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Kan Bahlam II was a Renaissance Man centuries before that term was invented.
He left an archeological legacy that is unsurpassed among Maya kings. His brilliant mind conceived a new calendar, the 819-day count and invented a secret code language called Zuyua. His command of mathematics and numerology led to a web of interconnections between his family history and cosmological cycles. He was an accomplished astronomer and created complex connections between mythological, historical, and family events. He also may be the earliest “cosmopolitan” Mayan, a sophisticate who traveled widely to the edges of the Maya world. K’inich Kan Bahlam II, eldest son of famous ruler K’inich Janaab Pakal of Palenque, left a vast archeological legacy of this accomplishments. He did all this in the mid-late 7th Century.
Kan Bahlam II had to wait an agonizingly long time to bring his genius to full expression. His father Pakal was one of the longest-lived Maya rulers, who died at age 80. Kan Bahlam assumed the throne of Palenque in 684 CE when he was 48 years old. He quickly went to work on several projects to make his own mark on the already great city. First he completed his father’s funerary structure, Temple of the Inscriptions, including the stunning burial chamber and sarcophagus of Pakal, and the three magnificent panels covered by carved hieroglyphs giving this temple its name. In the midst of this project, he contended with hostilities from nearby Tonina, defeating it soundly in 687 CE and capturing its ruler. He extended his influence eastward to dominate two other enemy cities around 690 CE.
Kan Bahlam’s archeological apex was constructing the three temples of The Cross Group, called the “three jewels of Maya architecture.”
This triad complex still stands as perhaps the most powerful expression of ancient Mayan religion. Each temple of The Cross Group features one of the Triad Gods, widely honored by Mayas but special protectors of the Palenque dynasty. Every facet of these temples expresses symbolism of Maya cosmology and belief systems, from the stairways and platforms to the temple doorways and chambers on top the pyramid structures. Inside the chambers, each temple held a large panel, intricately carved with images and hieroglyphs. These panels contain the only lengthy written narrative of Classic Maya mythology, the legend told in the famous Popol Vuh epic written centuries later by K’iche Mayas. In his telling of this Maya creation myth, Kan Bahlam inserted himself as
the embodiment of each Triad God, portraying his youthful and mature images. In each temple, his image assumed characteristics of its God and he enacted the powers they brought to rulers.
But Kan Bahlam went beyond conflating himself with the Triad Gods. He inserted the fruits of his many years of intellectual endeavor, using cosmology and numerology to make links with his family and personal history. Layer upon layer of meaning was embedded in these images and glyphs. As an example, he took a “mythical” date many thousands of years in the past (related to Creation Mythology), linked it mathematically to the date when he assumed the throne, linked it using various calendars (including the 819-day count) to a cosmological event such as Venus rising as Morningstar, and linked it historically to an important event in the life of an ancestor. Ceremonies were performed at dedication and over many years, following a ritual cycle according to calendar dates, such as the great Katun ending in 692 CE (126.96.36.199.0). The temples symbolized the basic spaces of creation: sky (Upperworld), surface of water (Middleworld), and caves (Underworld).
Using his knowledge of astronomy, Kan Bahlam constructed angles and spacial orientation of the triad temples to display solar and lunar phenomena, such as solstice and equinox sunset or sunrise, and lunar elongations. See blogpost Solstice, Equinox, and the Mayan Calendar.
K’inich Kan Bahlam II, 12th Dynastic ruler of Palenque (B’aakal) is a major character in my historical fiction The Prophetic Mayan Queen: K’inuuw Mat of Palenque. He had no surviving heir; the son of his younger brother assumed the throne. This next ruler, K’inich Ahkal Mo’ Nab III, was the son of K’inuuw Mat–and possibly of Kan Bahlam in my story. A short excerpt:
K’innuw Mat’s heart burst with joy as she watched her husband (Kan Bahlam) conduct the elaborate rituals, starting at daybreak and continuing until sunset. Tall incense burners with two-tiered deity heads wearing elaborate headdresses…lined either side of the Temple stairway…Nearly fifty incense burners released curls of pungent smoke into the still forming air as the ruler, elite nobles, and priesthood climbed the stairway to perform “creation and activation” rites for the effigy of the God of the temple. The group dedicated the pib nah to the God and placed precious offerings inside the shrine. Musicians and dancers enacted themes related to the Triad Gods in front of crowds filling the plaza. After completing the dedication, Kan Bahlam stood at the top platform and retold that portion of the B’aakal Creation Story to the people.
