Ancient Maya Cultural Traits

K’awiil: Ancient Maya God of Fertility, Abundance and Energy Exchange

 

Drawing courtesy of Schele, Linda. Linda Schele Drawings Collection. 2000. 11-18-19. FAMSI.<http://research.famsi.org/schele_list.php?rowstart=15&search=k%27awiil&num_pages=4&title=Schele%20Drawing%20Collection&tab=schele&gt;

Linda Schele, who made the above drawing from four identical, stucco-covered figurines found in Burial 195 at Tikal, spoke with a Maya ritualist who said K’awiil was a supernatural “host object.” (Schele, Maya Cosmos, p.199). This aligns with the god’s frequent appearance in Maya Art as the scepter of rulers, likely to indicate royal lineage. Rulers who are shown wearing a smoking headdress do so after death to denote royal ancestry, the most famous example being the curls of smoke eminating from K’inich Janaab’ Pakal’s headdress on his sarcophagus lid at Palenque.  

Scholars have given K’awill, “scepter” a variety of names and associations. John Eric Thompson said the name meant “Abundance of our sustenance.” In Paul Schellhas’ classification he is “God K or God II .” Because he only has one leg and it terminates in a serpent’s head, the Popol Vuh identifies him as Cacula Huracan, “Lightning One-Leg.” His forehead is a mirror penetrated by a smoking axe—also a lightning designation, so Dennis Tedlock speaks of him as Nehm K’awill, “Mirror Scepter.” The hook in the eye designates him as a deity. (Below, there is a drawing of the K’awiil scepter)

In Classic times, often at accession events, when the kings held out the K’awiil scepter they proclaimed themselves masters of the “vision serpent,” the ability to manifest benefits for this world from other world sources. It was believed that K’awiil used his lightning-serpent leg and the smoking axe in his forehead to break the heads of shamans and bring them enlightenment. As a ritual instrument, the scepter was made of wood and was carried in the right hand, except when that hand was needed for blood “scattering” rituals.

Mythically K’awiil was the third born son of First Mother and First Father, born on the day Hun Ahaw, “One Lord.” His brothers were the Hero Twins. He was linked to the forces of fertility—his nose being maize foliage—abundance and energy exchange. Through him revelations happened and through his lightning strikes, human souls were transformed into what the Maya called “authentic human beings” or “true men.” There’s some speculation that he may originally  have been the personification of the axe that Chahk, the storm god, used to crack open the shell of Great Turtle allowing the maize god to ascend from the Underworld so he could deliver abundance to the world. 

Lady Jaguar Paw, Custodian The K’awiil Scepter
Excerpt From Jaguar Wind and Waves  (p. 13 )

Between my sister and me, I was the fearless one, more determined than my brothers to have my way and make Father proud. It wasn’t until he sent me to Tollan in fulfillment of his alliance with the lords there, that I took the title I came to share with my husband, Spearthrower Owl. When they raised him to “Supreme Anointer, Land of the Quetzal People,” they made us both, together, custodians of K’awiil, the lightning god who conveyed the authority to rule. From then on, because it fell to me to serve as the custodian of the living K’awiil scepter, I was sometimes introduced as Lady Jaguar Paw, Custodian of K’awiil.” I didn’t know it then, but that title—and the office and rituals that came with it—gave birth to the dark clouds that would grow into the thunderhead that took me down.

Presentation Of The K’awiil Scepter
Excerpt From Jaguar Wind and Waves  (p. 74-76 )

In silence but with soft drumming, Spearthrower returned to his place and Fire-born came forward. As he gave his speech, I followed Banded Snake up the steps and across the way to the shrine that housed the god bundle. He took my headdress and replaced it with a red, serpent-coil turban. Keeper of the Bundle was inside waiting for me. He had the K’awiil scepter ready, sitting on his red pillow with the serpent leg dangling over the front. 

Following the ritual I was taught at Tollan, I chanted the little god’s honorifics and passed two fingers, the sign of acceptance, across the blue-painted wood, front and back to insure that everything was as it should be—the feathers securely tied and rising high in his headdress, the obsidian axe-head firmly attached to his forehead, pearl wrist cuffs and anklets in place, the beaded jade necklace centered on his chest and the belt ornaments centered between his thighs.

Last to be inspected, was the little ceramic bowl that fitted into a cavity behind and at the bottom of his skull. Spearthrower always took it out and inspected it the night before an anointing, but he left it to me to push a brush through the cavity and channels that led from the bowl to his mouth and forehead to insure they were not obstructed. With that done I stepped aside so the keeper could put in a nodule of burning coal, which I then dusted with little beads of copal incense. With the skull panel replaced, the “precious breath” came out his mouth and the slit behind the axe that rested high on his forehead. 

While I waited with the breathing K’awiil, Banded Snake went down the steps and nodded to Spearthrower. He nodded to Fire-born and and he concluded his talk. “Now it falls to you!” he said. “The k’in has come for you to show the gods that we are one people, no longer Tollanos and Maya. We are Tikal!” Again, the Tollanos applauded and the Maya remained silent.

 

K’awiil Scepter. Drawing by Linda Schele © David Schele   

Trumpeters standing atop the steps on both sides of the plaza raised their wooden horns and sounded a loud and prolonged call to announce the coming of Lord K’awiil. Holding the little god in front of me with sweet incense coming out his mouth and forehead, made it difficult for me to see at times. Even with Banded Snake steading me to the side with his arm, I took the steps slowly. Those who were not already on their knees knelt as Spearthrower, doing his best to talk louder, introduced K’awiil as a lightning lord and patron of rulers—the sky god who authorizes rulers to speak to, and on behalf of, the Makers. 

Spearthrower spoke rightly when he proclaimed that it was a day to be remembered. So many important things happened that day—he presented himself to the people of Tikal as the supreme prophet of Tollan, son and voice of the goddess, First Crocodile took the K’awiil anointing and was thereby authorized to carry the title, “Succession Lord,” K’awiil authorized Fire-born to serve as Regent until First Crocodile was ready to rule, and by having all this witnessed by the new ministers, Spearthrower established himself as the lowland kaloomte’, supreme authority. Sadly, it also marked the day when my people stopped resisting.

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For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To Amazon.com for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

Dowsing / Divination

Xunantunich, Belize

Dowsing is a type of divination, used to locate ground water, buried metals, gemstones, oil and gravesites without the use of scientific instruments. It’s consider a pseudoscience and there is no scientific evidence that it is any more effective than random chance. The dowsing rod only moves due to accidental or involuntary movements of the person using it. As practiced today it probably originated in Germany in the 16th century. So says Wikipedia.

I used to believe that its effectiveness was due to random change combined with the mental state of the person doing the “divining.” Then I experienced it first hand. My Maya guide at Xunantunich in Belize told me how dowsing was used to orient the primary structures across the long central plaza. Reading my expression, he went to a tree, cut off a branch and shaped it into the “rod” pictured above. Crossing back and forth over the central axis in the plaza, the rod dipped strongly at the invisible center line. He specified that the rod had to be cut from a living branch. When I asked if I could try it, he said “Gringos can’t do it.” He had several non-Maya people try it and, sure enough, they couldn’t do it. I wanted to try.

You’re not going to believe this, but it worked for me. He couldn’t believe it, so he had me close my eyes, turn around several times and he led me by the hand in a random course of maybe thirty yards. With my eyes still closed, I walked without any guidance and the rod pulled down—hard. I resisted, but the only way it would release was by my walking away. Back and forth I went. Even at different distances I got the same result. With the rod pointing straight down I opened my eyes and was clearly standing in the center of the plaza. The guide was amazed. “I never seen nothin’ like it!” he said.

I thought that might have been a setup or an anomoly, so I tried it again at another location and got the same result—the rod pointed down forcefully wherever there was a central eye-line (called a ley-line) between two structures. I came away a believer—that in addition to making  structural alignments relative to the position of the sun, moon and stars, the ancients may have also used dowsing rods to verify ley-lines, perhaps even find water. Normally I wear my “science hat,” but there are instances like this when I’m challenged to keep an open mind.

Dowsing At Xunantunich
Excerpt From Jaguar Sun (p. 247-248 )

“I told him about your apprenticeship with the K’uhuuntak. He wants to see if you have powers.” 

“What kind of powers?”

My brother continued. “Some people have the gift of locating spirit forces—lines in the underworld made by the gods when they ordered the world. Have you heard of them?” I hadn’t. “He calls them ‘footprints of the gods.’ The man who he engages to find them lives three days from here, so he is always looking for someone who has that gift. He liked what you did with the chert. Just play along.”

“What do the lines look like?”

“They are felt, not seen. Xunantunich is a pilgrimage center because there are so many of them here. Everything you see, every structure here, is aligned with those footprints. ”

Knows Best stopped short of the middle of the plaza. He had me cover my eyes with both hands and then he turned me around three times. “Now,” he said. “Keep one hand over your eyes so you cannot see, and point with the other to the place where Lord K’in will make his descent.” There was no trick to it. Because of the heat on my face, it took only a moment to point west.

“Did the K’uhuuntak teach you that?” 

I told him about the heat on my face, but I didn’t tell him I was in the habit of turning to face the sun as a general rule—something I learned from the K’uhuuntak. Even as an apprentice, I just naturally aligned myself with the center of things, near and far. At Dos Pilas I was most comfortable sitting in the center of the cage—except when I was sleeping or when there was a commotion.

Knows Best had me take hold of the “handles” of the branch he’d stripped so the longest part pointed away of me. “Walk out,” he said. “Point the stick straight ahead. Grip it tight.” I started to walk. “Look ahead, not at the stick.” To my right, there was the high temple with its gleaming headband. Opposite, well down the plaza was the palace. “Slowly!” Knows Best shouted. 

Ayaahh, this is ridiculous. 

