A Universe in a Maya Lintel IV: Seasonal Gods and Cosmic Kings 3

by Stephen Houston (Brown University), James Doyle (Metropolitan Museum of Art), David Stuart (UT-Austin), and Karl Taube (UC-Riverside)

As a form of authority, sacred kingship is both ubiquitous and long-lived. It occurs most everywhere where complex societies exist, and it has endured, until its recent extinction or weakening, for thousands of years (Oakley 2006:10–11). Yet there are almost as many variants as there are examples. This is not to deny parallels or traits held in common. Typically, sacred rule fuses microcosms (structures at immediate, human scale) with macrocosms (those at vast levels beyond easy comprehension). It also mutes or disguises the vagaries of political life. To make such affairs seem smooth, logical, and predictable, there may be appeals to—or mergers with—eternal cycles, celestial phenomena, and exemplary beings of a supernatural sort. When it comes to kings, what better understanding can there be than Le Roi Soleil of France (Burke 1992), a Hellenistic ruler with radiate, solar crown (Stewart 1993:246) or Jayavarman VII of Khmer civilization, smiling out to us as the Buddha of compassion and mercy (Coe 2003:124)?

A checklist of sacred kingship runs a risk, however. It assembles a package of attributes that pulls away, if one is not careful, from what counts: the local meanings, play of personalities, variable emphases, and “shifting contingencies of history” that enliven and trouble human existence (Oakley 2006:18; see also Houston and Stuart 1996). Laxtunich Lintel 1 lodges all the features of sacred kingship—links to deities, diurnal or seasonal cycles, celestial or chthonic bodies, the architecture of cosmos itself—in a granular record of politics and hierarchy (Maya Lintel II). Specialists speak of “naturalizing” the ordering of society. Lintel 1 does so at the elite level. Supernatural beings and behaviors slot neatly over and into those of humans. But the greatest novelty is its declaration of self-reference, an illustration, seldom seen in ancient America, of royal construction taking place, and of much else besides: stone that meets sky, day confronting night, season poised against season, royal flesh made divine, and gods brought into human form by ritual impersonation.

Kings, Gods, and Magnates

The composition of Laxtunich Lintel 1 is in some respects like a quincunx, a five-part ordering of distinct elements (Figure 1). In the upper register, two seated figures engage with each other while seated on a stylized “sky-band,” a schematic rendering of the heavens as a linear band. That band sprouts a head. Simon Martin (2015:192–196, esp. figures 11, 12), has studied this “cosmic monster of the sky,” a crocodilian creature with Venus-sign in his deer ear, and, at far end, a stylized cache vessel or censer, its marking for k’in, “sun, day,” painted yellow (Maya Lintel III). Opposed to an “earth monster,” a terrestrial counterpart—which does not appear here—the croc may have been separated from its opposite at the moment of creation (Martin 2015:194–195). Not a static being, it appears to move along in majestic passage: a text on a throne at Palenque even describes it in terms of numli ta chan, numli ta kab, “it passes in the sky, it passes on the earth,” apparently across the “back,” paat, of an important Period Ending (Stuart 2003). Two Atlantean figures, said to aggregated with a set of four (4-ITZAM-TUUN-ni), support this mass. Their faces look downwards in steady concentration—this is hard work! In the middle sits an elderly being in profile. Below is a skull with two long bones passing through its orbits and out the palate. Symmetrical vegetation emerges from a cleft just beneath that god. Although subtle, the pattern is clear: there are two figures seated on the sky, two support them, and another, much smaller being hunches more-or-less in the center. Together, they form a quincunx, a common (and ancient) emblem for centrality, fire-making, and cosmic order (Taube 2009:90, 92).




Figure 1. Laxtunich Lintel 1 (photograph by James Doyle).


The gathering of figures is at once mythic and human. The most important figure is on the left, not usually a position of honor in Maya imagery (that usually occurs to upper right, Figure 2). Yet this arrangement is well-attested on lintels in the kingdom of Yaxchilan, especially at its subordinate settlements. The local lord often appears to the right, as the main figure of local interest. In seeming compensation, the overlord is depicted in such a way to mark his exalted status. On Laxtunich Lintel 2 and Mayuy Series Lintel 1 (from the Kimbell Art Museum), he sits on the left but at higher level, ensconced on a throne that, perhaps, can still be seen at Yaxchilan (see below). Mayuy Series Lintel 2 represents the overlord in more conventional position, to viewer’s right. On Laxtunich Lintel 1 the overlord’s superior status is semaphored by his frontal position, one hand on the thigh rather than on the ground—contrast this with the underling’s deferential gesture (see Figure 1). The overlord’s torso is erect rather than inclined, his handheld glyph higher than his counterpart’s. A delicate visual choreography operates here, denoting what is local yet adjusting for relative status. There is little doubt about the person in charge, but local lords discharge key, if supporting, roles in the performance.



Figure 2. Laxtunich Lintel 1, detail, Chelew Chan K’inich [Shield Jaguar IV] of Yaxchilan (photograph by James Doyle). 