Kan Bahlam effectively constructed an “astronumerology canoe” that, akin to the Celestial Canoe in which the Paddler Gods convey deceased to the Underworld, would carry forth into rebirth the religious charter of B’aakal.
Mists of Palenque Series, Book 4
Mayan Queens and Kings were Shaman-Rulers charged to Maintain Balance between the Three Worlds of the Maya Cosmos.
Mayan Queens were powerful leaders in ancient Maya culture. Women rulers are well-documented during the mid to late Classic Period, 300-900 CE. Called K’uhul Ixik, Holy Lady in classic Mayan language, their role included entering shamanic states to access spirit domains and drawn upon the powers of deities and ancestors. The rituals rulers performed, and the sacred architecture of pyramids and temples in which rituals took place, were symbols of creation in the cosmos.
“They are all instruments for accessing spiritual power from the creative act . . . they are signposts on the Maya road to reality stretching across the landscape of history.” ̶ Maya Cosmos
Mayan queens and kings did rituals of sacrifice and sympathetic magic.
Accessing powers of Otherworld Gods and Ancestors was not easily achieved. Mayan queens or kings had to make appropriate offerings and know how to call the deities’ names properly. The most common sacrifice was self-bloodletting, because blood was ultimately sacred as itz, sticky fluid that was ch’ulul, the life force energy, life-essence and creative substance. The shaman-ruler let blood from tongue, earlobes or genitals to concentrate and channel this life force from the Otherworld.
“In a sense, the shamans were like modern engineers. But instead of nuclear power plants and electrical grids they used pyramids and Vision Serpent portals. Instead of electron flows they used itz. The spilling of blood, like the throwing of a giant breaker switch, brought life giving energy pouring into the universe from the underlying force fields of the Otherworld.” ̶ The Shaman’s Secret
Rituals for accessing spiritual powers propelled the shaman-ruler into altered states of consciousness, both by the act of self-bloodletting and use of mind-altering substances. The objective was to receive a tangible vision and an overwhelming experience of the deities; essentially a state of Divine Union or Communion. It is sympathetic magic through conjuring Divine beings, often intentional calling of a certain deity. Since all things mirror each other, in Mayan cosmology, when rituals re-enacted events from Creation Mythology, or conjured a warrior ancestor to guide a king through battle, these supernatural events were reactivated and manifested on earth.
Lady Kab’al Xoc Conjures an Ancestor Warrior
Lady Kab’al Xoc, first wife of Itzamnaaj Bahlam of Yaxchilan, was a famous Mayan queen. She is shown on carved lintels doing a bloodletting ritual, drawing a rope embedded with thorns through her tongue. As her blood fell on bark paper in a censer, it was set on fire and the rising smoke turned into the Vision Serpent. An ancestor warrior emerges from the snake’s open jaws, brandishing a shield and spear with Teotihuacan imagery (Tlaloc face mask, mosaic war helmet, double pointed spear). The ancestor brought important messages to guide the king during the upcoming battle.
Equinox Rituals Brought the Worlds Into Balance
An important responsibility of Mayan queens and kings was to perform rituals at key times according to their calendars. The Mayas had numerous calendars and many rituals were needed. Solar calendar events were especially potent: equinoxes, solstices, zenith, and eclipses. Each mid-fall and mid-spring, the sun reaches a point in its ecliptic when day and night come into balance. The concept of balance was critical to the Mayas; rulers were charged to keep the three worlds—Underworld, Middleworld, and Upperworld—in harmonious relationship. Only when the needs of deities of each realm were satisfied, and communion with deities was performed correctly, would humans enjoy lives of peace and abundance on earth.
