Friday, December 21, 2012

Monarch Profile: King Sky Witness of the Snake Kingdom

Among the Mayan city-state kingdoms, one of the most powerful was the “Snake Kingdom” or Kaan ruled from Calakmul. The ancient city sits in what is now the Mexican state of Campeche. During the early classic period of the Maya, Calakmul rose to become a major player, effectively a regional super-power and one of the monarchs who presided over that era of success was King Sky Witness, about whom next to nothing was known until fairly recently. Modern scholars have determined that he must have come to power at some point before 561 AD as it was in that year that Sky Witnesses set up a ruler, effectively a viceroy, at Los Alacranes or, as it was known then, the region of B’uuk’. This was probably the first of the conquests of the Mayan armies of King Sky Witness but certainly not the last or the greatest. The next to fall was Caracol, south of Naranjo in what is now Guatemala, the seat of the Saal kingdom. This brought Calakmul into direct conflict with their most powerful neighbor to the south; the city-state kingdom of Tikal (also known as Mutal).

Caracol had been effectively a vassal state of the Tikal kingdom and when King Sky Witness brought it into the sphere of influence of Calakmul it demonstrated the start of a long and bitter rivalry between Calakmul and Tikal; a clash of two regional superpowers for control over weaker Mayan populations surrounding them. In the past, Tikal may have been the stronger, dominating most of the southern Yucatan Peninsula, but the “Snake Kingdom” of Calakmul was on the ascendant, had been before the accession of King Sky Witness and would remain so for some time. The conquests of King Sky Witness brought about open warfare between the “cold war” rivals and with Tikal power on the decline, it did not take long for King Sky Witness to assert his supremacy when, in 562, his Kaan warriors won a decisive victory over the forces of Tikal. Information on this is extremely scarce and is gleamed mostly from unearthed hieroglyphics found at Caracol. However, it seems that the victory was total and that King Sky Witness had Wak Chan K’awiil (King Double Bird), the King of Tikal, taken prisoner and then sacrificed to the gods of Calakmul. It also seems likely that the rest of the royal family was massacred as the next Tikal ruler for whom evidence can be found, King Animal Skull, came from a completely different lineage than the previous monarchs.

So total was the victory of King Sky Witness that there no evidence has been found of any monument records for Tikal for the next 130 years. Evidently, this earned King Sky Witness quite a legendary reputation as his name is recorded far to the north in Okop (in what is now the Mexican state of Quintana Roo) as the “enemy” in an attack on western Palenque in 599 (Palenque being the future seat of power of the famous King Pacal the Great). Why is that so astonishing? Mostly because King Sky Witness was almost certainly long dead by that time, yet his legend was evidently great enough that crushing victories were still being attributed to him. The last reference to King Sky Witness has been found, again, at Caracol and is dated to 572 which some scholars believe may have been the year of his death as there is evidence that by the following year the “Snake Kingdom” had a new ruler in the person of King First Axewielder.

1 comment:

  1. Mayan history endlessly intrigues precisely because there had been so many Mayan states, and the possibility that royal lineages of the postclassic period may even have survived into the modern era.

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