Tikal, Temple V. During the Classic Era, some
of the most powerful Maya kings reigned at Tikal
I’ve recently enjoyed reading about the expeditions and adventures of John Lloyd Stephens and Fredrick Catherwood in the recently published Jungle of Stone: The True Story of Two Men, Their Extraordinary Journey, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya (William Morrow, 2016), by William Carlson. The narrative of their travels in Central America is interrupted three times; first, for a brief biography of Stephens; second, for a brief biography of Catherwood; and finally, for an overview what is now known about the Maya. It is during this third excursus that Carlson describes Maya Kingship as follows:
For the ruling classes, especially the kings, a great deal is known because of the record left in Maya art and hieroglyphs. We know the holy lords lived polygamous lives surrounded by wives and courtiers in royal palaces. They sat on thrones covered with jaguar pelts, commanding their subjects, dispensing justice, greeting emissaries, royal allies, and foreign merchants. In scenes chiseled into limestone and standstone, on painted murals and polychrome pottery, they were finely dyed textiles with geometric designs and flamboyant headdresses heavy with the long iridescent feathers of the quetzal and other tropical birds. They drink frothy brew made from the cacao bean (and gave the world chocolate). They prized exotic goods brought from the coasts and the mountains in trade or tribute: marine shells, stingray spines, coral, finely cut chert, obsidian, pyrite, polished into mosaic scepters and mirrors—and, most of all, jade …. Control and display of these prized goods reinforced their status and power.
But nothing demonstrated their supremacy like their ability to mobilize mass labor forces, corps of engineers, artisans, and artists, to build and embellish monumental centers devoted to their reigns and dynasties. (pp. 382–383)
1And now it came to pass that Zeniff conferred the kingdom upon Noah, one of his sons; therefore Noah began to reign in his stead; and he did not walk in the ways of his father. 2For behold, he did not keep the commandments of God, but he did walk after the desires of his own heart. And he had many wives and concubines. And he did cause his people to commit sin, and do that which was abominable in the sight of the Lord. Yea, and they did commit whoredoms and all manner of wickedness. 3And he laid a tax of one fifth part of all they possessed, a fifth part of their gold and of their silver, and a fifth part of their ziff, and of their copper, and of their brass and their iron; and a fifth part of their fatlings; and also a fifth part of all their grain. 4And all this did he take to support himself, and his wives and his concubines; and also his priests, and their wives and their concubines; thus he had changed the affairs of the kingdom. 5For he put down all the priests that had been consecrated by his father, and consecrated new ones in their stead, such as were lifted up in the pride of their hearts. 6Yea, and thus they were supported in their laziness, and in their idolatry, and in their whoredoms, by the taxes which king Noah had put upon his people; thus did the people labor exceedingly to support iniquity. 7Yea, and they also became idolatrous, because they were deceived by the vain and flattering words of the king and priests; for they did speak flattering things unto them. 8And it came to pass that king Noah built many elegant and spacious buildings; and he ornamented them with fine work of wood, and of all manner of precious things, of gold, and of silver, and of iron, and of brass, and of ziff, and of copper; 9And he also built him a spacious palace, and a throne in the midst thereof, all of which was of fine wood and was ornamented with gold and silver and with precious things. 10And he also caused that his workmen should work all manner of fine work within the walls of the temple, of fine wood, and of copper, and of brass. 11And the seats which were set apart for the high priests, which were above all the other seats, he did ornament with pure gold; and he caused a breastwork to be built before them, that they might rest their bodies and their arms upon while they should speak lying and vain words to his people. 12And it came to pass that he built a tower near the temple; yea, a very high tower, even so high that he could stand upon the top thereof and overlook the land ofShilom, and also the land of Shemlon, which was possessed by the Lamanites; and he could even look over all the land round about. 13And it came to pass that he caused many buildings to be built in the land Shilom; and he caused a great tower to be built on the hill north of the land Shilom, which had been a resort for the children of Nephi at the time they fled out of the land; and thus he did do with the riches which he obtained by the taxation of his people. 14And it came to pass that he placed his heart upon his riches, and he spent his time in riotous living with his wives and his concubines; and so did also his priests spend their time with harlots. 15And it came to pass that he planted vineyards round about in the land; and he built wine-presses, and made wine in abundance; and therefore he became a wine-bibber, and also his people. (Mosiah 11:1–15)
Forgive the massive block quotes, but rather than summarize and analyze myself, I figure I would simply provide the quotes and leave it to readers to make comparisons for themselves. While Mormon clearly saw Noah’s behaviors and excesses as moral failings and judged him a wicked king, Noah was probably a fairly typical king for his time.
What’s more, Mosiah could likely see the writing on the wall, as it were, when he chose to abolish the institution of kingship. Noah was merely a representative example of a growing trend in kingship all around, and they were only in the early stages of the institution. As Carlson pointed out, “The building projects increased in size, scope, and beauty throughout the Classic era and each passing century required more and more investment of resources and human labor” (p. 383).
With the recently translated Jaredite record giving Mosiah a clear view of where all this was headed, he sought to nip it in the bud by abolishing kingship altogether. Unfortunately, the pressures for kingship never really went away; various factions pressured for it throughout the first century BC and into the first century AD, meanwhile the chief judgeship became more or less indistinguishable from kingship in many important respects.