Ancient Maya Social Evolution

Part III of III: From chiefs to divine kings

Rollout vase photograph courtesy of Justin Kerr

The previous two posts dealing with this topic imagined how the ancients developed and sustained a political structure and ideology over an enormous territory for a millennia but never developed states or empires. Now, I imagine how the office of village chief evolved to become, in their language, k’uhul ajaw “holy lord.”

In *Ancient Maya Politics: A political anthropology of the Classic Period 150-900 CE anthropologist Simon Martin suggests that “Ideological mechanisms instilled a ‘dynamic equilibrium’ within the social body that prevented the Maya from developing states or empires.” Here, I attempt to imagine a plausible line of development that specifies that dynamic equilibrium. 

Maya Civilization Time Periods

  • Middle Preclassic 900-300 BCE
  • Late Preclassic 300 BCE-250 CE
  • Early Classic 250-600 CE
  • Late Classic 600-900 CE

In Part II of this series, I listed some of foundational beliefs of the Early and Preclassic Period Maya. Beliefs give rise to behaviors. So, what methods did the rulers use to sanction and spearhead their rise to “divine” kingship? It became the ultimate validation they needed to justify their right to rule. 


Well established by the Late Preclassic Period, the Maya had terms relating to spirit, but they were not yet used to characterize rulers. These included:

K’uh        “God” / “Divine”                   K’uhul   “Holy” / “Sacred”          Ajaw    “Lord”

K’uuh      “Sun” / “Radiance”              Ch’ulel   “Soul” / “Spirit”

The earliest evidence of an individual being designated ajaw “lord,” occurs in an elaborate tomb at Holmul, Guatemala dated to 350-300 BCE. Whenever or wherever it happened, it lit a socio-political spark that elevated the head man, likely a shaman, from the role of healer to that of ajaw. Not only could he heal the sick, he could also speak to the gods.

Beliefs are creative. Across cultures, when it’s believed that an individual with some power has great power, especially spiritual power, he is encouraged to lead his people. By ritually acknowledging that person as a leader set above everyone else, “hierarchy” is born. For the Maya, over time, the leadership of lords turned to domination, in part by making rules among their people and appointing others to implement them. These “rulers” laid the social groundwork for “civilization.” 

Sometime before 250 CE rulers began to claim that they were the descendants of the founders of their lineage and polity. Through grand ritual performances, they demonstrated that they could communicate with their deceased ancestors—the founders—as well as the gods. The move affected a shift in their identity from mediator between this world and the next, to being considered god-like lord in their own right. 

Emblem Glyphs

One way to do affect this shift was to claim the title, K’uhul Ajaw “Holy Lord,” and broadcast it. A prominent step forward was to commission the carving of “emblem glyphs” on stelae. In this way the kings associated themselves with divinity. An example reads: “Yax Nuun Ahiin I, Divine Lord of Tikal.” Whoever started it, by the Late Classic Period, emblem glyphs were being used widely by major polities throughout the Maya area. 


Kings demonstrated their access to the gods directly through conjuring rituals, often involving  bloodletting sacrifices. From movies comes the image of a shaman or witch doctor under the influence of a hallucinogen, dancing wildly to loud drumming around a roaring fire with a circle of frenzied onlookers. 

The stereotype probable isn’t far off. There is good evidence that the Maya used psychoactive substances that were obtained from plants, particularly Morning Glory roots and the back of Bufo toads. There are also depictions on vases that show kings dancing with gods, other supernatural beings and Underworld demons.  

The purpose of conjuring is to bring a god or spirit into being, inviting them to be present for a variety of reasons. Because the conjuror actually produces evidence of their presence—through magic, spells or ecstatic communication—we can imagine that these performances had a profound effect on those who witnessed them. Importantly, it solidified belief in the spiritual power of the king.

One of the earliest deities conjured was K’awiil, a lightning lord. He was so important in the Maya firmament, kings in the Classic Period took his name to show they embodied his power.

Intimate, transactional relations with deities were required to sustain the whole community.

Simon Martin, Anthropologist


Kings commissioned the carving and erection of stelae that showed the lineage founders overlooking them. Tikal Stela 29, the earliest at the site, shows Sak Hix Muut, whom researchers consider a deity-ancestor. He hovers above the king, looking down on him as if from the sky. The image sanctioned the king’s right to rule and made it clear that he was in communication with the spirit world.

The Calendar

Scholars refer to the sacred calendar of the Maya as the tzolk’in, a word in Yukatek that means the “division of days.” The 260-day calendar combines a cycle of twenty named days (designating auguries for each) with a cycle of thirteen numbers. It’s origin actually predates the first appearance of Maya inscriptions. 

Ajaw, the rank of “lord,” was accorded the name of the last day of the calendar. With a king’s face carved within the glyph’s cartouche on a stela or altar, he became intimately associated with time, which was perceived as gods of time carrying burdens on their backs through the seasons. The day ajaw was particularly significance in that all Period Ending celebrations fell on that day. Throughout Maya history, Period Ending rites were major events, a regular feature in the inscriptions. In large part, it was the P.E. dates that jump-started progress in deciphering the script. 

