Birth of the Sun: Notes on the Ancient Maya Winter Solstice 15

by David Stuart, University of Texas at Austin

With the recent passing of the winter solstice it seems a good time to revisit some ideas I penned in 2009, regarding a possible ancient Maya record of the shortest day of the year. This appears on Zacpeten, Altar 1, an inscribed disc-shaped stone discovered broken and re-used as blocks in Postclassic masonry (Pugh, et. al. 1998) (Figure 1). It was originally dedicated on or near the important period ending, in the year 830 C.E.. The design of the altar is a carefully conceived cosmogram emphasizing four lateral points around a circle and center-point, a layout that echoes the familiar Mesoamerican model of space-time. The 36 hieroglyphs are arranged as a play on the important cosmological numbers 20 and 4 (20 + 4 x 4). And, as I argued some years ago, its self-contained text just might present the only Classic Maya description of the solar “birth” at winter solstice.

Zacpeten Alt 1

Figure 1. Zacpeten, Altar 1, top. Drawing by David Stuart.

One date is written on the altar: 8 Caban seating of Cumku. In the standard GMT correlation (584283) this falls on December 21, 809, whereas on the newer Martin-Skidmore correlation (584286) is falls on December 24 (Martin and Skidmore 2012). Either way, it falls on or reasonably close to the winter solstice.

Zacpeten altar opening

Figure 2. Portion of the Altar 1 text with possible solstice date, birth verb, and mountain location.

A few details of the inscription suggest that the text describes the cosmic rebirth of the sun, later linking this cosmological event to the life of a historical ruler. The main event, recorded after the CR date, is birth (Figure 2). Here though we see the unique addition of locational information, recorded in several hieroglyphs after the birth verb (no record of a historical birth states location in this way, as far as I’m aware). The place(s) mentioned strongly suggests a mythological setting, beginning with the glyph immediately following “birth,” a prepositional phrase based on the hieroglyph often described as the “portal” sign or “centipede’s maw” (see the fourth hieroglyph in Figure 2). This logogram is perhaps read as WAY, with the related meanings “chamber, basin, cistern” (Lacadena, personal communication 2003; see Grube, Lacadena and Martin 2003) (not to be confused with the very different term wahy, referring to demonic, transforming wizards and animal-spirits).

emerging sun

Figure 3. Drawing of carved bone showing sun K’inch Ajajw emerging from or consumed by the night (ak’ab) via the centipede’s maw. Drawing by K. Taube (from Taube 2003, Fig. 4c).

It has long been known that this “portal” sign represents a vertical hole or cavity in the earth. Some contexts suggest that it has architectural associations as well, referring to inner vaulted chambers of buildings (Carrasco and Hull 2002; Carrasco 2012). I believe its essential meaning is as a vertical hole in the earth — a planting hole, a chultun-like waterhole, or perhaps (in Yucatan) an open-air cenote. It refers to places that hold water, from where plants grow, and by extension as spatial and temporal points of emergence. Its common presence in the hieroglyph for the month Uayeb is probably related to this general idea, reading in full U-WAY?-HAAB, perhaps for the place or point of the year’s emergence and beginning. In iconography the sun god is sometimes shown emerging from such a space, depicted in its animate form as the jaws of a bony snake or centipede (see Taube 2003:411) (Figure 3). These probably are in reference to the sun’s rise from (or descent into) the earth. Long ago I argued that images of emergence from open maws of serpents and bony snakes — one of the most common tropes in Maya iconography —  were visual metaphors for birth (Stuart 1988). Here on the Zacpeten altar the “maw” or “portal” sign thus marks the location of the birth event, a usage related to these same emergence themes.

The altar’s text goes on to specify a place called K’inich Pa… Witz, “the solar ? hill,” which is described as a chan ch’een, “sky-cave,” a spatial term that I believe describes ritual centers and nodes of ceremonial activity (Stuart 2014). The choice of terms and phraseology may again point away from a typical record of a ruler’s birth, and more towards an event of religious or cosmological importance. If we consider the solar references, the “maw,” and the date recorded, it seems natural to think that the Zacpeten altar shows a Classic Maya record of a winter solstice, using language that describes the event as the birth of the sun from the earth.

