Ancient Maya Cultural Traits

Maya Monuments

Kings stayed active in the world by being remembered in stone

Waxaklajun Ub’ak K’awiil, “Serpent Of Eighteen Bodies,” 13th Ruler of Copan, Honduras. That’s me beside his monument, Copan Stela A. It was dedicated February 1, 731 A.D. Elements of his costume symbolize death and resurrection. He wears the Maize God skirt of jaguar skin and his headdress, a woven mat pattern, signifies the throne— authority to rule. Glyphs on the right side of the monument speak of a ritual on that day witnessed by the lords of Tikal, Calakmul, Palanque and Copan. In 738 A.D. he was captured and sacrificed by his vassal, K’ahk Tiliw, 14th lord of Quirigua.


The stelae, altars, lintels, panels are the stone materializations of the images they represent; the gods are embodied in these things (because they carry the image). They were more than mere representation; they were themselves animate embodiments of the king, extensions of the kingly self that always ‘acted’ to insure the perpetual renewal of time and the cosmos. — David Stuart, Archaeologist


Although stone, the images of rulers and gods portrayed on monuments were understood as the actual manifestations of them, not merely representations. Monuments of a long-dead king were considered to retain the life force that entered the stone when it was activated—ensouled, through a sacrifice of some kind. The same was true of god-monuments.

Deceased kings remained active in the world as long as they were remembered in stone. The  monuments not only contained their likeness, they also depicted their powers and associations with the gods. So, the living kings, their descendants and priests, could petition the ancestors on behalf of the community, asking for protection, bounty, success in warfare and other favors. For the ancients, power resided in the spirit, the within of things, whether it was a human being, a stone monument or a tree. The monuments ensured that the king would be remembered, not so much as a person, but for what he did—and what he could continue to do as a spirit-force who speaks to and on behalf of the gods.


Maya art depicts ritual, not individuals: The critical information communicated is not who did something, but what he did. — David Freidel, Archaeologist


For the ancients, resemblances transferred essence. Portraits contained part of the royal essence in ways that multiplied a king’s presence. His identity was embodied in the face and the top of the forehead that signified people of different ranks. And because eyes were considered to express the life force, eyes on monuments and buildings could emanate life. 

Sculptures that carried texts were considered to be the originators of the messages they carried. Inscriptions were both the physical ground on which a text was carved or painted and embodiments of the message. Frozen in a permanent medium, they continuously spoke.

In the Late Preclassic highlands of Guatemala, monuments depicted great men. In the lowlands, they depicted great gods. In the Classic period, beginning around 100 A.D. monuments were erected by kings to keep alive the memory of themselves and their lineage, deeds and continuing influence. Specifically, monuments of all sorts record accession to power, births, birth of children, bloodletting ceremonies, calendar rites, building and monument dedications, monument erection, marriages, presentation of the heir-apparent, the taking of distinguished captives, ritual sacrifices and warfare.


A Crowd of Commoners Wants a Piece of Broken Monument Kept Alive

Excerpt From Jaguar Wind And Waves (pp. 217-218 )

Caah = “Community”

Great Tree(s) = “King(s)”

Lord First Crocodile went over and got up on the the steps. He raised his arms and shouted. “Enough!” Three times more he shouted, before the crowd lowered their arms and quieted. “There is nothing here but stone. It once housed the spirit of our grandfather. No more. He is not here. His ch’ulel resides in the sky world. He cannot help you. Go to your house shrines, petition him there. Not here. This stone is empty and broken, terminated. Rather than waste it, we will use it to support the new temple. We understand, if it saddens you to watch, go now. Return to your homes. There is nothing to be gained by staying here.” 

“With respect my son,” I said in loud voice, “The spirit of your grandfather may no longer reside in this monument, but as long as even a part of it is intact it keeps his memory alive. Because he was a Great Tree, it keeps the memory of the caah alive as well.” Beyond but including the warriors, some of the onlookers were shocked that I, a woman, would dare to interrupt the ruler, even if I was his mother. I went around the monument and faced my husband. “When you ordered the destruction of the monuments, you not only took the breath from the Great Trees, you took our breath, the breath of the caah—my people—the spirit that gave life to Tikal.” 

Ignoring my husband’s disapproving gaze, I turned and called out to the people behind the guards. “My father and those who held the Mat before him had their likenesses carved in stone, not to be praised or stand as gods. They wanted the record of their contributions to live on, so when the bearers of time return with tragedy and hardship, the current rulers will know how to meet it.” I walked along the arc of warriors, ignoring their stolid faces and spears. Speaking over their shoulders and between them I shouted, “To see the likeness of my father in stone, if even a part of him, is to remember and honor what he did for us and our ancestors. Our memory of the Great Trees, including our petitions to them, keep us safe and prospering. It keeps this forest alive!” Strangely, my heart was no longer pounding. The silence wanted me to continue. “Your memory is their heartbeat, the heartbeat of the caah. When they chopped our Great Trees into gravel they destroyed the memory of who we are and how we got here. I feel it! It choked me so much I had to see a healer. You feel it! Do you feel it?” This monument must be enshrined, preserved so it can be venerated! Again, they shouted, “Enshrine it! Enshrine it!… 


For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller


Lord of the Underworld

The jaguar was the most powerful animal in the ancient Maya world. It’s not surprising that it played a prominent role in mythology and kingship. Piecing together the interpretations of several scholars, mythically, K’inich Ajaw, the Sun god, created the jaguar to represent him in the world. He gave him the color of his power (reddish-orange) and the voice of thunder (the voice of the sun), and entrusted him to watch over his creation. 

Each night, when K’inich Ajaw descended into the “West Door” and entered Xibalba he ruled as “Jaguar God of the Underworld,” the name that scholars gave him. In Maya art and inscriptions he represents the night sun and darkness. He’s often shown as paddling other gods through the waterways of Xibalba in a canoe. In these representations, he became known as “Jaguar Paddler.” During the day, he was considered “Lord of the Middleworld.” As a symbol of hunting and war, he was “Waterlily Jaguar,” shown wearing a waterlily on his head and a sacrificial decapitation neck-scarf. All his personifications, including “White Owl Jaguar” and “Baby Jaguar,” were patron gods, different ones for different polities, depending on the preference of the ruler.

As a symbol of the sun’s power, only kings wore jaguar pelts. These could be the complete pelt including the head, the body-skin only, a helmet covered with pelt or tufts of fur adorning wristlets, capes, belts, loincloths and sandals. A clue for scholars, when a bit of jaguar tail was used as a headdress ornament, the wearer’s name included Balam, “Jaguar.” It turned out, many headdresses depicted in Maya art provided the full name of the wearer. When a king sat on a throne adorned with a jaguar pelt it was understood that he represented K’inich Ajaw, the Sun-eyed Lord. 

Maya kings went to war with their patron-deities. The kings engaged in battle to demonstrate that their patron was the more powerful. An example is illustrated on Tikal Lintel 3 of Temple 1 (scroll down). In 695 A.D. Tikal defeated Calakmul in a major battle. Calakmul’s enormous palanquin, a wooden platform carried on the shoulders of many men (perhaps slaves), was called “Jaguar Place.” Riding on it, above the seated ruler, was Yajaw Maan, “Five Bloodletter God,” the Calakmul patron deity, an effigy of a huge jaguar with claws outstretched standing high above a throne where the Tikal king, Jasaw Chan K’awiil, sat in regal splendor wearing an enormous headdress. Scholars believe the effigy was taken to Tikal in a triumphal parade where a temple was built for “him.” The king effectively “domesticated” him and acquired his power, thereby winning the respect of his people for the added protection the deity would afford.  

For the ancient Maya and most indigenous cultures, the primary concern was with the within of things, their spirit, because that was the source of power. It’s why every element and force in nature from hurricanes to mosquitoes, had a god. And everyday affairs went well or poorly depending on the divinely appointed ruler’s ability to negotiate with them. When a commoner saw his king parading on a palanquin wearing a jaguar pelt, it wasn’t just the skin of an animal being worn as a costume. The pelt itself endowed him with the power of the sun, power over life and death, not just for all who witnessed it, but for the world.  

Unlike the panthers in Africa, jaguars have black spots in their rosettes. And some jaguars are completely black. They range from northern Mexico to northern Argentina, living mostly in tropical forest. These lonely hunters are more active at night, prefer places near water with dense forest coverage and unlike other felines are as agile in the water as well as up trees. Their bite is also the most powerful among felines, killing their prey, usually by the neck, in a single bite.


Parade Of The Captured Jaguar Palanquin At Tikal

Excerpt From Jaguar Sun (pp. 125-126)

Jaguar heads emerged from the smoke of numerous censers, one on each corner of the swaying palanquin. Behind them, red-painted dwarfs stood on the pelts with their backs to us, holding censers. Painted or embroidered on their white capes was the face of Tlaloc, the storm god of Teotihuacan, reminding me that this was a commemoration as well as a victory celebration. The white skulls hanging from the dwarf’s belts sent a chill through me. I wouldn’t allow myself to think that they belonged to my father or brothers, so I looked down at the platform and the men too numerous to count who bore it on their shoulders. In front of the dwarfs there were two more little men, similarly attired and also holding censers, except that they wore wreaths of parrot feathers. 

The Divine Lord Jasaw Chan K’awiil himself, sat on a jaguar pelt with its head hanging down the side. He grasped the K’awiil, god of abundance, scepter in his right hand and let the god’s serpent foot rest on his thigh. The other hand grasped a long, red-painted fabric bundle which, because of the stone face sewed on the side, I took to be either his or a captured god-bundle. Rising well above his headdress and the enormous spray of quetzal feathers with the face of the sun god prominent in the middle, the snarling patron of Calakmul, Yajaw Maan, looked like a bigger and more menacing version of Underworld Jaguar. Like him, his orange and black arms were extended, but he grasped a black staff tied with white knots in the manner of Tikal’s sacred headband. The staff, standing at least the height of three men with a snarling jaguar head at the top, told us that he now held the office accorded to a patron of Tikal. 