Ritual Dancing

Dances are frequently depicted in Maya art. Most obvious in associating the king with a god were polychrome vases often gifted from one ruler to another. The subtextual message was simply “See, I conjured a god and let him dance in my body.” It was one of the ways a ruler could demonstrate to another ruler, that he had divine powers. One of the more prominent examples in Maya art are vases that show a king dancing as Juun Ixim, the Maize God. 

In the dance, the king assumes the appearance and gestures of the Maize God. (His head was already shaped like a corn cob at birth). His flowing hair resembles the silk and he carries a jaguar god within his backrack (the cosmos). Every element of his costume symbolizes his connection to the godly realm and divinity. 

As described in my novel, Jaguar Sun (p. 284), the dance begins with the Paddler Gods escorting Juun Ixim into the Underworld in a canoe. Their descent is through a cave, a portal located beneath a sacred mountain. There, the Maize God’s soul is separated from his body by decapitation (like a cob of maize chopped from the stalk). After encounters with beings in the Underworld, he is reborn and rises into the light (as does a new plant) through a slit in Great Turtle’s carapace (the surface of the earth), which was cut open with a great axe wielded by Chaak, god of rain, lightning and thunder. 

Researchers generally agree that the dancing kings were not imitating the gods, but actually  dancing as them, re-enacting their deeds in the present.

Patron Gods  

In Patron Gods and Patron Lords: The Semiotics of Classic Maya Community Cults, anthropologist Joanne Baron writes that “rituals and discourses related to patron deities ultimately formulated Maya rulership as a locally oriented institution, which limited the ability of powerful kingdoms to create wider religious communities.” Her analysis directly addresses the reason why the ancient Maya never evolved into states or empires. The kings were locked into their local territory because they’d traced their ancestry and power to the lineage founder, and they’d established a spirit protector for the polity. It was inconceivable to let go of their divine-line inheritance and their spirit protector—the patron god— not after they and their ancestors went to so much effort over many generations to establish them. It would mean giving up their power.

Patron gods were neither the spirits of natural forces nor the deceased ancestors of rulers, but they could be versions of them. As protectors and providers of the polity, each king “owned” one. They were cited in the inscriptions to demonstrate a king’s connection to these protectors and providers from the other world. 

Details of their lives were carved on monuments. For instance, the patron of Palenque was “Muwaan Mat,” a mythical deity-ancestor born in 3121 BCE. He/she appears there in 2324 BCE and was 797 years old when the inscription was carved. In the Late Classic period, Palenque honored three such patrons, building separate temples or “sleeping places” for them.

An inscription at Naranjo speaks of “Square-nosed Serpent,” a patron who performs a ritual act 22,000 years ago. On Stela 45, he’s shown floating above the king.

At Tikal, the patron god Sak Hix Muut “White Jaguar Bird” appears on Stela 29 in 292 CE. On Temple VI he’s said to preside over the completion of a calendar cycle in 1143 BCE. Tikal didn’t even exist then. 

In the Late Classic period, small patron god bundles, and large full-figure effigies were traded, gifted and won in battles. Carved wooden lintels at Tikal show enormous patrons towering over enthroned kings being carried in procession on huge palanquins. The patron deity depicted on Tikal’s Temple 1 Lintel 3 (scroll down 11 drawings to Caption JM00725) takes the form of a giant jaguar beastie with and extended paw and claws. Spectacles such as these solidified the identity of the ruler as a “divine” lord.

Temples to House Patron Gods

When not being paraded in the form of giant effigies, the patron gods “lived” in temples specially built and dedicated to them. By making these structures massive and tall, kings signaled the importance of these deities in the life of the polity. And they were ever-present. As shrines, we can imaging the plazas in front of them were places where people came to offer gifts and pay homage while holy men burnt offerings on the ground and in censers. 

The hieroglyphs on the back of Tikal Temple VI tell the story of co-rulers, one of whom was a woman. They also identify it as an ancestor shrine, the wayab “sleeping place” of Sak Hix Muut (noted above as a founding ancestor). The temple was dedicated in 766 CE.

These are just some of the more prominent ways that, over time, Maya kings validated their claim to be “divine,” god-like lords. The ability to commune with both gods and deceased ancestors on behalf of their polity also legitimized their right to rule. At the same time, it’s important to include in this calculus that rulers, close-by and distant, were in touch with one another, sharing information and modeling each other’s behavior. “If he can do it, so can I.” 

People who are fearful in their environment, rightly so the jungle, needed to feel secure. Naturally, they turned to their leaders. They needed to believe they could have at least some influence over the gods—the forces of nature. Doing the bidding of the rulers, building their temples and palaces in addition to devoting every other hour to subsistence and raising a family was readily traded for security and the hope for prosperity. The hierarchical structure worked for them, at least for hundreds of years.

* This book is an excellent text for those well read in the study of ancient Maya culture. It assumes a familiarity with Maya sites, hieroglyphic writing and social structure.

