Ancient Maya Cultural Traits

Jade

Ear Ornaments

The Classic Maya ascribed a number of meanings to jade, including maize, centrality, and rulership, as well as a material embodiment of wind and the vitalizing breath soul. Because of its close relationship to the breath spirit, jade was an important component of funerary rites and the ritual conjuring of gods and ancestors. Carved in floral form, jade earspools were considered supernatural sources or passageways for the breath spirit, frequently portrayed as a bead or a serpent emerging from the center of the jade flare. A common Classic Maya death expression, och b’ih, pertains directly to resurrection of the soul through the symbolism of earspools. 

Karl A. Taube (Archaeologist, epigrapher, and ethnohistorian)

While “jade” is the common term for the mineral the ancient Maya considered “most precious,” technically the stone is jadeite, a mineral composed of sodium, aluminum, and silicates. The colors varied including green, blue, lavender, white, and black. Green was highly prized by the Maya, a color derived from the presence of chromium and nickel. On Moh’s scale of hardness, jadeite ranks 6.5 to 7, relative to diamonds that are 10. The Motagua River valley in Guatemala is one of only six known jadeite sources in the world. It is rare because it forms under high-temperature and low-pressure conditions associated with a tectonic fault.

Headdress Ornaments

Worn only by the elite, jade identified the wearer as having esoteric and ritual knowledge. Besides their use as adornments, they were sacred objects used to conjure the gods and ancestors,  and open portals to the underworld (beneath the surface of the earth) and the celestial world, home to sky deities. Jade was the most precious stone in Mesoamerica. The Aztec king, Montezuma, told Cortés that jade pieces he would send to the king of Spain were valued at more than two loads of gold each. 

 

 

Copan Ruler

Because it was extremely hard, it took weeks, months and years, sometimes generations to carve a single piece of jade. Tools consisted of chert and quartzite that had a hardness of 7, and jade itself. To saw it, one person would keep abrasive dust particles on the line while another pressed into it with a string, which was only good for about eight to ten strokes. Incising was done after polishing, often using the string-saw technique. Drills consisted of either quartzite or chert blades, some turned by hand, while others used a pump drill like the kind used to drill fire.

The Second Largest Maya Jade Artifact

 In 2015, archaeologist Jeffrey Braswell found a jade pendant in Nim Li Punit, a small site in southern Belize. Significantly, it’s unique in that it carries an inscription. The text reads: “This jewel was made for the king Janaab’ Ohl K’inich.” Its first use was in A.D. 672 for an incense-scattering ceremony. It talks about the king’s parentage, saying his mother was from Cahal Pech, a site in western Belize, and his father died before age 20, coming from somewhere in Guatemala. It also describes the accession rites of the king in A.D. 647 and ends with a passage that possibly links the king to the powerful and immense city of Caracol, also in Belize.

The Largest Maya Jade Artifact

The 6” tall, deep green and highly polished jade piece weighs close to ten pounds. Highly carved, it represents the head of the Sun God, K’inich Ajaw. In some legends he descends to the earth each day as a macaw, so the head features a prominent beak. Found in Structure B-4 at Altun Ha, a mid-sized city in Belize, it has been dated to between A.D. 600-650. In the tomb where it was found were the remains of an adult male, who was about 5’ 6” tall. 

The Jade Death Mask Of King K’inich Janaab’ Pakal Of Palenque

Scroll down to see the jade mask and associated jewels. Imagine the time and labor investment in making all these pieces. And realize that for all the jade plaques to fit together in the round, there had to be a design that each of the lapidaries followed. It’s a staggering achievement. Notice how closely the sculptured head of Pakal, shown first on this site, matches the features of the jade mask. Pakal ascended to the throne at Palenque on July 29, 615 A.D. He died in 683 A.D. I highly recommend this site.

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 30 )

NINE HEAVILY LOADED DUGOUT CANOES PADDLED BY FIVE MEN each cut through the fog and pre-dawn darkness that blanketed Ahkha. The traders had gotten an early start in order to present Lord Flint Axe Macaw, the eight-year-old ruler of Ahktuunal, with the tribute he required in order to trade in his markets. 

For a full season, the merchants had traveled down swift and muddy rivers, paddled through flooded, snake-infested jungle and had managed backbreaking portages around treacherous rapids. The challenge going south had been to trade perishable and household items—herbs and dried chilies, cording, logwood and other vegetal dyes, turtle carapaces, sharks teeth, and conch shells, fish hooks, sea-salt and honey from the north—for more durable goods and items of fine workmanship. 

In addition to a sizable quantity of figurines, incised ceramic wares, and hand censers, the traders took on high-status items intended for the noble lords and underlords, ministers, holy men and chiefs. These included ceremonial items: copal incense wrapped in maize leaves and tied with a thin blue cord; dried tobacco leaves tied with hemp two hundred to a bundle. Toucan, parrot, macaw and hummingbird feathers were rolled in barkcloth and tied. Jade earplugs, tubes, and flares, including necklaces, carved beads and pendants were all kept in a bundle at the master’s feet. For noblewomen, there were shell bracelets and necklaces, incised tortoiseshell containers, bone needles and textile dyes, all packed with protective palm fronds, bound in wicker, and carried in back baskets fitted with forehead straps. The larger textiles hung over poles. Smaller ones were folded and carried in cotton stuffed with kazcat, an herb that protected them from moths and mildew. Heavier items including ceramic wares, censers and stone tools were tied securely to bamboo litters carried on the shoulders of two men. 