Mayan solar priests, K’inob, used techniques to track the sun’s movement and predict accurately when the day of perfect balance arrived. On the equinoxes, rulers would undertake the prescribed rituals, making offerings to the Gods of the calendar periods and drawing their blessings into the world. Rulers conjured the Vision Serpent and sought prophesy for the coming calendar period.
There were dire consequences if balance was not maintained between the worlds. When balance was lost, the natural world was in danger. If this world, the Middleworld of earth , remained out of balance with the other two worlds long enough, it could bring destruction to a city, a region, or perhaps the entire Maya lands. Many experts believe that losing balance in the natural world is what led to the collapse of Maya civilization. The “Maya Collapse” is a complex phenomenon, not readily explained by any single factor, following different courses and timelines in various parts of the Maya lands. Beyond doubt environmental changes played a major role.
El Mirador Out of Balance
The collapse of El Mirador is reasonably well explained. It was a thriving Pre-Classic city of about 100,000, surrounded by satellite cities in northern Guatemala that flourished between 300 BCE and 150 CE. Perhaps the largest Maya city, its main pyramid sat on plazas covering 45 acres, on a platform 980×2000 feet, rising 230 feet tall. Toward the end of its occupation, extravagant building programs using inordinate amounts of plaster were carried out; some of the thickest plaster coatings ever found. To create lime plaster and cement, the Mayas burned massive amounts of wood, causing deforestation in surrounding areas. The swampy regions that supplied water and rich mud for agriculture were destroyed by clay runoff from damaged forest floors. With no close-by rivers, and perhaps a time of relative drought, the once great city faced declining water, food, and wood for fire. Between 100-200 CE, El Mirador and other cities of Mirador Basin were abandoned. Archeologist Richard Hanson, prime investigator of El Mirador, says the underlying reason for its decline was a loss of balance with the natural environment. The rulers and elite became immersed in “conspicuous consumption” through over-building using excessive resources, trying to sustain an image of wealth and progress. This lack of foresight and judgment—an imbalance between the worlds—led to the collapse of civilization in the region.
Mayan queens and kings were successful at keeping the worlds in balance for over a millennium. Thousands of large cities thrived in a difficult tropical jungle climate. The Mayas learned to adapt agriculture and conserve natural resources, and created the most brilliant, artistically and technologically advanced civilization in the Americas. While they upheld their expansive cosmology and properly honored the Gods and Ancestors, their culture succeeded. They lived an ongoing re-creation of their worlds by mutual Divine-human interaction; in essence, shaman-rulers became “mothers” of the Gods even as the Gods gave birth to humanity and the worlds.
Around 900-1000 CE that creative partnership dissolved. Not only environmental factors, but an internal spiritual dissonance led to abandonment of Maya cities. The Holy Lords and Ladies lost ability to fulfill their mandate, the deities were no longer satisfied, and the common people left for better livelihoods elsewhere. But this is yet another story.
Read about how Mayan queens kept worlds in balance in my book series about Mayan Queens in the ruling lineage of Palenque.
Click Links Below:
Chip Brown. El Mirador, the Lost City of the Maya. Smithsonian Magazine, May 2011.
John Clark and Richard Hansen. The Architecture of Early Kingship. In Royal Courts of the Ancient Maya, Vol. 2 (Eds. Takeshi Inomata and Stephen Houston. Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 2001.
David Freidel, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker. Maya Cosmos. Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path. William Morrow and Co., New York, 1995.
Douglas Gillette. The Shaman’s Secret. Bantam Books, New York, 1997.
Solar Eclipse Was a Potent Time for the Mayas.
