Oswitik: Portraits of Kings and Gods of Copan

kings and gods of Copan
A stunning view of Copan Ruinas. Photo by Arturo Sosa

Back in 1839, a British explorer named Frederick Catherwood, architect, photographer and drawer sat in the dense jungle in the lush Copan Valley. His task was to draw the spectacle that laid before him.

With the passing of time, mosquitos and sweltering heat tempted his patience. Yet he methodically tried to capture the magnificent stelaes and altars the were the subject of his efforts.


His travel companion was the American diplomat and writer, John Lloyd Stephens, who wrote in the travel diary:

Kings and Gods of Copan
West View of stelae H in Copan Ruinas. photo by Arturo Sosa

“There he was, with his feet in the mud, wearing gloves on his hands to protect himself from the mosquitos. As we feared, the intricate designs of the Stelaes before him were extremely complex, the portraited individuals where totally unknown and inexplicable. Catherwood was having serious problems drawing them…”

At last the British drawer had success. His drawings and illustrations became known to the World in Stephens’ famous book. “Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan”, published in 1841.


By 1844, other drawings by Catherwood during his trip to Copan became available to the World in his own book. “Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan

One hundred and seventy-eight years later, I find myself standing before the same Stelae H that Catherwood drew in Copan. I am struck by the same awe and admiration that the British explorer must have felt when he first came upon it!

Who were these Kings and Gods of Copan?

Kings and Gods of Copan
Stelae H depicts ruler 18 Rabbit. Photo by Arturo Sosa

Today we know that the individual in the “portrait” is Waxaklajuun Ub´aah K´awiil, non-less than the thirteenth governor of Copan. He is better known by his popular name, 18 Rabbit.

This is an extraordinary piece of art. The serene look on his face and the exquisite garments he wears are clearly evident thanks to the high relief sculping that creates a three dimensional effect.


One afternoon in December, Ricardo Agurcia, the Honduran archaeologist that discovered the Rosalila Temple confided the following: “The ruling class in Copan where extremely knowledgeable. They had a very high level of sophistication. The evidence is visible in their architecture, their sculpture and their writing.”