Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Chiapas Part 18: Toniná's Temple of the Smoking Mirror and the altars and relief sculptures of the Acropolis

Temple of the Smoking Mirror, seen against a dramatic sky. The Smoking Mirror Temple rests on Level 7 of the Acropolis and was constructed with 4 stepped platforms. The peak of this temple reaches 80 m (262 ft) above the Great Plaza. It marks the highest point on Toniná's Acropolis. Steep stairways lead up to the top on the north side (above) and also on the west and south sides. "Smoking Mirror" is a reference often used in pre-hispanic Mesoamerica. It refers to obsidian, a dark volcanic glass that was used for mirrors and a variety of other useful objects including cutting tools, weapons, and jewelry. The Maya imbued it with mystical properties and associated it with K'awhil, the god of rulership, lightning and thunder. 

Seated near the top, a couple of tourists snap photos of temples on the lower levels. Below the tourists, on Level 6, are a temple with a roof comb and another behind it with a tree growing from its top. Both of these were shown in my previous posting. Anyone approaching the Temple of the Smoking Mirror from this south side faces a daunting climb, since the stairs begin on Level 6 and are very steep. The stairs on the west and north sides start on Level 7. In this photo, you are looking southwest.

The view looking southeast. Immediately below is an unnamed temple and to its left is the Temple of the Earth Monster. The Earth Monster Temple also has a roof comb and was featured in Parts 16 and 17 of this series. On the far left of center are the palaces and administrative of Levels 4 and 5. These were the buildings where Toniná's elite lived and worked. On the Great Plaza in the upper right, in front of a group of trees, are two parallel lines which form the sides of Ball Court 2. At the top center, surrounded on three sides by trees, is the much larger Ball Court 1. Both of the Ball Courts can be seen in Part 15.

View to the rear (north) from the top of the Temple of the Smoking Mirror.  From here, the Acropolis drops off steeply into a ravine containing a stream that runs all along the east side of the Great Plaza. This stream would have been the main water supply for those living on the Acropolis. Across the stream to the east, and also to the north and west of the Acropolis, wooded hills rise. A small farm with pasture for cattle and horses lies in the upper center of the photo. Ancient Toniná was much larger than the area covered by the Acropolis. The terrain you see here would probably have been cleared land occupied by the common people and filled with fields of maiz (corn). In addition the production of lime for plaster and stucco requires the burning of large quantities of wood. It is unlikely that the area would have been so heavily wooded at the height of Toniná's power in the late 9th Century AD.

Ruins of a small temple stand on Level 7, immediately behind the Smoking Mirror Temple. Several sources have connected this structure with gods of agriculture. That is also one of the associations given to the Temple of the Smoking Mirror. 

Toniná's famous relief sculpture panels

The divine Ball Game, played by two kings. The throne surrounding this relief sculpture was once used by a ruler named Jaguar Claw. The sculpture shown above is a reproduction and the original now resides in the National Anthropological Museum in Mexico City. There are various interpretations of the meaning of this beautiful carving. The sculpture contains two ball players, and three sections of text. The ball in the center is of exaggerated size. Actual balls varied between the size of a grapefruit and a soccer ball.  For a close up shot of the player on the left, see Part 15 of my Chiapas series. This left side player may either be Toniná's greatest ruler, K'inich Baaknal Chahk ("Snake Skull"), or K'inich Yich'aak Chapat ("Jaguar Claw") who ruled 20 years later. The text refers to them both, but the date given for the ball game, 727 AD, is during the reign of Jaguar Claw. One interpretation is that Snake Skull is mentioned here in an attempt by Jaguar Paw to associate himself with the greatness of the past. There are often multiple, and very subtle, layers of meaning in Classic Maya art.

The right-side player is Took K'awiil, the ruler of Calakmul, an ancient Maya superpower. He wears an elaborate head dress, along with ear spools and bracelets that would have been made of jade. Around his waist he wears a yoke to protect him from the impact of the ball. Pads on his knees shield them as he kneels and puts his shoulder forward to strike the ball. His right hand is missing but has recently been recovered and reattached to the original sculpture in Mexico City. Took K'awiil's presence on this monument gives a fascinating glimpse into the geo-politics of the Maya world. At the time it was carved, there were two Maya city-states which were the superpowers of their world. Calakmul is in the southern part of present-day Yucatan, and Tikal is in the northern panhandle of today's Guatemala. They were bitter rivals for several hundred years. In the course of their long conflict, they made alliances with smaller regional powers. Toniná allied itself with Calakmul, just as Toniná's great rival Palenque was linked to Tikal. This carving can be seen, therefore, as a confirmation of the Calakmul-Toniná alliance as well as a statement that the current ruler of Toniná shared the greatness of his predecessor. Jaguar Paw was essentially proclaiming to the world "you can count on us, Calakmul, we're just as strong as we used to be!" While there are other interpretations of the monument's meaning, this one appears to be based on the actual text of the glyphs above the players.

Nearby the Ball Player sculpture is another showing a snake's gaping mouth. The left-hand Ball Player can be seen in the upper right of the photo. Although I combed the literature, I was unable to find out much about this sculpture. The gaping mouth of a snake can be seen in the center, with the sharp fangs descending from the upper jaw. The sculpture is set within a structure that looks very similar to the throne surrounding the Ball Players. It might be that this was the throne of K'inich B'aaknal Chaak (Snake Skull), particularly given the snake emblem and the fact that Jaguar Paw chose to put his throne so close to this one. However, that is only my own speculation. In any case, snakes were a powerful and very pervasive symbol among the Maya, as well as other pre-hispanic civilizations. The Classic-era Maya worshiped a deity known as Waxaklahun Ubah Kan ("War Serpent")

This long panel is filled with a stucco sculpture of people involved in energetic activity. Once again, I was stymied by the absence of an informational sign and by very skimpy reports culled from the internet. The panel measures about 5 m (15 ft) long and 1 m (3 ft) high and shows a series of gesticulating figures. At first I was mystified by the activity presented. Could it be a battle scene? Close inspection didn't reveal any of the weapons or fallen combatants usually seen in such portrayals. One photo I found on the internet identifies the figures as "little dancers." As I examined my photos of the stucco sculpture, this description seemed to fit.

Traces of ancient red paint can still be seen on this dancer. Proof that he is dancing can be found in the position of his feet. He balances on the toes of his right foot while extending his left with the toes up. Maya wall paintings, pottery and stucco carvings from various sites show dancers in similar positions. With his right arm raised and his left hand bent to his waist, he looks rather jaunty. Maya dances were great ceremonial occasions where the entire community participated, from the commoners up to the ruler. Hallucinogens were sometimes used to assist the dancers in closing the gap between reality and the spirit world. They wore masks and costumes in the form of their naguales (personal spirit animals) and it was believed that they became these animals while dancing.

One of the stucco figures seems to be doing the Maya version of the "Twist." His arm curled, the dancer leans to the left, presumably to the tune of ancient music. Hanging from the topknot on his head dress are long feathers. He wears bracelets on his upper left arm and wrist and is otherwise naked from the waist up. Hanging from his belt is a large disk and below it are further decorative elements. Faint traces of thousand-year-old ocher and Maya blue paint can still be seen. The Popol Vuh (the Maya Book of Creation) gives several examples of dances, most famously by the Hero Twins who use their skill in dancing to help them deceive and defeat the Lords of Xibalba (The Underworld).

The face of a terrifying monster peers out from this stucco sculpture. The Maya had vivid imaginations, possibly enhanced by hallucinogens, and their sculptors and painters produced nightmare images of various gods and mystical creatures. This one bears some resemblance to Chaac, the rain god. He was one of the most important figures in the Maya Cosmos due to his connection with agriculture and maiz production. Chaac had a benevolent side, bringing vital rain for the crops, but--true to the Mesoamerican concept of duality, he also had a dangerous aspect. He was associated with storms and the thunder, lightning, and destructive floods they could bring.  

A recently uncovered wall reveals abstract designs and traces of red and blue paint. These large designs very probably mean something, but I have no clue as to what it might be. In some respects they look like large glyphs. If anyone has any information about these remarkable designs, please leave a comment.

The Wall of the Captives shows a group of war prisoners awaiting their fate. The whole panel is about 3 m (3.3 yd) long and 1.2 m (4 ft) high, and is set on a sloping wall. This photo closeup shows three of the captives, two facing left and one facing right, all seated with their arms bound. Toniná was a particularly aggressive, war-like state, and images such as these are pervasive. As in modern times, Maya wars had political and economic aims. There was an additional purpose, however. The sacrifice of captives in order to feed their blood to the gods added a religious and ritualistic element to these conflicts. In Toniná, the gods seldom went hungry.

A seated captive leans forward in a posture of depressed submission. There is an object around his neck, and the necks of the others, that some have suggested may be a garrote or strangulation device. However, the preferred method of execution at Toniná was decapitation, so this is unlikely. Various sculptures of decapitated bodies have been found at Toniná, and since garroting did not usually produce blood--the food of the gods--I doubt they used that method. The device seen above looks more like a collar used for restraint and control.

Closeup shot of the head and upper torso of a captive.  The figure stares down with half-closed eyes. As a captive, he has been stripped of his ear plugs, necklaces, bracelets, and other finery. His hair has been tied up, part of the preparation for decapitation, so he will almost certainly be executed. Most likely he will meet his end on one of the sacrifice altars in conjunction with a Ball Game or other great ceremonial occasion. The ruling elite gloried in Toniná's military prowess and in displaying their captives in shame and degradation. They were not alone in this attitude in the Maya world, but they are noted for the amount of sculptures devoted to portrayals of captives like those above. On the other hand, Toniná did manage to outlast all the other Classic-era Maya city-states and posted the very last known Long Count Calendar date in 909 AD. After that, silence and the forest closed over this warrior state, as it had over all the others of the Classic world.

This concludes Part 18 of my Chiapas series. Many of Toniná's finest sculptures and other works of art have been removed from the ruins to the museum for safekeeping. As the concluding part of this series, we'll next visit the museum to see these treasures.  I always appreciate feedback, constructive criticism, and questions. If you'd like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. I just came upon your blog, and I saw your posts on Tonina, and thought "I was there!" It was more than a decade ago that I visited Chiapas, and I was very impressed with Tonina. From your excellent photography, it appears that quite a bit more excavation has been done since then. I look forward to going through your blog and revisiting many of the places that I have visited in Mexico, and perhaps get some ideas for future trips. I just started a blog a couple months ago to record my travels, and I just added your blog to my blog list. If you would like to take a look at it, the address is... http://ilovemexico2013.blogspot.com

  2. I have an observation with respect to the "little dancers". You may like to go the the Internet and enter "Maya, Dance, Chacchoben". There is a brief YouTube video there of Maya dancers (male and female) dressed in a similar costume as these dancers portrayed at Toniná. I think it an interesting coincidence, that makes the panel a bit more understandable. For the Maya, through dance people became gods, and gods became people..


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim