Who was Spearthrower Owl?


The Entrada of 378 CE has caused no end of controversy among archeologists.The

cast of principle characters include:

Chak Tok Ichaak, 14th king of Tikal

Yax Nuun Ayiin, 15th king of Tikal

Siyaj Chan Kawil, 16th king of Tikal

Siyaj Kak, a war leader, regent for Yax Nuun Ayiin

Spearthrower Owl, a king of somewhere

David Webster in his study of the fall of the Maya says that Siyaj Kak invaded Tikal and installed Spearthrower Owl as 15th king there in 379[1].He claims that the name of Spearthrower Owl is distinctly Mexican and that he was probably the son of one of a Siyaj Kak’s henchmen.

No, that’s not right, say Linda Schele and David Freidel in Forest Of Kings[2].Chak Tok Ichaak commanded his brother, war leader Siyaj Kak, to attack Uaxactun.After the victory he let blood from his genitals to sanctify the event.Siyaj Kak became king of Uaxactun and a year later, when Chak Tok Ichaak presumably died of natural causes, Yax Nuun Ayiin became the 15th king of Tikal.“Spearthower Owl” is a title, they assert,not an individual person.It is a title first assumed by Chak Tok Ichaak himself and later by Siyaj Chan Kawil.However in Code Of Kings, Linda Schele and Peter Matthews altered their story first by claiming that Chak Tok Ichaak presided at the katun ending of 317 and was still ruling in 378 when he led the attack on Uaxactun with Siyaj Kak.He died of wounds suffered in the battle and was succeeded by his son, Yax Nuun Ayiin[3].However, this hypothesis ignores the reign of Muwaan Jol, 13th king of Tikal (320-360), father of Chak Tok Ichaak[4].It also ignores the fact that it was Queen Une Balam who presided at the katun ending of 317.

In contrast, Clemency Coggins acknowledges that elements from Teotihuacan did indeed impact Tikal.She sees a religious motivation for their incursion[5].She notes that the Temple of the Feathered Serpent at Teotihuacan was desecrated in the 3rd Century in an apparent shift in power at the Mexican capital, forcing its priests to take their 260 day calendar abroad and graft it into the Maya concepts of time.Teotihuacan influence grew at Tikal over a century and finally Tikal general Siyaj Kak imposed this calendar on Uaxactun.She claims that the name “Siyaj Kak” was one of Yax Nuun Ayiin’s titles.

On the other hand, Geoffrey Braswell in The Maya And Teotihuacan argues that Spearthrower Owl and Siyaj Kak were distinct individuals, the former from a minor place called Ho-Noh-Witz and the latter most likely a Tikal lord[6].He maintains that Chak Tok Ichaak died a natural death.His nearest relative was Yax Nuun Ayiin, son of Spearthrower Owl and a Tikal princess who “married down” to the lowly Spearthrower Owl.Siyaj Kak was appointed regent for the child to ward off uninvited interference from Spearthrower Owl.Braswell maintains there is no evidence that Spearthrower Owl ruled at Teotihuacan nor that Siyaj Kak came from anywhere but Tikal.

David Stuart, in his seminal paper “The Arrival Of Strangers”, takes a completely opposite view[7].He fleshes out Tatiana Proskouriakoff’s earlier intuition that the events of 378 constituted an invasion of Tikal by an outside force.He concludes that Siyaj Kak led a foreign army to Tikal, killed Chak Tok Ichaak, and installed Yax Nuun Ayiin, the son of Spearthrower Owl, as king of Tikal under his regency.He further concludes that all the evidence strongly points to Spearthrower Owl being a Teotihuacan ruler and Siyaj Kak being a Teotihuacan general.

Stuart disputes Braswell’s transliteration of Ho-Noh-Witz on the Marcador[8].He maintains it should be read Ho-Tinam-Witz which translates as “5 Cotton Mountain place”.Tinam is “cotton” in Mayan languages and the ma syllable reinforces the tinam interpretation.Ma, on the other hand, in no way fits with noh.In relation to witz which is “mountain”, tinam is an allegory for snow.There are no snowy mountains in the Peten but several surrounding the Mexico basin where Teotihuacan is located.As proof Stuart points to the Nuttal Codex which shows the same sign clearly as a snowy mountain.The context of E3 (below) speaks of Spearthrower Owl coming to power at the 5 Snowy Mountain place.The context of G6 is “When he arrived at the portal from the 5 Snowy Mountain place”.This is further indication that Spearthrower Owl could well have been a Teotihuacan king.

