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.
Panel Temple of the Foliated Cross. Linda Schele Drawing. Courtesy of Ancient Americas at LACMA
- Temple of the Sun – the lowest and smallest structure, an underworld temple depicted as a cave within a mountain, associated with warfare and military authority, owned by "night sun" deity Sun Lord, K'inich Ahau , second born of the Triad (God III), who symbolizes the warrior. The central symbol is a ceremonial shield and two crossed spears, supported on the hunched backs of underworld deities. The sun-eyed face in its center rises over a four-cornered royal dais representing the four-sided earth, and a small figure symbolizes the spirit of sacred warfare.
Panel Temple of the Sun. Linda Schele Drawing. Courtesy of Ancient Americas at LACMA
Kan Bahlam dedicated the temples in a 3-day ceremony starting July 21, 690 AD, honoring the Palenque Triad while making a statement about his legitimacy to rule and his creative abilities. The Cross Group became Palenque's ritual centerpiece, perfectly symbolizing the Maya cosmos as the realms of celestial/sky, water/earth, and underworld/cave. Each temple was a station in the ritual cycle performed by the king on important calendar dates.
The Astronomy and Mythology of Creation
Each Cross Group temple features the supernatural birth or "arrival" of one Triad God at a watery place called Matawiil, origin place of the Gods and ultimately the Palenque dynasty. The story told by hieroglyphs reaches far back into mythic times and is expressed in movements of stars identified with the Gods. Columns of hieroglyphs on the panel's left side recount mythic deeds of Gods, and columns on the right side provide historical accounts of Lakam Ha rulers. An astronomical thread links the narrative making an allegory between eras of Gods and humans—as stars rise again after disappearing below the horizon, so royal persons rise after death and rejoin their successors as ancestor spirits.
Milky Way standing upright 690 CE. Saturn, Jupiter, Mars conjunction near Moon. With permission of Dennis Tedlock, 2000 Years of Mayan Literature
Astronomical events in the night sky when the temples were dedicated anchor the creation myth. The Temple of the Cross faces southwest with an open view across the plaza. Around midnight, the Milky Way appeared standing upright on the horizon, an enormous Celestial World Tree between constellations Scorpius and Sagittarius. On top of the celestial tree was the star Aquila, called "Lady of Split Place" because of its proximity to the Great Rift dividing the Milky Way in two. Aquila corresponded to the Goddess Cormorant, Muwaan Mat to the Mayas. At the foot of the celestial tree was Scorpius, a constellation the Mayas called b'akal, bony/segmented. The region which Lakam Ha dominated was named B'aakal, polity of the bone. They called this area of the sky Wakah Chan Nah , Sixth Sky House, because it was sixth among the Maya Zodiac thirteen signs.
Goddess Cormorant’s Three Sons
That night the temples were dedicated, the guardian spirits of Lady Cormorant's three sons were visible as planets grouped near Scorpius: Mars, guardian of Hun Ahau; Jupiter, guardian of K'inich Ahau; and Saturn, guardian of Unen K'awiil. Mars was in forward motion; both Jupiter and Saturn had recently completed retrograde periods and appeared motionless, waiting to join Mars in moving eastward. The guardian spirits came together at the bony constellation; the Triad Gods joined B'aakal. The moon joined them, considered guardian spirit of the Goddess Cormorant. To commemorate this auspicious celestial event, Kan Bahlam drew his own blood in ritual sacrifice and conjured the spirit of an ancestor, the "namesake of the lady of the sky" who was his grandmother, Sak K'uk (White Quetzal), also called Cormorant.
Lady Cormorant, Maya Goddess Muwaan Mat from Dresden Codex
First Son's Birth. The Temple of the Cross left hieroglyphic panel establishes mythic Long Count dates. In 3121 BC the Goddess Cormorant was born in the previous era. Interval dates move action forward to early days of the present era, when the Progenitor God who was already in the sky turned around in Sixth Sky House, corresponding to Mars moving from its first to second stationary point. Mars completed retrograde motion and ended visibility in the night sky just after sunset. The disappearance of Mars is expressed in two ways: the God arrived at Matawiil (invisibility), and he touched the earth (Maya way of saying he was born.) Lady Cormorant does penance as Mars becomes invisible, fasting and letting blood so her first son can be reborn in Matawiil as Hun Ahau (first Triad God) on October 21, 2360 BC. She brings about his spiritual rebirth through sacrifice (penance). Shortly after, on September 5, 2325 BC, Cormorant receives the white paper headband giving her authority to rule.
In the right side glyphs, the story leaps ahead thirteen centuries into early human history. On March 9, 996 BC, the first quasi-human is born, named U K'ix Kan. He is "made and modeled" from corn, brought forth by spirit power, and ties on the white paper headband March 26, 967 BC, named a lord of the dynasty producing rulers of Lakam Ha. U K'ix Kan lives for 1200 years, straddling mythic and historic times. Next, the text covers the succession of Lakam Ha lords. The first fully human ruler is K'uk Bahlam, born March 29, 397 AD and ascending the throne in 431 AD. The second through sixth lords are named, and the tablet ends with the seventh in succession, Kan Bahlam I, namesake of K'inich Kan Bahlam II who built the Cross Group. The first Kan Bahlam accedes on April 6, 572 AD, but the text references an earlier event in 541 AD, when the moon, Venus, and Saturn were in conjunction in the Sixth Sky. This conjunction foreshadows the one occurring when the Cross Group temples were dedicated 150 years later.
