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The Devil is in the Detail


Mayan Shaman or Brujo

“The Devil is in the Detail” implies that although something might look simple at first, there is a catch hidden in the details.

Often an idea seems wonderful, but turns out impossible to implement. We may be able to agree on generalities, but come to blows on specifics. A project may appear straightforward and easy, but takes more time and effort to carry out than we expected. “The Devil”—our difficulties and challenges—hides in the details.

This is the contemporary understanding of the idiom. But, it was not always interpreted this way. Use of the phrase goes back at least to the early 1800s when French writer Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) said “Le bon Dieu est dans le détail.” By saying “The good God is in the detail” Flaubert was emphasizing that details were sacred and significant.

Photo of Gustave Flaubert, French Novelist

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) French Novelist

Whatever one was doing, it should be done thoroughly and with full attention. Details are important.

The actual source of the idiom is unknown. It’s generally accepted that German-born architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) used it, but almost certainly did not invent the phrase. It was a favorite of German art historian Aby Warburg (1866-1929) although his biographer could not be certain it originated with him. Some have attributed it to Michelangelo (1475-1564). Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations lists it as an anonymous saying.

Whether “The Devil” or “The Good God” is in the detail, we are led to conclude that details are very important, even possibly sacred. Writers of historical fiction know this all too well. Get the details or facts wrong, and you’ll never stop hearing about it from readers and critics. Put in too many details, in hopes of giving readers a rich and full experience of a culture and time period, and you’re criticized for unnecessary information that slows down the plot. Put in too few details, and readers complain they cannot get a good sense of the setting, culture, character, time period, geography, and so forth. The historical fiction author has then failed in the all-important task of “world-building.”

Books about well-known societies and cultures have fewer challenges in world-building. Most readers already know the Regency or Victorian era, the Tudor or Plantagenet dynasty, Renaissance Italy, medieval times, and popular ancient cultures such as Rome, Greece, or Egypt. Historical fiction authors writing about less known cultures have more need for thorough world-building. In particular, I have in mind ancient Mesoamerican civilizations. Even indigenous groups in North America lived in worlds generally less understood by most readers. In these cases, putting in sufficient details is important.

Photo of three Egyptian pyramids

Great Pyramid Complex in Egypt

Photo of Mayan Three Temple Complex, Palenque, Mexico

Mayan Three Temple Complex in Palenque, Mexico










My HF novels are set in ancient Mayan civilization. There is a dearth of literature focused on this culture; even the Aztecs and Incas get more press. Because of this, my books include details of everyday life, technology, arts, and cosmology to provide a fuller picture of this advanced culture. I weave this information into the story with several writers’ caveats in mind: whenever possible “show rather than tell,” make expositional dialogue seem natural, make the details serve the plot or character development. Most importantly, keep it interesting.

Ah, there’s the rub. How much is enough and not too much? Reviewers have called my books “well-detailed,” “no light read,” full of detailed descriptions,” “complex world-building.” They also say the books “provide a realistic feel,” give “depth and meaning to overall events,” and make “the Mayan world and its underlying influences come alive.” But one review from a pricey and well-respected source felt there were just too many details. While the information was captivating, there was far too much for an enjoyable novel. Besides, they complained that readers really didn’t need to know about the “trapezoidal linear truss using high strength timber crossbeams” that made Lakam Ha’s architecture innovative.

Who would want to know? Anyone interested in ancient Mayan civilization.

One often pondered question is how the Mayas built their soaring pyramids of huge stones in a jungle environment

Photo of Maya Corbel Arch

Maya Corbel Arch

without metal tools. Ancient Lakam Ha (Palenque) is widely known as the most graceful and architecturally unique Mayan city. A good deal of literature examines how they built and what innovative technologies allowed Lakam Ha to create its harmonious structures. Mayas traditionally used a corbel arch technique to form ceilings of chambers and passageways. Not a true arch, this technique lacked support strength. At Lakam Ha, ceilings were higher and rooms wider than at other Mayan cities. The trapezoidal linear truss was the technology that made this possible.

Photo of Maya trapezoidal truss

Maya Trapezoidal Linear Truss

In any case, this is mentioned only once in a short passage of three paragraphs. The description is set in dialogue between ruler Pakal and his chief architect. To my thinking, it is such tidbits of detail that give readers a good sense of this remarkable culture’s immense creativity.








