The Oldest Maya Murals and Royal Violence at San Bartolo, Guatemala
In 2001, deep in the sweltering jungles of Guatemala, completely by chance, archaeologists stumbled into the substructure of a lost Maya pyramid, which was the discovery of San Bartolo. To their utter astonishment, they discovered an enormous, domed chamber, its walls bejeweled with exquisitely preserved murals. The vivid, yellow, white, red, and black ochre iconography looked as if it had been painted the day before, aside from much of it being fractured and scattered on the ground. Decades of meticulous excavation and artistic resurrection efforts were started and undertaken at San Bartolo.
Once these projects were completed, it resulted in a marvelous, iconographic window into the ancient and mysterious cosmology of these early Maya. Once analyzed and partially deciphered, this portal in time would permanently change our understanding of Maya origins.
The Discovery of the Wonders of Guatemala’s Maya San Bartolo
The discovery of San Bartolo is credited to archaeologist William Saturno of the University of New Hampshire who used carbon dating in 2001 to date the murals found at the site to 100 BC. This places the San Bartolo murals in the Preclassical Maya Period which immediately made these the oldest Maya paintings ever discovered.
Artist Heather Hurst and epigrapher Karl Taube were the experts who masterfully recreated and interpreted the murals. Apparently, at some point in the ancient past, the murals had been deliberately shattered and the chamber itself was filled in with earth. Some of the script was decipherable. However, due to its extreme age and heavy Olmec influence , the texts are some kind of proto-Maya and are therefore yet to be fully deciphered.
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Not far from the mural chamber, Guatemalan archaeologist Monica Pellecer Alecio uncovered the most ancient Maya royal tomb ever discovered, dating to 150 BC. Beneath a small pyramid, within the same complex, Alecio unearthed a burial chamber which contained the bones of a man adorned with a jade plaque , confirming his status as Maya royalty.
A Maya king impersonating the hero Hunahpu by piercing his penis with a spear to spill sacrificial blood, west mural fragment, San Bartolo. (Authenticmaya~commonswiki / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
A Word on Ancient Iconography
Before delving into the splendor and interpretations of the San Bartolo murals, it’s important to distinguish between “art” from these ancient civilizations and our modern perception of what “ art” is.
For modern humans art is everywhere. In advertisements, logos, insignias, etc. The modern barrage of art serves a variety of functions from corporate marketing ploys and gimmickry to random amusement, or cultural enrichment by way of aesthetic appreciation.
But for the Maya, and most other ancient cultures, paintings such as these were regarded as sacred iconography . These images were sacred, charged with the echoing deeds and spirits of their creator deities/demigods. Murals such as those of San Bartolo were a physical link between their rulers and their deities. This linkage between the physical and spirit worlds, enabled a continuation of kingship, beginning with their powerful gods, and passed from generational monarch to generational monarch.
In other words, the murals, the statues, the pyramid glyphs, the codices, and the Popol Vuh facilitated and legitimized the divine authority of the ruling elite who were believed to be the mediators between mankind and the deities.
North wall San Bartolo mural showing two main scenes: 1. In the one on the left five infants, still with their umbilical cords, are born from a gourd. The fifth figure born in a bloodbath is like the Maize God (Corn God). 2. In the other scene that occupies the largest space, the Mountain of the Flower is identified, from it a serpent extends to the end of the representation that serves as an "earthly level" for the eight characters that are represented on it; the Maize God, dressed entirely in red, receives the offerings. ( Pueblos Originarios )
North Wall Mural Summary
The structure containing the murals at San Bartolo has become known as the Pyramid of the Paintings, and within the murals, are complex tales of Maya creation mythology. These stories showcase several deities, demigods or kings, and common citizens or possibly priestesses.
The most prominent figure (who may be represented in multiple forms) is the Maize God. The north wall displays a fascinating narration of the creation/birth of the Maya, effectuated by the Maize God who conducts sacrificial rites and bloodletting rituals to the celestial deities.
The north wall narrative culminates in two distinct scenes. Scene one depicts the Maize God (or possibly a defied king reenacting his deeds) walking with a group of less significant people (the men standing, the women kneeling) atop a giant, serpentine creature.
