Maya Monuments

Kings stayed active in the world by being re-membered 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

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