St. Andrew’s Cross, the Cross-Band Motif


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Luther 2016 fig 1La Venta Altar 4

La Venta Altar 4 (Luther 2016: fig. 1). An Olmec actor sits inside of the ancestral Mountain/cave of primordial beginnings. Notice that the cross-band motif is placed in the mouth of a fanged mythical feline creature that was the spirit of the ancestral mountain. The same motif was seen later as the cave-mouth portal of Witz mountain, the living, sentient Mountain of Sustenance that was associated with fertility : sacrifice themes, where the spirit of the jaguar predator lived as the heart of the liminal Mountain/cave and place of beginnings, e.g., the navel and centerplace of the triadic cosmos, a portal between the liminal (outside of time) and temporal material realms.

Several Mayanists have arrived at a number of context-based interpretations of the early pre-Classic crossed-band motif, a relatively recent one being that it represented a “sacred essence” associated with elite actors (Luther, 2016). The idea that it was related to the Maya k’in symbol for the sun, another cross-band motif, which was my first thought as I examined the evidence, was not mentioned. After further study, I concluded that it was more likely that the cross-band motif did refer to the solstitial paths of the sun that crossed at the centerpoint, as it did on the kan-k’in cross  (Maltese cross) that was contemporary  with it. The difference between those two symbols, however, was cosmological context within the triadic shape of the world: the cross-band symbol referred to the Mountain/cave centerplace of that world, while the overarching kan-k’in symbol referred to all three realms and the centerplace.

That conclusion was based on the facts that the symbol actually had at least three different forms, and it was associated with the concepts of jaguar, ancestral cave, and fire (sun) that carried over into Maya cosmology of how the triadic cosmos (Above, terrestrial Center, Below) functioned. Ultimately, it was also based on the fact that it was at the Olmec’s Izapa ceremonial center where the earliest representation of the mythical Hero Twins were found on monumental art c. 300 BCE, as immortalized in the Maya Popol vuh (Tedlock, 1996), and that was the appropriate mytho-cosmological frame in which to interpret the cross-band symbol.

(L, R): Luther, 2016: fig. 10, Teopantecuanitlan Monolith 1; Luther, 2016: fig. 22, Quirigua Zoomorph B. The jaguar anthropomorph on the left displays the cross-band symbol in the traditional “heart-soul” (fire) area of the body (cross type 1, no indication of overlap) with another on the forehead (cross type 2, upper band crosses from northeast to southwest, the summer solstitial sunrise). In the image on the right, cross type 2 appears on the actor’s left, while cross type 3 (upper band crosses from southeast to northwest, the winter solstitial sunrise) appears on his right. In other words, it appears that there was a chronological aspect to the mirrored pair: the time of the winter and summer solstice sunrise (or sunset) and the zenith passage of the sun between those two solar extremes. The cross enclosed in a cartouche on the actor’s headdress signifies that it could be a solar name or title for “radiance,” which would be appropriate for the radiant jaguar lord of fire, the night sun, and the underworld, while cross type 1 on his abdomen in that context could denote the zenith transit of the sun: note the rectangular enclosure, a sign of the terrestrial plane modeled after a maize field, that is oriented east-to-west, and the forms on each side of the rectangle that are similar to a chakana, which would then read as a sacred mountain for a sunrise and sunset in the “house of the sun.”

In the narrative on the right, the crosses are nearly enclosed by volutes with seed/water signs (liminality, outside of time, the source of fecundity). Stepping back, one can see the theme of emergence, where the elite actor is emerging from the mouth of the creature that has markings for snake skin (dot-in-square), a Mesoamerican symbol of the centerplace and water. Notable, however, is the association of sun, water, seeds, and fecundity as integral to the creature’s form. Note the design of the top of the image: the side view of two birds creates a third design as the eyes of the creature from a frontal perspective, a very ancient design technique in religious art called contour rivalry. The creature was re-iterated in the design of the actor’s headdress, which ties the elite actor to the mythic time of origin and animal powers. Four skull-like heads confirm that this is a liminal scene where the creature was associated with ancestors, which makes it likely that we are looking at the claimed supernatural ancestry of a hereditary lineage. The beard on the human face also suggests an ancestor, one of the ancients, and therefore the scene may be suggesting that he is being conjured (born of water), probably as the living link between the liminal sky creature and the mortal head of a lineage. Although the Twisted Gourd symbol is not represented here, it is remarkable that these are the same concepts that it represented.

