Dinner Date: Lady Xoc (Mayan, 8th century CE)

img_5458.jpg“Take this sweet dew from the earth,
Take this honey.
It will help you on your way.
It will give you strength on your path.”
~ A modern Tzotzil Mayan prayer for the dead, to accompany a food offering

The door-lintels of Yaxchilan, depicting Xoc on the right and her husband Shield Jaguar on the left, are now in the collections of the British Museum. An inscription gives a precise date for the event depicted: October 28th, 709.

Deep in the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico, in the crumbling 8th-century ruins of Yaxchilan (Yash-chee-lan), two figures are carved into the stone lintel of a doorframe, a kneeling woman and a standing man. They are richly dressed in fringed mantles and jade jewelry, with plumes cascading from their cone-shaped skulls. The man holds a long feathered fan protectively over the woman, whose mouth is open wide as she performs a grisly ritual: yanking a thorn-covered rope through her tongue. The blood drips into a bowl of paper strips which will later be burned as sacrifice, part of the endless offerings of human flesh and blood that the Mayans gave their gods. Individual Mayan women were rarely depicted in art, but this was no ordinary woman. This was Lady Xoc.


Xoc or xok (pronounced “shoke”) is the Yucatec Maya word for “fish” and possibly the origin of the English word shark. The Lady Fish depicted in the stone carving was queen of the city-state of Yaxchilan in the late 600s and early 700s CE. The man beside her was her king, husband, and nephew: Itzamnaaj B’alam*, Shield Jaguar II. If the dates given in the Mayan inscriptions can be trusted, Shield Jaguar enjoyed a very long life and reign. After ascending the throne aged 34 in the year 680, it is claimed that he ruled for 61 years, still leading troops into battle and commissioning building projects in his eighties and nineties. He had three known wives besides his mother’s sister, but only Xoc was his queen.

Shield Jaguar’s marriage to his aunt was a means of cementing his position as ruler. In a polygynous, male-dominated society, a king marrying women from his own family was a way of controlling the royal bloodline, preventing rivals from fathering royal children who could grow up to claim the throne themselves. A similar custom existed among Inca and Egyptian kings, though they took it a step further, marrying not only their aunts but their sisters. Perhaps the union of Shield Jaguar and Fish was purely political; we know that they had no children together. Yet Lady Xoc’s special significance to her nephew’s reign ensured her a place above any other wives he would take. The stone carving, her burial site and wall inscriptions in the palace of Yaxchilan show that she was given special treatment, including the largest chambers in the Bee House**, the royal women’s quarters. Her offering of her own blood in sacrifice was a duty that came with her role as queen, and would have been performed on special occasions as part of public religious rites before the people of Yaxchilan.

Shield Jaguar’s son Yaxun B’alam, Bird Jaguar IV, took the throne a full decade after his father. To some scholars, this long hiatus suggests that Bird Jaguar was a baby when his father died, and either Xoc or Bird Jaguar’s biological mother, a secondary wife of Shield Jaguar named Evening Star, ruled as regent for the prince during this time. I like to imagine there was an epic, intrigue-filled rivalry/partnership between the Ladies Evening Star and Fish, like the Dowager Empresses Cixi and Ci’an of 19th-century China, another polygamous monarchy with a similar structure. The parallels are bizarrely close. Ci’an was the Empress who never gave the Emperor a child. Cixi was a much-younger concubine whose son was born shortly before the Emperor died. The two women struggled against each other before reaching a grudging compromise and becoming co-regents for the child-Emperor. I hope the two Mayan ladies were similarly able to come to an agreement (or at least had some epic Dynasty-style catfights in the palace gardens). Bird Jaguar honored both his real mother and Lady Xoc as royal ancestors after the two women died.


An incredible sketch of Lady Xoc as she might have appeared in life. She wears seashell and jade ornaments, an ornate traditional dress called a huipil, and her body shows tattoos, piercings, head-flattening, eye-crossing, and other signs of the Classical Mayan obsession with body modification. Image by Kyla (zendalla8) on DeviantArt.


The basic features of ancient Mayan cuisine are shared with other indigenous Mesoamerican cuisines. The most important crop was corn, with beans, squash and chili peppers not far behind. Their jungle environment gave the Mayans access to a host of tropical fruits that are still popular today: guava, pineapple, papaya, soursop, avocado. Mayans ate no dairy or concentrated fat but fished and hunted many animals, with white-tailed deer being their most important meat. The Maya didn’t make tortillas like their neighbors and trade partners the Aztecs, but both societies made tamales from steamed corn dough, with various fillings.

As the queen of her city, Lady Xoc would have eaten the finest-quality food, and doubtless had access to delicacies imported from other lands. Perhaps she sampled axolotl, the “water monster” of the Aztec soda lakes, or choice jungle animals like parrot and monkey. She likely ate the mashed, boiled root of manioc or cassava, which was priced higher than corn because it was more difficult to grow and requires processing before eating to remove dangerous toxins. But she wouldn’t have been in the mood for a proper Yaxchilan banquet after one of the ceremonial days on which she had to offer sacrifice.

