Saturday, December 31, 2022

A Resplendent Tree Hiding in the Forest: The ‘Maya Cross’ at Palenque

Cover Graphics by Jim Reed

My Aztlander presentation is now online, “A Resplendent Tree Hiding in the Forest: The ‘Maya Cross’ at Palenque” speaking to world trees, life, death and resurrection and Maya jade trees: 

This talk reevaluates one of the most famous images in Classic Maya art, the figure known as the Maya cross from Palenque, Mexico (250-900 CE). The cross is prominently displayed as the central motif on the sarcophagus lid from K'inich Janaab' Pakal I’s tomb and on the inner sanctuary panel of K'inich Kan B'alam II’s Temple of the Cross. The presentation offers new findings that revise past ideas about the cross’ material identity, mythical origins, and proper name. Prior scholarship conceived the image to be a mythical tree, inhabiting the axis-mundi of the world. New iconographic, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence strongly suggests that the Maya identified Palenque’s cross as a tangible object, a jade tree that originated in the east, with the revered title, “Resplendent-Jade Jewel Tree.”

I also, I wrote a small two-part article for the Aztlander and Institute of Maya Studies December editions titled, “Of Sticks and Stones: Identifying Marks on the Palenque Cross”:

Part I: 

Part II:

 Enjoy, and Happy New Year!


Monday, August 21, 2017

How Maya Scribes Depicted a Solar Eclipse

A Total Eclipse of the Sun,
image from Wikipedia
On July 11th, 1991 I experienced a total solar eclipse of the sun at the ruins of Yagul in Oaxaca Mexico. Perched high above the valley floor, I remember seeing the shadow sweeping over the earth at totality like the flash of a giant a raven's wing travelling at 1600 mph. Cocks began to crow, dogs frantically barked and birds nervously returned to their nests. Bright stars and planets suddenly appeared in the sky; the air temperature dropped. Looking up, I saw giant curls of solar flares ringing a black sun face. It was a cosmic struggle between forces of light and the forces of dark; a battle between the powers of order and chaos. All was completely beyond my control. No wonder the Maya scribes sought understand the cosmic order of the skies; an order that arises out of the great mystery of the universe, the mysterium tremendum that partly reveals itself through the intricate machinations of the Maya calendar, its priestly divinations and mathematic calculus.

Today a total solar eclipse will pass over the United States on August 21, 2017. Unable to attend, I thought I would celebrate the celestial show by relating how ancient Maya scribes depicted a similar event in their Classic art and inscriptions and discuss a rediscovered record of a possible eclipse recording at the Olmec site of Tres Zapotes.

Drawing by Peter Mathews
On the Maya date   5 Kib 14 Ch'en (15 July 790) a total solar eclipse appeared over Southern Mexico. The local ruler Yax Bahlam at the Chiapa site of Santa Elena/Poco Winik recorded the momentous occasion on Stela 3 using a hieroglyph that specifically depicts the dramatic moment when darkness cloaked the sun:

The hieroglyph contains a K'IN or sun glyph in the centre that is flanked by two 'winged' elements. The round circles at the base of the glyph may indicate a -ma syllable for a phonetic compliment. The central glyph is a four-lobed portrait of sun or K'IN glyph with a central dot. A circular cartouche frames this sun portrait. The four-lobed partitions echo the four divisions/four solstice points of the year along the horizon created by the annual solar trek. The glyph acts a mandala-like cosmogram of the Maya universe with four sun points united by a fifth central point relating to solar zenith (Girard 1995:6). This connection between the sun and the numeral four is verified by Maya scribes with their rendering of number four as a portrait of the Sun God:
Drawing of the Number Four after Thompson 1971 Fig. 24
The god is typically depicted with a fat protruding nose, a buck-tooth incisor and a squinty crossed eyed stare. The face can carry a K'IN four-lobed cosmogram on its cheek. Caution 2017 eclipse revellers! Take a warning from the solar malady: you too will become cross-eyed by staring too long at the sun!