Suddenly, I felt a tug on the end of the stick, so I pulled it up. “Hold it tighter,” the man said. Three more steps and the branch pointed to the ground so forcefully the arms of the branch twisted in my grip. I resisted, but it was difficult. 

“Step back three paces,” Knows Best said. When I did, the tugging on the branch relaxed. I stepped forward again, and again it was like an invisible hand had grabbed hold of the stick and was pulling it down. “Continue on now.” Within four steps, the tugging eased and then stopped. Looking, I was standing on the north-south centerline between the temple and the palace.

Almost on a run, we followed Knows Best to the temple. On the upper terrace—apparently, following him was all the permission I needed—we walked around to the eastern side where he had me hold out the branch and walk south to north. At the mid-point of the temple, I felt the tug again and the stick pointed down—hard. At the front of the temple, Obsidian pointed to the palace in the distance. “Five hundred and twenty paces,” he said. “I walked it off.” Within a few steps of walking east to west the stick pointed down again and I couldn’t pull it up. 

“I do not understand,” I said to Knows Best. “What is doing that? What does it mean?”

“It means you have a special power. We will talk later.”

Special power? That was what Sharp Tooth, the healer, had said about my being raised up. So this is my special power?

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For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To Amazon.com for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

 

 

 

 

Dugout Canoes

Lake Peten Itza, Guatemala

As early a 400 B.C., salt was being “shipped” by canoes from northern Yucatan to Tikal in the Guatemalan jungle by way of Cerros, Belize down the New River. In 1502, Ferdinand Colon, a member of Christopher Columbus’s fourth voyage, described an encounter with a large group of Maya—or Maya-related people—in a seagoing canoe around the Bay Islands off modern Honduras.

By good fortune there arrived at that time a canoe long as a galley and eight feet wide, made of a single tree trunk like the other Indian canoes; it was freighted with merchandise from the western regions around New Spain. Amidships it had a palm-leaf awning like that which the Venetian gondolas carry; this gave complete protection against the rain and waves. Under this awning were the children and women and all the baggage and merchandise. There were twenty-five paddlers aboard, but they offered no resistance when our boats drew up to them.

Another Spanish report estimated a Maya trading canoe to be 131 ft. long, carrying kakaw beans, obsidian clubs, axes, pottery, woven cotton textiles, a mancanas (a wooden sword set with obsidian blades) and maize beer for the crew. And Cortés observed that there were “large numbers of Maya trading canoes moving into and out of the region (Lake Izabal).” Regarding the paddles, some of which have been recovered, they were flat and bound with rawhide to give the rower a good grip. To chop out the insides of a hardwood tree they used razor-sharp flint axes. 

Trees Favored For Carving Canoes

Cedar (K’u’che’)

K’u’che’ means “god tree.” Besides being used for canoes, it was favored for making idols, often during the month of Mol (December). Cedar was used for extra-long canoes—river and sea going. It was one of the trees left standing while those around them were burned. The hardwood is durable and resistant to insect attack. It lasts for centuries.

Guanacaste (Ear Fruit)

Pich in Mayan. It’s a giant, rising to 100 ft. or more. Its smooth gray trunk is massive but light and durable. It can last over ten years as a canoe.

Locust

Uakuz in Mayan. It has a large trunk and is lightweight compared to other trees.

Mahogany

Punab in Mayan. It’s long, straight trunk made it desirable for canoes. The ancients may have selectively logged the forest, allowing it to stand as they burnt other trees.

Barba Jolote

The wood is somewhat like mahogany, but it’s heavier and stronger. Being highly resistant to fungal and insect attack it was also used to make posts.

Caribbean Pine

The adult trees are fire-resistant. The white resin beneath the bark, besides being water repellent, helped protect the tree from insect attack by quickly sealing any cuts made in the bark. And it’s sap was used as glue to repair dugout canoes.

Yemeri

This tree grows best on sandy, clay soils. It is easy to spot in the Mt. Pine Ridge Forest Reserve in Belize during the dry season because it has yellowish blooms. Today the timber is used for house siding and boxes.

The Canoe  Shape

In Classic Maya imagery, a standardized canoe shape had mythological and religious significance. The shape is seen in offering bowls used in blood sacrifices. On Izapa Stela 67 and Yaxchilan Lintel 15 the canoe shape is a symbol of spiritual transformation. 

Mythology

An incised bone from the Late Classic Burial 116 in Temple 1 at Tikal shows the “Paddler Gods” and other creatures escorting the Maize God across the primordial sea at the beginning of creation. At the front is “Jaguar Paddler,” identified by his headdress. At the rear is “Stingray Paddler,” and in the middle is the Maize God whose head is tapered to resemble a maize cob. The canoe is tilted slightly, an indication that they are delivering him to the Underworld.

The Milky Way

One of the perceptions of the Milky Way was as a sacred river. At the beginning of creation, it was the Paddler Gods who seated the first of three sacred throne stones there—“Jaguar Throne Stone.” They set it at a place called Na Ho’ Kan, “First Five Sky.”

On Expedition, Pech Orders The Canoes
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 32-33)

Pech stood and shouted to all the boats as he translated what the master said into an order. “When we get ashore I want the kakaw bundles rotated to canoes four and five. Cover and bind them quickly—same guards as before.” The best of the kakaw trading was behind them. They’d acquired nine bundles, each containing 8,000 beans. Because they were easily traded and accepted everywhere, they always wanted more.  

A man in the canoe directly behind the master called out: “Will we take on obsidian at Kaminaljuyu?” Irritation curled on Thunder Flute’s lips. The porter hadn’t been listening. He nodded for Pech to answer.

“Further on,” the first assistant said. “The trail north out of Kaminaljuyu takes us to the Chatalun, a river that empties into the faster currents of the Anamha. The high-grade cores are brought down from the fire mountains there. All we need to do is lash them onto rafts.”

“The Anamha is a demon,” said an experienced porter in the boat behind his. “Rafting is the only way through. Rapids and boulders the size of a house. Even the largest canoes can get swamped.”  

Thunder Flute and Pech exchanged glances. “Where the Anamha ends,” Pech continued, “we rotate back to sea canoes.” Next to “portage” where the canoes had to be dragged and twitched along on skids laid across the path, the most dreaded word for a porter was “rotation,”—unpacking and repacking the cargos—especially on the return leg of an expedition when the cargo is heaviest. “The handlers there are six brothers,” Pech said. “Agouti. Good men. If the water is calm and the sky clear, they will let us shove us off the next morning. If not, they will insist we wait. High winds and side current have swamped too many of their canoes.”  

The coxswain in Thunder Flute’s canoe pointed ahead. “Master!” Thunder Flute turned. Ahead a faint red glow in the fog looked like a torch dancing behind a curtain. When it grew brighter and another appeared some distance away, he stood and called out, “Hold the boats! All quiet!” The men held their paddles tight against the black current and the canoes slowed. The thickness of the fog prevented them from seeing flames, but a red glow that large and this early in the morning could only mean trouble. 

“Full on,” Thunder Flute said. “Full on!” Pech repeated. “All boats, full on!”

Pech stood next to Thunder Flute, facing the paddlers. “Coxswains, bows to the light! Head on! Form up!” The canoes fell into line, bows-to-sterns. In the distance and to both sides of the widening glow, flames suddenly ripped through the fog. 

Thunder Flute wondered aloud to his assistant, “Forest, or houses?” Pech exchanged his master’s wide-brimmed hat for a brown headband, which he tied beneath his leather-bound locks. “The flames are spreading out,” he said, pointing. “The highest there—that could be the temple. Black smoke—thatch and timbers. Call the boats to point.”

“Bows to point,” Pech called to his coxswain. He, in turn, repeated the command for the other coxswains. 

Thunder Flute took his seat at the bow. Pech sat across from him with his elbows on his knees, eager to receive his orders. “I want the crews in six and seven to scout both ends of the city. Two and three will follow us to the docking area. We will hold there until the reports come in.” 

In the distance, a conch sounded short bursts of three. “Two will go in and hold at the plaza. Three will do the running. Whatever this is, I want an experienced man on the temple; we need good eyes on the god bundle. Have six and eight ready to follow us down the embankment. I will take the royal residence. You take the council house. Everyone else stays with the cargo—use extra tie-downs.” 

Pech understood. As the bows of the canoes came together, the men grabbed onto a cord that pulled them into a circle. While the first assistant gave his instructions, the men put on their body paint and handed out weapons. When that was done, Thunder Flute tossed the bowline out and the canoes broke away. “No torches!” Pech said. “Only hand signs from here on!” 

Four canoes with paddlers looking like the Lords of Death escorting the maize god into the underworld dug their paddles in, quiet and deep. Although Thunder Flute’s canoe held back, he stepped onto the bow seat and rested his chest against the carved rabbit head that rose above it. Pech exchanged his master’s cloak for a cotton jacket and handed him a black paint pot. 

East to west, beyond the trees, Ahktuunal was engulfed in flames. Waiting for his canoe to touch the ground, Thunder Flute whispered to his assistant, “A trading partner saved is a partner for life.” Pech handed his master an axe with owl feathers tied at the neck. The boat slid into the sand and they jumped out. 

YELPS AND SCREAMS CAME FROM BEYOND THE TREES. THE sentry post in the docking area was engulfed in flames. One sentry lay face down, his blood pooling and turning the sand black; two others lay on the bank. Using hand signs Thunder Flute directed his men in the oncoming canoes to maneuver away from the dock and touch ground under a clump of trees that overhung the water. 

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For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To Amazon.com for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

Bloodletting

Photo courtesy of Justin Kerr

The theme of the past three posts was initiation, specifically the trials an initiate goes through in order to become a “man of the community.” Following on that ceremony would have been another rite of passage for individuals who would enter the brotherhood of elites. Typically for the Maya this involved bloodletting. More than a ritual of endurance, the symbolism around blood was complex and powerful.

