Historically Speaking — Merfolk and Mayans, Oh My!

Welcome back to Historically Speaking! We’ve covered vampires, cat-people and the distinct possibility of bat-gods in previous articles. Today we proceed to examine the probable cultural influences and aesthetics of the green and blue faction of Ixalan—the River Heralds, those jade-encrusted merfolk who guard the path to the Golden City (more on that later—in a later article on the legendary city of Teotihuacan).We've got a lot of ground to cover—history, geography, iconography and of course, fish-people!

Lets move to a more aquatic venue, shall we?

Fishy, Fishy, Fishy, Fish...

First off, let's define our terms. The Maya inhabit much of modern Yucatan peninsula including parts of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. Note the present tense—Maya dialects are still spoken in rural Guatemala and their culture survived the Conquest, although with difficulty. As Mesoamerican scholar Inga Clendinnen notes:

"Historians chronicling the collapse of other native cultures under what sometimes seems no more than the fatal breath of European intrusion grope for metaphors of exquisite fragility; of tender flowers wilting and shrivelling, or shimmering spun-glass vessels shattering at a rude touch. For Maya culture the inelegant image that thrusts itself forward is of a tough, webby, dense sponge, elastic and, given the intricacy and multiplicity of its interconnections, almost impossible to tear. The Maya had suffered savage blows, and some of those blows were intelligently directed, yet a hundred years after the Conquest they were reading the world much as they had a hundred years before."

Part of the reason for the Maya's extended survival is part geographic and part political. The Yucatan is very different from the Mexican highlands and deserts that reach up into the American West and Southwest. Cloud-forests and jungles, long rivers and ready access to the coast creates a culture that is at once similar to, yet distinct from the at least partially desert and mesa-based Nahua civilization to the north. Wizards of the Coast borrowed some of these traits (particularly the cloudforests and overgrown temples) when designing the Naya shard in Alara—as seen below. And they did so again when creating the River Heralds.

One last historical note, before we plunge further down into the depths of the River Heralds. Unlike the nominally united Mexica Empire to the north, the Maya cities were in an, if not constant, than irregular state of rise-and-fall depending on the time period. There was not a central Maya city, like Tenochtitlan for the Mexica, that constituted the 'heart' of the empire. The Maya culture can be (hesitantly and imperfectly) thought of similar to antique Greek city states in a few ways—a common culture bound together by language and geography, but each city a separate entity.

Ever-in-flux, but stable at the same time. You know. Like a river. That has groups of heralds, that hypothetically say, watch over it.

And that's how you transition!

I Wonder Where That Fish Could Be?

Maya aesthetic traits that were carried over into the River Heralds:

Heavy use of jade ornamentation

Jade was a precious material for most of Mesoamerica, but the Maya are particularly famous for valuing it and it shows in their pictoral records. Lets compare:

Made with jade: not your father's +1/+1 counters!

A dancing warrior, courtesy of the Dresden Codex. Note the jade anklets, earrings and belt.

Don't believe me? Ok, lets take another look, this time we're going legendary. Note the placement of the jade amulets and baubles:

Notice the jade at his belt and near his ears. And the growing headache brewing when he hits the table...

A noble, sitting on a throne, wearing a necklace of jade.

Jade also helps the River Heralds, and I don't mean in just casting a bigger wave to drown conquistadors and dinosuars. I mean from a design point of view, jade is a perfect element to seize on as a magical object in terms of reinforcing the tribal theme of your set through morphic resonance. Lets look at this card to prove my point:

Merfolk? In my tubes!?

While this card is blue, and serves to reinforce a archetypal blue tribe, the inclusion of jade in the image serves to remind the viewer that the merfolk in this set, unlike Lorwyn and Shadowmoor, are aligned with green instead of one of blue's classical dance partners, white or black. This is fine card design and it fits the flavor of the tribe perfectly.

However, that's not to say that one can't have too much jade. One assumes that the relatively decentralized river heralds wouldn't just leave it around, right? Like a common stop sign or a traffic light, would they?

Of course they would. Don't believe me? Look!

There. Right there. Right corner. Jade stela or idol, it's unclear.

Jade stela/idol in the center--on the island.

Well, ok, fair enough. Maybe if our stop-signs or milemarkers on the freeway could generate magical fields or block bullets while looking fabulous, we'd undertake a River Heralds' inspired infrastructure project afterall.