The main text occupies a privileged position between the two figures (Figure 3). It reads:

A1–B1   7 Manik 10 Sip ([], March 18, AD 773, Julian Date [Martin and Skidmore 2012, for correlation used here])

A2–B2   K’AL-[la]ja ti-CHAN K’IN-AJAW-wa, k’ahlaj ti kan k’in ajaw, “the Sun Lord is raised in the sky”

A3–B4   U-BAAH[AHN?] K’IN-AJAW-wa che-le wa-CHAN [K’IN]-ni~chi K’UH-PA’-CHAN-AJAW-wa, u baah ahn? k’in ajaw cheleew chan k’inich k’uhul pa’chan ajaw, “it is the [impersonated] body/portrait of the Sun God, Cheleew Chan K’inich [Shield Jaguar IV], holy lord of the Split-Sky [Yaxchilan]”




Figure 3. Laxtunich Lintel 1, glyphs A1–B4, alternative lighting (photographs by James Doyle). 

Several things are evident in the text. On this date the Sun God is raised in the sky, a reference to the heavy lifting by subordinates underneath. The text then identifies the ruler of Yaxchilan, Cheleew Chan K’inich [Shield Jaguar IV], who impersonated that deity during this act of elevation (for impersonation, see Houston and Stuart 1996; further study, Nehammer Knub et al. 2009). Sun God impersonations occur elsewhere in the corpus of Maya texts, most notably with the owners of certain ceramic vessels (Figure 4). In holding up or using such a vase, the owners presumably channeled the identity of a resplendent, eagle-like (tzikiin) god. (Some Maya pots may have been used more selectively than thought or were at least intended for special ritual occasions.)




Figure 4. Impersonation of the resplendent, eagle-like Sun God (Huk Chapaht Tzikiin K’inich Ajaw): (A) Vase of the Eleven Gods, Naranjo, Guatemala:G1–L1 (K7750, pre-restoration images, photograph by Justin Kerr, used with permission); (B) Chama-style vase:J1–R1 (K7224, photograph by Justin Kerr, used with permission); (C) Bonampak murals, Room 1, Initial Series text:E’1–F’2 (drawing by Stephen Houston); and (D) late vase with non-Maya glyphs:D1–J1 (K6437, all photographs by Justin Kerr, with permission).


Cheleew Chan K’inich’s personal name invoked the Sun God, K’inich, so the connection may be somewhat personal. The association does not end there. His headdress has an openwork and angled, even woven, shape with, at front, the extruded head of the centipede. That creature corresponds to the rays of the sun (Boot 1999; Taube 2003). On Copan Stela A, the thirteenth ruler, 18 U Baah K’awiil, dresses as this figure. A text to the side of that image alludes to the impersonation, although further specifying that the flaming or smoking solar disk belongs to a snake—is this some typological understanding of elongated, venomous centipedes (Figure 5)?




Figure 5. Centipedes and “ribbed” headdresses with Sun God impersonation: (A) Laxtunich Lintel 1 (photograph by James Doyle); (B) Copan Stela A:B9 (drawing by Linda Schele); and (C) Copan Stela A, top front (drawing by Anne Dowd; Baudez 1994:fig. 2A).


A similar depiction is found on an unprovenanced stela glimpsed at the Palacio Canton in Mérida, Yucatan (Figure 6). The ruler’s body blazes with a K’IN sign on the upper arm, and the AJ-K’IN-AJAW incised nearby buttresses his identification with the Sun God. On the lord’s head is a jawless centipede, and his nose exhales a stylized blast of hot breath. Even his face approximates the K’IN glyph by showing the characteristic lobes of that sign. Added information must have been in the upper portion of the stela, in a fragment long since cut off by looters (natural breaks on the bottom suggest the lower section remains in situ).



Figure 6.  Ruler as Sun God with centipede headdress, stela on display, Palacio Canton, Mérida, Yucatan (photograph by David Stuart). 


A final trait deserves comment. The face of Cheleew Chan K’inich has a noteworthy touch, a pointy goatee (Figure 7). Other evidence assigns such facial hair, often yellow, to the Sun God, as can be appreciated in the Postclassic Madrid Codex (Ishihara-Brito and Taube 2012:466; also Taube 1992:50, 52).




Figure 7. Bearded Sun God, Laxtunich Lintel 1 (lower left, photograph by James Doyle); and Madrid 108B (Lee 1985:138). 


The date of Laxtunich Lintel 1 can be probed for other meanings. It lies close to a calculation, contingent on which calendar is used, of March 20, AD 773, close to the vernal or spring equinox (NASA calculation, taking latitude into account). At this point of the year day and night are roughly of the same length, a feature emphasized in the Yukateko expression, “lahcet kin yetel akab, “equally/together the sun and night” (Bolles Dictionary). Today, the vernal equinox marks the conventional division between spring and summer. For the Tzotzil Maya of Chamula, Chiapas, the separation goes deeper still. Both fall and spring equinoxes designate times of “rising” and “waning” heat, establishing a line between categorical opposites—dry season vs. rainy season, day vs. night, left hand vs. right hand, and active vs. dormant phases of agriculture (Gossen 1972:30–35, fig. 2). This line also helps configure the path of ritual circuits.

