Maya Thrones

The seat of divine power and influence

Vase rollouts courtesy of Justin Kerr

Scholars observed that whenever kings are depicted on monuments, they stand higher than those around them. This indicates their elevated status and positions them closer to the sky and the celestial gods. On vases, where palace scenes are depicted, they may sit lower. But the throne signifies their anointed, higher position relative to others. Only the gods had the power, by virtue of divine lineage, to seat a king of the throne.

Maya thrones were first seen in the Guatemalan Highlands in the Late Preclassic period (300 BCE—300 CE). Their presence in the Lowlands shows up in the second half of the Early Classic period, most notably at Uaxactun. In these early periods, thrones were made of chicozapote and logwood. At Tikal, where there was a sizable woodcarving industry, portable and stationary thrones were elaborately carved and had large cushioned backs covered in jaguar pelts—as shown above.

Masonry thrones appear in the Late Classic period. These were usually wide with curling arms on the front and cushioned or painted stone backs. Above, the cushion has the face of a god and hieroglyphs painted on the side—probably both sides. Thrones could be painted in a variety of colors, but red dominated because it symbolized the life force.

The most elaborately carved masonry throne backs with hieroglyphs were discovered at Piedras Negras. Here, Throne 1 is designated a “Reception Throne.” 

Feather-bedecked cloth bundles on the thrones, like the one seen here left of the king, are believed to contain sacred objects, the bones of deceased ancestors, heirlooms and other objects of power. Here, the painter shows the king’s body facing us, but in the actual scene it would have faced the visitors—believed here to be presenting him with tribute gifts of cloth. The man kneeling shows the traditional sign of respect by touching both his shoulders. Both visitors wear bulky loincloths and tall paper headdresses with feathers, identifying them as members members of a court—emissaries. Under the throne at right is an often-seen stack of paper, written records that we refer to today as “codices.” The back of the throne is covered in a jaguar pelt.  

The white background in this scene indicates that this activity may have taken place outdoors, perhaps along a palace wall. Indoor scenes usually have a yellow-orange background, and overhead there are often drapes that are shown tied up. Many thrones were covered in thick, woven reed-mats. So common was this, the mats came to symbolize kingship. In the inscriptions, the throne was often referred to as “the mat.” For instance, “Lord… rose to the mat,” or “Seated on the mat was Lord…” 

Throne rooms were found in multi-roomed and multi-functioned buildings, always on the ground floor. And they usually faced east, north or south. At Aguateca there’s a very wide doorway so those in the courtyard could observe the lord on his throne. Typically, the lord served as a judge in resolving disputes, delegated tasks, proclaimed policies, held audiences with members of his community and received emissaries and lords from other communities.

For a comprehensive read on the subject of court players and functioning, I recommend Royal Courts Of The Ancient Maya: Volume 1: Theory, Comparison, And Synthesis by Takeshi Inomata. It’s expensive. Universities with anthropology departments are likely to have it in their library. 

(The vase rollout photographs appear here through the courtesy of Justin Kerr).

The Jaguar Throne

Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 509—511 )

(In the story, “Bundled Glory” is a personified ancestor bundle).

I PULLED ASIDE THE HEAVY DRAPE AND ENTERED THE TEMPLE. Pine needles crunched under my sandals, their scent faint compared to the odor of burnt coals, incense and ash. I found the brazier I was told would be in front of the throne, and held my torch to it. Gradually, the flames rose and the chamber lit up. “Ayaahh!” I gasped. The throne was huge, well beyond what I expected—a thick stone slab five strides wide, four or five deep and thicker than my head resting on four great boulders. Raising my torch and looking up, I saw the red wrapping of Bundled Glory lying along the front edge of the throne. Four gigantic black beams rose from the corners of the chamber to an incredibly high peak, so high and dark I could barely see the thatching.

Censers shaped like frogs with open mouths stood on large mushroom-shaped stands on both sides of the doorway. To free my hand, I put the torch in a wall holder, took some ocoté sticks from a basket, lit them at the brazier and put them in both censers. A handful of copal nuggets from another basket sent bright puffs of the sweet odor up to the ceiling. Bats fluttered their disapproval then settled. Even though I could only see a bit of the god bundle, I announced my presence out loud. The sound bouncing off the walls reminded me of the great cavern behind the Mouth of Death. 

As eager as I was to get a closer look at the throne, the figures painted on the walls captured my attention. “Ballplayers,” I said. A swipe of the wall with my finger removed a thin veil of soot. An eye. Another swipe with the palm of my hand revealed the face of a man wearing a blue macaw helmet with yellow ear ornaments. His eyes were huge—bright and determined. “Ayaahh!” I cried aloud—“Beautiful!”—and my voice bounced off the walls. The blue of the helmet feathers was as deep as the waters beyond Axehandle. The grit came off the wall easily, but my hands were dirty and I was leaving smudges. Not to make things worse, I went to the basin and washed—anointed?—my hands, face and feet with the holy water. I also wet my headband so I could wash off even more soot from the walls. Because of the chill in the air, I pulled the blanket higher on my neck and tied the ends under my chin.  

