Sacred Space, Structure and Spiritual Portals of the Ancient Mayas: The Sak Nuk Nah ̶ White Skin House in Palenque

Sacred Space, Structure and Spiritual Portals of the Ancient Mayas: The Sak Nuk Nah ̶ White Skin House in Palenque

The cosmology of the ancient Mayas envisioned a fluid universe, in which patterns in the cosmos above were replicated in the earth below. Destinies of individuals, cities and entire peoples were determined by stellar configurations—cycles of abundance and scarcity, creation and destruction were linked to celestial cycles. The world and its surroundings were multi-layered with three major dimensions: the Underworld of watery depths and Death Lords, the Middleworld of humans and creatures of earth, and the Upperworld of deities and ancestors. These three dimensions inter-penetrated each other, and denizens of each level could take actions and interact with inhabitants in the others. While encounters with other-worldly beings were possible for any Maya, special abilities must be developed to deliberately interact between dimensions and exert influence. Such shamanic skills were part of the training of all rulers and the priesthood.

The Mayas did not think of sacred space in the abstract. To them, the naming, ordering, measuring and locating of places brought about their proper functions. The relationship between their cosmology and the built environment was expressed through use of language; analogies strongly drawn between places and the human body, the house, and the natural world.

Caves were seen as entrances into the mysterious Underworld. A dark tunnel leading into a chamber at Palenque, Mexico.

Caves were seen as entrances into the mysterious Underworld. A dark tunnel leading into a chamber at Palenque, Mexico. (16:9clue/CC BY 2.0)

For openings into structures the Mayan language uses words for mouth, chi, as in Chichén Itzá, translated as "Entrance/Mouth of the Well of the Itzá." The word for legs/feet, ok, is also used for columns and wooden supports. Architecture is further humanized through merging of the human body with architectural features, such as Atlantean figures (Fig. 1) serving as columns, and large masks with gaping mouths and exposed teeth marking openings into symbolic caves (Fig. 2).

Fig. 1 - Atlantean Figure [Left], and Fig. 2 – Chak Mask, Mayapan [Right]

Fig. 1 - Atlantean Figure [Left], and Fig. 2 – Chak Mask, Mayapan [Right]

Caves were especially potent places to the Mayas, for they acted as entrances into the mysterious Underworld full of dangerous rivers of blood and pus, evil creatures who sought to devour the deceased's soul, and the malevolent Death Lords intent on preventing the soul's traverse through Xibalba to win a place in the Upperworld sky as an ancestor-star. Ch'e'en or caves were usually found in the sides of mountains, called witz. Both of these words also are used for parts of buildings. Another important word in understanding Maya ideas of space and agency is iknal, a cognate that indicated one was "close to, alongside, in the company of." Classic Maya inscriptions regularly tell that a building is iknal of the gods, indicating that particular deities occupied or possessed a particular structure. The Classic Mayas were not using this symbolically; they believed that these gods physically existed in the structures, having a corporeal field and immediate presence. Otherworld entities inhabited spaces; these were benevolent or dangerous spirits whose influences could be cultivated or mitigated, if one had the proper skills.

Ceiba Tree

Fig. 3 - Ceiba Tree

Ancient Maya use of portals demonstrates the relationship between mythology, spirituality and the built environment. Portals were situated as mediating devices that bridged the three dimensions of existence, a powerful spatial concept allowing movement between worlds. The portal was the means for shamanic journeying. The basic pattern of Maya cosmology is called "quadripartite" or "quincunx" meaning that it is four-sided. Four world bearers, called bacabs, located at the four cardinal directions, support the world plane that is conceptualized as a table or the back of a turtle. In the center of this terrestrial plane is a portal ̶ a tree, pillar, serpent, mountain ̶ that penetrates the center and connects the Middleworld with the Underworld and the Upperworld. One of the best known portals is the ceiba tree, a tall tropical tree with huge buttressed roots, a thick trunk covered with thorns, and upward soaring branches with sparse foliage. It is called the Wakah Chan Te', the Jeweled Sky Tree. (Fig. 3)

The Sacred Portal in Palenque

Lakam Ha, or Palenque, beautiful ancient Maya site.

