Cultures around the world have birdman images. The Maya are no exception, including multiple very-stylized images at Palenque, Mexico. This blog post will explore the meaning of the bird-human motif in Maya culture by re-translating inscriptions at Palenque and Quirigua, Guatemala, using Ch'orti', the language closest to that used in Classic era Maya writing. (I would argue that Ch'orti' is the language used in the Classic era.) The inscriptions associate the birdman with eclipses and use a practical style language more fitting for describing human history than mythology.the ruins and corn fields of Teotipa, El Salvador, from 8200 to 7836 BCE, the Tiguilotada stone on Isla Tigre, Honduras, which corresponds to astronomical events of 8208 BCE, and the Mars retrograde long count calendar potentially dating back to 8680 BCE - the events described at Palenque and Quirigua and other sites must be reexamined as potentially historical descriptions.
Previously I have documented that the Mayan long-count calendar turned over on April 28, 3114 BCE, rather than August 11 or August 13, 3114. This is based on Mars retrograde long count dates mentioned in the Popol Vuh and confirmed by correlating planetary conjunctions with Classic era ruler accession dates. Therefore for dates prior to 1582 CE, I use a Julian-tzolk'in correlation number of 584178. I also documented that the (regular) Maya long-count calendar was created to track both the timing and the location of eclipses over time, using both the katun and baktun positions of the long-count calendar, as it interacts with the 260-day tzolk'in calendar. Eclipses occur only within three 33-day sections of the tzolk'in, each one corresponding, although not exclusively, to a different area of the globe. Thus, where an eclipse fell in the tzolk'in helped the Maya in determining where on the globe the eclipse occurred.
At about the same time as the Maya acquired the ability to track eclipses, confirmed by a solar eclipse in 3122 BCE and a lunar eclipse in 3121 BCE, according to Palenque inscriptions, they began to celebrate eclipses with the bird-human, possibly for the first time in 3113 BCE. Whether the bird-human celebration was done with a costume to commemorate a bird deity or was done with a flying suit where the Maya actually glided is difficult to show.
There is no known archeological evidence for gliding. The best evidence may be the text, the poetry, of the inscriptions themselves. The longest inscription is at Palenque, translated here, but there are shorter ones at Quirigua, as presented here, and at Tila and on the "vase of the seven gods" (Naranjo), which are not presented here.
Palenque lies in the northern part of Chiapas state in Mexico. It is one of the westernmost Maya sites and, somewhat similar to Copan, is known for its fine architecture, art, and waterworks. In my study of Mayan ruler accession dates, Palenque stood out for having no Jupiter conjunctions at the time of its known accession dates. The Temple of the Cross may have more inscriptions regarding Maya history before 2000 BCE than any other Maya structure. Here's the translation, first, of the eclipses at about the time of the calendar turning over in 3114 BCE. This is from Understanding Maya Inscriptions, a Hieroglyph Handbook, 2nd Rev. Ed., John F Harris and Stephen K. Stearns.
|8 Ahchuk (Ahaw) 18 Sek
||184.108.40.206.0 (Aug 22, 3121 BCE)
|Sihi He(rme)na(t') Sak||Search at the time of the distant white shadow|
||And the search 8.5.0 (2980 days) before
|iwal u (?) 4 Ahchuk 8 Kumk'u
||the cliff opening on 220.127.116.11.0 (April 28, 3114 BCE)
|homi 13 bak'tuns
||at the end of 13 baktuns
The Palenque inscriptions begin with a date of August 22, 3121 BCE (using correlation 584178), about six years and eight months before the calendar turned over in 3114 BCE. A search was made for a distant white shadow - an eclipse. The Maya had developed a methodology not only to time eclipses but to also predict their location.