David Freidel, Barbara MacLeod and Charles Suhler take a totally different view.They say that the name “Spearthrower Owl” was a generic royal symbolism and not necessarily a personal name.They propose that the symbolism was personified by the person who is interred in Tikal burial 22.They do not accept that an army came all the way from Teotihuacan to conquer Tikal.Rather they see a local faction attaching their ambitions to military and commercial representatives of long distance trade[9].

Yes and no say Jesper Nielsen and Christophe Helmke.They propose that Spearthrower Owl was a mythic deity whose name was adopted by one or more rulers of Teotihuacan[10].They base this hypothesis on a mural found at the Atetelco compound at Teotihuacan.The mural is upside down on the wall but here it is inverted for clarity.It shows a hilly landscape with desert plants and three mountains.Within the mountains are owl images whose bodies are spearthrowers.

Annabeth Headrick notes that three mountains is a common motif in Teotihuacan art[11].They symbolize the three hearthstones of creation and perhaps the three mountains which overlook the valley of Teotihuacan.This may or may not be a conflict with Stuart’s interpretation of a 5 Snowy Mountain place.

Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube’s comprehensive Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens leans toward the interpretation of an invasion in 378 by Teotihuacan warriors[12].They also note that Siyaj Kak is named or alluded to in Uaxactun stelae 5 and 22, La Sufricaya mural 7, Waka stela 15, a jade ear flare from Naachtun[13].They mention evidence that Siyaj Kak presided over kingly installations at Bejucal in 381 and Rio Azul in 393.Siyaj Kak is also named on a panel in the palace of Palenque around the same time as a dynastic foundation in that city[14].

All this controversy challenges us to review the inscriptions for ourselves.Was Spearthrower Owl a deity, a title, or a real person?Where was he located?For that matter, was Siyaj Kak a title or a real individual?Was he a Tikal noble or a Teotihuacan invader?What really happened in January 378?The inscriptions are few and as has been shown, leading archeologists have interpreted them in radically different ways.

Images of his name

The name “Spearthrower Owl” was assigned by archeologists for the logogram that features an owl and an atlatl spear thrower.The name appears four times in the text of a monument at Tikal commonly known as the “Marcador” and once in the center of the feathered banner at the top.The one apparent attempt by the Maya scribe to render the name phonetically is jatz’om kuh at E3-F3 which translates “owl who strikes”.

The name of Spearthrower Owl also appears on the face of Tikal stela 31 in a medallion on a headdress held aloft by Siyaj Chan Kawil.His name also appears in the texts on both the left and the right sides of the stela and also twice on the back.He is mentioned on the back of Tikal stela 1 and on a lidded bowl with the title kaloomte which is high commander or imperator as understood in first century Rome.He is also referred to as “The Holy One” by Tikal king Jasaw Chan on a lintel of Temple 1.There is a possible reference to him on El Zapote stela 1[15] and on an ear spool from northern Peten, possibly Naachtun.

Biographical Indicators

The Marcador monument was commissioned by a clan chief named Ch’amak on February 1, 414 CE[16].It was located in a compound about one kilometer south of the Lost World complex at Tikal.It is remarkable that Ch’amak still identifies on the Marcador as a vassal of Siyaj Kak eleven years after the latter’s death and three years after Siyaj Chan Kawil acceded to the throne of Tikal.In the text, Siyaj Kak is described as “the brother of Spearthrower Owl” at D1-C3.The glyph yi-ta at D2 is a relationship glyph indicating “sibling”, “companion”, or “in the company of”[17].Perhaps this is where Prudence Rice got the idea that Siyaj Kak, Yax Nuun Ayiin, and Spearthrower Owl all three arrived at Tikal in 378[18].

The text at E1-E5 is highly significant in the discovery of Spearthrower Owl’s identity.It reads “3 years, 13 months, and 12 days before January 14, 378 (April 16, 374), he acceded to overlordship, Spearthrower Owl, high commander from the 5 Snowy Mountain place, the fourth successor.”So not only was Spearthrower Owl a kaloomte or high commander, he was also a king at Ho-Tinam-Witz.As Stuart has pointed out above, Ho-Tinam-Witz may be Teotihuacan.He is also called “the fourth successor”.This is a very unique reference because it would be the only indication we have of royal lineage at Teotihuacan.On the other hand, it might refer to a collective of which Spearthrower Owl is the fourth member.Spearthrower Owl is also mentioned at H9 but the text is unclear.

