Angels


Did the Maya believe in angels? If not, how can we explain the figures with wings at the entrance to the tomb of Ukit Kan Le'k Tok' in Ek' Balam?


The entrance to the tomb of Ukit Kan Le'k Tok', Acropolis, Ek' Balam, Yucatán (814 AD).

The entrance to the tomb of Ukit Kan Le'k Tok', Acropolis, Ek' Balam, Yucatán (814 AD).

 

The tomb doorway is in the shape of a monster-like mouth. It has been always described as a jaguar mouth but recent breakthroughs indicate that this is actually the witz monster (witz means mountain in the Mayan language).

The tomb entrance is guarded by winged human-like creatures on the side of the opening that was believed to lead to the underworld. We know the Mayans did not believe in angels, hence the mystery.

So who are these angels? Celestial beings? Celestial beings are a religious or shamanic element of all civilizations at all times. For the Maya the celestial winged beings were gods like Kukulkán (Aztecs called him Quetzalcoóatl) or the Maize God, Hun H’unahpu. Could these winged creatures have been gods? They might be celestial beings that accompany Ukit Kan Le'k Tok 'on his way to the Mayan underworld so that he is then reborn as the Maize God (this is the rebirth story of the Maya people, repeated in other places, like on the sarcophagus of king Pakal I in Palenque).

 
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The figures in Ek' Balam have club feet, and hand deformities, and those were a sign of royalty. The deformities were a result of the inbreeding between members of the royal family, and were considered to be special. The king himself had a deformity – he had a split upper lip, as the paintings show on the walls in his burial chamber. So could they be the king's ancestors? Father or grandfather? The winged angels stand on the 'sky band' motif above the door. Do they represent the king's ancestors who have already been in heaven?

Deformities were also a sign of spiritual power, so could the winged angels be high-ranking priests?

In the jaw of the Witz monster we can see water symbols, such as reliefs of fish and water lilies. The king would 'enter' the water and then get reborn (through the Tree of Life). The symbol of that rebirth might be in a fanged head, which could be the Sun God K'inich Ajaw.

This god is a representation of the rising sun on the horizon, the rebirth symbol. The sun was a key element of Maya rulership. It was an icon which they linked very deliberately to royal lines, royal identity, and royal power. It’s the most dominant celestial feature. It links the deceased lord to the eternal sun.

 
 
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The angels are wearing belts, which is worth noting. The cross-band in the belt represents the sacred tree and the creation myth, it is a symbol of the crossing point of the Ecliptic and the Milky Way; or according to another theory, it is a portal to the other world. The crossed bands represented the presence of a deity, thus legitimising rulership. When the crossed bands motif was placed on the eyelids or the chest of a figure, it referenced the celestial figure. As the cross here is in the belt, it would refer to a ruler's status so we could deduce that this figure could represent the king's father or grandfather.

Another angle of the story is related to dance. Mayan dancers wore large winged costumes, particularly for the Eagle Dance. Could this be a royal ancestor dressed for this ritual dance? According to the Maya, the birds are immortal creatures that are not dependent on food. Food for them is a way of maintaining the same vibrations as the Earth. The Maya believed that these creatures breed by using the wind. The Eagle represents the connection between Heaven and Earth.

Or could they be Eagle warriors? They did wear large winged feathers, after all. However, I can't detect any shields here at Ek' Balam, nor helmets, although the figures do have headdresses. Eagle warriors usually wore open-beaked headdresses/helmets made of painted wood and the entire outfit was decorated with feathers. Also, in was the Toltec culture that had a warrior cult. The cult spread to Chichén Itzá so it is very likely that it also reached Ek' Balam (very near Chichén Itzá . The Toltecs were not physically present in this area until the end of the 9th century, but it's possible (although unlikely) that their cult preceded them.

 
An almost life-size Aztec Eagle Warrior, 13-15th century, from Tenotchitlaán. National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City. Photo © Dennis Jarvis.

An almost life-size Aztec Eagle Warrior, 13-15th century, from Tenotchitlaán. National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City. Photo © Dennis Jarvis.

 

Eagle warriors who were of noble lineage received training in religion, politics, or history by the priests. To achieve adult status, a young man had to capture his first prisoner. After capturing 20 or more, they were eligible to become either a jaguar or eagle warrior. Eagle and jaguar warriors were the only two types of warriors who would be considered full-time soldiers and were the top class of the army. These warriors would be leaders and commanders on and off the battlefield. After reaching this rank they would be considered as nobles and elite members of society. After becoming an eagle or jaguar warrior that individual was allowed to drink pulque, have concubines, and dine at the royal palace. Another indication of the Eagle Warriors' special status is that, in the Mexica mythology, eagles were symbols for the god of the sun and war.

The central figure above the tomb door is headless (and missing one arm). Some researchers think that this figure is a representation of Ukit Kan Lek' Tok'. He is seated on a throne and dressed in the belt of a ball player with a 'skirt', as well as protectors on the legs. This figure has no wings. Note his belt with a suspended mask (of a god?) or skull (a symbol of death?). Rulers often used god masks or skulls as part of their royal belts.

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The statue of a woman in the left eye of the Witz monster is thought to have been the wife of the king. It is wingless. However, to me it seems that this figure is also wearing the belt of a ball player and my speculation is that it could be the figure of the king in his youth, rather than that of a woman. That is pure speculation on my side, though.

Sources:

Photography by David Coleman

Eagle warriors: Ancient History etc and Jim & Carole Cook