The third and fourth lines go together. The third line says that there was another search 8.5.0 or 2980 days before the calendar turning over on 18.104.22.168.0 (April 28, 3114 BCE). This would be a Mayan date of 22.214.171.124.0 (previous cycle) or March 1, 3122 BCE, which would have been a new moon, according to the Solex astronomy program. An eclipse on this day would have been a solar eclipse. There are 540 days between March 1, 3122 and August 22, 3121 BCE. This is two complete tzolk'in cycles plus 20 days. They both took place on Ahchuk (Ahaw) day. This helps explain how the Maya tracked eclipses at this time. (Most likely they alternated between 500 and 540 days. Three eclipse seasons are equal to about 520 days - two tzolk'ins.)
The two eclipses were in the same geographic tzolk'in zone, which basically are zones that cover 1/3 of the earth's longitude that each correspond to one of three specific zones of the tzolk'in. This introduction clearly places the remainder of the story in the context of searching for eclipses. And it may imply that the fourth sun calendar was turned over in 3114 BCE because it was at that time that the Maya figured out how to track eclipses.
|(Since) 1.9.2||1.9.2 after 126.96.36.199.0 or October 21, 3113 BCE|
|halihi k'o b(a)||Weaving the body of the bird beak|
|k'a chan yax ux tun nal||happiness in the sky, first three stones in the distance|
|och ta(n) chan||entered the sky of the interior|
|in nal y(e) tzuk
||first ? in the old distant place|
|13 Ik' 20 Mol
||188.8.131.52.0 or October 21, 3113 BCE|
|hoy wakah chan nal
||Beginning of being full of pleasure in a distant sky
|waxik na tzuk
||Eight vanishing old ones
||his happy hanging body / his sacred name|
|yotot xaman||North House
The above section of inscription represents a second introduction and links eclipse event to the bird weave - hanging events. After establishing the date of October 21, 3113 BCE, the passage directly speaks of weaving a bird body. Since the Maya believed that a falcon or falcon human rose in the sky to eat the sun or moon at the time of the eclipse, it is clear that they established a bird-human custom at eclipse time in 3113 BCE. Either they dressed up in the bird suit at eclipse time or they actually tried to glide in the bird suit.
The next line should clear things up - they were gliding - "happiness in the sky". Or this is a story about some deities who were gliding. However it has been my experience that the Maya do not speak of deities in this way. It is clear that the events mentioned took place in a distant location. A similar passage of this same event is recorded at Quirigua and gives clues about the location but it is not my purpose at this time to discuss the location. A later line is similar: "beginning of being full of pleasure in a distant sky." The sentiment here again leans toward an understanding that the Maya were gliding.
The phrase "first three stones in the distance" is referring to either the place mentioned above or to three stones used with the bird man suit: each hand grasping one and the third perhaps placed in the mouth.
The phrase "first ? in the old distant place" probably refers to an eclipse series - such as, first eclipse since the old cycle ended. There is a similar phrase later in the inscription, "eight vanishing old ones", where vanishing likely means an eclipse and 'old ones' appear to be a eclipse series that started in the old time, i.e. before 3114 BCE. A date is given of 184.108.40.206.0 or October 21, 3113 BCE using the 584178 correlation. This date was 37 days before a full moon lunar eclipse on November 27, 3113 BCE. It also was about 135 days after a prior eclipse season. The Nov. 27 lunar eclipse was in a different geographic tzolk'in zone from the ones mentioned earlier in 3122 and 3121 BCE. Those were in a visibility zone that most likely corresponds to the Americas, which would mean that the 3113 BCE eclipse was in the Africa-Middle East-South Asia visibility zone. It also could be that in 3113 BCE the Maya had not yet associated the bird-human ceremony with eclipses.