The eclipse glyph is also flanked by 'winged' liked elements that are inset with circular cartouches and crossed bands. What are we to make of these attributes? The crossed bands are found commonly in skybands that indicate a celestial realm or border:

Sky Bands from Janab Pakal's Sarcophagus Lid, Drawing by Merle Greene Robertson
Other easily recognisable celestial signs inset in the Palenque star bands above are K'IN (sun), AKB'AL (darkness), CHAN (sky), EK' (star) and UH (moon). Some scholars liken the crossed bands to the cross beams in the roof of a traditional Maya house since the bands often carry TE' signs indicating the poles are made of wood (also the frames of the starbands themselves carry the same TE' markings). So the roof of heaven is conceptualized like the framed roof of a house. 

The same skybands take on the animated form of a celestial bird as seen from Palenque House E (this CHAN bird is also serves as the zoomorphic variant for the BAK'TUN or PIK sign):

The Celestial Bird Drawing By Linda Schele

It is very common to see celestial bird wings morphing into the sky bands, so there is a definite connection between bird wing and sky in the scribal mind. The same might be said for the Santa Elena eclipse glyph. It is possible that the sun glyph is being cloaked by a pair of stylized bird wings but since this glyphic collocation is so rare, it is difficult to make a firm identification. Other celestial birds like the Principle Bird Deity (AKA in the Post Classic as Seven Macaw from the Popol Vuh) show AKB'AL and K'IN signs emblazoned under its wing. A great example is found on Kerr Vase K3105c and K3105e:

The Principle Bird Deity on K3105c. Photo by Justin Kerr

The Principle Bird Deity on K3105e Photo by Justin Kerr
In this instance is the left wing cloaking the night and the right wing cloaking the sun or both wings hiding a crescent moon shield? The Popol Vuh relates how the pride of Seven Macaw hide the sun and moon:

.  .  .  there was one who puffed himself up named Seven Macaw. There was sky and earth, but the faces of the sun and the moon were dim. He therefore declared himself to be the bright sign .  .  .  "I am great. I dwell above the heads of the people who have been framed and shaped. I am their Sun. I am also their light. And I am Also their moon .  .  . (translated by Allen J. Christenson 2003: 91-92) .

Such a vainglorious bird. But those of you who own and care for Macaws, know how boisterous and cocky these birds can be!

Eclipse glyphs similar to the Santa Elena glyph are found in the Dresden Codex (pages 51-58):
Dresden Codex, page 54b Block D2

In the codex the eclipse glyph is a bit scaled down from the Santa Elena example but still maintains the central K'IN portrait and is flanked by white and black 'wings' that infer the dramatic shift from of light to dark. The Dresden pages show not only several eclipse glyphs but large animated scenes of eclipsed sun or moon hanging from star bands:

Dresden Codex, page 57b
On page 57b, the codex shows a barbed serpent is about to take a bite out of the sun. The image illustrates what the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel records (Translator Ralph Roys 1967:76):

.  .  .  then the face of the sun was eaten;
 then the face of the sun was darkened;
 then its face was darkened .  .  .  

A similar image on page 56b has added graphics:

Dresden Codex, page 56b

Not only is the sun being bitten into by the serpent, but it is also pierced by two barbed bone needles and the 'winged' elements are substituted with black and white optic-looking (your guess is as good as mine here) body parts? Are the bumps on the rim renditions of Baily’s Beads or 'jewels' of sunlight appearing along the rim of the eclipse just before Totality? What is obvious is that the Sun God is bitten and punctured and his shining face darkened.

