The Thunder Horse

What Happened When Cortés Left a Horse Behind at Tayasal

In 1525, Hernan Cortés visited Tayasal in Guatemala—where some 172 years later, the last Mayan were conquered by the Spanish—he left behind a horse that became, for a while, a god in the Maya pantheon. Here is how Robert J. Sharer tells it in The Ancient Maya: Sixth Edition:

[In 1618, Fathers Bartolomé de Fuensalida and Juan de Orbita] were shown a large idol in the form of a horse, called Tizimin Chak, the “yhunder horse.” When Cortés had visited Tayasal in 1525 he had left behind a lame horse with the Kan Ek’ of that day, promising to return for it himself or to send for it. After Cortés’s departure, the Itza treated the horse as a god, offering it fowl, other meats, and flowers, but the horse soon died. The Itza later made a stone idol of the horse. When Father Orbita saw this image, the idolatry so enraged him that he smashed the image to bits. The Itza, outraged at this sacrilege, tried to kill the missionaries, but Father Fuensalida seized the occasion to preach a sermon of such eloquence that the tumult subsided and the missionaries’ lives were spared.

On the island of Flores in Lago de Petén, the site once occupied by Tayasal, there is today a stone statue of a horse commemorating the poor thunder horse.