Nevertheless there seems to exist an important historical dimension to this inscription as well. After the record of the solar birth at the “maw” and mountain we find the name of a local ruler who ruled over the Mutul dynasty in the later years of the Classic period, sharing the same emblem glyph we know from the ruling family of Tikal.  The names of his mother and father complete the circular text. The father is named Bahlaj Chan K’awiil, identical to the name of the noted ruler of Dos Pilas (also a claimant to the Mutul title) who ruled in the seventh century.

The protagonist’s name looks to to begin as K’inich ? Tahn, and follows directly after the location statement. It’s probably significant that he carries the same solar honorific k’inich in his name, indicating that the sun is embodied either as the living king or as a recently deceased royal ancestor.  Yet there’s some ambiguity in all of this since we’re unsure of the name of the living king at the time the altar was dedicated. It remains possible that the altar records a local king’s historical birth which happened to fall on or near a winter solstice, prompting its description as an event of cosmic renewal. In any case, there seems to be something more “cosmic” going on here than we would expect with a straightforward historical record of a king’s birth.

As noted in my 2009 paper, the altar’s possible mention of a solar birth from a maw-like “portal” may offer a textual parallel of one of the most famous images in Maya art and iconography – the sarcophagus lid of K’inich Janab Pakal (Figure 4). This scene also features a figurative birth, with Pakal centrally placed as both infant (embodying the patron deity Unen K’awiil) and as adult at the moment of his resurrection as the rising eastern sun. He also appears at the base the large cruciform tree (the “shiny jewel tree”) that is emerges from the centipede’s maw (the earthly “portal”) at the lower part of the scene, enclosing the front-facing skull that I believe represents as an animate seed from which the tree emerges. The skull is in turn is conflated with the solar k’in bowl that we other know as an incense burner or sacrificial container, as Taube (1998) has demonstrated (many elaborate clay  incense burners are, I believe, conceived of as “seeds” that “sprout” through emanating smoke). It is surely significant that the k’in bowl beneath Pakal serves as the hieroglyph for EL, “to emerge, come out,”which in turn is the basis for the word and hieroglyph for “east,” elk’in. In sum, the infantilized Pakal, in death, is the newborn manifestation of Palenque’s patron deity, shown rising as the eastern sun and ascending into the sky.

Palenque sarcophagus

Figure 4. The lid of the sarcophagus of K’inch Janab Pakal, perhaps showing his cosmic rebirth as the eastern sun. Photograph by Merle Greene Robertson.

Palenque sarcophagus top

Figure 5. View of the front (southern) edge of Pakal’s sarcophagus, showing its record of birth and death highlighted in red paint, in direct relation to the scene atop the lid. Photograph by David Stuart.

Pakal’s (re)birth and death are conceptually fused in this design, an interpretation that is bolstered by the text on the viewer’s “front” (or southern) edge of the sarcophagus (Figure 5), which may serve as a sort of caption for the scene atop the lid. This glyph sequence is integrated to the larger text around the perimeter which records a long series of deaths (och bih, “road-enterings”) of Pakal’s prominent ancestors  (see Lounsbury 1974; Josserand 1995; Stuart and Stuart 2008; Hopkins and Josserand 2012). However, when viewed from the doorway of the tomb this band of glyphs also can serve as a self-contained statement about the scene and its protagonist. The inscription first gives a chronological statement of Pakal’s lifespan, from birth to road-entering, and then notes how his passing “follows the actions” of his many deceased ancestors (mam). The longer text around the perimeter of the lid provides the background and larger story, but the band of glyphs on this southern edge – what Josserand rightly called the ”peak” of the overall written narrative — operates on its own in conjunction with the scene. The king is born and the king dies, and the iconography emphasizes the conceptual unity of these two life events.