In the mural closest to the door, a lord wearing a winged cape and bird pectoral stood poised as if to open a ball game ritual. The scepter he held up was a huge claw-shaped obsidian hafted with twisted cords that dangled blue feathers. A longer wipe along the wall revealed a cape of lush green feathers that formed the wings of an enormous macaw. Yet another swipe revealed serpent heads painted on the sides of a dark brown hip protector—a ball game player standing as a Macaw ancestor or god. His proud posture and the “smoking-earth” sign he stood on told me he was celebrating a victory. 

There were more figures on the wall behind the throne, but they were obscured by its shadow. On the other side, there were lords outfitted with ball regalia displaying the familiar postures of the Hero Twins. Crossing the doorway to where I’d started, I noticed a kneeling figure alongside a standing man wearing the jeweled sak huunal. A swipe of the cloth revealed a jaguar tooth choker. Another showed a knotted waist cord with jaguar teeth dangling over a jaguar kilt identical to one I’d seen my father wearing when I was recuperating. There he was on the wall—My father as a sprout, kneeling before his father’s offering bowl, assisting, perhaps even witnessing the appearance of the founder—Ancient Root—in the smoke that billowed over their heads. I pointed to them. Father. Grandfather. Great Grandfather. Ayaahh! Three generations of ball players. Seeing them in full regalia I realized why my failure at the game had been a deep disappointment for My father. 

More swipes over Ancient Root’s shoulder, face and headdress called to mind the murals at Pa’nal where the brother’s lines there were thin and flowing, enclosing open areas of color. The lines on this wall were well made but were thicker with less color, and filled with crosshatching and detailed designs in the fabrics. Lighter, more fluid hands had conjured the maize god at Pa’nal. These hands were stronger, their brushes thicker. And after bearing down on the outlining stokes they went back with a finer brush to put in details, even repeating lines to enhance the effect of texture. I was also seeing different kinds of people playing the game. Many of the decorative scars, body colors and tattoos were not familiar to me. Neither were the signs that decorated their headdresses and clothing. I wished that Charcoal Conjurer could have been there. He would have known what they meant and where the rulers came from.

Aside from the faces on the censers that sat on the four corners of the great slab, the only indication of it being a jaguar throne was a snarling god-face with jaguar ears carved on the front. Atop the steps and in back, I noticed that the throne was covered with layers of tightly woven reed-mat—explaining why rulers spoke of being seated on the “Mat.” On top of the mats was the largest, most plush jaguar pelt I’d ever seen.

Bundled Glory lay in front of it, where it’s head would have been. There were sacred knots tied along the top and on both ends of the long red bundle.

I sat cross-legged in front of it and kept the blanket over my shoulders. If I closed one eye, the knot on top and in the center of the bundle lined up perfectly with the middle of the doorway. Coming in, I’d noticed that the doorway itself lined up with the center of Flower House across the plaza. For some unknown reason, even as a sprout, I was in the habit of lining things up. I sometimes wondered if I’d inherited it from Mother’s father, since he aligned the Great Ball Court that way.

Bundled Glory made me nervous. I think he approved of my looking at the conjurings on the walls, but I didn’t like being watched by a spirit. “With respect Ancient Root,” I said. “Dreams Of Smoke Flint said you know me.” I paused to let him speak but he didn’t. “Lord K’in and Chaak Ek’ determined that I am here as the Succession Lord.” Again I paused. “I am greatly honored to take counsel with you.” Silence. “I am here in preparation for my accession.” Getting no response, I asked about my father, Gourd Scorpion, and Comb Paca, and White Grandfather. All I heard was the occasional rustling of bats high above and the licking of flames in the brazier below. “Did you see the ball game in the Great Court?” I praised the man—or men—who conjured the figures on the walls. “With respect holy lord our founder, I have come to take counsel with you. Do you have anything to say to me?” I waited and waited. My thoughts wandered to Red Paw. How could he talk to me like that? He should be grateful… What do I want? I want him to go on dancing and stop criticizing me! He was right about one thing. The ancestors were not the only ones leading me down this path. 

I shook my head to stay awake. “With respect Ancient Root, is it true? Did Chaak Ek’ sacrifice himself so I rather than my brother would sit here?” No response. “You had to have seen how we defeated the Cloud of Death.” How could Thunder Flute lie about my prophecy? Still, like Mother said, it is coming true. He should see me now. Especially tomorrow.  


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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