Breakthrough! Monsters and strange creatures carved on Mayan pyramids and temples are actually 'signposts'. But what do they tell us?
These signposts were not only at the entrances to buildings, but often on the corners, so the Maya could 'read' them from every angle and from a distance: 'magic house', 'council house' or 'underworld – this way'. So let's look at some of the most frequent images.
Chac the rain god
Until recently it was believed that all the long-nosed masks on Mayan buildings represented the rain god Chac (or Chaac) which are now being interpreted as other deities in academic research. In reality I don't know a single building marked with this mask; it is more common to see Chac as an incense burner.
Chac was pretty important because the Maya in Yucatán did not have enough rainwater so they sacrificed to him in times of drought. He used his long snout to create storms.
Here is an example of what Chac looks like:
- reptilian face and animal-like appearance
- down-curling snout
- large eyes (or goggles)
Then things get complicated as other features of the Chac mask are not easy to spot on the mask alone:
- shell necklace
- knotted headband with shell ear flares
- often holds lightning axe
- may be accompanied by serpentlike shape
On the right: Chac's nose (fragment), with circular motif and K'awiil deity (identified by his serpent-shaped leg and lightning). Photo taken at Dzibilchaltún Museum of the Mayan People.
Witz monster: symbol of rebirth
Witz means 'mountain' in Mayan, and the witz monster is an analogue of the Maya creation story expressed through architecture. If a building had a witz sign, it was a kind of seal of approval, making the pyramid a living mountain qualified to represent the original Creation Mountain (mountains and caves were the original homes of mankind in Guatemala, where the Maya first started building stone cities).
The witz monster is characterized by its strong teeth, and lack of a lower jaw. In gateways, the place where the lower jaw should be is at ground level, so you step into the monster's mouth. What looks like a long nose or elephant’s trunk is actually an extended upper lip. The Witz monster is sometimes referred to as Earth monster. The variation probablycomes from whether the sacred cave was considered to be beneath a mountain (Witz monster) or beneath the jungle floor (Earth monster).
In some places, builders combined profile views of the eye and forehead on the side of the door with a front view of the head above it. This is all part of the Maya's rather Cubist approach to perspective. Curling plants, serpents and spirals are all symbols of regeneration. Combine these with the witz monster’s connection to the underworld and it becomes apparent that the witz monster is a symbol of rebirth.
Below are two examples of the Witz monster. The left photo shows me at Hormiguero with my husband (2017). The door is one large Witz mask, the entry to the underworld (the door is currently blocked so it is not possible to enter the underworld!). The right photo shows the same monster around the doorway entry to Temple IV at the Magician's Pyramid at Uxmal.
Karl Taube notes that the Witz monster often holds a pair of serpents in the corners of its mouth. Well, Mayan mythology describes serpents as being the vehicles by which celestial bodies, such as the sun and stars, cross the heavens. The shedding of their skin made them a symbol of rebirth and renewal. But in Taube's view, the serpents in the mouth represent breath, making the building a living being (because the Maya believed that stones and mountains were living breathing things).
Mayan lords, buried in tombs located within pyramids, were symbolically encapsulated in the realm of the underworld, an artificial cave hidden inside the sacred mountain. The tombs would certainly have the witz monster representation. The rulers considered themselves direct descendants of the Maize God. These representations of rulers resting in the jaws of a cave or monster are thought to make an association with a divine lineage and its components (curling fangs, serpents in mouth, monstrous jaws) were used to associate the person with the various supernatural aspects.
American epigrapher Linda Schele outlined the features of the witz that help us understand its features. Below are two examples. The left one is from Bonampak, Stela 1. Here the creation story is based on the maize god emerging from the stepped cleft in the mountain's head (top middle). The Mountain Monster on the right is from Palenque (The Temple of the Foliated Cross).
Here is the best distinction I found between the 'noses' of Chac and Witz (see on the left). They are modern sculptures that we encountered on one of our trips at the car park of the hotel Puuc at Oxkutzcab town. The left monster has the extended upper lip (here it sits higher than the mouth, that's art for you!), which comes first down and then up. Chac's nose goes up first, then down. Also note Chac's round eyes, like goggles.
