluttony Death. Source: Stone and Zender 2001:42

This wahy is depicted exactly as you would expect. Gluttony Death is dressed as a ruler, with the band of rulership worn proudly on his forehead. He leans back in his seat, with his eyes half-closed in a sleepy, unfocused stare straight ahead. His belly sticks out in what appears to be a very uncomfortable situation, giving off an air of full-bellied regret. Clearly this wahy is meant to warn against the dangers of overindulgence, especially for those in power. 

For more information on wahy, check out these great sources! 

Sources: 

Reading Maya Art, Andrea Stone and Marc Zender

“Hidden Identity & Power in Ancient Mesoamerica: Supernatural Alter Egos as Personified Diseases”, Christophe Helmke and Jesper Nielsen

“The Way Beings”, David Stuart

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