It signified noble lineage and descent based on blood, which was perceived to be the rarified essence or “breath” of the ch’ulel “soul” that was the conduit between the world of the living and the world of gods and ancestors. This was because blood carried the life force. In the image above, just such a ritual is underway. That the man on the left has his heel raised means this is a dance. And in it, he and the man third from the left have let blood from their penises, usually by driving a stingray spine or other perforator through it to produce the most blood. Other preferred areas to pierce were tongues, ears and elbows. 

Initiations into elite status could also take the form of circumcision, mutilations, tattooing or scarring, forms of bloodletting that indicated death of one’s profane identity and resurrection into the sacred self. In addition to bloodletting rites, candidates were given the names they would use for the rest of their lives—their “true names.” They learned a secret vocabulary, and the ways of elite customs, manners and expectations for both men and women. Virtually everything began fresh. The initiate was born into a larger (sometimes cosmic) order that obliged him or her to assume responsibility for it.

Perforators such as stingray spines and bone needles were deified. Depicted in Maya art, they often had long handles that took the form of a long-lipped god head with a stack of knots topped by quetzal plumes as a kind of sacred headdress. And blood was never wasted. Rather, it was collected on cloth knots or strips of white paper and placed in censers, burnt with copal as an offering to the gods. 

The following scene in Jaguar Rising was based on a ritual observed and recorded by Frey Diego de Landa, a Spanish priest. I included it in the story because it marks the transition of the protagonist, One Maize, into elite society because his mother had royal blood. His true name becomes Fire-Eyes Jaguar in response to the belief that he got so close to a jaguar he could see the reflection of his torch in its eyes. That the group tied together backed onto burning coals was creative license on my part, considering that fire played a major role in most Maya rituals. The ritual takes place at night. Tzab is a star, and the Great Tree is the Milky Way. Huracan was a storm god, from whom we developed the word for hurricane.

An Elite Bloodletting Ritual
Excerpt in Jaguar Rising (p. 156-158) 

The men on both sides gripped my shoulder and I gripped theirs. On a third round, the assistant hung a white cloth on the knee cords. As mine was being tied, I remembered what White Grandfather had said about Tzab, so I looked up and found the rattlesnake stars high alongside the Great Tree. I’d told Red Paw about Tzab, so he was probably gazing there too—and sweating as much as I was.

The waterlily brew made my head feel soft. Although I couldn’t move my legs apart, the cord that bound them felt less tight and the back of my legs was feeling less heat. Gratefully, I could no longer feel the sweat trickling down my face and sides. That’s when it occurred to me—like the Warriors For Beauty, I could offer my sweat, even my blood, to Tzab. I stared at him hard and whispered my offering.   

The lodge brothers had formed a circle around us. As the shaman and his assistant danced, they drummed and rattled their rattles. Occasionally, the old shaman interrupted his dance to look at our eyes. With his nose close to mine, he appeared to be more monkey than man. When he was satisfied that the brew had taken effect, he gestured to the onlookers and altogether they drummed louder. Much louder. 

Boom, Boom — Boom!

Boom, Boom — Boom!

Boom, Boom — Boom!

On it went. The shaman began a different dance, with a chant that invited the daybearer, Two Water, to come and witness the binding. To summon our ancestors as witnesses, he had us call out the names of our lineage founders. I didn’t know who founded the Macaw at Kaminaljuyu, so I just called to “Lord Macaw.” The occasional glint of quetzal feathers in the shaman’s headdress as he passed, reminded me that I was standing with the sons of noblemen and ministers. It made me stand a little taller.

THE MEN ON BOTH SIDES OF ME Raised their arms, so I raised mine and faced my palms to Tzab. To keep the sweat and body paint out of my eyes so I could fix them on the stars, I had to keep blinking and jerking my head to the side. The daykeeper and his assistant came to me first, censing the little white bundle and then opening it. 

As soon as I felt his hands and grasping me, I looked up. And just in time. A jolt of lightning went through me. Burning. Like a startling fire, like I’d been punched as well as pierced. I breathed hard and fast. Tzab! Keep me from moving! The cord—. Pulling—. Pulling it through. I gritted my teeth but that made it hard to breathe. On my toes, I thrust my palms as high as I could. Tzab! Keep me steady. Now, instead of the lightning fire coming on the final drumbeat, the hard drumbeat, it came on the beats before it. 

The shaman pulled the perforator and cord through my penis to the man on my left. Ayaahh! Lightning again—then sustained fire. The pulling was worse than the piercing. Tzab! Help me! I gulped air as fast as I could, knowing the lightning would rake through me four more times—and knowing that to speak even one word would be a sign of weakness. 

After the last pull there came a moment of calm and steady fire, such that I let my heels touch the ground. As the assistant tied one end of the cord to the other in front of me—to make a complete circle—I could feel every little tug and movement. 

Ayaahh! Tzab! Intense burning. Several jolts of lightning. I didn’t mean too, but I had to look. Kneeling beside me, the assistant kept tightening the cord with a stick, forcing us to close the circle and back into the coals. Tzab! Keep me still! Every turn of the chock sent a streak of fire and lightning through me, a drawn-out stinging that made me wonder if I’d been ripped. Ever so gently, slowly, tenderly, I backed onto the coals and tightened the hold on my brothers’ shoulders. The burning in front was too intense to worry about my feet. As frightful as the thought of being strung together like bundles of maize stalks was, even more frightening was knowing that if one of us broke away we would all suffer permanent damage. What’s more, if we let down our arms or spoke the binding would have to be done over again in twenty days. Tzab! Keep us strong! I wished I’d taken even more of the waterlily brew. The face paint ran into my eyes so badly I finally had to close them tight.

Suddenly, the drumming became slow and quiet. I knew the cord had to be untied and pulled back, but I didn’t know how they would do it. The drumming stopped altogether. Then came rattling, loud and hard. With it came a long and constant stream of fire, pulling like the stripping of a branch. Higher than ever, on my toes and reaching for the stars I couldn’t see I thought I was going to faint. 

The stream continued, but the jolting stopped. There was gripping again and pressure, but the worst seemed to be over. Someone pulled my hands down, cut the cord between my knees, led me away from the coals and put a wet cloth in my hands. I wanted to wipe my eyes with it but a hand stopped me. A voice told me to keep pressure on the wound. Moments later a dry cloth was offered and I used it to wipe my eyes and face. Over our coughing and looking—amazingly—at the coals we’d been standing on, the shaman put the bloodstained cloths in an offering bowl and pronounced the binding “complete and proper.” He said our ancestors were pleased. We looked at each other relieved. The assistant poured more of the yellow liquid onto another cloth and had me hold it against the wound while he wrapped it with strips of cotton to keep it in place. Without looking up, he said I did well.

When our wounds were bound, the five of us gathered around the coals again, put our arms around each other’s shoulders, pressed our heads together and screamed as loud as we could. And then we laughed. Our feet were black but none had been burned—a sign, according to the shaman, that our courage had defeated the fire. 

After tying on our aprons again, we collapsed on the grass with the other men and watched the shaman and his assistant dance their gratitude to the gods. While this was going on, I found Tzab again and said a gratitude for helping me not break the circle. Master of the Lodge said we performed well, and everyone applauded. 

Servant women wearing yellow sarongs came out carrying baskets of food with beverage gourds on their heads. Each man gave his name and lineage, told how long he lived at the lodge and explained his tribute to me. There was much laughter and teasing, especially when it came to passing the perforator bone and cord. It amazed me that such a little needle could cause so much lightning and fire.

Back in my sleeping chamber, I untied the strips of cloth and looked at my wound. Although it hurt and I worried about urinating, I found that holding myself tight lessened the soreness. For a moment the sprout in me wanted to cry, but I quickly defeated him. As much as I hurt on the outside, on the inside my heart was full. I was a man of the caah and a brother in the Lodge of Nobles. I need to ask Mother about Huracan and his tantrum—and where I touched the earth.

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For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To Amazon.com for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

The Maya Celestial Realm (3rd Initiation)

Photo courtesy of Justin Kerr

Similar to the Maya Underworld, the Upperworld was populated with demons. Instead of nine levels, however, the celestial realm had thirteen, each with a ruling god. Not much is known about the levels, but there’s an indication that the fifth was a “Place of Fire” inhabited by fire serpents who emitted comets and meteors. One group called that level the Na Ho Chaan or “First Five Sky,” portrayed in art as long, twisted cords— an association with the umbilical cord and the cords wrapped around a pointed stick to drill fire. For the Aztec, a thousand years later, the fifth level was the place from which souls descended into the developing fetus on earth.

The Milky Way

Without the glare of city lights,  the Milky Way is an exceptionally pronounced feature on a clear night. The ancient Maya considered it a visible symbol of the Great Ceiba Tree that stood at the center of the universe. It was also known as the Sac Be or “White Road” that transects the various levels. The black part above it was considered by some as the Ek Ue, “Black Dreamplace.”

The Ecliptic

In the Maya world, what we know as the ecliptic—the path that the sun, moon and planets follow across the sky—was seen as an invisible twisted cord represented in art (Copan Structure 9N-82 Bench; Quirigua Stela F) as a double-headed cosmic monster. These chords, perceived as entwined serpents in the Classic Period, emanated from the beak of an avian deity called Itzam Yeh, “Lizard House.” They were the umbilicus of the Maize God and conveyers of the Sac Nik, “White Flower” soul substance. On Kaminaljuyu Alter 10 there are flowers on the nose of the serpent. And on TakalikAbaj Stela 4, the Sak Nik Serpent ascends through a medallion portal.