From such a distance, and with ear ornaments and feathers attached to his headdress, I couldn’t see the ruler’s face. Suddenly, I needed to see it—to see his eyes. If I was right about where the palanquin would stop and he would step off, I saw a chance to get closer. Torches had been stacked high on both sides of the palace steps and there were warriors standing ready to light them and hand them out. 

I went down the back steps, ran around the backs of the shrines and the ball court and waited in one of the walkways where the torches were stacked. I waited and waited. Then, when the warriors began lighting the torches and passing them along so every warrior on the plaza floor would have one, I approached and asked if they needed help. Clearly they did. They couldn’t light and hand them out fast enough. I gathered up torches, held them one at a time to be lit, and passed them on. With the torches all handed out, and with the plaza looking like a city on fire, I was able to stand with a torch of my own as the palanquin passed about thirty paces in front of me.  

The Tikal ruler was younger than I expected, not much older than me. Keeping his gaze forward with a blank expression and relaxed posture, he seemed to say he deserved to be treated like a god. 

The bearers stopped and set the platform down gently, being careful to keep it level. The dwarfs, as revered beings sent by the sky gods to honor and assist rulers, approached their master. One of them held out a long red pillow to receive the scepter. Another took his embroidered, pearl-studded tobacco bag, while the two behind them held their torches high to keep the flames well away from the enormous sprays of quetzal feathers that, when he stood, framed his body and towered the height of a man over his head. Considering the weight he carried—in addition to the headdress of stacked sun god masks and heavy jade ear ornaments, a long pectoral of jade stones that rested on a cape of shell-plates, a carved jade head the size of a fist that hung from his belt, two more jade ancestor faces strapped to his legs and ankles and jade tubes in his ears—it was a wonder that he could even stand.


For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

Mangrove Trees

Building material and healing remedy

After touring Cerros, a Preclassic Maya site in Belize, my guide took me a few miles down the New River to a lake covered in lily pads. The ancients cultivated them in great quantities to freshen ponds and encourage the growth of fish. The pads and stalks were dried to fertilize fields. Significantly, the lily pads played a key role in referencing the beginning of time and annual time cycles. Kings wore representations of lily pads in their headdresses, to associate themselves with aquatic deities.

Coming back from the river, the guide slowed the boat and steered it into the tree-line with lianas streaming down without an inch of land. I helped him push the veil of vines aside and we entered a tiny lagoon.

Inside, we were surrounded by thin, tall trees—red mangrove. They converged overhead like the dome of a cathedral, their roots digging into the ground on both sides. The guide informed me that the “ground,” was mangrove wood turned to “peat” that had accumulated over the years and the banks were closing-in on both sides. The long roots support the trees against battering waves, especially on coastlines where there’s also a changing tide. High up, the leaves filter out and excrete salt from the water. I was in awe of the place—so still and quiet with lots of colorful fish swimming among the roots.

In the time of the ancient Maya, both black and red mangrove trees lined the banks of most rivers and saltwater inlets. They used the wood of the red mangrove, in particular, for construction posts in houses and other structures. Besides growing strong, tall and straight the wood is more salt-tolerant than other species, excluding it from being taken up in its roots. The little salt that is taken up, is stored in the leaves. When they’re full, they fall. It’s said that an acre of red mangrove can produce a ton of leaves in about a month. The Maya (and other cultures) used them to make a refreshing tea.

Different mangrove species around the world have been found to have numerous healing abilities because their tannin contains anti-fungal, antibacterial and antiviral properties. Mangrove tree bark, leaves, fruits, roots, seedlings and stems are currently used to heal wounds and treat diarrhea, stomachaches, diabetes, inflammation, skin infections, conjunctivitis (pink eye), and toothaches. It can even be used as mosquito repellent.

One study showed that compounds in red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) tannin reduced gastric acid and increased mucosal protection to help heal stomach ulcers. Another study revealed that the tannin reduced bacterial strains such as the Staphylococcus aureus, which can cause skin and respiratory infections as well as food poisoning. The ancients also used mangrove roots to make dyes for tanning.

All around us, bobbing on the water like upright string beans, were many dozen of 10-12 inch long seed-pods. Researchers refer to them as “propagules” because they grow high up on the parent tree. My guide pulled one of the pods from the water and explained that they fall and float some distance to disburse, “looking” for water of suitable depth. When they become waterlogged they sink to the bottom and germinate to form the roots of another tree. The experience was so moving, I made it the setting for an important scene in Jaguar Rising: A Novel of the Preclassic Maya.

Maya archaeologist Heather McKillop, believes the abandonment of an Early Classic site, Chan B’i in Belize, and later inundation of the salt works in Paynes Creek, “may be related to mangrove disturbance. The felling of mangroves to establish workshops, alongside the impacts of trampling halted the production of mangrove peat at the workshop locations, with the rising waters subsequently covering the sites.” Mangrove peat was used extensively to enrich soils.

The Mangrove Ecosystem

It’s estimated that two-thirds of the fish we eat spend part of their life in mangroves. This is because the underwater roots provide an ideal protected environment for young fish. Because their roots hold the soil in place, they prevent erosion and degradation of the coastline during hurricanes and storm surges. They store 10 times more carbon in the mud than land-based ecosystems, which is a major defense against rapid climate change. And they reduce ocean acidification, which helps to prevent coral bleaching. A case has been made by some researches that mangroves do more for humanity than any other ecosystem on Earth.

Increasingly, mangroves are being threatened by rising sea-level, water pollution and in some cases being cut down to provide better ocean views. They’re battered by wave-strewn trash, goats eat them and barnacles choke them. Of native mangrove around the world, 35% have been destroyed, mostly due to shrimp farming. Once gone, the land erodes and tides and currents reshape the coastline, making it nearly impossible for them to grow back. After Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines’ coastal communities, the government planted a million mangroves but because the trees were planted without regard to locating the right species in the right places, many of them died.

A palm-frond lies among baby mangrove seed-pods

My guide backing the boat out of the mangrove “temple.”

Mangrove trees symbolize strength and support. The image of their intertwined roots evokes several questions relevant to the human situation. For instance, who and what anchors us in the ebb and flow of everyday living, including the emotional storms that threaten to topple our dreams,  desires or decisons? Who comes to mind as the person or persons who provide regular and ongoing acknowledgment, encouragement or inspiration? Who can we count on when the going gets tough? What can I myself do to stay grounded in purpose? And how can I support the people in my circle?

In a world moving at hyper-speed, where so many of us are anxious because of the rate of change, the soulful move is the move toward contemplating the source of things deeply rooted in eternity, the things that always are.

Phil Cousineau, American scholar; screenwriter




Fire Eyes Jaguar Shows Butterfly Moon The Mangrove Temple

Excerpt from Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya  (pp. 216-218)

Approaching my special place, I paddled even harder and she gripped the sides of the canoe. Roots and canopy with thorns in between. Sorcerer’s talk. I turned sharply toward a wall of brush that covered the eastern bank and fronted a forest of tall mangrove trees. “Before I take you home I need to tell you something. Not out here where everyone can see.”

      “You should take me home.”

      “I know. But jadestone promise, I will not touch you.” I stopped the canoe in front of the wall of vegetation and we changed places so I could stand on the bow to open a passage into the tangle of prickly brush, vine and trees. Butterfly helped me pull us through the vegetation. On the other side, we entered into an open space, a dark grotto, where the water was reddish brown but clear and shallow. “I come here when I want to be alone,” I said. Mangrove trees rising straight and very tall surrounded us. Overhead, they bent together to form an arched canopy with tightly interlaced fingers.

      “This must be what a temple is like,” Butterfly whispered.

      “It is a temple,” I said. “House of the Mangrove Lord.” Almost within our reach on both sides, mangrove fingers anchored the trees in muddy banks. And tiny fish nibbled at them. Had it not been for the dappled sunlight, we would have thought it was dusk.

      Butterfly’s hands covered her chest. She was feeling what I felt the first time I entered the grotto. “How did you find this place?”

      “I saw a fisherman come out when I was running a message down river.” I reached over the side and plucked one of the hundreds of long pods that floated upright. “Mangrove seeds—red mangrove,” I said handing it to her. “They fall from the canopy, drift and eventually sink to the bottom. Wherever it sticks, it grows a new tree. When hundreds grow together like this, their fingers get thick and grip into the mud to made new land.”

      Butterfly shook her head. “How do you know so much?”

      “I have many teachers,” I said. Sitting well back from her, I took a deep breath. “That day at the bench when you brought me tamalies?” She nodded. “Thunder Flute set a burden on my shoulders—something I need to tell you.”

      “He was scolding you? Red Paw said the bench is where he—”

      “Laughing Falcon ordered him to tell me something he did not want me to know until the Descent of Spirits. You are not going to like this, but it will change my life. It already has. I want you to hear it from me.”

      Butterfly gripped her arms, as if from a chill. “You are frightening me.”

      I took a breath, but it didn’t calm my pounding heart. “Thunder Flute is not my father. I am not a Rabbit.” Her eyes fixed on mine and a little wrinkle appeared in her brow. “Mother was gifted to him in gratitude for saving the life of a powerful man’s son—when he was on expedition. This man gave her to him, not knowing that I was growing in her belly. No one knew, not even the man who planted his seed in her. She was too afraid to tell him. I touched the earth when the expedition was on the way home. It happened in a cave, while Huracan was throwing a tantrum.”

      “Did he tell you who your father is?”

      “He is called Jaguar Tooth Macaw.”

      “I have heard that name. Your mother might have—”

      “He is the Lord of Kaminaljuyu—about forty k’inob south of here.

      “Lord? Like Smoking Mirror?”

      “Higher. Much higher. More like his father at Mirador.”

      Like not feeling a cut until it is seen, it took a moment for Butterfly to understand the implications of what I was saying. When she did, she pulled back. “Then your blood is hot!” The canoe rocked as she went to her knees, steadied herself and bowed with crossed arms.

      “Do not do that,” I said. “Get up. We can—”

      Butterfly cowered at my feet. “I do not know what is proper,” she said. “Forgive me, I do not know what to say.”