Karl Taube suggests that at the Kukulkán temple at Chichén Itzá the presence of the Witz monster indicates that the pyramid is a Flower Mountain and its plumed serpents are in fact depictions of the aroma of the flower blossoms adorning the structure. This means that the snake was a stylised representation of the aroma of the flower. If you visit Chichén Itzá, keep that poetic image in mind.
The initial journey into Xibalbá underworld was followed by rebirth into a paradise populated with trees, flowers and wild animals, the access to which was provided by the Flower Mountain. The birds are singing and the flowers are blossoming; in other words: a paradise. The Flower Mountain is a place where the ancestors dwell, a place of transition and emergence. It is where one is reborn. This new representation also fits the serpent's story well: Kukulkán slides down the pyramid, goes to the underworld beneath and changes into a dark jaguar (the night) and in the morning he changes into a bird and flies back to the sky (like the sun which makes the morning). A fitting story of new life, a new day, of rebirth.
In Balamkú a toad sits on top of the Witz monster (the photos below). It is inside the pyramid, accessible to visitors. A king is being resurrected from the toad's maw. The Witz is the entry to the underworld from where the resurrection happens. This large frieze has several creatures: jaguar as the nocturnal animal of the underworld, serpents as symbols of breath and water symbols also representing the underworld.
Itzamná and Itzam Yeh
The deity identified by Taube (1992) as 'God D' has since been deciphered as Itzamná (lord of creation and the skies). The marker for Itzamná is apparently a flower headband.
So the identifying features of the three monsters are:
- Chac: knotted headband, nose up and down
- Witz: no lower jaw, flower headband, extended curling upper lip
- Itzamná God or Itzam Yeh celestial bird: floral headband
Image on the right: Close up of one of the masks at Chichen Itzá on the Church building. Here the mask has a clear flower headband.
Karl Taube associated Itzamná with the cosmic bird that sits on top of the world tree, whose name is Itzam Yeh (Schele) or in the more recent interpretation, Itzam Kah (Grube and Martin). This cosmic bird is the 'Town Sorcerer' or magician, and his glyph or relief on a building means that it's a 'conjuring' house (where the Maya taught astronomy and other sciences, as well as their religion). An example is the Nunnery Quadrangle in Uxmal. The bird is a manifestation of the god Itzamná. It is often identified with the mythical bird monster killed by the hero twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque (One Hunter and Jaguar Deer) in the stories found in the Mayan book of creation Popol Vuh.
The recent research view is that the majority of the masks at Uxmal and Chichén Itzá have flower headbands and are not the masks of Chac but represent the Itzam Kah bird. In Uxmal and Chichén Nunneries, there is a lot of flower representation in the lattice work as well. This all supports the idea that they were 'conjuring' houses.
In general, masks were used as metaphors. Sometimes they represented gods; other times they defined a sacred space. At funerals they were used as a metaphor for transformation.
Sometimes the masks were stacked at the corner of the building so the importance of the building (and its purpose) was visible from all corners and from afar.
I already mentioned the Witz door masks at Chicanná and Hormiguero. One of the most impressive Mayan techniques was to treat the entire façade as a great monster head with the door as its mouth. People entering such buildings appeared to be walking into the gullet of the monster. Even from a distance, it is quite clear from this coloured version of the witz monster that it represents a reptilian monster with a gaping mouth. The large eyes and teeth overhang the doorway. Curling serpent heads can be seen at the upper corners of the mouth. More teeth frame the doorway and hang about a metre from the ground ('T' shape). Two lower teeth stand up on either side of the entrance.
On the left is Chicanná gateway with Witz Monster (Structure II), coloured by Robin Heyworth. I found this coloured version on his blog and I think it helps tremendously to see the Witz features (uncoveredhistory.com ).
The spirals on the side represent breath.
On either side of the eyes are the monster’s jade earrings (hoops with pendants hanging from them).