I will end with a possible eclipse recording on Stela C, from the Late Olmec site of Tres Zapotes with a Long Count date of (584285 GMT) 6 Etznab 1 Wo = September 3, 32 B.C.E. Interestingly the monument looks like it is recording a 7 Etznab rather than a calculated 6 Etznab and so it could be signalling the period when the Tzolk'in or the Haab are not yet in sync. with one another. As Maelstrom (1997: 140-142) states the monument may record a stunning dawn eclipse that:

.  .  .  is one whose path of of centrality passed right over the Olmec ceremonial centre of Tres Zapotes at dawn on the morning of August 31, 32 B.C. A more frightening celestial event can scarcely be imagined, for the sun rose totally out of the Gulf of Mexico totally black except for a ring of light around its outer edges. Oppolzer described it as an annular, or ringlike, eclipse, and subsequent calculations at the US Naval Observatory (p.c.). Surley, a 'day without a sunrise' is not likely to have gone unnoticed by the Olmecs!" (Malmstrom 1997:142)

A dawn annular eclipse (when the moon covers the Sun's center, but leaves the sun's visible outer edges exposed to form a “ring of fire”) over the Gulf of Mexico would have looked something like this:

A Dawn Annular Eclipse
 What a frightening ring of fire rising out of the sea! Take note that the recorded Long Count date is offset 2-3 days from the actual eclipse date, so a direct correspondence is not present and is only approximate. There is more than just the date to suggest an eclipse connection. Although Malmstrom discusses the Long Count on Stela C in depth, he does not describe the iconography the reverse of the monument:

Tres Zapotes Stela 3, Front and Back,
image from

There is a low relief carving of what seems to be of an anthropomorphized solar disk rising out the cleaved forehead of an Olmec god, very much in the same way the sun sign for east rises above the head of the aquatic god GI from the Maya Classic Period. Also note the wings of a giant bird cloaking the head of the figure, wings that are reminiscent of Seven Macaw outstretch feathers hiding the sun and the moon. The parallels to Classic Maya imagery are striking indeed. Is this an animated portrait of an eclipsed Olmec Sun God? There is a lot more iconography on Stela C to discern and I welcome more input from readers.

Good luck to those viewing the 2017 total solar eclipse

Its 'Totality or Bust' for many of you!


Carl Callaway

Works Cited

Christenson, Allen J. 2003 Popol Vuh The Sacred Book Of The Maya. Winchester, UK and New
York: O Books.

Girard, Raphael 1995 People Of The Chan. Bennett Preble, translator. Chino Valley, Arizona: Continuum Foundation.

Malmström, Vincent H. (continued) 1997 Cycles of the Sun, Mysteries of the Moon: The Calendar in Mesoamerican Civilization. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Roys, Ralph L. 1967 The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel. The Civilization of The American Indian Series. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press.

Thompson, J. Eric S. 1971 Maya Hieroglyphic Writing: An Introduction. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The 'Bone Codex' of Jasaw Chan K'awiil I of Tikal

Bone MT-38A from Temple I, Burial 116 Tikal
Photo by Paul Johnson 
Hi All,

In co-authorship with Péter Biró, I will be giving on April10-11 of 2015 the following presentation at the CSU Los Angeles Mesoamerican Symposium- In the Realm of the Vision Serpent: Decipherments and Discoveries in Mesoamerica. A Symposium in Homage to Linda Schele

The 'Bone Codex' of Jasaw Chan K'awiil I
Carl D. Callaway & Péter Biró


As a leader in the field, Linda Schele opened new lines of inquiry into Maya art and epigraphy by posing bold new questions. In honor of her influential research, this paper examines a remarkable burial cache of inscribed bones from the royal tomb of Jasaw Chan K'awiil I (682-734 AD) from Tikal Temple I, cataloged as Burial 116. Aubrey S. Trik the excavator of Burial 116, first speculated if this cache was a 'bone codex'. Trik's collaborator Linton Satterthwaite deduced that several bones could be aligned vertically, side-by-side in single columns, and their respective texts linked via corresponding dates. Advances in Maya epigraphy now allow for a fuller reading of the bones in question. Some texts reveal subjects and themes like-in-kind to those found in existing Maya codices while others are unique in character. Death scenes and texts connecting Jasaw Chan K'awiil I to the sinking of the Maize God's canoe presage the king's own the death journey. Additionally, drawings on several bone 'pointers' allude to the mythic origins of hieroglyphs and display patron deities of writing. While not a continual series of unified texts from a single manuscript, the bones do display select passages and scenes, that were no doubt sourced from specialized hand books containing: astronomical almanacs, god histories, family rites and royal obituaries—information that Jasaw Chan K'awiil I utilized for his own scribal practice.

