Warriors


Did you know that 'star wars' come from the Mayan civilisation? Which stars were involved? What were these wars? Who fought them? Did the star wars cause the collapse of the Maya civilisation?


Mayan warriors, Bonampak murals.

Mayan warriors, Bonampak murals.

 

And there are other questions. We now know that the Maya were not just peaceful observers of the skies. They were vicious warriors. The kings were warriors. The nobles were warriors. Were the queens warriors? Did they participate in battles? Did the Maya have professional soldiers like the Aztecs did? Were the soldiers trained? Did the farmers participate? How much do we really know about the style of warfare?

The discovery of Bonampak has been a catalyst in changing the views about the nature of the Mayan civilisation. Since then, many battle scenes have been analysed and we now have some idea about Mayan warfare. For example, the Bonampak mural of the Battle shows the ruler Chaan Muan leading his warriors into battle (8th century AD). He is grabbing the hair of an opposing trooper (who is already stripped of clothes) and threatening him with his thrusting spear. He is dressed in a jaguar-skin jerkin and a jaguar headdress. A jaguar warrior? On his chest he has a 'trophy head', made of jade. A faint outline in front of his face is a mask – he went into battle in the guise of a deity or ancestor.

 
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The Maya Puuc Region in Yucatán (in orange)

The Maya Puuc Region in Yucatán (in orange)

I will attempt to answer my own questions. To understand Maya warfare, we need first to understand that the Mayan world was not one empire but a series of crowded city states, each ruled by a 'divine lord'. Take the Puuc Group in Yucatán, for example: Uxmal, Sayil, Labna, Kabah…. They are on average about 10km from each other. You can immediately imagine the shortage of agricultural land as time goes by.

As the cities grew (and some had around 50,000 inhabitants and more), water and agricultural land were in demand, as well as control over certain resources such as obsidian. Land resources would have been in crisis by the Classic Period in a society with a slash and burn approach to agriculture (and the absence of domesticated animals to provide manure also caused a problem).

In the early stages, the wars were of a 'religious' nature and 'small' wars. The capture of sacrificial victims was a driving force behind warfare because to feed the gods with human blood was an essential part of the Mayan mythology. The types of wars have been identified according to the relevant hieroglyphs that the Maya used to describe their wars. Grube lists the Chuc'ah glyph (capture), showing prisoners tied up, and the Ch'ak glyph showing decapitation (presumably of an important individual). They seem to be important to the victor but do not refer to the complete destruction of the loser. For example, the first war between Calakmul (and it ally Caracol) and Tikal was a ch’ak event in 556 AD, six years before the full-blown star-war mentioned earlier.

Another glyph Hubi (destruction) was used in reference to the wars between Naranjo and Caracol (war with specific aims). The 'Yalej' glyph used in an assault on Palenque meant 'throw down', desecration of idols in the city. One of the most descriptive forms of attack was based on the verb root 'pul' (to burn). This was probably the fate of Yaxuná at the hands of Chichén Itzá (ritually burnt down).

 
(a) chuc'ah (b) ch'ak (c) hubi (d) star-war From  Ancient Mesoamerican Warfare

(a) chuc'ah (b) ch'ak (c) hubi (d) star-war From Ancient Mesoamerican Warfare

 
Star War glyph (The Shell-over-Star Glyph).

Star War glyph (The Shell-over-Star Glyph).

With time, there were regional processes at work, as kings wanted to expand their control over other kingdoms (sometimes even cities at great distance) and turn them into vassals. The vassals had to pay tributes, supply services and sacrificial 'material'. With time, the Maya fought for increasingly scarce land and water resources and complete political dominion over the region.

'A star war' was a decisive conflict between rival polities during the first millennium AD. This was not just a local war between kings who held a grudge against each other, nor were they 'small' battles when they just needed a few captives. The term comes from a specific type of glyph, which was coined by the epigrapher Linda Schele. This glyph depicts a star showering the earth with liquid droplets (water or blood?), or a star over a shell. The 'big eyes' on the glyph represent the planet Venus. According to Nikolai Grube, the dates of recorded star wars often coincide with astronomical events involving the planet Venus, either when it was first visible in the morning or in the night sky. The late Classic glyph for war included Venus, at times along with the glyph for the city to be attacked.

