An Alternative Reading of Copan Stela A, and Tianxia (天下)

There are many interesting unanswered questions about rulership in Ancient Maya thought, and I have come to appreciate the necessity of getting down-and-dirty with archaeology and epigraphy to better understand the philosophy of the Maya of the Classic period (as well as adjacent periods).  Recently I’ve been thinking in particular about Copan, and the idea of rulership as constructed by important figures there.

The glyphs on the right side of one of the famous stelae erected by the ruler Waxaklajun U’baah Kawil of the city of Xukpi (now known as Copan, in modern day Honduras) tell us some interesting facts about Classic period Maya political organization, or at least the conception of it at work in Copan.  But what exactly do they tell us?  Prudence Rice writes, in her book on Maya Political Science, “This text…has defied clear decipherment as it appears to describe some esoteric ritual and cosmological activity that has little parallel in monuments elsewhere.”  There does, however, seem to be a traditional reading of it among Mayanists.  I question here whether there may be an alternative reading, one that has parallels with what we find in early Chinese understandings of rulership.  First, we need to take a look at the glyphs in question.


The translation here seems to me plausible.  There are some very easy parts of this, including the emblem glyphs of first Copan itself, then Tikal, Calakmul, and Palenque (kul xukpi ahau, etc).  There are a few weird things about these glyphs.  One is that the Kalakmul emblem glyph contains a ka syllable at the top left corner, and I’m not sure why that is. Another is that all the emblem glyphs except for Copan’s contain a wa suffix.  Why is this?  We know in general (or we think) that the wa suffix is just part of the pronunciation of ahau which is part of the glyph, and that the emblem glyphs refer literally to the lord (ahau) of the city-state in question, but can also stand for the city-state itself.  But maybe there is some other reason for the inclusion of the wa suffix here other than to add the phonetic, since presumably it would be understood in the case of the Copan emblem.

The traditional reading seems to be (from the sources I’ve consulted) that the emblem glyphs refer to representatives from the named cities who came to participate in the ritual at Copan.  I first found this claim in Linda Schele and Peter Mathews’ book The Code of Kings, and other discussions of the view I have found all point back to their work.  Schele and Mathews write:

“the text mentions four visitors–unnamed holy lords from Copan, Tikal, Kalak’mul, and Palenque.  At other sites, texts include the proper names and titles of such visitors, so that we know they were distinguished lords who had come as representatives of their kings.  We presume the Copan scribe referred to the same kind of visitors in this passage. (p. 161)”

I find a few things about this view curious.  While I hesitate to criticize the position of such luminous Mayanists as the late Linda Schele and Peter Mathews, beside whose knowledge of the ancient Maya my own is truly pathetic, there are some things here that don’t fully make sense to me.  First, why would the Copan lord be listed as a visitor, since the ritual (whatever it was) and the erection of the stela happened in Copan, by (or at least on commission by) the Copan lord himself, Waxaklajuun U’baah Kawil (who is depicted on the front face of the stela)?  Second, why the difference between the representation of the glyphs, with the Copan emblem not containing the wa postfix and all of the others containing it?  Third, why these cities?

I suggest that there might be a few alternative readings of this.  First–it could be the case that these cities were selected for their assumed prestige, and that Waxaklajuun U’baah Kawil was attempting to make a point that Copan ranked among these great cities (perhaps first among these great cities).  There then may be a parallel between the four cities (including Copan) mentioned in this part of the text and the four cardinal directions mentioned after them in the text (which I will discuss below).  East (la kin) is mentioned first, and Copan is the easternmost of the cities mentioned in the text.  Could there be some connection here?  The problem with this is that the ordering of the other directions does not match up with the directional ordering of the other cities mentioned. Tikal is mentioned second in the list of cities, while west (och kin) is mentioned second in the directional list.  Tikal, however, is not the westernmost of the cities mentioned.  Rather, Palenque should be in this place if the ordering were meant to match in thus way.

One possibility that presents itself, and which I find compelling given its similarity to other understandings of rulership in different traditions (especially in early China), is that Waxaklajuun U’Baah Kawil erected this stela to announce (or rather convince of) his control over the world.  The stela was, on this view, a statement of his supremacy in the Maya world.  We can read the listing of emblem glyphs as that of cities over which Copan has spiritual (if not physical) control.  Although the cities mentioned may seem powerful and independent, it is ultimately Copan which controls their destiny.  This kind of brazen claim of hegemony where in fact there is none is a tried and true aspect of leadership claims throughout the world.  In particular, since I’ve spent a lot of time with early Chinese thought, we can compare this to claims of such hegemony (let’s call it “fictive hegemony”) in early China, that was meant to establish the idea of the supremacy of the ruler in question.

