For being a hardcore society of club-swinging, pyramid-building, jungle-dwelling badasses that went around in the 3rd Century AD building gigantic structures out of soft, usually-unworkable limestone and making incredible achievements in art, science, astronomy, and mathematics, it's a goddamned tragedy that the only thing your typical Real Housewives mouth-breather knows about the Mayans involves a shaky, dubiously-unverified link to an out-of-control obnoxious John Cusack movie. If it's not the annoyingly-ubiquitous eschatological insults to the collective human intelligence that are being posted on every Facebook wall on Earth today, it's some other inane Ancient Aliens bullshit about Pakal the Great – the 68-year ruler of the city-state of Palenque who was so beloved by his people that they worshipped him as a living deity – actually being a time-traveling cybernetically-enhanced ubermench astronaut from the future teleporting through the space-time continuum on a motorized rocket car made out of autopsied Grey aliens and jet-fuel-soaked dragon bones salvaged from The Predator's spaceship.
Well, if you're reading this, it's probably a good indication that this 2012 Mayan Apocalypse OMG Downfall of Western Civilization Holy Shit Balls We're All Gonna Die Screaming in a Fire thing has gone the way of Y2K, Rapture 2011, and jokes about Duke Nukem Forever, so instead of beating you all savagely about the head and neck with a ham-fisted take on why the Mayans shockingly weren't capable of accurately predicting events that would occur one thousand years after they ceased to exist as a cohesive civiliazation, instead I'll share the story of perhaps the single most badass, face-cleaving Mayan warlord who ever lived – the mighty Serpent King Yuknoom Che'en II, Divine Lord of the Snake Kingdom Calakmul.
For those of you who don't sleep in Ancient Mayan footie pajamas and recite prayers to Kukulkan every night before bed, it's best to think of Mayan Civilization of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize as being a loose conglomeration of Ancient Greek-style city-states populated by people who shared a common language and culture, but who also really fucking hated each other and settled the overwhelming majority of their disputes by shoving razor-sharp obsidian daggers into the torsos of anyone who disagreed with them and then displaying the decapitated heads of their enemies outside their favorite sports arenas. Yuknoom Che'en the Second was born into the royal family of one of the most powerful and badass of these 7th-century Mayan city-states – the sprawling metropolis of Calakmul, which is located in the Yucatan Peninsula about 20 miles on the Mexican side of the Guatemala border. As a Prince of this warlike civilization, Yuknoom would have typically been there on the front lines as a young man, hucking spears and swinging a badass-looking war sickle as the armies of his father – a man historians only know as King Scroll Serpent – marched a gigantic army two hundred miles through a dense jungle and attacked, captured, and plundered the rival city-state of Palenque in 612, ripping the city-state a new asshole so hard that they ended up having to TARDIS in the afore-mentioned Pakal the Great a few years later to bail their shit out and rebuild their civilization with his alien-obtained space mysteries.
About a decade after utterly razing one of the most powerful Mayan city-states to the ground, Yuknoom continued his warlike conquest of his enemies, painting himself blue and going on campaign with his brother when the armies of Calakmul crushed the city-state of Narajo, tied their captured King to a pole, and dragged him 100 miles through the jungle back towards Calakmul, where they then either roasted him alive and ate him or tortured him to death with fire (the words for this in the Mayan language are the same so please believe whatever you think is more awesome). Then, just to be dicks, Yuknoom had his stonemasons chisel a scene depicting his glorious battlefield victory and subsequent King-devouring awesomeness on the side of the main pyramid in Narajo, which kicks ass because it's basically the 7th-century Mayan equivalent of cold-cocking a dude unconscious and then tattooing a dick on his face before he wakes up.
GET THE SHARPIE
Yuknoom's brother died in battle in 636, and our 36 year-old hero took over as Divine Lord of the Snake Kingdom (Calakmul's house sigil was a serpent's head, so it was known as the Snake Kingdom). He inherited the skull-laden throne of a prosperous, militaristic city-state, and over the next five decades turned it into a massive empire that dominated the entirety of Mayan Civilization. From his throne atop a 150-foot limestone pyramid in the middle of a badass jungle, Yuknoom ruled over nearly 100,000 people, and brought about a golden age of architecture, astronomy, math, and insanely-hardcore art depicting jaguars and eagles eating still-beating human hearts atop piles of rotting corpses. He established trade routes stretching from Central Mexico to Panama, built more structures and monuments than any other Mayan ruler, and viciously crushed anyone who stood in his path.
And got to live here:
One of two pyramids at Calakmul.
Now, in the mid-7th century, the Warsaw Pact to Calakmul's NATO was the city-state of Tikal. The only game in town that rivaled Calakmul in scope and power and head-cleaving murderocity, Tikal was a hard-ass group of blowgun marksmen and spear-swinging motherfuckers, and these two empires were balls-deep in the middle of an epic 150-year war of annihilation that dated back to the days of Yuknoom's grandfather whacking fools in the face with an obsidian battle axe in waist-deep snow uphill both ways and gas cost two pennies and you didn't have to lock your door at night.