But perhaps I get carried away . . . in my most recent book about Mayan queens, publishing in October 2018, one major character is a brilliant astronomer and numerologist. Kan Bahlam II, who becomes ruler of Lakam Ha when Pakal dies, invented the 819-day calendar and a secret code language based on astronumerology called “Zuyua.” He conceived and had built The Cross Group, a three pyramid complex considered the ultimate statement of Palenque creation mythology. Panels in these pyramids are carved with hieroglyphs and figures that embed the secret codes and calendar, and weave them with Kan Bahlam’s personal history. It is pure creative genius.

Photo of stone carving of Kan Bahlam II, Temple XVII Tablet

Kan Bahlam II – Temple XVII Tablet

Drawing of Cross Group as reconstruction

Cross Group Panorama View
Artists Reconstruction



Therefore, I wanted to share this knowledge with readers. After sending the manuscript to my beta readers, however, their feedback made me realize that although captivating, this really was too much information. Several pages of explanations and examples of astronumerology were cut from the book. After all, it had taken me several years of study to understand it and I couldn’t expect readers to grasp it on first exposure.

Because the Devil is in the Detail.      

Photo of decorated skull

Dia de los Muertos Skull



BUY:  The Mayan Queens Series

The Prophetic Mayan Queen: K’inuuw Mat of Palenque

Book Cover The Prophetic Mayan Queen

Coming soon! Publication date October 2018 (paperback and ebook). Watch for pre-order page on Amazon or ask your local bookstore.


Poetry of Creation Myth Recited by Yohl Ik’nal

Palenque’s Creation Myth Recited by Yohl Ik’nal.


Yohl Ik’nal
Side of Pakal’s Sarcophagus


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.



Glyph of Muwaan Mat

“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.


Palenque Creation Myth: Lady Cormorant and the Birth of the Triad

Cormorant Goddess from Dresden Codex

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…)

The Red Bones Speak

Skull of The Mayan Red Queen

Skull of The Mayan Red Queen

Revelations of the Mayan Red Queen’s skeleton about who she was.

It took ten years after the discovery of the Mayan Red Queen’s skeleton in 1994 for archeologists to make progress on her identity. They had narrowed the candidates to four royal women, all connected to K’inich Janaab Pakal, but who she was eluded them. Since the Red Queen’s tomb was found in a small pyramid adjacent to Pakal’s magnificent Pyramid of the Inscriptions holding his burial chamber, it was clear that she must be closely connected with this famous ruler. There were no inscriptions on the sarcophagus or walls of the crypt to indicate the identity of the interred woman.  The candidates were:

  • Yohl Ik’nal, his grandmother – Heart of North Wind

  • Sak K’uk, his mother – Resplendent White Quetzel

  • Tz’aakb’u Ahau, his wife – Accumulator of Lords

  • K’inuuw Mat, his daughter-in-law – Sun-Possessed Cormorant

Early on, Pakal’s grandmother was eliminated because she died more than seventy years before the Red Queen’s tomb was built, and archeologists determined it was not a secondary burial. Both his mother and wife died within the time frame, and possibly the daughter-in-law, although her date of death is not known. The bones were permeated with red mercuric oxide called cinnabar, used as a preservative by ancient Mayas. The bright red color also symbolized sacred energies of blood, called itz. It was the color of the east, the rising sun, the renewal of life eternal. Cinnabar made the bone cells very difficult to examine microscopically, and the bone matrix had deteriorated over time.

Strontium isotopes analysis.  Between 1999 and 2003, a project under the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) extracted samples of bone and teeth from both Pakal and the Red Queen. Studies of strontium isotopes were done by Dr. Vera Tiesler and Dr. Andrea Cucina, of the Universidad Autonoma de Yucatan (UADY) during those years. Strontium isotopes are found in

Strontium isotopes in various geological strata

Strontium isotopes in various geological strata

bedrock, and vary with the age and type of rock. Isotopes move from rock into soil and groundwater, into plants and through the food chain. In humans, strontium isotopes in skeletal bones reflect diet during the later years of life; those in tooth enamel indicate diet during childhood. Geologically different regions will have different isotope ratios. When the isotope ratios of Pakal’s bones and teeth were examined, these showed he was born and resided in later life in the Palenque region. The Red Queen’s tooth enamel had isotope ratios of a different geographic region located in the western part of Veracruz, making it likely that she came from Tortuguero or Pomona. Epigraphic evidence also indicates she was from a different city than Palenque. The strontium isotopes studies made it unlikely that the Red Queen was Pakal’s mother, who was born and lived her life in Palenque.