The Ch'orti' phrase uk'aba ch'ul is interesting because it has two meanings which any Mayan would have understood. In a more literal meaning it is "his happy hanging body" while a more spiritual meaning is "his sacred name". Given the earlier lines about happiness in the sky, the hanging body seems without a doubt to be referring to someone (person or deity) hang gliding. The story then skips 750 years ahead.
|220.127.116.11.0 (since)||18.104.22.168.0 since the previous story
|Petihi wak(a) chan ki(x)
||(since) beginning to stack the ordered sky series
|in nal ye tzuk
||first of the old cycles
|iwal hul mata wil
||closed light, wrap wings
|9 Ik' 15 Keh||On 22.214.171.124.2 (July 6, 2360 BCE)
|u ? ka b(a) mata wil
||they began to wrap their bodies in wings
|u bah u ch'am (w)il sak
||they themselves searched and gathered the wings
|ox ya ch'ok le(b) na'(t)
||sore feet beat, inexperienced knowledge (?)
|126.96.36.199.2 sihi||188.8.131.52.2 since search
|iwal k'al sak in||the place of the previous withheld white light
|tu u bah sak? 9 Ik' 0 Sak||it was agreed upon to go searching for this light on 184.108.40.206.2 (May 23, 2325 BCE)|
The next part of the story tells us that about 750 years have gone by, since they started to stack (track) the eclipse series in the sky. On the occasion of the first of the old eclipse ("closed light") series they wrapped themselves in wings. The break of 750 years makes me believe that the bird-human tradition was not continuous - there was a long break before it was reinitiated in 2360 BCE.
They (once again) began to wear the wing suits. They created the wing suits themselves, searching for the best wings, most likely falcon wings. (The falcon is the bird associated with eclipses.) Perhaps they even went to the Andes to gather the Andean falcon wings. The next line, the 8th in this series, is unclear, but ox yah is sore feet. I take this line to mean that their inexperience with how to glide and land led to hard landings and sore feet, beat by the hard earth during landings.
The last three lines move us about 800 years past the time of the first eclipse searches. First they say that it is 220.127.116.11.2 since the (first?) search in the place of the previous eclipse ("withheld white light"). A decision was made in 2325 BCE by the Maya - to search for an eclipse. This suggests that they didn't search for every eclipse - probably logistically impossible, even with multiple teams. Using the date of 18.104.22.168.2 and counting back 22.214.171.124.2 gives a date of September 28, 3147 BCE, 12 Ahchuk, for the first search, 33 years before the calendar turned over. Interestingly, this day is also an Ahchuk (Ahaw) day like the earlier dates in 3122 and 3121 BCE, confirming that they were using this day sign to track eclipses. The next part of the inscription takes us to a tragic event in July of 2360 BCE.
|13 Chamer 19 Keh||126.96.36.199.6 (July 10, 2360 BCE)|
|ahyal sihi k'in ich tah wayib||The young hurler, sun secreting wilted pitch|
|k'in tan [? headless jaguar]||heat in the interior, death?|
|ti sak nah(t) sak ba ka nah(m)||distant search, beginning of the search for his vanished body|
|chan? ahtin k'ak'||the one clinging in the sky; fire (or heat)|
|k'a ? k'in ich ahchuk k'in||remember sun secreting, the one who observes the sun|
||188.8.131.52.6 since stacking (July 10, 2360 BCE)
|wa ka chan ki(li)
||Beginning of being the sky falcon|
|iwal hul mata wil||place of closed light, wrap the wings around himself|
|u bah u ch'am
||that he had gathered himself|
|he(l) m(e)n al na(t) sak
||the time of the similar shadow, the distant search|
|ch'ul ahchuk||sacred hanging observant lord|
|184.108.40.206.16 halihi k'ob||220.127.116.11.16 since weaving a bird beak body (April 7, 690 CE)|
|k'a chan yax ux tun na(t)
||remembering in the sky first three stones in the distance|
|4 Ahchuk 8 Kumk'u
||18.104.22.168.0 (April 28, 3114 BCE)|
This event takes place four days after the re-initiation of the bird-human tradition on July 6, 2360 BCE, recounted above. The story begins with ahyal or "the one who hurls", which easily could describe someone jumping off a ledge with a bird suit. It then describes the sun wilting (melting) the pitch (glue), causing it to secrete. The next line has an unknown glyph, a headless jaguar. Perhaps it describes a death, a death that took place in the heat of the interior. Then there is a search for his body in a distant place. The search for the one who had been clinging up in the sky in the heat.
