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.
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.
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.”
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