The equinox as moments when resources shift finds an echo among the Cora of Western Mexico, where the sun arrives on March 21 to awaken another god (Nicanori) so that he might “create all the shellfish and fish and prepare the birds to lay eggs”; another deity, aroused by the forceful light, begins to produce the “salt and other fruits…in the months of April, May, and June” (Mathiowitz 2011:448). At the equinoxes “the rays of the rising sun enter the … [temple] doorway and symbolically climb the stepped altar in his symbolic ascent into the sky” (Mathiowitz 461). A harvest of feathers marks this occasion as well. It was at the vernal equinox in Paquimé, Mexico, that the scarlet macaws met their end, sacrificed when their plumage was most mature (Mathiowitz 2011:666–667). Further to the north, the Tewa of New Mexico had Summer Chiefs who took charge after the vernal equinox, presiding over the “warm-weather agricultural cycle” (Mathiowitz 2011:918).

In ancient times, equinoxes had more to do with whether the sun rose due east and set due west. Such experiences have been adduced, for example, to explain equinoctial alignments in Structure 1-sub at Dzibilchaltun, Mexico (Coggins 1983:7fn3; Coggins and Drucker 1988). For our purposes, the precise conjuncture is less important than the evident need of scribes to associate such an occasion with the month day “10 Sip.” Marc Zender (personal communication, 2017) reconstructs a similar set of dates on the apparent equipment (casting pendants?) of a calendar or rainmaking priest from Comalcalco, Tabasco, Mexico (he also points out that such notations exist on molded bricks with Long Count notations). The “10 Sip” combine with a set of day names— Ik’, Manik, Eb, Kaban—that served as “year-bearer” or first-of-year dates in the Classic Maya calendar (Stuart 2004; see also Kaban in a reference to the solstice, Stuart 2015 Solstice).

According to Zender, the “10 Sip” dates at Comalcalco fall exceptionally close to the vernal equinox. To be sure, that observational reality might have been conditioned by the need to join ritually important day signs to a conventionally fixed position in the month. A longstanding affinity exists between “10 Sip” and rainmaking, as in this mention from the Yukateko Chronicle of Oxkutzcab: “…men at Mani they were, rainbringers at Chichén Itzá then, and there escaped Nahau Veeh, Napot Covoh. On 10 Zip it took place, in 12 Ahau it was, the tun on 2 Yaxkin, that it may be remembered (Thompson 1927:6–7, using a translation by William E. Gates, emphasis added; Zender kindly provided the reference). One epigraphic proposal entertains a reading of t’ohxaj for the verb on the Comalcalco pendants—could this as yet unproven decipherment bear some connection to Yukateko t’ox, “divide, distribute,” as in a year split seasonally (Davletshin and Bíró 2014:5)?

What can be understood is this: on Laxtunich Lintel 1 the image of the raised Sun God fit conceptually with the vernal equinox. The sun and, as a god, the Sun shifted to dominance in the heavens. The close congruence with Chamulan belief is, as we shall see, almost unsettling, with its shared emphasis on night and day, the seasons, and agricultural cycles.




Figure 8. Vernal (near-)equinox dates, Comalcalco Urn 26: (1) Pendant 3a, with reconstructed date by Marc Zender; (2) Pendant 4a; (3) Pendant 6a; (4) Pendant 16a, and; (5) Pendant 17a (drawings by Marc Zender, courtesy of the Proyecto Arqueológico de Comalcalco; all are Julian Dates in the Martin-Skidmore correlation). 


Seeking other clues, we now turn to the caption of the other figure in the top register (Figure 9). This text reads:

C1          u-BAAH-hi[AHN?], u baah ahn?, “it is the impersonation of…”

D1          1-?-AK’AB-AJAW, 1-?-ak’ab-ajaw, “the 1 ? Lord of Night”

C2–D2    AJ-YAX-bu-lu k’u-K’UK’, Aj Yax Bul K’uk’, name of the nobleman

E1-F1     sa-ja-la CHAK-to-ko-WAY-bi?, sajal chak tok wayib, the nobleman’s two titles




Figure 9. Laxtunich Lintel 1, glyphs C1–D1, alternative lighting (photographs by James Doyle). 