Read in this way, the emblem glyphs of Tikal, Calakmul, and Palenque might be placed to suggest that the ruler of Copan somehow had control over these cities.  And the following collection of glyphs referring to the four direction and the earth and sky continue the extent of Waxaklajuun U’baah Kawil’s power into the wider cosmos itself, or at least the entire known region.

Beneath the emblem glyphs, we find the glyphs for chaan (sky) and laban (earth), followed by the cardinal directions, east, west, south, and north.  Schele and Mathews seem to read this as connected to whatever ritual they believe happened at Copan and coincided with the erection of this stela.  Prudence Rice, although she agrees with Schele and Mathews about the purpose of the emblem glyphs, reads the directional glyphs in a different way, one I think is (partly) correct, and actually meshes better with my interpretation of the emblem glyphs than it does with that of Schele and Mathews.  She writes:

“The reference to ‘four skies’ is of interest because these collections can be read syllabically: kan te kan (na), kan [Zip?] na kan (na), kan ni kan na, kan may kan na.  The variable second element in each of these compounds might be a numerical classifier; in the second of the four, the classifier is a bird head variant with a possible “Zip Monster” prefix, while the fourth is distinguished by a may glyph or deer hoof.  It is possible that these four glyphs could be matched with the four individual sites, just as the directional glyphs were interpreted to indicate symbolic regions of political control.  It is equally likely, however, that they are general descriptors and metaphors for “the whole world”: earth and sky; sunrise, zenith, sunset, Underworld; the four quarters; and the four sacred seats of the may that provide the geopolitical-ritual structure that links the earthy domain with the cosmos.”

I think Rice is right on with her last sentence.  The first possibility she mentions seems unlikely to me for the reasons I gave above (the placement of the cities and their ordering in the text does not match the ordering of the directions).  But notice that if Rice is correct in her last sentence here, and I think that she is, my reading of the emblem glyphs is much more plausible than that given by Schele and Mathews, and which Rice seems to accept.  It is likely that the lord of Copan is making a claim of fictive hegemony over “the whole world”, and that world, in order for his claim to have any force, has to include the most powerful cities in it.  It is not just that Waxaklajuun U’baah Kawil is placing himself among the powerful rulers of those other cities, rather he is claiming control over them.

Why would he (or any ruler) do this?  There are many reasons.  Toward the beginning of a reign, claims of fictive hegemony help to establish one’s power, in that they reinforce in the minds of the people that the ruler is supreme.  We see this kind of practice rampant in early China, even in (perhaps especially in) the Imperial periods beginning with the Qin.  Charles Sanft, in his excellent book on the construction and consolidation of power through communication by the Qin state (commonly known as the first Empire of China), discusses a number of ways in which various claims to power and visible displays of hegemony that could have more or less to do with reality had as their purpose the communication of power to people, which thereby creates the reality of power.  Power, after all, is a matter of the psychology of the ruled.  Gaining power over the people then is largely a process of getting the people to believe that one has power, which then makes it so.  It is manipulation of human psychology.

In the Chinese context, we see many rulers who claim fictive hegemony in terms of tian xia 天下 (all under heaven), or “the entire world”, making claims of rulership over the entirety of the world that in no case (even that of the most powerful emperors) could have been true.  Even the mighty Han struggled with the Xiongnu, which forced them to define and redefine what it meant to assert control over “the whole world”.  The Xiongnu and other groups were thus placed outside the world, or integrated into it in awkward ways.

I suggest that Copan Stela A served a similar purpose for Waxaklajuun U’baah Kawil.  Its construction dates toward the end of his reign as lord of Copan.  He ruled from 695-738 CE, and Stela A was erected in 731 CE.  In 738 CE, Waxaklajuun U’baah Kawil was captured by the ruler of Quirigua, one of his (until then) vassal states, and sacrificed.  It makes sense to infer from this that in 731, when Stela A was erected, his power was waning, and he was losing control over small vassal city-states like Quirigua, city-states that were essential to his rule.  Stela A, then, may have been a desperate attempt to assert his dominance by making the outlandish claim of fictive hegemony that took him not only to have (spiritual? physical?) control over the cities of Tikal, Calakmul, and Palenque, but also over “heaven and earth, east, west, north, and south”.  Schele and Mathews suggest that the depiction of Waxaklajuun U’baah Kawil on the front face of Stela A may portray him as “the patron god of Copan”.  If this is so, it would further strengthen the case for my reading of the Stela A text.


One response to “An Alternative Reading of Copan Stela A, and Tianxia (天下)

  1. Very interesting blog. Have you ever heard of Sun Wu?

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