The Portal

In Maya iconography, portals to the other worlds are depicted by the outline of a turtle shell.  Because the shape is used as a frame in Maya art, scholars refer to it as a cruciform “cartouche” or “medallion.” Wherever it occurs, it signifies an entryway or doorway through which souls pass into the other worlds. An altar at El Peru/Waka’ describes the portal as tu yol ak, “at the heat of the turtle,” or in “the portal of the turtle.” 

Epigrapher David Stuart suggests the portal sign represents a “vertical hole or cavity in the earth” such as a planting hole or cenote. He argued persuasively that “images of emergence from open maws of serpents and bony snakes—one of the most common tropes in Maya iconography—were visual metaphors for birth.” In this sense, the cosmic serpent’s mouth is an entryway where the soul is “born” into another realm. It’s also important to note that the Maize God was resurrected from the Underworld through a crack in the shell of Great Turtle—the earth.

Here’s an example of the portal—far right—shown perhaps as a wall painting or a decoration for the vase— in a scene where the ruler is receiving gifts from visiting dignitaries. The gift on the throne appears to be a codex, bound and decorated with feathers. The medallion, shown only in half view, contains the face of an otherworld god. The kneeling figure with arms crossed is a gesture of submission.

Photo courtesy of Justin Kerr
The Initiations in Jaguar Rising

The first initiation trial undertaken by One Maize to become a “man of the community” was to capture, not kill, a deer and bring it into his father’s pen alive. The second trial was a drug-induced journey through the portal to the Underworld to see if he can hold his own with Cisin Ku, one of the Lords of Death.

In this, the third initiation, again under the influence of a hallucinogen, his challenge is to stand up to the manifestations of the sky lords, to “defeat” their attempts to have power over him. The  hallucinogens themselves were perceived as the means by which one entered the portal. Descriptions of the journey into the Upperworld in Jaguar Rising were taken from first-hand reports, drawings and artwork representations of such journeys experienced by indigenous Amazonians under the influence of Ayahuasca, a psychedelic drug.  

The roll-out image of the vase above shows one of the more powerful celestial lords manifesting as an armadillo. That journey began by smoking a cigar laced with fluid from the back of a certain frog.

Entering The Portal
Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 122)

White Grandfather took one of the burning sticks from the censer and lit a cigar. “This is the holy portal,” he said, puffing to get it lit. He handed it to me and told me to take several strong puffs, each time breathing it in. I’d smoked cigars with Thunder Flute and my uncles before, even inhaled, but this was very different. It was thick and tasted like a combination of tree sap and burnt thatch. The smoke stung my nose and bit my tongue. White Grandfather set the drum, rattle and incense bag in front of him. “Keep breathing it in, grandson.” I did, but I kept coughing. “Blow some smoke to the medallion,” he said pointing. “That is the place of entry, the doorway.” I noticed that it was shaped like the bottom part of a turtle shell, rounded except for inset corners. And it seemed to have been painted blue. “Fix your eyes on it,” he said, tapping the little drum with a thin white bone. Tap, tap, tap. Pause. Tap, tap, tap. On and on, always three taps and a pause. “Breathe it in, grandson…” 

My teacher chanted in a whispery voice, words having to do with good sight, good happenings and good remembering. I passed him the cigar but he shook his head. “We remain behind—to guide you. Do what we ask, answer our questions as you journey along. All will become clear. There is nothing to fear.” He chanted again, louder, adding some rattle sounds in the pauses between taps on the drum. This went on so long, twice he bumped his knee against mine—hard, probably to keep me from dozing off. 

“The MEDALLION IS QUIVERING, GRANDFATHER.”  

“Fix your gaze on the dark center, grandson. Relax and allow yourself to go through.” The tapping stopped and I felt a damp cloth, first on my brow and then on the back of my neck. “Close your eyes now.” As I did, he tied the cloth over my eyes. Amazingly, faintly, I could still see the quivering medallion, only now it was definitely blue turning purple with blackness growing in the center. “Keep puffing, grandson. Breathe in the smoke.” More and more of the medallion was becoming black. Suddenly, I felt something in my hand. Wood. “What do you see, grandson?”

Suddenly I saw my Little Owl. “My canoe, Grandfather!” The loudness of my voice startled me. After that, I whispered. “I see Little Owl—clearly as when I painted her feathers.” 

“Look around. Where are you?” 

White Grandfather’s voice seemed to be coming from inside me, the sound filling me like a hollow jar. “In the canoe, in Little Owl.” What I said is not right. I am not in the canoe, I feel like I am the canoe.

“What is happening?”

“Floating—smooth—on a black river. Waterlilies all around. Maybe sky wanderers.” 

“There are others with you.”

“As he said this they appeared. “Paddlers,” I reported. “One in front, one in back. They paddle slowly, but we are moving fast. Shining black water. Floating white flowers. Fast but smooth—like a pond at night.” With each comment there seemed to be two of me, one watching the canoe and whispering as if from the sky, the other looking ahead at the river of stars in the distance as we approached them. 

“You know the paddlers.”

The one at the bow had his back to me but I knew who he was. “White Cord! My uncle.” It made no sense, how could he be there? Suddenly I felt like I was myself, the river, the canoe, the paddlers and their paddles all at once. No difference.

“White Cord has jaguar ears and paws, does he not?” 

I hadn’t noticed. “He does—and black spots on his body.”

“The paddler behind you is old, is that so?”

I knew without even turning. “Very old. Without teeth. Red eyes.”

“A stingray spine through his nose?”

“And wrinkled skin.”

The Celestial Armadillo
Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 123) 

  “Look ahead, grandson. What do you see?”

“Ayaahh! Faster now, much faster but still smooth. Passing through waterlilies. The sky all around is green, bright green streaming down and waving like curtains. In the distance there is a tall tree—of stars. Everything is quivering. Approaching the tree, the quivering—Ayaahh! The branches are snakes!”

“Beyond the tree—what do you see?”

“A great forest of starry trees—all quivering. Blue, yellow, green—they move together, like in a dance. Their colors, they are so—”

“The colors are holy breath, grandson, streaming out from Heart Of Sky—all that you see is alive there—one living thing.”

“Slowing now. The forest—the trees are headless serpents, hundreds of them, all quivering and rising up like a curtain—uncountable serpents—green and red and purple. It feels like something is holding us back. Now they have heads—pointed like spear points and with big red eyes, all of them coming up, streaming up, out from a sea of blackness—heads to tails that seem never to end. Even these, seem to be me. “Ayaahh! An armadillo with bright white eyes! Enormous! Coming through the curtain of—now they are flaming feathered serpents, still quivering. In front of them is the armadillo—rising big as a tree—glaring at me.”

“Grandson, find a bundle at your feet with a cord attached.” 

I felt a cloth and a cord in my hand. “He is coming closer.”

“Untie the cord and open the bundle.” 

I suspected what was inside: An unshaped smoky obsidian, a blue-green jade and a small brown flint. “Armadillo went out in a puff of smoke. Ayaahh! Little Owl again?”

“Little Owl?”

“She is alive! Has me in her talons, carrying me over the black sea. Going up now, rising, rising toward green—very fast.” 

Like calling out in a cave, my teacher’s voice filled me. “There is nothing to fear, grandson. You are doing well—.”

“Approaching a canoe now—Little Owl!”

“Coming again like that, the canoe assures your safety, enfolds you.” He told me to repeat his words, saying I was safe. When I did, the owl was solid and I was in it, riding on a river of stars, alone. “Moving, but I am not paddling.”

“Little Owl is asking you to trust.”

“Overhead, are two entwined serpents—fiery cords made of stars.”

“As we told you, grandson—the White Flower Serpent.”

“At their ends are serpent head stars, quivering, facing the sea of blackness.” White Flower Serpent, I said to myself. I didn’t want my teacher’s words, not even one, to disturb the quiet and beauty of what I was seeing. So badly, I wanted linger undistracted.

“What are you seeing, grandson?”

“Cannot talk now.” The canoe rode easy then slowed. Seemingly on my back without any feeling of the canoe, drifting on the sea of blackness, I watched the slow movement of White Flower Serpent above until it turned black. “All is black now. Floating still—I cannot see anything, but—I do not understand—it feels like it is all me.

“Heart of Sky, Grandson. Be at peace, Grandson. Let yourself drift.”

For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To Amazon.com for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

Xibalba: The Maya Underworld (2nd Initiation)

Rollout vase photo courtesy of Justin Kerr

The Maya Underworld, called Xibalba (She-balba), “The Place of Fright,” was the realm beneath the surface of the Earth and under water. It was perceived to have nine descending levels arranged like an inverted pyramid, was ruled by the Bolontik’u, “Nine Lords of Death” and was often depicted on vases as a giant conch or snail shell which enclosed a mysterious other reality interpreted by some to be an infinite, eternal and bloody ocean of bliss. The Underworld was always pressing upward through portals—volcanoes, floods, and earthquakes—where the demons could emerge and work their dark magic.  As entrances to the Underworld, caves were considered sacred and preferred locations for sacrificial offerings. There is no evidence to suggest that Xibalba was a kind of hell. More generally, the belief was that to die in one world was to be born into another.

The  Lords Of Xibalba

According to the Popol Vuh, the K’iche’ Maya’s mythical “Book of Counsel,” the Lords of Xibalba  possess three outstanding characteristics. In the first place, they were liars and tricksters. To trick the Hero Twins into playing a ball game, they said they admired their ability and the contest would be exciting. But it was just an enticement to kill them. 

Secondly, they are stupid. In a second attempt to create human beings who would praise them and offer them their blood and sweat, they made them out of wood. There was nothing in their created beings equivalent to hearts or minds, and they had no memory. It was a failed attempt. And lastly, in several instances, the Underworld lords demonstrated cruelty and hardheartedness. 

