Posted by: Johan Normark | November 21, 2012

Maya geopolitical organization and period endings

Prudence Rice’s geopolitical model for the Classic period Maya has so far not been accepted by many Mayanists (me included). Based on Postclassic and Colonial period sources she has, for the past decade or so, suggested that sites competed to have the right to seat a 13 k’atun cycle (what she terms a may-cycle, roughly 256 years). These were the major centers of the lowlands. Within their territories lesser sites competed to seat each k’atun. I believe she is correct that the k’atuns were politically important but I believe the 13 k’atun cycle is a Postclassic reorganization of an earlier system which more likely was based on the baktun, see my earlier post on this issue.

In any case, in the latest issue of Ancient Mesoamerica she continues to argue for her model. To her, continuity in political organization can be recognized in metaphors, homophony, synonymy and iconography from the Formative period until the Colonial period. She finds these clues in paired oppositions in Middle Formative art and in later verbal couplets known as kennings that structured Maya poeticized ritual discourse. I wonder what William Hanks has to say about this since he argues that the Spanish presence created a new Maya language adapted to the Christian doctrine.

Rice has identified k’atun-based geopolitical cycling through depictions of God K/K’awiil, manikin scepters and the “flint-and-shield” trope. The God K complex “is primarily celestially oriented, taking as its domain storms, lightning, and sky, the last including ancestors, celestial or vision serpents (typically shown conjuring or dancing), and the planets, especially Jupiter. Perhaps most significantly, God K/K’awiil is the patron of royal dynasties and bloodlines” (p 104).

K’awiil means “statue” or “god” in Kiche’ and “sustenance” in Yucatec. God K is believed to have opened “Sustenance Mountain” through a bolt of lightning and revealed maize. He is therefore also associated with the Maize God (God E). GII at Palenque is linked to Jupiter intervals and his birthday, 1 Ajaw, is often linked with Jupiter events. He came to be associated with k’atuns because k’atun endings were often related to the recurrent positions of Jupiter and Saturn.

God K is a personification or embodiment of the k’atun in Postclassic and Colonial period. Or as I would phrase it; he is an incorporeal person that is being tethered to a period/object. He is also associated with turtle imagery since he wears a turtle carapace as a pectoral in the Dresden Codex. A stone turtle with 13 Ajaw faces, likely representing 13 k’atuns, has also been found at Mayapan.

God K was known as Bolon Dz’akab/Ts’akab in Postclassic Yucatan. This has been translated as “he of the nine generations”. Rice argues that this god is the same as Bolon Yookte’ which is the patron of K’atun 11 Ajaw in the Books of Chilam Balam and the entity associated with the 13 Baktun ending on Monument 6 at Tortuguero.

In the Dresden Codex Bolon Yookte’ carries an atlatl (spearthrower) and darts aimed at the aged Pawahtun (God N) with a took’-pakal collocation in the associated text. The kenning u took’ u-pakal means “his flint, his shield” and has been interpreted as a metaphor of war in Classic period contexts. Rice relates this concept to real objects as well, such as the flint and obsidian eccentrics that often depict God K in profile. These may have been heirlooms of a dynasty. Bringing down the flint and shield was a metaphor for defeat in war. This term is also used in two of the Books of Chilam Balam and there it relates to a conflict over the seating of k’atuns. After the conflict the victors “planted their carvings” in the walls of the defeated in order to end the desire of the ruler to seat the next k’atun cycle. Rice argues that this is analogous to the carving of hieroglyphic stairways or lintels after sites’ defeat during the Classic period. She further suggests that the expression “shield of the may” may be a protective barrier, a war protector. Sites that were the seat of the may were therefore protected from war.

In my upcoming project application on temporality I will include a discussion on Classic period Maya geopolitics. For that reason I am interested in Rice’s research but I do rather propose a 5, 10, 15 or 20-k’atun-based structure which was not cyclical (but perhaps quadripartitional). The 13 k’atun cycle is, in my view, a Postclassic invention inspired by Central Mexican ideas of multiple creations.

Rice, Prudence M. (2012). Continuities in Maya political rhetoric: K’awiils, k’atuns, and kennings. Ancient Mesoamerica 23:103-114.



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