Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Politics and the
Warrior Queen

Carving of Bajlaj Chan K'awiil
King of Dos Pilas

One of the most surprising discoveries associated with the decipherment of Mayan Hieroglyphs has been the discovery of a whole previously unknown world of dynastic politics and intrigue. Perhaps the most convoluted involves the dynastic politics of the site of Dos Pilas.1

Sometime in the second quarter of the 7th century (625-650 C.E.) a man called Bajlaj Chan K’awiil become lord of the site of Dos Pilas. Now Dos Pilas is a small site, but the dynastic history which it participated in was not that of a minor site but that of a major power in the Mayan world.2

But K’awiil (As I will know call him.), was apparently from the major site of Tikal or as it was called at the time Mutal. Now Mutal was the name that K'awiil also gave his new capital.

In order to understand the dynastic politics that are to follow one must understand the dynastic and political context.

Tikal or Mutal had been, apparently for centuries caught in a vicious struggle for supremacy in the Mayan world with the city state of Calakmul (Called Kan i.e. the Snake Kingdom) located about 60 miles north of Tikal. Exactly when the rivalry started is not clear but there are some interesting sign posts that could indicate the origins of the rivalry.3

Not far away from Calakmul is the massive site of El Mirador and it appears that the Kings of Calakmul regarded themselves as heirs to that kingdom, which apparently had dominated much of the Mayan world. Tikal, Calakmul’s great rival, had a different basis for its claim to supremacy. In 378 a man named Sihyaj K’ahk arrived in Tikal he apparently removed violently the previous King, Chak Tok Ich’aak I. This is likely in that the very day Sihyaj K’ahk is recorded as arriving Chak Tok Ich’aak is recorded as dying. Sihyaj K’ak did not take the throne instead he installed a son of a man we call Spearthrower Owl named Yax Nuun Ahiin I. It appears that Yax was also the son of a noble women of Tikal and likely a member of the royal line. Further he seems to have married a member of the royal line himself. Certainly kings of Tikal traced themselves back to a founder who ruled at Tikal c. 90 C.E.4

It appears from the remains that the instigator of this move was the great central Mexican metropolis of Teotihuacan which was interested in extending its influence into the Mayan region. There was a period of strong “Mexicanization” of the art and architecture of Tikal for a time and further the dynasty legitimized itself in terms of references in art and in terms of its claims to supremacy and legitimacy to the great Mexican metropolis even after Teotihuacan’s fall. They also copied and used Mexican conceptions of war making and possible war techniques.5

Thus it appears that Calakmul made its claims for legitimacy and supremacy on traditional Mayan norms and its links to the historical role of El Mirador which had dominated much of the Mayan world in the period 200 B.C. to 200 C.E. Tikal on the other hand based its claims to both legitimacy and supremacy on the power and legitimacy conferred by association with Teotihuacan.6

The resulting contest was both bitter and savage. Both sides tried by means of overlordships and dynastic marriages to defeat the other as well as war.

The beginnings of the contest are unknown it is likely that the contest began in earnest shortly after Sihyaj’s arrival in Tikal, which brought a massive extension of Teotihuacan’s power in the Mayan region and was likely considered a mortal threat to Calakmul’s interests. In other words Tikal was likely perceived as an agent of Teotihuacan’s imperial ambitions in the Mayan region, to say nothing as the bearer of “radical” new and un-Mayan ideas.

The early stages of the conflict are unknown in any detail we do know that at Copan and Palenque Kings sponsored by Tikal and ultimately it appears by Teotihuacan were installed in office in 435 C.E. in Palenque and 426 C.E. in Copan. Both of which seemed to have been long term allies of Tikal.7

As I said the early history of this dispute is not clearly known but we do have some detail concerning the first big development.

