Waxaklahun-Ubah-K'awil's (18-Rabbit) Great Stela Plaza

Stela and altars in the Great Plaza at Copan

Stelae and altars were erected by the Maya to commemorate important political & calendrical events.

"In every civilization of the ancient world, there are art works and monuments that stand out among their fellows as objects of special character.

The great portrait sculptures that stand in silent rows down the center of the Great Plaza of Copan created one of these special places. They constitute one of the great masterpieces of the Maya legacy.

Although the artists who made them did not sign their works and leave us their names, the patron of these great works did.

He was Waxaklahun-Ubah-K'awil (whose name glyph translates as 18-Rabbit), the thirteenth king of the Copan dynasty."

Linda Schele & Peter Mathews, The Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs, p. 133

The Great Plaza When Maudslay visited in 1890, after an initial clearing

Maudslay 1890 glass plate negative of Great Stela Plaza, Copan

From the Maudslay Collection, British Museum. Used with permission under the CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 non-commercial license. ©The Trustees of the British Museum.

Copan is situated among low mountainous pine forests, not deep jungle as is the case for Tikal, Calakmul and other Old Kingdom classic Maya sites. Therefore the main threat to it architecture was not encroachment of jungle, but rather the earthquakes that this region is prone to.

The Great Plaza is grounded by a pyramid built by Copan Founder Yax Kuk Mo'

Radial Pyramid at the South End of the Great Plaza at Copan

"Waxaklahun-Uban-K'awil [18-Rabbit] began to erect a magnificent stelae program in the large plazas to the north of the Acropolis.

He chose the space next to a radial pyramid [Structure 4 at the right] that had been constructed during the founder Yax Kuk Mo's time.

After rebuilding this, Waxaklahun-Ubah-K'awil began to erect the stelae that portray him confronting the supernatural on every major period-ending date during his first thirty-five years of reign.

His program captures an unequaled view of Maya ritual and belief, while at the same time creating one of the great artistic legacies from the precolumbian world."

Linda Schele & Peter Mathews, The Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs, p. 135

This radial pyramid links the first and last rulers of Copán

Structure 4, the Radial Pyramid, Copan Great Plaza

Photo courtesy of Reca Fernandez. Thanks, Reca!

"Alfred Maudslay, one of the early explorers who photographed the site and published drawings of its monuments, excavated this little pyramid during his visit over a century ago.

At plaza level, he found an offering pot containing a necklace made of pearls and jade beads, small figures cut from shell, several large pieces of jade, cinnabar, and several ounces of mercury.

Three meters below that he found the remains of a jaguar buried under a layer of charcoal. The founder or his son probably commissioned the first version of this pyramid.

Interestingly, the last king in this dynasty placed the bodies of fifteen jaguars in a pit next to the altar celebrating the founder and all of his successors in the dynasty.

Perhaps these two jaguar offerings were related."

Linda Schele & Peter Mathews, The Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs, p. 135

Yax-Pasah, Copan's last king, built snake altars to memorialize 18-Rabbit

Yax-Pasah's Snake Altars, Copan Great Plaza

"Yax-Pasah, the last king of Yax-K'uk'-Mo's dynasty, added his own statement to Waxaklahun-Ubah-K'awil's program of stelae [in the form of three snake altars pictured above].

His motivation may have been to recoup the honor of his ancestor, who had met an ignominious end at the hands of K'ak'-Tiliw of Quirigua.

Waxaklahun-Uban-K'awil's last year was spent on rebuilding the ballcourt, which he dedicated on (January 10, 738).

One hundred and seven days later, K'ak'-Tiliw, who had come to office under Waxaklahun-Ubah-K'awil's authority, turned on his overlord and captured the unfortunate Waxaklahun-Ubah-K'awil.

His motivation may have been personal ambition, but he was also involved in the power politics of the great alliances.

A lord from Kalak'mul, Tikal's great enemy, celebrated a period ending at Quirigua a year before this war. The Quirigua rebellion signaled Kalak'mul's intervention into the politics of the southeastern zone and perhaps a bid for control of the Motagua drainage and the trade in jade and obsidian.

In any case, we think that Waxaklahun-Ubah-K'awil moved against his vassal to prevent him from or to punish him for changing sides. But the Quirigua king prevailed.

Perhaps a factor in his victory was that he was a young king in his prime facing a man who had been ruling for close to forty-three years. Waxaklahun-Ubah-K'awil was well past his prime as a warrior at the time of the battle.

K'ak'-Tiliw not only captured his overlord, but according to the inscriptions, he also chopped up and burned the statues of Copan's patron gods.

Destroying your enemies' gods robbed them of their supernatural protection. Six days after destroying the gods, he decapitated Waxaklahun-Ubah-K'awil, on (May 3, 738)."

Linda Schele & Peter Mathews, The Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs, p. 170-71

Yax-Pasah's first snake altar was installed 3 years after his acession

Altar G was erected February 19, 766 A.D.

"The sixteenth ruler, Yax-Pasah, seemed obsessed by his hapless ancestor, because he repeatedly incorporated Waxaklahun-Ubah-K'awil into his own inscriptions, especially in Temple 11. Perhaps he was paying homage to his dead ancestor in defiance of K'ak'-Tiliw.

In any case, less than three years after his accession, he planted the first of three altars in the middle of Waxaklahun-Ubah-K'awil's stelae.

Furthermore, the symbolism of a double-headed feathered snake emphasized his desire to communicate with his dead ancestor through trance ritual. The undulating body of the snake arches over an inscription recording (February 19, 766 AD).

Thirty years later, long after the death of K'ak'-Tiliw, Yax-Pasah set up a second feathered serpent, bearing the date (September 15, 795 AD).

And five years later, on (August 19, 800 AD), he completed the triangular arrangement with the largest altar of the three to form his earthly hearth. At dawn on the day of the period ending, the sky hearth in Orion was over the earthly one."

Linda Schele & Peter Mathews, The Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs, p. 171

Note: In Maya mythology, the sky hearth in Orion represented the cosmic hearth defined by three hearth stones, thus the significance of setting the three snake-altar hearthstones in 18-Rabbit's Great Plaza.

Looking north from the Acropolis, the ballcourt & Grand Plaza unfold to view

Str. 16