They stand before a living mountain of creation, a sacred solar mountain known by Mayaists as “Flower Mountain.” This unique mountain and its corresponding sacred cave are believed to be the point of emergence and the secret hiding place of corn seeds. From this hallowed location, the Maize God either gives or receives a calabash/cornstalk.
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Also on the north wall, is a continuation of the first scene, in which four infants (who probably correspond to the cardinal directions), have their umbilical cords still connected to the calabash as they rise up from it, emerging from the underworld, then a fifth, fully matured/clothed adult male emerges from the calabash, which by then, had split in half. This entire ritual is observed by a large, celestial bird/dragon deity.
The West Wall murals, depicting three sacrifices to the Principal Bird Deity. On the three tripods are sacrifices (left to right) of what are likely a catfish, deer, and turkey, respectively. (Drawing by Heather Hurst / Research Gate )
West Wall Mural Summary
The west wall murals contain many more, equally complex scenes. There are successive scenes with deities, or semi-divine kings, making sacrifices in connection to four distinct trees (another probable link to the cardinal directions) which also seem to correspond to four distinct realms.
Saturno, the original discoverer, shared his brief interpretation, “The first deity stands in the water and offers a fish, establishing the underworld. The second stands on the ground and sacrifices a deer, establishing the land. The third floats in the air, offering a turkey, establishing the sky. The fourth stands in a field of flowers, the food of gods, establishing paradise.”
Then there are four precessions/coronations of four different kings, each of whom pierces their penises, offering their blood of divine lineage to their ancestral deities. Each tree comes with various bird figures, who are representations of the major deity Itzamna, who is also related to, or served by, the Chaacs (rain deities), Bacab (the fourfold deity of the underworld), and his thirteen divine children who were said to have created the Earth and mankind.
The west wall murals seem to be depicting the chain of divine lineage being bequeathed down from the gods to the Maya kings. This is interesting alone because it proves that full-fledged Maya hierarchies exists centuries before the experts believed they did, and this causes the entire chronology of Maya civilization to be pushed back. The west wall also contains many more puzzling icons like an infant made of maize and the Maize God dancing within a turtle cave before aquatic deities.
The Maize God and The Hero Twin Hunahpu
An important aspect of these kings is that they wear markings of one of the Maya Hunahpu hero twins . These figures are very prominent in Maya beliefs and culture, frequently in close association with the Maize God.
The exploits of the Maya Hero Twins go beyond the scope of this article but suffice to say that these twin brother heroes were immaculately conceived when the skull of their decapitated father non-consensually spit into the hand of their mother when she was in the underworld. Murderous and cruel plots followed the supernatural brothers their entire lives, but the clever twins always managed to outsmart their rivals.
Their otherworldly adventures climax, when they descend into the underworld to avenge the deaths of their father and uncle who were defeated in a ball game by the underworld deities: the Lords of Xibalba . Upon defeating the underworld gods, they ascended into the heavens becoming the sun and moon.
The Maya Maize God. ( Public domain )
The Trees, Cardinal Directions, and The Axis Mundi
Within the west wall murals, the previously mentioned four trees actually unite into a fifth, much larger tree, which is presided over by the Maize God, and this tree is interpreted by the experts as the world tree, the axis mundi (the axis and or naval of the world which unites heavenly, earthly, and underworld realms).
This piece of iconography is most intriguing because of its universal occurrence in ancient mythology around the world, particularly in terms of how it relates to sacred mountains and conduits to other worlds or realms. In ancient Mesopotamia for example, the ziggurat structures were believed to be recreations of a primordial mound of creation, and the summit of these artificial mountains, acted as conduits to the realms of their ancestral deities. Mount Kunlun in ancient Chinese traditions was held as the sacred mountain that linked the mortal realm to the heavenly realm and that they were also connected to each other by a celestial tree.
These holy mountains (or pyramid/ziggurats) in different cultures were not just considered portals into the higher realms, but the underworld as well. For instance, the ziggurat at Eridu was believed to be the otherworldly abode of the patron deity Enki who was the god of subterranean waters.