Siyaj Chan Kawil commissioned Tikal stela 1 on March 18, 418.Translation is difficult because the stela is very eroded, but the drawing by John Montgomery[19] captures some details.Spearthrower Owl appears at A5 followed at B5 with jom “to end” or “terminate”.A8 is the emblem glyph of Tikal, possibly prefixed by kuhul “holy”.B2-A3 is a very interesting pair of glyphs, given the person who commissioned this stela.B2 is unen-balam and may refer to the king’s great grandmother, Queen Une Balam.A3 has a smoking torch protruding from a forehead which usually refers to a dead person.

Tikal stela 31 was commissioned by Siyaj Chan Kawil on October 17, 445.His father appears on both sides, each with identifying captions.On the left side his father is identified at K3-L3 as the “holy high commander, the son of Spearthrower Owl”.On the right side the caption contains a rare three generational reference.M2-N3 is “Siyaj Chan, son of Yax Nuun Ayiin, son of Spearthrower Owl”[20].

On the back of stela 31, Siyaj Chan Kawil celebrates the turning of the 9th katun by conjuring the spirits of Queen Une Balam (H18) and of his grandfather, Spearthrower Owl (G21).At the end of the long text on this stela at G28-H28, he notes that Spearthrower Owl died on June 8, 439.

In summary, Spearthrower Owl appears to have been a real person, not a deity, nor a title.He took the throne of Ho-Tinam-Witz in 374, he had a son who was installed as king of Tikal in 379, he was the brother or companion of a war leader named Siyaj Kak who is well documented all over the Peten, he died in 439, and he was remembered and his spirit was conjured by his grandson in 445.Years later, Jasaw Chan Kawil, king of Tikal 682-734, commemorated the death of Spearthrower Owl on a lintel of his temple 1.Although scant, this is a factual biography of a real king whose name is Spearthrower Owl.Mainly through the actions of Siyaj Kak, he made a huge impression on Tikal, and by extension, throughout the Maya world.The question remains where is this Ho-Tinam-Witz of which he was king?

Was Ho-Tinam-Witz Teotihuacan?

There are at least four arguments against linking Ho-Tinam-Witz to Teotihuacan:

1.No explicit written evidence has been discovered at Teotihuacan with the personal name of Spearthrower Owl.

2.Ho-Tinam-Witz is clearly 5 Snowy Mountain place, but the ubiquitous mountain motif at Teotihuacan is a cluster of only 3 mountains[21].

3.Sometime in the late third or early fourth century there was a significant alteration of the Teotihuacan government which has been interpreted as the replacement of the authoritarian monarchy by a collective oligarchy[22].Spearthrower Owlascended to overlordship according to the Marcador inscription in 374 which would have been after this alteration in government.

4.Spearthrower Owl is politically and perhaps family linked to Siyaj Kak, but the exact origins of the latter have not been confirmed.


Considering argument #1, In his book, The Writing System of Ancient Teotihuacan, Karl Taube explores a wealth of examples of writing in that city.He identifies day names, numbers, icons, and possible names of individuals.In addition, the famous Las Colinas vessel[23] shows four individuals – three wearing Teotihuacano shell spangled helmets and one wearing a tasseled headdress – preceded by individual life sized monikers.The plaza of glyphs in the La Ventilla compound have also been interpreted as personal or clan names[24].

We also have fragments of wall murals from the Teotihuacan compound of Techinantitla showing four important people, all similarly dressed, preceded by images that may be personal names[25].All four of these “name” images are topped by the typical tasseled headdress which indicates the very highest rank in the city.Below the headdresses, one has an arm, a second has goggle eyes, a third has a bird claw, and a fourth has a profile face.This is one illustration from The Teotihuacan Trinity[26].

Many ceramic figurines have been found at Teotihuacan, some with holes in their chests into which were attached shields.This allowed the figurines to be mass produced, and then individualized with interchangeable shields.Two of these figurines are holding spearthrowers and have shields depicting an owl with darts[27].Could these be portraits of Spearthrower Owl himself?If a mural with a similar name glyph could be found, it would substantially link Spearthrower Owl to Teotihuacan.So far no such mural has as yet been discovered.

Considering argument #2, the basin of Mexico in which Teotihuacan is located is indeed surrounded by a number of mountains which acquire snow during the winter.There are also mountains in the southern highlands of Guatemala which acquire snow.Ho-Tinam-Witz, the 5 Snowy Mountain place, could geographically be in either location and therefore the name does not definitively locate Spearthrower Owl’s city.Additionally, the 3 mountain motif is a dominating symbol in Teotihuacan art.We don’t know if the scribe intended to use a descriptor instead of a toponym on the Marcador, but 5 is not 3.

