The Maya Triadic Architectural Complex

Reminiscent of the Three Hearthstone “Thrones” in the Sky

The Maya began erecting enormous pyramid platforms that had three temples on top, two facing each other across a plaza and the third centered behind them. Above, I’m looking down from the central temple atop the platform called “Caana” at Caracol in Belize. In 2000, extensive excavation was underway, and my lens wasn’t wide enough to include the other temples.

This is the central pyramid. The previous photo was taken atop these steps, between the coverings protecting large scucco masks from the rain. Prominent scholars believe the temples were named for the hearthstones in the sky. Having been established there by the creator gods to center the universe, the three stones (prominent stars in Orion) were considered to be “thrones.” Accordingly, they were called “Jaguar Throne Stone,” “Snake Throne Stone.” and “Water Throne Stone.” Why these names is not known.  Click here to see what the Caana “Sky Palace” looks like today. The initial construction of Caana was in the 7th century AD 650–696. It had at least 71 rooms. 

Researchers refer to this structural pattern as a “Triadic Complex.” The earliest was built at Wakna, a sprawling and largely unexcavated site in Central Guatemala. In the same region and around the same time, more than fifteen triadic structures were erected at El Mirador. “El Tigre,” built around 150 BCE, is as tall as an 18-story building. A mile-and-a-half away and facing it, “Danta” rises fifty feet higher than El Tigre, making it the tallest pyramid the Maya ever built. The second-largest triadic pyramid complex after El Mirador is also nearby at El Tintal. It rises to a height of 150 ft. with a base measuring 344 x 256 ft.

Events recorded at Palenque, Chiapas suggest that later on, the triad complex may have been a standard format for religious and ideological rituals, possibly accession and bloodletting rituals. And there’s evidence that the pattern persisted. Maya researchers Nicholas Hellmuth and Francisco Belli Estrada found an original, handwritten relación of Nicolás de Valenzuela, a Spanish conquistador that includes a comment on a building arrangement and function in the settlement of Sac Balam,  “White Jaguar,” a Lacandon Maya city in southern Mexico. 

There are one hundred and three houses, including three of community use…  In the center of this town of Sac Balam you find three community houses, one from east to west, another from north to south, and the other from east to west, each one looking out on the other, leaving in the center a spacious atrium. – Nicolás de Valenzuela

The researchers concluded, “The layout of Sac Balam fits the triadic pattern, with the buildings ascribed to “community” or public use as opposed to private use or personal residences.” Considering the time depth of the triadic pattern, there had to be a basis in religious myth and beliefs relating to the creation of the world.


Initiation at the Caaha,  Caracol

Excerpt From Jaguar Sun (pp. 390-393 )

(NOTE: In the story, the characters refer to the three temples as “shrines.”)

BEFORE I COULD BE PRESENTED TO LORD RADIANT SUN—who needed to accept me as a “venerable” before I could offer him or any other ruler counsel—I had to undergo a final rite of initiation where I would sacrifice my blood and seek wisdom in three shrines. Also, I would be given a name appropriate to a master of the K’uhuuntak Brotherhood. 

Wearing our white robes with our tall headdresses pointing back, Grandfather Sun, Venerable Margay, Venerable Jade, Venerable Storm, Venerable Fire and I were led by a third learner to the tallest pyramid at the heart of Caracol. I’d been instructed not to carry my baton. The masters however, carried wooden plaques that bore the likenesses of former K’uhuuntak masters at Caracol. The painted black lines over a red background on the plaques indicated that they had ascended to the final order in the sky—as a bright light. 

The masters formed a circle around me. As each plaque was held to my face and censed, they spoke the master’s name and petitioned him to guide my quest for wisdom and a proper name. When that was done, Grandfather Sun pointed up the steps, beyond a range of rooms that ran from one side of the pyramid the other, to three shrines atop steep pyramids higher up. “Talk to the mountain lords as you talk to us,” he said.

“Out loud?”

“If you like, but that is not necessary. They speak through your ch’ulel.” 

With the censing done, the learner went back to the lodge and the six of us climbed the steps. The risers were nearly as high as our knees so we had to go up on all fours, reverently bent low as the builders intended. After resting a while on the seventh terrace, we continued on and entered into a room in the middle of the long range. Through a doorway we faced another broad stairs that led to a spacious courtyard and the three tall pyramids. Despite our slow climb, we had to sit on the top step to catch our breath. Venerable Margay said the shrines atop they pyramids were named for the gods of the three hearthstones in the sky. He said they are called “throne mountains,” because they were used as such by the long line of Radiant Sun lords. 

Rising nearly as high as a ceiba to my right, was Water Mountain. Facing it across the courtyard was Serpent Mountain. And straight ahead, in the center, was Jaguar, the tallest of the three stone mountains. Seeing the steep steps, I asked if I would be allowed to rest between visits. Venerable Jade advised me to take the steps slowly and catch my breath at the top. “When you are breathing normally again,” he said, “enter the shrine. Before you speak to the gods, turn away from all distractions.”

Grandfather Sun had advised me to call the gods by their mountain names, and then see myself as them. “Put them on as you would your cloak.” He’d said this several times in my preparation, but he could see in my eyes that I still didn’t understand. Taking my wrists in his hands, he told me to see myself in water to speak with Lord Water, see myself as the Great Serpent Way when I sat with Lord Serpent and see myself a jaguar when I spoke with Lord Jaguar. 