The subordinate holds a relatively common title, sajal, a term that evades full understanding despite decades of research. The title can be read as to its sound, but there is no consensus on what its constituents mean nor how they relate to noble status. The other is a less usual epithet that may refer to a magnate (Figures 10). Dmitri Beliaev (2004), Alexandre Tokovinine, and Simon Martin have done the most extensive studies of the title. In some areas, as around Holmul, it appears to enjoy great time depth, going into late periods as well. At Tikal, it served as the epithet of an important captive depicted on a large rock outcrop in the Maler causeway and on a column altar from the north side of West Plaza (Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:83). The texts of those carvings contain two dates. Perhaps they two stations of display (and pure misery for the captive), at a place to the north of Tikal, along a north-south road, and towards its very center. The prisoner seems to have been captured (baakwaj) and then, two days later, sacrificed on Dec. 11, AD 749 (Martin 2003:31–32. Another humiliating depiction tops the undated Tikal Altar 8 (Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:fig. 30). For a captive not of highest rank—he carries no Emblem glyph—the Tikal dynasty nonetheless reveled in his discomfiture and downfall. His importance continues to puzzle.



Figure 10.  Chak Tok Wayib title, highlighted, Tikal Causeway Carving (left, drawing by Simon Martin) and Tikal Column Altar 1:B2 (Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:fig. 110a).


Turning back to the lintel: what is to be made of the god impersonated by the local lord? Text-image correlations offer one lead (Figure 11). The glyphs spell out ak’ab ajaw, “lord of the night,” which must point to the ak’ab element in his panache of feathers. The other objects are more difficult to make out—the volutes resemble smoke or flame, but they also include a puzzling medial loop—yet the glyphs provide assistance here.




Figure 11. Glyph of impersonated deity and headdress element of sajal (photograph by James Doyle).


The lord’s impersonation spells out an aspect of the Maize God, perhaps read 1 Ixi’m (Zender 2014:2, fig. 1; n.b, Mayanists sometimes render ixi’m, a term for “grain corn,” as ixiim, but the common use of an internal glottal stop in Highland Mayan languages favors the former, as cued by disharmonic spellings with subfixed ma syllable [Kaufman 2003:1034–1035]). A set of substitutions in an entirely different royal name at La Corona, Guatemala, lays out the variants (Figure 12). One example (Figure 11D) “explodes” the sequence of superimposed name glyphs into a fully visible 1-IXI’M CHAK-NAHB-bi CHAN/CHAN[A’N?] (the final sign, perhaps, from Ch’orti’, a’n, “elote,” or “green ear of corn” [Hull 2016:57]).




Figure 12. Chakaw Nahb Chana’n? of La Corona, Guatemala: (A) La Corona Miscellaneous 2:A6–B1 (photographer by Irmgard Groth-Kimball); (B) Element 56:pH6 (Proyecto Arqueológico Regional La Corona); (C) Element 33:E5 (drawing by David Stuart); and (D) Site Q Panel 1/Grolier:C3–C4 (Coe 1973:pl. 3).


The abbreviated glyphs exhibit the same locks of hair and jewels as in various foreheads of the Maize God (Figure 13).




Figure 13. Maize god with hair lock and forehead jewels: (upper left) Maize god on Dumbarton Oaks carved bowl; (upper right) Maize god on chocolate pot (K1560, photograph by Justin Kerr, used with permission); (lower left) Maize god on watery journey (K1202, photograph by Justin Kerr, used with permission); (lower left) 1 Ajaw, painted text, Group G, Tikal, Guatemala (photograph by David Stuart).


But there is an alternative reading, in that 1 Ixi’m may simply communicate “one” or juun. This possibility receives support from varied spellings for the “Water Lily Serpent” impersonated by some lords and ladies (Figure 14A). A vessel from the Cuychen Cave in Belize, to give one example, uses the forehead elements for the number “one,” and in a context with tight controls for that meaning (Figure 14B; see also Tikal Stela 9:A2, where the number “two” is recorded with a circle, for “one,” plus a circle with pendant [Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:fig. 13a)]; see the comparable spelling on Tikal Stela 40:E4). Admittedly, some of the texts at La Corona (Figure 12A, 12B) may show an abbreviation of an abbreviation: a stripped-down 1 Ixi’m in which the upper part of the jewel has disappeared or been fused with the number.



Figure  14. Water serpent signs with variants of “1”: (A) El Peru Stela 34:H1–G2 (Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund 1967.29; photographer unknown); and (B) Cuychen Vase:G1–H1 (Helmke et al. 2015:fig. 15).


A related set of glyphs incorporate a rare prefix, as attached to TUUN, “stone,” signs in spellings from Tonina, Mexico (Figure 15). That prefix portrays the jewel and forelock of the Maize God, yet they also—this is crucial—refer to stones erected on the dates 1 Ajaw. Are these “Maize God” stones in some metaphoric sense or do they refer to stones elevated on “1 Ajaw,” all on a particular Period Ending in the Maya calendar?

