It’s Not an Alien Astronaut

When I visited the famous Maya city of Palenque, in southern Mexico, I had the chance to see the full-size replica of the sarcophagus of K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, or Pakal the Great.

Pacal tomb lid 2

The original is still under the Temple of Inscriptions, where it was discovered in 1952.  Unfortunately, archaeologists at that time were not able to translate the many symbols and glyphs on the sarcophagus.  So people guessed at the meaning.  One guess, in particular, proved to be very popular.

In his book, Chariots of the Gods, published in 1968, Eric Von Daniken proposed that the image on the sarcophagus actually showed an alien astronaut.  Palenque was one of the ancient sites that he proposed were proof of alien presence on Earth. The book was wildly popular, selling over seven million copies.  That same year, Arthur C. Clarke’s space epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, was published.  It continued a story line from his earlier work, “The Sentinel,” written in 1951, which tells the story of an ancient artifact left on the moon by alien beings.  In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the obelisk proves to be the force behind the sudden advancements in human achievement, including the first use of weapons by the ape-men shown at the beginning of the movie.Pacal Von Daniken

So Von Danniken was simply using popular science fiction theories and imposing them on specific ancient sites, including, among others, Machu Pichu, Nazca, Cusco, and Palenque.  The problem is now that experts can read Mayan glyphs and understand Mayan cosmology, people still want to see a picture of an alien astronaut on Pakal the Great’s tomb.


When I was walking from the ruins to the museum, I passed numerous street vendors offering small replicas of Pakal’s tomb lid, one of which I bought for ten dollars.  But the vendor also held the plaque up sideways and pointed out the alien astronaut, in case that’s what I wanted.

Pacal ancient aliens astronaut theory debunked YouTube

The hoax is extraordinarily long-lived.  Maybe it’s the appeal of seeing intelligent aliens as part of our history.  TV shows like “Ancient Aliens,” “In Search of Aliens,” “Mystery Quest,” and “History’s Mysteries” keep the story of the alien astronaut alive and well.  For an episode of “Ancient Aliens,” Paul Francis, a model maker, created a 3-D image of the alien astronaut on Pakal’s tomb lid. (See photo, above.)  He admitted, “I had to be a little interpretive.”  I guess so!  The “rocket” he created looks nothing like the image on the sarcophagus.

Pacal Ganesha   Pacal Kells

This whole debate arose out of ignorance of the belief system and cultural symbols of the ancient Maya.  It would be like seeing a photo of the Indian god Ganesh (See image, above) and trying to interpret it with no knowledge of the Hindu beliefs behind it.  Or looking at the image from the Book of Kells, the beautiful illuminated gospels drawn on calfskin in Ireland around 800 AD, without an understanding of the Four Evangelists it pictures and their winged representations.  (That would be clockwise from the top left: Mathew – shown as a winged man, Mark – shown as a winged lion, John – shown as an eagle, and Luke – shown as a winged ox.)  These symbols come from the prophetic Revelation of St. John.

Imagine the wild theories you could come up with if you didn’t know the background.


Maya symbols and cosmology

The World Tree

Pacal worldtree

As it turns out, Maya cosmological beliefs, many of which were absorbed from earlier cultures, were fairly consistent across the Maya city-states.  They saw the world as divided into three zones: The Upper World, or the land of the gods, the Middle World, where humans live, and the Underworld, which is the realm of death.  However, these realms weren’t necessarily defined as good or evil.  Every part had its value.


The World Tree spanned all three worlds.  Its roots were in the Underworld, its trunk in the Middle World, and its highest branches in the Other World.  It took several forms, including a Ceiba tree, a stylized maize plant, and a cacao tree.  The version used on Pakal’s tomb lid is also used in a mural in the Temple of the Foliated Cross at Palenque.

Pacal Foliated Cross

Here you see the same imagery (minus the reclining human): the World Tree rising from the offering bowl (marked with the dotted X “kin” sign and filled with the trappings of royalty: the crossed sky band, the fish, and the lancet for ritual blood-letting) on top of the Underworld/realm of the dead (Cauac monster head).  At the top of the tree is the Principal Bird Deity.


