LEONIDE MARTIN INTERVIEWS YOHL IK’NAL OF THE VISIONARY MAYAN QUEEN
On this cool morning as misty tendrils slowly vanish in mountain crevasses, I am honored to join the ruler of Lakam Ha in her small reception chamber. She sits cross-legged on a raised dais and motions me to settle onto thick floor mats beside her. The queen has graciously granted me an interview, for she knows my keen interest in the lives of ancient Mayas. After accepting my deep bow, in which I clasp my right hand to my left shoulder in typical Mayan fashion, she bids me be comfortable and signals attendants to bring us cups of frothy, hot chili-laced cacao. The bitter, steaming beverage is welcome in the morning chill, though the day will be warm before noon. I admire the beautiful, graceful dancers in lavish costume and feathery headdresses who adorn the cup. Lakam Ha, called Palenque be the Spaniards, is known for its fine art and architecture. I know that Yohl Ik’nal is the first woman to rule this city, and has a fascinating story to tell. I addressed her with the title for woman rulers.
LM: Holy Lady, where and when were you born?
YI: This city, Lakam Ha, beloved of the Triad Gods and blessed with many waters and abundance of forests and fields, is the place of my birth. It has been the home of my lineage for nine generations. My feet touched the earth in Baktun 9, Katun 6, Tun 2 in our Long Count Calendar that keeps the continuous record of days, from the time of Creation. In your Gregorian Calendar, the year is 562 of your Current Era. This solar cycle marks the twentieth year of my reign, which began in 583 C.E.
LM: What influence did your birth family have on you, your choices, your life?
YI: My family had every influence upon my life. When one is born of royal blood, and designated as carrier of the royal bloodline, life is determined completely by the needs of the dynasty and the people. Because I was a girl and had a young brother, at first I thought there would be some opportunity for choice in my life. But my brother died in youth, and my father ascended to the throne. He was determined that I would succeed him, although female succession was not usual among the Mayas. There was opposition to my rulership; in our city were other families with royal bloodlines, and my distant cousin coveted the throne. My father was a determined man, an astute politician with a loyal base of supporters, and his will prevailed. I realized it was my destiny to become ruler. I wanted to rise to my father’s expectations, so I dedicated myself to learning the skills of ruling. Many say this I have done well. Although Lakam Ha faced adversity and enemy attack, we were victorious and now for years have lived in peace and prosperity.
LM: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
YI: In the larger sense, having guided my people to a satisfying life, brought stability to government, and expanded our city with impressive new buildings. In particular, I am proud of the magnificent pyramid temple that I had constructed for my father. His burial crypt is deep inside this tall structure, and it is adorned with fine carvings, hieroglyphic panels, and an intricately decorated roofcomb. It is a suitable monument to his greatness; people come daily to honor him and seek his wisdom as a Revered Ancestor. I have assembled the region’s most skilled stone carvers, builders, and artists, including those gifted as scribes who paint glyphs telling our history on bark-paper books and ceramics.
LM: What do you consider your special talent?
YI: I was gifted by the Deities at birth with visionary abilities. From early childhood, I was able to foresee future events and could readily travel between dimensions. You are aware of the Maya beliefs that see all existence as divided into three dimensions: The Upperworld of Deities, stars, the cosmos; the Middleworld of earth, water, plants, animals, and people; and the Underworld of Death Lords, watery chasms, dangerous monsters, and fearful places. Sometimes the soul becomes trapped in the Underworld, unable to master the tests given by the Death Lords. For the fortunate, a kind shaman will journey into this frightful realm to help release them. Indeed, such things are part of my experience, and others in my family.
My training to become ruler involved learning how to control and direct my visionary powers. Otherwise, I might also be trapped in other dimensions and be unable to return. All Mayan rulers are trained as shamans. We do rituals of self-sacrifice, during which we let our own blood onto paper and burn it in a censer as offerings to the Gods. From the copal incense smoke a Vision Serpent rises, and brings information and guidance from Deities or Ancestors.
The most profound use of my special visionary talent came when I foresaw an attack from a powerful enemy. It was planned by my own distant cousin, who my father had exiled for his conspiracy against our family. As our warriors were alerted of the pending attack, they were prepared and successfully repelled the enemy.
LM: How do you decide if you can trust someone?
YI: Ah, this is an important skill for a ruler. Always there are ambitious nobles and court intrigues, and we must stay alert to deflect erosions of our authority. You can probably guess how I determine if someone is trustworthy—I use my intuition, my visionary abilities. When the attack was being planned, I made a vision quest and was able to identify the traitors in our city who were involved. This led to our victory; we eliminated most of the traitors. There was one interesting twist, however, when I foresaw that the son of a rebel leader would become my daughter’s husband. It clearly was the will of the Gods. We used rather clever strategy to co-opt this family and draw them into our circle of support. They have remained loyal.
