A grand stairway leads up the mountain to Bird Jaguar's temple, Structure 33

Str. 33

"The grand stairway, facing the river and moldering under moss and grass, climbed the steep natural slope of the mountain. Above, on one of the mountain's false summits, rose Bird Jaguar's temple and its "roof comb"—a wall of masonry gridwork, typical of classical architecture, extending above the roof and acting as counterweight for the interior arches.

I pictured, as others had, a busy riverfront, with trade, recreation, household, and ceremonial activities going on simultaneously, and canoes hauled on shore, some resembling the low-profile boats common today, and others the cosmic cayuco carved on the bones from Tikal — deep amidships rising to high bow and stern peaks.

At that spot all the divine and mundane significances of rivers and water converged. Mesoamerican plazas, designed to hold water, to flood, created living tokens of the Watery Path. Moises [Morales] remembered Yaxchilán's plaza flooding in heavy rains.

On the plaza floor the prostrate sculpture of a crocodile stretched at my feet, as if to emphasize the point. Emblem of creation, of earth, and transformation; of rivers, canoes, and perhaps of Yaxchilán itself, it lay at the exact foot of structure 33, miraculously unlooted, beside a low altar.

There it anchored the cosmos, and the entire Maya cultural sphere by extension, high and low conjoined in a masterwork of public art, a shared vision of creation that Tate termed "a cognitive map of reality."

Christopher Shaw, Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Trip with the Gods, p. 273-4

Stela 2 marks the stairway up to Structure 33

Str. 33

"The flowering [of Yaxchilán] took place over a five-hundred-year period of stability and continuity between 320 and 808, dominated by a family of rulers we may refer to as the "Jaguar" clan: Shield Jaguar, Bird Jaguar, and their forebearer, the redoubtable Penis Jaguar, Yat Balam.

The artists and scribes came from the elite and priest classes. In return for support, they glorified the royals in stone, justifying their wars and usurpations, commemorating their sacrifices, and rendering into dogma the visions they had achieved through bloodletting and psychotropic drugs.

For generations western eyes found the imagery, its patterns and motifs, an indecipherable grammar of form and image. It took Mayanists a century of collecting, photographing, cataloguing, and concentrated looking before the shapes meant anything to them."

Christopher Shaw, Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Trip with the Gods, p. 274

Yaxchilán: Stairway to Str. 33

Str. 33

Christopher Shaw's delightful description of how the river approach to Yaxchilán might have appeared to an 8th century visitor:

"The temples and palaces of Yaxchilán's ceremonial center climbed the east slopes of the mountain that dominated the peninsula. We watched for temples, but the forest was thick, and the approach took longer than I remembered, stretching out over two or three miles.

In the eighth century you would have seen the raw terra-cotta reds, ochers, and greenish-blues of the pyramids through the trees, especially those of structure 33, and structures 40 and 41 on their solitary summit, the enormous braziers billowing black clouds of copal, sacrifice victims hanging from the roof combs.

Ranks of stelas carved with warriors in battle gear lined the bank. On ceremonial occasions you would have heard drums, conch trumpets, ocarinas."

Christopher Shaw, Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Trip with the Gods, p. 266

The mountain stair winds its steep way up to the summit temple

Str. 33

Google Arts & Culture has a short video showing how Structure 33 gradually reveals itself as one climbs to the summit


Climbing higher and higher, Structure 33 only gradually reveals itself

Str. 33

Even from this level, only the roofcomb and frieze of Structure 33 are visable. The roofcomb shows the remains of the once enormous seated figure of Bird Jaguar IV in the center, who built this temple.

The building was deliberately set back from view of the plaza below to allow for a 15 m deep plaza for ritual dance and celebrations.

Four levels of decoration reveal themselves from plaza level in front of Structure 33

Str. 33

Click on arrows to jump to photos, or just scroll down

The art decorating Structure 33 is placed on four levels. At the base, six plain steps lead up to a final step composed of thirteen carved risers, shown here covered by protective screens. Ten of these risers depict historical individuals of the Yaxchilán royalty engaged in a ballgame, and three show female members of the royal family holding God K scepters. Above the hieroglyphic step, a landing provides access to the three entrances.

Next, elaborate carved lintels above each door portray Bird Jaguar impersonating various gods in the Maya pantheon as he performed his duties of rulership. Maler reported that once a red band ran under the cornice and around the doors, but that line is not visible today.