I can’t begin to imagine the experience of pulling a rope studded with stingray or cactus spines through one’s tongue, but I can imagine how it would affect one’s diet. The human tongue heals relatively quickly (as anyone with a tongue piercing can tell you), but after a blood sacrifice, Lady Xoc would probably have been unable to eat solid or heavily-spiced food for a few days at least. Religious fasts in Mesoamerica often involved abstaining from chili and salt, the two most essential condiments, and avoiding them makes particular sense for someone in Lady Xoc’s condition.

img_5459.jpgFaint from blood-loss and reeling from the serpentine visions which accompanied such acts of mortification, Lady Xoc might have nourished herself with a simple cornflour gruel, ubiquitous in Mesoamerica. She may have also soothed her wounded mouth with a sip of the famous beverage of wealthy Mayans: a frothy chocolate drink, served cold. Although chocolate was brought to the world via the Aztecs, and the word “chocolate” comes from the Nahuatl (Aztec) name xocolatl, “bitter water,” it was the Maya who grew the trees that supplied it. The Aztecs had to import cacao pods from the jungles to the south of their Empire, as the tree cannot survive in other environments. The cacao pod, which is reddish and roughly shaped like a heart, was sacred to many Mesoamerican cultures and often associated with human flesh and blood. One Mayan legend states that the gods dripped their own blood on the cacao tree to bless it, reminiscent of the blood Lady Xoc drizzled onto strips of sacrificial paper. As lurid and grotesque as the imagery around Mesoamerican sacrifices seems today, let us not forget that these sacrifices were not performed to satisfy the hunger of bloodthirsty demons, but to thank the gods in kind for their own sacrifices.

The dinner I made for Lady Xoc is simple and hearty, to soothe her pain. Her chocolate does not contain chili, as it normally would have, but is sweetened with honey and vanilla.

In the flickering torchlight of the largest chamber of the Bee House, K’ab’al Xoc, Lady Fish, pulls the heavy jade spools from her stretched earlobes and hands them to her servants as another servant removes her feathered crown. She sniffs, rubs at her nose and the crust of blood on her chin and neck. Her servants hold out a basin, and she washes her face and hands in water that quickly turns pink. She sighs, spits, swallows, wincing at the ache in her torn mouth. It got harder each time, but she had to do it. The gods gave us so much. How can we fail to give a little in return?

Slowly, she settles herself down to sit cross-legged on the rich pelts that cover her stone floor–jaguar, ocelot, monkey. Another servant brings a bowl of gruel and a cup of bitter froth. Paying no heed to the servants still scurrying around her bedchamber, Fish lifts her bowl and gulps until she cannot taste blood any more. Her hand when she sets the bowl down is shaking. The gods demand a share of life from everyone, even the old.

Just when she is about to take a sip of chocolate, someone pounds on the doorframe. She scowls, her crossed eyes bulging, and turns to look at her visitor. Who can it be at this hour? Don’t they realize talking will pain her for days to come?

The man parting the embroidered hangings of her doorway is a courier, clad in the feathered livery of Lady Evening Star. “A message from my Mistress,” he says, bowing.

Ayya, what does the little upstart want now?” the Lady Fish thinks to herself as she rises grudgingly to her feet. Couldn’t she ever just enjoy a meal?

* The Mayan languages have a couple of sounds that are not found in English. This name is pronounced like eetz-am-nach buh-al-aaam, where the ch is like in Hebrew or German and the buh has a puff of air called a glottal stop after it.

** The Mayans were experienced beekeepers, trading their honey to the Aztecs along with their cacao pods. “Bee House” as a name for the palace women’s quarters is probably a nod to the natural history of bees, which live in all-female hives ruled by a queen. Bees themselves were referred to by the Maya as “royal ladies.”

Dinner Date: Artemidora (90s CE)


“Artemidora, daughter of Harpokras, died untimely, aged 27. Farewell.”
~ Funerary inscription of Artemidora, 90s CE

The first thing I always notice about her is her hair. It’s a distinctive fusion of two styles: the mountain of coils bound with gold is purely Egyptian, but her fringe of curls is borrowed from the Flavian ladies of Rome. She wears more gold on her wrists, ears, and fingers and around her neck, which shows the first folds of age. Her skin is coppery, her eyebrows thick and sloping, her eyes wide. Her face is frozen in the beginnings of a hesitant smile, but not the cryptic “Archaic smile” of the oldest Greek art. It is the smile of someone who has just taken the hand of the psychopomp, jackal-headed Anubis or winged Hermes, ready to lead them to the next world. Frightened, but hopeful; happy to be going, but a little nervous all the same. Her name was Artemidora, Gift-of-Artemis. Today, you can find her sarcophagus in New York City, in the Met’s Egyptian galleries. But near the end of the first century, she lived in the Egyptian city of Cusae and was buried in the nearby necropolis of Meir. She lived. She died. She ate.


What can we say with certainty about Artemidora’s life?

We know from the splendor of her coffin that she was wealthy. Her father Harpokras must have been a local aristocrat and an important person in his community. In keeping with contemporary custom, she was probably married at the onset of puberty to a man older than her, perhaps by as much as ten or fifteen years. Likely her husband was as noble as her father. They may even have had the same father, as sibling marriage was not uncommon for upperclass Egyptians, even those of Greco-Roman extraction (the first Greek pharaoh to adopt this local custom was given the mocking moniker of Philadelphus, Sibling-Lover, by other Greeks).


