Dynasty Founder Yax K’uk’ Mo’ According to the Inscriptions

By: John F. Harris

Originally Published in 1999

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Inscriptions carved on monuments and structures found at Copan tell of a dynasty of rulers, six­teen in number, that held sway over the city for three and a half centuries. The king named Yax K’uk’ Mo’ was the first. Some of the inscriptions record events in the life of Yax K’uk’ Mo’, while others refer to relationships involv­ing him or commemorations of him, but none come from the time when Yax K’uk’ Mo’ himself ruled (ca. AD 426-437). Our earliest “informant” is Popol Kfinich, son of Yax Kuk’ Mo’. The Xukpi Stone, one of ECAP’s recent finds (see Sedat, this issue), records that Popol K’inich dedicated a tomb to his father around AD 437.

Our final informant is Yax Pasah, the last bona-fide ruler at Copan, who in AD 775 commissioned Altar Q, a monument portraying all sixteen rulers in the dynasty. Thus texts about Yax K’ak’ Mo’ span a period of approximately 346 years. In ad­dition to those by Popol Kinich (Ruler 2) and Yax Pasah (Ruler r6), texts with information about Yax K’uk’ Mob’ were commissioned by Water Lily Jaguar (Ruler 7), Boon jaguar (Ruler 16), K’uk’ Chan (Ruler III), Smoke Imix God K (Ruler 12), and r8 Rabbit (Ruler i3).

A full-figure image of Fax Mob’ appears on Altar Q,, and information about him is iden­tified by occurrences of his name glyph in the in­scriptions (Figs. r, 2). Yax K’uk’ Mob’, his personal name, is almost always accompanied by the title Kinich (“Sun-eyed”), although in one case the Ahaw title (“Ruler” or “Lord”) was used instead (Fig. 2c). The personal name usually consists of a yax sign (“first” or “green”) positioned above or in front of a bird head that combines both quetzal (k’uk’) and macaw (no) features (Fig. 2a, 2b). This bird head typically has the characteristic quetzal crest and the encircled eye and/or promi­nent beak of a macaw. (In a text from Quirigua, a neighboring Baya city, two separate bird heads were used to represent k’uk’ and mo’ [Fig. 2d1 in writing the name of Copán’s dynastic founder.)

The earliest dated event attributed to Yax K’uk’ Mo’ is the 8. (March 25, 416) Pe­riod Ending, recorded on Copan Stela r5 (Fig. 3). Period Endings were usually associated with reigning monarchs, but Yax Kluk’ Mo’ was prob­ably not ruling at this date, since his accession, as discussed below, occurred a decade later. (See box on Maya calendrical dates.)

Two undated events which probably occurred about this time are recorded on Copan Stela E (Figs. 4. 6). The first of these states that Yax K’uk’ Mo’ was “downed.” It thus appears that Yax K’uk’ Mo’ was involved in a conflict or violence, possibly associated with his coming to power. The intriguing aspect of this statement comes from the condition of the bones, probably those of Yax K’uk’ Mo’, found in the recently excavated Hunat Tomb. Long before the death of the tomb occu­pant, his lower right arm sustained a severe injury which never healed; he had also received traumas to his left shoulder and head. Possibly the Stela E statement is alluding to the conflict which led to those injuries. So far, no other information about this event appears in any of the known Copan inscriptions. The “downing” statement is followed by a clause which relates that Yax K’uk’ Mol succeeded someone named K’uk’ Hun K’awil, an individual not mentioned in other Copan inscriptions. He may have been the last of a previous dynasty of rulers.

The next pertinent dates are recorded at both Copan and Quirigua. At Copan they appear in the text on Altar Q. The text begins with the date 8.r9.r0.r0.r7 (Sept. 6, 426). when K’uk’ Mo Ahaw received the God K scepter (Fig. 5). This is a metaphor for his accession. It happened at a place called Ch’okte Na, probably a reference to the ruling dynasty’s lineage house. Three days later, Kinich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ “arrived” at Chokte Na. This may be the actual date of his appearance at Copan. At Quiriguars, the same dates are re­corded on Zoomorph P (Fig. 7). While the dates are the same as on Altar Q, the events are differ­ent: the first is an arrival at Chokte Na, and the second is the setting of a stone monument. Both events are associated with Yol Tokr, a person who is probably the founder of Quiriguars ruling lin­eage. The text goes on to say that Yax K’u’ Mor’ caused these events. Apparently it was under Yax K’u’ Mo’s authority that the dynasty of Quiriguars was established. This text supports the suspicion long held by archaeologists that from its earliest days until the demise of r8 Rabbit on 9.r5.6.14.6 (May 3. 738), Quirigus was probably an outpost of Copan.

