The Marvelous Mayan Zoomorph Monoliths of Quiriguá
Elaborate designs adorn unique monoliths in an ancient Mayan site in Guatemala. There are immense stelae hailing past rulers and huge stones carved with majestic beasts and curious creatures. The stelae help tell the stories of Quiriguá, but the zoomorphs also hint at forgotten mystical Mayan beliefs.
Quiriguá is an ancient Mayan site situated in the southeastern Guatemalan department of Izabal. This site is renowned for its Mayan stone monuments, which may be divided into two groups – stelae and zoomorphs.
These monoliths are believed to have been carved by the inhabitants of Quiriguá between the 5th and 9th centuries AD, though it may be added that the majority of them were created between 746 and 805 AD. These great monuments are also covered in Mayan hieroglyphs, and with its decipherment during the 1970s, the monoliths of Quiriguá were able to provide much insight into Mayan history and religion.
Quiriguá, Guatemala: Zoomorph B, after Maudslay, 1902. (Public Domain)
Quiriguá Gains Independence
It is unclear when Quiriguá was founded, though its history has been closely linked to the nearby city of Copán. As a trading port of Copán, the rulers of Quiriguá would control the trade along the Motagua River. The taxes collected in Quiriguá would be sent to Copán, which was in turn subjected to Tikal.
In 738 AD, however, a ruler of Quiriguá by the name of K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat (also called ‘Cauac Sky’ in some sources) rebelled against his Copán overlord. The rebellion was successful, and the king of Copán, Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil (known also as ‘18 Rabbit’), was captured and beheaded. Thus, the people of Quiriguá gained their independence.
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Stela D, north side, from Quiriguá, representing king K'ak' Tiliw Chan Yopaat. (Stuardo Herrera/CC BY 2.0)
It was during this period that most of the stone monuments in Quiriguá were erected, perhaps as a demonstration of the city’s strength and prosperity. These monoliths were carved out of sandstone by Mayan stonemasons who had no access to metal tools, which is an amazing feat. It is even more so when one considers the intricate designs that cover them.
One group of these monuments are referred to as stelae. One of these stelae (known as Stela E) is said to be the largest monolith that has been erected in the New World. These stelae contain a wealth of information, not only from the Mayan hieroglyphs carved onto the sides of these monoliths, but only in the iconography of the figures presented on them.
Stela E, depicting K'ak' Tiliw Chan Yopaat holding a God K sceptre. (Daniel Mennerich/CC BY NC ND 2.0)
The other intriguing group of stone monuments at Quiriguá are the zoomorphs. Generally speaking, animalistic figures are carved onto these blocks of sandstone. A wide variety of zoomorphs were created by the Mayan craftsmen of Quiriguá, many of which have survived over the centuries, and can still be seen at the archaeological site. As an example, Zoomorph N depicts a turtle shell with a skeletal head on each end. One of the heads is said to represent a deity of the Mayan Underworld.
Another zoomorph, named Zoomorph G, has crocodilian features on its left side. Its front nose, however, has been observed to belong to a jaguar. Moreover, seen from a certain angle, this zoomorph seems to have toad-like features. Thus, it is unclear if this zoomorph is meant to represent a crocodile, a jaguar, a toad, or all three creatures. We do know, nevertheless, that this zoomorph was dedicated to K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat by his successor, Sky Xul, not long after the former’s death.
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A large boulder 4 m (12 feet) long and 2 m (6 feet) high sculpted entirely over its upper surface to represent a grotesque two-headed monster. It represents a Maya cosmological concept embodied in a bicephalic reptilian (crocodilian) monster. (Dennis Jarvis/CC BY SA 2.0)
The most enigmatic and important zoomorph, however, is the one known as Zoomorph P, which is also the largest zoomorph at the site. On one side of this zoomorph, the figure of the king, Sky Xul, can be seen. Sky Xul is depicted as resting between the jaws of a mythical turtle. One interpretation of this scene is that it is meant to be a re-enactment of the creation of man.
On the opposite side of Zoomorph P is the Cosmic Monster, known also as Itzamna. According to one of the stelae, Itzamna tied the three stones of creation together so as to create the sacred throne for the ruler of the new mankind. Therefore, considering these two images together, it may be speculated that Zoomorph P was made to highlight the link between kingship and creation.
One view of Quiriguá Zoomorph P. (Daniel Mennerich/CC BY NC ND 2.0)
Around the beginning of the 9th century AD, Quiriguá began to experience a decline. The last hieroglyph texts at the site date to 810 AD, after which such monumental constructions became less frequent; eventually halting all together. The city was ultimately abandoned, leaving its monoliths to be re-discovered at a later date. Today, Quiriguá is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Top image: Quiriguá Zoomorph P. Source: Daniel Mennerich/CC BY NC ND 2.0
By Wu Mingren
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