DNA Double Helix

DNA Double Helix

DNA analysis.  More definitive evidence that the Red Queen was not Pakal’s grandmother or mother came from DNA studies completed several years later. Dr. Carney Matheson at Lakehead University in Canada studied several bone samples from Pakal, the Red Queen, and three other individuals from Palenque. His group specialized in studying biomolecules and the processes of their degradation, especially focusing on ancient biological remains that were challenging to recover using conventional methods. In June 2012, INAH released a statement with the DNA analysis results that “confirmed that there was no relationship between the Red Queen and Pakal.” They did not have common DNA, so she was not a blood relative. Most Mayanists now believe his wife, Tz’aakb’u Ahau, was the Red Queen. There is still a slight chance it might be his daughter-in-law, or another unrelated woman. If future excavations discover the tomb of one of Pakal’s sons, DNA studies on those bones would confirm the red skeleton’s identity as Pakal’s wife. Of interest, the Red Queen’s bones were returned to

DNA Analysis in Lab

DNA Analysis in Lab

Palenque in 2012, after residing in Mexico City since their discovery in 1994. Placed in several carefully sealed boxes, her bones are kept in the archeological zone in a structure where humidity and temperature can be controlled. Her burial chamber in Temple XIII has too much humidity and temperature fluctuation to safely house the bones and prevent further deterioration. Her empty sarcophagus can be viewed in its chamber, still coated with cinnabar.


Temple XIII - small pyramid to right of Temple of Inscriptions

Temple XIII – small pyramid to right of Temple of Inscriptions


Read the story of The Mayan Red Queen in well-researched historical fiction. Compelling depiction of her life with Pakal at Palenque (Lakam Ha) during its height as a creative and political vortex.

DD_Red Queen Final

The Mayan Red Queen is Here!

DD_Red Queen FinalThe Mayan Red Queen: Tz’aakb’u Ahau of Palenque

Mists of Palenque Series – Book 3.

Ancient Mayan civilization comes alive in historical fiction.

Maya ruins restored to their glory in Palenque (Lakam Ha).

Just published as ebook on Amazon.

Book 3 in the series about Mayan Queens.

In the third Mayan Queens book, the ancient Mayan city of Lakam Ha (Palenque) has a new young ruler, K’inich Janaab Pakal.

K'inich Janaab Pakal Ruler of Palenque 615-683 CE Portrait carved in limestone

K’inich Janaab Pakal
Ruler of Palenque 615-683 CE
Portrait carved in limestone

His mother and prior ruler, Sak K’uk, carefully selects his wife (the Red Queen) to avoid being displaced in Pakal’s affections. Lalak is a shy and homely young woman from a small city who relates better to animals than people. She is chosen as Pakal’s wife because of her pristine lineage, but also because she is no beauty. Arriving at the main city of the region, Lalak is overwhelmed by its sophisticated, complex society and the expectations of the royal court. Her mother-in-law is critical and hostile, conferring an official name on Lalak that reveals her view of the girl as a breeder of future rulers: Tz’aakb’u Ahau, the Accumulator of Lords who sets in place the royal succession. Lalak struggles to learn her new role and prove her worth; soon discovering that she also must fight to win Pakal’s love. He is still smitten with a beautiful woman who has

Tz'aakb'u Ahau The Red Queen Wife of Pakal, called Lalak in this story

Tz’aakb’u Ahau
The Red Queen
Wife of Pakal, called Lalak in this story

been banished from the city by his mother. Simmering conflict and tragic losses besiege their relationship, until Lalak is compelled to claim her rightful place. She envisions how she can play a pivotal role in Pakal’s mission to restore the spiritual portal to the Gods that had been destroyed in a devastating attack. Through learning sexual alchemy, Lalak brings the immense creative force of sacred union to give rebirth to the portal. But first, Pakal must come to view his wife in a new light.


Modern archeologist Francesca, ten years after discovery of the Red Queen’s tomb, continues her research on the mysterious crimson skeleton found in a temple adjacent to Pakal’s burial pyramid at Palenque. She teams up with British linguist Charlie to decipher an ancient manuscript left by her Mayan grandmother. It gives clues about family secrets that impel them to explore what a remote Mayan village can reveal.