Venerable Margay handed me a piece of obsidian. From Venerable Fire I received three strips of white cotton to collect my blood. And Venerable Storm gave me a ceramic bowl to place them in. “Take the blood from your ears,” Grandfather said. “When you come down from each shrine, put the bloodstained strip in the censer and offer your gratitude into the smoke.” The censers were already burning at the bottom of the stairways. “Do not speak to us when you go from shrine to shrine. Water first, then Serpent. Jaguar last. Take as long as you need. If it takes until dark, so be it. We will be here waiting. Remember to ask for your name in each shrine. We need to know what to call you as a venerable.” 

GOING UP THE STEPS OF WATER MOUNTAIN, PASSING BEWEEN stuccoed likenesses of Lord Water, made me feel like I was being judged and found guilty of not ever having prayed to him or offered him incense. 

At the top, I regained my breath by walking around the terrace. Standing higher than the canopy, the horizon was an unbroken line of trees. I could see the long causeway, the “stems” that led to the district “petals” where smoke rose from the plaza clearings. Close to the western horizon, I guessed the cluster of smoke trails to be those of Ucanal. The Jaguar shrine blocked my view of the east, but looking north and west I could see through the trees, a segment of the white causeway that led to Naranjo. 

The sun poked long fingers of light through the clouds, seeming to point to sacred places in the green canopy. In all directions, the giant ceiba’s rose above the other trees, striking poses like naked white dancers with raised arms and red plumage. 

Breathing normally, I entered the white-painted shrine, looked at the water band scrolls painted waist high on the walls and then sat on a carved wooden bench with a high back—the throne. After I offered a silent greeting to Lord Water, I drew blood from my ear. The pain was much less than I thought it would be, but it surprised me to see how much blood came from such a little scrape—and how long it took for it to no longer show up on the cotton strip. Because the seat of the throne was high, I kept being distracted by the view of Serpent Mountain through the doorway, so I moved to a plastered bench built into the wall at the end of the long vaulted chamber.

I closed my eyes. With respect, Lord Water, what wisdom do you have for me? Remembering that Grandfather Sun told me to become water in order to talk to Lord Water, I thought of water in several places—the overflowing basin at Itzan, the floodwater rising in my cage at Dos Pilas, the dye colors running to the ditch alongside Lord Cormorant’s workshop and the rain poking holes in the deep pool at Xunantunich. Then I remembered the man at Tikal telling how ash from the mountain of bones blanketed the reservoir.

Clothe yourself in—. The only water I wanted to clothe myself in was that runoff, carrying the ashes of Father, Jade, Flint and Chert across the plaza, down to the reservoir. So not to lose them in the great expanse of ash, I imagined them as red blankets that Father gave us after one of his raids. 

Rain poked holes in the blankets. They were breaking up and separating, so I pulled them together, wrapped the great blanket around me and tied it at the neck. As the rain changed from poking to pounding, I went under the water and allowed us to descend—away from the noise and splashing, into the depths where there was calm and quiet. 

Suspended, with light above and darkness below, I felt like I didn’t need to ask for anything—not for wisdom or a name, not even for my rightful place in the world. Although I couldn’t see them or their faces, I felt my Father and brothers with me, almost closer than we’d been in life. We are together now, all clothed as water. All the same. The differences between us are gone. 

All that you seek is here.

Conversing with my ch’ulel had become so familiar, it took no effort and provided great comfort. Where? Here?

A loud buzzing startled me. I opened my eyes and waved off a wasp. Having been pulled to the “surface” so abruptly, I got up and went swimmingly to the doorway. Far below, scores of people were going their way in the plaza. Workmen carried bamboo poles for scaffolding, and holy men fed offerings into their fire circles while young women carried firewood on their heads. I hadn’t noticed the activity and noise when the venerables and I entered the plaza. Now it was as I’d been warned—a distraction. Waves. Turbulence. The people, the gleaming red temples and other structures enclosing the plaza, even the forest beyond seemed like a thick layer of sorts, like a band of life situated between the ground and the sky. 

All this is surface. We are born, we live and die within this band of life. Wars and forced migrations stir it up and leave fear in its wake. Those who survive can barely think of anything else.  

Wanting to continue my journey into the depths, I went back to the bench and sat cross-legged with my robe pulled around my knees. I closed my eyes again and descended into the depths with the red blanket wrapped around me. In the deep calm again, I asked, With respect, Lord Water, pardon the interruption. I was told you would speak wisdom to me—through my ch’ulel.

Wisdom is knowing who you are beneath the skin. 

All my life, people have asked me who I am. Nothing I said to them feels true—or full enough.  

As clear as if Yellow Fire were standing across from me in his cage, I heard him say, I am the substance of clouds, the substance of wind and rain, of forest and trees, the substance of jaguar and macaw, of earth and water…  

Of everything. All that is. It is true for you. True for everyone. 

The substance of—everything? What does that—?

That wasp—or a different one—buzzed around my head again. I kept my eyes closed and tried to wave him off. He persisted and I was back on the surface again.

Wasp? Is that the name you are giving me? Venerable Wasp? 


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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