The star war glyph represented a major war resulting in the defeat of one polity by another. Losing a star war could be disastrous for the defeated party. The first recorded star war in 562 was between Calakmul and Tikal. The ruler K'an II defeated the Tikal lord Wak Chan K'awiil. Tikal did not recover for 120 years. The population fell and they built no monuments.

 
Mayan 'Ek' glyph for star. Venus as Morning Star and Evening Star.

Mayan 'Ek' glyph for star. Venus as Morning Star and Evening Star.

Star war glyph with a glyph of the city to be attacked

Star war glyph with a glyph of the city to be attacked

 
 

Schele, Friedl, Claudia Anne Voit and many other researchers have studied the Dresden Codex and concluded that the Maya began timing their battles to particular points in the Venus cycle (especially the first appearance of the evening star). Venus was considered the sun’s twin and a war patron. Decisions about when and where to do battle became tied to the rise of Venus and Jupiter. It was a kind of holy war timed by the stars. The murals at Bonampak illustrate a victory on 16 August 792 AD, within a day or two of the heliacal rise of Venus. The heliacal rising occurs annually when it first becomes visible above the eastern horizon for a brief moment just before sunrise, after a period of time when it had not been visible. In other words, it's the first appearance of Venus which is distinctly separate from the appearance of the sun, which 'blinds' our view of the planet. The heliacal rise for the ancient Maya was a moment of dread and hysteria. When Venus rose as the morning star, people stopped up their chimneys so that no harm from its light could get to their houses. Dos Pilas attacked Seibal when Venus was first visible as the evening star on 3 December 735 AD. The captured Seibal ruler was sacrificed at a ritual ball game 12 years later, at the inferior conjunction of Venus. A 'superior' conjunction is when the planet appears to be in the same place in the sky as the sun but is behind the sun, from our point of view on earth. An 'inferior' conjunction is when the planet is in front of the sun, or between earth and the sun.

The debate still continues as not all scholars agree that there is enough statistical evidence that the wars were initiated according to the position of Venus.

Dos Pilas Stela 16, showing the captured king of Seibal, Yich'ak Balam. The stela dates from AD 735.

Dos Pilas Stela 16, showing the captured king of Seibal, Yich'ak Balam. The stela dates from AD 735.

Monument 6 from Tortuguero, now in the collection of the  Metropolitan Museum , has the 'star war' glyph (Lord Jaguar's battle in 667 AD) and a glyph which says: 'The blood was pooled, the skulls were piled up.'

Monument 6 from Tortuguero, now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, has the 'star war' glyph (Lord Jaguar's battle in 667 AD) and a glyph which says: 'The blood was pooled, the skulls were piled up.'

 

And what was the warfare like? First, the Maya respected a certain code of ethics (for example, they did not fight at night), but with time (by the 9th century) there was overwhelming violence, at times leading to the ritual destruction of whole cities. Ecological decline (long droughts, volcanic eruptions, climate change) and subsequent disintegration of royal authority would have been behind this change. There is evidence that smaller states could be successful in war only if they were allied with a larger and stronger ally. Many major wars in the Lowlands give ultimate credit for victorious wars to Calakmul or Tikal, depending who they allied with. Calakmul was a continuous antagonist of Tikal; the rivalry between these two shaped most of the Late Classic history of the Southern Lowlands.

 
The alliances of Calakmul created a ring of allied capitals around Tikal. The enemies marked in red clearly included Tikal and Palenque.

The alliances of Calakmul created a ring of allied capitals around Tikal. The enemies marked in red clearly included Tikal and Palenque.

 

Another famous rivalry was in Chiapas (Mexico) between Toniná and Palenque. Palenque fell in 730 AD, after a bitter 26-year war. In Yucatán, Chichén Itzá was at war with Cobá (for territory) and Yaxuná, which they burnt to the ground ritually (950 AD). Chichén Itzá had an alliance with Uxmal and Mayapán; the latter in turn became dominant. Yaxchilán in the Lacandón jungle fought with Piedras Negras and Bonampak; the latter became its vassal (by the 6th century). The list could go on and on.

