Who Were The Maya Snake Kings?

The ancient Maya civilization is often erroneously described as an empire, when in reality it was made up of numerous disjointed polities, united by a shared culture but divided by allegiances to multiple rulers and vast swathes of impenetrable jungle. However, for a brief, glorious period in the sixth and seventh centuries CE, a group of upstarts appeared from nowhere, conquered some of the most powerful cities in the Mayan world, and formed the closest thing to an empire that the region ever saw. It was known as Kaanul, or the Snake Head dynasty.

Taking its name from its emblem glyph – which features a grinning snake – the Snake Kingdom was unheard of until the 1960s, when archaeologists began finding these smiling serpents carved into temples and tombs throughout the jungles of the Petén region of southern Mexico and northern Guatemala. The following decade, researchers discovered the ruins of Calakmul, an enormous ancient city that once housed an estimated 50,000 subjects and served as the seat of the snake kings.

Though much remains unknown about Kaanul, it’s thought that the polity emerged in the shadow of the glorious city-state Tikal, which had dominated the region throughout the Maya era. However, in 562 CE, a snake king known as Sky Witness led an army to Tikal and sacrificed its ruler Double Bird, thus ending the supremacy of this world-famous superpower.

The Snake Head emblem glyph of the Kaanul dynasty.
 Image credit: Alopeus via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

In 599, a subsequent Snake lord called Scroll Serpent expanded Kaanul’s sphere of influence by defeating the powerful city of Palenque and its queen, Heart of the Windy Place. Shortly afterwards, snake kings took on the new title of Kaloomte, which has been translated as “Paramount Ruler” or “High King”.

Probably the most famous Kaloomte of all was Yuknoom Cheen II – or Yuknoom the Great – who consolidated Kaan’s power through a combination of diplomacy and bloody repression. For instance, to maintain a key alliance, he married off his daughter Lady K’abel to the king of the warlike city El Perú-Waka’, which fought under a centipede glyph and is therefore described as the Kingdom of the Centipede.

However, with K’abel ruling the ferocious centipedes on behalf of the Snake Head dynasty, this fearsome satellite state remained loyal to Kaanul and participated in many of its defining battles. Just as well, because the second half of the seventh century saw Tikal repeatedly rise up and try to overthrow the Snakes, only to be defeated by Yuknoom and his allies on multiple occasions.

The tide finally turned, however, in 695, when the snake king Claw of Fire – previously known as Jaguar Paw Smoke – was vanquished by the Tikal army, bringing to an end the dominance of the Kaanul dynasty. With this defeat, the dream of a Snake empire slithering through the Mayan world was extinguished, and the pre-Kaanul order had been restored.

Sadly for Tikal, this hard-won hegemony would not last for long, as the entire Maya civilization came crashing down less than two centuries later. This was long enough, however, for most traces of the Snake Head Kingdom to be destroyed, leaving archaeologists with the daunting task of trying to piece together the story of this bad-ass serpent state.

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