      I tried to explain further, but she wouldn’t say anything. I backed the canoe out of the brush. Underway again on open water I realized she might never speak to me again, so I spoke the whole truth about White Grandfather’s dream of me sitting on a rock watching stars that stand still, about finding rather than capturing the doe and fawn, about journeying to the other worlds and the misery of living at the lodge—caused by Thunder Flute. Still, she wouldn’t respond.

      At the last bend in the river I paddled hard into the lagoon. In silence, we passed White Flower House, the docking area, the old district and then the long stretch of forest that backed on the Rabbit reservoir.








NOTE: The 2nd edition of my novel, Soul Train, is available on It’s about the family life and happenings off and on the train, particularly conversations with passengers, that constitute the protagonist’s journey of spiritual inquiry.


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Photography Monographs (Click on the pages to turn them)

Feasts And Banquets

Vase rollout photo courtesy of Justin Kerr

The above scene could be a “snapshot” of a ruler hosting a feast. Others are likely attending, evidenced by two long wooden trumpets (left top). And a hand beating a drum (below the trumpets). There’s a canopy overhead, so this takes place inside. Honey is likely fermenting in the narrow-necked jars below the ruler, who gestures to a dwarf holding a mirror so he can see himself. (Note the ruler’s long fingernails). Another dwarf, below the dias, drinks from a gourd. The Maize God had a dwarf companion, so rulers kept them close. 

Along with marriage and warfare, feasting was an important institution for building and maintaining alliances. It provided a context for the presentation of tribute and wealth—at times in a plaza where everyone could see. And it served as a form of “prestation,” a social system where attendees were obligated to the host in some way. 

Even feasts where noblemen or lower status individuals served as hosts, those attending were obligated to give another such feast in return. If the guest died in the interim, his heirs inherited the obligation. Competitive or “ritual feasting” was ostensibly for the benefit of the community, but it was equally a way for a potentially powerful person to step up the ladder of importance. Anthropologist Joanne Baron writes about La Corona, a medium-sized site in Guatemala that played a key role in advancing the influence of the Snake Kings. The rulers there “encouraged the active participation of non-elites in public rituals, for example, by encouraging or requiring them to attend feasting events in honor of patron deities.” 

Feasts were often held in honor of ancestors, to celebrate calendar events, religious rites, royal accessions and war victories. In wealthy houses, tamales were served in earthenware bowls and platters so each person could have his own. Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan friar, wrote about the preparations for an elite feast. “Ground cacao was prepared, flowers were secured, smoking tubes were purchased, tubes of tobacco were prepared, sauce bowls and pottery cups and baskets were purchased. The maize was ground and leavening was set out in basins. Then tamales were prepared. All night they were occupied; perhaps three days or two days the women made tamales… That which transpired in their presence let them sleep very little.”

Diego de Landa, another Spanish priest, reported that “sumptuous feasts were attended by many and lasted a long time.  They spend on one banquet what they earned by trading and bargaining many days. To each guest, they give a roasted fowl, bread and drink of cacao in abundance, and at the end, they gave a manta to wear and a little stand and vessel, as beautiful as possible.” It was also noted that others were fed from the kitchen of the ruler, starting with the visiting nobility, the guards, priests, singers and pages, down to the feather-workers and cutters of precious stones, mosaic workers and barbers.

Art historian, Dori Reents-Budet, an expert on Maya vases and their imagery, found that dignitaries from aligned polities and even people from adversarial polities were invited. Gifts were usually exchanged before the feast, including polychrome vases and drinking cups, cotton mantles, crafted adornments, cacao beans, bundles of feathers and foods. And chocolate, a highly valued beverage, was served. The vases depict banquets in plazas and dancing with musical accompaniment in long buildings, some with curtains and long benches for seating.


Feast to Celebrate the Protagonist’s 12th Birth Anniversary 

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 16 )

To prepare for the feast, married women cleaned pots, shook out the long reed-mats and tended the cookhouse fires while the younger ones made trips to the reservoir. Butterfly Moon Owl, my friend’s sister and daughter of Mother’s feather-worker, carried two of my cousins astride her hips while balancing a water jar on her head. Neighbors came with knives and digging tools to help my uncles slaughter the peccary and prepare the cook-pit while their wives helped with the flowers and other foods. 

After the chores were done, families would bring even more food and flowers, and they would stay until the sun set over the western forest. On some occasions, as a favor to Father, purple-robed ministers wearing blue-green quetzal feathers and jade adornments would come to celebrate with us. If they came at all, they would come toward the end of the day, compliment the women on the food and amuse us with flowery words and puns to make us laugh. Before taking their leave they would offer a little gift, usually a shell or polished stone. Father, always the spokesman for the Rabbits when he was home, would express his gratitude for their coming but we all knew that they came because our ruler, Lord Laughing Falcon Cloud, had ordered it.

More to my liking were the tradesmen who always came. These were canoe carvers, stone workers, cord-winders, bead-makers, fabric dyers and tanners, the people Father relied upon for his expeditions. They didn’t just sit and talk. They played games and demonstrated their skills with axes, spears, and blowguns, heaving hand-sized stones into water buckets and building human pyramids. When they finally tired and went to the brazier to tell stories and drink, we sprouts would run to the forest and play hunting and warrior games. The older flowers tended the younger ones in a clearing there, so one of our games was to see how close we could get before surprising them with war cries and chases with our imaginary axes and spears. The Mothers wouldn’t let us use sticks but sometimes we did—and denied it when the flowers told on us. 

Lady Jaguar Prepares a Feast For Her Husband’s Guests

Excerpt From Jaguar Wind & Waves (p. 99)

For the feast I had arranged for the ministers to sit on reed-mats in a circle, each covered over with either a red or yellow blanket. Lime Sky and her assistants prepared maize-leaf tamales, some stuffed with paca meat, others with turkey. Four of the ten serving women had never been to court before, so I worried greatly that they would drop or spill or not understand a minister’s gesture. 

Along with the tamales we served roasted grubs with ground beans, platters of cooked chayote greens topped with ground squash seeds that Lime Sky dusted with chile powder. Along with the meal, and for the purpose of toasting, we served chih. But the final offering, an extravagance usually reserved for lords and their ladies, was cold kakaw poured into outstretched calabashes from the height of the server’s breast to raise a dark brown foam. Jatz’om and Sihyaj K’ahk’ had easy access to the caah storehouse. Why not?


For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller  

Storytelling Through Dance

Rollout Vase courtesy of Justin Kerr

Combined with music and the fragrance of burning offerings, dance was often visualized as the direct manifestation of supernatural forces.

Matthew Looper

Elite dances depicted in Maya art were part of rituals and celebrations. On sculptured stelae. the kings are shown dancing as a deity. The monuments mostly depict male dancers, but there are some women shown dancing, for instance, Lady Ok Ayiin dancing as the Moon Goddess on the Yomop stela. More often, women are shown as dancers or dancing assistance on painted pottery. Most of the performances on vases show more than one dancer, whereas the stelae only show one or two dancers. 

On painted vases dancing is often performed in association with feasting and gift exchanges. On these occasions, a ruler could formalize the political and marriage alliances between his and other elite families. It provided an opportunity to demonstrate his wealth, power and control over the trade in luxury goods. And just as the indigenous leaders of the Pacific Northwest Coast tribes of Canada and the United States gave away their accumulated wealth at lavish potlatch ceremonies, a Maya king could reaffirm polity relationships and his connection with the supernatural world by dancing “in their skins.” 

At the level of the court, dance wasn’t just entertainment, it was fundamental to the ruler’s social, religious and political identity, at times demonstrating his continuity with apotheosized ancestors. Through the use of costumes and psychoactive drugs in some instances, dance transported the participants into the supernatural characters they portrayed. It brought them to life.


The primary occasions for ritual dancing were accessions to the throne, birth anniversaries, building dedications (Quirigua Altar L), sacrificial bloodletting by a wife (Yaxchilan Lintel  32), celebrations of military victory (Tikal Temple 4 Lintel 3), tribute presentations (El Abra vase) and designations of a royal heir (Bonampak mural),


Resplendent quetzal feathers invested the dancers with the spirit of the bird. The same with jaguar pelts. Seashells connotated the underworld, and Spondylus shells, in particular, were associated with the celestial realm and the rebirth of the Maize God. Mirrors made of pyrite flakes made the dancers sparkle. Bark paper, worn as headdresses and aprons was associated with sacred words (glyphs) and blood sacrifice. Dancing with jadeite conveyed a sense of the breath essence of the soul, the essence of life. White flowers were the visual representation of the soul. The colors and textures of woven fabrics referenced the vegetable world and gardens. And the various colors of body paint and painted cloth referenced an object and its associated myth. For instance wearing yellow, the color of maize, conveyed the notion of abundance and fertility. Red connoted blood; black represented death and blue was the color of “precious.” 


The Spaniards reported that Maya dance was “mannered.” In their art, the upper body doesn’t appear to have played much of a role in dancing. Instead, there’s a slight bending of the knees and a graceful shuffling of the feet. Researchers suggest the movement was at court was either “highly stylized” or “the artists chose a very narrow repertoire of motions and gestures for their canon of acceptable display.” 

Dance Of The Colomche

Chroniclers describe a dance with reeds that was much like a game. A large group of dancers formed a circle. Two of them moved to the center to the beat of the music—drums, flutes, wooden trumpets, ocarinas perhaps. One dancer holds a handful of reeds and dances standing up, while the other crouch in a wide circle. The person holding the reeds throws them with all his might to the others and they have to catch them with small sticks. 

Dance of the Hero Twins

The dance is based on the Popol Vuh, the ancient mythological text of the K’iché Maya. The performance opens with the appearance of two youths, the twin gods Junahpu and Xbalanque. The Xibalbans, lords of death from the underworld, dance around and try to kill them, but the twins escape their attacks and are unharmed. 

Celebrating, the brothers dance in a frenzy and the underworld lords get caught up in it. Hunahpu and Xibalanque flit around with torches, light a fire and wood is thrown into it until the smoke gets dense. Then, facing one another, the twins appear to hurl themselves into the fire. The lords of death follow them. The smoke obscures everything. When it clears, only ashes remain.