The most frequently noted event for Yax Kuk’ Mob’ is the celebration of the end of the 9th bak’tun. (Dec. II. 435). Stela 63 and the Motmot Stone (both commissioned by Popol K’inich), Stela 15 (commissioned by Water Lily Jaguar), and Stela J (commissioned by r8 Rabbit) all commemorate this important calendrical event. The ending of a bak’tun, which occurs only once in about 400 years, must have been a highly significant event for the Maya.

The inscriptions as currently understood are silent about further events associated with Yax Mob’ except his death and possible entombment. On the Hieroglyphic Stairway there is a badly eroded series of hieroglyphs with no clearly associated date which record his death (Figs. 8, 13).

As noted above, the text of the Xukpi Stone records the dedication of a tomb by Popol K’inich on (Nov. 36, 437). Presum­ ably the tomb was for his father, Yax Kuk’ Mo’. Assuming that this date marks approximately the death of Yax Kuk’ Mo’, it is evident that he ruled for only about II years. Although his reign was relatively short, memory of him is manifest not only in the texts of the subsequent rulers cited above, but also in the choice of motifs and de­signs used to decorate the buildings erected over the Early Classic structures associated with Yax Kuk’ Mo’ himself.

Other information about Yax K’uk Mor can be garnered from the inscriptions of Copan. For example, the Stela 63 text relates that he is the fa­ther of the 2nd ruler, Popol K’inich. There are also numbered successor statements connecting later rulers to Yax Kuk’ Mo. Thus on Stela r9, Smoke Imix God K is designated the r2th succes­sor, and indeed he is the r2th ruler portrayed on Altar Q (Fig. 9). Some of Copan’s altars and buildings were designated as “belonging” to Yax K’u’ Mor’. For example, Altar Q was named “The Altar of Kinich Yax K’u’ Bo'” (Fig. I0), and an early structure under Copan Temple II, dedicated by Moon Jaguar (Ruler 10), has a fire-dedication statement naming the temple “The House of K’inich Yax K’u’ Mo'” (Fig. II).

As noted in an accompanying article (see Sharer), Yax K’u’ Mob’ was probably not a na fiver of the Copan Valley, but may have come from the Peten, e.g., Tikal, or from Central Mexico. A hint of a possible Tikal connection is seen in the similar name K’u Mob’ which occurs in the text on a Tikal monument from slightly ear­lier times than the earliest dates for Yax Kuk’ Mo’ at Copan (Fig. 12).

The information about Yax K’u’ Mo’ re­vealed in the recently deciphered inscriptions of Copan and Quirigua could never be garnered from archaeology alone. The combination of this information with the stunning revelations of the recent excavations into the early levels of the Copan Acropolis has provided an unparalleled understanding of this most important Maya rul­ing lineage founder.


Decipherments of the pertinent Copan and Quirigua inscriptions discussed in this paper have been done primarily by Linda Schele, Ni­kolai Grube, David Stuart, and Matthew Looper. The hieroglyphs shown in this paper are after drawings done primarily by Linda Schele, Bar­bara Fash, Matthew Looper, and David Stuart.

JOHN HARRIS is a retired chemist (Ph.D. University of Pennsylvania) whose interest in Baya hieroglyphic writing began with the early Baya Weekends at the UPB, and was intensified by many years’ attendance at Linda Schele’s Advanced Seminar in Maya Hieroglyphic Writing at the University of Texas in Austin. Together with Stephen Stearns, he is the author of Understanding Maya Inscriptions (2d ed. University Museum Publications, r997). In recent years, he has co-taught a graduate course on Maya hieroglyphic writing in Penn’s Anthropology Department. He is currently a Research Associate in the American Section of the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

Cite This Article

Harris, John F.. "Dynasty Founder Yax K’uk’ Mo’ According to the Inscriptions." Expedition Magazine 41, no. 2 (July, 1999): -. Accessed February 25, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/dynasty-founder-yax-kuk-mo-according-to-the-inscriptions/

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