For the highest-ranking lords, ministers and holy men the merchants traded for bloodletting instruments including bone lancets, shell perforators and stingray spines wrapped in strips of cotton and knotted at the ends. Tongue- and ear-piercing thorn-cords used in ancestor conjuring rites were coiled inside ceramic bowls and bundled in broadleaves for protection. Their most delicate and precious cargo, aside from jade and red shell beads acquired along the slopes of the great western sea, were the long and delicate blue-green quetzal plumes bound in lots of twenty and carried in bark tubes. 

Ahktuunal, the largest settlement on the southernmost leg of their journey, sat on the eastern shore of a lake shaped like a turtle shell. Although it was a small center and ruled by a young underlord, it was the best place to acquire the finest, most colorful embroidered cotton in the region. In its market merchants could find the greatest variety of clothing and textiles and acquire them at favorable exchanges. 

As the fore and aft torches penetrated the fog, Thunder Flute called to his men. “All boats! The ruler may be a sprout, but do not underestimate his power. He is the third son of Jaguar Tooth Macaw, Lord of Kaminaljuyu, one of the most powerful rulers who ever lived.” 

Excerpt from Jaguar Rising p. 37

From a heavy basket, one of the raiders dumped a number of green stones onto a blanket. Thunder Flute wanted to get a closer look so he motioned for Pech to stay where he was while he went around to the back of the residence. Crossing to the council house under the cover of streaming black smoke, he crouched behind a stairway and watched as three of the raiders examined the green stones with their leader. Thunder Flute counted six hand-sized ceremonial celts, at least ten equally long belt danglers, two jade tubes as long as a finger, four jade earflares shaped like flowers, a dark greenstone the size of a fist and scores of jade bead necklaces. When an assistant held one up with the bulbous head of the sun god at the bottom, the leader snatched it out of his hand and stuffed it into his already bulging pouch. From another warrior, he snatched a jade turtle shell the size of a fist, a magnificent piece with three red spots painted on the carapace. With great force, he hurled it down the plaza. Thunder Flute gasped as it hit the pavement and rolled into the smoke.  

After dumping some thorny oyster shells, red shell beads, and shell perforators onto a blanket, a warrior with a jagged scar down one arm gathered the ends and slung it onto his back. His brother warriors gathered up the other goods and the leader followed, all the while looking to see if there would be any resistance. There was none. Along the way, he stepped onto the back of a fallen Ahktuunal guard and struck a victory pose with his axe held high. Several of his men imitated the gesture, and together they howled like coyotes.

Thunder Flute took advantage of the distraction. He ran behind the retaining wall to where Pech was watching. Beside him, an assistant pointed to the temple of the Great Turtle. Through the smoke, high on the third terrace and hiding behind a fallen censer stand, a scout was signing: god bundle burned—six guards down. Warriors gone.

Gather their weapons, Thunder Flute signed. Return to the canoes. He whispered in Pech’s ear, “I want a man on the far side of the council house—to see where they will go. The leader threw a jade turtle down the plaza, a big one. I want it.”  

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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

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Prophecy And Order

Prophecy was a prominent feature of all the known ancient cultures. Feeling at the mercy of the gods who represented the forces of nature, complex societies needed a way to understand their behavior so they could brace themselves for the next god-made flood or drought and hope the gods would yield to the petitions and bargaining sacrifices of their kings and holy men. One of the primary characteristics of “civilization” is the imposition of order in the midst of chaotic, unpredictable nature. 

Maya kings established order by relying on observations of the motions of the sun, moon and other heavenly bodies. Remarkably, because their Daykeepers kept at it for hundreds of years, they achieved precision down to decimal points of modern calculations. What they observed was order. The celestial deities made predictable rounds, giving rise to the concept of time: days and periods of 20 days, 365 days, 7,200 days (20 years), 144,000 days (394 years), an alawtun of 63,080.082 years—and possibly more. That the gods repeated their “journeys” in cyclical rounds, meant the circumstances and characteristics of a particular time-carrying god would come around again and bring with him the same influences—much like astrology today. 

In many cultures, including the Maya, shaman communed with the gods in a trance state in order to predict the future. The Maya, however, relied heavily on their kings, “Daykeepers” and other specialists who maintained and integrated a “sacred” calendar of 260 days with a “solar” calendar of 365 days. Together, various “calendar rounds” allowed the specialists to predict the future based on the influences of the gods in the past. Because they had personalities, past behaviors in the form of hurricanes, floods, illness, death and so on, were likely to repeat. Not always, of course, but having some idea of what to expect was to some extent comforting.

The 16th Century Book Of Chilam Balam Of Mani (Chilam Balam in English is “Jaguar Speaker” or  “Jaguar Prophet”) specifies days and the likely conditions.