Another lovely example is the monster head at Uxmal Pyramid of the Magician (photo below on the left)
Yet another impressive example of the Witz monster comes from Copán in the form of Temple 22 (drawing below on the right, source: Researchgate.net.). On top of the entrance there is the Maya Sky-Band, held up by two 'Bakabs'. The plinth with glyphs and skulls symbolises the underworld. The door is the mouth, of course. The serpent’s body weaves across the doorway. The snake represents the ecliptic that connects the place to the Milky Way. The backs of the Bakab appear to turn into strange crocodiles or toads that nose-dive into the underworld. This Witz was erected by Copán’s most famous ruler, Waxaklajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, in 715 AD, to celebrate 20 years in power. This date also fits a significant astrological event so it was built like a cosmic gate (hence the fitting symbol of the connection to the Milky Way).
Trying to apply these ideas
With these pointers to the identities of the gods in mind, I have been revisiting some of the ruin sculptures and friezes I have seen. For example, a local guide told me that this mask on the corner of the Temple of Frescoes in Tulum (left photo) was Chac, although it has no snout. Instead, he could, in my view, be the creation and sky god Itzamná (not the bird, the actual God). This temple was built for observation of the planets, as the frescoes tell us, so that would fit the purpose of the building better.
I find another interesting case in Chichén Itzá because it seems to me that the entire building La Iglesia (the Church), which was believed to have Chac masks, looks in fact like the Witz monster, with the mouth as the door (photos below). So it is rather the whole Flower Mountain, represented by the Witz. The lower jaw is buried in the earth. To the sides of the door, and above it, are zoomorphic masks. However, I found out that according to Freidel, Schele, and Parker the masks have flower headbands. So the whole building is one large bird Itzam Kah. So its symbol on the house means that it is a 'magic' house, the house of conjuring. The same masks (not Chac) are also on the Temple of Warriors.
If you go to Ek' Balam, you can see a wonderful Witz monster as the entrance to the kings' tomb. On the internet it is still referred to as 'jaguar mask'. That could be so, but it is Witz with the jaguar features (jaguars as nocturnal animals represent the underworld). I describe the details in my Ek' Balam post, but here is a brief summary.
The tomb doorway is in the shape of a monster-like mouth. In each eye of the monster there is a figure and there are also figures in the sky band above the door. On either side of the door there is a tree of life, the symbol of rebirth. The tree connected Heaven, Earth and the Underworld. Heaven was a magical place hidden by a mystical mountain. It is likely, in my view, that the Ek' Balam witz is also a 'crocodile witz monster' model because of the presence of water lilies and fish in the jaw section.
Serpents and centipedes
These 'creatures' are markedly different beings in Classic Maya art. The centipede is skeletal and deadly, the serpent is an ethereal being of life, breath and wind. Both served as a conduit for passing through the heavens and underworld. The centipede usually marked the deathly entrance to the underworld (at other times it was a crocodile's jaw), while the serpent appears in scenes of celestial ascent. Just as wind carries water into the sky, the breath serpent pulls the ancestors from the watery underworld into the heavens.
Given the fascination with night and the underworld in Mesoamerica, the centipede was considered a symbol of demons of darkness. After all, venomous claws are basic traits of centipedes, identified with death. Centipedes were also closely related to the sun and the Classic Maya sun god is commonly portrayed wearing a centipede headdress.
Below (on the left) in an example of centipede and 'ribbed' headdresses with Sun God impersonation: (A) Laxtunich Lintel 1 (photograph by James Doyle); (B) Copán Stela A:B9 (drawing by Linda Schele); and (C) Copán Stela A, top front (drawing by Anne Dowd; Baudez 1994:fig. 2A). Source: decipherment.wordpress.com.
The serpent iconography is rather complex, but that is the essence of it (the serpent itself was sometimes portrayed as the sky symbol). Mountains frequently exhale breath serpents from the corners of their mouths. If the serpent comes out of the jaw of a crocodile, it indicates that it is a creature of breath. Serpents are sometimes also symbolic portrayals of the smoke and flames rising out of the mountain maw. Or they represent the aroma of the Flower Mountain (aroma signifying the heavens).
I'm really intrigued by the idea that these stone 'monsters' are in fact giant hieroglyphs, which the Maya could read. It helps me to imagine Mayan ruins as the colourful informative buildings they once were. They clearly were the statements of the rulers to the rest of their community about their journey of resurrection and, in essence, their immortality and power.