Shining Glory

Pacal celts

All along the tree you find the symbol for precious greenstone celts, emphasizing wealth and power as well as shining glory. (In the diagram the glyphs for jade celts are marked in red)  The tree is also marked with the sign for wood.

Curled around the upper section of the tree is the Milky Way conflated with the double-headed serpent bar, which was the symbol of power for Maya kings. (See diagram below. Each serpent has a huge upper jaw.)

Pacal serpent bar

Pacal Temple of the Cross



It’s interesting to see the same elements repeated in other tablets and murals which show the World Tree in the center, growing out of the Earth Monster/ Underworld.  In the case of the Temple of the Cross (drawing above), the World Tree is a maize plant, with personified ears of corn growing out of the branches.  Once again, it grows out of the Cuauc Monster/Underworld figure at the bottom, and the Principal Bird Deity rests at the top.  Interestingly, the two figures in the mural are the same person at different ages.  Note that the figure on the right stands on a personified maize plant, while the one on the left stands on a Cuauc monster with a cleft head from which corn emerges.

The King Dying and the Young Maize God Being Reborn

Pakal, on his tomb lid, is presented as both the man dying, falling into the maw of the Underworld (between jaguar jawbones) and the baby being born onto the Tree of Life.  Certain Maya rulers were thought to take on the role of god-kings who could intercede with the spirit world after death.  In this image, Pakal is being reborn as the maize god. (Note the seed and leaf image just below the reclining figure of Pakal.) Just as the maize seed must be buried in the earth in order to grow, Pakal is falling into the Underworld only to rise again.

Pacal baby

Pacal, birth of maize god

The Baby

Pakal is shown lying on his back, with the right leg raised, which is the sign for “unen” or baby (drawing on left).  While this sign usually shows an infant, it’s also used to show the birth of the maize god on a Late Classic vase (drawing on right).Note the vegetation growing out of the cleft head of the Cuauc monster.

Pacal mother's skirt

The jade skirt

Pakal’s net jade skirt is interesting in that the diamond weave is usually associated with women.  Indeed, a very similar skirt seems to be worn by Pakal’s mother in a tablet found in the royal palace. (See drawing, left)  This may suggest an androgynous combination, just as the adult in the baby pose suggests a combination of youth and age.

Pakal rebirth of maize godPacal turtle

The turtle emblem

The turtle emblem Pakal carries on his chest (drawing by Linda Schele, left) may be a reference to the rebirth of the Maize God from the Turtle Shell, as referenced on this plate (drawing above, right).:

Ancestors and nobles

All along the border on the outside of the image are references to celestial bodies and six portraits of leading nobles.  The coffin inside the sarcophagus is carved on all four sides with portraits of Pakal’s ancestors emerging as trees sprouting from the earth.  Painted stucco figure on the walls of the tomb echo these references to relatives and important figures in the life of the leader who was laid to rest in the tomb.



While some may find it harmless fun to see an alien astronaut instead of a famous leader immortalized by his tombstone, for me, it seems a little insulting to the people who created this amazing piece of complicated and beautiful art.


Sources and interesting reading:

“Alien Explorations: Ancient Aliens season 1, episode 4,”

“Alien Explorations: Von Daniken’s Mayan Rocket Man,”

“The Book of Kells,” The Library of Trinity College, Dublin.  https:///

Coe, Michael D.  The Maya.  New York:  Thames and Hudson, 1999.

Four evangelists, from The Book of Kells, Public Domain,

Fields, Virginia M. and Dore Reents-Budet.  Lords of Creation:  The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship.  Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Scala Publishers: 2005.

Foster, Lynn V.  Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2002.

“Ganesh,” Manas: Indian Religions, Ganesh.

Guenter, Stanley. “The Tomb of K’inich Janaab Pakal: The Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque,” Southern Methodist University,

Heyworth, Robin, “Chicanna Structure II: The Monster Mouth Temple,” Uncovered History (blog) 16 July 2016.