The Vase Shown Above

Above, center right, the Underworld Lord, known to scholars as “God A,” is shown dancing beside a witz “living mountain” throne, on top of which is an infant jaguar identified by its tail and paws. Art Historian Penny Janice Steinbach suggests that the infant with jaguar traits is being sacrificed  as “part of a pre-accession ritual serving to endow royal heirs with the ability to conjure, which, in turn, was integral to assuming the throne.” To the right of God A is a dog, known to escort the soul of the deceased across a river and into the Underworld. Above him, is a fanciful firefly, perhaps there to illuminate the darkness of the watery world below. To the left of the spirit-spewing mountain, the rain god Chaak dances, holding aloft a hand stone typical of those used in certain ball games and boxing matches. In his other hand, he wields the axe with which he creates lightning and thunder. Typical of Maya art, the image is filled with symbolism, glyphs and mythical references. Every element has meaning.

God A — Cizin “Farter.”

God A is a death god. He’s a skeleton figure with a distended abdomen, pronounced spinal column, truncated nose and grinning teeth. And he emits a stench, possibly that of dead bodies. He wears bell-bracelets on his hands and feet, a decapitation collar, and he has disembodied “death eyes” with the nerve stalks attached. His body is sometimes marked with “death spots,” which is a sign of decomposition. And he can be seen sitting on a throne of bones. Unlike the dance of rulers, his dance above is wild and undignified. His skeletal countenance is that of a trickster, typical for an Underworld deity.

Jaguar Rising — The Novel

The first initiation trial for One Maize to become a “man of the community” was to capture, not kill, a deer and bring it into his father’s pen alive. Below, the second trial is a drug-induced journey to the Underworld to see if he can hold his own with one of the Lords of Death. 

Making The Journey
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p 121-123 )

Inside the temple, White Grandfather set the torch in a holder on the wall and tied back the doorway drape a little to remove the thin veil of ash that lingered in the air. Following his gesture I sat on an ocelot pelt with my back against a side wall. Painted black on the wall across from me was a medallion, a large circle with inset corners that framed the cross-eyed, shark-tooth face of Lord K’in. Taking fire from the torch with an ocoté stick, he lit some tinder in a censer. When it flamed, he added the stick and three others before setting it in front of me. He took a blue-painted calabash from under the medallion and nodded for me to take one of the many rolled-up leaves it contained. Inside the leaf was a cigar. “We wrap them with bits of copal bark,” he said, and scrapings from the backs of frogs.” It releases the ch’ulel to go through the portal.”

Sitting next to me, White Grandfather removed his headgear and re-tied the three-leaf headband so it fit snug on his forehead. After adding another stick and some copal nuggets to the censer, its sweet smoke replaced the acrid smell of burnt ash, and it wafted to a hole high in the back wall. As my eyes became accustomed to the dark, I noticed a round feather-standard leaning against the wall next to the doorway. Tied to crossed lances in front of it was a ceremonial shield with the face of a laughing falcon on it. Beside me, arranged on a reed-mat, were ceramic cups, an incense bag and an offering bowl containing strips of cotton and square leaf-packets that were tied with string and painted red. Next to my teacher was a bundle of ocoté sticks, an incense bag, a carapace drum, rattle, grinding stone and two gourds with stoppers. 

White Grandfather took one of the burning sticks from the censer and lit a cigar. “This is the holy portal,” he said, puffing to get it lit. He handed it to me and told me to take several strong puffs, each time breathing it in. I’d smoked cigars with Thunder Flute and my uncles before, even inhaled, but this was very different. It was thick and tasted like a combination of tree sap and burnt thatch. The smoke stung my nose and bit my tongue. White Grandfather set the drum, rattle and incense bag in front of him. “Keep breathing it in, grandson.” I did, but I kept coughing. “Blow some smoke to the medallion,” he said pointing. “That is the place of entry, the doorway.” I noticed that it was shaped like the bottom part of a turtle shell, rounded except for inset corners. And it seemed to have been painted blue. “Fix your eyes on it,” he said, tapping the little drum with a thin white bone. Tap, tap, tap. Pause. Tap, tap, tap. On and on, always three taps and a pause. “Breathe it in, grandson…” 

My teacher chanted in a whispery voice, words having to do with good sight, good happenings and good remembering. I passed him the cigar but he shook his head. “We remain behind—to guide you. Do what we ask, answer our questions as you journey along. All will become clear. There is nothing to fear.” He chanted again, louder, adding some rattle sounds in the pauses between taps on the drum. This went on so long, twice he bumped his knee against mine—hard, probably to keep me from dozing off. 

“The MEDALLION IS QUIVERING, GRANDFATHER.”  

“Fix your gaze on the dark center, grandson. Relax and allow yourself to go through.” The tapping stopped and I felt a damp cloth, first on my brow and then on the back of my neck. “Close your eyes now.” As I did, he tied the cloth over my eyes. Amazingly, faintly, I could still see the quivering medallion, only now it was definitely blue turning purple with blackness growing in the center. “Keep puffing, grandson. Breathe in the smoke.” More and more of the medallion was becoming black. Suddenly, I felt something in my hand. Wood. “What do you see, grandson?”

Suddenly I saw my Little Owl. “My canoe, Grandfather!” The loudness of my voice startled me. After that, I whispered. “I see Little Owl—clearly as when I painted her feathers.” 

“Look around. Where are you?” 

White Grandfather’s voice seemed to be coming from inside me, the sound filling me like a hollow jar. “In the canoe, in Little Owl.” What I said is not right. I am not in the canoe, I feel like I am the canoe.

“What is happening?”

“Floating—smooth—on a black river. Waterlilies all around. Maybe sky wanderers.” 

Encountering Cizin Ku (God A)
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 137-138 )

Looking down from the steps and trying to clear the burning in my nose and eyes, I saw a crouched figure in the ring turning this way and that. As the smoke thinned and the water in my eyes cleared, I saw a tall, menacing skeleton with a bulbous head, crooked front teeth and a distended belly. “Cizin Ku!” I whispered. What my teacher hadn’t told me about this lord of the underworld was that the thunder farter’s presence alone was so powerful I had to tighten every muscle in my body to contain my fright. Turning his gourd-like head side-to-side, he listened and sniffed one way and another, looking for something. Or someone. Commoners on their knees backed close to the wall. In front of him, the animal companion spirits cowered and glanced up timidly. With a jerk the lord of death turned and farted a smaller thunderclap side to side, leaving them writhing in clouds of stench.

When Cizin Ku turned and looked up I stood back.

“Grandson, did you say Cizin Ku?”

His bony feet clanked on the steps and within a few terrifying heartbeats, I could smell him standing over me, his feet wreaking with sludge. Following his command, I turned to face him and backed up until I felt the cold obsidian wall of the pyramid at my back. Besides the huge and ominous eyes above his nose, he had two more eyes on the top of his head. As he turned I saw a string of them, all bloodshot and gazing at me, running down his back. He stared at me and then directed his gaze to my hand. I’d forgotten that I was holding the brush. Because it had touched the terrace, the floor was turning from black to red. His square and cavernous eye sockets had lightning cords in them, shining painfully bright.

“Go to your knees, Grandson. Bow to him. All he wants is your respect.”

I couldn’t reply, but I did what he said. The stench from the excrement on the lord’s bony feet made me gag. Bending down to face me, the mirror medallion around his neck clanked against his ribs and putrid steam issued from a slit in his bulbous, pouch-like belly. Following his command, I handed him the brush and he pressed it against his knee bone. When nothing happened, the lightning in his eyes went dark and more steam came from his belly. He drew the brush along a leg bone. Nothing. He tried again without success. A growl rumbled from within him. With the eyes on the top of his head holding my gaze and his other eyes dangling, looking around, he snapped the brush in two and hurled the pieces over his shoulder, down to the ring without turning to look.

White Grandfather kept asking me questions but I was too stunned to say anything. Also, if Cizin Ku could command me without speaking, he was probably hearing my thoughts as well. Frustrated by not making a color, he straightened to the height of two men. I saw it coming, so I covered my ears as he doubled over and expelled another deafening thunderclap. Again, it shook the chamber. High above the shiny pyramid, dust and chunks of rock broke from the ceiling and apparently fell onto the cauldron sending sparks and flakes of obsidian tinkling down the terraces and steps. Through the smoke came the sounds of agony and the odor of vomit. 

I couldn’t see him, so I whispered to White Grandfather that he broke my brush. “He is angry. What should I do?”

“Offer him another one, Grandson—in your headband.” 

Cizin Ku heard! As soon as I felt the cool handle slide against my scalp. He took it and pointed the bristles at my face. “Rise!” His voice bellowed inside me. I stood but kept my back to the cold wall. “Come!” He went up the steps and I followed. The lord on the fifth terrace backed away from his throne as Cizin Ku approached. The lord of death turned and said, “Make color.” I touched the brush to the seat of the throne. Red appeared and spread. He went over and pointed to the quetzal plumage streaming from the ruler’s headdress. I touched the brush to a single shaft and the blue-green color spread down and up until the entire spray became vibrant. 

On the sixth terrace, the brush made the ruler’s headband white and the macaw feathers yellow and blue. On the seventh, something changed. Cizin Ku pointed to the pavement beneath his feet. When I touched my brush to it, there came a red dot but it didn’t spread. I tried to paint a circle around it and still, the color didn’t spread. I was confused, but what happened next confused me even more. 

The skeleton lord stomped his foot on the dot and the color spread. The big eyes above his nose kept looking down at the color while the eyes on top of his head, worn like a headband, held my gaze. He stomped again and the color stopped spreading. Another stomp and the red spread faster than before. Much faster. Across the terrace, up and down the steps, across the other terraces. As the black pyramid was turning red the chamber fell quiet. 

“Grandson, repeat our words—I am returning to the sweat lodge…” I couldn’t. I dared not to even think of it as the bony lord came close. The lightning in his eyes dimmed again. With his face close to mine, he held my gaze and asked what I had to say about his turning the pyramid red. 