Whatever the interpretation, it seems plausible that the impersonation of the lord with Shield Jaguar IV was as the “Maize God Lord of the Night” or, alternatively, as the “1 Lord of the Night.” Other inferences ensue. The first is that the Sun God, dominant in real life as the overlord, dominant celestially as the sun that ever stronger at this time of year, and dominant mythically as a potent deity, is opposed on Laxtunich Lintel 1 to a Lord of the Night. The latter was connected in some way to the Maize God or, perhaps, to a number associated with the god. In this text Mayuy may have prefigured Chamulan ideas (among others) by alluding to notional segments of the Maya year: one for the Sun and full dry season, another for the night and a time of growth. The mention on Sakpeten Altar 1 of the “birth” of the sun on the observed winter solstice whispers of other divisions in the Classic Maya year (Stuart 2015). Possibly it was divided into four parts, of which two, the summer solstice and September equinox, have yet to be discerned or clearly mentioned in Maya texts.

Correspondences between political hierarchies and seasonal (and even agricultural) shifts introduce other questions. Why was an overlord linked to seasonal dominance after the vernal equinox? Was this because of the obvious tie between a ruler and the most obtrusive being in the sky? Or did it relate to the timing of Classic wars and skirmishes, when battles, most led by kings, involved people who could be removed from agricultural duties (Martin 2014:Chart 18)? The sector in which Laxtunich was found likely served as the “hamper” of the kingdom, a place producing much of its food (Andrew Scherer, personal communication, 2017). The ritual arrangements on the lintel glimmer with economic ones.

We do know the sun was a preoccupation of the Yaxchilan dynasty. Its rulers expressed great interest in solar movements, especially the summer solstice, with which they aligned buildings like Structure 41 (Tate 1992:95, 240–249). Dances too were celebrated with a distinct rod that scholars call a “flapstaff,” one being depicted at La Pasadita, not far from the possible location of Laxtunich (Kamal et al. 1999). As at Dzibilchaltun, perhaps the building that housed the Laxtunich lintels accorded with the vernal equinox and its east-west alignments. Dana Lamb’s map hints at such architectural “hierophanies” or celestially motivated orientations (Maya Lintel I, see Figure 11; Aveni et al. 2003). Much depends on the placement of “north.” Lamb provides no arrow, but we presume he used a compass while thrashing through the forest. If facing east, the rooms would have received light at dawn, if west, at sunset.




Figure 15. K’al-tuun expressions with Maize God “forelock” and related Ajaw dates: (A) “New Captive,” Tonina ( 1 Ahaw 3 Pop, Associated Press photo by Moysés Zúñiga); (B) Tonina Monument 145, J1, A1 ( 1 Ajaw 3 Pop, Graham et al. 2006:76); and (C) Tonina Monument 134:A8–B8 (9.13.)5.0.0 1 Ajaw (3 Pop).

The celestial connotations of the upper register pose one other problem. There is a pairing of two objects held by Shield Jaguar IV/the Sun God and Aj Yax Bul K’uk’/ the God of the Night (Figure 16). The first is a duck-billed wind god (numbered “13” on Laxtunich Lintel 1) as held by Shield Jaguar. The second is a deer head with human footprint over the eye (also with “13”), here lifted by Aj Yax Bul K’uk’. On the Dos Pilas support at the bottom of Figure 16, the Sun God holds the deer head, and at Copan, the wind god merges with what may be a ju syllable (an onomatopoeia for an exhalation?). There is a suspicion that this pairing also relates to the seasons, including times of winds or sun, but the meaning flits away from us.




Figure 16. Opposition of Wind deity and deer with footprint in eye: Laxtunich Lintel 1 (top, photograph by James Doyle); Copan Stela 49:pC4–pC4 (2nd from top, drawing by Barbara Fash); supports for figures on the Tablet of the Slaves, Palenque (3rd from top, photographs by Linda Schele, #366, 367, Linda Schele Photograph Collection); upper right support, Structure N5-21, Dos Pilas, Guatemala (photograph Jorge Pérez de Lara, Finamore and Houston 2010:98, pl. 26). 


The Atlantean Itzam

Beneath the register with the king of Yaxchilan and lord of Laxtunich are the two Atlanteans (Figure 1). Their titles read 4-ITZAM-TUUN-ni, the “4 Itzam Stones,” indicating that there would have been two more to complement this pair (see above, Stuart 2007 Itzam reading; see also Martin 2015:205–206, fig. 2, 9). The first employed a name well-stocked with syllabic elements: mo-yo?-lo-AJAW, moyol ajaw (cf. Ch’orti’ moyor, “cinched [bag],” Hull 2016:287), as well as a relatively high title, ba-sa-ja-la, baah sajal, the “head sajal” (Figure 17). Ordinarily, that title connotes primus inter pares, “first among equals.” The noble is also an ajaw. The paradox is that the figure seated with the Sun God/Shield Jaguar IV—namely, the local lord extolled in the lintels—was merely a sajal. The Chak Tok Wayib title might have contributed a more exalted touch to his status. But this also suggests that some sajal could serve yet other sajal, perhaps at the behest of an overlord.




Figure 17. Caption by Itzam to lower left, Laxtunich Lintel 1:G1–G3, with alternative lighting (photograph by James Doyle).