Then, on the ground, a compartment opens up, and an emissary in a feathered cape comes out carrying a censer. He points to a chamber off to the side. And with the drums and shell trumpets sounding, the Hero Twins come out covered with beautiful feather capes—their former masks replaced with faces of young lords. They greet the onlookers and proclaim their victory over the fearsome Xibalbans.

Dance of The Warriors

Xq’ul was a war dance. It began with a dancer hunting for an enemy warrior. To the sound of flutes and the beating of ceramic drums covered with leather, enemy warriors come out dressed like beasts—jaguar, cayote, tapir, their identity strengthened with like-in-kind headdresses. The hunters, wearing headdresses of eagles or other birds, dance around them carrying swords, axes and spears. How it ends was not reported.

It’s interesting, the contrast between indigenous dancing where the intent is spiritual and modern dance where, regardless of the style, it’s mostly about personal experience or expression. The former has to do with maintaining and celebrating horizontal (social) and vertical (heavenly) relationships, the latter being individual, even when many people are involved. The one form I can think of that retains storytelling in modern dance is ballet, but even there the stories are about an individual. I’m not saying that our modalities are bad. Considering that our worldview is based more on science than myth, that’s understandable. But in seeing ourselves separate and the world as inanimate, we’ve lost something precious, perhaps essential, in our quest for meaning and more satisfying relationships.  

Dancing Brothers: One Lord vs First Jaguar

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 166-171)

While the minister and the other dancers got Red Paw into his costume and gave him instructions, two of the drummers heightened our excitement by displaying their speed in twirling and throwing torches back and forth while their brothers pounded the skins of the tall drums. 

The dancers came forward escorting Red Paw, now dressed as a messenger with a deerskin apron and a barkcloth overshirt. In place of the owl feather worn by messengers, they’d stuck a broken palm leaf in his headband. His head hung in embarrassment as we laughed and applauded. 

The drums stopped abruptly and we became silent. Billowing his cloak again, the minister strode forward with a flourish to begin the story. “There was a messenger of the court—.” As directed, Red Paw ran around the dancers in a circle. Two ceramic drums and now rattles and flutes played by the other dancers quickened his pace. “He ran fast,” the minister said. “Faster! The messenger was true to his master’s words. When he was not running messages, he helped his father in the field.” Red Paw stopped and made the motions of a man casting seeds and tamping them down with a planting stick. Behind him, other dancers comically exaggerated his movements. “He hunted iguana—.” Red Paw turned to the wahy dancer dressed as an iguana and chased him with the stick. “At the men’s house the messenger practiced his warrior skills. He took a wife and he built her a house.” Red Paw pretended to lash poles together. “He was a good husband. He emptied his own chamber-pot!” We laughed as a dancer handed Red Paw a large gourd. He looked into it, sniffed, wrinkled his nose and made the “pot” look heavy, hoisting it to his shoulders. Struggling under its weight, he wobbled over to the initiates and spilled the contents—crumbled dried leaves—onto the heads of the men in the first and second rows. 

“Listen now!” The minister shouted over their shrieks and our laughter. “The messenger had a flaw—he was lazy! He only did what he was forced to do.” Red Paw plopped down and lay on the ground with one leg resting on the other knee. “Having found most men to be like the messenger, One Lord and First Jaguar argued among themselves: ‘What is the best way to get the human beings to attend to us, praise our names and feed us their blood and sweat?’” The minister turned to us and opened both arms. “Cerros! This is the question they put to you! The gods tell me they will not release their abundance until it is settled.”

An initiate called from behind saying Red Paw could settle it. When we laughed, my friend raised his hands in confidence and we laughed even louder. The minister stepped back and bowed as One Lord, the dancer wearing a jaguar helmet and wrapped in a cloth with black spots, came bounding down the steps swinging his axe. He stopped here and there thrusting his menacing face close to us. From the stories we’d heard growing up, we knew his pointed tooth was a perforator and that his breath could instantly burn flesh off a bone. Dutifully, we screamed and backed away. When he went to center again, he paced and gestured as the minister spoke on his behalf, directing the words to his brother lord. “First Jaguar! Brother! Maker of men! There is only one way to get the human beings to praise our names and offer us their sweat.” Boom! A drummer pounded. “Watch, we will show you!” Boom! Boom! One Lord pointed and the wahy monkey bounded forward, twirling with a tall wooden box painted with sky signs. Monkey set the “throne” down and One Lord stepped on it. He held his head high, turned to the side to show the mirrors dangling from his belt and he pulled on it to make them clink. 

While this was happening, Red Paw received further instructions from the minister. When they finished, my friend went over to the spotted lord, knelt, bowed his head and showed his submission and respect with arms across his chest in the “sky” sign. To the slow agonizing beat of the drums, the other wahyob—Macaw, Jaguar, and Opossum—entered from the side struggling under the weight of a huge boulder. Like their axes it was made of stiff painted cloth, but the way they carried it and set it down in front of Red Paw, made it look heavy.

Again, the minister spoke on behalf of One Lord. “To respect us the human beings need to see that we are powerful.” Behind Red Paw, Iguana got up on Macaw’s shoulders. “We make clouds!” the lord said. Macaw reached into his pouch and rained down ash on Red Paw’s head. Quickly he cowered and brushed it out of his hair. While he was not looking, a drummer approached from behind and pounded his drum hard and fast. Shocked, Red Paw fell against the god-dancer’s feet, nearly knocking him off the little throne. I laughed so hard my cheeks hurt.

The minister spoke for the spotted lord. “We make thunder!” The drummers stood close on both sides of Red Paw and pounded their drums hard in his ears. “We make lightning!” Red Paw crouched as Macaw pummeled his back with palm stems painted yellow. We saw what was coming next. Monkey held an enormous jar over Red Paw’s head. It too was made of stiff cloth but the red rings painted around its neck made it look real. Glancing up Red Paw covered his head. “We make rain!” When, instead of water, more leaves fell, the laughter turned to sounds of disappointment.

As Red Paw shook off the leaves and brushed more of the ash out of his hair, the wahyob set a boulder in front of him. At the same time, One Lord opened his arms to us. “Young men and women of Cerros!” the minister shouted on his behalf, “Did your mothers and fathers teach you properly? Did they teach you to praise our names, keep the count of k’inob and offer us your sweat?” Prompted by our shouts and a dancer standing behind Red Paw, he shook his head emphatically, saying they had. Many of us knew better. “You have seen our power?” Again, Red Paw agreed and the spotted lord turned to him. “We say to you then, praise our names and raise this boulder over your head that we may taste your sweat.”

Red Paw rose to his knees and repeated the words the minister had whispered to him. “With respect, One Lord. Awinaken,” he said. “I praise your name.  I will give you my sweat—as one who runs messages. But I do not lift boulders.” The drums pounded fast and stopped abruptly. We were shocked. It was an unthinkable reply. Many of us on the steps, parents especially, made scowling sounds and hurled scolding remarks at Red Paw.

One Lord put his hands to his head as if the reply pained him greatly. The minister spoke his words: “What did you say? It seems we did not hear you correctly.” 

Red Paw received instructions again, folded his arms in defiance and looked up at the lord. “With respect lord, I was trained to run messages, not to lift up boulders.” Again the drums. The wahyob dancers had changed their helmets and costumes, coming back as Grasshopper, Snake, Scorpion and Vulture, now rattling threats at the messenger’s head and heels. One Lord danced his anger at Red Paw’s response, twirling around him and the wahyob. In a more demanding tone, the minister, speaking for the spotted lord pointed at the stone and shouted, “Son of Cerros, we order you to lift that boulder!” 

“With respect, One Lord. My tribute is to run messages. This is my agreement, my privilege, my obligation to the caah. I—do—not—lift—boulders!” The drummers gave it all they could and the wahyob rattled the lord’s furious dance. When he stopped and pointed to the side, the noise stopped. A dancer dressed as a warlord pulled a captive woman onto the plaza by a cord around her neck. Her head was down and her hair covered her face. We’d not seen her before. All the dancers were men. 

The warrior pushed the woman to the ground beside Red Paw and pulled the cord tight so she would rise to her knees and look up at One Lord. Higher up, someone in back of me whispered that it was Lady Sandpiper, second daughter of Laughing Falcon. Others agreed and word spread. To see a hot- blooded Cloud kneeling next to Red Paw was amazing. To see her wearing a barkcloth sarong with her hair hanging down and strips of cloth pulled through her ears was unbelievable. The dance was her father’s surprise. Seeing his daughter bound and treated like a captive was an even greater surprise.

When the murmuring among us stopped, Lady Sandpiper—the captive—bowed to One Lord. Scorpion handed the god his bloody axe and he held it over her head. The command came again—“Son of Cerros! Raise that boulder! If you do not, we will harvest the head of your wife!” His wife? That was funny. But when Red Paw turned and smiled at us with a stupid grin on his face, my friends and I almost fell off the steps laughing. After the minister whispered something to Red Paw, my friend bowed to One Lord, loudly praised his name and took hold of the boulder. Slowly, laboring under the weight, he lifted it over his head with wobbling legs. One Lord turned to First Jaguar with crossed arms and a satisfied posture. “You see my brother,” the minister said. “This is how we get the human beings to praise our names and offer us their sweat!” We applauded, stomped our feet and shouted. The wahy dancers stepped back to change their helmets, and the god dancer stepped down from the throne.

While both gods wore jaguar helmets, we recognized One Lord by his black spots and First Jaguar by orange-and-black tufts pasted onto his skin. Also, he wore rounded jaguar ears and paw mittens.

First Jaguar crouched and pawed at the women, then the men. Finally, he stood on the skybox throne. As before, the minister spoke for him, exalting him as one of the lords of the night. Instead of threatening Red Paw, First Jaguar presented him with gifts—a brown cloak, a planting stick and a spear for hunting. Following instructions again, Red Paw danced a hunt by chasing the wahyob demons who now wore tapir, fox, deer and peccary headdresses. After applauding the capture of his prey, First Jaguar gestured and Red Paw assumed a kneeling position. Lady Sandpiper came forward, now wearing a shell necklace over a plain white sarong with her hair wound high into a braid with spiraling red ribbons. “You have shown us your goodness and loyalty,” the lord said to Red Paw. It would please us if you would accept this beautiful woman as your wife.” Lady Sandpiper held out her hand toward Red Paw and he bowed.

