K’awiil: Ancient Maya Lightning Lord
God of fertility, abundance and royal lineage
In Maya art, K’awill often appears in the form of a scepter that, when held, signifies royal lineage. Because one of his legs terminates in a serpent’s head, the Popol Vuh—the sacred book of the K’iché Maya—identifies him as Cacula Huracan, “Lightning One-Leg.”
His forehead is a mirror penetrated by a smoking axe, which references ancestors and designates him as a lightning lord. The hooks in his eyes securely identify him as a deity.
In Classic times, at accession events, when the kings displayed the K’awiil scepter they proclaimed themselves masters of the “vision serpent,” the ability to manifest benefits for this world from other world sources. The idea was that K’awiil cast down serpentine lightning to make the connection between the sky and earth, showering the divine seed of the ancestors upon his descendant, the current ruler.
As a ritual instrument, the scepter was made of wood and was carried in the right hand, except when that hand was needed for scattering blood or maize kernels during rituals.
Mythically K’awiil was the third born son of First Mother and First Father, the Maize God, born on the day Hun Ahaw, “One Lord.”
His brothers were the Hero Twins, and he was linked to the forces of fertility. To show his association with abundance, his upturned nose was depicted as maize foliage. In some depictions he carries sack of maize and cacao beans, further associating him with agricultural abundance.
Through him, revelations were made. And through his lightning-serpent strikes, human souls were transformed into shamans or “true men.”
K’awiil Scepter. Drawing by Linda Schele © David Schele
There’s also speculation that he may originally have been the personification of the axe that Chahk, the rain and storm god, used to crack open the shell of Great Turtle—the earth—allowing the Maize God to ascend from the Underworld so he could deliver abundance to the world.
Drawing courtesy of Schele, Linda. Linda Schele Drawings Collection. 2000. 11-18-19. FAMSI.<http://research.famsi.org/schele_list.php?rowstart=15&search=k%27awiil&num_pages=4&title=Schele%20Drawing%20Collection&tab=schele>
The above drawing was made from four identical, wood and stucco-covered statues of K’awiil found in Burial 195 at Tikal.
Lady Jaguar Paw, Custodian Of The K’awiil Scepter
Excerpt From Jaguar Wind and Waves (p. 13 )
Between my sister and me, I was the fearless one, more determined than my brothers to have my way and make Father proud. It wasn’t until he sent me to Tollan in fulfillment of his alliance with the lords there, that I took the title I came to share with my husband, Spearthrower Owl. When they raised him to “Supreme Anointer, Land of the Quetzal People,” they made us both, together, custodians of K’awiil, the lightning god who conveyed the authority to rule. From then on, because it fell to me to serve as the custodian of the living K’awiil scepter, I was sometimes introduced as Lady Jaguar Paw, Custodian of K’awiil.” I didn’t know it then, but that title—and the office and rituals that came with it—gave birth to the dark clouds that would grow into the thunderhead that took me down.
Presentation Of The K’awiil Scepter
Excerpt From Jaguar Wind and Waves (p. 74-76 )
In silence but with soft drumming, Spearthrower returned to his place and Fire-born came forward. As he gave his speech, I followed Banded Snake up the steps and across the way to the shrine that housed the god bundle. He took my headdress and replaced it with a red, serpent-coil turban. Keeper of the Bundle was inside waiting for me. He had the K’awiil scepter ready, sitting on his red pillow with the serpent leg dangling over the front.
Following the ritual I was taught at Tollan, I chanted the little god’s honorifics and passed two fingers, the sign of acceptance, across the blue-painted wood, front and back to insure that everything was as it should be—the feathers securely tied and rising high in his headdress, the obsidian axe-head firmly attached to his forehead, pearl wrist cuffs and anklets in place, the beaded jade necklace centered on his chest and the belt ornaments centered between his thighs.
Last to be inspected, was the little ceramic bowl that fitted into a cavity behind and at the bottom of his skull. Spearthrower always took it out and inspected it the night before an anointing, but he left it to me to push a brush through the cavity and channels that led from the bowl to his mouth and forehead to insure they were not obstructed. With that done I stepped aside so the keeper could put in a nodule of burning coal, which I then dusted with little beads of copal incense. With the skull panel replaced, the “precious breath” came out his mouth and the slit behind the axe that rested high on his forehead.
While I waited with the breathing K’awiil, Banded Snake went down the steps and nodded to Spearthrower. He nodded to Fire-born and and he concluded his talk. “Now it falls to you!” he said. “The k’in has come for you to show the gods that we are one people, no longer Tollanos and Maya. We are Tikal!” Again, the Tollanos applauded and the Maya remained silent.
Trumpeters standing atop the steps on both sides of the plaza raised their wooden horns and sounded a loud and prolonged call to announce the coming of Lord K’awiil. Holding the little god in front of me with sweet incense coming out his mouth and forehead, made it difficult for me to see at times. Even with Banded Snake steading me to the side with his arm, I took the steps slowly. Those who were not already on their knees knelt as Spearthrower, doing his best to talk louder, introduced K’awiil as a lightning lord and patron of rulers—the sky god who authorizes rulers to speak to, and on behalf of, the Makers.
Spearthrower spoke rightly when he proclaimed that it was a day to be remembered. So many important things happened that day—he presented himself to the people of Tikal as the supreme prophet of Tollan, son and voice of the goddess, First Crocodile took the K’awiil anointing and was thereby authorized to carry the title, “Succession Lord,” K’awiil authorized Fire-born to serve as Regent until First Crocodile was ready to rule, and by having all this witnessed by the new ministers, Spearthrower established himself as the lowland kaloomte’, supreme authority. Sadly, it also marked the day when my people stopped resisting.
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