Artemidora, side view. All photos are my own.

Egypt, long a multicultural society, was particularly so by the end of the first century. By then, it had been a province of Rome for one hundred and thirty years and ruled by a Greek elite for two centuries before that. Artemidora was part of that elite, whose culture and ancestry were a unique fusion of Egyptian, Greek and Roman. Not only her hairstyle but her clothing and the style of her coffin display a blend of these influences. She was adorned with icons of Egyptian deities but named after a Greek goddess.

For most of Artemidora’s lifetime, Rome was ruled by the increasingly draconian Emperor Domitian, who tried to purge subversive influence by expelling Rome’s philosophers. Hated by the Senate in his final years, Domitian was assassinated in a political coup in the year 96. All eyes were on Rome in Artemidora’s time, and she and her family surely had their own opinions on the Emperor’s paranoid antics. Perhaps they whispered about the tragic scandal that marred Domitian’s private life: the extramarital affair he conducted with his own niece Julia Flavia, whose sudden death, some said, resulted from a forced abortion. This story has an eerie 20th-century parallel in the relationship between Hitler and his niece Geli Raubal, who would also die young under suspicious circumstances.

Artemidora died at 27 (as did Julia Flavia). By the time they reached that age, most first-century women had experienced pregnancy and motherhood, and many had experienced losing a child. In the Roman world, half of all children died before the age of ten, a quarter of them before age one. Birth was dangerous for mother and baby alike, and Artemidora might have died in childbirth, or from illness or accident. However she died, her “untimely” passing was mourned by her family and celebrated with creation; in this case, the creation of art in her likeness. In the spirit of this tradition, the following meal is dedicated to the memory of Artemidora, gone before her time, in another time. χαῖρε!


Artemidora’s cuisine, like so much else about her, was likely a mixture of Greek, Roman and Egyptian elements. How much came from what culture is difficult to say with certainty. It might have varied from meal to meal, and depending on who was working in the kitchen and whether there were guests in the home. Amongst the three cultures there were broad culinary similarities, but many differences, including in how food was served and eaten. Romans and Greeks had food brought by servants to a communal table, but Egyptians had servants carry trays of food around the room and offer them to guests, cocktail hour-style. Roman men and women dined together. Greek women dined separately, after the men. Egyptian men and women dined together but were seated separately.

We know that the Greeks who settled in Egypt did not wholly give up their native diet. In the Deipnosophistae, an important text on Ancient Greek cuisine, the Greco-Egyptian author describes a feast served in his hometown that has no Egyptian features whatsoever: a simple, hearty meal of pork and vegetables on top of bread, with wine to drink. Pork was unpopular with native Egyptians, but their cuisine made full use of the region’s native flora and fauna, from tiger nuts and papyrus shoots to Nile tilapia and Egyptian goose. Artemidora might have enjoyed Egyptian delicacies like hedgehog, which was baked in a crust of clay so that the spines would come off when the clay was cracked open, or chickens hatched in specially-designed ancient incubators. Her family’s wealth would have enabled them to acquire ingredients out of the reach of most Egyptians, such as red meat, imported dried spices and Greek wine. They may have joined other Greek aristocrats in spurning local beer as the drink of peasants and farmers. Egypt was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire, and Artemidora probably enjoyed wheat bread, from flour milled as white as was possible in her time.


Not pictured (mercifully?): the author eating this meal ancient style, with no utensils and using the bread as a napkin.

For my own dinner for Artemidora, I chose to start the meal with a salad of romaine lettuce dressed with olive oil, white wine vinegar, garlic, coriander, cumin and rue; a mixture of ingredients popular with Greeks, Egyptians and both. While bitter lettuces had been known in Egypt since ancient times, eating the greens as a starter course was first popularized there by Greeks and Romans during the reign of Domitian; i.e., Artemidora’s lifetime. The main course is roast loin of pork in a nod to Greek tastes, but basted with an Egyptian-style sauce of honey, vinegar and spices, including fragrant fenugreek and tart, lemony sumac. The siton, the grain backbone of a Greek meal, is white wheat bread, sourdough in imitation of many ancient breads. I enjoyed it as Artemidora would have done; with my fingers, and wine.

The lady Gift-of-Artemis reclines at a banquet in her finest jewels. Her eyes are blackened with kohl past her eyelids, and her coiled wig drips perfume. Beneath draperies and wreaths of flowers, the men and women of Cusae dine together, in the Roman style. She speaks to them in Greek, but calls to a servant in Coptic for more wine.

Servers circulate around the room in the Egyptian style, offering different delicacies on trays. A young man brings a dish before her; sliced pork in a reddish sauce. Artemidora smiles, inhaling the scent of honey and spices. Delicately, her henna-dyed fingers lift a slice of meat to her painted mouth. She chews, swallows, sips wine from the refilled glass at her side.

“Agathós esti,” she mutters with a smile. “It’s good!”