Lakam Ha, or Palenque, beautiful ancient Maya site. (Carlos Adampol Galindo / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Lakam Ha (named Palenque by archeologists), a Maya city located in Chiapas, Mexico, is perhaps the most visually beautiful Maya site. Its unique style of architecture and realistic, flowing carved imagery exude grace and harmony. The most famous Mayan ruler, K'inich Janaab Pakal, whose rich burial found in 1952 is compared to King Tut of Egypt, brought his city to an apex of creative and political influence in the Middle to Late Classic (650-800 AD).

The jade mask and ornaments found with King K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, or “Pakal the Great” at Palenque.

The jade mask and ornaments found with King K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, or “Pakal the Great” at Palenque. (VasenkaPhotography / CC BY 2.0)

Rulers of this city had special relationships with the Triad Gods, from whom they drew power, abundance and protection for their people. These rulers used a portal in their most sacred shrine, called the Sak Nuk Nah (White Skin House), to communicate with the Triad Gods. In 611 AD the enemy city Kan (Kalakmul) made a devastating attack on Lakam Ha. The Sak Nuk Nah was desecrated and destroyed, leaving Lakam Ha in chaos without leadership or a spiritual charter. The mother of Pakal, Sak K'uk, stepped in to assume leadership when her brother, the current ruler, was captured and killed by Kan. She held the throne, against opposition by dissident nobles, until Pakal was twelve. He then assumed the throne, no doubt guided by his mother for several more years.

Bust depicting K'inich Janaab' Pakal

Bust depicting K'inich Janaab' Pakal (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Pakal had the divine mandate to restore the Sak Nuk Nah shrine and its portal that had collapsed. No evidence has been found by archeologists of that original shrine, but the one constructed by Pakal is well-researched. Designated as Palace House E by archeologists, the Sak Nuk Nah was the first building built by Pakal on the new, huge plaza that extended the city onto the eastern portion of the mountain ridge where it perched. Dedicated by Pakal in 654 AD, it was a long rectangular structure with four chambers, a central dividing wall with openings between chambers and three entrances onto the plaza. The northern front chamber served as Pakal's throne and ritual room. Subterranean passages were dug giving access to the southern chamber. An adjacent structure called Palace House C was built shortly thereafter; it became the Royal Court building for receptions and adjudications. (Fig. 4)

Palenque Palace House E (circa 670 CE). Building on right with white façade is the Sak Nuk Nah.

Fig. 4 - Palenque Palace House E (circa 670 CE). Building on right with white façade is the Sak Nuk Nah. Illustration by Merle Greene Robertson, courtesy of Princeton University Press.

The Sak Nuk Nah was a unique building in several ways. It was the only building in Palenque with an exterior that remained white; all the others were painted deep ochre-red. This gave it the name White Skin House. The white walls were decorated with lovely medallions and flowers painted in blue and orange, arranged in vertical columns. The designs, elaborate quatrefoil flowers and geometrics with eye-like motifs, resemble those on clothing worn by Classic Mayas as depicted in vase paintings. (Fig. 5) This suggests that the white color and designs were meant to evoke a cotton covering or "dressing" for House E. The roof eaves of House E are nearly vertical, while those of other buildings are inclined by ten degrees. Stone slabs carved to resemble thatch were placed over eaves above the façade, giving a modest look and linking the building to the humble thatched-roof palapas of common people. Another striking feature is the lack of a roofcomb. These tall slender roof adornments are found everywhere else in the religious architecture of the city.

House E Quatrefoil Flower decoration

Fig. 5 - House E Quatrefoil Flower decoration

House E offers one of the most significant examples of portal imagery and Maya structuring of sacred space. It gives insight into accession rituals and their mythological contexts at Palenque.

Let us follow in the footsteps of ruler Pakal as he would use this space for spiritual ceremonies, such as important calendar-end periods when he was required to give tribute to the Triad Gods and invoke the vision serpent to commune with them. In a ritually purified state, after taking hallucinogenic substances made of toad secretions or plants, he would enter through the subterranean passageways. These dark, low-vaulted galleries formed a labyrinth that evoked an Underworld journey. He passed under archways bearing stucco sculptures of the two halves of the Cosmic Monster, the Celestial Caiman. This primordial being, an immense crocodile-snake with mouths at both ends, had been used by creator deities to fashion the Earth and Sky; souls entered and departed through its two mouths. It appeared as the Milky Way in the night sky. Archway sculptures also depicted the Maize God, First Father of the Maya People, being resurrected from the watery realm as the sun passed through the Cosmic Monster's body.