Considering argument #3, Coggins makes the point that the Temples of the Moon, the Sun, and Feathered Serpent were all constructed before 250[28].She asserts that such huge undertakings must have required a powerful central authority.The Feathered Serpent pyramid and the Cuidadela complex in which it is situated stands out as a particulary strong statement of monarchical power.However, it lasted less than a hundred years before it was deliberately desecrated and burned.Its central tomb, which may have held the body of the king who commissioned it, was looted[29].After 300 CE, the major focus of construction in Teotihuacan was on the residential compounds.Coggins, Berrin, and Pasztory conclude that while kings may still have ruled after 300, their powers were more curtailed by clan leaders and a growing bureaucracy.

Headrick poses a different scenario in The Teotihuacan Trinity[30].She outlines the three bases of power in the city – the clans, the king, and the military.The military siphoned off much of the energy for rivalry between the clans and/or against the king by providing social mobility not dependent on clan affiliation.However, the military itself was divided into rival corps:bird, canine, snake, and feline.She proposes that the Feather Serpent pyramid was a monument to the snake corps but in the fourth century was overthrown by the combined forces of the bird and canine corps.The latter two dominate the murals at Atetelco and Tetitla compounds.In this scenario, the king still ruled, but in cooperation with the military.Thus Spearthrower Owl could still have attained the throne in 374 if he was connected to the right military corps.

Considering argument #4, no text has yet been discovered that identifies Siyaj Kak with Ho-Tinam-Witz or any other place.He suddenly appears with an army at Waka in January 378 and eight days later he conquers Tikal, kills Chak Tok Ichaak, and the next year places the young Yax Nuun Ayiin on the throne.Meanwhile he is busy conquering Uaxactun and perhaps other cities in the Peten.Proskouriakoff originally translated his appearance as an “arrival”[31], but modern epigraphy by Stuart confirms that it was indeed a “conquest”[32].The famous vase from Problematical Deposit 50 at Tikal may be a “snapshot” of the invasion.While Tikal had adopted several cultural and architectural influences from trade with Teotihuacan before 378, expressions of Teotihuacan influences exploded right after 378.

This alone does not prove that Siyaj Kak came from Teotihuacan.Stuart in the same article points out that the local ruler of Naachtun proclaimed himself on his stela 24 as a vassal (yajaw) of Siyaj Kak two days before the latter conquered Tikal.Naachtun is northeast of Tikal, not on the way of an army coming from the west.This would indicate that Siyaj Kak had local connections in the Peten before the invasion.Martin & Grube suggest that Siyaj Kak could well have been a Maya general associated with Spearthrower Owl who sent him to invade the Maya area[33].After all there were Maya living in Teotihuacan at the time as well as Teotihuacanos living in the Maya area, so Siyaj Kak could have been Maya and still have led an army from Teotihuacan.However if his relationship to Spearthrower Owl indicated by yi-ta on the Marcador really is familial, then either Siyaj Kak is Teotihuacano or Spearthrower Owl isn’t.

The Wite-Nah

Tikal stela 31 holds yet another clue.At C21-C24 the text is clear that Siyaj Kak came from the west:“upon his arrival from the west, Siyaj Kak, high commander, he died in pain Chak Tok Ichaak”[34].Further at E5-F5 in the same text it reads, “he went up to the Wite-Nah, Yax Nuun Ayiin”.Prudence Rice notes that wite-nah is a Teotihuacan related place of pilgrimage, an ancestral or foundational place[35].The text continues at F8-E15, “On September 11, 379, the divine lord, the holy Yax Nuun Ayiin, took the Kawil scepter, its name was 8 Jul-wa-pet, it is his burden, under the auspices of Siyaj Kak.It happened at the Wite-Nah.”

The Wite-Nah may well be the key to the whole question of the Entrada of 378 and the location from which Siyaj Kak came and where Spearthrower Owl reigned.Schele & Matthews note that all over the Maya world, rulers looked to Tollan “The Place of Reeds” as the place of origin central to state mythology[36].They saw it as the place where civilization, institutions, arts, and warfare originated.Maya kings sought to identify with it to enhance their prestige and legitimacy.The Place of Reeds may have originally been the first civilization of the Olmecs but – especially by 378 – that title belonged to Teotihuacan[37].

Wite-Nah is “root tree house”, a metaphor for foundation or source.Yax Kuk Mo, who invaded Copan in 427 and began a new dynasty there, is also called “commander from the west” on Altar Q at Copan[38].He had to travel to the root tree house to acquire the regalia of kingship just as did Yax Nuun Ayiin.Three days later, according to Altar Q, he left the root tree house and traveled 153 days to reach Copan, stopping along the way to install his lieutenant at Quirigua.Teotihuacan is 750 straight line miles from Copan and even at a slow pace of 6 miles per day, it would only take him 125 days to reach Copan.This journey, and the fact that Teotihuacan was considered the “origin central to state mythology”, is strong indication that the Wite-Nah was located at Teotihuacan.If leaders from the Maya world had to go there to acquire the regalia to rule[39], then this supports the argument that Teotihuacan was the place from which Siyaj Kak launched his invasion.That would indicate as well that Teotihuacan was also the place where Spearthrower Owl ruled as king.