The second Itzam, who wears the same water-lily dress as his companion, uses no ajaw or sajal title (Figure 18). The caption does record that he captured one CHAK-u-xi, Chak Uux, in battle (ux is a patronymic in Yucatan, but the meaning is uncertain here [Barrera Vásquez 1980:903]). In other words, he was a warrior when not doing the sweaty work of lifting the sky.




Figure 18. Caption of Itzam to lower right, Laxtunich Lintel 1:H1–H3, with alternative lighting (photograph by James Doyle).

An unprovenanced stela in a private collection (Figure 19), said to be from the “région de l’Usumacinta,” contains an identical name at 4 Ajaw 13 Keh (Sept. 12, AD 795, Julian Date, Stierlin 1998:#215). This cannot be the same person. The dates come too late. But it may have been a namesake or close relative of an enemy taken in war by the Itzam impersonator on the Laxtunich lintel. Moreover, and probably not by chance, the unprovenanced stela contains the same basal or toponymic element as the lintel. It portrays almost a vegetal seepage, split in two parts, from a frontal skull and, in the case of the stela, from what may be a stylized seed. Is the place-emblem mythic in both scenes or does it concern an actual location?




Figure 19. A shared name and toponym, Laxtunich Lintel 1 and an unknown site in the Usumacinta drainage (Stierlin 1998:#215).


The Itzam have been thoroughly researched elsewhere (Martin 2015; Stuart 2007). Elderly, wizened beings on the whole, they display markings of stone, hard, even indurated bodies, and water-lily headbands, tending also to gather in groups of fours (Figure 20). They do work for others, undertake heavy lifting, offer subservient attendance, hold up day signs as part of cycles of years, and by habit live in watery and chthonic abodes. Typically, they associate with k’an, “yellow,” the color of ripe corn, symbolic of harvest (see Figure 20, name captions).




Figure 20. Four Itzam-tuun, c. AD 700, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, #1988.1174 (photograph by Justin Kerr, used with permission).


On a stela at Jaina, Campeche, Mexico (Figure 21), a union takes place between the four stony Itzam and, as the text indicates, the stone itself: tz’a-pa-ja 4-ITZAM-TUUN-ni, tz’ahpaj 4 Itzam Tuun, “The Four Itzam Tuun are driven [into the ground],” but erected under the supervision of a historical personage. This is more than a depiction, a flat carved surface. It refers to what might be called “lithic immanence,” the proposition that spirits reside in stone while doing the work expected of them. In Classic Maya texts, only deities are recorded in this way (e.g., Houston and Stuart 1996:304, fig. 17).




Figure 21.  Jaina Stela 1, 12 Ajaw 8 Ceh (Oct. 12, AD 652, Julian Date, photograph by Eric von Euw, draftsman of inking unknown).


A theme that most closely recalls the Laxtunich Itzam is on a pot of unknown provenance and whereabouts  (the photo mosaic with incorrect joins suggests the image was taken some time ago, Figure 22). Two Itzam in an awkward, back-breaking position support a sky throne with a fierce Sun God. The deity’s headdress matches that on the Laxtunich lintel, a centipede adorns his staff, and what may be a centipede jaw issues from his mid-section to curl towards his back. (The painter seems enamored of that form, repeating it across the image.) A figure with Maize God features and a lunar crescent sits behind the Sun God on another throne. There is no help here from tortured, bleating Itzam, only an angular throne with circular adornos (see the women’s throne in Room 3 of the Bonampak murals; Miller and Brittenham 2013:folded insert). The second deity shows indeterminate gender, although the glyph above the crescent may indicate that this is a female. The pair of gods evokes ancestral roundels on the top of stelae at Yaxchilan, one for a father, the other a mother (Houston and Inomata 2009:fig. 7.12). On the pot, the cringing Itzam to the left implies some story not expressed at Laxtunich. He recoils from a fearsome creature rising in front of the Sun God’s throne.



Figure 22. Late Classic vase, unknown location and photographer. 


The final figure in the five-part arrangement is dressed as an Itzam, with the same water lily headdress as the noblemen. But the figure has by contrast a more aged, slumped look (Figure 23). The limbs have withered muscles, and, notably, a large head of animate stone merges with his body yet faces in the opposite direction. Such markings do not occur on the more youthful Itzam supporting the sky. His role differs in another respect. In his right hand he holds, not a duck-billed wind god or deer-with-human footprint, but a set of glyphs read CH’AHB-AK’AB, if with the same number 13 (the Ch’olan languages make a spelling of ch’ahb rather than ch’ab more likely; moreover, because of usage in Ch’olan, Houston prefers a meaning closer to “ayuno” or “fast” rather than “creation,” a Yukateko gloss [Kaufman and Norman 1984:118]). The meaning of this phrase is opaque—it is mentioned in accounts of creation in the Yukateko Ritual of the Bacabs (Bolles 2003:7, 83, 87, 90, 91, 153, 162, among other examples, all passages of utmost obscurity). The same combination of signs appears in offering bowls for bloodletting at Yaxchilan, but without any attached number (Figure 24).