The archaeologial remains of warfare are scanty. Some cities had stone walls or palisades, for example Tulum, Cuca (double wall) and Ek' Balam had a triple one. In the 1960s a deeply cut ditch was found in Tikal, presumably once topped by a parapet. A moat is known from Becán. Such fortifications would have required large numbers of people to man them or to concentrate quickly at the time of assault.

Much of the Mayan system of warfare was based on the elements of intimidation and surprise. Military tactics were usually ambushes, or frontal assaults. They used a code of drums and whistles to signal an attack. This leads me to the question of how many warriors took part in the conflicts. Grube states that there is evidence from Post-Classic times that there was a military elite and they seasonally drew men from the peasantry , at times when there was less work in the fields. Apparently there were more wars in dry periods. This would have eased the movement of armies. That would allow for an army to be sizeable.

 
The ancient art of atlatl throwing

The ancient art of atlatl throwing

Mayan weapons with obsidian blades, courtesy of Flickr

Mayan weapons with obsidian blades, courtesy of Flickr

 
Drawing: Linda Schele, Warfare, Chichén Itzá. Warriors, carrying knives, axes, and spears.

Drawing: Linda Schele, Warfare, Chichén Itzá. Warriors, carrying knives, axes, and spears.

Away from the grand strategies of the kings, how were the battles actually fought? The main weapon was a thrusting spear, a 2m long shaft with a flint blade. This was for jabbing, not meant to be thrown, so obviously used when they wanted to take a captive. For longer range they used the atlatl, a spear thrower that worked like a wooden sling. Otherwise they used axes, clubs, bows and arrows, and knives with blades of volcanic glass. The armour was a tight-woven cotton vest, shields were made of animal skin, reed matting, or carved wood. Heavy rope bibs of twisted cotton or palm leaves protected the chest. The war chieftains are known from wall paintings to have dressed in elaborate animal-inspired robes and headdresses; the king would have the mask of a god in front of his face; painting one’s body with religious insignia was also common before battle. War banners and cloth flags were used and the armies went into battle accompanied by musicians blowing conch-shell trumpets and beating wooden drums. They carried the effigies of their gods into battle. If an opposing god's image was seized, it was paraded through the victor's capital.

 
 

As for the military ranks, the leader was the king. But what about the queens? Did they go to battle? Well, there were certainly female rulers who commanded but so far I have not found any reference to physical involvement. Lady Six Sky, the ruling queen of Naranjo, commissioned monuments that note she performed important calendric rituals and she is also shown on monuments taking on the role of a warrior-king by standing over a trampled captive, an unusual representation for a woman. But there are similar representations of the female rulers in Cobá, the city with a strong female leadership, for example the female rulers on Stela 1 and Stela 4 also stand on trampled captives. The rulers in this city used the title Kalom'te (Supreme Warrior, King of the Kings). This does not tell us that they actually took part in the battle, of course. Lady K'abel (also known as Lady Snake Lord or Lady Water Lily Hand) ruled with her husband, K’inich Bahlam, in the ancient city of El Perú-Waka, between 672-692 AD. Her title of Kalom'te, or Supreme Warrior, gave her higher authority than the king. Did she participate in battles? There is no glyph or artistic depiction to support her participation in battle, yet. However, in Stela 34 she is holding a shield in her hand.

Overall, in four Maya city-states – Cobá, Naranjo, Calakmul and Naachtun – ancient artists illustrated at least 10 different royal women standing on bound captives or towering over prisoners. Some queens had symbols of war in their headdresses; others armed themselves with shields or waved war banners aloft.

 
Female rulers standing on top of captives. Stela 4, Cobá. Drawing by Ian Graham (from Graham and von Euw 1997).

Female rulers standing on top of captives. Stela 4, Cobá. Drawing by Ian Graham (from Graham and von Euw 1997).

 
The queen known as Lady K'abel from El Peru Mayan city is shown in ceremonial headdress on Waka Stela 34. Note also the battle shield in her hand.

The queen known as Lady K'abel from El Peru Mayan city is shown in ceremonial headdress on Waka Stela 34. Note also the battle shield in her hand.

