Probably the best known Mayan king to modern people, 18-Rabbit was the king of the city-state Copan, or Xukpi, from the year 695 c.e. until his violent death on May 3, 738. He succeeded his father, Smoke Imix, on July 2, 695, making him the 13th ruler in the dynasty founded by K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo' circa 400 c.e.. Arguably the most powerful Mayan ruler to grace the annals of history, he ruled during the golden age of Xukpi and left an artistic and achitectural legacy which remained with the Mayans until the disappearance of their civilization.
What's With The Funny Name?
The name "18-Rabbit" comes from the days when archaeologists did not understand how to pronounce Mayan hieroglyphs, but did understand their meanings (to a certain extent), so the only way English speakers could know Mayan names was by essentially listing the symbols used in the name. Hence, 18-Rabbit appears simply as the number 18 plus the word Rabbit. Our knowledge of Mayan has grown considerably since Copan's discovery in 1843, however, so over the years "18-Rabbit" has changed into "18-Gopher", which eventually changed into the infinitely more phonetic "Waxaklajuun Ub'aah K'awiil," which translates roughly as "Eighteen are the Bodies of K'awiil." K'awiil is the name of one of the chief Maya gods associated with divine rule.
So What Did He Do?
A great deal, apparently, although our knowledge of his reign is largely limited to the monuments he built and a few select events. He mostly preferred to patronize the arts (we assume), perhaps reflecting less imperial ambitions than those held by his father. A great many artists and writers were either developed or attracted to Xukpi during his forty years in charge, and a large elite class flourished (although not necessarily to the benefit of the peasants). Under his patronage, Xukpian sculpture flourished and styles shifted dramatically, becoming less squarish and more round and soft, a meme which would hold for the remainder of Xukpi's inhabited history. More tangibly, he
- Built seven elaborately detailed stelae, depicting himself as various gods. Of the stelae still left at Copan, most are those built during his reign, specifically between 711 and 736. They represent both his apparent apotheosis and his patronage of the arts in addition to being free-standing historical documents.
- Commissioned the Great Plaza north of the acropolis
- Expanded the Ball Court. Under future rulers, this became the second largest Ball Court in Maya
- Started the Hieroglyphic Staircase, of which around half was completed during his reign. Completed later under the fifteenth king, Smoke Squirrel, this 72 step, 2,200 block, 1,200 inscription staircase is the longest known Mayan text found to date. It recounts virtually the entire history of dynastic Xukpi. It also features several statues running up the center, and a stela at the foot of the staircase depicting 18-Rabbit
- Built the magnificent Temple 22, which has been described as "one of the finest of all Maya architectural expressions."1Conceived as a model of the "maize sprouting mountain," part of a Mayan creation myth, in its day this structure boasted of many beautiful sculptures and, even today, contains the only direct quotation of a Mayan king yet found. Unfortunately it was built with a mud based mortar which necessitated constant upkeep, which isn't a good idea if you're planning to abandon your civilization within the next few centuries. It's still beautiful in the way memorable ruins always are, but its original grandeur has been lost forever.
The quotation referred to above lies on the step to the door of an inner chamber of Temple 22. It reads "On the day 5 Lamat is the completion of my k'atun in office." This inscription gives us both the date of the completion of T22 (March 27, 715) and an indication of what might have happened on top of it when it was completed. For those not versed in the Mayan calendrical system, a k'atun is a period of time equaling roughly 20 years. Since 20 is one of the base numbers of Mayan mathematics, and those Mayans love their numbers, this event was accompanied by ceremonies--ceremonies which, often as not, would put Marilyn Manson and Ozzy Osbourne to shame. On this date, the king, in all his royal regalia, would, on top of a temple, proceed to pierce himself in various places--tongue, nose, and yes, even his genitals--and let his blood drip from his wounds onto pieces of bark as an offering to the gods. He must have enjoyed this very much, because the perks kings get are never that good.
How Did He Die?
The story of the downfall of 18-Rabbit begins on January 2, 725, when a man named Cauac Sky assumed the throne of Quirigua (pronounced Key-ree-gua), a city to the north of Xukpi and under the sway of 18-Rabbit. Cauac Sky was not a true king, however: he was the selection of 18-Rabbit. This was soon to change. Cauac Sky, perhaps suffering under rule from Xukpi, or perhaps seeing an opportunity to gain power for himself, apparently decides to rebel. I say 'perhaps' and 'apparently' because neither Quirigua nor Copan contain any record of the hostilities between themselves. Whether he was kidnapped from his home, captured in the midst of battle, or was defeated and decided that the treatment given to captured warriors was more dignified than fighting to the last is uncertain. In any case, the result is clear. On May 3, 738, 18-Rabbit is beheaded as a sacrifice in Quirigua. Inscriptions in Quirigua refer to this only as the 'axeing' of 18-Rabbit, nothing else; perhaps they relied on oral history or improperly stored paper rather than time consuming inscriptions to transmit most of their history.
The death of 18-Rabbit signaled the end of Xukpi's golden age and, ultimately, the end of the city itself. After 18-Rabbit, no monuments were constructed for nearly twenty years, while Quirigua, apparently more confident, began building some of its first monuments. The king immediately following 18-Rabbit, Smoke Monkey, lasted only nine years, and the rejuvenation which took place under Smoke Squirrel after him did not take place until well into his reign. The threat posed by Quirigua was no passing fad, either, as the throne of Copan appears to have been vacant for some time before the seventeenth and final ruler held the reins. That, combined with the loss of fertile land, conspired to reduce Xukpi's former population of twenty thousand to a mere five thousand. It is thought that Xukpi was finally abandoned in the mid-ninth century, after 600 years of habitation, some eighteen generations of dynastic rule, and at least twenty on-stage genital piercing ceremonies.
An excellent photo of a stele can be found here