Figure 23. Itzam and 13-Ch’ahb-Ak’ab sign (photographs by James Doyle). 



Figure 24. Comparison between CH’AB[AK’AB] on Laxtunich Lintel 1 and Yaxchilan Lintel 13 (lower left, drawing by Eric von Euw) and Lintel 14 (drawing by Ian Graham, both Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum, Harvard University [CMHI 3:35, 3:37]). 

The elderly Itzam is unique on the lintel by conveying a purely mythic identity. There is no evidence that he corresponds to an actual historical figure. This may be why he, alone on the lintel, has no glyphic caption. His body is curious in another way. It is the only part of the lintel to be torched, burned or daubed with some far darker material. Lamb’s photographs make it clear that this section was one of the first to be exposed—had the figure become an object of devotion by Lacandon Maya visiting the site (Maya Lintel I?  (Their “god pots” are mentioned by Lamb at various places in the region.) Or was this some earlier ritual that paid particular attention to the elderly Itzam (Maya Lintel III)?


Lifting the Sky, Lifting the Lintel 

The two Itzam disclose an intriguing detail. The text leaves the main activity quite explicit, that the Sun God is being “lifted up” (k’al) in the sky (Figure 25).



Figure 25.  Lifting the sky on Laxtunich Lintel 1, the celestial crocodile and censer highlighted in yellow (photograph by James Doyle, modified by Stephen Houston).


Several Maya verbs have a celestial or mythic referent (Houston 2012 Heavenly Bodies). The idea that “lifting” of cultural features—stelae, lintels, royal headbands—could derive from or parallel some celestial action may account for unexplained variants of the K’AL sign at Chichen Itza and other sites (Figure 26). The spelling on a lintel of the Las Monjas, Chichen Itza, refers to the raising of a carved lintel (pa-ka-ba TUUN-ni) but with a K’IN or sun glyph in the hand. Other examples, almost all from the northern part of the Maya area, display star and sky signs, shiny celts, and, in an example on the Altar de Sacrificios Vase, pointed out by Simon Martin (personal communication, 2014), a small figure lifts a polished celt above its Humpty Dumpty head. The raising of the Sun God on the lintel fits these concepts and may have existed as their mythic template or exemplar. Among the Preclassic Maya, most polished celts now lie in caches, disposed in cosmic arrangements (e.g., Aoyama et al. 2017:figs. 7, 8). But part of their existence was above-ground, to be lifted up as central instruments of ritual. Their endpoint was not the totality of their meaning. By the same token, the elevation of lintels, stelae, and pots accrued purpose and warrant in acts of celestial creation and in daily events as miraculous, yet expected, as the rising of the sun.



Figure 26. Celestial versions of K’AL verb: (A) raising of lintel carving, u-pa-ka-ba TUUN-ni, Las Monjas Lintel 4:B2–C1 (drawing by Ian Graham, but with his numbering scheme, which needs revision); (B) Xcalumkin Column 4:A2 (drawing by Ian Graham); (C) Molded-carved vessel:B1 (K4466, photograph by Justin Kerr, used with permission); and (D) Altar de Sacrificios Vase:E1 (image courtesy of George Stuart).


Another point bears mentioning. The fingers of the two standing Itzam curl around the edges of an animate stone (Figure 27). The image does not just highlight the lifting of the sky, although that must be taking place. A piece of inscribed stone is involved. The image is self-referential, hearkening back to the elevation of a stone, the lintel itself. In a unique visual, the carving depicts how the lintel came into position, yet it laminates that action with a mythic overlay. Mayuy clearly relished his innovative depiction of architectural construction. Indeed, he chose to inscribe his name and titles into the stone’s eyes on the lintel within a lintel—like Velázquez or Le Brun inserting themselves into commissioned works. Mayuy, if in name alone, peers towards viewers from the center of the scene, the color of his name glyphs the same as on bodies nearby (Maya Lintel III). That royal and divine vision can validate what it sees—that it reaches out to affect the world—finds a firm basis in Classic Maya thought (Houston et al. 2006:173–175). Mayuy has claimed a prerogative of kings and gods. His is the only presence, aside from the skull below, to address the viewer directly.



Figure 27. Close-up, Laxtunich Lintel 1, showing snout of animate stone facing downwards (photograph by James Doyle). 


The downward looking snouts provide a compelling clue for the idea that this is a lintel. The language of the inscriptions uses, as an Eastern Ch’olan language, a “causative” for positional verbs. Depending on the stem it qualifies, and the vowel of the stem, that suffix would be, -bu, as in “pak-b’u [pak-bu] ‘to place face down'” (Kaufman and Norman 1984:106). Pak itself is a term from Common Ch’olan *päk “bend/fold over…face down” (Kaufman and Norman 1984:128). Of relevance here is that, no only is pak, “face down,” well-attested as a positional verb (a face-down cacao/maize god in Figure 28A), but it functions as part of expressions for the raising or elevation of lintels (Figures 28B, 28C). The lintels illustrated here, both found in areas not far from the probable location of Laxtunich, describe themselves as, “placed-face-down stone,” pa-ka-bu-TUUN. The Laxtunich lintel thus appears on itself. Those elevating the lintel are not the overlord or the local patron. They are yet other nobles tasked with the commission.