In the year 562 C.E. Tikal was crushingly defeated by it appears Calakmul with the aid of its allies. The city and its allies plunged into a period of darkness or hiatus that would not lift for over a century. Exactly who inflicted this disaster is not clear but it appears that in the game of dynastic intrigue Calakmul came out ahead.8

However it appears that the contest was not over. We do not know whether or not Calakmul imposed a new ruler or exactly what the circumstances were after the defeat. We do know that by 640 C.E. Tikal was back fighting Calakmul for supremacy, although by this time Tikal was surrounded by allies and vassals of Calakmul.

Sadly for Tikal at this time Calakmul was ruled by Yuknoom called the great, (r. 636-686 C.E.), a man of it appears of truly formidable diplomatic talent who kept Tikal thoroughly contained throughout his reign.9

In the murky period after Tikal’s great defeat it appears there may have been a falling out among the Royal family with violent disputes over who was the legitimate ruler of the state. So that the losers of the dynastic contest left Tikal and established a rival Tikal at Dos Pilas. Another scenario is possible in that perhaps a member of the Tikal royal house was set up in Dos Pilas so has to create a new power base for Tikal in the contest with Calakmul. It appears however for example that K’awiil was a brother to Nuun U Jol Chaak who became ruler of Tikal some time c. 645 C.E.10

The result seems to have been a violent bloody series of wars for control of Tikal with both K'awiil and Nuun claiming legitimacy and Calakmul backing K'awiil who submitted to being a vassal of Yuknoom in return for support.11

The ins and outs of this rather complicated and interminable struggle need not detain us at the moment suffice to say that Nuun although often defeated apparently ruled Tikal until he died. K'awiil was able with the sponsorship of Calakmul able to create a significant realm for himself. Nuun died c. 682 C.E. and was succeeded by his son Jasaw Chan K’awiil I.

During all this two sites to the west of Tikal had been engaged in vicious warfare. They were the sites of Naranjo and Caracol. Both sites engaged during much of the 7th century in tit for tat wars. Naranjo was apparently at the beginning a vassal and protegee of Calakmul but apparently moved out of that camp and allied itself with Tikal. Caracol remained an ally of Calakmul and took part in the wars. It appears likely that a dispute between Naranjo and Caracol led to Naranjo leaving the alliance with Calakmul. A series of defeats and tit for tat military disasters happened with Caracol having to be rescued by Calakmul. The climax came in c. 680 C.E., when Calakmul administered a crushing defeat on Naranjo and it appears eliminated its ruling house. Caracol having experienced several disastrous defeats at the hands of Naranjo seems to have experienced no benefit from Calakmul’s victory and instead went into a century long decline. Why is not known.12

It is here that K'awiil’s daughter, Wac-Chanil Ahau, (Also called Lady Six Sky), comes into play. It appears that the defeat was a catastrophe but interestingly it was apparently not Calakmul who imposed a new ruler on Naranjo instead it was Calakmul’s vassal K’waiil of Dos Pilas. Exactly how and why is of course unknown. Perhaps politically Calakmul was simply unable to impose a new ruler directly and a ruler from a powerful vassal was more acceptable. Whatever the reason K'awiil sent in 682 his daughter Wac to Naranjo to re-establish the royal line.13

Since both Wac and K'awiil survived the subsequent disastrous defeat of Calakmul by Tikal with no known negative consequences it appears that both had significant levels of support and were not believed to be simple puppets of Calakmul.

On August 30, 682, shortly after arriving at Naranjo Wac performed rites symbolizing the reestablishment of kingship at Naranjo. Interestingly two weeks earlier the new king of Tikal Jasaw performed similar rites of dynastic renewal at Tikal.

Wac seems to have dominated the Naranjo political scene for over 50 years dying in 741 C.E. One interesting feature is that Wac never seems to have been formally invested with the rule of Naranjo instead Wac seems to have ruled by default. Inscriptions and stele almost always mention her status as a member of the royal house of Dos Pilas and sometimes mention her father K’waiil but do not refer to her as a “Lord” or “Ruler” of Naranjo.