I’ve been working on this book for over one year. It’s really gratifying to have it published,

Leonide Martin Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

Leonide Martin
Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

since I think it may be the best yet in the series. But, how can a “mom” give preference to one “child?” In truth, I love them all and believe they tell rich and compelling stories about these powerful Mayan women who shaped their people’s destinies. Very few except Maya experts know about them, so I’m hoping that my books bring them to the attention of a wider readership. Of the four “queens” in this series, two were rulers in their own right, and two were the wives of rulers. They were all in the lineage of K’inich Janaab Pakal, the most famous of Maya rulers whose incredibly rich tomb has been compared to that of Egypt’s King Tut. — Leonide Martin



Lakam Ha (Palenque) as it appeared in 650-750 CE Original source National Geographic

Lakam Ha (Palenque) as it appeared in 650-750 CE
Original source National Geographic

I hope you will read The Mayan Red Queen. It will take you deeply into the world of the ancient Mayas during the height of their civilization, set in the most mysterious and beautiful city of the Classic Period. You will meet fascinating historical figures and follow the unfolding of actual events as Pakal’s dynasty spreads influence in its region and his city gains widespread acclaim as a vortex of artistic expression. You’ll be intrigued by the workings of Mayan shamanism and Lalak’s mastery of sexual alchemy to raise the Jeweled Sky Tree (the sacred portal). And, you’ll experience elegant high court protocol, esoteric Mayan calendar ceremonies, harrowing Underground encounters with Death Lords, and an exquisite love story of the most powerful royal couple in the Americas.


Special introductory price $1.99 until August 20th (normal price $5.99)


Historical fiction fans will also enjoy the first two books of the series, about the grandmother and mother of Pakal. Each story stands alone, but you gain additional richness when you read them in succession.


The Visionary Mayan Queen: Yohl Ik’nal of Palenque – Book 1


The Controversial Mayan Queen: Sak K’uk of Palenque – Book 2


Palenque’s Portal to the Gods

When the Portal to the Gods Collapsed

Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque Chiapas, Mexico

Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque
Chiapas, Mexico

A disastrous event happened to Palenque (Lakam Ha) on the Long Count Calendar date, 4 Ix 7 Uo (April 4,611 CE). The city was invaded by forces of Kalakmul and Bonampak in a surprise attack. Although these same forces had staged a raid in 599 CE and possibly another skirmish in 603 CE, Palenque was able to repel these raids. Something was different in 611, for the enemies penetrated into the heart of Palenque and destroyed its most sacred shrine. Many other buildings were defaced and damaged, pillars and wall panels torn down, and monuments to the Gods and rulers shattered.

The most devastating blow to Palenque was the desecration of the Sak Nuk Nah – White Skin House, their most sacred shrine. This structure had been used for generations as a portal to commune with Gods and ancestors. Palenque rulers since the beginning of the dynasty performed rituals of blood-letting and gift bundles in the shrine. Here they dripped their holy blood as K’uhul B’aakal Ahau onto bark paper, which was set afire in bowls with copal incense. From the smoke that coiled up, a Vision Serpent arose and from its mouth an ancestor or God/Goddess emerged to communicate with the ruler. Information was provided about crops and weather in the coming Katun (20 tun period, about 19 years). Advice was given for relations with other cities and leaders, or decisions facing the ruler. Prophesy was proffered for a period of abundance, stability

Vision Serpent Head of Ancestor Emerging from Jaws

Vision Serpent
Head of Ancestor Emerging from Jaws

or difficulty so the ruler and elite nobles could prepare the people. Through rituals in the Sak Nuk Nah, rulers kept their covenant with the Gods and mediated to benefit their people.

In 611 CE, Palenque lost its portal to the Gods. Using powerful dark shamanic magic, Kalakmul destroyed the portal by causing it to collapse. The plaintive words recorded on a panel in the Temple of the Inscriptions, burial pyramid of Janaab Pakal, eloquently express this devastation:

“On the back of the ninth katun, God was lost; Ahau was lost. She could not adorn the Gods of the First Sky; she could not give offerings . . . On the back of the 3 Ahau Katun, Ix Muwaan Mat could not give their offerings.” – Temple of the Inscriptions Panel, circa 684 CE

Janaab Pakal became the greatest ruler of Palenque, bringing a renaissance of creativity in arts and architecture that produced the most beautiful of ancient Mayan cities. He was just a boy of eight years when the portal was destroyed, and it certainly affected him deeply. In hieroglyphic inscriptions he later placed in the Palace and royal temples, the attack was recorded as chak’ah Lakam Ha, the “chopping down of the city center.” The Mayan word chak’ah or chak’aj is also read as “axing” indicating attackers use a battle axe to chop, destroy and damage. Pakal’s primary mission from childhood was to restore the portal, to rebuild the sacred connection to Gods and ancestors so he and later rulers could fulfill their obligations properly.