Hoots and whistles turned to laughter and cheers as Red Paw danced around the lady to the sweet sounds of a bamboo flute. When First Jaguar gestured to the ground in front of him, Red Paw went before him and knelt. “You are a good and loyal messenger,” the lord said. “Speaking words properly and repeating them with care is a sign that human beings are well made. Also, it shows you respect your masters and their words. Now, from the River Of Abundance, it is our pleasure to give you everything you need and want.”

After some prompting Red Paw replied, “With respect, First Jaguar, Lord of the Night. Awinaken. I am grateful for all that you have given. What can I offer you in exchange?”

The First Jaguar dancer looked our way, tilted his head and raised his hands as if to say the argument was settled. During the applause Tapir, Fox and Peccary got the boulder and set it in front of Red Paw. “Faithful messenger,” First Jaguar said. “It would honor us greatly if you would praise our name and raise this boulder over your head.” Without hesitation, and to our foot stomping and shouting, Red Paw loudly praised his name, lifted the boulder over his head and paraded it around the dancers. First Jaguar folded his arms and turned to One Lord. “Brother,” he said. “Do you see? This is the better way to get the human beings to praise our names and offer us their sweat.” 

Our applause continued as the minister, Red Paw and the gods came forward. “Son of Cerros,” the minister said. “You have witnessed the arguments of the god twins. Now, the burden is yours. Tell us, which of them carries the greater argument?”


For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

Stone Monument: Stelae

(Stelae) were more than mere representation; they were themselves animate embodiments of the king, extensions of the kingly self that always ‘acted’ to insure the perpetual renewal of time and the cosmos.

David Stuart 

Maya stelae are tall stone monuments, erected in the Classic Period between 100 and 300 AD. Many of them were sculpted in low relief on all four sides with kings, gods, ancestors and hieroglyphs. They were mostly painted red—the color of the life force—but uncarved stelae were also found. It’s speculated that these had been painted with images and glyphs.

Stela E at Quirigua, Honduras (Above)

This is the largest monolithic monument ever erected in the New World. It’s over 24 ft. tall, and  below the carving 10 ft. more is sunk in the ground. The worker in the top right corner was one of several men building a new shelter. Stela E was dedicated on January 22, 771 AD to commemorate the completion of the 16th K’atun—a period of 7200 days—and the rise to power of Lord K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat. On the front and back, he’s shown standing on the earth monster wearing a tall headdress and holding the scepter of divine rulership across his chest.  The text on the sides records his accession under the auspices of Waxaklajun Ub’ah K’awiil, the ruler of Copan whom he later tried to best—in part by erecting larger monuments and performing rituals to establish his supernatural identity.

Twelve years after his accession, K’ak’ Tiliw captured and beheaded Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil to secure Quirigua’s independence. Then on November 28, 762 he raided Xkuy, a polity under Copan’s control. He captured its sacred palanquin—a litter platform used to ceremonially transport a king, born on the shoulders of slaves—and displayed it in public at Quirigua.


Sculpted stelae recorded ritual moments in time and held them forever, depicting rulers who communed with the gods and divine ancestors to validate their power and authority. Beyond carrying information, they extended the ruler’s gaze and influence. Because there was a sameness between image and subject, sculpted eyes were believed to emanate the life force. So the ruler, apotheosized after death as a divine spirit, could impact the people with his sacred heat and continue to act on their behalf—but only if he and his deeds were remembered. Curiously, the English word is re-member, in a sense to re-establish someone as a member of the community. That’s what remembering did for Maya kings, and it’s why faces proliferate on their monuments, buildings and artifacts. 

The stelae functioned within the ritual landscape as surrogate ritual performers. The images of gods portrayed on them were understood as the actual manifestation of those deities, not merely a representation.

David Stuart

Dedication Ceremonies

Because stela were the embodiments of the ruler, they were given names and treated with great respect and ceremony, helping to define their ritual placement and dedication as everlasting testimony of significant events in the life of the ruler, the community and beyond. Among these rituals was the binding and covering of stelae in cloth shrouds, possibly in imitation of maize husks which could then be ceremonially “shucked” to reveal the substance (kernel) of the event depicted. In the Maya world, everything was perceived to be alive in the first place. Then, once a stone or other object was subjected to a “spirit-entering” ritual, a particular spirit—the ruler in the case of stelae—or a deceased ancestor. 

What The Stelae Recorded

These monuments recorded accession to power, lineage birth dates, bloodletting ceremonies, calendar dates and rituals,  the dedication of buildings and monuments, marriage alliances, presentation of the heir-apparent, the taking of captives and their sacrifice and war events including the capture of sacred palanquins and god-bundles containing the bones of apotheosized ancestors. 

Whether a person was living or dead, commoner or elite, any power they had resided in the spirit that dwelled within. For rulers, spirit power could be acquired by capturing and then sacrificing another elite as an offering to the gods. 

Of course we don’t kill people to capture their power today. Instead, we align ourselves and support those with influence. Always, I think it’s a good idea to ask why.

Re-Membering In Stone

Excerpt From Jaguar Wind And Waves (p. 105-109)

(Jaguar Wind And Waves is largely about a woman’s search to find the stela that her deceased father, the Tikal ruler, had commissioned. In this scene, a holy man is showing the monument to her and her son. They’d been away for many years, so they’re seeing it for the first time. Here, the stela is being described as a whole monument. Later in the story, only a piece of it is found—illustrated as a drawing below).


I nodded to Father’s monument. “Were you here when he dedicated it?”

“I supervised some of the carving as well, mostly his face and headdress.” We got up and he led me back to the monument where he retrieved a stick with a white feather on the end. Using it as a pointer, he asked Crocodile and Honey a feature in Father’s headdress. “What is this?”

“Jaguar Paw!” Crocodile said immediately. “His name.” 

“Well done, young lord.” He pointed the feather to the word-signs at the bottom of the monument. “What about this?”

My son went in close and easily read, “He completed it—the seventeenth k’atun—at Tikal Sky place.”

“Again, well done! I see you are laying well, following in your father’s footsteps. Far Sky gestured and we followed him a few steps into the plaza. He pointed to the top of First True Mountain across the way. Bending slightly, he favored my son and daughter. “Up there is where your grandfather celebrated the completion of that k’atun. Do you know what that means?”

It was Honey’s turn to respond. “The calendar god who carried the burden of the last twenty tunob, completed his journey, set the burden down so the next god could pick it up and carry it forward.”

The old man turned to me with an astonished look. Turning back to Honey, he called her a “bright flower.” We followed him back to Father’s monument. “You know, my lady, your parents were very proud of you. They spoke of you often. Your father said you were making a grand contribution to them and the caah. They missed you greatly.”

Far Sky led us around to the front of the monument. Careful not to block the view of those presenting gifts in front of it, we stood to the side. First Crocodile pointed to the object in my father’s hand, another jaguar paw, long, with the claws extended. “Is that an axe?” he asked.

“With respect young lord, that was his scepter. Your uncle Flint Dancer made it, and I ensouled it for your grandfather. He used it at all the Period Ending rights. That was real pelt, covering a real jaguar bone. It was not painted. The claws were pieces of carved shell.”

“What happened to it? Can I see it?”

“Last I saw, it was in a box in the regalia chamber at the palace. If it is not there, it was probably taken in the attack.”

I asked who sculpted Father’s monument. “He came from Kaminaljuyu, a journey of twenty k’inob. He treated him very well, even had a shelter built at the quarry so he and his men could work through the rains.” He pointed. “The block they cut from the quarry was not much taller, but it was much thicker and broader than what you see here.”

First Crocodile had his head tilted back, looking up. The monument was at least four times his height. Frown-lines creased his smooth forehead. “How did they get it here?”

“That is quite a story. Once it was cut, they wrapped it with green palm fronds, three layers thick. Then they tied on thick matting using cords as thick as your arm.” He explained what a hoist was, telling how the cords worked front and back. “Very slowly, with many strong men, they lowered it onto logs—eight, I believe. Again very slowly, they rolled it on the logs to the causeway and then to here— all in six k’inob.”

“They were actually carved here?” I asked. “Not at the quarry?”

“Always. As for this one, your father wanted the carving to be deeper than the others.” Far Sky pointed to Father’s elbow with the feather. “See here? To make it look like he was standing in front of the temple doorway, they carved his arm so it overlaps the frame—which he said was the doorway to the palace.

Tikal Stela 39

Drawing by Linda Schele © David Schele

“What was the dedication like?”

“Grand, my lady. Colorful. We were up on First True Mountain, the ministers and I wore our jades and quetzal headdresses. The plaza was filled with people. As part of your father’s oratory he repeated what he said when he ascended to the Mat, words that earned him the title, Contribution Lord. You were just a flower—”

“I’m so glad you reminded me of that. I’d almost forgotten. What did he say?”

“I can hear his words as if he spoke them this morning, my lady. He said, ‘I come to the Mat not only to rule, but also to contribute.’”

“He was always talking about how we were privileged to make a grand contribution.”

Far Sky nodded and raised his eyebrows. “I proclaimed that title whenever I introduced him.”

Honey Claw pointed to the figure of a man under Father’s feet. He lay partly on his side but with his sandaled feet rising in back with his head and shoulders high, grasping a bundle to his chest. “Is that one of his captives?” she asked. 

I wondered as well. The figure’s artificial beard, the black mask across his eyes, the sacrificial knots on his sandals, and especially the knotted burial cloths around his midsection made it not likely that he was a captive. Far Sky provided the answer. “That is his father, Lord Radiant Hawk Skull—your great-grandfather. His name is also carved on the back. 

Crocodile asked, “Why did they show grandfather standing on his back?”“He wanted to be shown rising above him, just as a maize stalk rises from its seeds. Because rulers are the Great Trees of their cities, he honors his father by showing him as both his seed and root. The signs in Lord Skull’s headdress say he held the Mat and celebrated the calendar rounds.” 

“What is the bundle he is holding?” Honey asked

“It shows that your great-grandfather was the keeper of a precious bundle, a god-bundle that contained ancestor bones, likely those of the founder of the Paw line.”