  • 12 Kan Bad day for those of royal blood, for there will be illness and death.
  • 1 Cimi              A bad day. Truly the demon’s day.
  • 10 Men            The burner brings the fire. There is thunder.
  • 13 Eznab         If there is rain from the west one may plant early.
  • 12 Ahaw          This is a day on which wise men and writers are born.
  • Wayeb days:   Misfortunes, snake bites, quarrels, and dissensions.
  • 5 Ben               A good day for deer hunters. Hurricane winds with rain.

From the same period, an entry in The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel predicts—

“When thunder is heard in the east on March 21, it is a sign that in coming years there will be many evils such as quarrels, misfortunes, and envy. If the thunder is heard in the south, or if there is an eclipse of the sun or moon, it is a sign that there will be deadly epidemics throughout the world. The bad will come from all directions; it will be an evil period.”

Excerpt from Jaguar Rising p. 55

White Grandfather opened his arms and waited for the crowd to quiet. “The prophecy said the destiny of the House of Cloud—and the challenge to its rulers—was to raise temples to Lord K’in and One Maize that reach to the clouds. It said that when this is fulfilled there will be many seasons of abundance, but first, there would be trials—to determine if the people living in the Cloud territories are deserving of such abundance. Further, he said there would be two long seasons when the skin of the earth and skins of the people dry up. There will be too much water and then not enough. A mingling of strong winds from the east and west will bring black smoke, a blanket of death. It advised that we, along with the rulers, make offerings of blood and incense—and stand tall through the trials.” White Grandfather walked closer to the shelter’s roof. “Already, we have raised temples that reach the clouds. Now, if we stand tall—like a forest around our Great Tree—offering our sweat and patience to the gods, the abundance will come.”  

A young warrior raised his feathered spear and called from the middle of the crowd. “With respect, did the prophecy come from the Cloud ancestors—or from the gods?”

“Our ancestors gave the prophecy that we might understand what the gods want,” the old man said.   

“What do they want?” An older warrior standing beside him asked.

Rather than answer, White Grandfather removed his three-leaf headdress and held it out. Mother whispered in my ear. “Remember what tell—about Those Born First?”

“How they wore three maize leaves in their headdresses?” I answered.

She nodded. “Tipped with jade beads.” 

“I forget what they were for.”

“Listen,” she said, pointing to White Grandfather.

“This is what they want,” he said. He pointed to the leaves and named them in turn: “Beauty—Respect—Gratitude. To your eyes, they look like maize leaves painted white. To our eyes, they are the seeds that, when sown in the hearts of men, flower into the coming abundance. When we make beauty in our houses and fields, when we show respect for the gods, ancestors, Our Bounty, our brothers and sisters of the caah—all that lives, when we have gratitude in our hearts for what we have been given, the gods will be satisfied. When they see the seeds of beauty, respect and gratitude growing in each of us and in the caah, they will be eager to sustain us, continue the world for another round and bring the promised abundance.” 

White Grandfather gestured to the guards to stand aside so the people could get to the food. “Orderly now!” he shouted. They ignored him, pushing with such force that Mother had to pull me off my perch before the benches and crates in front of us fell over. When I looked back, despite the warriors trying to control them, people were grabbing at baskets of fish, snails, beans and squash, honey logs and manioc. Limes, palm nuts, nance, wild jicama and papayas went sprawling, and people were chasing after them. We’d been told about the drought, but having enough to eat ourselves because of Father’s trading, I finally understood how bad it was.

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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  

Cerros 5C-2nd (Belize)

Cerros is a gem! It’s one of my favorite sites and home to Fire Eyes Jaguar, the protagonist in Jaguar Rising.

Overlooking Corozol Bay, this small-to-mid-size Late Preclassic site of 140 structures is located within two miles of the New River. With proximity to an even longer river, the Rio Hondo, and given the evidence of certain trade goods, scholars believe that Cerros may have been established by the “Snake Kings” of El Mirador—111 miles northwest—as a trading port where cargo from sea-going canoes could provision her and other large cities to the west. They would transfer goods from large sea-going canoes into river canoes destined for Lamanai, Becan and other cities to the south. At its height, it’s estimated that approximately 2000 people lived in and around the Central District of Cerros, which was encircled by a broad canal where traders transported their goods around the city and into the river and lagoon. 

David Freidel was the lead investigator at Cerros in the late ‘70s. At one of the Maya Meetings at the University of Pennsylvania, I asked about the significance of Structure 5C-2nd. “I’d call it a We Chok Te Nah a Lineage House,” he said, “a place where you had the founding of kingship at the site. It’s a succession house and the place where kings held council. It was a temple as well as all the above. Its primary function was to serve as a spatial context for shamanic royal ritual with the focus for action upon its long stairway.” 

In the above photo, the masks on both sides of the stairway were covered over to protect them. Now, they have been beautifully reproduced: god masks. In a later paper, Dr. Freidel identified the faces as representing the Maize God and Itzam Yeh, the Principal Bird Deity. For a variety of reasons, including finds of unique trade goods, ceremonial caches and ceramics he advanced the idea that “Preclassic kingship may have evolved more directly out of shamanic orders than out of lineage patriarchies and matriarchies.” 