The sixth line has two or three meanings (at least). On the one hand it is a warning to remember the hot sun which can melt, to be observant of the sun. A second meaning is to remember flower day, Ahchuk day. Flower day - Xochitl in Aztec - is the same as Ahchuk (Ahaw) day in the tzolk'in. Ahchuk was the day associated with tracking eclipses, at least in 3100 BCE. A third possible meaning is more pious "Remember flower sun, lord sun."
The inscription then begins a second poetic re-telling of the July 10, 2360 BCE event in an effort to honor the fallen one who died that day. First it links him to the beginning of the sky falcon tradition, the bird associated with eclipses. It locates the sky falcon at the place of closed light (an eclipse). It says that the sky falcon had wrapped wings around himself, wings that he himself had gathered.
Then it uses the phrase "similar shadow" to make it clear that they were tracking eclipses in different series, much like the modern Saros series. And it places the search for the eclipse in a distant place, i.e. not Central America. The next phrase ch'ul ahchuk has a double meaning which I included in the translation - it could mean "observe while hanging" or it could mean "sacred lord". I think both are meant.
The last three lines above (although the inscription continues) link the time current when the inscriptions were made - 690 CE - with the tradition of the three stones in the sky that began on or about 22.214.171.124.0 (April 28, 3114 BCE). Next we move to another temple at Palenque, which uses very similar language as the Temple of the Cross.
Temple of the Foliated Cross, Palenque
|1 Ahchuk 13 Mak||126.96.36.199.0 (July 24, 2360 BCE)
|u ux tal sihi||Their third arrival searching|
|tzuk chak ch'a(t) k'a wi(l) al winik||remembering the time of the previous two winged men at the red opening|
|ux ahal ch'ul||the third time for hanging|
|ch'ok k'a wi(l) al||remembering the first times of the wing|
The opening lines of Palenque's Temple of the Foliated Cross are very revealing. It begins with a third date in July 2360 BCE and it tells us that it is their third time of arriving somewhere to search (for an eclipse). This tells us that the other two dates in July 2360 BCE (already mentioned) were stops or arrivals at places as they were tracing the path of the same eclipse. Based on the 3122 BCE eclipse date mentioned above, we know that there was a June 2 solar eclipse and a June 16 lunar eclipse in 2360 BCE so the Maya were likely searching for the path of one of those eclipses.
The Maya did not know exactly where the eclipses would take place but they got close and would travel by ocean, river, or land to trace its path, doing multiple ceremonies along the long path of eclipse. The bird-human ceremonies did not necessarily take place on the day of the eclipse but often in the months that followed.
The third line memorializes the two previous bird-humans (or bird-deities), at least one of whom died in the ceremony. The red opening is another way of saying eclipse, most likely referring to the solar eclipse, marked by its red tones. July 24, 2360 BCE was the third time in 2360 for the hanging (bird-human) ceremony. The Temple of the Foliated Cross then moves forward about 35 years to 2326 BCE.
|iwal homi ka pih||place of light completed two bak'tuns (188.8.131.52.0)|
|2 Ahchuk 3 Wayeb||November 3, 2326 BCE|
|utzak ch'ul he(l) men al na(t) sak||He urged to go hang and search distantly at the time of the shadow.|
|ch'ul mata wil ahchuck||wrap around wings, hanging observer, sacred lord|
|u ti yax hal||his first clinging to the weaving|
|witz sak nik||shaking at the white mountain|
|yinal nat(e) k'an al||time of distant fondness|
The next part of the inscription of the Temple of the Foliated Cross begins by establishing a date of 184.108.40.206.0 - November 3, 2326 BCE. This could be an exact date or meant to indicate an era. A date of 2 Ahchuk was in a tzolk'in eclipse zone at that time. I believe that 220.127.116.11.0 was an approximate date and that the date of 18.104.22.168.2 (May 23, 2325 BCE), mentioned above at the Temple of the Cross, is the more precise date for this event. The tradition of searching for eclipses and doing the bird-human ceremony began in 3113 BCE, possibly renewed in 2360 BCE, so this passage is not about a beginning event but about a special event.