While many questions still linger, the bulk of the circumstantial evidence supports the conclusion that Spearthrower Owl was a king at Teotihuacan.From the current studies we have of Teotihuacan’s political structure, a king could have had the authority to launch an invasion of the Maya area.The Entrada of 378 was not just a local dispute between rival Tikal clans, because Siyaj Kak didn’t stop there.He impacted dynasties across the Maya world.

Spearthrower Owl was “fourth in succession” according to the Marcador text.This notation is entirely opaque because we have no data at all regarding the succession of rulers at Teotihuacan.There was some hope that the tunnel recently explored under the Feathered Serpent temple might expose a royal tomb, but such was not the case.Until new discoveries are made, we will have to endure the questions.


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Brown, Kathryn & Stanton, Travis:Ancient Mesoamerican Warfare.AltaMira Press 2003.

Cowgill, George:Ancient Teotihuacan.Cambridge University Press 2015.

Fash, Barbara & William and Tokovinine, Alexander:The House Of New Fire At Teotihuacan And Its Legacy In Mesoamerica.Harvard 2009.

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Nuttal, Zeila, ed.:The Codex Nuttal.Dover Publications 1975.

Proskouriakoff, Tatiana:Maya History.University of Texas Press 1993.

Rice, Prudence:Maya Political Science.University of Texas Press 2004.

Rice, Prudence:Historical and Archeological Perspectives on the Itzas of Peten, Guatemala.University Press of Colorado 2018.

Schele, Linda & Freidel, David:A Forest Of Kings.William Morrow 1990.

Schele, Linda & Mathews, Peter:The Code Of Kings.Scribner 1998.

Schele, Linda:Maya Glyphs, The Verbs.University of Texas Press, 1982.

Skidmore, Joel:The Fate Of Jaguar Paw.PARI Journal, Mesoweb undated.

Stuart, David:“The Arrival Of Strangers”.PARI Journal, Mesoweb 1998.

Stuart, David:“Naachtun’s Stela 24 and the Entrada of 378.Maya Decipherment,May 14, 2014.

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[1] Webster, p. 262

[2] Schele & Freidel, pp. 156-157.

[3] Schele & Matthews, p. 66.

[4] Martin & Grube, pp. 26-27.

[5] Berrin & Pasztory, p. 145-148.

[6] Braswell, pp. 24-27.

[7] Stuart, PARI online publications #25, 1998.

[8] Stuart, Maya Decipherment “Cotton, Snow, and Distant Wonders”.

[9] Brown & Stanton, pp 213-214.

[10] Jesper & Helmke, pp. 459-474.

[11] Headrick, pp. 113-114.

[12] Martin & Grube, pp. 29-31.

[13] This ear flare may be the same as the ear spool from northern Peten, shown below.

[14] Martin & Grube, p. 156.

[15] Texas Note 34.

[16] Van Cleve, Tikal: Turning Point, p. 82.

[17] Montgomery, p. 297.

[18] Rice: Maya Political Science, p. 102.

[19] Montgomery Drawings, FAMSI.

[20] Van Cleve, Tikal: Turning Point, pp. 19-20.

[21] Headrick, p. 113.

[22] Berrin & Pasztory, pp. 26-27 and 38.See also Cowgill, pp. 133, 146-149, 192-193.

[23] Headrick, p. 18.

[24] Taube, pp. 87-89.

[25] Berrin & Pasztory, pp. 198-199.

[26] Headrick, p. 25.

[27] Headrick, pp. 37-38.

[28] Coggins, chapter 6.

[29] Berring & Pasztory, p. 37.

[30] Headrick, chapter 5.

[31] Proskouriakoff, p. 4.

[32] Stuart, “Naachtun’s Stela 24 and the Entrada of 378”.

[33] Martin & Grube, p. 31.

[34] Van Cleve: Tikal: Turning Point p. 33.See also Skidmore.

[35] Rice, Historical and Archeological Perspectives on the Itzas of Peten, Guatemala, note 14.

[36] Schele & Matthews, pp. 337-338, note 29.See also Bell, et al. pp. 237-238.

[37] See Fash et al.

[38] Van Cleve:Kings of Copan, p. 31.

[39] Stuart in Bell et al., pp. 233-239.

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