“With respect,” I whispered, “I must return to the sweat lodge. My teacher is calling for me.” 

Cizin Ku turned and stepped away, but the long strip of eyeballs down his spine stayed fixed on me. He stomped his foot again and the colors disappeared. The pyramid, the lords, what they wore and their thrones were all drab again. The onlookers whispered their disappointment. The lord’s eyes began to brighten and he stood tall again, apparently satisfied with his display of power. Dangling Eyes, the little blue dwarf, stomped his feet and rubbed his bony arms trying to make the red come back again, but it didn’t. Inside me, I heard, tap, tap, tap.

White Grandfather’s voice became urgent, insisting that I repeat his words. 

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For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To Amazon.com for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

Deer Hunting and Initiation Trial One

Vase rollout courtesy of Justin Kerr

They joined together in companies of fifty and roasted the flesh of deer so it would not be wasted; they make presents of it to their lord and distribute the rest among friends.

                                          Fray Diego de Landa, Bishop Inquisitor of Colonial Yucatan

Deer were treated like gods because their main god had appeared to them in that form. In some places there were deer parks and reserves where deer weren’t afraid of people because they were not killed.

                               Hernando Cortés, Conquistador (Referencing the Aztec) 

Hunting among the ancient Maya was multifaceted — a necessity for food, an act of communication between humans and animals, negotiation between men and gods and social engagement. The hunters shown above would have been an elite class, with modes of dress, rituals, gods, methods, weapons and territories specified by the ruler. Also specified, was how the meat would be divided. Given the depiction on this vase, I imagine these men comprised a group of Court Hunters.

Aside from deer being hunted, the Spaniards reported that it was common for women to raise them in their homes. At Cuello in Northern Belize, a young deer was buried ceremonially, an indication that as early as the Preclassic Period, deer were considered a suitable sacrifice for the gods. 

Of course, commoners hunted as well. Unfortunately, little is known about their rites and methods. Top to bottom, however, all classes of hunters used the same weapons. Above, the only weapon depicted is the blowpipe, but also common were spears with flint or obsidian tips, traps, slingshots (mostly for birds, iguana and other small animals) and snares. Bows and arrows came into use in the Postclassic Period, just prior to the arrival of the Spanish. 

Indigenous people didn’t kill animals for the thrill of it. While there were likely individual exceptions, animals were considered sacred beings endowed with individual spirits offsprings of gods. To take the life of an animal for any reason other than food, would have been a grievous offense to its overlord. And there would be a price to pay —personally for the killer, his family and the community. And, because meat was scarce, a prized commodity, wasting it would never occur to anyone at any level. It would be like us throwing a hundred-dollar bill in the garbage can. Hunting for  “sport” was virtually non-existent.

Hunting Deer For Food

Large animals, like white-tailed deer and tapir, were generally hunted for special occasions. Without refrigeration, meat had to be either prepared and consumed within a day or two, or salted in brine to extend its viability for several more days. There were strict codes of meat distribution. Typically, the hunter who made the kill got first choice, then his family, then the ruler, his or her family (the Maya had female rulers), their courtiers and so on down the line. And no part of the animal was wasted.  Bones contained life force, one reason why they were carved as object of ritual, for instance fragments used as sacred bloodletters, along with stingray spines and obsidian lancets. 

Hunting required Communication

Because animals were the “property” of their overlord, humans had to persuade the gods to allow the giving (sacrifice) of one of its members for human survival or ritual necessity. And in order to maintain balance between human and animal, the debt had to be repaid. For commoners, this could be an assurance that the hunter would offer something in return. It could be as simple as a burnt offering of  copal incense, or maize gruel. Whatever the offering, what mattered was following through on the intention to restore balance. We have to remember, because everything (rocks, trees, buildings, etc.) was endowed with a spirit and god-overlord, acts of taking involved a negotiation with a deity. In some instances, it was reported that the hunter gave back to insure the animal’s reincarnation. For the Tzotzil of central Chiapas, the “Lord of the Deer” used a whistle to inform a stag or doe that he was present or  returning home. And animals were perceived to reside in supernatural corrals inside mountains.  

Among the Tz’utujil, who live on the shore of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, there was the belief that whatever animal a hunter kills, as the son or daughter of a god, he will be responsible for that animal’s upbringing in the otherworld.

Hunting Methods
  • The ancients preferred to hunt for deer in the dry season, between November and May. It was easier because they could hear leaf rustles as they walked in the forest, and they stood out through the sparse foliage. During this time, there would be animal round-ups, ceremonial drives that were part of an agricultural ritual.
  • Hunting teams, as many as fifty or as few as five, would spread out in a wide circle and use the bleat of conch shells — as shown above — to frighten deer to a central point where there were snares or camouflaged men waiting with blowpipes or spears hurled with atlatls. 
  • A similar technique requiring fewer men, was to use dogs to chase the deer to a given location. One limitation, however, was that dogs could not outrun a deer in swampland. 
  • Snares made from rope woven from plant fibers were placed along paths that led to watering holes. The hunters dug a shallow trench next to a springy sapling, drove in a straight stake on one side of the trench and a stake with a crooked top on the other side. They bent the tree over and attached the stick between the stakes so a noose hung over the trench. With scattered leaves to disguise it, the animal would run into the trap and the recoil of the tree would string it up by the neck.
Initiation Trial One: Capture A Deer

In indigenous societies, initiation into adulthood typically involved a trial (“Vision Quest” in the Native American culture), and a ritual where, among other things, the initiate was welcomed into the community and given the name he would use the rest of his or her life. 

I introduce the subject of initiation here, because in Jaguar Rising, one of the four trials given to the protagonist by his guide is the capture — not the killing— of a deer. He had to do it alone and with only a weapon or device he would make. And he can’t return home until he did it. 

Part of the ritual for the male initiates, was having their father cut the white bead from their hair, an worn as a sign of adolescence. For females, it was the cutting of a white shell that hung from the front of their waist-cord. With these cut, they were welcomed as men and women of the caah, “community.” 

Postings to follow —

Initiation Trial Two: “Visit The Underworld.” (A hallucinogenic experience)

Initiation Trial Three: “Visit The Upperworld.” (A very different hallucinogenic experience)

Initiation Trial Four: “Initiation Into Elite Status” (The bonding of men through endurance).   

Initiation Trial One: Capture A Deer
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p.100)

BEYOND AXEHANDLE, WHERE THE FINGER OF THE LAND turned into a broad thumb, we stopped beside a tree marked with a tall hunter’s hat and two black bands. “Grandson,” my teacher said. “Here begins the first of your three trials, one in each of the worlds. Ahead is your middle world trial.” 

I was excited. “What do you want me to do?”

He pointed in the distance to the narrowing of the beach where the forest nearly met the water. “Stop along there and say an apology and gratitude to the forest lord. Then go into the wild and capture one of his sons or daughters, a fully-grown deer. Do not kill him. Use no weapons. Make your shelters and drill your fires along the coast. If you need a cord, cut some vine and braid it. If you need a net, get some thin fronds and weave one. Ask and accept help from no one but your ancestors. Eat what you alone can gather or kill. Go as far as you need—to take a deer. Remember, you must not kill or injure it. Instead, deliver it live to your father’s pen.”

I was so shocked I could neither interrupt nor believe what I was hearing. “With respect, grandfather. Is this even possible? An adult deer could be taller than me. Even a little one could outrun Thunder Flute.” 

“Trust your ancestors. They are always with you.”

Hunting deer required skill and muscle. Usually, bands of six or more men went out with dogs and spears and strong cords. For me to do it alone and without any of these things was unthinkable. 

If Mother knew this she would be horrified. 

Like vultures on a carcass, stories that Thunder Flute told about men in the wilds swooped down and began pecking at my throat and stomach. Deadly yellow-jaws lay coiled in the weeds and hung from trees. There were blood-sucking bats as large as eagles, and frogs whose loud and constant croaking made men crazy. And there were jaguars. Hunters told stories of them taking down tapirs, deer and peccary and carrying them up a tree. Even water didn’t stop them. More terrifying for me as a sprout was the prospect of encountering an underworld demon, bony creatures with bulbous skulls and bellies who roamed the wilds at night in search of human flesh and blood. Their sweat and flatulence alone were known to kill any who walked into it. “With respect grandfather, what should I do about the dark lords?”

There was not much left of the day. “Keep your thoughts on what you have come to do. If a crosswind comes at night, take shelter away from your fire. Wear this.” He removed his necklace, a single jaguar tooth on a leather cord, and put it over my head. “By this, demons, jaguars and snakes will know you are under our protection.” He had me kneel and he held the serpent on his staff against my head while he chanted. Then he tapped me on the shoulder and turned away. I watched as he left. He didn’t even glance back.

Capture Of Kicking Deer And Muddy Fawn
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p.101)

Within the sorcerer’s ring, there was a dark grotto, a long mud pit overhung with a thicket of bush with palm and nance trees blooming yellow and orange rising above it. Not far from the edge of the pit, a fawn lay on its side, lifeless and splattered with mud. Two vultures were trying to get at it, flapping their wings to stay above the mud. Farther out dark splatters on top of the lighter-colored mud drew my eyes to an adult deer who was submerged except for its head. Flies, dragonflies and mosquitoes flitted around its nose and closed, seeping eyes. I threw a stick at the vultures and they backed away, but the largest of them jumped onto a branch above the lifeless brown body. When he leaned down and pecked at an ear, it twitched, so I knew the deer was alive. I began throwing clumps of mud at the big ugly and he went higher in the tree.  

