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Bird Jaguar IV

ya-YAXU:N?-BAHLAM. Drawing and transcription after Martin and Grube (2008).


Maya ruler of Yaxchilan; also known as Bird Jaguar the Great, Bird Jaguar III and Yaxun Balam IV. Reigned 752-768.

Born: 9.13.17.12.10 8 Ok 13 Yax (August 23, 709).

Acceded: 9.16.1.0.0 11 Ajaw 8 Sek (April 29, 752).

Father: Itzamnaaj Bahlam III.

Mother: Lady Ik' Skull of Calakmul.

Wives: Lady Great Skull, Lady Wak Tuun of Motul de San José, Lady Wak Jalam Chan Ajaw of Motul de San José, Lady Mut Bahlam of Hix Witz.

Son: Itzamnaaj Bahlam IV.

Monuments: Stelae 1, 3/33, 6, 9, 10, 11 & 35; Lintels 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 16, 21, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 33, 38, 39, 40, 50? & 59; Temple 8 Tablet; Hieroglyphic Stairways 1, 3 & 4; Altars 1?, 3, 4 & 9; Dos Caobas Stela 2; Retaltelco lintel.

This king's prodigious architectural and monumental programs were in large measure motivated by a desire to promote his own legitimacy; as the son of a junior wife of Itzamnaaj Bahlam III, he had been bypassed for the throne upon his father's death (Martin and Grube 2008:128). Then ensued what Tatiana Proskouriakoff has viewed as a ten-year power struggle in which Bird Jaguar ultimately prevailed over rival claimants (ibid.:127). We now know that one of these, Yopaat Bahlam II, actually ruled as king of Yaxchilan during some or all of Proskouriakoff's "interregnum"; and another aspect of Bird Jaguar's campaign to manipulate history seems to have entailed the obliteration of this predecessor from the monumental record (ibid.:127, 129, 149).

Bird Jaguar acceded on 9.16.1.0.0 (unusually, for Maya accessions were not normally on period-ending dates); having achieved the throne at last, he set about demonstrating why this had been preordained (ibid.:128). He had himself depicted on Stela 11 enacting a dance ceremony involving the exchange of "flap-staff" banners with his father; this is said to have taken place only a year before his father died, implying a paternal blessing of sorts for the son of a lesser wife who was never once mentioned in her husband's inscriptions (ibid.:126, 129).

Bird Jaguar's mother, Lady Ik' Skull, was one of three wives of Itzamnaaj Bahlam; interestingly, she was a royal woman of Calakmul, the hegemonistic "superstate" against which Yaxchilan had warred in AD 537 and which seems to have acted as sometime overlord to Yaxchilan's great rival Piedras Negras (ibid.:121, 126, 144). To elevate her importance after the fact, Bird Jaguar had her depicted in more than one scene together with her husband; more importantly perhaps, he tied her to the flap-staff "benediction" by portraying a ritual five days later in which she joined her son and his wife Lady Great Skull in an autosacrificial rite (ibid.:129). By drawing blood, they conjure visions of serpents and centipedes bringing forth images of K'awiil, a deity with royal associations.

Lady K'abal Xook, Itzamnaaj Bahlam's senior wife, was accorded a prestige throughout her life consistent with being the mother of the heir apparent (ibid.:126-127). One of the marks of this high regard was Temple 23, a building dedicated in her honor and housing some of the finest sculptures of Maya art (ibid.:125). One of the lintels portrays her making a blood offering by drawing a thorn-spiked cord through her tongue. As if to equate his own mother with Lady K'abal Xook and himself with Itzamnaaj Bahlam's choosen successor, Bird Jaguar commissioned Stela 35 with two scenes of his mother imitating Lady K'abal Xook's sacrificial rite (ibid.:129).

Bird Jaguar wrote a great deal of Yaxchilan history and may have re-written some of it as well; he was involved in both of the site's king lists, resetting the lintels bearing K'inich Tatbu Skull II's Early Classic dynastic history in Structure 12 and repeating this list with supplemental information in his own Hieroglyphic Stairway 1 (ibid.:129). This extensive record begins with the Founder and the other nine kings cited by Tatbu Skull and continues down to Bird Jaguar IV himself.

It was probably Bird Jaguar who repaired Knot-eye Jaguar I's Stela 27 (with such crude re-carving as to cause the figure to be nicknamed the "wooden soldier") (ibid.:129, 120; Simon Martin, personal communication 2002). He honored K'inich Tatbu Skull II, his fellow dynastic chronicler, by portraying him on Lintel 50 (Martin and Grube (2008:129). Stela 6 was chiseled plain and re-carved, as revealed by the unmodified base underground (ibid.:129-130). This monument — together with at least one another stela and a hieroglyphic bench with "full-figure" glyphs — was made for Bird Jaguar's grandfather Bird Jaguar III; this king had left no surviving monuments of his own (conceivably because he had been prohibited from doing so by Piedras Negras), so Bird Jaguar IV created some for him (ibid.:123, 129).