As before it happened at a time of an eclipse and involved weaving a bird body and wrapping around wings. Then the key line in the passage: witz sak nik - shaking at the white mountain. On this occasion the bird-human ceremony and the bird-human gliding, if you are so inclined to believe that, happened at the summit of a white (snowy) mountain. It was so exhilarating that the bird-human was shaking. It was a time of enjoyment or fondness somewhere in the distance. In a later writing I will name and describe this distant place.
Palenque is not the only site that talks about the bird-human ceremony. Quirigua provides a good description of the bird man suit.
Quirigua is a site in eastern Guatemala along the Motagua River. It is often thought of as a sister site to Copan, which it then defeated in 738 CE. It has the tallest stela anywhere in the Mayan world and is near the only source of jade in Mesoamerica. Stela C at Quirigua has the most descriptive language about the details of the bird-human weave. This passage goes back to 3114 BCE when the first bird-human ceremony took place in a distant place. Palenque inscriptions say the ceremony actually took place in 3113 BCE.
|22.214.171.124.0 4 Ahchuk 8 Kumk'u||April 28, 3114 BCE|
|hala k'o ba||weaving the bird beak body|
|k'ala ux tun||hold onto three stones|
|u tz'a pa||his body over the wetness|
|tun (jaguar paddler, stingray paddler)||stones at the bow and stern|
|u tin(a) ho chan||he was clinging to the five in the sky|
|hix tz'am tun||movement over the moisture stone|
|u tz'a pa tun||his body over water and stone
|ek' na(m) yax
||disappearing down for the first time|
|uti ka b(ir) chan tz'am tun||the beginning of when they made a path in the sky over water and stone
|iwal ut k'al tun||place of opening in the cliff, holding onto the stones|
|na(t) itzam hi(n)||distant place of dampness shed|
|nab tz'am ? tun||water and stone that have passed out of memory|
|uti k'a chan||where they were happy in the sky|
|yax ux tan na(t)||first time three stones in the distance|
|homi uxlahun pih||13 baktuns ended|
|u kahi wa k(a) chan ahchuk||it began: the beginning of being sky lords|
The Quirigua stela is less precise in its dates for the first bird-human event, using the turn of the calendar on April 28, 3114 BCE as a general time frame, rather than the precise October 21, 3113 BCE date used at Palenque. Like Palenque, Stela C talks about weaving the bird beak body but then uses a different phrase k'ala ux tun when mentioning the three stones. It means "hold onto three stones." One can imagine the arms spread wide each grasping a stone acting as a hub for a section of wings. The third stone would have been at the chest or, less likely, placed in the mouth.
The bird-human glided over water - either a lake, a river, or a marsh. Next are glyphs with the word "stone(s)", then the jaguar paddler and the stingray paddler. The jaguar paddler is always at the front of the boat and the stingray paddler at the rear. So I take their meaning here to be bow and stern - one stone above the bird-human's head and another stone by his/her feet. The stone at the chest would have connected the two axis. The next line confirms this interpretation - the bird-human is clinging to the five stones - three across, one bow, one stern - up in the sky.
The next few lines are beautiful poetry when spoken in Ch'orti'. The English meaning of the seventh line from the top is somewhat obscure. Movement would be ix rather than hix. And moisture stone is unclear - it is most likely referring to a specific place name where this took place. The stela describes the dangers - being over water and stone, as (s)he descends for the first time. It was the beginning of making a sky path. This line could also be translated "wet stone held in the mouth in the sky", making the case for the center stone to be placed in the mouth. But this interpretation doesn't fit the poetry as well.