Did the Maya have military ranking like the Aztecs? It seems that the Aztecs were formally trained and organised. Until the age of 14, the education of children was in the hands of their parents, but they attended their local temples, which tested their progress. At the age of 17, young Aztec men became warriors and entered formal military training. Once in the army, with each rank came special clothing and weapons from the emperor, which conveyed high honour.

The Aztec emperor had a strategic role in the army. His top ranks, the special forces, were open only to the nobility. Those were Otomíes (named after a fierce tribe of fighters) and the Shorn Ones (they shaved their heads except for a long braid of hair on the left side). These warriors were greatly feared and went first into battle.

 
Eagle Warrior from  Tenochtitlán  (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City).

Eagle Warrior from Tenochtitlán (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City).

Jaguar warrior, from Cihuatan, the largest Mayan site in El Salvador.

Jaguar warrior, from Cihuatan, the largest Mayan site in El Salvador.

 

The rest of the Aztec military ranks were 'earned' by skills in battle (how many captives they captured), as follows: Tlamani (one captive warrior), Cuextecatl (two captive warriors), Papalotl (three captive warriors) and Cuauhocelotl (four or more captive warriors). The latter was one joint rank consisting of the Eagle and Jaguar knights (cuāuhtli and ocēlōtl). These were the highest ranks open to commoners. They wore costumes representing eagles and jaguars with feathers and jaguar pelts. As headgear, Eagle warriors wore the heads of eagles, including an open beak, and used feathers as adornments. They became full-time warriors and commanders on and off the field and received a noble rank: they were given land, could drink alcohol (pulque), wear expensive jewellery and keep concubines.

 
An Eagle warrior (left) depicted holding a macuahuitl (a wooden sword with an obsidian blade).

An Eagle warrior (left) depicted holding a macuahuitl (a wooden sword with an obsidian blade).

 
Eagle and Jaguar Warriors, Florentine Codex Book 2

Eagle and Jaguar Warriors, Florentine Codex Book 2

The Mayan society worked differently because it was not an empire but a series of individual city kingdoms. It was not possible to have one large professional army. Warfare was an elite occupation in each individual city. The city ruler Halach Uinic (True Man) was the supreme war leader. Some only dictated military activity, while others participated in battle. The troops were led into battle by a military captain called a Nacom, who held the position for three years and was responsible for planning military strategy and also asking the troops to go to war.

At the third position in the hierarchy of Mayan politics was the high priest, responsible for foretelling auspicious events for the ruler and setting the dates for ceremonies.

The Batabs were appointed by the Halach Uinic and were the ones who oversaw the dependent cities as well as the villages that came within the state. They held military, judicial and administrative authority over the towns and ensured that the tribute was paid to the ruler. They also supplied troops at times of war. They were also the heads of the local councils. A bate was an elite warrior who was involved with sacrificing captives after war. Then there were special scouts called zabin (road weasels), who were used to secure information regarding the enemy's defences. Other society members included Cuch Cabobs (local councillors), Kuleboobs (assistants to the Batabs), and Tuplies (constables who worked under the Batabs).

The general population participated only in star wars (using hunting tools and by hurling rocks). Otherwise, armies were probably in the range of 500-1,000 men on each side.

 

Did the Maya have at any point the infamous Eagle and Jaguar knights of the Aztecs? Well, the Maya always worshipped jaguars. Many warriors wore jaguar skins in battle right from the beginning. But the military rank as we know it from the Aztecs would have been imported in the Post-Classic period. In Chichén Itzá there is a Temple of Eagles and Jaguars (in the Toltec part of the city) and they possibly represented the Eagle and Jaguar Warriors. These would have been imported by the Toltecs from central Mexico. A ceramic sculpture of a Jaguar warrior was found in Cihuatan, in El Salvador. Mayan civilisation inhabited Cihuatan between 1000 and 1200 AD, following the collapse of the civilisation in central Mexico, (between 800 and 900 AD). So again, an import to the Mayan lands by the 'Mexicans'.

 
The Jaguar Warrior, Chichén Itzá, The Lower Jaguar Temple

The Jaguar Warrior, Chichén Itzá, The Lower Jaguar Temple

The temple of Eagles and Jaguars, Chichén Itzá. The eagle is devouring a human heart.

The temple of Eagles and Jaguars, Chichén Itzá. The eagle is devouring a human heart.