Consistent with the shamanic attribution, in Jaguar Rising I refer to Structure  5C-2nd as the “White Flower House” because the soul or spirit conjured there is depicted in Maya art as a white flower. To ensure this association, I had it built by White Grandfather, a displaced shamanic ruler from El Mirador who counsels pilgrims conjures gods and speaks prophecy there. A scene in the temple’s upper room has White Grandfather guiding Fire Eyes Jaguar, the protagonist, on a drug-induced journey to the upper world as part of his initiation into manhood. I’ll provide a segment from that journey in another posting, but for now, here’s the setup.

White Flower House
Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 121)

ASIDE FROM LINGERING PURPLE STREAKS OVER THE WESTERN canopy, the sky was dark and clear. At my teacher’s request, the sentries who greeted him at White Flower House took their torches and stood at the east and west corners of his temple. Twenty paces out from the central stairway there was a mahogany bench, which he led me to. But we remained standing. 

“Have you eaten anything?”White Grandfather asked. I shook my head. “Have you touched a female or let them touch you?”Again, I answered truly that I had not. “Then we begin your second trial. Do as we do and repeat our words.”He faced east and crossed his arms over his chest. I did the same. “We honor Lord K’in’s coming out place, the place where he rises from the underworld.” We turned and faced the remaining hint of purple where a severely bitten moon followed a lone bright wanderer making his ascent. “We honor Lord K’in’s going in place, the place where he makes his descent.” Turning again we honored the gods of the other directions, North and South. We offered our gratitude to the Thirteen Lords of Life above and the Nine Lords of the Night below. Finally, we bowed and spoke words of praise to Itzamnaaj and his spirit companion, Itzam Yeh, the great bird who dispenses life from his perch at Heart of Sky. Turning full around with open hands, I repeated my teacher’s words: “Here we stand, ordered and blessed at the center of all that is.” 

The steps at White Flower House were wide and had short risers. The fifth step was actually a landing about eight strides long. I thought it strange, but we sat cross-legged on the pavement—the very spot where, at the first rite of the rainy seasons Laughing Falcon Cloud revealed himself as the maize god in both his Sky-Bearer and World Partitioner aspects. Months later, when the all-day rains stopped, he revealed himself as Itzam Yeh wearing a green feathered cloak and a helmet with the life-sustaining, twisted cords hanging from his beak. 

White Grandfather pointed to the stuccoed face of the sun god in the middle of the roof. “Fix your gaze on Lord K’in there. Now look above the roof, about seven fingers—to the dark place between the three bright stars, where there is only darkness. Do you see it?” 

“Just the blackness?”

“There grandson, that is Heart of Sky. Life begins there and comes down from there.” He pointed to the tall beams that rose above the temple’s roof at both ends. “If you sight the stars long enough against one of the beams, you will see how the gods and ancestors honor Heart Of Sky by circuiting around it. All that is Seven Maize, everything we know, began there and comes from there.” 

Sitting cross-legged on the cold landing and in the dark talking like that was pleasant. After all that had happened that day, I didn’t even mind the sorcerer’s talk. “Is Lord Itzam Yeh really up there—perched in Heart Of Sky?”

“Dispensing his life-sustaining substance, Seven Maize. Because we cannot see it—. There is so much we cannot see, even with your young eyes.” The old man ran his finger across the bright path in the sky that Mother called The Great Serpent Way. There is the White Flower Serpent,” he said. “The path the brightest wanderers take—serpent lords entwined like vines, making one life-giving cord.”

“Where does it lead, Grandfather—the Serpent Way?”

“No one knows. But the sky gods and their brothers, our ancestors, have journeyed along that path since the beginning. Round after round.” 

I’d heard that before. Mother didn’t like to think of it as a cord of entwined snakes. She preferred to think of it as the cord that carries life between a Mother and her seedling, or the cords tied to a roof beam that some women hung from to give birth. “This is how the ancestors plant their ch’ulel in us,” my teacher said. “This is why we cannot resist the way of our blood.”  

I saw his trick but ignored it. When I helped him up he called for a sentry to bring a torch and he took me up the remaining steps. “With respect, grandfather,” I asked at the doorway. “If I could watch you make the journey into the upper world first, I could do it better.” 

“Are you not ready for this trial, grandson?”

“I just want to do it properly. What if I do it wrong or cannot come back?”

“Did you ever dream wrong, not awaken from a dream? Journeys to the other worlds are like that. Your ch’ulel goes through the portal, but your body remains here. The ancestors show you what they want you to see, and then you return. This is how they teach us about All That Is and How Things Are.”

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.”

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  

Kenep (Fruit)

My guide at the Maya site of Cerros, Belize picked up a small unripe fruit that had fallen from a very tall tree. There were dozens, lying all around. “This is kenep,” he explained. “It’s a local name. It ripens in the warm summer months and becomes bright orange—very tasty. Some of them get twice this size. You peel away the shell and suck on the fruit until the flesh is gone, then you spit out the stone. Kids pop ‘em like candy and make necklaces from the seeds. Believe me, it’s one of the best, most delicious tropical fruits there is. The ancients—and still today—people eat a lot of it.”

