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

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

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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.

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_________. 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.

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