“K’inich Janaab’ Pakal,” Wikipedia,’_Pakal

The Linda Schele Drawings Collection, FAMSI.

Mark, Joshua. J.  “K’inich Janaab’ Pakal,” Ancient History Encyclopedia. http:///

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube.  Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya.   London: Thames and Hudson, 2000.

Miller, Mary, and Simon Martin.  Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya.  Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Thames and Hudson, 2004.

Minster, Christopher, “The Sarcophagus of Pakal,” Latin American History,

“Pacal’s Rocket,” Ancient Aliens Debunked (blog)

Palenque: History, Art and Monuments, booklet, reproduced and authorized by the National Institute of Archaeology and History (INAH) 2001.

“Palenque Mexico,” Mayan Ruins: The Ultimate Guide of the Mayan Ruins.”

“The Sentinel (short story)”  Wikipedia,

Stone, Andrea, and Marc Zender. Reading Maya Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting and Sculpture.  New York: Thames and Hudson, 2011.

Tedlock, Dennis.  2000 Years of Mayan Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

“The World Tree: A World in Layers,” Mayan Kids,

The Night Sky: Calendar, Compass, Culture

For some modern viewers, the sight of a sky full of stars is unnerving, making them feel small and insignificant.  In “We’ve Got Tonight,” Bob Seger sings, “Why should we worry, no one will care, girl.  Look at the stars, so far away/ we’ve got tonight, who needs tomorrow?”  This makes a curious statement.  Because the stars are so far away, what we do is irrelevant.  No one will care if we spend the night together, just as the stars don’t care.   Not much in the romance department.

Ancient people had a very different view.  Their lives were inextricably linked to the stars and planets.  The rising and falling of stars with the seasons, the appearance and disappearance of the planets determined what happened on earth.  We see this as astrology, but the ancient people saw no difference between astrology and astronomy.  They needed to understand the motion and patterns of the night sky because their lives were entwined with them.  The stars weren’t distant at all.  They were immediate and active.


For the ancient peoples, the sun and moon provided easy measures of time.  Every 29 days or so, the moon begins a new cycle of waxing from a slim crescent to a full moon and then waning back to the last crescent before it goes completely dark, only to start over again.  Some modern people still use a calendar based on the cycles of the moon.  The Chinese traditional calendar, the Islamic calendar, and the Jewish calendar are all lunar, with twelve months of 29 or 30 days.  The Chinese calendar adds extra days as needed at the end of the year to correspond to the solar calendar.  The Jewish calendar adds them every Leap Year.

For many ancient societies, each of the moons had a name, indicating a significant seasonal marker: New Rains Moon, Deep Frost Moon, etc.

By the stars’ position, people could identify which moon it was.  Take the most identifiable asterism in the night sky, The Big Dipper, which many ancient people saw as part of a celestial bird.  In the early evening in January, the dipper seems to stand on its handle (or wing).  By April, it lies upside down.  By July, it seems to stand on the outside of the cup.  In October, it lies right side up.



The pointer stars, the outside of the dipper’s cup, point to the North Star.  You can find approximate north by sighting along any straight object aligned with the North Star.  The opposite end of the same stick points south.  Once those two are established, you can find east and west with only a little more work.  As recently as the 1800’s, escaping slaves used the Big Dipper, “The Drinking Gourd,” as a guide to lead them to freedom in the north.

For those in the Southern Hemisphere, the Southern Cross serves the same purpose as a circumpolar asterism, but the pole itself is an empty space, sometimes referred to as a cave, unmarked by a star.  This was the case in the Northern Hemisphere as well 10,000 years ago, when the center was between stars.

Night Clock

The Big Dipper appears to move in the course of the night, swinging around the unmoving center of the sky, the North Star.  It would be easy for people to judge how late it was by how much the dipper had moved.


More importantly, for the ancient peoples, the night sky, especially the Milky Way, was a powerful, frightening force that was connected to all life on earth.  It contained creation and death, darkness and light.