Maya maize god statue

Maya maize god statue (CC BY SA)

Pakal was the earthly manifestation of the Maize God, bringing rebirth to crops, animals and people. He had to traverse the watery Underworld and overcome the wiles of the Death Lords in order to do proper ritual. This was accomplished in the symbolic and physical journey through the subterranean passageways. A set of stairs ascended to the anterior south chamber of House E, where Pakal entered through the Bicephalic Serpent Door. The iconography of the Bicephalic Serpent has recently been recognized as representing the sky when celestial signs are present in its body. In cosmic depictions, this creature frames the arc of the heavens or Upperworld, when it lies opposite the monster jaws that bracket the arc of the Underworld. Mythologically, Pakal has entered the face-of-sky, the Six Sky Place ̶ Wak Chan Nal that is the origin and abode of the Triad Gods.  

Now in the Upperworld, Pakal has merged with the Maize God-First Father. He is this deity incarnate. His attire also proclaims his identity with its Maize God imagery, including headdress with waving green cornstalks and small husks with corn silk emerging, and a pectoral depicting the Maize God emerging from the cracked turtle carapace. Other elements in his headdress show his identity as K'awiil, the Triad God associated with royal lineages: a small mask of the long-nosed deity with a cosmic loop in its round eyes, and a smoking celt piercing its forehead depicting lightning striking and bringing sacred itz (sacred life fluids) and transformative powers. Long white feathers curling out represent smoke, and golden tendrils spiking behind were sparks created by lightning strikes.

Oval Palace Tablet of House E

Fig. 6 - Oval Palace Tablet of House E

Drawing based on work of Linda Schele [Left], Cover Art for book about Sak K'uk and Pakal by author; artist Manfred Rohrer [Right]

Upon leaving the Bicephalic Serpent chamber, Pakal steps out through the southwest doorway onto the stairs that descend to the plaza. Now he is visible to the crowd gathered to witness the ritual, and their roars greet him. He gives the hand sign for blessing, both hands raised with palms outward.  He then walks a short distance on the stairs to the central doorway of House E, turns and enters the north chamber. From the stairs, he has direct view of the Oval Palace Tablet, a beautiful carved panel that depicts his mother Sak K'uk presenting him with the Drum Major Headdress, a symbol of rulership. (Fig. 6).

The Oval Palace Tablet is set above the wide, flat throne carved with images and glyphs of Pakal's accession, ancestors and heirs. In the front center border is a carving of Sak K'uk wearing a cormorant headdress, acknowledging her central role in assuring rulership for her son. Thick legs support the throne, carved as Creator Deities holding water lilies containing carapace symbols. This re-states Pakal's link to First Father being resurrected from the watery Underworld.

The power of the Oval Palace Tablet and royal throne imagery cannot be overstated. The tablet is located on the wall behind and above the throne. On a physical scale, the size and height of the tablet in relation to the throne places the sitter in position to perpetually receive the Drum Major Headdress (royal crown). The person sitting on the throne aligns exactly with Pakal, poised to receive the crown. Through the built environment that embodies ritual and mythological symbolism, the crowning of the ruler takes place each time he sits upon the throne. In passing through the subterranean Underworld, ascending to the Six Sky Place of the Upperworld, and crossing into the plaza stairs of the Middleworld, the ruler makes the mythic journey of creation. He ascends to the throne to be crowned in perpetuity, the deities incarnate, the creator-preserver-sustainer of his people and his city.

The Oval Palace Tablet was the first example of what became a formula for depicting royal accession at Palenque. After Pakal, two of his sons and his grandson were crowned in House E. In the tablets portraying their later accessions, both parents flank their son and present him with the Drum Major Headdress. It is significant that only the mother appears with Pakal; this marked a shift in conceptualizing dynastic sequence. Pakal inherited through his grandmother and mother, a departure from usual Mayan male line successions. Pakal stressed his direct lineage to his great-grandfather Kan Bahlam I through the female line. Otherwise, a different family lineage would be in place, and this would not continue a pure descent from K'uk Bahlam I, founder of the Palenque dynasty. Considerable controversy surrounded Sak K'uk's accession to the throne, leading to iconography and imagery used by her descendants that emphasized the purity of their lineage.