The ancient Mayas were the most advanced astronomers of their time. They calculated the solar year, lunar cycles, periodicity of the planets, solstices and equinoxes with amazing accuracy. They were able to readily predict lunar eclipses, and had calculated a pattern of dates for solar eclipses, including predicting the solar eclipse of 1991. (Bricker & Bricker)
Solar eclipses were known as chi’ ibal kin to ancient Mayas, translated as “to eat the sun.”
This phenomenon was depicted in the Dresden Codex as a serpent with huge open jaws about to devour the solar eclipse glyph. Although modern experts believe eclipses were a cause of distress for ancient peoples, terrifying because they did not understand the science behind such phenomena, this was not true for the Mayas. With their sophisticated knowledge of astronomy, the Mayas understood the movements of celestial bodies and how the moon moving between the sun and earth caused a brief blacking out of sunlight. To the Mayas, this held profound symbolic meaning, signaling a major shift of cosmic influences upon earth. Such potent occasions were prime time for ceremonies and invoking celestial powers into human actions.
In the story of K’inich Janaab Pakal, most famous Maya ruler who reigned in Palenque from 615-683 CE, the power of a solar eclipse was used to increase potency of a most important ritual. His prophesied mission was to restore the spiritual charter of his city, and resurrect the Jeweled Sky Tree that formed a portal to communicate with the Gods and ancestors. This version of a World Tree, called Wakah Chan Te by the Mayas, had its roots in the Underworld, its trunk rose through the Middleworld of earth, and its
branches soared into the Upperworld of the cosmos. In Palenque, Pakal built a new temple in which to raise the Jeweled Sky Tree, since the original shrine was destroyed and desecrated in an enemy attack by Kalakmul during his childhood.
Although the history of Palenque’s defeat by Kalakmul is well known (Stuart & Stuart), and Pakal’s mandate to restore the damaged portal to the Upperworld has been described (Aldana), the actual process of resurrecting the Tree is a mystery. My task as an author of historical fiction was to use informed imagination to envision this process. This I did through the character of Pakal’s wife, Tz’aakb’u Ahau (Lalak in my story, called The Red Queen), whose training in sexual alchemy brought the immense power of life creation to join with Pakal in “conceiving and birthing” a new Wakah Chan Te. (Martin) To further enhance the potency of this event, the ceremony was enacted during a solar eclipse.
Historical records show there was a solar eclipse that crossed over Guatemala and southern Chiapas on February 2, 650 CE. Palenque, located in Chiapas, would have experienced at least partial solar eclipse between 1:00-4:00 pm that day, which worked perfectly for the ceremony done by Pakal and Lalak and resulted in the climactic moment of their story.
Read the historical fiction story of Pakal, his wife Lalak–The Red Queen, and the solar eclipse ritual to resurrect the Wakah Chan Te:
How the Mayas predicted solar eclipses.
Predicting lunar and solar eclipses is more complex than determining sunrise, sunset, solstice, and equinox. Movements of the earth, the sun, and the moon all must be taken in to account because this involves correlating the synodic lunations with the solar calendar. Because the orbital plane of the moon is inclined by 5 degrees to the plane of earth’s orbit, eclipses do not happen at every full and new moon. Rather, they take place only when the moon enters the ecliptic plane at the same time that it is in correct position between the sun and earth.
Maya astronomer priests were able to determine the nodes when the paths of moon and sun cross, which occurs every 173.31 days. In this time period, eclipses may occur within 18 days of the node. Most would result in lunar eclipses; the Dresden Codex contains eclipse tables made of columns and rows based on the numbers 177 (6 lunations), and 148 (5 lunations). The Codex is a
folding bark-paper book with pages coated in thin stucco, with glyphs painted in red and black and many symbolic figures. There are tables containing predictions of the phases of Venus over a 104-year interval, and predictions of lunar phases for 33 years. The Mayas used these to calculate solar eclipses.
