The ceiba tree on K1226


We all know the ceiba tree so naturalistically represented on vase K1226, but there are a few things to say about the facial motif and other elements shown on the tree’s trunk. What follows is probably obvious to many, but it will hopefully correct a few misconceptions that reappear from time to time in writings about this famous vase.

The face at the base of the ceiba tree, shown frontal-view, is not the same as the “mirror” face we see on the cruciform trees depicted at Palenque, as is often assumed (see Pakal’s sarcophagus lid). Instead — and again this is already known to many — the face is the deity known as the “Patron of Pax,” recognizable by the jaguar paw attached to the top of his ear spool (i.e., there is no jaguar hiding behind the tree, swatting at the alacran). As I showed back in the early 80s, the Pax Patron is a hieroglyphic sign that can be used as the head-variant of TE’, “tree.” The same head marks the base of trees in other representations; K1345 offers a good comparison, with the TE’ in a more conventional profile view.

What may be new to a few out there is the YAX sign just to the left of the tree’s trunk, attached to the TE’ and offering a visual balance to the paw. This is the “iconographic” YAX identical to what we see often on the top if God D’s head, where it helps to indicate his full name Yax Itzamnaaj. On K1226, the elements combine to give an emblematic hieroglyph YAX-TE’, for yaxte’, “ceiba.”

No big deal, but maybe a clarification.


11 thoughts on “The ceiba tree on K1226

  1. yaxalbalam April 16, 2007 / 2:42 AM

    Hi Dave,
    Your reference to Yax Itzamnaaj as God D’s full name is the first I’ve seen and I was wondering if his nominal glyph ever has a yax prefix.

  2. David Stuart April 16, 2007 / 4:25 AM

    Hi Penny,

    The YAX- is very rare on God D names, but there are some cases. It’s best seen on the Palenque Temple XIX platform (south face) in the main text and in the caption for the main attendant in the accession scene. I suppose “Yax Itzamnaaj” could be a specific aspect of the god that was appropriate for the Palenque narrative, not simply an equivalent. However, the YAX is prominent in the iconography of the deity, serving almost as if it were part of an emblematic name glyph. It might refelct a very old naming pattern for God D, and the Palenque scribes could be using a name that’s deliberately archaic.

    The Principal Bird Deity also has the YAX sign on its head, of course, being so closely related to Itzamnaaj. In a couple of cases this looks to be written YAX-TUUN, for “jade,” which would fit the interpretation of the PBD as a bejeweled birdy, foreshadowing Seven Macaw of the Popol Vuh. The YAX on God D’s head is maybe related to this concept, too.

  3. elaineschele April 16, 2007 / 1:25 PM

    Hi Dave,

    I have a question about the diety masks that appear on some of the Maya ruler loincloths that we see on the stelae. Are these masks the personified YAX-TE (the ceiba tree?). Most of them have crossed eyes and what looks like YAX on their heads. They also bear the T sign in their mouths.


  4. David Stuart April 20, 2007 / 9:54 PM

    The loincloth faces are different. These are instead “mirror” or “shiner” heads, which otherwise show up as animate celts. They convey ideas of brightness and shininess, and I suspect they are also strongly associated with the symbolism of lightning. Linda Schele and others called this the “tsuk head” during the 1990s, but this was based on a faulty reading. I like “the Shiner.”

  5. martha2 April 23, 2007 / 1:59 PM

    Hi David –
    I’m wondering about the identification of this tree as a Ceiba. The word in the Popol Vuh is tapa’l, which is still the common name in Guatemala for Nance.
    Moreover, the leaves on K1226 don’t look much like the palmate compound leaf of C. pentandra, whereas they do resemble the opposite eliptical leaves of the Nance (Byrsonima crassiflora).
    For a good Nance page, try

    I love this pot, but that tree ID has troubled me for a while.

    B crassiflora is an interesting plant. Astringent bark is used medicinally, but also to poison fish in shallow waters. I have bought the fruit, canned as well as fresh, in the Campeche market.
    I hope this is not too far afield from epigraphy.
    Marha Gottlieb

  6. David Stuart April 23, 2007 / 4:40 PM

    Dear Martha,

    Those are valid and very interesting points. Although it may sound heretical to some, I generally hesitate using details of the Popol Vuh to interpret Classic Maya art, so the presence of the nance in that story wouldn’t weigh too strongly in my mind. Besides, we know from the west wall of the San Bartolo murals that several different “world trees” serve as perches for Principal Bird Deities. That said, your point about the leaves is well taken. And what does one do with the celt-like “fruits” hanging from the tree on K1226? Ceiba’s don’t have any fruits at all, right? I didn’t touch on this in my original posting, but my sense is that the shiny jade fruits mark it as a kind of cosmic “jeweled tree,” related to others we know from Maya art. Maybe the yaxte’ label has something to do with that concept of green “jadeiness” (new word!), therefore, more than providing a specific species identification. Anyway, thanks for much food for thought. I’m sure there’s far more to learn about all of this.

  7. yaxalbalam April 24, 2007 / 9:04 PM

    Hi Dave,
    Would you please give some examples–preferably illustrated–of the “shiner” head as an animate celt?

    PS: “Shiner” has potential. It certainly beats “Loincloth Apron Face” (Hellmuth) and is more evocative than T1017.

  8. martha2 April 25, 2007 / 4:53 AM

    Hi David –
    The Ceiba does have a fruit – full of small seeds surrounded with kapok, which floats the seeds away on the wind. They only flower every few years. The fruit floats, and is waterproof; that’s how it got to Africa and thence to Asia where it is pulling apart the stones of Angkor Wat.
    The fruits are shaped like narrow papayas, but they do not grow directly from the trunk like papaya, cacao pods and the supernatural fruit of the vases. How far back does that symbol go, I wonder, that area of brightness within a plain surface. Could it be indicating the concept of occluded brightness shining through? In the Popol Vuh, zaktetoh, shining through cracks, referrs to the light of the gods shining through the blue feathers around them. Even though the languages are not the same, the concept might be pan Mayan. We don’t have a word for it, after all.
    Looking at the five trees on the west wall at San Bartolo – it looks like five different species, doesn’t it? Is there a good ceiba there at all? Maybe not.
    BTW I saw somewhere that the ceibas are often filled with birds eating the various little creatures that inhabit the epiphytes – birds including Toucans! Aha!
    Martha Gottlieb

  9. martha2 April 25, 2007 / 10:54 PM

    Hi Again –
    This blog sure has a labile send button, sorry for the spam.
    Aparently, I confused macaws with toucans earlier, when talking about birds in the trees. Ooff! Macaws as are not famous for hanging out in ceibas. Procedurally, however, isn’t it reasonable to assume that written material is reliable? Remembering the lessons from Biblical archaeology – .
    The time depth of such an important symbol as “shining, jade, celt,” is what is most fascinating. Always looking back, but there’s the real meaning. And always a good excuse to sit and look at pictures.
    šŸ˜‰ Martha Gottlieb