Seeing The Milky Way

The Milky Way is the galaxy we live in.  It contains, according to the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences at the University of California, San Diego, over 400 billion stars, including our sun.  If you’re unfamiliar with the Milky Way, start with finding a familiar constellation like Orion (diagram).  The Milky Way passes over the figure’s shoulder.  You’ll need a dark sky, away from sources of light pollution that will rob you of all but the brightest stars.

The three “belt” stars, the very bright shoulder star Betelgeuse, and the very bright “foot” star Rigel make this constellation easy to differentiate from others.



With some help from the Hubble telescope, you can see the rest of the story!

Source: httyp://















(Photo source: Patrick’s Photoblog,

In the photo, look for the three stars of Orion’s belt and the bright smudge that is the Orion Nebula.   The Milky Way rises almost vertically in the center of the photo.

The Milky Way looks like a river of bright stars flowing across the sky.  The name comes from the ancient Greeks, who said it was milk from cows, with each star a cow, though the story was later changed to milk spilled by the goddess Hera, wife of Zeus, as she suckled Heracles.  The confusion probably came from the ancient Egyptians, for whom the Milky Way was sacred cow’s milk of Hathor, a goddess who was often represented as a woman with a cow horn headdress, or a sacred cow.  (See earlier post “The Eye in the Hand” for more on Hathor and Tanit.)

For the East Asians, it was the Silvery River of Heaven. For Finns, the Pathway of the Birds.  For Hungarians, the Warriors’ Road.  For many cultures, including the Maya, the dark rift within the white band was considered the Black Road, the Pathway of the Dead.

Linda Schele and other prominent Mayanists have held that for the ancient Maya, the movement of the Milky Way in the night sky repeated their creation story.  When it is vertical, it is the World Tree, first used by the creator gods to lift up the sky and separate it from the water.  (See the dramatic Milky Way photo by Dyer.)  As the night goes on, and a different section of the Milky Way becomes visible, the shape is interpreted as the Crocodile Tree, where the World Tree grows out of a crocodile’s back, and again later, when the Milky Way stretches horizontally across the sky, it is seen as the Celestial Canoe that carries the Paddler gods to the place of Creation, near Orion, where they set the first stone.  The placing of the hearthstones and the lighting of the first fire began our time, the fourth age.



The Dark Patches

The Australian Aboriginal peoples see their creation stories in the Milky Way as well, but they deal more with the black areas of the Milky Way, what astronomers today refer to as dark dust clouds.  If you have a really good sky for viewing, you can see these dark areas quite clearly.  (In the stunning photo by John Gleason, you can understand how people could see shapes in the dark sections.)

According to Bill Yidumduma Harney, his Wardaman people see all their creation figures in the Milky Way.  Even more, the important sites for viewing specific moments echo in the landscape the position of the important stars in the sky.  At those special places, when the sky is in perfect harmony with the land, the Wardaman feel the sky is alive and star beings can easily go from one world to another.   Note the carving of the emu on the rock that coincides with its appearance in the sky.

(For a complete though not easy explanation of Wardaman cosmology as expressed in the night sky, see Dark Sparklers by Hugh Cairns and Bill Yidumdum Harney.)

The night sky – The World Tree, The Crocodile, The Emu, The Dolphin, The Paddler Gods, The Seat of Creation, The Birthplace of the Stars, The River of the Dead, The Black Dreaming Place, The Warrior Road, The Pathway of Birds – is still there, waiting to amaze you, to fill you with wonder.  Find a dark spot on a clear night and let it become part of your world.

Sources and interesting reading:

“Creation, Cosmos, and the Imagery of Palenque and Copan,” by Linda Schele and Khristaan D. Villela, University of Texas, Austin

Maya Cosmology,

“2012 and the Milky Way Tree,” by Brian Keats, October 2009

A Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, by Lynn V. Foster

“Beautiful Milky Way Photography,” in Paulo Gabriel’s blog,

Professor Gene Smith’s Astronomu Tutorial: The Sturcture of the Milky Way,” University of California, San Diego,

Tony Garone’s simulations of Maya Creation story superimposed on star maps,

Patrick’s Photoblog,

Observatorio ARVAL,