Over each doorway, stucco figures were enthroned on monster heads, but all that remains are the tenons or holes for tenons for holding the figures in place.

Finally, the whole structure was topped by a roofcomb with an enormous statue of (presumably) Bird Jaguar in the center.

Bird Jaguar IV was the most prolific builder of all the rulers of Yaxchilán

Many scholars believe that Bird Jaguar IV's prodigious building program was motivated by a life-long effort to establish and document his own legitimacy and right to rule.

Bird Jaguar IV's mother, Lady Ik Skull, was Shield Jaguar III's second wife and a foreigner from the city-state of Calakmul. Lady Great Skull, his father's senior wife, had a son, so Bird Jaguar was not first in line to the throne.

Katherine Josserand argues that the "missing heir" might have been captured and sacrificed by a neighboring state. We know from inscriptions that was a ten year interregnum after his father's death where Bird Jaguar IV's mother Lady Ik Skull might have served as regent. It probably was a period of great political unstability.

Josserand, J. Kathryn. "The Missing Heir at Yaxchilán: Literary Analysis of a Maya Historical Puzzle." Latin American Antiquity, vol. 18, no. 3, 2007, pp. 295–312. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/25478182. Accessed 21 Jan. 2023.

Of course, this is not the kind of history that is carved on public monuments or displayed on billboards, but a close look at Bird Jaguar IV's building projects does reveal an obsession with documenting his pedigree and projecting the the symbols and rationale of his legitimacy.

The building program of Bird Jaguar IV is a fascinating study of how art, architecture, public spectacle and the use of ritual, performance and public spaces can be used to gain, project and legitimize political power.

We begin with an examination of Step II

Step II

Step II shows Lady Pacal, mother of Shield Jaguar [Bird Jaguar IV's father] and grandmother of Bird Jaguar himself, holding a God K scepter indicating royalty.

Since this step is extremely eroded, I used the "burn tool" in PhotoShop, not very successfully, to try to enhance the lines of the carving. However, if you look very carefully, Lady Pacal is sitting to the right of the crack in the stair and looking toward the right.

Structure 33, Step VI

Step VII

This step portrays Bird Jaguar IV's father, Shield Jaguar II, playing ball.

The ballgame has huge mythological significance all over Mesoamerica. In a game played against the Lords of Death in Xibalba [the underworld], the Hero Twins, through guile, won their game and resurrected their father, the Maize God.

There were ballcourts in ancient cities across the Maya region, where kings played the game and sacrificed high-status captives in order to preserve the fertility of the land and bring prosperity to their people.

Structure 33, Step VII

Step VII

"The central block, VII, is the largest, and portrays Bird Jaguar IV engaged in his first lineage event, a ballgame that was likened to ballgame events in the distant past.

The historical date that he played ball was expressed as a single day within a scale of reference cosmic in dimension, as A verbal couplet states that the ballgame event also involved the letting of blood.

Two dwarfs in the scene are marked with Venus signs and one wears a shell earplug. Perhaps, as Venus was called the sweeper of the path of the sun, the Venus sign identifies them as the sweepers of the path for Bird Jaguar as he journeyed to confront the Lords of the Underworld in their ballcourt."

Carolyn E. Tate, Yaxchilán: The Design of a Maya Ceremonial City, p. 131

The stairway inscription details a series of three sacrificial rites that transpired in distant mythological time. Each features the decapitation of a different deity, followed by statements concerning a first, second, and third "dawning" or "creation" (ahal).

All of these events took place on a mythological date of 1 Ahau in a supernatural location called "the Black-Hole-Place" that represents a portal to Xibalba.

Structure 33, Step VIII

Str. 33

This monument shows Bird Jaguar IV's grandfather, Bird Jaguar III, engaged in the cosmic pursuit of playing the ritual ballgame. His opponents were likely the Lords of the Underworld.

"The small cosmological backrack is portrayed three times at Yaxchilán. It is clearly shown on Step VIII of Structure 33. There the artist turned the figure of Bird Jaguar III so that the backrack is clearly displayed.

The framework of the backrack consists of the Cosmic Monster with a deer-eared dragon as its front head, the tail of a caiman, and a quadripartite badge riding on the monster. In the center of the "body"of the monster is a pendant worn on many occasions, carved with the image of a profile jaguar."

