Classic Maya Political System

What do you call a Maya ruler? A king? An emperor? Read on to find out!

The structure and organization of the Classic Maya political system is still being studied by scholars, in order to piece together the way that a Maya polity (similar to a kingdom) would have functioned. Breakthroughs in Classic Maya epigraphy (decipherment of the writing system) have allowed us to gain some insight into the different titles and ranks given to Maya rulers. 

Given here is a list of Classic Maya titles (organized from lowest to highest), along with a description of the title as we understand it. With each new text that we unearth, however, our understanding of these titles shifts and changes. 

The oldest and most well-known title is ajaw or “lord” and ix ajaw or “lady lord.” We can trace this title all the way back to the Preclassic period, meaning it is the original rank given to rulers. However, through the Classic period, the use of this title shifted as new titles came into fashion, as shown in this list. Eventually, ajaw would come to mean anything from “ruler” to simply a member of the elite in a Classic Maya court. 

Three of the Mayan signs for ajaw. Image courtesy of CREWS.

Sajal – “noble.” These were officials selected to hold subordinate offices to the ajaw. They were often involved in military campaigns as well, either as captors or captives.

B’aah sajal – “head noble.” This person was the highest-ranking of the sajal officials within a court.

Ch’ok ajaw – “young lord.” Roughly equivalent to a prince, this title was given to royal sons, whether or not they would succeed their father as the king. 

B’aah ch’ok ajaw – “head young lord.” This was the title given to the ch’ok ajaw (royal son) selected as the heir to the throne.

Ajaw / Ix ajaw – “lord/lady lord.” Explained above.

B’aah ajaw – “head lord.” In the case of a court with multiple ajaw officials (elites who had received this title), this was the highest-ranking among them.

K’uhul ajaw – “divine lord.” This title came to replace ajaw in the Classic Period. It speaks to the Maya idea of divine lordship, that rulers possessed supernatural power, most frequently seen in military feats. They were expected to provide for their people and protect them. 

K’inich ajaw – “sun-faced lord.” This is the name given to rulers who underwent special ceremonies that reinforced their right to rule. It was used, for example, by the founder of Copan’s dynasty, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’. 

Kaloomte’ / Ochk’in kaloomte’ – The translation of this term is uncertain; however, it was given to lords of powerful dynasties such as Tikal and Calakmul, who ruled over or influenced smaller sites ruled by k’uhul ajaw officials. The ochk’in kaloomte’ title is heavily associated with Teotihuacan and military might, and means “west kaloomte’.”

These titles, and many other smaller ones, have been deciphered primarily through the work of Maya epigraphers who study ancient texts and look for their meaning and association with art. With each new breakthrough, we learn a little more about the Classic Maya political system and how it worked.

For more information on the Maya writing system, check out these other blog posts: 

Did you like this post? I used some of these ranks and titles to organize the tiers of my Patreon page. Please consider becoming a sajal or an ajaw – or even a kaloomte’ – by contributing as a patron to Mesoamerican Studies Online– donations from people like you keep this channel going!

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