STILT-WALKING IN THE ANCIENT PAST
We don’t know exactly how or on what occasions the Ancient Maya employed stilt-walking. But we can get clues from the illustrations shown here that the art of using stilts is a very ancient one in the Maya world.
This picture shows a dancer on stilts followed by three musicians. They seem to be entertaining a king or high lord who is seated on a throne. The picture is a “rollout” of a polychrome ceramic vase that was probably made around AD 600-800. We don’t know who painted it, but it likely came from a site in either Guatemala or Chiapas. The vase is 23.7 cm high and 13 cm in diameter.
This rollout photo of another polychrome vase shows an acrobat balancing on a stilt-like ladder. You can almost see his abdomen and chest muscles contracting as he works to balance the pole. The scene depicts a celebration after a battle. Some figures seem to be captives standing before their conqueror and awaiting a terrible fate, while others, including one holding a bowl of tamales, one dressed in a jaguar headdress, one waving a round battle standard on a pole and the stilt ladder-balancing acrobat, are among the celebrants.
This vase is from the Guatemalan site of Nebaj. It was probably painted at about the same time as the other vase and is 17.3 cm tall and 20.5 cm in diameter.
(*Thanks to Justin Kerr for allowing The Yaxunah Interpretive Center to reproduce his rollout photos of the two vases.)
We also know that the art of stilt-walking was still being practiced in Yucatán when the Spanish came in the 1540s. Around 1566 Frey Diego de Landa, about the first Catholic priest to come to the Peninsula, wrote about what he saw there. He states, “…to appease Yaxcoc-ahmut…(they) were having dances on tall stilts, with offerings of heads of turkeys, bread and drinks made of maize” (Quoted from: Yucatan Before and After the Conquest, by Diego de Landa, tr. William Gates,  sacred-texts.com).
We know that Yaxcocahmut is a bird of omen and probably a manifestation of or related to the Principal Bird Deity, of which the water bird perched on the Foliated Cross in the temple by the same name at Palenque is a variant. Landa says that based on ancient calendrical cycles the Maya of that time believed propitiating Yaxcocahmut prevented evil things from happening in certain otherwise good years.
This illustration comes from the Troano Codex which is really half of the Madrid Codex. This Codex is presumed to have been written or drawn hastily very shortly after the conquest.
Stilt-walking isn’t just an ancient art among the Maya in Yucatán. The illustration above shows ways stilts were made in the recent past among some indigenous populations of North America (e.g. The Hopi, Zuni, Shoshoni and Wichita were known to have used stilts). In the 60s and 70s teenagers in the village of Yaxunah, Yucatán made some just like these. The object of using the stilts was to learn to run races with them. Whoever could cross a line first would win a cold drink. This photo shows Maestro Peyrak Herrera using this old style of hand held stilts.Maestro Herrera was invited to come to Yaxunah in 2012 to revive this skill among a new generation of children and teens in the village.
IN THE PRESENT
Grupo Ok Che del Centro Cultural Comunitario de Yaxunah.
Ok means walk and Che means tree in Yucatec Mayan. This is the name kids in the community chose when they formed their own troupe of stilt-walkers. They have become ever more proficient in theatre and dance, all while “gaining new heights” on their stilts.Empezando. First getting started.
Los Ok Che de Yaxunah en el Sac Be hacia YaxunahThis stilt walking video was made as a part of the young peoples’ film workshop, Yaxunah Summer 2013. The project was guided by Sebastián Labaronne