Later on, I discovered that the tree is in the soapberry family native to South and Central America and parts of the Caribbean. They can grow up to 80 ft. tall and their flowers have four petals. It’s not unusual to see them along roadsides in Belize, planted as an ornamental tree. The fruit is known as “quenepa” in Puerto Rico where it’s so abundant and appreciated, in the municipality of Ponce, they have an annual celebration called “The National Genep Fruit Festival.” Next time you’re in Belize, Cerros is a wonderful site to visit. And ask someone there to point out a kenep tree. If you live in Belize and know of this fruit, please let me know. Was my guide right about it?

Reference to the Kenep tree in—
Jaguar Rising (p. 347)

We arrived dusty and parched, eager to set our burdens down and put our feet up. Judging from the smoke on the approach, the entire region looked to be on fire due to construction. At least eight limestone kilns were pouring out smoke and fire around the central district. Slaves carried water, plaster, stucco and paint to men on scaffolds wearing wide brimmed hats to shade their faces. In one place there was so much white powder in the air we had to cover our faces to keep from choking. The limbs on many trees were bent under the weight of it.   

While the women waited in the shade of a tall kenep, a sentry led us to a compound cluttered with scaffold poles, beams, cording, piles of rock and broken tools. The person in charge, a huge man with a gruff voice, introduced himself as Hammerstone Turtle. He was surprised, even befuddled, that there were so many of us. His supervisor, the minister of construction who’d visited with White Cord at Cerros, had told him that three brothers could be coming from there, possibly with their wives—but it was not likely. 

White Cord’s suggestion that I wear black body paint with red over my shoulders, eyes and mouth in the manner of an unmarried hot blood turned out to be a good one. I had been standing back when this Hammerstone asked about me. Following White Cord’s gesture, I stepped forward. “I am honored to introduce my assistant,” he said. “This is Young Lord Fire Eyes Jaguar Macaw, fourth son of Lord Jaguar Tooth Macaw, the Great Tree of Kaminaljuyu. We invited him to come with us because he is on his way home—and he is an accomplished conjurer.” Although that wasn’t true, it felt good to be introduced that way. Hammerstone, whose belly was nearly as bulbous as his head, scrunched his eyebrows and looked at White Cord to see if he was joking. Seeing that he was not, he got down on one knee, touched his shoulder and gestured for the men watching to do the same. 

I acknowledged their respect and released them to stand. “I am only here to assist my friends,” I said. “It appears that Uaxactun is building out as well as up—so many scaffolds and kilns, so many men.”

“With respect young lord, considering what needs to get done, we could use about a hundred more men.” After that, his words to White Cord were a bit more respectful and accommodating. As they talked, I was beginning to feel like a jaguar in a dog pen so I went outside. Several men came and went, one of them wearing an owl feather in his headband. When White Cord came out with his brothers, he said that Hammerstone had sent the messenger to the minister of construction and we had to wait for the reply. 

Across the patio, some sprouts were up in the kenep dropping the sweet red fruit to friends. They offered us some, asking only that we spit the pits into a hat so their sisters could make necklaces. Immediately, it became a game to see who could spit a pit into the hat from the farthest distance. Walks In Stonewater beat everyone and we had a good laugh. 

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

 

Balance In All Things: K’ex Substitution

Concepcion, Guatemala: A shaman and his mother converse with my guide

The Tzutujil Maya who live around Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, use the term k’ex “substitute, exchange” to reference various ways in which the universe maintains balance or equilibrium. The perceived order in the cosmos has to be maintained on Earth—as above, so below. Substitution applies to generations. For instance, a child is considered a substitute for a deceased parent or grandparent. People are exchanged for one another through repetition, the same basic personality or temperament, even souls reoccurring through reincarnation. One person leaves, another enters. Balance.

Bringing a newborn into this world requires a replacement in the world of the dead: in this case, the deceased ancestor destined for the underworld is the k’ex for the newborn child.

Karl Taube, Maya Ethnohistorian

The shaman’s mother and grandchildren

K’ex can reference daily activities as well. Trade involves the substitution of one item for another. Anciently, the ritual calendar is a process where one deity substitutes for another in carrying the “burden” of various time periods, and crops replace the previous year’s crop. Among the Kiché Maya, children often take the names of long-deceased grandparents, a custom not uncommon in modern American and European societies. The Zinacantan Maya of Chiapas, Mexico replace the saints and flowers on their household shrines every fifteen days. In healing, an offering of tobacco or a maize-based drink is considered a substitute for a sacrificial offering. The god receives the soul of the liquid rather than the life of the healer’s patient.

Hieroglyphic inscriptions contain references to k’ex in the context of rituals. For instance, human sacrifice was an exchange to ensure the rebirth of the cosmos. And the blood sacrifices of kings, considered the most precious gift they could offer to the gods, were substitutes for the continuing survival and prosperity of their subjects. When a child was born, something had to be given in return, often to the gods of death and the underworld, offerings of food, copal incense and animals were considered k’ex. In Maya art, infants being carried by jaguars are likely k’ex offerings, as are infants placed in offering bowls. A pit under Copan Altar Q contained the remains of 15 jaguars—the number of Copan kings, all k’ex offerings. And famously, the ruler of Palenque, K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, is depicted on his sarcophagus lid as sitting in an offering bowl.  His is a k’ex offering of self-sacrifice, an exchange that ensures the survival of his lineage. In all things, at all times everywhere, there must be balance. 

