Temples of Palenque Reveal Story of Lady Cormorant and Her Three Sons, The Triad Gods
In the mountain rain forest of Chiapas, México, sits the ruins of Palenque, considered the most beautiful ancient Maya city. Silhouetted against a backdrop of natural hills and valleys, the elegant pyramids and palace offer fine Maya bas-relief carvings of high-grade limestone and stucco. Palenque's artists created a unique style of flowing, cursive hieroglyphs and realistic, graceful portraits. Orange-red pigment was applied to buildings, while figures and symbols were painted in bright contrasting colors.
Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque, Chiapas, México. ( CC BY 3.0 )
Classic Period Mayas called their city Lakam Ha, "Place of Big Waters" because many streams traversed the ridge, cascading down cliffs to join large rivers below. Blessed with natural abundance, this city flourished for 700 years and produced a remarkable number of hieroglyphic texts, well-preserved over the succeeding centuries. Lengthy hieroglyphs carved on stone panels mounted on interior walls of chambers gave archaeologists texts that enabled them to determine the "king list" and learn the history, mythology, and religion of the Mayas—written in their own words.
The Cross Group: Temples of the Cross (left), Foliated Cross (far background), and Sun (right). Photo by permission, Thomas F. Aleto.
Temple of the Cross. Reconstruction by permission of Maya 3D
The Cross Group and Cosmic Creation
The Cross Group is a treasure of Maya mythology, comprised of three main structures: Temple of the Cross, Temple of the Foliated Cross, and Temple of the Sun. They form a triangle around a plaza with a low center platform whose four sides symbolize the four-sided universe of Maya cosmology. The three temples represent the hearthstones of creation, three stars of Orion which set the pattern for hearths in Maya homes. The Cross Group temples are an earthly reflection of this cosmic creation event, reinforced by their natural setting at the base of a sacred mountain K'uk Lakam Witz , whose peak offers vistas over the entire city. The largest temple faces a spring emerging from the mountain, its stream flowing across the main ridge.
Interior chambers of these temples hold panels relating the Palenque creation myth: Birth of the Triad Gods (Palenque's patron deities), creation of the world during mythic times, each God's cosmological symbolism, and how these Gods became forebears of Palenque kings. Panels in each temple tell the story of Lady Cormorant and Her Three Sons, the Triad Gods. This set of three panels is the only long written narrative of Classic Maya mythology. Each temple is "owned" by one of the Triad Gods and expresses the deity's prominence, symbolism, and functions within Maya society and religion.
Cross Group Diagram. Palenque Mapping Project, Edwin Barnhart, 1999. FAMSI-sponsored project
The Cross Group was built by the 12th ruler of Lakam Ha, K'inich Kan Bahlam II, son of famed ruler K'inich Janaab Pakal who is considered the greatest Mayan king. Kan Bahlam created a vivid image of the Maya universe with its three divisions of sky, water, and caves. The panels made a statement about how these divisions were aspects of his own political authority through ancestors, agriculture, and warfare; and how his lineage descended from the creator goddess/gods. Each tablet has a remarkable double portrait of Kan Bahlam, once as a child of six (641 AD) when he was designated as ba-ch'ok (heir), and later as ruler, K'uhul Ahau , at age 48 (684 AD) when he ascended to the throne. The figures face each other venerating a central symbol expressing his fate and royal duties:
- Temple of the Cross – the largest and highest structure, a sky temple associated with solar rebirth and ancestral authority, owned by One Lord, Hun Ahau, first born of the Triad (God I). The central symbol is a large cross representing the sacred world tree/cosmic tree of the Milky Way called the Wakah Chan Te' (Sixth Sky Jeweled Tree), with flowering branches, decorated with jewels, with the celestial bird (animal spirit of the Creator God Itzamna) perched on top. Hun Ahau represents a "rebirth" of the original First Father-Creator God.
Panel Temple of the Cross. Linda Schele Drawing. Courtesy of Ancient Americas at LACMA
- Temple of the Foliated Cross – the mid-size structure, an earth temple associated with water and agriculture, primarily maize, symbolizing the king's procreative powers, owned by Infant K'awiil, Unen K'awiil, third born (but second ranking) of the Triad (God II). The central symbol is a tree with foliations representing sprouting corn, called K'anal Te' (Yellow Corn Tree). It rises from a monster head with sea shells and water motifs, and sacred mountain symbols. As patron deity of royal lineages, Unen K'awiil adds fertility and rainmaking through lightning to themes of rebirth and germination.