Face of Janaab Pakal Sculpture of carved limestone, Palenque

Face of Janaab Pakal
Sculpture of carved limestone, Palenque

This profound historical event that molded young Pakal is the central focus of my second Mayan queens book. Pakal’s mother was Sak K’uk, the controversial second woman ruler of Lakam Ha. Controversy still reigns among Mayanists, who disagree about her actual rulership status. Some contend she never acceded to the throne, and the ruler was Muwaan Mat who might have been a man or a woman. Others say Sak K’uk and Muwaan Mat are the same person. The most elegant interpretation comes from Gerardo Aldana, who concludes that when the portal was in collapse no mortal could do proper homage to the Gods, so the Primordial Mother Goddess Muwaan Mat was designated to fulfill those obligations in the Upperworld. Aldana does not think Sak K’uk was formally a ruler, although she may have acted as the Goddess’ intermediary in the Middleworld of earth. My book takes this viewpoint, going a bit farther by portraying Sak K’uk as the stand-in ruler who embodied the Goddess.  She ruled for three years until Pakal reached age 12 and could be designated as ruler. Beyond doubt she continued to act as regent for some years, and to consult with her son during much of his reign.

The Controversial Mayan Queen: Sak K’uk of Palenque now ranks in the Amazon Kindle eBook Top 100. It reached #1 in Free Historical Fiction and Free Romance/Historical Fiction/Ancient Worlds.  Discover how mother and son teamed up to restore their city, forging a special bond  in theSak kuk Final Cover eBook(1) process that proved both a blessing and a curse.

Order book here.

Resources for this Post:

Gerardo Aldana: The Apotheosis of Janaab’Pakal, University Press of Colorado, 2007.

David Stuart & George Stuart: Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya, Thames & Hudson, Ltd., London, 2008.


The Controversial Mayan Queen: Sak K’uk of Palenque

Sak K'uk presents drum major headdress of rulership to Janaab Pakal

Sak K’uk presents drum major headdress of rulership to Janaab Pakal

In 611 CE, Palenque (Lakam Ha) suffered a devastating defeat by Kalakmul (Kan).

The two cities were enemies for years and had skirmished frequently. In the 611 attack, Kalakmul destroyed the Sak Nuk Nah (White Bone House) , the most sacred shrine of Palenque and left the city in chaos. The current ruler, Aj Ne Ohl Mat was captured and killed. What happened next in Palenque succession is surrounded by mystery and controversy.

In the “king list” put together by Simon Martin & Nicolai Grube, Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens (2000) the next ruler is Muwaan Mat. This ancestral deity and progenitor of Palenque’s three supernatural patrons ruled for 3 years, and was unable to perform full rituals at the end of the 9th Katun. They suggest that the god’s name was a pseudonym for a new queen called Sak K’uk, mother of K’inich Janaab Pakal who ascended in 615.


Leading Palencophiles David & George Stuart took a different stance in Palenque: Eternal City of the Mayas (2008).

Sak K'uk Name Glyph

Sak K’uk Name Glyph

They think Muwaan Mat was male, both as a deity from creation mythology and as a short-time ruler. He took the god’s name because of Palenque’s troubled times, to create a parallel situation of creating a new political order (akin to the creation of the current era). Previously, scholars such as Linda Schele and David Freidel had thought Muwaan Mat was an alternative name for Sak K’uk.

Muwaan Mat Name Glyph

Muwaan Mat Name Glyph

The most incisive view comes from Gerardo Aldana in The Apotheosis of Janaab Pakal (2007). He analyzes the argument of Schele and Freidel and dismisses their inference that Sak K’uk became the next ruler. Aldana did his own readings of glyphs in the Temple of the Inscriptions, concluding that Muwaan Mat as the primordial female deity did take “charge of the city’s ceremonial needs while no suitable mortal ruler was available.” The glyphs say:

 On the back of the ninth katun, god was lost; ahau (lord) was lost.

She could not adorn the Lords of the First Sky; she could not give offerings. . .

Muwaan Mat could not give their offerings. Muwaan Mat gives the bundle of her god.

Perhaps she could not perform full rituals due to her lack of mortality, or because the portal to the gods collapsed when the sacred shrine was destroyed. Sak K’uk was an ahau but not a human ruler in the same sense as her predecessors. In my story of Sak K’uk, she invokes the goddess Muwaan Mat to co-rule with her until Pakal can assume the throne. His mission is to restore the collapsed portal so Palenque can again “adorn the gods” and give proper gifts.

Sak kuk Final Cover eBook(1)

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