Another characteristic of this royal accession imagery was mingling of mythological beings and deceased ancestors. In the Oval Palace Tablet, Pakal and his mother both appear as vital young adults. In actuality, Pakal was a youth of twelve years when he ascended, and Sak K'uk had died 14 years before the tablet was completed. At the dedication of House E in 654 AD, Pakal was 49 years old. He was a vigorous man, living and ruling until 80 years of age. Thus, the Oval Tablet does not depict a real historical event; instead it is an idealized view of the transfer of rulership from mother to son. A later example replicates this idealization. The Palace Tablet, a large panel that decorated the back wall of House A-D, shows Pakal's son K'inich Kan Joy Chitam seated between his father and mother, Tz'aakb'u Ahau. Pakal offers the Drum Major Headdress and the mother holds imagery of the dynasty patron Triad God, K'awiil. Both parents were deceased when Kan Joy Chitam became ruler. (Fig. 7)

Palenque Palace Tablet

Fig. 7 - Palenque Palace Tablet

K'inich Janaab Pakal (Father)   ̶   K'inich Kan Joy Chitam (Son)   ̶   Tz'aakb'u Ahau (Mother)

Immortality, Structures and Portals

Cosmological narratives of the Mayas were perpetuated not only in story, ritual, glyphs and iconography, but also in architectural forms. Their fluid universe found multiple expressions that keep their mythology and culture vibrant even today. Pyramids, temples, palaces and observatories that still stand in tropical jungles after 15 centuries express fundamental cosmological concepts in their form. This highly symbolic architecture also reveals itself in solar and stellar alignments, numerical symbolism, sculptural and pictorial imagery, and physical placement of components that visually bring about intended associations. 

The Sak Nuk Nah with its sacred portal to the gods and ancestors is an exemplary structure that orders space and time along several coordinates. The four sides of House E align with the cardinal directions, while the subterranean passages, sky room and plaza represent the three spatial levels of existence. The Oval Palace Tablet locates the structure historically and ties it to later rulers through linking imagery in Temple 19, built by Pakal's sons. Imagery in both structures ties historical accessions to the mythological resurrection and accession of First Father. Pakal's involvement in several events long after his death, as related by inscriptions and iconography of his descendants, suggests that the tablet served as a vortex from which his corporal field (y-iknal) could continue to interact and exert influence. It was a locus of memory for Palenque's dynasty. One might say that the stones themselves hold the memory forever.

The Palace as seen from the courtyard.

The Palace as seen from the courtyard. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

It is evident that Pakal was able to reconstruct the sacred portal in the Sak Nuk Nah. The long hieroglyphic history of Palenque that is carved on three huge panels in the Temple of the Inscriptions (Pakal's burial pyramid) relates that after some 60 years, Pakal did raise the Wakah Chan Te' and fully reconnect with the Triad Deities. He made slow progress, gradually satisfying various requirements to provide proper gifts and adornments to the Gods. How exactly he restored the portal is still a mystery that takes us deeply into Mayan shamanism and mysticism.

Palenque Palace (circa 2005 CE)

Fig. 8 - Palenque Palace (circa 2005 CE)

House E - Sak Nuk Nah (White Skin House) is the lighter structure to the right of the Tower

 The story of Pakal's restoration of the portal, with the help of his wife Tz'aakb'u Ahau, is told in historical fiction in Book 3 of the Mists of Palenque series by author Leonide Martin.

Featured image: Deriv; K'inich Kan B'alam II, one of the many rulers of Palenque (Public Domain), and The Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque, Mexico (Jiuguang Wang / CC BY SA)

Photo Credits:  Unless otherwise noted, all photos taken or commissioned by the author, or are Creative Commons. Cover Illustration: Sak Nuk Nah, by Merle Greene Robertson, courtesy of Princeton University Press. 


Aldana, Gerardo. The Apotheosis of Janaab' Pakal: Science, History, and Religion at Classic Maya Palenque. University Press of Colorado, 2007.

Carrasco, Michael D. "Epilogue: Portals, Turtles, and Mythic Places." In Kaylee R. Spencer and Maline D. Werness-Rude (Eds). Maya Imagery, Architecture, and Activity: Space and Spatial Analysis in Art History. University of New Mexico Press, 2015.

Stuart, David and Stuart, George. Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya. Thames & Hudson, 2008.