Well, luckily for Yuknoom the Great, the once-proud Tikal was having a little bit of high school drama bullshit going on in their royal family, as a pair of idiot brothers named Nuun Uiol Chaak and B'alah Chan K'awiil were arguing about who should be Homecoming King. Nuun – whose name translates to "Shield Skull", making him sound like a Borderlands villain – was the ruler of Tikal itself, while B'alah (which I always read as "Baller") ruled the Tikal-occupied colony of Dos Pilas (Spanish for "Two Pilas"). Yuknoom really didn't give a shit who should be King or who shouldn't, so in 657 he intervened in their penis-measuring competition by showing up with a hammer and knocking both of them in the balls with it until they barfed. First, he attacked and conquered Dos Pilas, sending B'alah into exile, and then he went straight on to Tikal, crushed Shield Skull's men, sent him in to exile as well, sacked the city, then brought all of his Tikal prisoners back to Calakmul where they ritualistically had their hearts cut out of their chests by Mayan priests at the top of a stone pyramid. Once their hearts had been tossed aside, Yuknoom had them decapitated, and their skulls were skewered on racks and placed on public display throughout the city.
A public skull display outside an Aztec temple.
The Mayans impaled their heads vertically instead of horizontally, but you get the idea.
Now, as you may have gleaned from the ridiculously-insane shit that has happened in the preceding paragraphs, the Mayans were tough motherfuckers. This was a civilization that played fucking volleyball on a stone court with a 9-pound medicine ball that was hit back and forth so hard that it could legit straight-up kill a player if it hit him in the face or the stomach, so, as you might guess, hardcore berserker Mayan warlords with names like Shield Skull don't just give up and call it a night every time you destroy their armies and ceremonially eviscerate all their friends and loyal followers in the parking lot of a 7-11. Shield Skull swore bloody vengeance, fled into the jungle, and started sneaking around to other city-states trying to build up an alliance to take out Yuknoom and crush Calakmul once and for all.
Shield Skull's first stop was Palenque, that place that had been plundered by Yuknoom's dad a few years back. Palenque's king, Petty Officer First Class Pakal the Great of the United Nations Air and Space Time Travel Exploration Department, said he'd offer military and financial aid if Shield Skull needed it. When Yuknoom heard what was going on, he hauled ass out there, massacred Palenque's armies, chased Pakal out into the jungle on a fusion-powered motorcycle, and burned the city down a second time.
Mayan Civilization. Yuknoom would kick the shit out of every one of these cities
at some point in his 51-year reign.
Shield Skull's next stop on his Yuknoom Hate-Fest World Tour was the city-state of Naranjo, the place that was still a little bitter about having their ziggurat vandalized and their leader devoured by Yuknoom a few decades ago. Naranjo, who had rebuilt their army in the interim period, also agreed to help, and their King kicked off his campaign by launching an attack that conquered Caracol, a nearby city-state that was allied with Yuknoom.
The tablet describing the conquest of Caracol is the last appearance of the Naranjo Royal Family anywhere in history.
The next mention of the city-state is in 680, when Yuknoom is personally presiding over the installation of a new dynastic line, one that is related to him through marriage.
It would take Shield Skull 15 long years to finally gather enough troops and support to launch a surprise onslaught and re-take Tikal and Dos Pilas back Yuknoom, liberating his people and crowning himself the rightful King of Tikal.
It took the 77 year-old Serpent King of Calakmul less than twenty months to paint the jungle red with the blood of Shield Skull and his entire army, destroying them utterly in a battle in 679 that the Mayan historians describe as featuring knee-deep pools of blood and heaping piles of severed human heads.
Mayan warriors, seen here looking FUCKING TERRIFYING.
Note: You do NOT want one of these dudes coming through the jungle after you with a sickle.
Yuknoom would spend the rest of his life turning his city-state into an expansive Empire that encompassed almost all of Classical Mayan Civilization. He would sack El Peru, install three new kings in Canacun, and capture Piedras Negras. Artifacts from his reign could be found as far south as Lake Peten Itza, over 150 miles away from Calakmul, and his empire stretched the entire width of the Yucatan Peninsula. He died on April 3, 686, at the age of 85. He was succeeded by his son, the amazingly-named King Jaguar Paw, Claw of Fire, a name that only further demonstrates how hardcore Yuknoom must have been.
Of course, it probably bears mentioning that King Jaguar Paw, Claw of Fire would be defeated by the next King of Tikal, the hard-as-fuck Lord Jasaw Chan K'awiil, who would crush Jaguar Paw in battle in 685, sack Calakmul, and bring back a resurgence of Tikal's power, but Mayan Civilization faded out and collapsed not to long after that so at least his victory was short-lived.
The ruins of Tikal.
"Dos Pilas". Guatemala Sights. Mobilereference, 2011.
Glassman, Steve and Armando Anaya. Cities of the Maya in Seven Epochs. McFarland, 2011.
Hedman, Matthew. The Age of Everything. Univ. of Chicago Press, 2007.
Mann, Charles C. 1491. Random House, 2006.
Martin, Simon and Nikolai Grube. Chronicle of the Mayan Kings and Queens. Thames & Hudson, 2008.
Sharer, Robert J. and Loa P. Traxer. The Ancient Maya. Stanford Univ. Press, 2006.