Carolyn E. Tate, Yaxchilán: The Design of a Maya Ceremonial City, p. 78

Now we examine the three carved lintels over the three doorways of Structure 33

The images on each of these lintels are accompanied by glyphic texts describing the action taking place. In the case of the Structure 33 lintels, all the actions are ritualistic dances. The text itself is very formulaic: day the event took place, the main character and his titles, a verb describing a specific dance and the ritual object that characterizes that dance, plus information on the subsidiary characters pictured and their titles and epithets.

The stelae and lintels that show dance scenes in Yaxchilán are in structures with fronting platforms.The association of "dance monuments" with low terraces of plazas suggest strongly that these served as "dance floors," much like the open areas in Native American communities.

Grube, Nikolai. "CLASSIC MAYA DANCE: Evidence from Hieroglyphs and Iconography." Ancient Mesoamerica, vol. 3, no. 2, 1992, p. 201-18. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26307137. Accessed 20 Jan. 2023.

Lintel 1: The Dance with the K'awil (God K) Scepter commemorates Bird Jaguar IV's accession to the throne

Lintel 1

This lintel is dated 11 Ajaw 8 Sek or April 29, 752 AD

Lintel 1 commemorates the earliest event in this series, the accession of Bird Jaguar IV to the throne. A rather free translation of the glyphic inscription might read:

"On 11 Ajaw 8 Sek, here is pictured Bird Jaguar IV, He of Twenty Captives, The Master of Aj Uk [a high-status captive], Holy King of Broken Sky [another name for Yaxchilán], the Western Kaloomte (a high king with vassel states under his control) performing the Kawiil Receiving Dance (kawiil is the symbol of kingship).

In the act of public performance, here is prophetess-person Lady Great Skull, mother of Shield Jaguar IV (Bird Jaguar's son and successor)."

Transliterations and translations of the glyphs of all Yaxchilán's lintels can be found online at The Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology. Harvard University. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions: Inscriptions at Yaxchilán

These translations and drawings of the inscriptions at Yaschilán are part of the monumental work of Ian Graham to document in photographs and detailed line drawings all known Maya inscriptions and their associated figurative art. William Saterno, who worked for Graham early in his career, describes him as a larger-than-life Indiana Jones type character in this remarkable portrait.

Lintel 1 detail: The Queen Consort holds a ceremonial bundle with ritual objects

Structure 33, Lintel 1

"The lintel depicts Bird Jaguar IV in a dance alongside his wife, the Lady Great Skull. The king manipulates a K'awiil scepter, while Lady Great Skull supports a large bundle of jades (marked with the label i-ka-tzi ihkaatz "jades"). The text suggests that this event was a public event that took place in front of a large crowd.

Because the full regal name of Shield Jaguar IV appears at the close of the inscription (K2), it seems reasonable to regard this monument as having been commissioned during his reign rather than his father's."

Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology. Harvard University Online Resources: Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Sites Online: Yaxchilán

Lintel 1: Bird Jaguar's wild headdress is part of his regalia of dynastic succession

Lintel 1

In this photo, Bird Jaguar's face appears in the extreme lower left corner of the photo & looks leftward and downward

The headdress worn by Bird Jaguar IV on his accession lintel is part of regalia he designed for dynastic succession and accession anniveraries. This headdress appears only on Yaxchilán lintels and appears on three of the structures he dedicated in

This tall cylindrical headdress sits on the head of a large bird or other animal with a down-turned, hooked beak. This headdress is a local variation of the drum-major headdress worn in accessions at Palenque, where it was handed to Pacal by his mother as depicted on that site's earliest figural monument, the Oval Palace Tablet, dating to after (A.D. 615).

Tate believes that it was adopted at Yaxchilán during the reign of Bird Jaguar IV in an attempt to participate in a regional (Western Maya) tradition.

Carolyn E. Tate, Yaxchilán: The Design of a Maya Ceremonial City, p. 70

Among the modern Maya, material components of dances, including costumes, are regarded as sacred objects and are often kept in churches or sanctuaries and guarded by cofradías.

