Were there Mayan saddles?

Stevan Davies
Professor of Religious Studies
Misericordia University
Dallas, Pennsylvania
All rights reserved. Vase photographs copyright Justin Kerr.

On three codex-style painted vases from the late-classic period of Mayan culture, ca. 700-850 A.D., there appears to be evidence that Mayans did in fact saddle and ride deer. The vases depict mythological events and actors and so are not ipso facto solid ethnographic evidence for real Mayan practice. There is no evidence for any such use of deer in any account of Mayan life after the Spanish conquest and so one must assume that if this practice ever existed, it ceased. If it was done it all, the safest guess might be that it was done by women for fun.

In the sixteenth century Diego Landa wrote that Mayans did tame deer. He observed that the Maya women in the Yucatan would "raise other animals and let the deer suck their breasts, by which means they raise them and make them so tame so they will never go into the woods." This practice may be depicted on vase K0559, although the long-eared animals depicted could well be rabbits rather than fawns. Be that as it may, the idea of an animal suckling a human breast does seem to be implied in the painting.

The most suggestive of the three vases that may contain depictions of a Mayan saddle is vase K1182. The scene depicts a woman riding a deer with a second woman crouched beside a deer evidently preparing to mount the animal. The conch shell suspended below the deer's neck may or may not be a functional element. If it had been connected by a rope to the girth around the abdomen it would reduce the effect of a pull on the rope-leash which, on other vases, encircles the deer's neck and extends back toward the hand of a rider. On this vase the deer's neck appears to be protected by some sort of diamond-shaped objects. But, on the other hand, the conch may be purely a decorative symbolic element, for the conch was emblematic of deer and deer-hunting. Paintings depict conches being blown in celebration of a successful deer hunt (see below), and there is ethnographic evidence that conches may have been blown to imitate the call of a doe to her fawns and so attract deer to the hunters.


The woman riding the deer is doing so in a manner that appears to correspond to reality. The deer is rearing, as might be expected, the woman leans forward to keep balance. Significantly, she is astride the rear of the animal and semi-erect. Of greatest interest for our purposes is the depiction of the deer to the right in K1182. Around the animal's abdomen is a girth holding a device on the animal's back. That device appears to have the elements of a saddle: to the rear, a backrest, at the front a pommel, or horn, to be grasped by hand. The pommel appears to continue to the rear of the saddle and to terminate in a decorative ornament. If indeed this is a saddle, it stretches credulity to think that Mayans simply imagined such a thing even if it is conceded that they might have imagined the activity of deer-riding.

Something similar can be seen in another vase painted in a far cruder style but depicting the same mythological scene. Of particular significance here, an element not clearly visible in the previous illustration, is the fact that the rope around the deer's neck extends to the rear. If the rope around the neck were purely an ornamental necklace, or served just to hold the conch emblem, it would not extend to the rear. One may surmise that the cord extending to the rear served as a leash (not a bridle as such). Here again the deer wears a girth around its abdomen and what appears to be a saddle atop the girth. The design of the saddle is similar to the previous example, although poorly drawn.

The third example of possible Mayan saddle occurs in a painting by a Mayan master-artist, one given to extreme stylization. Reconstruction of "the real thing" from this is a bit like trying to discover the structure of a guitar from a painting by Braque... even so, such a painting would demonstrate that guitars were in fact known to Braque. In this picture the rope-leash from the deer's neck clearly goes back to the point where it might be grasped by a rider.


Here the seat of the saddle is clearly distinguished from the girth that goes around the deer's abdomen. Two pommels are clearly evident, handles to be gripped. A structure seems to extend to the rear of the saddle, perhaps to distribute weight toward the animal's solid hindquarters.

In this depiction, K4336, the deer wears a girth around its waist and a pack, on its back.
Click on the picture for the full roll-out vase photograph.

Here is another image of deer used as a pack animal.
Its back is protected by a quilt and it carries a stone.

It is possible that the deer in Maya regions were smaller than their North American cousins and so could not bear very much weight, but it might also be suggested that the Mayan women were themselves (by North American standards) dimunitive people. Insofar as deer are depicted in Mayan paintings they seem to be large, at least large relative to the size of the people who are concurrently depicted. The deer in the following picture is no small specimen (note also the conch trumpets blown in triumph).


It might be suggested that these 'saddles' are actually loincloths; humanoid animals in the Mayan underworld are sometimes depicted as walking erect wearing loincloths. Such garments characteristically have a loop of cloth rising up behind the individual and a tail of cloth falling down. Below are several examples of underworld animals in loincloths, including several deer. There is also an old god riding a peccary wearing a loincloth that looks a bit like a saddle, and a seated ahau behind whose back cloth juts out in a way that might remind one of the saddles depicted above. In every case, however, the flow of fabric is evident in contrast to the angularity of the possible saddles that adorn the deer. The clear differentiation between the girth running around the deer's abdomen and the items upon its back seem to rule out the possibility that all that is depicted is a single piece of folded and looped cloth.


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And so...?

1. It would be interesting to know what alternatives exist to explain the devices on the backs deer in these pictures. To say "they are decorative" or "they are mythic symbols" or words to that effect would be reasonable alternative explanations only if examples of such decorative or symbolic devices are known to exist apart from those on the backs of deer.

2. The biology of the deer may or may not be such as to allow for the possibility of riding. The deer who amble through my back yard in Pennsylvania are such sturdy looking brutes it is hard to imagine their collapsing under the strain.... but I don't know.

3. Has anyone ever in the recorded history of mankind ridden a deer (and, preferably, been photographed doing so)? Not that I know of yet....

What do you think?

Stevan Davies
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