What isn’t so clear on the sarcophagus is an obvious connection to the winter solstice. Pakal entered his own path in late August of 683, in the height of summer, as the time of the sun’s daily presence was visibly waning.  Other inscribed dates surrounding Pakal’s death and the dedication of the tomb and temple offer no obvious connection, either.  However, it is perhaps important to point out Alonso Mendez’s interesting analyses of solar alignments associated with the Temple of the Inscriptions, elaborating on a connection Linda Schele first posited many years ago. As Alonso recently notes, the sun sets directly behind the Temple of the Inscriptions on the winter solstice when viewed from the doorway of House E of the Palace, Pakal’s very own throne room, built in the early years of his reign. While subtle, I suspect that solstitial symbolism is inherent in the design of both the funerary building and in the iconography of the tomb.

CRC sun deity

Figure 6. Detail of Caracol, Stela 6, naming chan u bih k’in, “four are the paths of the sun.” Drawing by D. Stuart.

Of course the winter solstice is widely viewed across the globe as the rebirth of the sun, the point at which is begins its annual journey to gain heat and strength. The Maya are no different in this view (Gossen 1974:39). Among the Kiche’ Maya, the solstices are in addition considered as “changes of path,” or xolkat be, a term that emphasizes the sun’s new movement rather than its stationary position (Tedlock 1982: 180). The sarcophagus lid presents an image of the sun’s eastern rise and perhaps also of its new solsticial movement in the winter months. It is perhaps no coincidence then that the event repeated throughout the lid’s inscription is och bih, “road- or path-entering,” a common Classic Maya expression for death. The connection to between roads and the solstices is also indicated by the fascinating mention of chan u bih k’in, “four are the roads of the sun,” in the iconography of Caracol’s Stela 6 (Figure 6). This may be a reference to the four solsticial points on the horizon (see Stuart 2011:82).

Getting back to the main point of my discussion, the Zacpeten altar has a very suggestive inscription with a date that falls on or near the solstice, with a text commemorating birth and a solar protagonist. And like most Maya texts that might pique the interest of archaeo-astronomers, the real point wasn’t about detached observations of solar or astral phenomena — rather it was about how these cosmological structures and movements pertained to the kings who physically and conceptually embodied them.

References Cited

Carrasco, Michael D. 2012. Epilogue:Portal, Turtles and Mythic Places. In Maya Imagery, Architecture, and Activity: Space and Spatial Analysis in Art History, ed. by K. R. Spencer and M. D. Werness-Rude, pp. 374-412. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Gossen, Gary. 1974. Chamulas in the World of the Sun. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Grube, Nikolai, Alfonso Lacadena and Simon Martin, 2003. Chichen Itzá and Ek Balam. Terminal Classic Inscriptions from Yucatan. Notebook for the XXVII Hieroglyphic Forum at Texas, March, 2003.

Hopkins, Nicholas A., and J. Kathryn Josserand. 2012. The Narrative Structure of Chol Folktales: One Thousand Years of Literary Tradition. In Parallel Worlds: Genre, Discourse and Poetics in Contemporary, Colonial and Classic Maya Literature, ed. By K. M. Hull and M. D. Carrasco, pp. 21-44. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.

Hull, Kerry M., and Michael D. Carrasco. 2004. Mak-“Portal” Rituals Uncovered: An Approach to Interpreting Symbolic Architecture and the Creation of Sacred Space Among the Maya. In Continuity and Change: Maya Religious Practices in Temporal Perspective, ed. by D. Graña Behrens, Nikolai Grube, Christian M. Prager, Krauke Sachse, Stefanie Teufel, and Elisabeth Wagner, pp. 134–140. Acta Mesoamericana Vol. 14. Saurwein Verlag Markt Schwaben.

Josserand, Kathryn. 1995. Participant Tracking in Hieroglyphic Texts: Who was that masked Man? Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 5(1):65-89

Lounsbury, Floyd G. 1974.The Inscription of the Sarcophagus Lid at Palenque, in Primera Mesa Redonda de Palenque, Part II, ed. by M. G. Robertson, pp. 5-20. Robert Louis Stevenson School, Pebble Beach.

