Rites and Rituals of the Yaxchilan Queens:
Analysis of the Iconography of the Yaxchilan Lintels 24, 25, and 26
Faculty Mentor: Allen Christianson, Comparative Arts and Letters
The ruins of Yaxchilan on the shores of the Usumacinta River, Mexico have some of the
only occurrences of iconography that contain women performing sacred bloodletting rites. Most
scholars seem to agree that at the end of the 8th century and beginning of the 9th century C.E., the
Classic Maya were on the brink of collapse in the southern lowlands. This Great collapse has
many arguable factors: disease, drought, famine, starvation, natural disasters, etc. Though no
exact cause for the Great collapse has been identified, one thing that scholars seem to agree on is
the desperation one can sense in the Maya art and architecture from this time period.
This artistic response is particularly noted in the Maya City of Yaxchilan, where stone
sculptures crafted between the years of 723 and 770 outstripped the creation of any other,
currently, uncovered Maya ruin. We can note this difference in artisanship at this late classic
period because since its establishment Yaxchilan was particularly creating sculptured
monuments, called lintels, in its architecture. Here there are in particular three lintels that contain
the first wife of King Itzamnaj Balam, a woman named Lady K’abal Xok, that show a series
depicting the entire process of bloodletting for a woman particularly a queen.
In my travels to England and under the tutelage of Dr. Christenson, I was able to begin
researching and drafting a book on the Maya etiological myths that pair female creation
goddesses with male creation gods, and discuss how this is iconographically created in the
sculptures. The iconography of the Yaxchilan lintels carries the weight and importance if Maya
belief in bloodletting, but here the rare occurrence of a queen sacrificing her own blood to rebirth the world epitomizes the need, desperation, and desire for the community of Yaxchilan to thrive.
Woman, as they experienced pregnancy and brought forth children, were seen as particularly
sacred and divine as they created (with men) life and brought it forth from the underworld, just
as the world was birthed and brought forth from the portal to the underworld. Through the
blood, they were able to transcend the physical boundaries of the mortal world, call forth the
vision serpent, and initiate a rebirth and renewal of a dying world.
My book discusses how the philosophy, spirituality, and theology of the Maya revolve
around Childbirth and life giving just as the world revolves around the sun. I write that it is a
central idea and theme of the Maya, and to remove it from the equation would be just as to no
longer care for the Maize that the Maya thrived and survived off of. The Religion would wither
and die, as it no longer had a source and support to allow for it to sustain, and that all of this is
created through artistic and hieroglyphic records, such as the Yaxchilan Lintels.