Hope to see many of you there.

MT-51A from Temple I, Burial 116 Tikal
 Photo by Paul Johnson

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Photos of the Le Plongeon Expedition to the Yucatan (1883-1875) are available via the L.A. Getty Center Digital archives

Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program

Recently, I had the chance to go to the new impressive Getty Center in L.A. With help from their research librarian, I was able to navigate a maze of links to access the online photos of Le Plongeon Expedition (1883-1875) of the Yucatan. The online photos are quite good resolution. There is lots of archaeological and art historical data to be mined since most photos are still unpublished.

Here is the link to the Getty Research Archives:

Use the files on the left of the page to access the photos. Click on the term "Recto" under each photo to enlarge each print.

Happy Hunting,


Thursday, August 21, 2014

Maya God Profiles: The “Principal Bird Deity”

The Maya “Principal Bird Deity” (a.k.a. PBD) is depicted often sitting perched atop celestial “sky bands” and the branches of  world trees in Maya iconography as seen on Palenque’s Temple of the Cross (Bardawil 1976; Cortez 1986) where it stands atop a stylised Ceiba Tree.
Palenque Temple of the Cross, Central Sanctuary Panel. Drawing by Linda Schele courtesy of David Schele and FAMSI.

The bird is very much the avian counterpart of Itzamnaj (God D) and often wears the same diadems and necklace of this God (Boot 2008; Stone and Zender 2011:47). The bird is seen morphing into God D on a codex style vase published by Hellmuth (1987:268, figs. 578 and 579). At Tonina (Monument p48) a glyphic portrait of the PBD is rendered with the head of Itzamnaj.
Tonina Monument p48, a Portrait of the Principle Bird Deity with the head of Itzamnaaj. Drawing By Simon Martin.

So fused are these two gods that their combined portraits glyphs serve as a theonym for God D on the “Yax Wayib” Mask (blocks C4-D4) as well as on Xcalumkin, Column 5 (A2) and Column 3 (A5) and Kerr Vessel No. 7727 (Boot 2008:18).
God D title on the “Yax Wayib” Mask (blocks C4-D4). Drawing by Carl Callaway. 

There is little doubt that when God D is present the “Principal Bird Deity” is somewhere close at hand and vice versa. The new God D Court Vessel analyzed by Erik Boot (2008) depicts the bird standing atop the head of the “CHAN bird head” (with an axe in its eye) that is the substitute for the T561 “CHAN” sky glyph. As Boot (2008:24-25) astutely points out that this small axe is the diagnostic element in the head variant of the number six and it identifies the bird head with an axe infix to be a representation for the 6-SKY location WAK CHAN. This being the case, the “Principal Bird Deity” literally stands aloft the celestial realm of the WAK CHAN, a place where not only resides the court of God D but by proxy the WAK CHAN AJAW gods who oversee era day events on  4 Ajaw 8 Kumk'u (as noted on block D5 of the “Yax Wayib” Mask and Quirigua Stela C east, block B26).

Works Cited
Bardawil, Lawrence W.
1976 The Principal Bird Deity in Maya Art: An Iconographic Study of Form and Meaning. In: Proceedings of the Second Palenque Round Table, M. G. Robertson, ed., vol. III, pp. 195–209. Robert Louis Stevenson School, Pebble Beach: Pre–Columbian Art Research Institute.

