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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 (188.8.131.52.0). 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.