The following line goes back to before the gliding of the bird-human to a location at a cliff. The next lines tell us that it was a distant place which had passed out of memory by the time that the Quirigua inscriptions were made. They had forgotten the exact place where they were first happy in the sky but not that they had become sky lords (literally "sky observers") (soon after) 13 baktuns had ended in 3114 BCE.
A collaborating bit of evidence is the Mayan day sign Ahmok (Cib), which has a double meaning. On one hand it means "the sick one". On the other hand, as ahmo' it means "the bird one". This meaning is confirmed by the Aztec, where this day sign means vulture or falcon.
Finally, through place names I have located a place where the Maya appear to have practiced the bird-human. Matamaras is the name of a cave near San Fernando, Chalatenango, El Salvador. It is in a very mountainous area about 50 kilometers from Igualtepec, which is where the Ch'orti' were living in 3114 BCE. The cave is located near the old colonial village of Mataras. Mataras in Ch'orti' means "time of practicing the wrap around". Matamaras means "time of practicing the wrap around in the interior". There are many mountains and small cliffs in the San Fernando area.
Conclusions and Implications
- The Maya began tracking the eclipse cycles by 3147 BCE, if not earlier. They were tracking both the timing and the location of the eclipses. The eclipses of 3122 and 3121 BCE were critical in finalizing and confirming the eclipse cycle methodology, preparing the way for the new calendar to start in 3114 BCE. Importantly, the period from 3147 to 3114 BCE would be within the lifespan of one generation.
- The Maya bird-human tradition began in 3113 BCE, soon after the turning over of the calendar, in a distant place, called Itzamna(t), that included a cliff, stones, and water. The bird-human ceremony would take place in the location of each eclipse (or each significant eclipse), in the weeks following the eclipse. (Most likely only solar eclipses.) The bird-human suit included wings gathered by the bird-human and five stones - one for each hand, one in the center, one at the crown of the head, and one at the feet.
- Possibly the bird-human ceremony was discontinued from 3113 BCE to 2360 BCE. In any case, the bird-human ceremony gained new significance following an eclipse in 2360 BCE. The Maya made three stops in their search for the eclipse path. (The arc of an eclipse can span hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometers.) The bird-humans seem inexperienced - they hurt their feet with their bad landings and one plummets to an unfortunate end when the pitch or glue used to attach the wings melts in the hot sun. By the third stop the bird-humans succeed, which may have renewed or re-invigorated the bird-human ceremony.
- One other significant event is recorded with the bird-human ceremony, in November 2326 BCE, or possibly May 2325 BCE, in a distant place on a snowy mountain that caused the bird-human to shake.
- Many of the so-called Mayan gods, such as Itzamna, Kawil, G1, G2, and G3, are simply descriptions of places or events. They are meant to be historical not mythological, if one can make that distinction. It is possible that other "gods" are not gods at all. They should be re-examined using Ch'orti' as the primary translating language.
- Generally, some of the inscriptions at various Maya sites are likely mistranslated because they use a Mayan language other than Ch'orti'. Genealogies and accession events are straight forward but other Classic-era inscriptions should be re-translated using Ch'orti', the language of the ancients and the one used at the Classic-era sites.
For the moment we don't know of the overlap between this Mayan story and that of Icarus. There are some parallels. More on that at a later time.
It is impossible to know if the Maya actually glided. Are they describing a mythological person who glided or actual persons? The language used - of grabbing on to the stones, being happy in the sky, and of sore feet - is human, but they could be giving human qualities to a mythological person. Yet, the sophistication of the bird suit, with two axis and five stones (or hubs), seems to go beyond a suit that would be worn for ceremonial purposes only. At the least, traveling the world to track the path of eclipses over thousands of miles and for a time period of thousands of years and incorporating a bird-human ceremony, is a very impressive feat.