Luther 2016 fig 12-Izapa Stela 2-bird wings cross 1 and 2

Luther, 2016: fig. 12, Izapa Stela 2. The cross-bands on the winged celestial creature (Above, sky, solar bird) are oriented in the same way as the cross-bands in the image above shown on the right if the diving god were likewise oriented in a head-up position.


Luther, 2016: fig. 9, Chalcatzingo Monument 1 (left) compared to a more detailed drawing of the same narrative for context (right). A cross type 3 (winter solstice) with typical solar rays in the context of a storm and signs of nonfoliated plants was placed externally in relation to the ancestral cave (iconic quatrefoil associated with rulership, see K4998) and very low in the sky compared to the position of the clouds. Since this is an ancestral liminal scene related to the Mountain/cave of origin but set in the context of what appears to be a real storm, the presence of the cross-band symbol would appear to be a seasonal sign that would have been determined by observing  sunrise over a horizon marker on a nearly sacred mountain.

The fact that the cross-band sun symbol was so often associated with the archetypal Mountain/cave in the pre-Classic period, wherein the spirit of the jaguar ancestor resided in the heart of the mountain, e.g., the centerplace of the cosmos, suggests that the symbol in the context of the were jaguar and ancestral cave of origin inferred the passage of the night sun.  It was born anew each day and issued from the mouth of the cave, which associated the jaguar lord with fire, the underworld where life was renewed, and the sun. These same associations and themes carried over into the Classic period and were crystallized in Maya art after the Olmec “mother” culture declined in influence.

Palenque-schele villela 1993fig10d-subterraneos-sun riding MW cosmic monster

(Schele, Villela, 1993:fig.10d). The supreme deity of Maya kings was Itzamna, the first water wizard; his avatar was the Prinicipal Bird Deity that sat atop the World Tree. A stucco from the east subterranean (read: underworld) corridor of House E at Palenque represents the night sun in a liminal scene riding within the bicephalic Cosmic Monster, the fanged and clawed alter ego of the cosmic Serpent. Among the Maya, the Cosmic Monster oversaw the creation process on the Vase of the Seven Gods (Kerr vase 2796.) and swam in the Milky Way (Bassie, 2018:278). Itzamna was the itzer (itz, the life-sustaining quality of the cosmos) that established the Waterlily Stone Throne, where waterlilies symbolized the primordial sea (Freidel, et al., 2001:fig. 2.23), which established the celestial North-South axis mundi that anchored the unfoldment of the quartered earth like a flower that bloomed. Itz, the sap of the World Water Tree, arose from the nourishment of the underworld to extend North through the Centerpoint, with branches that extended out along the E-W axis to feed the cosmos.

Another view of the same narrative:

Stone 1985 fig 19-House E Palenque

Stone, 1985: fig. 19: “We see, then, that any single example of the Cosmic Monster Theme is an incomplete and, to varying degrees, abstract portrayal of a theme that only existed in its totality as a concept. The complete picture of the Cosmic Monster Theme can conceivably be reconstructed by combining the known iconographic components of all examples. …One final point concerns a possible iconographic motivation in the zoomorph compositional pattern, specifically in the appearance of the Principal Bird Deity above the rear head. An argument can be made that the Principal Bird Deity represents some aspect of the sun. One possible substitution which suggests this to be so is seen in a relief over the doorway of the eastern subterranean passage of the Palenque Palace (fig. 19). In this depiction of the Cosmic Monster Theme, the position usually occupied by the “bird” is occupied by a large kin sign, replete with legs. Such a substitution suggests a solar function for the “bird,” perhaps in this context as the overhead or zenith sun in line with its placement” (Stone, 1985: 48).

Creative Commons License

This work is under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 Unported license .  Suggested citation for text: Devereaux, M.K., 2018. Twisted Gourd, The Symbolic Language of the Precolumbian Rainmakers as the Cosmovision of the Divine Rule of a Triadic Universe,