Martin, Simon and Joel Skidmore. 2012. Exploring the 584286 Correlation between he Maya and European Calendars. The PARI Journal 13(2):3-16.

Pugh, Timothy W., Rómulo Sánchez Polo, Leslie G. Cecil, Don S. Rice y Prudence M. Rice. 1998. Investigaciones Postclásicas e Históricas en Petén, Guatemala: Las excavaciones del proyecto Maya Colonial en Zacpeten. En XI Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, 1997, ed. by J.P. Laporte y H. Escobedo, pp.903-914. Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala.

Stuart, David. 1988.Blood Symbolism in Maya Iconography. In Maya Iconography, edited by E. P. Benson and G. G. Griffin, pp. 175-221. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

__________. 2009. The Symbolism of Zacpeten, Altar 1. In The Kowoj: Identity, Migration, and Geopolitics in Late Postclassic Petén, Guatemala, ed. by Prudence M. Rice and Don S. Rice, pp. 317-326. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.

__________. 2011. The Order of Days: Unlocking the Secrets of the Ancient Maya.Random House, New York.

__________. 2014. Earth-caves and Sky-caves: Intersections of Landscape, Territory and Cosmology among the Classic Maya. Lecture presented at the Mesoamerica Center Colloquium, Department of Art and Art History, The University of Texas at Austin, September 25, 2014.

Stuart, David, and George E. Stuart. 2008. Palenque: Eternal City of the Ancient Maya. Thames and Hudson, London.

Taube, Karl. 1998. The Jade Hearth: Centrality, Rulership, and the Classic Maya Temple. In Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, ed. by S. D. Houston, pp. 427-78, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C.

_________. 2003. Maws of Heaven and Hell: The Symbolism of the Centipede and Serpent in Classic Maya Religion. In Antropologia de la eternidad: La muerte en la cultura maya, ed. by A. Ciudad Ruiz, M. Humberto Ruz Sosa, M. Josefe Iglesias Ponce de Leon, pp. 405- 442. Publicaciones de la SEEM, no. 7. SEEM, UNAM, México, D.F.

Tedlock, Barbara. 1982. Time and the Highland Maya. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.


  1. Dave, I think you have miscalculated. The winter solstice occurred on December 21 in 809, but the date 8 Caban seating of Cumku is December 25 in the standard GMT correlation (584283) and December 28 in the Martin/Skidmore correlation (584286). I would be willing to entertain the notion that the Maya observed winter solstice on one or even two days on either side of December 21, but certain not a week.

    • I double-checked the dates and my program (Chac 2.4.7) still gives December 21 (584283) and December 24 (584286). But if it’s off I’ll happily post a big “nevermind.” Wouldn’t be the first time.

  2. David, this is fascinating stuff!
    I am more interested in the historical implications, namely if Bajlaj Chan K’awiil would be the father of the king… who was the mother?
    And is there any link to Aguateca (K’inich Pa’ Witz)? Sorry if this is a stupid question…
    Erika Raven

    • Not a stupid question at all, Erika. I should have made it clear that whereas the name of the father on the Zacpeten altar is Bahlaj Chan K’awiil, he can’t be the same individual as the ruler of Dos Pilas bearing this name name (aka Ruler 1). There’s simply too much time between them in history. So we seem to have a name that gets recycled within the larger royal family, appearing at Dos Pilas in the seventh century and then at Zacpeten in the ninth. The mother’s name is hard to read due to erosion, but it looks like it might be: Ix K’inil Ikaatz Sak Chay Ajaw. As for Aguateca (K’inch Pa’ Witz), I wondered the same thing you did: could this simply be a syllabic spelling of that historical place? I decided to be cautious and assume they’re different, especially since there seem to be two eroded signs after the pa syllable, whereas we would expect just pa-a for pa’.