It appears that Wac married into the local nobility, presumably someone with ties to the previous royal family. In 688 K’ahk Tiliw Chan Chaak was born and in 693 he was formally seated as ruler of Naranjo at the tender age of 5. One of the most remarkable things about this King’s monuments is that there is no explicit statement of parentage. Nothing says explicitly who K’ahk’s parents were. However practically every inscription and monument that K’ahk erected was paired with a monument to Wac and practically all of them referred to her illustrious pedigree. That and the rather obvious fact that K’ahk was born after Wac’s arrival would appear to indicate that Wac’s very public ceremony of dynastic re-founding in 682 C.E., was in fact a success and K’ahk was her son.14

We do not know very much about Wac as a personality except what we can glean from the records of her deeds. We do not for example have a date of birth. However since she lived until 741 C.E., 59 years later she almost certainly was young at the time she arrived in Naranjo. Exactly why K’awiil would send his young daughter on a mission to re-establish a royal house is also unknown. One may speculate that Wac showed, unusual intelligence, determination etc., so that K’awiil felt it was worth the risk.

Mayan dynastic politics were pretty much male centered although Queens and noblewomen could have extensive authority and influence it appears that ruling Queens were pretty unusual in the Mayan world.15

Whatever the reason it appears that Wac was entirely successful and given her prominence in her sons own monuments it appears that K’ahk was much of the time simply a figurehead for his mother’s rule and later at best co-ruled with her. It also appears that she outlived her son and died in 641 C.E., passing rule of Naranjo to her grandson.16

Much of her reign and co-reign was occupied in restoring Naranjo’s position after its disastrous defeat by Calakmul and further involved repeated wars with Tikal and client states of Tikal. It is here that we see some rather extraordinary inscriptions of Wac. One common motif of Mayan sculpture of this time period is that of the triumphant ruler standing over the prostate and bound body of a captive. We have a stele of Wac doing precisely this. It is virtually unique in Mayan sculpture in showing a women doing this. In fact we have sculpture of Wac doing such “male” things  such has handling a ceremonial bar for example. It appears in fact to show that Wac was symbolically masculinized in order to make her a sort of symbolic “male” to justify and sanctify her wielding “male” political power.17

Wac-Chanil Ahau
Standing on a bound prisoner

All Wac’s skill was probably required to weather the crisis that hit soon after her son was seated as king.

Yuknoom of Calakmul died in 686 C.E., succeeded by his son Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk, and it appears that by the end of his reign cracks were appearing in the structure of Calakmul domination of the Mayan world. Soon the structure would crash to the ground.

The decisive year was 695 C.E. Early in that year Naranjo led by Wac badly defeated an army of Tikal, however in mid-year Tikal launched a massive attack on Calakmul the result was a crushing defeat for Calakmul and victory for Tikal which put an end to Calakmul’s domination of the Mayan world. Yich’aak disappears at this time, possibly killed in battle or sacrificed.18

Amazingly K’awiil and Wac managed to survive the disaster and even managed to extend their power. We can assume that they felt relief at the visible loosing of Calakmul hegemony and control. K’awiil appears to have died peacefully in in 698 C.E. to be succeeded by his son Itzamnaaj K’awiil.19

Wac meanwhile continued her campaigns presumably aided by her son once he came of age. It appears that the continued campaigns were largely efforts to restore Naranjo’s sphere of control and not efforts to create a new conquest state. In 712 for example K’ahk was able to supervise the installation of friendly rulers in the nearby cities of Ucanal and Yootz in 712 C.E. It appears that by 720 C.E. that Wac and her brother Itzamnaaj in Dos Pilas were in fact if not in word totally independent of Calakmul by this time. Naranjo had successfully re-established is former local supremacy and the remaining years of Wac’s rule were fairly quiet. It also appears that K’ahk died c. 728 C.E. and that his mother continued ruling the state, probably as a sort of regent, for his son, Yax Mayuy Chan Chaak, until her death in 741 C.E. 20

After the rather extraordinary success of her reign it is melancholy news to mention that Yax was disastrously defeated by Tikal in 744 C.E, and then sacrificed.21

Shortly afterwards would begin the Mayan collapse and all this intrigue and history would vanish from memory until the late twentieth century decipherment of Mayan hieroglyphs.

