Pacal the Great: Mayan Ruler or Alien Airline Pilot?

Death Mask, Palenque, MXPhoto: Emilio Labrador

There is much to say about K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, also known as Pacal the Great. Born on March 23, 603 CE, and ascending to the throne at the age of just 12, he was one the most significant rulers of the Mayan civilization. He began an expansive construction project in the ancient city of Palenque, including the famous Temple of the Inscriptions. During his reign, some of the most remarkable art in the Mayan empire was produced. He also lived to the age 80, which in 7th century Mesoamerica was a distinguishable accomplishment in itself. To call Pakal’s existence a feat of superhuman proportions might not be that far of a stretch.

Pakal's TombPhoto: Salvador

In 1968, Erich von Daniken writes Chariot of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past. In his book, Daniken proposes that extraterrestrial beings visited some of our world’s early civilizations and provided them with the advanced technological information needed to create some of the ancient artifacts we know today (Egyptian pyramids, Nazca lines, etc). In return these civilizations regarded the visitors as Gods, and they were represented as such in various artifacts. Daniken’s theory has hit home with some of the ill-founded ideas of conspiracy fanatics we know and love, but the scientific community still regards his book as pseudoscience. However, one of these observations seemed to be more imaginative than the rest: the sarcophagus lid of Pacal the Great.

Pakal's SarcophagusPhoto: Darij & Ana

Unearthed in 1952, the tomb of Pakal was found in a chamber within the Temple of the Inscriptions. The crypt held the ruler’s skeletal remains, along with the archetypal batch of archaeological goodies: masks, pottery and sacrificial victims. The most distinct artifact, however, was the lid that covers the sarcophagus. Measuring 3.8 x 2.2 meters, and made of a single piece of solid limestone, the lid depicts a vivid scene of Pakal’s death. Beneath him is a representation of the Earth Goddess, a prominent deity in Mesoamerican religion, presumably “chewing” him into the underworld. Blossoming from his body is the tree of life, an axis mundi that connects this terrestrial world with different planes of existence. Captivating to say the least.

The Mayan’s Easy Rider

Daniken, however, has proposed an alternative hypothesis. He believes Pakal’s otherworldly travels are not only spiritual, but also physical. If the depiction on the lid is flipped horizontally, Pakal appears seated in what appears to be a modern day aircraft: the Earth Goddess who was once swallowing him is now transformed into a fuselage; his hands and feet are bent in order to manipulate the vessel’s controls; his nose is fastened to a breathing apparatus; and at the very rear is the vehicle’s exhaust.

Lid artworkPhoto: unknown

No matter how you look at it, the image is compelling. If modern archaeological theory is correct, K’inich Janaab’ Pakal must be living it up in the underworld, so to speak. If not, we can only hope that this once esteemed ruler hopped on his motorcycle-like spaceship and drove into the dawn of a new adventure. Pakal, you were the Mayan.