Reference to Generational Substitution
Jaguar Wind And Waves (p. 12) 

IT WAS WELL KNOWN AMONG MY PEOPLE, THAT CHILDREN inherited their ch’ulel—the spirit that made them who they are—from their grandfathers. Just as a crop of maize replaces the previous crop, so our sons and daughters replaced their grandfathers, walk for them on the face of the earth. When we remember them, they are present in both our lives and the life of the caah, the community. As I was growing up I could see that this was true for everyone around me. It certainly was true for my brothers and sister. But it was not true for me. Although I knew my grandfather, respected him and laughed with him, I was my father’s daughter. 

Apart from the little tattoo of a jaguar paw on my cheek, the hair on Father’s upper lip and the differences in how we wore our hair, our reflections on the water were much alike. Both our foreheads had been flattened, shaped to look like maize cobs. We both had long noses, broad cheeks, deeply folded eyelids, and our skin was the color of brown maize. Another difference, one I kept secret, was a white spot, about the size of a small lime, on my left side, under my ribs. 

I delighted when visitors to the palace spoke of the likeness between my father and me. I hoped it went beyond our appearance and that, when I became a woman, I would have his manner of walking and talking, especially his determined yet kindly manner in battling the everyday storms that rained down on the Mat and flooded palace life. Although I’d seen him stern and demanding in the audience chamber, I knew him as a gentle and playful father. He carried me on his shoulders, danced to entertain me at court, and planted the thought in my head that, when I came of age I would make a “grand contribution” to our beloved Tikal. 

Among foreign dignitaries, long-distance merchants, and his underlords, Father’s courage and ferocity as a warrior earned him the title, “Torch and Storm.” But at his accession to the Mat, he took the name, “Jaguar Paw.” Our lineage was Jaguar Paw. Twenty years later, celebrating his accomplishments on the completion of his first k’atun—twenty years on the Mat—the jaguar prophet introduced him as “Great Jaguar Paw.” Although he and Mother had seven children, only five survived. He also had a daughter by another woman. They sat with us at court. 

We never knew Mother’s first born because he took the dark road four months after his arrival. My sister came next. She was introduced to the court as “Lady Dream Paw,” a name that suited her because her manner was soft and her steps small, making it seem like she floated across the floor, particularly when we wore long ceremonial robes. When my brother, Flint Dancer, touched the earth, the ancestors said he had the spirit of a warrior. He became one and distinguished himself as a first spear. I arrived after another son who only stayed on earth for three days. 

After me came Knotted Tail, who, perhaps because he almost didn’t survive or because his skin was lighter than ours, was a worrier. He was afraid of everything. But by the time he was nine, he could outrun and count faster than any of us, except for Father. When we were just sprouts, he and I sat with some of the vendors to talk and learn how trading was done. That’s how it happened that at ten, I was the only flower in our family who could sum, place, and takeaway numbers as high as twenty-four thousand, the number of kakaw beans that Father received twice a year as tribute from his underlords.  

Twelve days after I was born, Father named me Infant Jaguar,” after the twelfth ruler of Tikal. Mother said that when I began to say words, he started calling me “Palm Flower,” for the odor that was said to take a person to other worlds. At four, when it came time to present me at court, he gave me the house name in honor of the palace he’d just had constructed. At the dedication he introduced me as “Lady Jaguar Paw.”  

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.

According to Mother, when the daykeeper read the seeds, beans, and crystals to divine my birth prophecy, it came clear to him—definite, and without hesitation. The ancestors said my path would be “the path of the jaguar,” and that “amidst powerful winds and waves,” I would battle “a mighty demon.” Father said that, unlike my wild temperament, the path of the jaguar was a path of listening and watching before pouncing. He said this would be my strength, and like the jaguar, I would “roam free and without fear in the forest of men.” As for the demon, neither the daykeeper nor my father knew what he would be like, but on the long journey to Tollan to take a husband, I kept an obsidian blade in my litter—the knife Mother used to cut the shell from my waist-cord when I became a woman of Tikal. As it happened, not even Father could have dreamed that the man he sent me to marry would unleash the demon.

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

Links To Amazon.com

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

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Blood

Spiritually Hot Substance

In all of Mesoamerican history, human blood served as a means of channeling and infusing the world with the sacred essence or soul.

                                                                                            David Stuart (Archaeologist and epigrapher)

Among certain creation myths, there’s the indication that, in the beginning, “First Mother” mixed the blood of the Creator gods with maize dough to create human beings. Without blood, a person dies, so it was understood to carry the life force. Being sacred, blood was the highest kind of sacrifice a ruler could make to nourish the gods, especially Ajaw K’in, “Lord Sun,” whose radiant manifestation was both red and hot.

