The Hero Twins in Veracruz
By:  Linda Schildkraut
Vea este artículo en Español.

Vessel 1

The reacquisition by the Merrin Gallery of a remarkable pair of vases with relief decoration has prompted research into the relationship between the Maya and the peoples of Veracruz during the Classic Period (300-900 AD). Although these vessels are a quintessential type of Veracruz pottery at its most splendid, the type has heretofore been only scantily studied. 1   Examination of the motifs on these two particular vases will show that the two cultures shared a common iconography and that the Hero Twins played an important role in the rich pan-cultural belief system of Precolumbian Mesoamerica.

Both vessels are wide, deep bowls. The exterior of Vessel 1 has a continuous, broad register of exquisite bas-relief, framed by plain bands, top and bottom. 2   The surface was slipped brown-black and then burnished to a high lustre. Details were incised through this dark surface into the buff clay, below, and recessed areas were daubed with matte red pigment. The interior was also slipped and then coated with pale green stucco, much of which remains beneath a layer of encrustation.

Created by a master ceramicist, Vessel 2, of buff clay emblazoned by red and orange pigment, sea green stucco on the rim and within, and a red band midway up the interior, is a rare, double-walled bowl with two layers of relief decoration. 3   When the bowls were first studied, examination of Vessel 2 revealed that the outer wall had been improperly restored. When it was detached in the process of correcting the mistake, it became apparent that the scene on the inner wall was virtually identical to that of Vessel 1, indicating the motifs’ importance. Since Vessel 2’s relief is slightly smaller and more softly formed, it was concluded that Vessel 2 had probably been molded from Vessel 1.  The outer wall is composed of individual figures cut from slabs of clay that were curved to conform to the shape of the vessel. This was reattached, connected at the top to the projecting band and under the vase at the basal ring. Although it partially obscures the inner wall, the outer wall does not touch it.

Vessel 2

The addition of the supplemental decoration over the primary motifs is fascinating. Might it signify two of the realms of the cosmos, one super-imposed over the other? Might it indicate the need to keep certain information covert, or might it have some other, more arcane, meaning?

Rollout Photography K974.2

Rollout photography, which allows the scenes to be viewed in their entirety, facilitates their study. 4   The presence of glyphs on these vases also aids our investigation. As is often the case with Maya artifacts, the personages on the vases are identified by name glyphs. These names combine a number with an image of an animal or object. The numbers are written in the Mesoamerican bar and dot system in which a bar is five and each dot is one. In the rollout above, seen from left to right are five figures: A to E.  Identified by the name glyph positioned by his feet, Figure A is 9-Jaguar. He wears a monstrous bird headdress and rides (or grapples with) an animal that may be a strange peccary or hornless deer, recognized by its cloven hooves and long ears and snout. 5   9-Jaguar also wears ear spools, a broad collar, a cross-hatched (perhaps net) kilt, and a feather-bedecked bustle over his hip. A second, perhaps subsidiary, glyphic element is located below the belly of the animal. This may, in fact, be a ballgame counterweight. 6   Another similar element is found above the bustle.

The name glyph of Figure B, 5-Rodent, appears over his head. He also rides an animal, clearly a deer, with antlers. The animal leaps to the left, its forelegs inter-twined with a sinuous vine that terminates in a serpent  head at its base. The pose of the deer conveys great dynamism. Indeed, the animal seems to be the master of this vignette, while the human grasps the deer, holding on for "dear" life, while his head thrusts back and his left arm flails above in an unnatural position, evocative of a rodeo rider. 5-Rodent, too, wears a broad collar and, additionally, a buccal mask, an elaborate headdress, and a kilt with sash that has a huge monster mask, with upturned snout, appended to it.

Figures C and D sit facing one another in a self-contained, ritualistic scene. These two, together with Figure E, are the key to the vase’s meaning. Figure C, ornately garbed and in cross-legged pose, reaches for the bird head proffered by Figure D.  This bird head may be emblematic of the great bird monster deity, Vucub Caquix (7-Macaw). A glyphic emblem surmounted by a single dot, between them, depicts a stylized head wearing a knotted headband and embellished by three dots (the bottom one eroded) in inverted pyramid arrangement on his cheek (Plate 4). The single dot signifies one, or hun. Further, the headband and three dot facial markings (holy spots) leave no doubt that this glyph represents Hunahpú (One Lord or First Lord), also known as a "Headband Twin," as was his brother. In other words, Figure D is one of the Hero Twins, a protagonist of the great Maya epic, The Popul Vuh,  7  here making a surprising appearance on a classic Veracruz vessel! Among the heroic exploits of Hunahpú and his twin, Xbalanqué, was the defeat of Vucub Caquix and the other underworld deities. The hunter’s basketry hat he wears is another of his attributes; he and his brother were known for their prowess as blow-gunners. Plate 4

Although Figure E has no name glyph, there are other clues to his identity. His striated basketry hat (nearly obscured by an elaborate headdress) shows him to be a hunter and the jaguar that leaps downward, obliquely, behind his back may be his way, or protective, totemic spirit. Therefore, he can be none other than Xbalanqué, the second Hero Twin. Indeed, another form of his name, "Balam," means jaguar, and he is generally marked by patches of the spotted pelt of the jaguar on his body. He thrusts his head back, making him a "sky-watcher," alluding to his eventual apotheosis as the sun. 8   Further, the sprouting vine that he grasps emerges from a human head appended to his yoke, the broad belt that identifies him as a ballplayer. These symbols allude to his playing of the ballgame in the underworld and to his father, Hun Hunahpú, who was resurrected as the Maya Maize God and whose entire body symbolized the maize plant, his severed head the harvested ear of corn. 9   The artist’s clever conjoining of the yoke and sprouting head shows the direct relationship between skillful ballgame play and the rebirth of Hun Hunahpú as the Maize God. 10 

