Ear flares have been part of human expression and body modification throughout time and across cultures. The flare’s physical purpose was to stretch the skin of the earlobe into an elongated circular shape; depending on each culture’s standards, this modification could meet physical standards of beauty, represent traits of character, or reflect a combination of the two. The material used to make the ear flare also played a large role in the owner’s social prestige. In the Mayan world, an ear flare derived from jade, a mineral more precious than gold to the Mayan people, was a display of wealth and power by the elite of the society. Due to the slow nature of ear stretching, it also was a sign of patience and discipline; children would have their ears pierced at ages four through seven beginning with small flares, and would gain progressively wider ear flares as they went through their life milestones. The ear flare was also seen as a physical extension of the human ear, and a way to further the connection to other subject’s speech and song, acting as a mediator (Hutson, 125). Besides the use of an ear flare to display these traits, there was a much deeper religious meaning associated with jade and the design of the ear flare as a spiritual conductor.
The initial design of the ear flare stems from the nocturnal flower of Ceiba pentandra, the Ceiba tree, believed by the Mayans to be the tree of life (consejo.bz). The flare was not just the rounded piece of jade itself. Typically, a disc would be inserted into the hollowed middle; this held a cylindrical bead with a smaller, rounded bead on its end. Often times, there would be pieces having stranded beads or thread protruding from the front. A bead in the back, acting as a counterweight, was used to keep the intricate and heavy design in the earlobe. As shown in Figure 1 and Figure 2, the flower design was implemented by the round disc of the flare acting as the calyx (outermost collection of sepals), and the bead on the end of the cylindrical bead acting as the pistil (the collective parts from the ovary to the stigma of the flower).
Even more essential to the meaning of the ear flare was its crafting from jade. A mineral harder than steel, a hole would have been demandingly drilled in a jade ear flare using a hollow bird bone filled with a wet abrasive (ambergriscaye.com). The main source of jade came from the Motagua Valley of Guatemala, making it prized and rare to obtain (britishmuseum.org). The Mayans loved resplendent shades of green (Helferich, 2011), as it represented the color of life; it was the same color as the corn plant, the sacred crop of which they believed themselves to be made of, formed by the mixture of corn flour and the blood of the gods (pbs.org). A quote used by Karl Taube explains, “Jade is the stone with life that gives life, because it is identified with the sun, water, blood, sacrifice, sustenance.” It was also revered for its beauty and ancient tradition, and as a living material, could connect the living to the dead (Taube, 47). Furthermore, kings were seen as intermediates between the gods and their people (religionfacts.com). Quoting the late expert on Mayan epigraphy and iconography Linda Schele, and Mayan archaeologist David Freidel, in his book Stone of Kings: in Search of the Lost Jade of the Maya, author Gerard Helferich explains, “’These kingly jewels assert[ed] the inherent superiority of their wearer within the community of human beings, transforming a person of merely noble rank into a being who can test and control the divine forces of the world.” (Helferich, Chapter three). Mayans had an animistic view of the world, believing that every object, living or inanimate, possessed a spirit. Jade had the qualities of an eternal spirit which was very strong, as it was rare, did not burn, and was very hard (jacksonfreepress.com). It makes sense that a Mayan king, seen as a god in the eyes of his people, would want to harness these particular qualities.
Jade was also physically representative of the soft wind which brought rain, and the rejuvenating breath soul (Taube, 23). When cold, jade will condense vapor on its surface (i.e., a person’s breath), and when it becomes hot from the sun, the condensation will evaporate and appear as vapor (jacksonfreepress.com). Consequently, this symbolized that jade had the power to retain the soul (breath spirit) of an individual, and the power to release it. Ear flares were the decorative item most connected to this breath and wind symbolism (Taube, 32). The projecting jade bar and bead from this disc of the ear flare was a physical representation of moist breath. This is an important concept, as ear flares were thought to be sources and channels for the passing of the breath spirit, and the aforementioned jade bar and bead symbolized the serpent itself (Taube, 23). The Mayan death phrase och b’ih, meaning “enters the road,” directly refers to the ear flare as a passage way. In iconography, the “och” syllable is represented by a rattlesnake’s tail, and immediately after an ear flare represents the syllable “b’ih.” These both phonetically and literally represent the serpent passing through the road provided by the ear flare (Taube, 39, 40). In Mayan art, when gods are shown coming from the mouth of a serpent passing through an ear flare, it means they are being conjured (Belli, 95). This continues to Late Classic iconography, where serpents are still used to depict the symbol of breath, and can even be found in the Dresden Codex (Taube, 34).
Ear flares were not always worn on the ear or depicted as being in the ear in art. Some of them were very large; for example, the flare I studied weighed 19.22 grams without the additional bar, bead, and counterweight. This may have possibly been too heavy for the delicate, stretched skin of an earlobe. Some ear flares were made specifically for burial and ritual practices, still in representation of breath and wind, and there is no physically possible way they could have been worn. A great of example of this is the Pomona flare of Figure 3, from the small site of Pomona in coastal Belize. It is an incredible piece from the late Preclassic measuring seven inches across, with a hollow hole of three inches in diameter. Additionally, large ear flares could have been added to belts and used as beads for stranded neckwear (onetribe.nu).
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