Wac-Chanil Ahau
Name in glyphic form

1. Montgomery, John, Tikal: An Illustrated History of the Ancient Mayan Capital, Hippocrene Books Inc., New York, 2001, pp. 119-137, Martin, Simon, & Grube, Nikolai, Chronicle of the Mayan Kings and Queens, Second Edition, Thames and Hudson, London, 2008, pp. 68-83, Schele, Linda, & Freidel, David, A Forest of Kings, William Morrow & Co. Inc., New york, 1990, pp. 165-215.

2. IBID.

3. Martin, 2008, pp. 18-21, Sharer, Robert J, & Traxler, Loa P, The Ancient Maya, Sixth Edition, Stanford University Press, Stanford CA, 2006, pp. 361-402, Montgomery, pp. 100-101, Drew, David, The Lost Chronicles of the Maya Kings, Phoenix, London, 1999, pp. 220-229, Demarest, Arthur, Ancient Maya, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004, pp. 208-239.

4. Montgomery, pp. 36-42, Martin, 2008, pp. 26-27, Freidel, David, Mystery of the Maya Façade, Archaeology, v. 53, no. 5, September / October 2000, pp. 24-28.

5. Martin, 2008, pp. 29-33, Montgomery, pp. 55-78, Sharer, pp. 321-332, Schele, pp. 130-164. Note Schele’s historical reconstruction is largely wrong but her summing up of Teotihuacan influence correct.

6. Freidel, 2000.

7. Sharer, pp. 321-332, Fash, William L, Scribes, Warriors and Kings, pp.81-87, Stuart, David, & Stuart, George, Palenque, Thames and Hudson, London, 2008, pp. 111-113, Martin, 2008, pp. 156, 192-193, Stuart David, “The Arrival of Strangers”, at Mesoweb Here, 1998.

8. Sharer, pp. 362-370, Montgomery, pp. 105-118, Martin, 2008, pp. 39-40, 104, Schele, pp. 171-179.

9. Montgomery, pp. 128-137, Sharer, pp. 381-390, Martin, 2008, pp. 42-43, 108-109.

10. Montgomery, pp. 121-123, 130-133, Martin, 2008, pp. 56-57.

11. IBID.

12. Montgomery, p. 125, 148, Martin, 2008, pp. 72-73, 95-96, Schele, pp. 175-179, 182-186, Sharer, pp. 415-416, Boot, Erik, The Dos Pilas-Tikal Wars From the perspective of Dos Pilas Hieroglyphic Stairway 4. Mesoweb Here 2002.

13. Martin, 2008, pp. 74, Schele, p. 183, Montgomery pp. 142.

14. Martin, 2008, pp. 74-77, Schele, pp. 186-189.

15. See Schele, pp. 221, Hewitt, Erika A, Whats in a Name, Ancient Mesoamerica, v. 10, 1999, pp. 251-262, Martin, Simon, The Queen of Middle Classic Tikal, Mesoweb, Here, 1999.

16. Martin, 2008, pp. 74-77, Schele, pp. 186-195, Maxwell, Diane D, Classic Period Maya Women: A Feminist Analysis, Master Thesis, Trent University, 1998, pp. 86-89. This interesting thesis is marred by the author’s continued confusion of Dos Pilas with Tikal, claiming again and again that Wac came from Tikal. In fairness it should be mentioned that Mayanologists referring to Dos Pilas having the same name as Tikal may have caused confusion. Still it is annoying that this mistake crept in and apparently was not caught! I will send a copy of the Thesis to anyone who asks via E-Mail as a pdf.

17. Martin, 2008, pp. 74-77, Schele, pp. 182-195, Hewitt, Maxwell, pp. 86-89.

18. Montgomery, pp. 135-150, Martin, 2008, pp. 44-46, 110-111, Sharer, pp. 390-402.

19. Martin, 2008, pp. 57-59.

20. Footnote 17.

21. Martin, 2008, pp. 78-79.

Pierre Cloutier

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