Ancient Maya Period Ending Rites

Calendar dates that warranted the “planting” of a monument

Lord Smoke Shell, 15th Ruler of Copan. Stela N (Front)

Period endings in the long count were the greatest of ritual occasions for Classic-era Maya kings. Nearly all of the stone stelae at sites such as Copan, Tikal, and Yaxchilan were meant to commemorate these days and, most especially, the ceremonies that the rulers oversaw in their celebration: casting incense, drilling fire, sacrificing war captives, as well as in a rite called ‘the binding of stones.’ One of the principal duties of Maya kings… was to tend to time, ensuring its good health as yet another manifestation of k’ub, the sacred order of things. — David Stuart, Author, The Order of Days: Unlocking the Secrets of the Ancient Maya.

Like everything else in the Maya world, certain time periods were deified and personalized. Periods of 5, 10, 13, 20 years and more were perceived as gods who carried them—and their characteristics— on their backs with a neck strap or tumpline. At the end of a period, for instance a year, the god set his “burden” down and the next god in line picked it up in an endless repetition of cycles—determined by the movements of planets and stars. 

The Maya had two interrelated calendars, one “sacred,” and the other a “Long Count” based on the zero date of the world being created—September 8, 3114 BCE in our calendar. Period Endings were always counted by years from that date, and the ancients referred to the setting up of stelae as “seatings,” similar to the seating of a king on a throne. The Period Ending rites celebrated rebirth and renewal by the erection of monuments, just as the hearthstones were set in the cosmos by the creator gods. 

It was not assumed that the world would continue. Any one of the period-carrying gods could decide not to assume the burden set down by the previous god, and that would be the end of the world. To express gratitude to the outgoing deity and encourage the next one to assume his burden, the ceremonies associated with period endings were elaborate, involving bloodletting, ecstatic dancing, shapeshifting and the ritual burning of sacred objects. By providing heat and light, reflections of strength and vitality, the stone monuments were endowed with life. These were huge events for the entire population throughout the Maya area. The Spanish chronicles mention one New Year festival where more than 15,000 people came to one location from as far away as 90 miles.

The likeness of kings, their associations with various deities, ritual performances and other exploits were featured on the stelae because they personified the gods being celebrated. Over time, through ritual, the cycles prompted the repetition of mythological and historical events. And physically, applying an agricultural metaphor in the inscriptions, the Period Ending monuments were “wrapped” in a cloth shroud and “planted” in the ground in the manner of a farmer planting maize seeds. At its dedication, the shroud was removed, and like the shucking of an ear of maize, the “kernel” of the event was revealed. There are also references to stelae being “tied” in bands of cloth in the manner of kings being “tied” in a white headband, the symbol of rulership.  

Copan Stela N (East Side)

The inscription above states that Lord K’ahk’ Nik Te’ Wi’ (Lord Smoke Shell) planted his “banner stone” on the period  ending that marked 3,930 years since the day the world was created—3114 BCE.

The Inscription

“The  Long  Count  was  1 Ajaw, G9 was the lord of the night, 1 day was the age of the moon, it  was  the  first  lunar  month  of  the  third  lunar  trimester,  Mih  K’uh  Chapat  was  the  name  of  the  lunar  month,  of  30  days  was  the  duration  of  the  lunar  month,  8  Sip  was  the  position  of  the  solar  month;  it  was  planted …  the  stone  … flower  of  fire …  [by] K’ahk’  Yipyaj  Chan  K´awiil,  holy lord  of  Copan.  The  count  was  0 days,  0  Winal, 10 Tun years, 19 Winikhaab, 17 Pik and 14 Piktun; then came  the date 1 Ajaw 8 Ch´en; the god Ajan planted another stone…” 

Breakdown of the long count

    • 9 Baktuns          9 periods of 144,000 days [approximately 3,600 years]
    • 16 K’atuns         16 periods of 7,200 days [approximately 320 years]
    • 10 Tuns             10 periods of 360 days [approximately 10 years]
    • 0 Winals            No 20-day months
    • 0 K’ins               No days

Copan Stela N was dedicated by K’ahk’  Yipyaj  Chan  K’awiil  (Lord Smoke Shell) in 761 CE. It celebrated the completion of 3,930 years since the zero creation date. Period Ending rituals were prime examples of two indigenous principles: “As above, so below.” The order in the cosmos must be repeated on Earth. And time is cyclical. “What goes around comes around.”


Completion of a Tun (Year)

Excerpt From : Jaguar Wind and Waves (p. 102)

BECAUSE LORD K’IN MADE HIS DESCENT into the Underworld in the west, considered the place of death, the monuments of deceased rulers were set in a row along the East Platform, in front of the shrines at Precious Forest, their stone faces facing west. To protect them and the alters in front of them from torrential downpours in the rainy season, they were covered over with thatch shelters, some as high as four men standing on shoulders.

  I’d heard that my father had dedicated a monument two years earlier to celebrate the completion of the seventeenth k’atun, a twenty-year Period Ending, so I took the children to see if we could find it. Whether because of our plain dress, broad-rimmed rain hats, or so many people milling about in the plaza, we were not recognized. There were lines in front of the monuments, petitioners waiting to present their offerings to the holy men who, along with their prayers, fed them into fires in front of the altars. Thirty paces from the last and tallest monument I recognized Father’s headdress. I covered my mouth and couldn’t hold back the tears. The carver had chosen to show him from the side. Even so, the shape of his nose—longer than I’d remembered—and the slant of the forehead, folded eyelids, full lips, and broad shoulders left no doubt that, although taller and heavier, this was my father. 

I pointed out his name to the children—the jaguar paw in his headdress. The little fish nibbling on a lily pad next to it showed him to be the guardian of fertility. Because the sak huunal, the jeweled white headband that marked him as the portal through whom flowed the life of the caah, and because First Crocodile would soon be wearing it, my son was especially interested to see the jade-carved face of Lord Huun on the front of Father’s headband. The last time I saw him wearing it was the day I left for Tollan.


Completion of the 16th Tun

Excerpt From : Jaguar Rising (p. 200)

Eight days later, Lord Yellow Sun Cloud, the Great Tree of Mirador, celebrated the closing of the sixteenth tun at Lamanai. Word came to us that both his underlord sons—Laughing Falcon and Smoking Mirror—witnessed it.  White Grandfather conducted the five-day Period Ending ceremonies at Cerros, and the entire caah turned out to witness the year-bearer setting down his burden. Instead of sacrificing the youngest daughter of a minister as they had at Lamanai, he offered sixteen peccary and three turkey hens. After the gods feasted on incense and the ch’ulel in their blood, we feasted on the remains, cooked in an earthen pit. 


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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