The average interval between solar eclipses is 153.79 days. They had calculated a synodic lunar period as 29.533 days (modern value 29.530 days). Since the Mayas did not use decimals, they varied between 28 and 29 days for lunations. A grid of dates in the Codex linked Venus phenomena with lunar nodes to predict solar eclipses. Using the derived multipliers they were able to determine solar eclipse intervals that varied by +7 and +8 days. Combining an inferior conjunction of Venus with the predicted solar eclipse gave better accuracy.
The Dresden Codex is one of only four Mayan manuscripts that escaped destruction by the Spaniards when they invaded Mexico in the 16th century. The surviving codices are 11-12th century copies of older Mayan books. When researchers recently compared dates of Mayan calendars with our current one, then used modern data on planetary orbits and cycles, they found the Maya’s data was surprisingly accurate. The Maya astronomical calendar correctly predicted a solar eclipse to within one day in 1991, centuries after Classic ancient Mayan civilization ended. (Bricker & Bricker)
Had the Classic Mayan civilization continued, undoubtedly they would have predicted our current eclipse occurring on August 21, 2017.
More about Leonide Martin’s Mayan Queen books: www.mistsofpalenque.com
Aldana, Gerardo. The Apotheosis of Janaab’ Pakal. University of Colorado Press, 2007.
Bricker, Harvey & Bricker, Victoria. Astronomy in the Maya Codices. American Philosophical Society, 2011.
Martin, Leonide. The Mayan Red Queen: Tz’aakb’u Ahau of Palenque. Made for Success Pub., 2015.
Stuart, David & Stuart, George. Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya. Thames & Hudson, 2008.
Palenque’s Creation Myth Recited by Yohl Ik’nal.
In her transformation to adulthood ceremony, Yohl Ik’nal recited the creation myth of B’aakal, her people and land. She correctly recited from memory, and was acknowledged as “bearer of the sacred royal blood” by the ruler of Lakam Ha. She became the first woman ruler of Palenque, ruling successfully for 22 years.
From The Visionary Mayan Queen: Yohl Ik’nal of Palenque. Book 1, Mists of Palenque Series.
“It was before the Fourth Creation, in times long ago
Ix Muwaan Mat was born.
Of her birth it is said, she entered the sky
On the Day of Lord (Ahau), Month of Conjuring (Tzek),
For she was to bring the new creation.
Seven tuns after her birth came the new Creation,
When all counts of the long calendar returned to zero.
The Gods of the sky, of the earth, of the underworld
Knew what they must do.
They did three stone-bindings in the sky:
The Jaguar Throne Stone at the 5 Sky House;
The Water Lily Throne Stone at the Heart of the Sky;
The Serpent Throne Stone at the 13 Sky Earth-Cave.
These three stones formed the First Hearth Place,
Patterned the stars so homes on earth would have hearthstones.
The ancient Maya city Palenque (Lakam Ha) had a unique creation myth that linked the origins of their ruling dynasty to primordial goddesses and gods.
All the Maya regions in southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras shared a common creation myth about the Hero Twins and how they outsmarted the Death Lords of Xibalba and resurrected their father, securing life on earth for their people. This legend is recorded in the Popol Vuh, an 18th century copy of the original codex rendition that has been lost. Palenque’s unique myth incorporates deities widely known in their region, but nowhere else honored in the same way. The Triad deities were the patron gods of ancient Lakam Ha, bringing the blessings of abundance and prosperity when properly attended and worshiped. The ruling dynasty was believed to be descended from these gods and their mother, Lady Cormorant (Muwaan Mat in the Mayan language). (more…)
continued to be an enigma to archaeologists for nearly two decades after her tomb was discovered in Temple XIII at Palenque in 1994. Her skeleton and inside of her sarcophagus were coated with red cinnabar, a mercuric oxide preservative used in royal burials. This led archaeologists to nickname her “The Red Queen.” It also made analysis of her bones and teeth difficult, and many years passed until scientific techniques advanced enough to provide reliable data. The lack of inscriptions and the sparse ceramic evidence found inside her tomb further muddied the waters. Most Mayan royal tombs contained carved or painted hieroglyphs identifying who was interred. The adjacent pyramid tomb of K’inich Janaab Pakal in Palenque was full of hieroglyphic records; his ancestors were carved on the sides of his sarcophagus, important gods and mythohistoric figures were painted on the crypt walls, and the sarcophagus lid clearly identified him. Numerous ceramic offerings allowed dating of the interment to the late 600s AD.
