Folklore Thursday Week 3 – C

Aka Cranial shaping, Crow and Crab, Coatlicue and Cocytus

Cranial Shaping

“Head shaping is one of the most distinctive and deeply rooted practices of the ancient Maya, one inherited from their Olmec forebears” (Miller, 2009:38). Miller further notes that of the 1600 skulls that have been studied, 90% had artificially shaped craniums. Both males and females took part in this ritual that was a “regular part of pre-Hispanic life and was required for a child’s integration into society” (Miller, 2009:38). The shaping started shortly after birth when mothers would apply splints, cradleboards or cloth wound tightly around the skull.

Déformation Péruvienne MHNT Noir
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Miller also notes that different shapes were preferred at different times and among different geographical spaces. “During the Preclassic period (2000 B.C. – A.D. 250), some Maya had tall, round heads, emulating a head from the Olmec gods…” (Miller, 2009:38). Other, slanted skulls “similar to the shape of the Maize God’s head, were popular in the western Maya lowlands” (Miller, 2009:38). Bands could also be used to divide the “head down the middle from the front to the back, producing two distinctive lobes” (Miller, 2009:38).


“’River of Wailing’, a river in northern Greece once believed to flow into the underworld. The unburied dead were said to wander its banks for 100 years” (Tresidder, 2004:115).

Crow and Crab

In the mythology of the Murintaba people (northeastern Victoria River District), the tale of the Crow and Crab tells of the “best way” to die. While Crab went to hide in a hole, cast off her old shell and waited for a new one to grow, Crow simply rolled his eyes back and died. “According to the Murintaba, people chose to die in the Crow’s way” (Tresidder, 2004:129). Crow and Crab is just some of the figures in mythology who tell of how death came about and who show people how to die. See also Tresidder (2004), pages 129 and 144 for more information.

Coatlicue and the Centzon Huitznahu

Coatlicue is an Aztec earth goddess the mother of Huitzilopochtli (which I discussed last week). After a magic ball of down impregnated her, “[h]er existing offspring, the goddess Coyoxauhqui and her four hundred brothers, the Centzon Huitznahua, became angry at her pregnancy and murdered her, cutting off her head and hands” (Tresidder, 2004:113). At this moment, however, she gave birth to Huitzilopochtli (who was already fully formed). He went on to kill Coyolxauhqui and “hurled her corpse to the bottom of the Coatepec before setting out to rout his many brothers” (Tresidder, 2004:113-114).


Miller, M. (January/February 2009). “Extreme Makeover: How painted bodies, flat foreheads, and filed teeth made the Maya Beautiful”. Archaeology Magazine. Archaeology Institute of America.

Tressider, J. (ed.) (2004). The Complete Dictionary of Symbols in Myth, Art, and Literature.London: Duncan Baird Publishers Ltd.

Missed last week’s post? Click here to read it.

You can also check out some of the following blogs or the hashtag #FolkloreThursday for some more folklore and mythic goodness.

Folklore Thursday

Ronel the Mythmaker

The Folklore Podcast


By Carin Marais

Bibliophile, writer of speculative fiction, non-fiction, and maybe-fiction, language practitioner, doer of stuff.


  1. So fascinating and so grotesque what we humans can do for religion or culture or tradition or whatever else defines our existence. So glad I was not born anywhere near Maya nor during that era of Skull shaping, flat foreheads and filed teeth. *shivers* I’m inspired to write something though haha!

    Liked by 1 person

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