The Ceremonial Serpent Bar

Maya Cosmology & Symbols

Fig. 1. Stela A, ceremonial bar (red) and projecting faces from the serpent heads (blue), Copan.

Ceremonial bars — also known as serpent bars — are a common symbol in the Maya world and often depicted being wielded by rulers on stelae. Such stelae were typically erected to commemorate a period-ending event (when the Maya base-20 long-count calendar zeroed out), commonly associated with change or rebirth.

The bar typically ends in two open serpent mouths, from which gods emerge; the serpent was the means of conveying a hallucinatory vision (the body of the serpent even paralleled the wisps of rising smoke from which burned blood offerings were delivered), the means by which the ruler communicated with parallel worlds and assured the survival of civilization.

More specifically, the bar is symbolic of the ruler’s pivotal dual-intermediary role, connecting the world of the living with (a) the world of the dead (in the underworld) and (b) the world of the gods (in the heavens). In Maya cosmology, such an intermediary role is typically filled by the “world tree,” or axis mundi: the tree – with its roots extended to the underworld and its uppermost branches high in the sky — bridges the the same gap among the earth, underworld and heavens.  When holding the serpent bar, then, the ruler effectively assumes the role of world tree, with the bar representing its branches.

Fig. 2. Stela D, North Face, with highlights added to ceremonial bar (red) and ruling sceptre (blue).

How to recognize a ceremonial bar in artistic depictions:

  • Usually being held by a ruler;
  • Usually held parallel to ground, perpendicular to body;
  • The serpent heads on either end of the bar open to reveal to reveal the faces of figures.

To make picking out the ceremonial bars easier, we have applied color highlights to the bars in the Fig 1 and 2.

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