zondag 28 maart 2010

Yaxchilán and the Summer Solstice

Several monuments in Yaxchilán (Stelae 11 and 16 and Lintels 9, 33 and 50) show the rulers Shield Jaguar or Bird Jaguar IV holding an unusual staff. This staff is made from wood with four sides and cloth attached to it. The staff is called the flapstaff.
The flagstaff contains quatrefoil symbols. A quatrefoil looks like the picture on the left and is a symbol of the opening of the cosmic central axis at the crossroads of the four directions; it is the passageway between the celestial and underworld realms. The shape of the quatrefoil is similar to that of the glyph for the sun.
The rulers with the flapstaff all wear an extremely similar costume, and is unique to the holding of the flapstaff. The most completely depiction of these costumes, on Lintel 9, shows the king as an impersonator of GI as the sun. His headdress depicts two aspects of GI, perhaps these two aspects are the rising and setting sun, or the sun at its northernmost and southernmost positions on the horizon.

Picture on the right:
Stela 11 illustrating both Itzamnaaj B'alam II ("Shield Jaguar") and Bird Jaguar IV participating in a flapstaff event. The person on the right holds the long flapstaff.
Calendric, architectural, glyphic, and ethnographic evidence shows that the flagstaff monuments at Yaxchilán refer to a ritual that was celebrated within a few days of the summer solstice. Several building in Yaxchilán are oriented toward the summer solstice sunrise. At structure 41 the sun’s first rays make a semi-quatrefoil of light on the floor as they pass through the stepped shape of the doorway on summer solstice.
The entire Main Plaza is oriented from northwest to southeast. Several small buildings stand perpendicular to this axis, and they face southeast, the same direction as the plaza. Bisecting this major axis is a strong axis in the form of the stairway to Structure 33, and the group of monuments in the center of the Main Plaza. All these face northeast. The other monumental stairway at the site, that to Structure 41, faces the same direction, as do many temples along the first terrace of the plaza.
The designers of Yaxchilán deliberately did build their temples on the broad, flat riverbank along the present Main Plaza or along the airstrip. They opted for the summits of the hills, from which they could observe the course of the sun, planets, and stars along the horizon and along the ecliptic. The fact that they chose this particular group of hills indicates that the view from those hills must have been important. The view of the sun rising between the two hills was such an important facet in the selection of the site for monumental architecture that they perhaps named their city after it: the Place of the Split Sky.
Maya date
Gregorian Date
Solstice date
Days from solstice
Stela 16 
7 Chuen 19 Yaxkin
25 June 736
18 June 736
Stela 11 
12 Cib 19 Yaxkin
24 June 741
18 June 741
Lintel 33 
5 Cimi 19 Yaxkin
23 June 747
18 June 747
Lintel 9 
1 Eb 0 Mol
18 June 768
18 June 768

On Stela 11 and Lintel 9 two individuals are shown exchanging the flapstaff. On Stela 11, Shield Jaguar performs his last recorded ceremony by passing the flapstaff to Bird Jaguar IV on summer solstice. On Lintel 9, Bird Jaguar IV is recorded performing his second-to-last official act: he hands the flapstaff dressed as GI to Lord Great Skull, who wears a solar headdress, on summer solstice.
In addition to ethnographic evidence, linguistic reconstruction of the verbal phrases provides a clue to the meaning of summer solstice rituals. The verbs on the summer solstice monuments are practically identical: aj kaw wa chan – “he open (or stopped) standing sun”. This phrase might refer to the swing of the sun, which lingers at its northernmost declination on the horizon for several days at summer solstice. This is one of the most obvious stations of the year, when the movement of the sun slows to a standstill.
Many aspects of the flapstaff refer to summer solstice and the passage of ritual responsibility from an outgoing to an ingoing ruler. The dates fall on summer solstice and during times of transition between reigns. Headdress elements refer to GI as the sun and Chac Xib Chac as sacrificer. Even the quatrefoil shaped holes in the flapstaff refer to the solar architecture. The verb on each of the monuments may refer to a standing still of the sun. Two of the summer solstice scenes, Stelae 11 and 16, actually face the point on the horizon where the sun rises on summer solstice. Paradoxically, Lintels 33 and 50 face the winter solstice sunrise.
Mounting evidence from epigraphers, ethnographers, and astronomers indicates that the Maya conceived the directions not as east, west, north, and south, but as the four solstitial sunrise and sunset points, plus zenith and nadir. The alignments of structures and spaces in Yaxchilán supports this.

Sources used:


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