The situation of the Mayan Red Queen was quite different. Her sarcophagus contained no inscriptions, the crypt walls were bare, and
ceramics few. The shape and characteristics of the censer, vases and plate found in her tomb corresponded to the Otolum ceramic complex, which has been placed between 600-700 AD. Her life overlapped with that of Pakal, and her pyramid tomb adjoined his, so it seemed evident that there was an important connection between them. Additional corollaries in their burials include a monolithic lidded sarcophagus inside a mortuary crypt, jade masks, diadems, jade beads, pearls and three small axes in a ceremonial belt. Both skeletons and insides of their sarcophagi were painted red with cinnabar. Two significant women in Pakal’s life died in that time period: his mother Sak K’uk and his wife, Tz’aakb’u Ahau. Some archaeologists believed the Red Queen was his mother; others favored his wife. In 2012 the mystery was most probably solved when DNA studies revealed that The Red Queen and Pakal did not share common DNA. This was further supported by strontium isotopes studies conducted a few years earlier showing that the two grew up in different areas within the region. Now most agree that Pakal’s wife, Tz’aakb’u Ahau, was interred in Temple XIII and she is The Mayan Red Queen.
What do we know of her life?
Unfortunately, very little evidence has been found so far. Palenque is famous for its high quality, graceful hieroglyphs and realistic carved figures. The Three Tablets of the Temple of the Inscriptions (Pakal’s burial pyramid) contain 617 glyphs, one of the longest Maya inscriptions known. The West Tablet, covering the later years of Pakal’s reign, contains two references to her:
“Seventeen days after the 3 Ahau 3 Uayeb (Period Ending), Lady Tz’aakb’u Ahau was married on 7 Caban 15 Pop.”
“Forty-seven years after she became queen, Lady Tz’aakb’u Ahau passed away on 5 Etznab 6 Kankin.”
These follow lengthy descriptions of actions taken by Pakal, and the dates are tied into the Long Count calendar by use of a Distance Number to the nearest Period Ending, which was 188.8.131.52.0 (3 Ahau 3 Uayab) or 626 AD. These later passages of the West Tablet were commissioned by their oldest son, K’inich Kan Bahlam II, after his father’s death. He recorded the marriage and deaths of his mother and father.
Tz’aakb’u Ahau is depicted in carvings on two tablets from Palenque. The Palace Tablet has carved relief figures showing her third son, K’inich Kan Joy Chitam II, seated on a double-headed serpent bar, receiving the headdress of royalty from his father Pakal, as his mother (Tz’aakb’u Ahau) offers him the god-figurine symbol of divine ancestry. This large tablet filled with rows of hieroglyphs originally adorned the rear wall of the Palace’s northern gallery, Houses A-D. The Dumbarton Oaks tablet shows a young K’inich Kan Joy Chitam II dancing in the guise of the rain god, flanked by his mother and father. This is the only surviving part of a larger composition that probably was surrounded by glyphs. The stone tablet was illicitly removed from an unknown temple in the mid-20th century; it now resides in Washington, DC.
Such fragments of evidence give a little knowledge of The Mayan Red Queen’s life: she came from a nearby city, married Pakal in 626 AD, bore him four sons, participated in accessions rituals symbolically after her death, and died in 672 AD, eleven years before Pakal’s death in 683 AD. She was buried regally in a smaller temple adjacent to Pakal’s.
Would you like to know more about what her life might have been? Her imagined story is told in my historical fiction book The Mayan Red Queen: Tz’aakb’u Ahau of Palenque.
It has been nominated for a 2016 Global Ebook Award!