  3. Hello David, I think the symbolism of this “birth” and date 8 Kaban could be related to maize (the anthropomorphic of the number eight is a maize god) and the symbolism of the earth ( “Kaban”, curiously also a young god ). And the mention of places like Way, Witz and Ch’en linking the two gods.
    In addition, this could be relate to other dates that has the numeral 8 (such as 8 Ajaw, birth of Pakal), and perhaps the symbolism that number still has in places of Guatemala (the studies of Ruth Bunzel, about day 8 Batz’ for example). Finally, if the relationship with the solstice is correct, the reason for the difference in days between this (the exact date it happened) and the date registered, it could be just the symbolism of the 8th Kaban.
    I think that people who are dedicated to epigraphy (myself included) should put more emphasis on the symbolism of the tzolkin, more than Gregorian dates.
    What do you think?

    William Mex Albornoz

  4. A circular monument with the sun god in crossroads surrounded by 20 glyphs – it’s not the Zacpeten Altar 1 that first comes to mind when you read such description. And when you look at the drawing there is also a backdrop of 4 reed mats.
    Whatever the correlation, the winter solstice of 809 CE fell within the eclipse season, and the date of the monument preceded lunar and solar eclipses, both invisible in Mesoamerica, that happened in the month of Cumku.
    The Distance Number in the upper left cartouche (and I wonder why the haab position is missing) connects the date of the monument with the future PE 7 Ajaw 18 Sip. It corresponds to 7383 days or 250 lunations (7382.6472 days).
    8 Caban is a date that also points in the direction of “the turn of the year” event. It is the first year bearer (0 Pop) after 4 Ajaw 8 Cumku. This particular occurrence of the date was 5510th anniversary of the very first end of the calendar year after the beginning of the era. Computationally it’s nice, because 5510 has 29 – the number corresponding to the approximate length of one lunation, as a divisor. Yet another “lunar number” is not surprising considering the fact that 8 Caban is the 177th day of tzolk’in. Incidentally, the elapsed time since the beginning of the 260-day cycle combined with the lunar count behind the Distance Number brings the total number of lunations surrounding the 8 Caban date to 256 – the square of 16. Neat numerology.
    And one more puzzling coincidence. Seating of Cumku is 340th day of the vague year which might have been the year bearer day for the far away peoples and times. (For the reference on this murky subject see Note 15 in Elizabeth Hill Boone. Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate. Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Series in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture, 2007, p. 255).

    Happy New Year!

    Anna Vanichkin

  5. As Karen and Memo note in their comments, the discrepancy in the Julian vs. Gregorian calendars present a problem for the supposed solstice connection with the Zacpeten date. My computer conversion program didn’t make this clear to me as I ran the date, but I should’ve known! Many thanks to both of them for pointing this out. So… my initial assumption about the timing of the birth looks weak, even unlikely. I’ll keep pondering what this all means, and think further on the unique usage of the toponym and the way(?) “portal” in connection to the birth record.

  6. Hi, Dave! I’d like to share a bit of history on the WAY ‘portal’ reading. I distributed a hand-written note in 1989 suggesting a value WAY for the “cenote” sign based on phonetic complementation wa- and (more often) -ya in addition to its presence as the superfix of the sign for the five-day period Wayeb/ Way Haab. Linda Schele and Andrea Stone, among others, had copies of my note. I have the original. A citation appears on p. 235 of Stone & Zenders Reading Maya Art. Alfonso Lacadena reached the reading independently during his work on Ek’ Balam, and in 2003 I told him about my earlier suggestion.

    • Many thanks, Barb. Good to know the earlier history of the reading, and it’s jogged my memory — I think I may have a photocopy of your note in my files. For a long time I was hesitant about the WAY value but over time I’ve come around toward accepting it. Maybe your original notes can be posted here on MD at some point?

  7. Dave, I’d be happy to write that up with an image of the original page one of these days. Meanwhile, I’ve been ruminating on Alfonso Lacadena’s reading WAL for the main sign which precedes WAY on the Zacpeten altar, and have just had a long conversation with Bob Wald about its function at Chichen Itza in calendric statements, as on Lintel 1 of the Four Lintels. Bob reads it in context (and I agree) as ti’ wa’al uxlajun tuun ‘in the standing (i.e. current) 13th tuun [(of K’atun )1 Ajaw]. Its function on Cancuen Panel 1 (where the -la suffix is absent) seems related, as these are four ‘resting places’ (CHAN LUB if Yuriy is correct), each preceded by the WAL sign, which are visited by the returning heir. Then there’s Yaxchilan Lintel 10, where I suspect the sign operates as a rebus for /wal/ ‘enemy’ (Yucatec). Does the notion of ‘standing/set-up portal’ resonate here? Happy New Year!!