LM: On a more personal level, if you will permit, who is the greatest love of your life?
YI: The greatest love is my husband, Hun Pakal. I worried that love of a man might not be given as my lot; it is royal protocol that parents select the appropriate matches for their children. As you can appreciate, royal marriages serve important purposes such as solidifying alliances, acquiring wealth or power, resolving conflicts between cities. But I was most fortunate! My father selected the man to whom I was already attracted, a noble of our city with suitable bloodlines and a loyal family. Hun Pakal had to prove himself as a brave warrior and win contests at ritual games; to my joy he excelled in this competition. He has through the years been my wise advisor, confidant, and unending source of support. Our love is deep and kind; I rejoice daily at my good fortune. He might have been overly ambitious and challenged my rulership, but instead he completely accepted his position as royal consort. Because I am ruler, the Bahlam lineage of my family is considered to continue through our children. I have designated our son as heir to the throne.
LM: What is your greatest fear?
YI: My deepest concern is for succession. My life has been devoted to continuing our lineage and ruling well; now as I am aging my desire is to see our dynasty persist. Of my two children, my son has an artistic nature but is indecisive and fails to command respect. My daughter is strong-willed with natural leadership skills, but she is impulsive and quick-tempered. Choosing the heir was very difficult; they each have weaknesses. Selecting my son was based on quieting dissent among nobles, as many would object if another woman was put on the throne. In my heart I believe she would make the better ruler. My fear is that my son will prove inadequate, that factions will form and attempt to oust him and seat another lineage. I fear for the chaos that could result, unsettling our period of harmony, and making us vulnerable to another enemy attack. I continue with offerings to draw the Triad God’s favor, and vision quests to seek guidance. May the grace of Deities and Ancestors continue to flow to my beloved city and its people.
LM: How would you like to die?
YI: You ask this question because you know how pervasive the themes of death, resurrection, and rebirth are to the ancient Mayas. When the ruler dies, he or she acts in the role of the Maize God, symbol of the cycle of corn, whose stalks must return to fertilize the earth after the ears have been harvested. The Mayas are the people of corn, made and modeled by our Creator Gods from corn, blood, and water. After stalks give life force into the soil and seeds are planted, the tender green sprouts of new growth appear following the rains—the Maize God is reborn as a new crop to nurture the people. This story is told in the Popol Vuh, our book of creation. But before rebirth, our First Father had to be resurrected through the wiles of his twin sons, outwitting the Death Lords in the Underworld. In our unique Lakam Ha creation story, First Father and Primordial Mother gave birth to the Triad Deities, our patrons. This event is re-enacted when rulers die, for their descent into the Underworld begins yet another cycle.
Death of a ruler is a major event in Maya society. All must be done in proper manner. The burial monument, a pyramid temple, is started during the ruler’s lifetime, unless death is sudden. After death the ruler’s body is prepared by rituals of transition, including being covered with red cinnabar powder to preserve it. During the interment ceremonies, the ruler will be accompanied by all the implements and talismans needed for the Underworld journey. The ruler who successfully navigates the realm of Death Lords ascends into the sky and becomes a star, shining wisdom and guidance as an Ancestor. In Maya belief, souls from the stars can be drawn again into earthly life.
On a personal level, I wish to die surrounded by those I love, my husband and children, my family and courtiers. My time for this transition is coming soon, for my heart is not healthy. As a Maya, I know death is not only a cycle ending, but another cycle beginning. All cycles repeat, whether short or cosmically long. My life essence will return again, to serve another destiny, to fulfill the will of the Deities. So may it ever be.
About The Visionary Mayan Queen: Yohl Ik’nal of Palenque
Yohl Ik’nal, first Mayan woman ruler, must overcome forces opposing her rule . . . betrayal and revenge, attack by enemy cities, and shamanic powers. Using her visionary ability, she saves her city from destruction, builds temples to honor her father and the Gods, and brings prosperity to her people while finding a love that sustains her. But she foresees a time of darkness coming and knows she must choose a successor, either her weak son or willful daughter. Can she trust her vision to guide her? For her choice will lead to ruin or bring her city to greatness. Set in the opulent Maya world or royal court intrigue, exotic ceremonies on towering pyramids, shamanic journeys, sacrificial rituals, and strategic battles. Ultimately a story of family bonds and conflicts, duty and leadership, determination and faith.
About Leonide Martin
Leonide Martin, author of the Mists of Palenque series about remarkable Mayan queens, draws from academic skills and Maya initiate training to write authentic historical fiction. She conducted extensive research and on-site archeological studies, and apprenticed with Maya elders. While not writing or researching, she enjoys gardening and nature. She lives with her husband and two white cats in Willamette Valley wine country, Oregon.
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