In certain periods and places, it was also believed that Ajaw K’in could perish from a lack of blood offerings. A thousand years later, according to Spanish chroniclers, this belief among the Aztec kings resulted in human sacrifice on a massive scale. To ensure a constant supply of blood for the gods, regular bloodletting rites among the Maya opened a portal between the human and sacred realms, allowing their kings to feed the gods in exchange for blessings of security, bountiful harvests and fertility.

Sacrificial blood was drawn from tongues, earlobes, fingertips, and cheeks. Blood from a ruler’s penis was an especially powerful sacrifice. Whatever the source, blood was let onto strips of white cloth or paper that were then burned in a sacred offering bowl along with incense.  In the smoke, their petitions rose to the gods in the celestial realm. Scholars note that the favored places on the body for sacrifice are not those with large numbers of blood vessels or pain receptors, so “it wasn’t as painful as we might think.” On monuments, the bloody cloths are shown tied in three knots, identifying them as carrying itz, “sacred substance.”

Because the royals traced their bloodline to the Maize God, their blood was considered especially powerful—spiritually “hot” compared to everyone else’s blood. In “Blood Inheritance,” the protagonist learns that blood determines his destiny. In “Hot Blood” (below), Thunder Flute proves that his stepson’s royal blood is not hot to the touch.

How Blood Was Inherited

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 18)

FATHER CAME UP THE EMBANKMENT, PASSED BY ME AND WENT to the trees where he picked up a stick and began peeling the bark. It was hard not to ask what I’d done, but he’d trained me well. I never spoke first. Coming to the water, he threw in a piece of bark and fish came to nibble on it. When he saw me looking at the stick, he tossed it aside. “I am not going to beat you,” he said. “Sit.” I sat and he went around behind me. “This will be worse than a beating.” He came around front, faced the water and crossed his arms. “It falls to me to burden you with a heavy truth, Seven Maize.” Whenever he said my name, I knew it was serious. My heart pounded like a tree-drum. “Hard to believe,” he said. “Twelve tunob since I brought you and your mother here. Already, you stand on the doorstep to manhood.” He came over, gathered his cloak and sat at the other end of the bench resting his forearms on his legs.

“Respect, Father. Whatever it is I can bear it.”

“A man needs to know the truth about his beginnings,” he said to the ground. “Otherwise, he goes mad, becomes useless to his family and the caah.” Laughing sounds from the compound caused him to look up, but only for a moment. “Did you see Lord Laughing Falcon leaving?” I nodded. “He came all this way—.” Father heaved an annoying sigh. “It comes to this: after initiation, you will not be going with the others to the men’s house. You will be going to the Lodge of Nobles.”

It took me a moment. “The Lodge of Nobles? How can that be? Are they raising you to the nobility? Finally?” Everyone knew that Father deserved it. We always thought he would one day carry the title, Minister of Trade.

He turned my way, but only to look at the necklace. “It has nothing to do with me,” he said. “It is because of you.”

“Me?” Suddenly, I remembered. Mother’s blood was hot. Long before I touched the earth, her Father ruled somewhere far to the south and west. “Because of Mother’s blood? I thought only blood from the male line could enter the lodge?”

“Not hers—yours.”

I shook my head. “I do not understand. Am I to be a servant there?” A chill of lightning flashed up my back. Or a sacrifice? Then I realized, he wouldn’t want me. He could get sacrificial blood from a slave. Still, it was a possibility.

“Your mother and I kept you safe these many tunob by not talking about your birth, not to anyone.”

Especially not me. I clenched my teeth and crossed my arms against the winds of his truth. Whatever storm he was blowing, I would face it like a mighty ceiba.

Father picked up another twig and began peeling the bark. Still, he talked to the grass in front of his feet. “I am not your father, Seven Maize.” When our glances met he looked away. “Another man planted the seeds in your mother, the seeds that called you down from the other world.” I heard what he said, but because it could not be true I tried to understand why he would speak such a mountainous lie.

“You heard me speak of Lord Jaguar Tooth Macaw?” I stayed steady and fixed my gaze on his fingers picking at the twig. “His is the blood that runs in your veins, not mine.” I got up and walked to the trees. I could feel my heart pounding. He’d spoken of that lord so often and with such admiration, I usually turned away at the sound of his name. “When I brought you here I told everyone that I found your mother in a regalia workshop at Kaminaljuyu. The truth is, Lord Macaw gifted her to me in gratitude for saving the life of his youngest son.”

“At Ahktuunal?” I knew something important had happened to him there. He always changed the subject when anyone spoke the name of that place.

“Your mother feared Lord Macaw—and for good reason. I will let her tell you about it. She was so afraid, she could not tell him his seeds were growing in her. So that was her secret. No one knew. Not until—”

“I want to hear this from her!” I surprised myself by interrupting and speaking boldly, but I no longer cared about what he would say or do to me. I went to the edge of the embankment hoping to see my mother. She was down there, standing in back of her workshop, wiping her eyes, apparently waiting to see if I might appear. When our eyes met and she nodded, it felt like I’d been hit in the chest with a beam. I dropped to the ground and doubled over.