  8. Dave, very interesting work here, thank you for posting. is December 21, 809 (in the Julian calendar, according to the 584283 correlation). We can confirm it’s relation to the solstice with the following method. We know was a solstice, in 2012 (in the 584283 correlation). If the date in 809 AD was an accurate solstice date, then the remainder after dividing by the Tropical Year (365.24219) would be zero:

    = 439383 days.

    After dividing by the Tropical Year, the remainder is 3.35 days. Thus, would be the precise solstice (December 18, 809 in the Julian, 283 correlation). The three-day variation can be explained because they sought the seating of Cumku as a conceptual and/or calculational anchor. It can also be explained by the first perception of the sun inching northward (it’s rebirth) in its daily horizon-risings after the standstill period of several days. Solstice turnabout phenomenon, for naked-eye skywatchers of the horizon, certainly can support a “zone” of at least three or four days on either side of the solstice. And the first indication of it definitely moving northward occurs several days after the technically precise solstice date. This was quite possibly the more important indicator of the date of solar rebirth for the Maya, even if we accept they knew the precise date of a given solstice. So I think your solstice rebirth interpretation can be maintained.

  9. Said in a simpler way, using Julian Day Numbers (JDN):

    12/18/809 (J) = 2,016,897 (JDN)
    12/21/2012 (G) = 2,456,283 (JDN) (A solstice date)

    = 439386

    439386 / 365.24219 = 1202.999029 (remainder of .35 of a TY day)
    Thus, 12/18/809 AD (Julian) = winter solstice, 3 days before the Zacpeten Altar 1 date

  10. December 21, 809 (Julian) was also December 25, 809 (Gregorian) and 4 days “after” the solstice. I have about 30 years of experience living in the Hawaiian tropics, at the same geographical latitude as Maya-land, with an avid eye on the sky. I don’t believe the “rebirth of the Sun” motif that accompanies the days following the Winter Solstice in colder climates was very significant in the tropics, for either the ancient Polynesians or the Maya. It would be more the exact day of the solstice. What is probably much more significant about the date in question is the “visual” maximum elongation of Venus in the evening sky (“astronomically” peaking a few days later, coinciding with the lunar eclipse). Also the date in question (Dec. 21, Julian GMT-283) had the Moon near the Pleiades and visible nearly all night long. In other words, imagine, after sunset, the Moon was up and near the Pleiades, and they traveled together for the rest of the night. Venus was at its highest place in the western sky, above the horizon and visible in the evening sky for a longer period of time than any other. Mars also rises shortly after sunset near the stars we know as the Twins and they travel together visibly for the rest of the night.

  11. For several evenings around the time of Janab Pakal’s “entering the road”, the planet Venus was visible at its highest place in the evening star just after sunset. Venus would have shone brightly as the first “star” to illuminate in the darkening sky. From the southern and western stairways of the Palace, Venus could have been easily seen above the hills and trees, in the southwesterly direction, above the Temple of Inscriptions. Janab Pakal may have witnessed Venus high in the evening sky, in the direction of the future Temple of Inscriptions, well over a thousand times in his lifetime. What astronomers call the greatest elongation of Venus may be more deeply appreciated when we consider that at that time it is at its greatest visual distance from the Sun, remains in this position for a period of time, then appears to change direction and move toward this Sun. This may be seen as an analogy to the solstice in the Sun’s visible yearly cycle. So Professor Stuart’s intuition about both monuments being somehow involved with solstices may still bear fruit when considered in terms of Venus rather than the Sun. It is also well worth noting that the Palenque Triad were “born” with Venus near greatest elongation, this time being the last “star” to shine in the morning sky, along with Jupiter, before sunrise.

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