“White Owl Jaguar”: A Tikal Royal Ancestor


Illustration file: whiteowljaguar-figs.pdf

“White Owl Jaguar”: A Tikal Royal Ancestor

The long inscription on the façade and roof-comb of Tikal’s “Temple of the Inscriptions” (Str. 6F-27) receives little attention these days, but I find it one of the most interesting and unusual of Maya texts (see Figure 1). Its odd placement on the back of the building makes it hardly visible to anyone, but even more intriguing is the inscription’s narrative involving very ancient “deep time” history, spanning nearly two thousand years. The story is long and complex, and features one protagonist throughout: an ancestral king I call “White Owl Jaguar” (the actual name may have been slightly different). Before now this major mythical/historical figure has gone unrecognized, but clues in this and other monuments suggest he was considered something of an “uber-ancestor,” venerated at Tikal throughout the Classic period. The Temple of the Inscriptions was, I believe, White Owl Jaguar’s principal temple and shrine.

This unusual pyramid was discovered only in 1951. It’s location is set apart from the other major architectural complexes at Tikal, in the southeast sector of the ruins, at the end of the Mendez Causeway. The long inscription on the building’s exterior was analyzed first by Berlin, who established its basic time frame, and later by Jones in his important 1977 study of Tikal’s Late Classic dynasty. In both these early treatments the focus was on the chronology of the text, citing the remarkably early dates.

Before we get to that, let’s look at the name (see attached illustrations). White Owl Jaguar’s glyph is not well preserved in many of its examples, but in Figure 2 (top) I offer a reconstructed version to show its main parts: the prefix SAK (“white”) a full-figure bird’s body — perhaps that of an owl — and a HIX sign that usually covers the head of the bird, “facing” the viewer. The owl identification is still very tentative, suggested by a few spots on the feathers, as will as the frontal orientation of the head. There is also the possibility that the bird is simply the logogram MUUT (“bird”). The order of the jaguar and bird elements is also ambiguous, but for now I will simply refer to him by this descriptive label. In Tikal’s iconography we also see a few examples of his name glyph (Figure 2, i-j), and another, not illustrated here, may occur as a miniature feline image on Stela 29.

The opening Long Count on the temple’s inscription is 12 Ajaw 3 Sak (1143 BC!), later followed by 3 Ajaw 13 Pax (157 BC). The ten reliably placed dates of the entire text are given here, with a brief description of their associated events: 12 Ajaw 3 Zak – PE in presence of White Owl Jaguar 11 Cib 4 Zak – ? 3 Ajaw 13 Pax – PE in presence of White Owl Jaguar 13 Ajaw 18 Yax – PE in presence of White Owl Jaguar 13 Ajaw 13 Yaxkin – Ritual at waybil shrine of White Owl Jaguar 5 Kib 9 Keh – Fashioning of stone, White Owl Jaguar 4 Ix 7 Kankin – “Road-striking”(?) event, White Owl Jaguar 4 Manik 0 Muwan – ?
[…missing portions…] 4 Kaban 15 Pop – Dedication of waybil shrine 7 Ajaw 18 Pop – PE by Ruler B

White Owl Jaguar is named at least seven times in this inscription (See Figure 2a-g), mostly in the capacity of sanctioning or witnessing widely spaced Period Ending rituals. The inscription does not say he ruled at these times (an impossibility), but that other kings performed their rites in his “presence” (y-ichn-al). In the first of these records, in 1143 BC, White Owl Jaguar is said to preside over an all-important Bak’tun ending rite: “it is the 5th Bak’tun, the stone-binding of [NAME], The Holy Mutul Lord, in the presence of White Owl Jaguar, The Holy Mutul Lord.” The passage suggests that White Owl Jaguar was seen as an ancestral king of supreme importance, affiliated directly with the court and dynasty of Tikal. He is not the “founder” of the historical dynasty, however – that was the Preclassic king Yax Ehb Xook, cited in many Tikal inscriptions. White Owl Jaguar, as least as he was depicted in the written history of the Temple of the Inscriptions, predates the founder by a hundreds of years.

Other texts and images at Tikal convey an aura of great importance for White Owl Jaguar. On the famous Stela 31, the solar figure above the king’s portrait is identified as his father, Yax Nun Ayin (see Figure 3). He cradles a snake in one arm, from whose mouth emerges a very clear example of White Owl Jaguar’s name glyph. Such snake-emergence motifs were used by the Maya to depict the conjuring of deities and ancestors; here, in a multi-layered presentation of ancestral “deep-time,” the deified father is shown manifesting the primordial Tikal king.