“Get up!” Father shouted. “Show her you can shoulder this like a man.” I felt caged, like one of his dogs. Going to the water, I pressed my hand against my neck to hold back the lump that was growing in my throat. “Keep your head up, Seven Maize! Stand tall. Be grateful that you were raised in the Owl Brotherhood.” He barked his orders to me like I was one of his crew.

“If you are not My father, who are my brothers? If I am not a Rabbit, what am I?”

Father got up, came over and pointed his finger at the side of my face. “You, little sprout, are the fourth son of Lord Jaguar Tooth Macaw, the Great Tree of Kaminaljuyu…” He pounded me with that man’s titles and said something about my blood coming from the maize god, but my thoughts were darting like a deer catching the scent of a jaguar.

One thing made sense. This is why he favors my brother and sister. This is why he never beat me—or carried me as he did them.

“You should feel proud, Seven Maize. Kaminaljuyu is a sprawling place with thousands of people, more noblemen and tradesmen than you can imagine. All of Cerros would fit into just one of her districts—and there are five of them. Her temples sit on great red pyramids that rise above grassy aprons and mounds. The city surrounds a blue lake with canals. South from there, you can see First True Mountain, the fiery place where the world was made. At night the clouds turn red from the fire, and in the belching smoke, you can see lightning spears being hurled by the Chaakob. I was going to tell you after your initiation, but Lord Falcon—. He insisted that I tell you now. He wants you to enter the lodge after the ceremony. I will say, he honored us by coming to tell me in person. He could have sent a messenger.”

How Blood Was Considered To Be “Hot”

Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 206)

Thunder Flute came forward. “Red Paw Owl! Fire Eyes Jaguar Macaw! Come forward,” he said. My friend and I went up and faced the gathering. “Face each other. Now Macaw, show us your salute.” I crossed my arms and grabbed my shoulders sharply as if I were standing before the Mat. Although my chin was high, I watched Thunder Flute from the corner of my eye as he picked up a blackened stick lying close to the fire. Before I could even imagine what he was going to do with it, he made a black circle of charcoal on my arm above the elbow. Fortunately, the stick was only warm. He turned to Red Paw. “Owl, are you prepared to follow orders?”

“With respect master!” Red Paw’s quick and proper response, combined with his warrior stance showed that he’d learned well at the Crooked Tree men’s house.

Thunder Flute handed him the blade. “That circle is your target. Make it bleed!”

Red Paw looked at me, and then Thunder Flute. “Respect master, do you really—?”

“This is not a request. This is an order. Do it or leave.”

I couldn’t believe it. Red Paw poked my arm and it bled. Instinctively, I grabbed the wound.

“Take your hand away!” Thunder Flute shouted. “Owl, take the blood on your finger and taste it.” Red Paw put his finger out. When he hesitated, Thunder Flute pressed it hard against my arm. “You execute my order when the command is given. You do not hesitate. Do you understand?” Red Paw put his finger to his mouth like he was about to drink the venom of a yellow-jaw. Beads of sweat began appearing on his forehead and lip. Still, he tasted it. “More!” Thunder Flute said, marking my other arm with the stick. Red Paw tasted more of my blood and followed the next order by poking the other arm and tasting the blood that ran from the wound.

Those watching were shocked, but someone applauded and everyone joined in. Thunder Flute turned to them. “You who are new here, form a line. This is hot blood and I want you to taste it. Paint it on your noses. If you need more, draw more, but only from within the circles. We want Fire Eyes to wear these scars proudly—as a reminder of this k’in and the brotherhood of the expedition.”

One by one the men came up, dipped their finger in my blood, tasted it and drew more as needed. Thunder Flute stood beside me. “Eyes straight!” he barked when I looked at my arm. My heart was beating as fast as it had at the binding ceremony. As much as I wanted to grip my arms, I wanted to grab the blade, slash him with it and paint his nose with the blood. “I want you to see,” he said to the men. “What your Mothers and the holy ones told you is not true. Hot blood does not burn. It will not make you sick. Demons are not unleashed when you spill it.”

A man with frog-like eyes said he was taught that only holy men were allowed to spill the blood of the maize god. “You speak rightly,” Thunder Flute said. “It must be respected. You must have a good reason to spill it. Never waste or desecrate it. Just know that it cannot harm you and you will not be punished for spilling it for good reason.”

Another asked why hot blood wasn’t especially hot to the touch. Thunder Flute explained the difference between heat from fire and heat from ch’ulel. And then he took no more questions. “On expedition, you do not regard the blood of an attacker, neither do you regard the tongue he speaks, his dress, manner or title. When you are attacked, you have a choice—kill or be killed. Only the first is acceptable. The path of long-distance merchants is dangerous. There are many who are waiting, eager to relieve us of our cargo. An expedition is not an adventure. It is not an excuse to visit distant places or see how other people live. You will not be picking flowers along the way.” We laughed at the double meaning of the words “flower”—young females, and “wahy” meaning “dream” as applied to demons. “When I give the order to kill, you kill—without hesitation, without question. We teach the Tollan ways here, not just because I was one of them or because I enjoy killing. I do not. We teach their ways because they are the only way to survive and return with the cargo intact.”

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

Links To Amazon.com

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