Rollout Photography K252

The group of figures (labeled F-J) on the outer layer of Vessel 2 resumes the iconography established below, although the loss of several elements in this layer means the reading is speculative. One of the characters that appeared on Vessel 1, Figure D, reappears on Vessel 2, as Figure H, perhaps here in the under-world, wearing a basketry hat, he proffers a dead deer. He is joined by lxchel, the Maya moon goddess (or Xmucane, the grandmother of the Hero Twins) (Figure G) and God A, (Figure I), the skeletal death god. Another deity, possibly God N or K, is seen emerging from the mouth of the Cauac earth monster, or bearded serpent (Figure J). The mouth of this creature is propped open by a long stick and the death god reaches in to pull out the other god. A decapitated head on a vine, Figure F, reinforces the underworld imagery and refers to the head of the Maize God.

In retrospect, the entire programme of the vases appears to represent a metaphor for the exploits of the Hero Twins. Figures A and B, riding zodiacal animals 11   represent their travels through the heavens. Clearly, belief in the Hero Twins and associated mythology and cosmology was strong in Veracruz. This should not be so surprising since the Huastecs, a Mayan people whose language derived from Proto-Mayan, inhabited much of the Gulf Coast during the Classic Period. 12   The existence of much Maya thought in an area generally considered non-Maya is undoubtedly due to the Huastec presence in this region until 900 AD when they were driven north by the Totonacs. The myth of the Hero Twins may be considered more broadly Mesoamerican, as it traversed both time and space. The Hero Twins live in Veracruz!

N.B. The author is extremely grateful to Barbara and Justin Kerr for their friendship and their famous scholarly munificence: they not only examined the vases and "brain-stormed" with the author when her ideas were still germinating, but also read an early draft of this article and offered their suggestions for improvement. Gillett Griffin read a more finished version and generously proposed clarifications, as well as providing the ethnic connection between the Huastec of Veracruz and the Maya. Many of these points have been incorporated, but any and all errors are the fault of the author.

Sources Cited

Agustin Acosta Lagunes, et al.

Museum of Anthropology of Xalapa

Anthony F. Aveni

Skywatchers of Ancient México

Michael D. Coe

The Maya (Fifth Edition)


The Maya Scribe and His World

David Freidel, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker

Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path

Linda Schele and David Freidel

A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya

Hasso von Winning

"Rituals Depicted on Veracruz Pottery" pp. 31-36 in Ancient Art of Veracruz.


  1. Acosta 1992: 155, bottom left; von Winning 1971: Figs. 1-5.
  1. 6 3/4 inches (17.2 cm) 0 × 4 1/4 inches (10.8 cm) high.
  1. 6 1/2 inches (16.5 cm) 0 × 4 1/4 inches (10.8 cm) high.
  1. The rollout camera was designed and built by Justin Kerr.
  1. A similar concept is depicted on vase number 66 in Coe 1973.
  1. That this might be a ballgame counterweight was suggested by Gillett Griffin, personal correspondence, August 27, 1995.
  1. The Popol Vuh, a manuscript discovered among the Quiché Maya during the 19th century, recounts an intricate, heroic saga. Therein, the first set of twins, the father (Hun Hunahpú) and uncle (Vucub Hunahpú) of the Hero Twins, was defeated in the ballgame, tortured, and killed by the Xibalbans, or underworld gods. With much guile and cunning, the Hero Twins avenged their father and uncle. Hun Hunahpú was resurrected and apotheosized as the Maize God and the Headband Twins became the sun and moon, or the sun and Venus. A good synopsis of the saga may be found in Schele and Freidel 1990: 74-76. An image of Hunahpú (Hun Ahau) with the characteristic markings of three dots in inverted pyramid arrangement is seen in ibid: 411, the left-hand figure marked "Headband Twins".
  1. Because the god known as G111 (a member of the Palenque Triad) has, as one of his manifestations, the Jaguar God of the Sun, it is logical that Xbalanqué, marked by the jaguar, should ascend to heaven as the sun. G1, G11, and G111 were brothers born of the creator goddess. Some scholars believe that Hunahpú joined his brother in the sky as Venus, rather than the moon. G1 is associated with Venus, an element of parallelism in the creation myth and The Popol Vuh.
  1. Coe 1993: 179.
  1. Justin Kerr has theorized that the ballgame, itself, may symbolize the resurrection, if one views the ball court as a split in the earth that is analogous to the split in the turtle carapace, seen on the Resurrection Plate, from which the Maize God emerges. (Coe 1993: Fig. 139).
  1. The existence of a Maya belief in a zodiac has been gleaned by Aveni (1980: 199) from a sequence of animals carved in a lintel on the eastern facade of the east wing of the Nunnery at Chichén Itzá that resembles a sequence painted on the Paris Codex (pages 23 and 24). Both the peccary and deer appear in the Paris Codex; the peccary is also present on the Nunnery relief, as are many Venus signs. Aveni posits that this relief may represent the passage of Venus through a segment of the Maya zodiac. Schele (Freidel, Schele, Parker 1993: 85) demonstrates that the Maya identified both Orion and Gemini as peccary or turtle and cites an image of Itzamná, the original shamanic god of the Maya, riding the peccary of Gemini, on a painted ceramic (ibid: 91, fig. 2:26c).
  1. This fact was brought to the author’s attention by Griffin, personal correspondence, (op cit.). Coe traces the linguistic development of Proto-Mayan to Huastecan, along with the migration of the Huastec people from western Guatemala to the Gulf Coast of México (1993: 24).

Return to top of page