Sarcophagus Lid, Pakal Transitioning from Life to Death, c. 675 BCE, Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque, Chiapas, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Pakal: The Original Starman

Beneath the stepped pyramid of the Temple of Inscriptions, down a steep stairway and in a small chamber, rests the tomb of K’inich Janaab’ Pakal. The ancient Mayan king Pakal, part political leader and part living god, ascended to the throne at age 12 in 615 BCE and ruled for the next 68 years with absolute power.

Pakal appears on the lid of the tomb. He is shown in profile, in a part upright and part supine position, moving between life and death. Behind Pakal is a sacred World Tree with the Celestial Bird, symbol of the Kingdom of Heaven, standing on the top. The celestial two-headed serpent within the jaws of a funerary serpent below Pakal signifies his transition to the realm of the dead in the Underworld.

Ancient Mayans saw the cross that is formed in the sky by the Milky Way as the World Tree and the dark space at the center of the stars as the “mouth,” or gateway to the Underworld, making this one of the earliest images of a space traveler.