First Crocodile went closer to the stone and pointed. “Why is a k’in sign on grandfather’s right anklet? On the other it reads ak’ab.

He explained the k’in—“day”—sign stands for light and ak’ab—“darkness”—showed that his grandfather had one foot in the sky and the other in the underworld. “He spoke to the gods in both realms.”


For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller







Prophecy And Belief

A prophecy is a message that comes from a deity, delivered to a person attuned to receive it. Typically, the message expresses the divine will regarding the future. Ancient cultures all had prophets who delivered prophecies. And people believed what they heard, were willing to kill and die to be true to it. Gods, after all, were to be trusted. 

Anthropologist Mircea Eliade noted that tribal societies believed that their stories, about the gods and sacred ancestors overcoming the forces of chaos, created a sacred cosmic and social order in which humans could safely dwell. He said their myths and rituals divided the world into two realms, the sacred and the profane. Those who live the sacred order are human beings; all others are strangers who come from the realm of chaos and are different and those differences threaten the life-sustaining stability of their sacred order. Around the world, he showed that ancient tribal societies saw themselves as living at the center of the cosmos, the place where the gods and ancestors brought things into being. In such a physical and mental space, trusting the will of the gods and sacred ancestors was inborn, automatic, a matter of life, destiny and death.

As part of the divinely created order of the cosmos, to maintain personal safety and stability in a tribal society, human beings needed to model the cosmic order—maintain the center. There were many threats—rivalry, disease, beasts and demons that roamed the wilds, malevolent deities, climate fluctuations and outsiders. So it was necessary to understand the will of the benevolent gods and appeal to ancestors who in death became guardians of the sacred order.  

It is not surprising that, according to archaeologist David Freidel, the Maya institution of “divine” kingship derived from the much earlier Olmec culture in southern Mexico. Maya kings were more than elites who ruled. Their power, at least until the Late Classic period, derived mainly from their ability, along with their priest-daykeepers, to discern the will of the gods and divine the future. 

Privileged to meet and photograph a Maya shaman in his Santa Catarina, Guatemala healing center, I took the above picture of the sacred items he used to do a “layout” that would inform him about a client’s health and prognosis. Using two types of beans and crystals, his procedure was to arrange them in rows using sacred numbers. On a trip to Belize, I met a shaman who used beans and crystals in the same way, but an important part of his discernment had to do with the feelings he got in different parts of his body. 

Maya kings used psychoactive drugs, auto-sacrifice and ecstatic dancing to commune with the gods and deified ancestors. In the modern era, prophets emerged and we built religions around them. And today there are individuals who claim to be gifted with precognition, the ability to foretell the future. Whatever the underlying reality, then and now, there is no question that belief is one of our most powerful capacities. It’s the rudder that steers the canoe and the ocean liner.

This is a make-believe world. We make it according to our belief.

Jerome Perlinski 

Your beliefs become your thoughts.

Your thoughts become your words.

Your words become your actions.

Your actions become your habits.

Your habits become your values.

Your values become your destiny.

Mahama Gandhi

Prophecy Of The Cloud Kings At El Mirador

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 57-59 )

“According to the prophecy there were to be two trials,” White Grandfather said. “Our grandfathers survived the first. Now it comes to us. And it will not pass when the k’in bearer sets his burden down. It will only pass when the gods see how we are shouldering this, their final trial.”

The same man spoke again. “Respect, Grandfather, people are saying that Laughing Falcon has not bargained well with the gods, they are not honoring his requests.” When others in the crowd agreed, White Grandfather shook his head and looked side to side. Someone called out. “Enough talk! Release the food! Give us the food!” The people shouted, stomped the ground, and clapped their hands. “Food! Food! Food…” 

White Grandfather took a step forward and pointed to the crates and baskets beyond the guards. “Do you know where this comes from?” he shouted.

“From us!” someone yelled. Another called out, “Tribute!” Someone else complained that it was his family’s sweat that filled the storehouse.”

“All that we have, all that we receive is a gift from the gods,” White Grandfather said. “Lord K’in provides the heat and light for your crops. The Chaakob water them with rain. One Maize gives us the maize to eat and the seeds to plant. All this and more is given through the appeals, the blood sacrifices, petitions and offerings of Our Bounty. Turn away from what you lack. Instead, fix your gaze on the bounty that is coming, that has been foretold…”

A calmer voice interrupted, “With respect, Grandfather, how can I, when my family is starving? My eyes are fixed on their misery.” The man turned and pointed beyond the guards. “We cannot eat the words of a prophecy.”

White Grandfather bent down. “We understand. We know it is difficult—” A noblewoman next to the man got his attention and spoke. All I could see was nodding behind a deer headdress with a spray of macaw feathers. White Grandfather stood straight again. “The lady asks why the trial has been so long and severe. Those who gave the prophecy did not say. But they understand—when sustenance is withheld, trust, belief, and hope are all challenged. By standing firm against the drought, against the fields of rotting maize, the pain of hunger and the loss of our elders, we show ourselves to be worthy of the abundance they promised.”

“What prophecy do you speak of?” the lady asked. “When and where was it given?”

“The Cloud prophecy, given nine k’atunob past, at Mirador.” In a voice only those around us could hear, a round-faced guard said a one-hundred-eighty-year-old prophecy could not be trusted. He said it was no longer valid.

“I have not heard of it,” someone called out. “What did it say?” 

White Grandfather opened his arms and waited for the crowd to quiet. “The prophecy said the destiny of the House of Cloud—and the challenge to its rulers—was to raise temples to Lord K’in and One Maize that reach to the clouds. It said that when this is fulfilled there will be many seasons of abundance, but first, there would be trials—to determine if the people living in the Cloud territories are deserving of such abundance. Further, he said there would be two long seasons when the skin of the earth and skins of the people dry up. There will be too much water and then not enough. A mingling of strong winds from the east and west will bring black smoke, a blanket of death. It advised that we, along with the rulers, make offerings of blood and incense—and stand tall through the trials.” White Grandfather walked closer to the shelter’s roof. “Already, we have raised temples that reach the clouds. Now, if we stand tall—like a forest around our Great Tree—offering our sweat and patience to the gods, the abundance will come.”  

A young warrior raised his feathered spear and called from the middle of the crowd. “With respect, did the prophecy come from the Cloud ancestors—or from the gods?”

“Our ancestors gave the prophecy that we might understand what the gods want,” the old man said.   

“What do they want?” An older warrior standing beside him asked.

Rather than answer, White Grandfather removed his three-leaf headdress and held it out. Mother whispered in my ear. “Remember what tell—about Those Born First?”

“How they wore three maize leaves in their headdresses?” I answered.

She nodded. “Tipped with jade beads. 

“I forget what they were for.”

“Listen,” she said, pointing to White Grandfather.

“This is what they want,” he said. He pointed to the leaves and named them in turn: “Beauty—Respect—Gratitude. To your eyes, they look like maize leaves painted white. To our eyes, they are the seeds that, when sown in the hearts of men, flower into the coming abundance. When we make beauty in our houses and fields, when we show respect for the gods, ancestors, Our Bounty, our brothers and sisters of the caah—all that lives, when we have gratitude in our hearts for what we have been given, the gods will be satisfied. When they see the seeds of beauty, respect and gratitude growing in each of us and in the caah, they will be eager to sustain us, continue the world for another round and bring the promised abundance.” 


For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller  

The Sacred World Tree (Ceiba)

A young ceiba. The thorns protect the tree from animals, especially the peccary who like the bark. The spikes disappear when the tree matures.

The ceiba is the largest tree in the tropical forest, so it’s not surprising that the Maya would use it as a model for the cosmos. The stature of the actual tree with roots deep in the underworld, tall trunk and branches that touched the sky, it well represented the three realms which were inhabited by gods and demons. The ideological version, an imagined replica was known as Ya’ache’, the “World Tree.”


The perceptions of the ancients varied from place to place, but there is remarkable consistency over time in how they perceived the universe — as represented in the inscriptions.  The Middle World was viewe as resting on the back of a gigantic, monstrous crocodile — turtle in some places — who floats on an enormous pond full of waterlilies. From the monster’s body there grew the great tree. The Underworld is shaped like an inverse pyramid with nine layers that correspond to nine “Lords of the Night,”

The Upperworld or celestial realm had thirteen layers, each with its own deity. At the highest, there was a vainglorious mythological bird who fancied himself brighter than the sun when he landed on the great tree. Itzam-Yeh, the “Serpent Bird” that scholars refer to as the Principal Bird Deity (PBD) nested in the arms of the World Tree. From there he dispensed the life force through entwined cords.

The Tree


I’m 6’6″

This tree is over 900 years old.
  • Usually between seven and ten years pass before a ceiba bears its first season of fruit, and in future years, it may produce only every other year yielding 600-4,000 fruits a crop. 
  • As the trees narrow, green leaves fall from January to March, and the branches of the upper world begin to bloom with bouquets of whitish pink flowers. 
  • The blossoms open after the sundown and stand out against the sky like bright stars. 
  • At night, bats come to drink flower nectar and eat the pollen while during the first morning hours, birds such as blackbirds, tanagers, orioles, brown jays, hummingbirds, oropendolas, and many others flock, sometimes in the hundreds to the branches and blooms. Come morning, the open flowers send their petals spinning to the ground. The fertilized blooms begin to swell, and long pear-shaped pods appear in clusters among the branches. 

Arms filled with kapok
  • The husks appear gray and tough, but on the inside they are lined with a bed of lustrous fibers known as kapok silk. The slippery fibers were used as stuffing for pillows and other objects. 
  • They grow quickly and require lots of sun. The lightweight wood decays easily, but the long straight trunks were sometimes hollowed out to make canoes.

