A Childhood Ritual on The Hauberg Stela

In a few Classic Maya texts we find records of coming-of-age ceremonies involving royal children, where bloodleting seems a dominant theme. These ritual events haven’t yet been collectively discussed or analyzed in the literature (at least as far as I know) so I hope this brief post might help point the way for further thought, especially with regard to the interpretation of an important ealry Maya monument known as the Hauberg Stela (see the third and last image, scrolling below).

We can first turn to the vivid but damaged depiction of one such childhood rite on Panel 19 from Dos Pilas, shown here.


At center stage we see the young prince shedding drops of blood into a dish, standing before a kneeling priest who holds a stingray spine — the instrument of choice for genital bloodletting in much of ancient Mesomerica. The boy’s mother and father (Ruler 3 of Dos Pilas) look on from the left, as do also two attendants at right, one called the “guardian of the boy.” The main inscription is too damaged to read in full, unfortunately, but it does mention the ch’ok ajaw title (“prince”) as well as the fact that the ritual was witnessed by “the twenty-eight lords.” Evidently this sort of youth ceremony was a major political event in its own right.


Texts at other sites seem to describe very similar sorts of episodes. In a passage from Stela 3 of Caracol, show here, we read of a ceremony called yax ch’ab, involving the five-year old youngster named Sak Baah Witzil — he would would later reign as the important ruler Tum Yohl K’inich (also known as “Kan II,” in Martin and Grube’s Chronicles of Maya Kings and Queens). As others have noted, yax ch’ab is surely a bloodletting ceremony, literally meaning “first penance” or “first creation.” Ch’ab alone is a key term used for adult bloodletting ceremonies, as best seen on Yaxchilan, Lintel 24. According to the Caracol passage, the boy’s father oversaw the ritual according to the same passage, making for an even more precise parallel to the Dos Pilas scene.

(Another yax ch’ab ritual is recorded on the side of Tikal’s Stela 10, a much eroded monument, but the context is not so clear; it too could well refer to a childhood bloodletting ceremony.)


This brings us the remarkable Huaberg Stela, a key Early Classic sculpture dating to about 200-300 AD, now in the collections of the Princeton University Art Museum. The miniature stela shows a standing figure in supernatural attire, cradling a long serpent that arches above his head. Images of conjured ancestral figures climb the body of the snake, and another likely ancestor image emerges from the gaping maw above. The main verb in the accompanying text is again yax ch’ab, “first penance,” leading me to consider the Hauberg Stela as a commemoration of a young boy’s first bloodletting, perhaps involving also a performance of deity impersonation. The unusual small size of the monument — it’s only about 80 cms in hieght — may be due to it being a “child-size” stela.

Published studies of the Hauberg Stela don’t mentioned this connection to youth ceremonies, so my take on it goes against established wisdom in some ways. For example, the entry in the Lords of Creation exhibit catalog (Fields and Reents-Budet 2005) repeats the long-held view first tentatively advanced by Linda Schele (1985) that the Hauberg Stela depicts a king named “Bak T’ul” in a bloodletting “vision quest” (a term, by the way, I strongly object to). Bloodletting it certainly is, but based on a closer reading of the glyphs and drawing key comparisons, I think a good case can be made that the Hauberg Stela instead celebrates a royal child’s auto-sacrifice, a “First Penance.”

(By the way, “Bak T’ul” is not the correct reading of the personal name in any case, whether it be a child or adult. It looks instead to be CHAK, “red,” before an undeciphered animal head sign erroneously analyzed before as a rabbit, t’ul.)

* * *

Further reading:

Fields, Virginia, and Dorie Reents-Budet. 2005. Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship. Los Angeles: LACMA

Schele, Linda. 1985. The Hauberg Stela. Bloodletting and the Mythos of Maya Rulership. In Fifth Palenque Round Table, 1983, edited by M.G. Robertson and V. Fields, pp. 135-150. San Francisco: PARI

7 thoughts on “A Childhood Ritual on The Hauberg Stela

  1. Anna Blume April 2, 2008 / 3:56 AM

    I am thinking about the radical humility of Ix Xok on Lintel 24 and am also having difficulty with the “concept” of vision quest. Could you elaborate on your view of this term, especially in relation to bloodletting.