This was not Bird Jaguar's only re-carving; his hieroglyphic stairway seems to have been plastered in places to cover over the outlines of preexisting glyphic and figural cartouches (ibid.:130). There is every reason to believe that these "repurposed" monuments once belonged to Yopaat Bahlam II, or perhaps others who had successfully disputed Bird Jaguar IV's claim to the throne during the ten-year "interregnum" and/or had offended his nationalistic pride by expressing allegiance to Piedras Negras (ibid.:127, 149).

Yaxchilan has enjoyed something of an undeserved reputation as a "conquest state" thanks to the efforts of Bird Jaguar to depict himself as a relentless warrior; he almost invariably styled himself "Master of Aj Uk" and "He of Twenty Captives", but in fact his victims were comparatively insignificant (ibid.:117, 130). It was a sajal and not a divine lord of Wak'aab (apparently Santa Elena) whom he took prisoner in 752 in the first of his recorded triumphs; the polity of Sanab Huk'ay, from which he captured "Jeweled Skull" in 755, is known only from the inscriptions of Yaxchilan (ibid.:130).

In the action that resulted in this last capture, Bird Jaguar shares credit with K'an Tok Wayib, his baah sajal or leading noble, who is depicted on three lintels with the king (ibid.:130). Bird Jaguar was not the first to share monuments with subordinates, but the fact that he did so extensively and displayed these monuments in Yaxchilan itself was led to the suggestion that he was rewarding these nobles for supporting him in his struggle to attain the throne (ibid.:130-131). Another lord named Tiloom, the sajal who ruled La Pasadita, aided in his final recorded capture in 759; significantly, the prisoner was T'ul Chiik, a lord carrying the k'inil ajaw title of Piedras Negras (ibid.:131). The encounter is briefly mentioned on Hieroglyphic Stairway 1 but featured on a lintel at La Pasadita (ibid.:131).

By and large, Bird Jaguar's profusion of monuments were not as fine as his father's in the masterful depth of the relief carving; but taken together with an ambitious architectural program, they clearly bespeak Yaxchilan's prosperity and freedom from external control during his reign (ibid.:131). Architecturally, he effected a major transformation by filling in and leveling the gullies that had previously divided what is now the Main Plaza; he built or extended at least a dozen structures, including Temple 21, a conscious imitation of Lady K'abal Xook's Temple 23 (ibid.:131).

In his last years, Bird Jaguar seems to have devoted himself to ensuring that his son's accession to power would be less problematical than his own had been; an issue was that the future Itzamnaaj Bahlam IV was only sixteen when Bird Jaguar, perhaps sensing his own mortality, took concrete steps to ensure the succession (ibid.:132). The means to this end was a lintel depicting a flap-staff ritual just like the one he had supposedly enacted with his father, Itzamnaaj Bahlam III, a year before the latter's death; just as the scene on Stela 11 was intended to imply that his father had annointed him as the chosen successor, so the new Lintel 9 provided Bird Jaguar's formal sanction to the succession arrangements (ibid.:129, 132). But the co-participant in the exchange of flap-staffs was not the sixteen year old but rather a sajal named Great Skull who is described as the yichaan ajaw, "uncle of the lord", i.e. the young prince; Great Skull, who had never appeared before in Bird Jaguar's inscriptions, had evidently been appointed as the boy's guardian or regent (ibid.:132).

Temple 33, usually considered a construction of Bird Jaguar, does so much to enhance the status of his son that it is likely to have been finished by the latter (ibid.:132). Chel Te' Chan K'inich is depicted on one of the lintels peforming a "bird-staff" ritual with his father in 757, and even though he is not yet a king he is accorded a royal emblem glyph; another lintel, which shows his mother Lady Great Skull, refers to him by his regnal name, Itzamnaaj Bahlam (ibid.:132). Seated within Temple 33's central chamber was a larger-than-lifesize statue of Bird Jaguar's father, Itzamnaaj Bahlam III, that may have served as the focus of veneration rituals; it is not known who was buried in the richly appointed tomb in front of the structure, although Itzamnaaj Bahlam III's final resting place is now thought to be Temple 23 (ibid.:126, 132).

The flap-staff ritual took place in June of 768 and Bird Jaguar lived at least until October of that year when he became a four k'atun ajaw, as recorded on a lintel at the nearby subordinate site of Retatelco (ibid.:132).

The foregoing is based on Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens by Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube (2008:126-133, 149). Their sources include Tatiana Proskouriakoff (1963, 1964) for the "interregnum"; Linda Schele and David Freidel (1990), Sandra Noble Bardslay (1994) and Peter Mathews (1997[1985]) for Bird Jaguar's writing of history to place himself "at the center of affairs"; Mathews (1997[1985]) for the plaster covering glyphs of Hieroglyphic Stairway 1; Schele and Freidel (1990) for Bird Jaguar being beholden to his nobles; Werner Nahm (1997) for the captive with Piedras Negras associations; Ramon Carrasco Vargas (1991) for the leveling of the Main Plaza; David Stuart (1997) for yichaan ajaw; Schele and Freidel (1990) for Great Skull as guardian or regent; and Stephen Houston, Charles Golden, René Muñoz, and Andrew Scherer (2006) for the Retatelco lintel.