It falls from the tree every three years.
  • Kapok is a silky cotton-like fiber located within the fruits. The fruit pods are called pochote by the Maya who use the fiber for clothing.
  • Itzam Yeh can be seen in full figure in:
      • Tikal Temple IV wood panel
      • Palenque Temple of Cross
      • Palenque Temple of Foliated Cross
      • Palenque: Pacal’s Sarcophagus 
      • Quirigua Zoomorph B (Full figure glyph)
      • Piedras Negras Stela 5

The Dance of Itzam Yeh

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 363)

JADE MOCKINGBIRD CAME FROM BEHIND THE PYRAMID wearing white kilts, a white headband and white body paint with black spots—the markings of One Lord. Red Paw entered behind him, similarly dressed, but with the markings of First Jaguar, his twin brother—orange body paint with tufts of jaguar pelt covering his ears, jaws, torso and limbs. Besides being a great hunter like his brother, First Jaguar was a trickster and a skilled player of the ball game. Another apprentice dressed as Lord Itzam Yeh, the vain and menacing bird who dispensed life and magnified himself above the other gods, danced around them swirling and swooping, waving his feathered arms through the smoke coming from censers in front of the steps.

To the beating of three drums and continuous rattling by the sentries, Itzam Yeh ascended the eastern stairway, took a stance, pointed to the eastern Pauahtun and made the “offering” gesture with open arms. He stopped and made the same offering to the north, west and south. Having completed his round of ordering and offering, he stuck out his feathered chest and strutted back and forth along the platform. At the eastern stairway he stopped, took a stance and began his famous proclamation—

“I am mighty. My place is higher than the human.            

 I am their Sun. I am their light. So be it—my light is mighty.   

 I am the walkway. I am the foothold of the people…”

By the light of the sentries’ torches we watched the Hero Twins circle the sacred mountain with their blowguns. 

“My teeth glitter with jewels,” the holy bird said.

“They stand out blue with the moon.

My nest shines—it lights up the face of the earth…” 

One Lord went up the northern stairway. First Jaguar approached from the south. At the top they crept toward the ranting bird who paced with outstretched wings. The drumming stopped but the rattling continued. At once the brothers raised their blowguns and, on two hard drumbeats, shot the bird. He spun around, fell to his knees and then fell on the platform. We knew it meant that vanity was defeated and order was restored in the sky. But it wasn’t over.

At the bottom of the steps the twins encountered three lords of death—Mockingbird’s apprentices wearing bulbous skull helmets and painted white bones over their black body paint. As the story goes, they’d come to avenge the death of Itzam Yeh. 

Boldly, dancing as if the twin lords knew something the underworld lords did not know, they allowed themselves to be put down. Axed. After covering the bodies with a black cloth, the lords danced the grinding of their bones complete with pouring white powder into a large calabash, and then by hand scattering it into a river. 

The tallest of the dancers, wearing a black cape and hood, went up the western steps and turned. Flanked by plastered jaguar and serpent heads, he told how the twins emerged from the river that flowed in front of us. Suddenly, One Lord and First Jaguar came around the sides of the pyramid dressed as beggars. “They went from village to village,” one of the assistants said. “They performed wonders.” When he said they burned a house without destroying it, Red Paw danced the burning. When he said they sacrificed a dog and brought it to life again, Jade Mockingbird danced its death and resurrection. “Seeing these wonders,” the teller called out, “the Lords of Death were curious. The magic fascinated them so, they wanted to be sacrificed and revived as well.” 

To the beating of drums and the rattling of rattles, the god twins obliged them, putting down the dark lords with their own axes and then cleverly rolling their bloody heads into the onlookers. “The twins played a trick,” the teller said. “They did not revive them. And so it happened. At Three Sky Place, through cleverness and trickery, One Lord and First Jaguar defeated death.” As he told how the twins ascended and took their places in the sky as Sun and Moon, the sentries rattled their rattles and the drummers beat their drums. Fast and hard. 

Whether Itzam Yeh is a Macaw or a Laughing Falcon

Excerpt from Jaguar Sun (p. 239)

I asked, “Does it not matter to you that Itzam Yeh is said by some Itz’aat tellers to be a macaw while others say he is a laughing falcon?”

“Itzam Yeh? I believe he is a macaw, so I tell the story of Seven Macaw. I do not believe he is a falcon. Does it matter the kind of body he wears? Gods can change form, you know. In truth, it matters not that he reveals himself as a bird. What matters is the spirit he is and what he does. How the sculptor carves him or how a teller describes him are just ways to put flesh on his spirit. They have their truth and I respect it, even if it is different from mine. What matters is that there is a likeness—or a story—that gives the spirit flesh. That way we can feel their presence better, know and respect them better.”

“So the truth of a story is what you want to believe it is?” 

The old man nodded and leaned to me. “To confuse you further, my friend, what we want to believe changes as we grow older. Even so, I tell the stories as I learned them, true to our rule.” His words were filling my head with kapok. Then he said, “Knowing may be a comfort, but believing and trusting keeps us moving from one path to another.”

One path to another? “Are you saying we can have more than one path?”

The people who were gathering to hear Lord Crocodile were becoming impatient. Many of them were looking our way. Even with both hands on his staff he needed help getting up. Once up he faced me. “My friend, did you ever wander a jungle trail by yourself?”

“Often as a sprout. I still do when I visit new places.”


For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

Solar Observatory Or Performance Stage?

By 500 B.C. there were numerous large architectural assemblages throughout the central lowlands of Guatemala and Mexico. At first, they appeared to function solely as line-of-site markers of the sun’s solstice and equinox turning points. Archaeologists named them E-Group complexes. 

Although there was great diversity in these structures across time and place, what they had in common was a large rectangular, flat, paved plaza with a square four-sided pyramid aligned to the cardinal  directions, situated west of a long narrow platform with small temples that ran north and south. The first to be investigated in the Maya area was Uaxactun Structure E-VII-sub. Above is how it looked when I visited there in 2000. Although it was severely weathered, early photographs showed that there were large deity masks and stairways on all four sides.

We can imagine—as I had when writing Jaguar Rising—a priest-ruler on top of the pyramid before dawn. Adorned with jade and wearing a tall headdress of blue-green quetzal feathers, he and his family, daykeepers and principle courtiers are all there, lit by a brazier, waiting  to witness the rising of the Sun god at the corner of the easternmost temple, an opportunity to  verify that both the sacred (tzolkin) and solar (haab) calendars were accurate and congruent, marking the seasons and times for particular rituals. 

After years of investigation at many sites, the consensus is now that, while E-Groups may have originally been built to mark and celebrate the solstice and equinox, their more prolific purpose was to establish a large space with a bonifide sacred center, a theater stage, where kings could perform elaborate calendar rites and other ceremonies. One of these common to the E-Groups was to celebrate the k’atun (20-year) Period Ending, the day when the current god of that period set his “burden” down and the next god in line picked it up to carry it forward with his particular influences for the next twenty years. Cycles of 13 k’atuns—about 256 years—were also celebrated.

The west-situated pyramid that established the sacred center of an emerging polity or city did so by symbolizing the cosmos and the time cyclicals they held sacred.

  • The four sides and stairways have the shape of a cross (+), the symbol for k’in, which is the Maya word for “day” and the glyph for “sun.” 
  • Aligned to the cardinal points, the pyramid “celebrates” the four directions. In particular, the east-west stairway references the journey of Ajaw K’in the “Lord Sun.” He is born in the east, reaches his highest holy place over the top of the pyramid, descends to his “dying place” in the west to dwell overnight in the Underworld—under the pyramid. In making this journey, Ajaw K’in creates the day. To insure that his journey continued, sacrifices were made on the last day of each period. And they ranged from one day to thousands of years. 
  • Cosmologically, it was believed that the celestial realm had several layers, or “steps” that Ajaw K’in had to ascend and then descend in his journey. We can imagine then, the king ascending the pyramid steps slowly and thoughtfully.
  • As at Uaxactun, E-Group pyramids in other locations often displayed stucco reliefs, masks with cosmological themes. Those on E-VII-sub reference Ajaw K’in, the watery underworld and long-lipped gods representing the earth and sky. According to archaeologist David Freidel, they represent the sun cycle surmounted by Venus. And because the four-sided pyramids usually appear in the middle of open plazas they also represent the center of the universe and the centering point of the four world quarters. 

Did E-Groups serve as seasonal observatories or as stages for ceremonial spectacles? More work needs to be done, but it appears that they served both functions. Perhaps even more— at different times and in different places.

E-groups were most widely constructed as Maya society was becoming increasingly stratified, an indication that the ritual they framed ensured both cosmic and political order. By expressing a fundamental cosmological concept on a monumental scale, and as settings for religious and political ritual, E-groups provided an experientially powerful and symbolically meaningful condensation of Maya reality. 

James Aimers and Prudence Rice

Visiting The E-Group Complex At Uaxactun

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 348-349)

We turned north and came to an enormous open and paved, gleaming red plaza where, in the center, gods flanking a pyramid’s steps looked in all four directions. On the eastern side of the pyramid, a stone monument faced a long platform that supported three shrines. Because the plaza itself was one of the holy places Hammerstone told us about, Fishbone pointed to where we could cross, while he, his brothers and Butterfly took a long way around. Judging from the men atop the pyramid wearing quetzal headdresses and dancing to drums, a ritual was in progress. 

We met up with the slaves on the other side of the plaza. They were out of breath from running, so White Cord called for a rest. Fishbone took it as an opportunity to tell us why that particular plaza was holy ground. “After the founder built the first shrine in the sacred district,” he said, “he came here, cut a living branch and walked with it until it pointed down—to a little pool of black water. He marked it with stones and then walked east until the branch told him to stop.” Fishbone pointed about fifty strides away to a tall shaft of stone painted red. “That stone marks the eastern ahkantuun. There are three others—white to mark the north, black for west and yellow for south. With the ground so ordered, he made another circuit to mark the trees to be cut. By recognizing the ground as holy, he established it so for the eyes of his followers. They felled the trees to burn limestone and they hardened the ground with mortar between the markers.

When the new plaza was paved and painted red, the founder came again. In the center—where the pool had reflected the canopy—they drilled new fire. And there he offered his blood and the blood of a young woman so the place would forever bring new life. He named it Plaza of Black Water Sky. Nine tunob later his son erected a building over that center, a shrine, and he named it Three Sky Place. Inside he planted a bundle containing the bones of his Father and the female offering. So it was established—the caah of Uaxactun. The shrine has been built over many times since. The bundle that gives life to it is still there.”