This is all strangely paralleled by the Maya concept of Flower Mountain, Xibalba, and the cave/summit conduits.
Even the Canaanite and biblical accounts are reflected too with the narrative of Jacob and the Elohim ascending and descending the mountain, or the Canaanite tradition of Mount Hermon. The traditions surrounding Mount Hermon are especially fascinating, as this spot, according to Enoch 6:6, was the place where the watchers descended to Earth and struck an oath to engage in fornication with mortal women and impart them with secrets of civilization- secrets, like the knowledge of agriculture and astronomy.
The Tree of Life was woven into the murals of San Bartolo. (Madman2001 / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Peculiar Patterns Part One
There are comparative mythology patterns evident in the murals just beyond the axis mundi, including the sacred mountain, the divine bequeathing of kingship, and the bestowing of agricultural knowledge.
The four kings of the paintings, who are piercing their penises to make bloodletting offerings, have extra digits on their hands. Their features are noticeably abnormal in general- elongated heads, long, stout mandibles, sloping noses, but most glaring, is the fact that they have six fingers instead of five.
Clearly, this was not a whimsical stylistic detail, because the deities do not have these extra digits and neither do the common people of the precession, only these kings. This deliberate, iconographic detail of polydactylys is present in other Maya sites as well, such as Palenque. In the icons of Palenque, the heirs of Pakal the Great were depicted with extra fingers and toes. There was also fierce debate among scholars that Pakal himself may have had a sixth toe.
This connection becomes intriguing when it is traced far into North America when the polydactyly pattern is found within the Anasazi culture and their reverence for supernumerary fingers and toes.
And let’s not forget that these cultures also built mysterious stone wonders, aligned with the stars, from masterplans, and sanctified them with seemingly endless blood anointment rituals.
A painted stucco relief in the museum at Palenque, which is similar to the reliefs and mural depictions found at San Bartolo. (Photo © 2004 Jacob Rus / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Peculiar Patterns Part Two
There is yet another aspect to this pattern, one that stretches around the entire ancient world. Previously mentioned was the fact that these murals were smashed (into seven thousand pieces) and the sacred chamber was filled in with earth. The entire San Bartolo complex was abruptly abandoned, which is another common, yet curious feature of Maya sites.
At Teotihuacan for example, it’s clear that around one-thousand-five-hundred years ago the entire, magnificent complex was deserted, and it was around that same time that Palenque was also deserted. In North America too, the Anasazi seemed to have completely vanished, centuries later perhaps, but the pattern remains.
Civilizations rise and fall, but it’s one thing for a civilization to gradually collapse or be destroyed in some war, but these sites seem to have been swiftly abandoned, never to be inhabited again. Not only that, Palenque, Teotihuacan, and Chaco Canyon ruins in America, all have shadowy evidence of fire damage which is limited to the living quarters of the ruling elite exclusively.
If there is no evidence of large-scale warfare, then it has been theorized that what occurred at all three of these sites (and possibly San Bartolo too), was a revolt of the common people. This would also explain the iconoclasm of the destruction of the religious iconography that legitimized these bloodthirsty, despotic monarchs who had six fingers and or toes.
Bas-relief carving with of a Maya king from Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico. ( frenta / Adobe Stock)
What does this iconographic window in time reveal to us about the ancient Maya? It reveals another link in a chain of remnants from a willfully forgotten time before written history as we know it. A time when large, vicious bloodlines of warrior/hunter kings reigned.
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They seemed to have had unique physical traits, impressive knowledge of masonry, city planning, agriculture, astronomy, and were obsessed with maintaining a constant river of blood sacrifice for themselves and their ancestral deities.
Who were these fallen warrior kings of ancient renown? Answers can be found in the most revered scriptures of the Old World, but that is another story for another day.
Top image: Maya mural paintings like these are what makes the Maya site of San Bartolo, Guatemala so amazing. Source: Ana / Adobe Stock
By Mark A. Carpenter
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Thanks for the article – really interesting. I learned a lot, particularly the fact that these kings had six fingers! I’m hoping to travel to Mexico this spring, so thanks for inspring me.