Excerpt from
Jaguar Sun: The journeys of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

A patron god towers over the Lord of Tikal on a palanquin (p. 190-193)

Following the singers were daughters of the caah, little flowers carrying baskets of petals, casting them at the feet of the bearers who carried the palanquins of visiting lords. Behind them were their robed dignitaries, including members of the K’uhuuntak Brotherhood wearing their usual white robes and tall paper headdresses. The sight of so many people in one place reminded me of when Eyes used his blade to slice through and reveal the inner workings of an ant hill. I wondered, How big is this world that there can be so many people? And this just one among countless cities. With the last of the visiting lords installed on thrones atop a specially erected platform on the palace steps, the drums and the plaza quieted. After a row of holy men and their assistants sufficiently censed the entryway, a lone conch sounded a sustained tone, calling for us to stand.

THROUGH THE SMOKE OF NUMEROUS CENSORS, JAGUAR heads appeared on the front corners of the swaying, highly polished mahogany palanquin. Behind them, two red-painted dwarfs stood with their backs to us. Embroidered on their white capes was the face of Tlaloc, the storm god of Tollan, reminding us that this day was a commemoration as well as a victory celebration. The white skulls hanging from the dwarf’s belts sent a chill through me. In front of them there were two more little men, similarly attired, swinging censers. Beneath the long platform, slaves, too numerous to count and wearing only white loincloths, bore the weight on their shoulders.

The Lord of Tikal sat on a jaguar pelt holding a K’awiil scepter in his right hand. The little god’s serpent foot rested on his thigh. The other hand grasped a long, red-painted fabric bundle which, because of the stone face sewed onto the side, I took to be either his or a captured god-bundle. Rising well above the ruler’s headdress and a fan of quetzal feathers, the patron god of Calakmul, Five Bloodletter, looked even more menacing than Underworld Jaguar. Like him, his orange and black arms were extended. As a sign of sacred power, the Jaguar’s great paw grasped a tall black staff tied with white knots.

From such a distance, I couldn’t see the ruler’s eyes. Moments passed. Then suddenly, I needed to see them. Seeing where the palanquin would stop, I saw a possible opportunity to get closer.

I went down the back steps, ran around the backs of the shrines and the ball court. I’d seen a stack of torches, hundreds of them, and guessed that they were for the warriors. The walkway that led out to them was unguarded. I didn’t know what I was going to do with them, but I grabbed an armload and took them behind a wall where I wouldn’t be seen. Moments later, someone barked an order and I peeked out to see warriors streaming by to get a torch, hold it to the flames in a brazier alongside the stack and move on. I couldn’t pretend to be one of them, so I waited and tried to think how I could get closer. Fortunately, the warriors were coming so fast the men distributing the torches were having trouble keeping up. That was when I took a chance and approached, carrying so many they could barely see my face. “Where do you want these?” I asked.

A warrior busy handing out torches glanced back. “Who are you?” he asked. “Never mind.” He pointed. “Go over there and hand them out—fast as you can!”

After the warriors had all received their torches and were in position—the plaza looked like it was on fire—I was able to stand with a torch of my own and watch the ruler’s palanquin come toward me.

LORD SKY RAIN  WAS YOUNGER THAN I EXPECTED, not much older than me. Sitting erect and gazing forward with a solemn expression on his face, 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—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, and the other two held their censers to the side, careful to keep sparks away from the quetzal spray that, when the ruler stood, framed his body and towered nearly the height of a man over his head.

As bearers on the palace steps positioned six planks to create a bridge from the palanquin to the stairway, twelve lords approached, six to a side wearing quetzal sprays with necklaces of Spondylus shells over their cloaks. A moment before two holy men crossed over the little bridge to offer their arm to the divine lord and block my view, I tried to see the man behind the jewels and feathers, the one who ordered the killing of my father, brothers and so many others. Instead, I saw a young man barely able to stand, weighted down by a headdress of stacked sun god masks with heavy ear ornaments, jade assemblages in his own ears, a large jade pectoral that rested on a cape of shell plates, carved jade heads larger than a fist hanging from a wickerwork belt, two jade faces, likely ancestors, strapped to his legs and high-backed feathered sandals.

Seeing all that finery and regalia and knowing what most of it meant, I almost felt sorry for him. He was an animal in a cage without bars, born to a life of fulfilling family and ritual obligations including the expectations of his council, court and ancestors. He had to consult and adhere to the guidance of his patron gods, however many there were. And he had to defend the city against his inherited enemy who, for years, had been recruiting allies to surround his city.

As he was escorted across the bridge, he kept looking down. He looked at me. It was only a glance, but in his eyes, I saw worry rather than triumph like he was afraid he would lose his balance or the planks would break.

AT THE TOP OF THE PALACE STEPS, STANDING BETWEEN eight torch bearers and his dwarfs, Divine Lord Sky Rain K’awiil, blessed the crowd of bowed heads. He was about fifteen steps above me, but because he spoke softly and I held a torch, I couldn’t hear what he said. Turning, he and his frame of feathers disappeared behind the platform.

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