Lintel 2: The Dance of the Bird Staffs commemorates the 5th anniversary of Bird Jaguar IV's rule

Yaxchilán Str. 33, Lintel 2

Lintel is dated 4 Ajaw 3 Sotz' or April 3, 757 AD

As the central lintel of Structure 33, Bird Jaguar placed the lintel which closed the saga of his first five tuns [5 years] in office, here dancing the ritual Dance of the Bird Staffs with his son. A rather free translation of the glyphic inscription might read:

His fifth year in lordship finishes on 4 Ajaw 3 Suutz'. Bird Jaguar IV, he of twenty captives, master of Aj Uk [a high-status captive of Bird Jaguar], the holy lord of pa-chan, the baahkab.

In this image of the dance is Muy Chan Yopaat Chelte' Chan K'inich (i.e., Shield Jaguar IV, son of Bird Jaguar IV)

Lintel 2 detail: Father & son hold cross septers with flower and bird terminations

Lintel 2

The cross septer cross-pieces terminate in flowers, while the central axis features a small bird at the top, with beak pointing down and tail feathers above

For the Maya since earliest times, the cross represented the world tree which supported the sky and marked the four directions.

At Yaxchilán, birds represent the "bird" in Bird Jaguar's name and refers to bird–and–flower iconography in local headdresses. Thus, this version of the world tree was very localized to the polity of Yaxchilán.

Nikolai Grube identifies the bird staff as a sacred object which defined a courtly ritual dance type he called The Dance with the Bird Staff.

Grube, Nikolai. "CLASSIC MAYA DANCE: Evidence from Hieroglyphs and Iconography." Ancient Mesoamerica, vol. 3, no. 2, 1992, p. 201-18. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26307137. Accessed 20 Jan. 2023, p 211.

Lintel 3: The Dance with the K'awil (God K) Scepter combines the hotun period ending celebration with the anniversary of Bird Jaguar's accession to power

Yaxchilán Str. 33 Lintel 3

Lintel 3 is dated 1 Ajaw 8 Sotz longcount or April 8, 756 AD

A rather free translation of the glyphic inscription might be:

It is 8 Ajaw 8 Sotz'. It is the first ho'tuun. It is the image of Bird Jaguar IV in the receiving dance, he of 20 captives, master of Aj Uk, master of Jeweled Skull, three katun lord, holy lord of pa'chan.

It is Aj Tza', K'in Mo' Ajaw, the 3 katun sajal [subsidiary ruler under Bird Jaguar]

For the occasion, Bird Jaguar IV wore a headdress composed of a giant coil of spotted material — snakeskin or a roll of stuffed jaguar pelt — which was invented during his rule.

His comrade, referred to as a 3 Katun Cahal, carries the same dynastic accession regalia that Bird Jaguar does. It is possible that this man was made Cahal during this ceremony, but it is not specifically stated in the glyphs.

Carolyn E. Tate, Yaxchilán: The Design of a Maya Ceremonial City, p. 106

Lintel 3 detail: God K Manikin Scepters

Lintel 3

At Yaxchilán, the God K manikin scepter is seen in conjunction with accession and commemorative occasions such as calendar period ending dates.

God K manikin scepters portray God K with one leg that is a serpent body terminating in a head. Nikoli Grube remarks that the God K Septer is the most powerful symbol as it represents the concept of kingship itself.

K'awil is the god who presides over the way (companion spirits) which are in turn associated with local lineages. Grube wonders if distinct manifestations of K'awil correlate with different places.

Structure 33's roofcomb was once topped with a gigantic image of Bird Jaguar

Roofcomb detail

At the center of the roofcomb was once a gigantic figure of Bird Jaguar wearing an enormous headdress. All that remains today are tenons for attachment and a bit of substructural fill where the huge figure once resided.

Mahler described the figure as having upreaching arms, but no evidence of that remains today.

A carved stalactite in front of Structure 33 is referred to as Stela 31

Stela 31

In front of Structure 33 is a Stela made out of a stalactite shaft, but no date survives this monument.

Caves were regarded as sacred spaces by the Maya, who regarded them as entrances to Xibalba, the underworld. Therefore, this carved stalagtite from a nearby cave would have been a powerful object.

A farewell look back at the frieze and roofcomb of Structure 33

Str. 33

Structure 33: Carved risers Structure 33: Lintel 1 Structure 33: Lintel 2 Structure 33: Lintel 3 Structure 33: Roofcomb Sculpture Supports