The text on the “Hombre de Tikal” stone figure contains a very interesting mention of White Owl Jaguar (see posted image, above). Some event, now effaced, was recorded in a few glyphs, involving the important foreigner named Siyaj K’ahk’ (or Siyaj K’awiil). His mysterious arrival in 479 triggered a number of key political changes in Tikal and around the central Peten region. Here, in a later reference another event “at Mutul” involves the same Siyaj K’ahk’. The next phrase says t-u-ch’e’n Mutul Ajaw, followed by a nice “blended” version of White Owl Jaguar’s name glyph. Taken together, the text says that this episode — whatever it was — took place “at the cave (town) of the Mutul Lord, White Owl Jaguar.” Here White Owl Jaguar has the highly symbolic role as “owner” of the ch’e’n, a word that literally means “cave” but which in essence refers to the ceremonial and symbolic heart of a polity or city. He is Tikal, is a sense.

The Temple of the Inscriptions text contains a few other intriguing references to White Owl Jaguar, and although many of these are very damaged, I suspect we can read a few key details. A heavily damaged section of the text in columns E and F refer to the Early Classic date, when, just perhaps, we read of the dedication of a deity shrine (waybil) in honor of White Owl Jaguar, by the ruler Yik’in Chan K’awiil (a name that would be re-used later in Tikal’s dynasty). A short time after this, other items of the divine ancestor, including a “stone” of some kind, are “fashioned.” I suspect that these historical episodes in 527 AD involve the construction and dedication of an early temple dedicated to White Owl Jaguar. The final episode in this string of related dates says it is the jatz’ bih-tuun, “the road-striking,” or “the pavement striking.” This is an odd phrase found also at Naranjo (on Altar 2), where Nikolai Grube has suggested it refers to the construction of architectural spaces. One wonders of it could be more specifically referencing the building of causeways (bih-tuun, “road of stone”), an attractive interpretation given that Temple of the Inscriptions lies at the end of a very long and important ceremonial road, the Mendez Causeway. Archaeological probing in and around the complex would be needed to make sure, but I suspect that the events of 527 are key episodes in the architectural history of the Temple of the Inscriptions. Tellingly, the text closes with an extended record of the dedication of another waybil shrine in 765 by the later ruler Yik’in Chan K’awiil, aka ‘Ruler B’ There’s little doubt this corresponds to the final phase of the temple, what I suspect to be Ruler B’s ambitious refurbishment of White Owl Jaguar’s earlier ancestral shrine, earlier built by his namesake. Future archaeological work would offer an interesting test for the written history and my own tentative interpretation of the events.

These are all just preliminary notes on a complex issue, but the evidence points to White Owl Jaguar as a major symbolic figure in Tikal’s political and ritual life, in all likelihood an a hero-king of the distant past. The temporal distance might find a parallel in the physical remoteness of the Temple of the Inscriptions itself, set so far apart from the rest of the city as a sign of some special significance.

Illustration file: whiteowljaguar-figs.pdf

4 thoughts on ““White Owl Jaguar”: A Tikal Royal Ancestor

  1. Simonetta Morselli Barbieri March 28, 2009 / 7:09 PM

    Dear Dr. Stuart,

    I found your article really interesting, due to the lack of information about several Tikal’s texts your reading of the inscription on the comb of Temple VI brings some light upon a period in the history of Tikal not quite understood yet. There is another monument I am very interested in, the so called “Curved Rock” which stands in the Maler Causeway. The only drawing I could find is the one published in the Guide of Tikal by William Coe in 1971.
    I would appreciate very much (and I am sure I would not be the only one) your opinion concerning the inscription carved on the rock. Of course, I am aware that you might not have any interest in such monument …

    Anyway I thank you very much for your kind atention and the work that, troughtout the years contributed to shed light on maya writing system.


    Simonetta Morselli Barbieri
    Facultad de Filosofía y Letras
    Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

    • Luca Bellani June 27, 2009 / 5:11 PM

      Dear Dr. Stuart
      muchisimas gracias por su trabajo increible.
      Sus articulos motivan a miles de estudiantes en todo el mundo.
      Yo soy italiano y simplemente un guia de turistas pero sus articulos me ayudan mucho en mi trabajo.

      ps: Simonetta eres italiana y estudias en el centro de estudios mayas de la UNAM?

  2. Luna Simms April 9, 2014 / 5:19 PM

    this ancestor/diety also seems to be on an Ixlu altar (i believe its the altar 1), he appears in a string of dieties (including the paddler gods) and also has NAAH-HO-CHAN-na right after the collocation in question. is this the same person? and if so does this mean that sak muut hix is more likely a diety or an ancestor (or a diefied ancestor i suppose)? one last query: has anyone done any work on mythical founders? its interesting that events in mythical time are said to be witnessed by a divine lord of a current lineage (i.e. piedras negras altar 1)

    thanks again!

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