A Maya stela, altar, and pyramid in Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Tikal and Maya Stelae

While in Central America, I had different local guides and archaeologists who spent time with me at different Maya sites in four countries. While I was at Tikal I had Horia, a direct descendent of the Maya, as my guide. The Tikal site is in one of the largest rainforests and only a small portion of the ancient ruins have been excavated. Several million Maya lived in the area between southern Mexico, the Yucatan, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras during the classical period (1200 B.C. to 800 A.D). The empire spread across this region with trade between four different kingdoms. The capitals were Tikal in Guatemala, Copan in Honduras, Palenque and Calakmul in Mexico. When you walk though the paths in Tikal, you can see and feel the grandeur of these magnificent ruins. You can see the layout of this vast city even though only a few pyramids, palaces, plazas, and stelae remain. Others are covered by the trees and vegetation of this great rainforest.

The temples and pyramids had four decorated sides facing north, east, south, and west. The masses were uneducated and controlled by the rulers, and only priests and astronomers were highly respected and held places of honor. Some pyramids were for meditation, and others had a flat top for astronomers to study the night sky. Without the telescopes and scientific equipment that we have today, they knew about the Milky Way, constellations, and the Moon calendar. In Central America, farmers are still following the moon calendar to plant crops. The Maya calendar was very accurate, using 365 days in 20-year cycles.

A grand stela in Copan, Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

A grand stela in Copan, Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

At Tikal and later at other Maya sites, especially Copan, I learned about stelae. A stela is a free-standing statue or monument carved in the image of a ruler, and it also gives information: date of his birth, years of rule, accomplishments, warfare, marriages (they were polygamists), and death. Each stela was carved from one large block of tuff quarried from one of the nearby hills. The block was rolled on logs to the spot where it was erected. A hole was dug, a base was laid on the ground and the huge stone was raised to a standing position. After the stone was raised, workers placed a temporary roof over it to keep it moist and easier to carve. When it was completed, it was painted red using iron ore or cinnabar pigment.  Each stela has an altar for sacrificial bloodletting. Thorns and stingray spines were used to prick ears, tongues, and other body parts. There was an offertory vault where offerings such as shells, jade beads, and stalactites were found. There are 24 stelae still standing in the Copan Valley in Honduras, and another 39 are in storage. Early on, it was customary to destroy and bury the predecessor’s monuments; only in the later dynasties were monuments kept and new ones built around them.

The stelae were erected for the people to worship their semi-divine ruler, and they were placed on different plazas throughout the kingdom. They symbolize the four corners of the universe: north-xaman, south-nojool, east-lak’in, and west-chik’in. The stelae showed an advanced civilization, like that of the Egyptians and the Ottoman Empire. Most of the rulers portrayed on stelae carry in their arms a double-headed serpent, with the serpents’ mouths opened wide to show emerging heads, representing reentering into the world. There are smaller figures alongside the ruler: ancestors, spirit companions, and spirits from the supernatural world. The carving is very detailed with high relief.

One stela I took time to analyze was of the ruler Fiery Snake- K’ahk’Uti’Chan, who was born in 563 A.D., became king in 578 A.D., and died in 628 A.D. at age 65. On his stela, he honored the founder of his dynesty, K’inich Yax K’ uk’ Mu, whose likeness is also carved there. The ruler is wearing a jaguar pelt skirt, a loincloth over it, a ceremonial belt, jade pendants, and masks hanging from his chest (in public, rulers always wore masks to cover their face). A serpent body is alongside the ruler’s legs. There are water plants and on other stelae there are maize, a symbol of death and rebirth. The spots on the jaguar’s pelt are like the stars in the night sky, and the jaguar is a solar deity. The Maya believed that like the sun, the souls of the deceased rise and fall every day.

I learned so much about the Maya civilization. During my long days there, we would continue soaking up the history, even during lunch breaks on the site. One day I was enjoying sopa, rice, beef, and steamed vegetables and a small plate of tortillas with sauce that was put on the table. I dipped a tiny piece of tortilla in the sauce and to my horror, my tongue and lips began to burn. My mouth was on fire! I tried soup, rice, water, soda, and ice, to no avail. Finally, the sensation went away, and I continued with my lessons on Maya history.

(posted July 18, 2017)