  2. Scott Workman April 20, 2008 / 12:04 PM

    This is a wonderful weblog, thank you very much for your work here. I also dislike the use of the term “vision quest”, but I’m curious about your objections. Could you explain? Thank you again.

  3. David Stuart May 5, 2008 / 4:32 PM

    My thinking on “vision quests”:

    Thanks for those questions. I realize this may be controversial, but my objection to using the term in Maya iconography hinges on the so-called “Vision Serpent.” Linda Schele began using this label in the 1970s and 80s in reference to large supernatural snakes, such as the famous ones we see on Lintel 25 of Yaxchilan, or in numerous other art works. She and others saw them as symbols of “hallucinatory visions central to Maya ritual” (The Blood of Kings, p. 46), but this has never sat well with me. Rather than see the fantastic snakes as actual hallucinations supposedly brought on by the physical affects of bloodletting, I prefer to see them as key symbols in the art of transformation and supernatural contact. They had many multi-layered meanings, as celestial symbols, and as conduits for the conjuring and “birthing” of deities and ancestral spirits. Seeing them as “visions” and “hallucinations” takes away, for me, their important and internally logical role in Maya art and iconography. To be honest, use of the term “vision quest” also smacks a little bit of the way we like to package the complexities of Native American ritual experience, even if we accept Maya rites were somehow parallel to “vision quests” from North America (and I think they were very different, anyway).

    This is one of those complex topic that probably deserves its own critical essay, but I hope this answers a little for now.

  4. Aj Xol Ch'ok November 2, 2008 / 11:18 PM

    Interesante página señor David Stuart, me gustaría saber si existe una versión en español de este sitio.

    Hector Xol

  5. Bryan Just April 5, 2010 / 11:47 AM

    Hi David,

    I’m curious about your date range here (200-300). Alfonso Lacadena places the work between – based on paleography; Flora Clancy has similarly argued for late cycle 8 or early 9 based on the carving style. Clancy even reconsiders Linda Schele’s old alternate IS of

    If you still support a third century placement I’d be interested in learning your rationale.

    • David Stuart April 21, 2010 / 2:02 PM

      Hi Bryan,

      Well, I basically agree with an early Early Classic placement in general, so the third century dating I offered remains just a “guesstimate.” That said — and this is rather subjective — there are aspects of the figural carving and paleography that suggest placing the monument earlier than some dates that have been proposed. I strongly doubt, for example, it could be after, and I don’t see why it couldn’t be roughly contemporaneous with, or even a bit earlier than, Stela 29 from Tikal (at 292 AD). The readings of the Hauberg’s inscribed date are very problematic in my view, so that evidence ought to be put aside for the time being.

      All this goes to show that we really aren’t in a good position to stylistically date any sculpture from this early “proto-Classic” era, given the lack of a good comparative date set. So I would never hold stubbornly to what I wrote; it was just an informed stab-in the-dark, nothing more.

  6. Carl de Borhegyi June 10, 2010 / 4:01 PM

    Regarding the Hauberg Stela

    You mention that the main verb in the accompanying text is again yax ch’ab, “first penance,” leading you to consider the Hauberg Stela as a commemoration of a young boy’s first bloodletting, perhaps involving also a performance of deity impersonation.

    No doubt that you are the expert here, and just so you know I am one of your biggest fans. However, what if!!! the word yax refers to the color green and that the serpent with the tiny deified ancestors climbing up or down represents the central portal of up and down (Venus Quetzalcoatl) identified here by a serpent and the color green, a symbol of the quetzal bird and Quetzalcoatl. And that the headdress on the ruler (or Venus deity) appears to represent the Principal Bird Deity who we identify with the world tree.

    Just a thought, sometimes I wonder if I’m onto something, or just on something. Take care David, I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

    Carl de Borhegyi

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