Figure 28. Pak, “face-down,” in Maya texts: (A) pa-ka-la-ja, Dumbarton Oaks fine limestone bowl, detail, glyph at E1, Early Classic period (Martin 2012:fig. 55c, drawing by Simon Martin); (B) [‘i?]k’a-K’AL-ja u-pa ka-bu TUUN-ni-IL, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, #61_15, Dec. 31, AD 513?; and (C) k’a-K’AL-ja u-pa-ka-bu-TUUN, “Po-Panel,” area of Bonampak, Mexico, AD 521 (BAMW Photography). 


Depictions of building and construction are exceedingly rare in the Maya world. Sculpting is shown on a panel found near Palenque, a day or two’s walk from the area of Laxtunich (Stuart 1990 Emiliano Zapata)—its scene of a lord carving a stone is securely self-referential (Herring 1998). Another appears on Yaxchilan Hieroglyphic Stairway 2, Step VII (CMHI 3:160). A riser offers, to upper left, a small, abridged version of itself. The Postclassic Madrid Codex is the only source in which images of building abound: u-ta-k’a u-sa-sa, “he [the god] plasters his wall” (Figure 29, Houston 1998:358fn16), while, on other pages, with a sign of unknown value (a Postclassic PAT?, see Prager 2013), they appear to shape walls or lift up wooden lintels (Figure 30).




Figure 29. Madrid pages 14a, 15a (Lee 1985:91, 92). 



Figure 30. Madrid pages 20b, 21b (Lee 1985:94, 95).


In making such images the Maya seem a decided anomaly in Mesoamerica and more broadly in ancient America. Views of building in the sixteenth-century Florentine Codex, delightful for their fresh vignettes and vibrant action, nonetheless stuff the scenes with western buildings and inject them with western practice (Figure 31). Metal adzes, classical pillars, and pediments—the forms could come right out of Renaissance Spain or Italy, and must have graphic antecedents in images (prints?) seen by the painters.




Figure 31. Images of quarrying, stone-carving, and construction, Florentine Codex, Book X (Medicea Laurenziana Biblioteca, Florence, Book X). 


For better parallels, it behooves us to turn to ancient Egypt or the inner walls of the Bayon in Angkor Thom, Cambodia (Figures 32, 33). For his tomb, Rekhmire, an important official in the reigns of the Pharaohs Thutmose III and Amenhotep, commissioned a virtual manual of mortar preparation, carving, and building (Figure 32, Rekhmire TT100 Tomb). A more complicated activity perplexes scholars who have tried to make sense of building scenes at the Bayon (Figure 33). Pulleys and, as Houston has seen personally, drilled holes and compression weights helped to rest or affix one stone to another as the great mass of the Bayon rose in the late 12th and early 13th centuries AD. The Laxtunich lintel went them one better by taking such muscular acts, innately collaborative but not of highest prestige, only to appropriate and enlarge them. Aj Yax Bul K’uk’ sat with his king, at a time of seasonal shift, but also entered with Shield Jaguar into the guise of timeless beings. Other nobles, the mainstays of the kingdom, were shown as obliging supporters of that dispensation, raising the lintel in an echo of creation.


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Figure 32.  Rekhmire TT100, Eighteenth Dynasty, New Kingdom, ‘Thebes, Egypt (Creative Commons).


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Figure 33. Bayon relief, construction (photograph by Michael Coe, used with permission). 

Creation, curiously enough, is a good place to end: the mythic actors and setting of the Laxtunich lintel may not labor in some diffuse past. Rather, they couch their ritual work within a pan-Mesoamerican episode of creation, the lifting of stone, sky, and celestial reptiles out of watery places, perhaps out of primordial floods. The agents of that lifting are Atlanteans, duck-billed Wind Gods of unimaginable strength, as in an illustration from the Postclassic Mixtec Vienna Codex (Figure 34). Laxtunich Lintel 1 anticipates that depiction with its own account of macrocosm mixing with microcosm. Its claims are audacious, its intent self-interested: that seasonal rituals, politically inflected, arise from heroic acts of creation, and that the cosmos itself affirms human hierarchy.


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Figure 34. Vienna Codex, p. 47, the Wind God raises the watery sky (Anders et al. 1992:facsimile).


Acknowledgements. Justin Kerr gave free use of his photographs, to our lasting gratitude. Earlier versions of this essay were presented in two fora: in April 2015, by Houston, at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; and by the current set of authors at the European Mayanist Meetings, Moscow, Russia, October 2016, at the invitation of our friend, Dmitri Beliaev. Marc Zender was most helpful with sources about Comalcalco; Christian Prager, too, helped with a citation. “CMHI” is the code preferred by Ian Graham for citation of volumes in the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions.



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