Fishbone answered some of our questions and told how the current ruler built the shrine we were seeing, Raised Up Sky—the place where the maize god raised the sky off the water to reveal the land. “Very hot,” Fishbone said. He pointed to three more shrines across the plaza by about two hundred paces. “Now, every solstice, Our Bounty marks the journey of Lord K’in by sighting his face over there.” 

White Cord was eager to move on. We all were. The women especially wanted to get settled while there was still some light—and we didn’t know how much farther we would have to go. 


For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

War And Warriors

Rollout vase photos courtesy of Justin Kerr

It was the custom among them to pledge what they possessed to each other; upon collection and payment they began to quarrel and attack each other.

Diego de Landa

They never had peace, especially when the cultivation (of milpas) was over, and their greatest desire was to seize important men to sacrifice, because the greater the quality of the victim, the more acceptable their service to the gods. 

Alfred Tozzer

War was the way you got gifts for the gods and kept the universe running.

Linda Schele

Purpose and Objectives

In the Early period, warfare was practiced as a confrontation between spiritual forces, primarily involving the capture and sacrifice of royal captives. Most valued were captives of high rank. The sacrifice of royal blood was the ultimate gift to the gods. Rather than “battles” between large forces, warfare initially amounted to raids and attacks to take captives. In the inscriptions, what was important was the captive’s name, title and who captured him. A large part of ceremonial warfare amounted to capturing not only a worthy sacrificial victim but also the patron banner of the polity, the ruler’s god-bundle which containing the relics of his deified ancestors, his palanquin and war paraphernalia. All of these sacred items increased the power and prestige of the victor and his lineage. It also brought economic benefits to the community that fueled the emerging elite and contributed to the massing of both commoner and slave labor for construction projects. 

According to archaeologist Dr. Arthur Demarest, warfare in the Middle-to-Late Classic was about status and charisma. It helped to define who the royals and elite were and how much power they had with the gods. This was important because knowing who the gods favored provided a means for resolving dynastic succession, it opened trade routes, reinforced the status of elites by providing them with prized possessions such as quetzal, obsidian and jade and it bolstered the victor’s access to tribute labor. Dr. Demerest says, “In this period they did not ruin the enemy’s fields, or take a chance on harming its population because this brought no prestige. The necessary pact between humans and gods was sealed by the bloodletting of rulers.”

Other possible benefits included the acquisition of tribute from subject polities, boundary maintenance, the establishment of warlords which fostered elites and ranking, opportunities for public rituals and spectacles. It legitimized the ruler’s power in dealing with the gods.


Early Maya warfare (Preclassic and first centuries of the Early Classic), pitted the leaders of communities, their noble followers and a reasonable complement of commoner militia against one another on well-known battlefields and on known and planned occasions. I think that Maya warfare had some clear-cut rules of conduct during this early phase of the civilization… The primary tactic was the raid or brief battle aimed at surprise attack and quick defeat rather than total conquest or subjugation.

David Freidel (Archaeologist)

Maya artworks show warriors marching behind battle standards—tall poles with large shields attached to the tops, decorated and edged with bright featherwork. (Much larger than those shown here and above). The fighting itself amounted to free-for-alls where the principal lords and warriors, decked out to represent supernatural forces, engaged each other in close-order combat. The sounds of the battlefield came from conchs, rattles, wooden trumpets, wood and turtle carapace drums, whistles and frantic shouting.


In the Preclassic period, most polities weren’t large enough to maintain standing armies, so the rulers assembled able-bodied men and boys and armed them with brine-hardened cotton armor, wooden helmets, short stabbing darts, wooden axes with obsidian blades anchored along the sides, spears, axes and slings. It wasn’t until the Postclassic that the Maya used bows and arrows. 


Generally, wars were fought during the dry season, mostly because men would be available after the harvest and before the planting. Aside from agricultural needs, the rainy season with extensive flooding and muddy paths would have made it difficult, at times impossible. The Nacom (chief warlord) presided over an annual festival in the month of Pax (Mid-May). Rites were performed and he was treated as a god and  he discussed military matters with the ruler and other members of the court.

A Significant Shift

According to inscriptions at a variety of sites, on January 31, 378 an emissary from Teotihuacan in Central Mexico called Siyaj K’ahk’ (Born Of Fire) arrived at El Peru/Waka’. On the same day, Tikal’s ruler, Chak Tok Ich’aak (Great Jaguar Claw) “entered the water.” He and his entire lineage were killed and  replaced by a new male line drawn from the ruling house at Teotihuacan. Foremost among them was a high nobleman from Teotihuacan named Spearthrower Owl. This event marks the beginning of major changes in Maya society, among them the purpose, strategy and scale of warfare. 

The shift was from the modest scale taking of royal captives for sacrifice to the creation and maintenance of city-states through the acquisition of tribute (bounty and labor) from subject polities, the expansion of trade routes, and in the case of the Snake Kings of Calakmul, the establishment of allies to encircle Tikal, their bitter enemy, through marriage alliances. From then on, the “Peten Wars” ratcheted up involving many thousands of warriors in a single battle. 

After decades of the Calakmul kings building alliances, on August 3, 695 the current ruler, Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ (Fiery Claw) led his allies into an enormous battle against the Tikal king, Jasaw Chan K’awiil. In a major twist, Yich’aak K’ahk’ was defeated.

(My novel, Jaguar Wind And Waves, is about this momentus event).

Postclassic Period (950-1539 AD)

There is evidence of constant warfare in Northern Yucatan among competing city-states throughout these years. The Spaniards reported that Maya armies were large during important campaigns, numbering in the thousands, but they were not maintained very long because they were logistically sustained through temporary appropriations of food and materials from unhappy peasant villagers. And those city-states were then governed by royal families, likely including other elites, rather than individual rulers.

The information provided here derives largely from a collection of scholarly opinions and interpretations. Warfare among the ancient Maya is one of the many cultural practices that changed over time and from place to place. The benefit of collected research and discussion is that it gives us a “taste” of what it was like. In that, we can consider the past as we shape the future.

Green Band Raid on Ahktuunal, Guatemala
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 35-36 )

Across the plaza at the base of the Great Turtle temple, a similar fate had befallen the Mother of the underlord, members of his council and court including their wives, even his steward. They and the most holy jaguar prophet who speaks to the people on behalf of the ruler and prognosticates for him were also being stripped, bound and tied together. Wherever the green band raiders were from, they apparently needed slaves—probably for construction projects—and a hot-blood for their master’s altar. 

Above the chain of captives, the zapote beams of the Holy House of Lord Turtle were engulfed in roaring flames. Tall, red-and-green feather standards on both sides of the doorway burst into flames sending an explosion of sparks into the smoke and fog. With the exception of the residence and the lineage house behind it—where Thunder Flute and Pech were taking cover—all the structures of the central district, the shrines, temples and other structures made of perishable materials, were going up in flames. 

The Green Bands brought their looted items to the center of the plaza and dumped them into baskets and onto nets, mats, and blankets, ripping open the tied bundles and spilling out their contents for their leader to inspect. Thunder Flute signed to Pech that he wanted a count of the raiders, including those not in the plaza. In turn, Pech signed an order to an assistant at the back of the Flower House and the message was passed on. Thunder Flute signed again, saying that if the raiders all come together in the plaza, we will attack. If not, they would “target and track” them when they leave. Again, the message was passed. Thunder Flute watched a while longer, then signed again to Pech. Why are they not talking? Pech shook his head and signed back. No one was talking, not a word passed between them.

After parading his prize in front of the warriors, the Owl leader tied the underlord’s neck-cord to the great stone turtle at the base of the temple. The goods being brought into the plaza were more bountiful and precious than Thunder Flute would have thought possible. They overturned a crate filled with ceramic and carved stone turtles packed in dried pine needles. Another contained the hides of deer, peccary, and ocelot. Two of the raiders labored over a large wooden crocodile. With his foot on the back of his neck, he pried out the obsidian eyes with his knife and broke off two rows of shell that served as its teeth. The rest he left, turning his attention to a prickly armadillo goblet offered by a young warrior. When another held out a ceramic censer in the shape of a turtle, he swatted it down and it smashed against the pavement. Thunder Flute noticed that any object carrying the likeness of a turtle—painted, molded, or incised—was either rejected or destroyed. 

From a heavy basket, one of the raiders dumped a number of green stones onto a blanket. Thunder Flute wanted to get a closer look so he motioned for Pech to stay where he was while he went around to the back of the residence. Crossing to the council house under the cover of streaming black smoke, he crouched behind a stairway and watched as three of the raiders examined the green stones with their leader. Thunder Flute counted six hand-sized ceremonial celts, at least ten equally long belt danglers, two jade tubes as long as a finger, four jade earflares shaped like flowers, a dark greenstone the size of a fist and scores of jade bead necklaces. When an assistant held one up with the bulbous head of the sun god at the bottom, the leader snatched it out of his hand and stuffed it into his already bulging pouch. From another warrior, he snatched a jade turtle shell the size of a fist, a magnificent piece with three red spots painted on the carapace. With great force, he hurled it down the plaza. Thunder Flute gasped as it hit the pavement and rolled into the smoke.  

After dumping some thorny oyster shells, red shell beads, and shell perforators onto a blanket, a warrior with a jagged scar down one arm gathered the ends and slung it onto his back. His brother warriors gathered up the other goods and the leader followed, all the while looking to see if there would be any resistance. There was none. Along the way, he stepped onto the back of a fallen Ahktuunal guard and struck a victory pose with his axe held high. Several of his men imitated the gesture, and together they howled like coyotes.

Thunder Flute took advantage of the distraction. He ran behind the retaining wall to where Pech was watching. Beside him, an assistant pointed to the temple of the Great Turtle. Through the smoke, high on the third terrace and hiding behind a fallen censer stand, a scout was signing: god bundle burned—six guards down. Warriors gone.

Gather their weapons, Thunder Flute signed. Return to the canoes. He whispered in Pech’s ear, “I want a man on the far side of the council house—to see where they will go. The leader threw a jade turtle down the plaza, a big one. I want it.”  


For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller


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