Boot, Erik 
2008 At the Court of Itzam Nah Yax Kokaj Mut: Preliminary Iconographic and Epigraphic Analysis of a Late Classic Vessel. On-line at:

Cortez, Constance
1986 The Principal Bird Deity in Preclassic and Early Classic Maya Art. M.A. Thesis, Department of Art and Art History, Austin: University of Texas at Austin.

Hellmuth, Nicholas M.
1987 Monsters and Men in Maya Art. Verlagsanstalt Graz, Austria: Akademische Druck.

Stone, Andrea, and Mark Zender
2011 Reading Maya Art. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Lords of Time 2014 Maya Calendar

The Lords of Time Maya Calendar is now available in two formats! This is the best Maya Calendar I have seen offered that integrates and presents ancient Maya and modern European calendars together on one page. The Maya glyphs are accurately and beautifully rendered. As an added benefit, the maker offers an introduction to the Maya calendar with a great series of graphics that display the inner workings of the Maya's sacred (260 day) and solar (365 day) calendars. For more information Click on the following link:


Monday, December 2, 2013

A Modern Maya Creation Inscription Just in Time for the 13th Bak'tun Celebration

 Modern Maya epigraphers at Mani and Iximche have documented via two carved stelae the history of their communities. The Iximche Stela anticipates the celebration of the 13th Bak'tun in December of 2012. To read the full story click on the following link below:

The Iximche inscription recounts Maya history in the Kaqchikel language using Classic Maya glyphs. The text opens with the era day Long Count on  4 Ajaw 8 Kumk'u:

The new Iximche stela. Photo courtesy of the MAM Web Blog:

Modern scribes designed their opening Long Count after one carved on Quirigua Stela C with a few modifications to fit the hight and width of their new composition. Here is a partial illustration of the original Quirigua text:

Quirigua Stela C. Drawing by Linda Schele courtesy of FAMSI.
Interestingly, the Iximche creation account is abridged from the Quirigua text and mentions only the planting of the three "celestial" stones/thrones of creation. The modern Kaqchikel scribes then add a few new interpretive words. They say that the three stones were creados los contadores de la cuenta vigesimal del tiempo.
Drawing of the new Iximche stela. Photo courtesy of the MAM Web Blog:
This interpretation is in agreement with what we know about the era day story as recorded in ancient inscriptions when time stood at the very heart of the cosmogonic act.

According to ancient scribes, the gods of time (los contadores--the gods of the Pik, Winikhaab, Haab, Winik and K'in time periods) gathered together with the gods of 0, 4 and 8 (the Aj Mih K'in, K'inich Ajaw, and the Aj Ixim) to reset the orderly motion the vigesimal count--the basis of all Maya counting. In fact, the Dresden Codex  records that the God of Number Twenty (the Aj Winik) had to be born into the world shortly before creation (Callaway 2009). Winik is also a name for man himself (Barrera Vásquez 1980) who counts with twenty fingers and toes. So, his birth signalled the birth of man's consciousness and ability to chart the heavens and measure time (Brotherston 1992). In this way, the gods reaffirm at the close and start of each cycle a cosmic order that was set down at foundation of the cosmos and given to man to maintain. How wonderful it is to see the Modern Maya maintaining this sacred count with the planting of new stones for a new era!

Works Cited

Barrera Vásquez, Alfredo
1980 Diccionario Maya Cordemex. Mexico: Ediciones Cordemex.

Brotherston, Gordon
1992 The Book Of The Fourth World: Reading Native Americans Through Their Literature. Cambridge: The Press Syndicate Of The University Of Cambridge.

Callaway, Carl D.
2009 The Birth of the Number Twenty in the Dresden Codex. In: The Maya and their Sacred Narratives: Text and Context in Maya Mythologies. Le Fort, Geneviève, Raphaël Gardiol, Sebastian Matteo & Christophe Helmke (eds.): Acta Mesoamericana, Vol. 20, pp. 75-87. Markt Schwaben: Verlag Anton Saurwein.