Second Son's Birth. The Temple of the Sun panels tell the story of Lady Cormorant's second son. After reiterating events of the first panel, and establishing the beginning of the current era as August 11, 3114 BC, the left panel relates the birth of K'inich Ahau on October 23, 2360 BC, four days after the first birth. On this date, there is a "theoretical" eastern rise of Jupiter after a period of invisibility. Inconsistencies in dates have long puzzled scholars; recent interpretations suggest adjustments were made to incorporate synodic periods of Jupiter, and set precedent for a ceremony done by Kan Bahlam in 688 AD on the same Tzolk'in date, 1 Ik 10 Tzek. Jupiter and the Sun have close connections due to the planet's brightness and size, and its visibility cycle of 367 days, close to a solar year.
K'inich Ahau is portrayed as a headless jaguar located in the Sak B'ak Nah (White Bone House). This connects him with the Popol Vuh Hero Twin Xbalanque, who lost his head in Underworld trials and stayed in a house full of bones. This link is strengthened by both mythic characters being twins: Hun Ahau—K'inich Ahau; Xbalanque—Hunahpu. Having four days between the twin Triad Gods' births is perfect symbolism: the sun has four stations (two equinoxes and solstices), and it defines the four corners/directions of earth. Both deities are aspects of the sun. Hun Ahau born on the day Ik' (wind) and K'inich Ahau born on Kimi (death) contrast the breath/soul of the sun with the sun's death in the Underworld.
A long interval date takes the story back to the hearthstone event, when K'inich Ahau (Jupiter) turned around at the heart of Sixth Sky; exactly 690 Jupiter periods plus extra days for Jupiter's retrograde time. When Jupiter arrives at invisibility, Cormorant again lets blood and fasts to birth her second son in Matawiil.
Time moves forward to historical events of July 21, 690 AD in the right side glyphs. Jupiter appears motionless along with Mars and Saturn, joined by the moon, as Kan Bahlam also "turned around" in an ancestral temple. On the third night of his temple dedication ceremony, the moon moves into the middle of the celestial tree and he summons Cormorant's human namesake, his grandmother Sak K'uk, in a cave channeling the river that runs past the three temples. The text recounts two rulers acceding and ends with the first Kan Bahlam tying on the white headband, with Mars and Jupiter in conjunction near summer solstice.
[Left] K'inich Kan B'alam II, at Palenque ( Public Domain ) [Right] Sak K'uk, grandmother of Kan Bahlam II, Called Lady Cormorant, Drawing by author's artist
Third Son's Birth. The Temple of the Foliated Cross left glyphs set the time frame for birth of Lady Cormorant's third son, Unen K'awiil , occurring fourteen days after his brother, on November 6, 2360 BC. On this date his guardian spirit (Saturn) rose in the sky and became visible. To bring about his birth, Lady Cormorant does penance by letting blood and fasting, just as she did for his brothers. The sacrifice done on "First Corn Tassel Mountain" links the temple to primordial acts.
The right glyphs recount temple dedications in 690 AD, when the planetary guardian spirits of the brothers were in conjunction "delayed and caught" in Scorpius. The moon, guardian spirit of Cormorant, joins on the second day of dedication and on the third day moves east of the planets into the middle of the celestial tree (Milky Way) just below the Great Rift—seen as a portal between the realms of living and dead. That night, Kan Bahlam lets his blood and summons his ancestor, Sak K'uk, namesake of Cormorant. From her spirit he receives the white headband of rulership; the same one handed to Cormorant in mythic times making her the first dynastic ruler. These events happen at the temple "where the river is channeled by the cave" and are linked to the Sixth Sky cave (Great Rift) where Thunderbolt deities join Cormorant who "offers gems for the Four Hundred," referring to the multitude of observing stars. The text states that Kan Bahlam experienced all these things related to the birth of the Triad Gods, reiterates that he has tied on the headband of rulership, and implies he has rebuilt the sky cave of Lakam Ha.
The final text in Unen K'awill's tablet draws together all three panels, restating dates of Kan Bahlam's birth and accession, and tying them to his three-day ceremony dedicating the Triad God's temples in the Cross Group, when he went into seclusion, the "Lord who makes offerings for his dynasty." Now he will complete a period ending for the 13th katun (March 16, 692 AD) to seal his position in the dynasty as juntan, beloved of te patron Gods.
Sak K'uk offering symbol of rulership to her son K'inich Janaab Pakal, father of K'inich Kan Bahlam II. Lady Cormorant in her bird spirit form guides them. Artist drawing for author's book cover.
Leonide (Lennie) Martin is a retired California State University professor, former Family Nurse Practitioner, currently author and Maya researcher. She is author of the Mists of Palenque series about four great Mayan queens. Visit the website at: www.mistsofpalenque.com
Top image: Sak K'uk'/Lady Cormorant – Public Domain, Palenque, Mexico, Jiuguang Wang - CC BY SA 2.0
Gerardo Aldana. The Apotheosis of Janaab' Pakal: Science, History, and Religion at Classic Maya Palenque. University Press of Colorado, 2007.
David Stuart & George Stuart. Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya. Thames & Hudson, London, 2008.
Dennis Tedlock: 2000 Years of Mayan Literature. University of California Press, Los Angeles, 2010.