But can we at least agree that jade doesn't belong on literal, female-exclusive breastplates?

I don't even...

Up next on the checklist on the 'similarities between the River Heralds and the Maya':

Association with water, specifically rivers, and forests

As discussed above, the Mayan people tended to build close to the coasts or near handy rivers. This is fortuitous, as it brings us to our next point--the forested nature of the geography and how that plays into how the River Heralds operate in Ixalan--snaking through the jungles, limiting access to the legendary golden city.

Damnit, we talked about this, Lorescale Coatl! Get back into the Alara article!

Snakes have long been a green/blue favored tribe and the use of figurative snakes in Ixalan and the cultures that inspired the set cannot be overstated. There is something to the snake metaphor, in regards to the river and the heralds. Snakes were/are considered sacred in Mesoamerica—the Mexica associated them with wisdom and immortality due to the shedding of the skin—and the Maya frequently depicted them as bringing rain and thus prosperity. Seen from above, rivers are often seen to 'snake' through the landscape.

Lets take a look at the Madrid and Dresden codices and how the Maya visualized the rain and the rivers they fed. Not to mention that the serpent's association with the rains and cyclicality was central to the Maya chronology, everything came around again, an essential worldview for a society that survived through irrigation and agriculture much of the time.

Rain-bringing serpent and Chaak, a Mayan rain god. (Madrid Codex)

Chaak and a rain-giving serpent.

It's not what it looks like.


I just realized something. This is related to the snake observations above, but Ixalan's merfolk are much more serpentine/human in coloration and structure than previous iterations which range from 'slightly fishy' to 'carpus-maximus' in scale. Their skin/scales are bright warning colored scales like many poisonous snakes--but most are a variation on blue or purple. These are closer to the look of naga--snake people of Tarkir--no amount of 'fins' can shake the comparison in my head--the River Heralds definitely present as more human/snake than human/fish in this setting.

Note the relatively proportionate eyes compared to Lorwyn merfolk.

Let's go exploring!

I mean, compare them to Lorwyn/Shadowmoor merfolk, who make me reach for my sturgeon-club (what gentleman/lady DOESN'T have one, I ask you? And of course my 'sturgeon club' isn't just a crowbar with the words 'sturgeon club' taped to it and stained with suspicious substances.)

Decentralized compared to the Mexica—just as the River Heralds are decentralized compared to the Sun Empire’s expansionist policies. Lacks the desert influence of the Mexican highlands or a centralized capital. Think of them as kind of the ultimate 'if you carry it in, you carry it out' faction. While the Maya were certainly capable of overt, set-piece battles, the jungle and understanding of their home terrain gave them a huge edge in guerrilla warfare against the Spanish. Lets see what this looks like when the Church of Dusk goes up against the River Heralds in the forest:

To be fair, I wouldn't exactly look for a merfolk in a tree either...

And their ambushes on the river are undetectable, at least according to flavor text.

If I see a single Snickers wrapper, gods help you...

That about wraps it up for the lovely River Heralds! Next time we're gonna look at origin myths and the Sun Empire--I'm beyond pumped to write and and hear your thoughts. Until then!

Secondary Sources

Clendinnen, Inga: The Cost of Courage in Aztec Society: Essays on Mesoamerican Society and Culture pg. 164.

Primary Sources:
Maya Codices:
Codex Dresden— https://www.slub-dresden.de/sammlungen/digitale-sammlungen/werkansicht/cache.off?tx_dlf%5Bid%5D=2967&tx_dlf%5Bpage%5D=1&tx_dlf%5Bpointer%5D=0
Codex Madrid— http://www.famsi.org/mayawriting/codices/pdf/madrid_rosny_bb.pdf

I'm from just north of hell, I was schooled in a blossoming backwater, and currently am the worst living bureaucrat since Franz Kafka breathed his last, tremulous breath. I’ve been playing Magic: The Gathering since middle school, and Commander in particular since college, putting about a decade of experience brewing, scheming and fuming over historical travesties under my belt. I get dizzy walking in straight lines. 
I recently received my MFA from Arcadia University's creative writing program. My work has previously appeared in Podcastle, Stonecoast Review, Devilfish Review and Bride of Chaos.

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