To get to the fawn I gathered some fallen branches and laid them on the mud. Crawling out on my stomach I had no trouble getting my arm around her, but when I pulled her by the neck she kicked, the branches broke and we sank. Fortunately, the mud and water was only waist deep. I managed to get some footing, enough to pull the little one onto the bank. The big ugly jumped down again and sidled along the branch closest to the doe. This time when I threw mud at him, one of his brothers darted at the fawn and pecked at its rump. Shouting and throwing mud in both directions, I chased them back. 

So it went until I could gather enough dried fronds and weeds to cover the trembling fawn. With the vultures pushed back I managed to pull some creeper vine and twist it into a cord about an arm’s length. I broke off a branch from a fallen tree and stripped the small branches to make a pole. Using it for balance, I went into the pit to see how far I could go—all the while warning the vulture lord that if she didn’t keep her sons and daughters back, I would be forced to use it against them. Nearly up to my neck in mud, I got the cord around the doe’s neck and tied the ends together. When I pulled on it she opened her eyes, pulled back and kicked me hard in the side, ripping the cord from my hands. 

____________________________________________________________________________

For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To Amazon.com for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

The Sacred World Tree (Ceiba & Itzam Yeh)

A young ceiba. The thorns protect the tree from animals, especially the peccary who like the bark. The spikes disappear when the tree matures.

The ceiba is the largest tree in the tropical forest, so it’s not surprising that the Maya would use it as a model for the cosmos. The stature of the actual tree with roots deep in the underworld, tall trunk and branches that touched the sky, it well represented the three realms which were inhabited by gods and demons. The ideological version, an imagined replica was known as Ya’ache’, the “World Tree.”

Cosmology

The perceptions of the ancients varied from place to place, but there is remarkable consistency over time in how they perceived the universe — as represented in the inscriptions.  The Middle World was viewe as resting on the back of a gigantic, monstrous crocodile — turtle in some places — who floats on an enormous pond full of waterlilies. From the monster’s body there grew the great tree. The Underworld is shaped like an inverse pyramid with nine layers that correspond to nine “Lords of the Night,”

The Upperworld or celestial realm had thirteen layers, each with its own deity. At the highest, there was a vainglorious mythological bird who fancied himself brighter than the sun when he landed on the great tree. Itzam-Yeh, the “Serpent Bird” that scholars refer to as the Principal Bird Deity (PBD) nested in the arms of the World Tree. From there he dispensed the life force through entwined cords.

The Tree

 

I’m 6’6″

This tree is over 900 years old.
  • Usually between seven and ten years pass before a ceiba bears its first season of fruit, and in future years, it may produce only every other year yielding 600-4,000 fruits a crop. 
  • As the trees narrow, green leaves fall from January to March, and the branches of the upper world begin to bloom with bouquets of whitish pink flowers. 
  • The blossoms open after the sundown and stand out against the sky like bright stars. 
  • At night, bats come to drink flower nectar and eat the pollen while during the first morning hours, birds such as blackbirds, tanagers, orioles, brown jays, hummingbirds, oropendolas, and many others flock, sometimes in the hundreds to the branches and blooms. Come morning, the open flowers send their petals spinning to the ground. The fertilized blooms begin to swell, and long pear-shaped pods appear in clusters among the branches. 

Arms filled with kapok
  • The husks appear gray and tough, but on the inside they are lined with a bed of lustrous fibers known as kapok silk. The slippery fibers were used as stuffing for pillows and other objects. 
  • They grow quickly and require lots of sun. The lightweight wood decays easily, but the long straight trunks were sometimes hollowed out to make canoes.

It falls from the tree every three years.
  • Kapok is a silky cotton-like fiber located within the fruits. The fruit pods are called pochote by the Maya who use the fiber for clothing.
  • Itzam Yeh can be seen in full figure in:
      • Tikal Temple IV wood panel
      • Palenque Temple of Cross
      • Palenque Temple of Foliated Cross
      • Palenque: Pacal’s Sarcophagus 
      • Quirigua Zoomorph B (Full figure glyph)
      • Piedras Negras Stela 5

The Dance of Itzam Yeh

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 363)

JADE MOCKINGBIRD CAME FROM BEHIND THE PYRAMID wearing white kilts, a white headband and white body paint with black spots—the markings of One Lord. Red Paw entered behind him, similarly dressed, but with the markings of First Jaguar, his twin brother—orange body paint with tufts of jaguar pelt covering his ears, jaws, torso and limbs. Besides being a great hunter like his brother, First Jaguar was a trickster and a skilled player of the ball game. Another apprentice dressed as Lord Itzam Yeh, the vain and menacing bird who dispensed life and magnified himself above the other gods, danced around them swirling and swooping, waving his feathered arms through the smoke coming from censers in front of the steps.

To the beating of three drums and continuous rattling by the sentries, Itzam Yeh ascended the eastern stairway, took a stance, pointed to the eastern Pauahtun and made the “offering” gesture with open arms. He stopped and made the same offering to the north, west and south. Having completed his round of ordering and offering, he stuck out his feathered chest and strutted back and forth along the platform. At the eastern stairway he stopped, took a stance and began his famous proclamation—

“I am mighty. My place is higher than the human.            

 I am their Sun. I am their light. So be it—my light is mighty.   

 I am the walkway. I am the foothold of the people…”

By the light of the sentries’ torches we watched the Hero Twins circle the sacred mountain with their blowguns. 

“My teeth glitter with jewels,” the holy bird said.

“They stand out blue with the moon.

My nest shines—it lights up the face of the earth…” 

One Lord went up the northern stairway. First Jaguar approached from the south. At the top they crept toward the ranting bird who paced with outstretched wings. The drumming stopped but the rattling continued. At once the brothers raised their blowguns and, on two hard drumbeats, shot the bird. He spun around, fell to his knees and then fell on the platform. We knew it meant that vanity was defeated and order was restored in the sky. But it wasn’t over.

At the bottom of the steps the twins encountered three lords of death—Mockingbird’s apprentices wearing bulbous skull helmets and painted white bones over their black body paint. As the story goes, they’d come to avenge the death of Itzam Yeh. 

Boldly, dancing as if the twin lords knew something the underworld lords did not know, they allowed themselves to be put down. Axed. After covering the bodies with a black cloth, the lords danced the grinding of their bones complete with pouring white powder into a large calabash, and then by hand scattering it into a river. 

The tallest of the dancers, wearing a black cape and hood, went up the western steps and turned. Flanked by plastered jaguar and serpent heads, he told how the twins emerged from the river that flowed in front of us. Suddenly, One Lord and First Jaguar came around the sides of the pyramid dressed as beggars. “They went from village to village,” one of the assistants said. “They performed wonders.” When he said they burned a house without destroying it, Red Paw danced the burning. When he said they sacrificed a dog and brought it to life again, Jade Mockingbird danced its death and resurrection. “Seeing these wonders,” the teller called out, “the Lords of Death were curious. The magic fascinated them so, they wanted to be sacrificed and revived as well.” 

To the beating of drums and the rattling of rattles, the god twins obliged them, putting down the dark lords with their own axes and then cleverly rolling their bloody heads into the onlookers. “The twins played a trick,” the teller said. “They did not revive them. And so it happened. At Three Sky Place, through cleverness and trickery, One Lord and First Jaguar defeated death.” As he told how the twins ascended and took their places in the sky as Sun and Moon, the sentries rattled their rattles and the drummers beat their drums. Fast and hard. 

Whether Itzam Yeh is a Macaw or a Laughing Falcon

Excerpt from Jaguar Sun (p. 239)

I asked, “Does it not matter to you that Itzam Yeh is said by some Itz’aat tellers to be a macaw while others say he is a laughing falcon?”

“Itzam Yeh? I believe he is a macaw, so I tell the story of Seven Macaw. I do not believe he is a falcon. Does it matter the kind of body he wears? Gods can change form, you know. In truth, it matters not that he reveals himself as a bird. What matters is the spirit he is and what he does. How the sculptor carves him or how a teller describes him are just ways to put flesh on his spirit. They have their truth and I respect it, even if it is different from mine. What matters is that there is a likeness—or a story—that gives the spirit flesh. That way we can feel their presence better, know and respect them better.”

“So the truth of a story is what you want to believe it is?” 

The old man nodded and leaned to me. “To confuse you further, my friend, what we want to believe changes as we grow older. Even so, I tell the stories as I learned them, true to our rule.” His words were filling my head with kapok. Then he said, “Knowing may be a comfort, but believing and trusting keeps us moving from one path to another.”

One path to another? “Are you saying we can have more than one path?”

The people who were gathering to hear Lord Crocodile were becoming impatient. Many of them were looking our way. Even with both hands on his staff he needed help getting up. Once up he faced me. “My friend, did you ever wander a jungle trail by yourself?”

“Often as a sprout. I still do when I visit new places.”

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For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To Amazon.com for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

Termination Rituals

 

Caracol Structure B5

For the ancient Maya the most important interaction was not between persons, objects or buildings, it was their relationship with the spirits that resided in them. While everything was perceived as being alive, only those things that were useful were ritually ensouled with a guardian spirit—or a god in the case of temples, palaces and sacred places. When a ceramic vessel was made or a house built, a och’ k’ak’ “fire-entering” ritual was held to invite a spirit, often a deceased ancestor, to take up residence in it. The process substantially affected a transformation from disorder (material) to order (spiritual). Throughout the ensouled object’s “lifetime” of use, its spirit was respected and ritually fed. 

For a small item like a plate or jade carving, the ensouling ritual required an offering such as a small bird, copal incense, maize kernals, bits of spices or aspirations of a fermented  maize beverage. For a house, a bird or small animal like a paca (rodent family) would be sacrificed at the center-post, and the four corners were anointed with blood, incense and chants of gratitude and summoning. Flowers were likely involved as well, particularly those with white blossoms  because they represented the soul. A freqent phrase in the inscriptions is “the white flower soul.” Spirit-entering rites for temples, palaces and other large structures were often done in the context of dedication ceremonies that could include the placement of ancestral burials and caches within or in front of the structure, sometimes in association with sculpted and inscribed stela throughout the Classic Period. 

