Lady Snake Lord: Warrior Queen of the Maya
The Maya seemed to have a sense of gender equality
The Maya built a truly remarkable civilization filled with awesome stepped pyramids, sprawling temples and palaces and impressive agricultural and water management systems. Even their ornate, painted homes were remarkable! Yet the Maya people themselves were fascinating too. Archaeologists in Guatemala have been studying the skeletal remains and artifacts associated with a woman who is probably a warrior queen named Lady K’abel.
Let’s look into the life of this marvelous woman and see what she was about. But first please read a brief history of the Maya, perhaps Mesoamerica’s most interesting and important ancient civilization.
Brief history of the Maya
The Maya civilization began about 2500 B.C.E (before the common era), but settlements didn’t emerge until about 1800 B.C.E., and the first large city-states didn’t emerge until about 800 B.C.E., one of the most impressive of which was El Mirador, perhaps the greatest Maya settlement of the Preclassic period.
Living mostly in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and what is present day Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador, the Maya, from their earliest years, interacted with the various cultures of the region - the Olmecs, Toltecs, Zapotecs, Mixtecs and Aztecs. This cultural diffusion led to the development of Maya writing, mathematics, astronomy, epigraphy, their calendar, monumental architecture (particularly stepped pyramids) and unique artistic depictions on various media.
Many Maya enthusiasts brag about the accuracy of the Maya calendar. First developed in the fifth century B.C.E., the Haab’, though impressive, was based on the solar year of 365 days and didn’t include leap years. The modern Gregorian calendar, in comparison, uses a solar year of 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes and 12 seconds, and loses only one day of accuracy every 3,257 years.
However, evidence suggests the Maya knew about the need for leap years yet didn’t alter the Haab’. Also, the Maya relied on a separate calendar for their Long Count, which used a modified base-20 format, rather than the base-10 Western numbering.
The Maya developed a writing system that was the most advanced of any in Mesoamerica. Based on a logosyllabic system, which includes more than a thousand glyphs, as well as syllabic signs, it is the only pre-Columbian script of the Americas known to represent what its people actually spoke. This writing was developed about 300 to 200 B.C.E. and was derived from the writing systems of the Olmecs and Zapotecs.
Classic Period and Collapse
The time for the development of advanced city-states lasted from about 250 to 900 A.D. This was when dominant urban centers such as Tikal, Caracol, Uxmal, Palenque, Copán and Chichen Itzá vied for power and influence in the Maya world, waging wars of conquest, with captives often taken during and after battles. As depicted on numerous artworks throughout the period, at least some of these captives were tortured and/or executed in gruesome ways.
Though nobody knows for certain what ended the Classic period, it may have ended because of ecologically imbalances, particularly deforestation, as well as the stress of overpopulation brought about by millions of people living in tropical areas. There was also a prolonged 200-year drought that struck during the end of this period.
From the time the Spanish conquistadores first arrived in the mainland of North America in the early sixteenth century, at least some of the Maya city-states avoided conquest for many decades. Because the Maya cities didn’t have near as much gold, silver or jewels as the Aztec or Inca civilizations, the conquistadores took their time overthrowing the Maya kings and queens. The last Maya city to fall to the Spaniards was Tayasal in 1697, ending the sovereignty of the Maya forever.
The Tomb of Lady Snake Lord
According to the article “Uncovering a Maya Warrior Queen” in the May/June 2013 issue of Archaeology magazine, during the summer of 2012, Scientists uncovered an impressive tomb in the Maya city of Waká. The tomb dates from the fourth through the nine centuries A.D.
Inside this 12-by-5-foot chamber archaeologists found a skeleton and many fascinating artifacts, some of which showing drawings and glyphs pertaining to the most powerful woman in Maya history: Lady K’abel, a queen in the Snake Dynasty, also known as “Lady Snake Lord” or “Lady Waterlily Hand.” Lady K’abel was part of the ruling class of the city-state of Calakmul, which stretched from southern Mexico to the Petén region in Guatemala, an area that includes Waká.
In addition to being a queen, Lady K’abel carried one of the most important titles in the Maya world: Kaloomte’ or “supreme warlord.”
When archaeologists entered the tomb they discovered many artifacts, all of which seemingly pertain to the skeleton of this woman. One of the artifacts is a three-inch-long tube covered with glyphs and the portrait of an aging woman, presumably that of Lady K’abel. (Please note that scientists don’t know for certain if the skeleton is that of Lady K’abel, but they are reasonably certain it is.)
In Waká, several monuments have been found depicting this ancient queen, who, archeological evidence suggests, died between A.D. 702 and 711. The best-known likeness of K’abel appears on a stela found at Waká, a photo of which is shown with the article. Lady K’abel may have been the commander of Waká’s army when it was fighting the king of Tikal and his allies.
By the way, five women have been known to acquire the title of Kaloomte’. In fact, in the Maya world, women could have a title higher than the man they married. But Lady K’abel may or may not have been more powerful than her husband, K’inich Bahlam II.
At any rate, the queen and king were seen as a ruling unit.
Did this warrior Queen actually fight?
Some readers may wonder if Lady K’abel ever led troops into battle. No artistic depictions have ever shown Maya queens taking part in battles. However, stone images at cities such as Calakmul and Naranjo show Maya queens standing over captives following a battle. Moreover, it is known that some queens, doubling as priestesses perhaps, may have been used to conjure aid from the spirit world, thereby helping their troops win battles.
Interestingly, many experts believe the title of Kaloomte’ is closely tied to the fire shrine, which was dedicated to the sun god. The Toltecs, ruling from their capital city in Teotihuacán in the Valley of Mexico, were at the peak of their power and dominated some Maya city-states, including, for a time, Waká. Actually, the first person to hold the title of Kaloomte’ was a king from Teotihuacán. When this Toltec city lost power in the region around Waká, the Snake Dynasty in which Lady K’abel belonged, used the fire shrine to legitimize its authority, thus filling the political void left by the Toltecs.
In the coming years, archaeologists and other scientists will probably learn much more about Lady K’abel and the Maya context in which she lived. This Maya warrior queen was almost certainly one very impressive woman!
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