Ensouling (English term) was referred to as jaloj k’exoj, “regeneration, the giving of life.” And the dedication ceremonies could involve days-long celebrations, feasts with visiting dignitaries, elaborate offerings with gift exchanges, feasting, gift exchanges, blood-letting ceremonies, dances, ball games and fire dances. At times they included human and animal sacrifices as well—jaguars and tapirs in particular. 

When an object, monument or building was no longer going to be used, termination rites were performed to release the spirit—or god in the case of temples—so the material could revert back to disorder, a state the ancients sometimes referred to as “the wilds.” My Maya guide at Caracol in Belize showed me an enormous and steep unexcavated mound that had likely been a shrine or temple. At the top, the rubble among the trees and weeds consisted of limestone pebbles and  hundreds of boulders, evidence that the structure had been ritually terminated. “Boulders don’t roll uphill,” he quipped. These were raw stones with no trace of ever having been carved. I paraphrase his analysis: “No amount of weathering, not even over fifteen hundred years, could have made this happen. Everything you see here was ritually destroyed—terminated and buried, laid to rest so it could become wild again.”  The photo above is a different mound than the one the guide showed me. Here, I imagine the stones are a mixture of carved stones from the structure that sat atop the mound, and raw limestone from its termination.

Ritual termination is in evidence throughout Mesoamerica, particularly in ceramic plates that have “kill holes,” and monuments where the carved faces of former rulers had been smashed or destroyed in antiquity, rendering them inert, no longer able to influence human affairs.  

House Termination Scene

Excerpt from Jaguar Sun (pp. 180, 181) 

Facing us at the end of the patio, there was a tall masonry gate with a doorway. Going through, we entered another patio and saw a group of people standing well back, watching two houses engulfed in flames. A holy man paced in front of them facing the fire, chanting and shaking a gourd rattle, while an assistant cast copal nuggets into the inferno. Both roofs had fallen in, the thatch was sending up sparks and the roaring flames spun blue and orange around the roof beams. Because of the noise and everyone watching the fire, they hadn’t noticed us.

Among the thirty or more people, all wearing black, three men stood at the front wearing heron headdresses with long yellow beaks similar to what my father wore on ceremonial occasions. On both sides of the burning heaps, men stood ready with buckets of dirt and water in case sparks or flames would leap to one of the other roofs. One of the men up front turned to talk to someone and he saw us. He in turn got the attention of another man, and when he turned abruptly, everyone looked our way. Someone pointed and instantly, as we might have expected, young men ran to a long rack and took up spears. They kept their blades high, but we were quickly surrounded. (p. 180)

The leader grabbed my wrist and put his hand on my shoulder as he turned. “Everyone! This is Wakah, fourth born of Smoking Claw! He has come from Naranjo.” He turned to me. Speaking above the noise of burning timbers, almost shouting, he said he was Father’s oldest brother, Thunder Maker. The other two wearing heron headdresses were also my uncles—introduced as Singing Sling and Flint Thrower. Judging from the painted white teardrop under their eyes and the fresh wounds on their arms, I realized they were in mourning. “Your coming is a blessing,” Thunder Maker said. “We are terminating the houses of two of my sons. They fought under the supervision of our brother, Throwing Spear. They all distinguished themselves at Tikal.” Thunder Maker led me by the arm to one of the burning houses. “This was the house of my first son,” he said. “They say it took a warlord and eight holcan to bring him down. The three of us were with Our Bounty, so we did not see it.” 

Our Bounty? Ayaahh, they led the attack with Yuknoom Claw!

I had to ask. “Did you see my father at Tikal?”

Thunder Maker shook his head. “We wondered if he was there, kept an eye out for him. But there were thousands. We fought many battles, never one like that. We mourn our defeat. What could we do? The gods willed it.” (p. 181)

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For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To Amazon.com for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller  

Kakaw (Chocolate)

 

Kakaw trees can’t tolerate high altitudes or temperatures below 60º F. They need moisture year-round, so during prolonged dry seasons irrigation is necessary. Given these considerations, they were domesticated in the Pacific coastal plains of Guatemala and Chiapas around 1000 B.C., at the height of the Olmec civilization at San Lorenzo. The area around Izapa, a Late Formative site in Chiapas, was a particularly rich source of kakaw (cacao) because it was very hot with volcanic soil. 

The variety of cacao grown in the Maya area is called theobroma bicolor—“pataxte” in Mayan. The tree’s flowers and fruits or pods grow directly on the trunk. Each fruit is around 11” long and 4” wide with an average weight of one pound. The color ranges from reddish to green, but it changes to yellowish orange as the fruit matures. The pods contain 20 to 40 beans enveloped in a sticky, white pulp. The beans are large and flat, and are sometimes eaten raw. Each tree will produce around 40 pods, yielding about 4.5 pounds of chocolate. It has been suggested that the name “chocolate” derives from the Mayan word chokola’j, “to drink cacao together.”

Mentioned frequently in the inscriptions as a trade good and an elite consumable, it seems kakaw was an array of beverages rather than a single drink. Beverages are described as “honeyed kakaw,” “flowered kakaw,” “bright red kakaw, “black kakaw,” “ripe kakaw,” “sweet kakaw,” and “frothy kakaw.” The ancients toasted the beans and used them to make gruels and porages. Additives could include honey, chile peppers, annatto (to make it red), fruit juices, flower blossoms and vanilla. And through fermentation, they produced a cacao flavored  alcoholic beverage. Perhaps because kakaw concoctions were such an imported extravagance, some of the inscriptions specify the cities where and when they were served.

This palace scene from Dos Pilas shows flowers being presented to the seated lord. In front of him is a platter of kakaw pods.

A study by Joanne Baron, published in Economic Anthropology, revealed that cacao beans, “originally valued for their use in status display, took on monetary functions within a context of expanding marketplaces among rival Maya kingdoms. These products would eventually go on to serve as universal currencies across the different Maya regions and were used to finance state activities, as well as household needs. By the time the Spanish had arrived in the early 1500s, these (kakaw) products were being used to pay tribute or tax to leaders, to buy and sell goods at the marketplace or pay workers.” 

The kakaw sacks shown in the Bonampak murals were labeled with the kakaw glyph surmounted by a number which David Stuart deciphered as 5 pik of forty thousand seeds. He also notes the frequent use of a 3 pik—twenty-four thousand seeds—label, which coincides with a count of cacao seeds that was considered a “carga” in Postclassic highland Mexico. At the time of the conquest, a “load” of kakaw—24,000 beans—was worth twice as much in Tenochtitlan as along the Gulf coast. A rabbit costs 10 beans, and a porter charged 20 beans for a short trip. A 1545 document written in Nahuatl states that a turkey was worth 200 cacao beans, a tamale worth one, and the daily wage of a porter at that time was 100 beans. It was also noted that dishonest traders made counterfeit beans by stripping the husks of the beans, filling them with sand, and mixing them with genuine beans. Careful customers squeezed each bean to test it.

Counting Kakaw Beans

Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 205)

OUR EARLY TRAINING HAD TO DO WITH TRADING, TERRITORIES, the names of places, rulers, ministers and counting. We learned the value of goods, especially those desired by lords, noblemen and holy men. We learned hand signs, not only to trade and speak with foreigners but also to signal each other under conditions of scouting and attacking. We learned how to use vines, moss on the side of trees and the stars as directional pointers. Especially, we learned which goods would be traded in the various markets. 

To learn how to show respect to power and speak in our trading partner’s favor, we put on hats and bargained with each other. Instead of using stones and sticks for counting, Pech taught us to use lucina shells for “zero,” kakaw beans for “one’s,” and flat hands for “five’s.” A hand covering our chins stood for “twenty.”  In the counting trial, we had to place and call, sum and subtract numbers in orders of thousands because kakaw beans were traded in “loads”—cloth bundles of eight thousand, what one man could carry.

Kakaw Valuation

Excerpt from Jaguar Sun (p. 98)

BY THE THIRD DAY IN THE MARKETPLACE AT IXKUN, SO many warriors and farmers were coming to have me rework their cherts and flints, Eagle fixed the exchange at two, four or eight hundred kakaw beans depending on how long it took me to do the work. After another day, a line formed. I was spending nearly as much time counting kakaw and shell beads as I was shaping stone, so Eagle had one of the assistants do the counting for me. It felt good to be contributing to the expedition, but by the end of the day, the muscles in my chopping arm were chattering. And I was out of Strong Back. Darts came by several times and stopped to watch me work. Whenever I looked at him or nodded he turned away. 

Checking For Counterfeit Beans

Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 67)

In the days leading up to Grand Procession, the counters and court scribes examined every needle, bead, feather, hide and kakaw bean. Day and night, a band of guards walked the perimeter of the compound while others armed with spears, axes, knives and flint-tipped darts walked the patio. Two of them stationed at the stairway searched everyone who came and went, including those of us who lived on the compound.

Pouring Kakaw To Make Foam

Excerpt from Jaguar Wind and Waves (p. 67)

For the feast I had arranged for the ministers to sit on reed mats in a circle. Lime Sky and her assistants prepared maize leaf tamales, most stuffed with turkey, others with paca meat. Four of my serving women had never been to court before, so I worried that they would drop or spill something—or not understand a minister’s gesture. Along with the tamales we served roasted grubs with mashed beans and platters of cooked chayote greens topped with crumbled roasted squash seeds that she dusted with chili powder. For the beverage we served chih with lime juice and honey. The final offering, an extravagance usually reserved for lords and their ladies, was kakaw poured into tall cups from the height of the server’s breast to raise a dark brown foam.

(Photo of the palace scene courtesy of Justin Kerr “Maya Vase Database”)

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For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To Amazon.com for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller