Ancient Maya Cultural Traits

Prophecy And Belief

A prophecy is a message that comes from a deity, delivered to a person attuned to receive it. Typically, the message expresses the divine will regarding the future. Ancient cultures all had prophets who delivered prophecies. And people believed what they heard, were willing to kill and die to be true to it. Gods, after all, were to be trusted. 

Anthropologist Mircea Eliade noted that tribal societies believed that their stories, about the gods and sacred ancestors overcoming the forces of chaos, created a sacred cosmic and social order in which humans could safely dwell. He said their myths and rituals divided the world into two realms, the sacred and the profane. Those who live the sacred order are human beings; all others are strangers who come from the realm of chaos and are different and those differences threaten the life-sustaining stability of their sacred order. Around the world, he showed that ancient tribal societies saw themselves as living at the center of the cosmos, the place where the gods and ancestors brought things into being. In such a physical and mental space, trusting the will of the gods and sacred ancestors was inborn, automatic, a matter of life, destiny and death.

As part of the divinely created order of the cosmos, to maintain personal safety and stability in a tribal society, human beings needed to model the cosmic order—maintain the center. There were many threats—rivalry, disease, beasts and demons that roamed the wilds, malevolent deities, climate fluctuations and outsiders. So it was necessary to understand the will of the benevolent gods and appeal to ancestors who in death became guardians of the sacred order.  

It is not surprising that, according to archaeologist David Freidel, the Maya institution of “divine” kingship derived from the much earlier Olmec culture in southern Mexico. Maya kings were more than elites who ruled. Their power, at least until the Late Classic period, derived mainly from their ability, along with their priest-daykeepers, to discern the will of the gods and divine the future. 

Privileged to meet and photograph a Maya shaman in his Santa Catarina, Guatemala healing center, I took the above picture of the sacred items he used to do a “layout” that would inform him about a client’s health and prognosis. Using two types of beans and crystals, his procedure was to arrange them in rows using sacred numbers. On a trip to Belize, I met a shaman who used beans and crystals in the same way, but an important part of his discernment had to do with the feelings he got in different parts of his body. 

Maya kings used psychoactive drugs, auto-sacrifice and ecstatic dancing to commune with the gods and deified ancestors. In the modern era, prophets emerged and we built religions around them. And today there are individuals who claim to be gifted with precognition, the ability to foretell the future. Whatever the underlying reality, then and now, there is no question that belief is one of our most powerful capacities. It’s the rudder that steers the canoe and the ocean liner.

This is a make-believe world. We make it according to our belief.

Jerome Perlinski 

Your beliefs become your thoughts.

Your thoughts become your words.

Your words become your actions.

Your actions become your habits.

Your habits become your values.

Your values become your destiny.

Mahama Gandhi

Prophecy Of The Cloud Kings At El Mirador

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 57-59 )

“According to the prophecy there were to be two trials,” White Grandfather said. “Our grandfathers survived the first. Now it comes to us. And it will not pass when the k’in bearer sets his burden down. It will only pass when the gods see how we are shouldering this, their final trial.”

The same man spoke again. “Respect, Grandfather, people are saying that Laughing Falcon has not bargained well with the gods, they are not honoring his requests.” When others in the crowd agreed, White Grandfather shook his head and looked side to side. Someone called out. “Enough talk! Release the food! Give us the food!” The people shouted, stomped the ground, and clapped their hands. “Food! Food! Food…” 

White Grandfather took a step forward and pointed to the crates and baskets beyond the guards. “Do you know where this comes from?” he shouted.

“From us!” someone yelled. Another called out, “Tribute!” Someone else complained that it was his family’s sweat that filled the storehouse.”

“All that we have, all that we receive is a gift from the gods,” White Grandfather said. “Lord K’in provides the heat and light for your crops. The Chaakob water them with rain. One Maize gives us the maize to eat and the seeds to plant. All this and more is given through the appeals, the blood sacrifices, petitions and offerings of Our Bounty. Turn away from what you lack. Instead, fix your gaze on the bounty that is coming, that has been foretold…”

A calmer voice interrupted, “With respect, Grandfather, how can I, when my family is starving? My eyes are fixed on their misery.” The man turned and pointed beyond the guards. “We cannot eat the words of a prophecy.”

White Grandfather bent down. “We understand. We know it is difficult—” A noblewoman next to the man got his attention and spoke. All I could see was nodding behind a deer headdress with a spray of macaw feathers. White Grandfather stood straight again. “The lady asks why the trial has been so long and severe. Those who gave the prophecy did not say. But they understand—when sustenance is withheld, trust, belief, and hope are all challenged. By standing firm against the drought, against the fields of rotting maize, the pain of hunger and the loss of our elders, we show ourselves to be worthy of the abundance they promised.”

“What prophecy do you speak of?” the lady asked. “When and where was it given?”

“The Cloud prophecy, given nine k’atunob past, at Mirador.” In a voice only those around us could hear, a round-faced guard said a one-hundred-eighty-year-old prophecy could not be trusted. He said it was no longer valid.

“I have not heard of it,” someone called out. “What did it say?” 

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.” 

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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  

Solar Observatory Or Performance Stage?

By 500 B.C. there were numerous large architectural assemblages throughout the central lowlands of Guatemala and Mexico. At first, they appeared to function solely as line-of-site markers of the sun’s solstice and equinox turning points. Archaeologists named them E-Group complexes. 

Although there was great diversity in these structures across time and place, what they had in common was a large rectangular, flat, paved plaza with a square four-sided pyramid aligned to the cardinal  directions, situated west of a long narrow platform with small temples that ran north and south. The first to be investigated in the Maya area was Uaxactun Structure E-VII-sub. Above is how it looked when I visited there in 2000. Although it was severely weathered, early photographs showed that there were large deity masks and stairways on all four sides.

We can imagine—as I had when writing Jaguar Rising—a priest-ruler on top of the pyramid before dawn. Adorned with jade and wearing a tall headdress of blue-green quetzal feathers, he and his family, daykeepers and principle courtiers are all there, lit by a brazier, waiting  to witness the rising of the Sun god at the corner of the easternmost temple, an opportunity to  verify that both the sacred (tzolkin) and solar (haab) calendars were accurate and congruent, marking the seasons and times for particular rituals. 

After years of investigation at many sites, the consensus is now that, while E-Groups may have originally been built to mark and celebrate the solstice and equinox, their more prolific purpose was to establish a large space with a bonifide sacred center, a theater stage, where kings could perform elaborate calendar rites and other ceremonies. One of these common to the E-Groups was to celebrate the k’atun (20-year) Period Ending, the day when the current god of that period set his “burden” down and the next god in line picked it up to carry it forward with his particular influences for the next twenty years. Cycles of 13 k’atuns—about 256 years—were also celebrated.

The west-situated pyramid that established the sacred center of an emerging polity or city did so by symbolizing the cosmos and the time cyclicals they held sacred.

  • The four sides and stairways have the shape of a cross (+), the symbol for k’in, which is the Maya word for “day” and the glyph for “sun.” 
  • Aligned to the cardinal points, the pyramid “celebrates” the four directions. In particular, the east-west stairway references the journey of Ajaw K’in the “Lord Sun.” He is born in the east, reaches his highest holy place over the top of the pyramid, descends to his “dying place” in the west to dwell overnight in the Underworld—under the pyramid. In making this journey, Ajaw K’in creates the day. To insure that his journey continued, sacrifices were made on the last day of each period. And they ranged from one day to thousands of years. 
  • Cosmologically, it was believed that the celestial realm had several layers, or “steps” that Ajaw K’in had to ascend and then descend in his journey. We can imagine then, the king ascending the pyramid steps slowly and thoughtfully.
  • As at Uaxactun, E-Group pyramids in other locations often displayed stucco reliefs, masks with cosmological themes. Those on E-VII-sub reference Ajaw K’in, the watery underworld and long-lipped gods representing the earth and sky. According to archaeologist David Freidel, they represent the sun cycle surmounted by Venus. And because the four-sided pyramids usually appear in the middle of open plazas they also represent the center of the universe and the centering point of the four world quarters. 

Did E-Groups serve as seasonal observatories or as stages for ceremonial spectacles? More work needs to be done, but it appears that they served both functions. Perhaps even more— at different times and in different places.

E-groups were most widely constructed as Maya society was becoming increasingly stratified, an indication that the ritual they framed ensured both cosmic and political order. By expressing a fundamental cosmological concept on a monumental scale, and as settings for religious and political ritual, E-groups provided an experientially powerful and symbolically meaningful condensation of Maya reality. 

James Aimers and Prudence Rice

Visiting The E-Group Complex At Uaxactun

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 348-349)

We turned north and came to an enormous open and paved, gleaming red plaza where, in the center, gods flanking a pyramid’s steps looked in all four directions. On the eastern side of the pyramid, a stone monument faced a long platform that supported three shrines. Because the plaza itself was one of the holy places Hammerstone told us about, Fishbone pointed to where we could cross, while he, his brothers and Butterfly took a long way around. Judging from the men atop the pyramid wearing quetzal headdresses and dancing to drums, a ritual was in progress. 

We met up with the slaves on the other side of the plaza. They were out of breath from running, so White Cord called for a rest. Fishbone took it as an opportunity to tell us why that particular plaza was holy ground. “After the founder built the first shrine in the sacred district,” he said, “he came here, cut a living branch and walked with it until it pointed down—to a little pool of black water. He marked it with stones and then walked east until the branch told him to stop.” Fishbone pointed about fifty strides away to a tall shaft of stone painted red. “That stone marks the eastern ahkantuun. There are three others—white to mark the north, black for west and yellow for south. With the ground so ordered, he made another circuit to mark the trees to be cut. By recognizing the ground as holy, he established it so for the eyes of his followers. They felled the trees to burn limestone and they hardened the ground with mortar between the markers.

When the new plaza was paved and painted red, the founder came again. In the center—where the pool had reflected the canopy—they drilled new fire. And there he offered his blood and the blood of a young woman so the place would forever bring new life. He named it Plaza of Black Water Sky. Nine tunob later his son erected a building over that center, a shrine, and he named it Three Sky Place. Inside he planted a bundle containing the bones of his Father and the female offering. So it was established—the caah of Uaxactun. The shrine has been built over many times since. The bundle that gives life to it is still there.”

Fishbone answered some of our questions and told how the current ruler built the shrine we were seeing, Raised Up Sky—the place where the maize god raised the sky off the water to reveal the land. “Very hot,” Fishbone said. He pointed to three more shrines across the plaza by about two hundred paces. “Now, every solstice, Our Bounty marks the journey of Lord K’in by sighting his face over there.” 

White Cord was eager to move on. We all were. The women especially wanted to get settled while there was still some light—and we didn’t know how much farther we would have to go. 

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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

Caves

Caves, where one descends toward the k’u’x (heart or center) of a mountain, are especially hot places. This is due to their symbolic proximity to the powers unleashed by cosmic convergence at the axis mundi.

Eduard Fisher (Anthropologist)

The Yucatan Peninsula is one of the largest limestone shelves in the world. In the north, the bedrock is porous and the landscape relatively flat, so rainwater runs and collects in underground caves. There are no visible rivers here. When a  cave ceiling collapses, the result is a sinkhole or cenoté (ts’onot “Sacred Well” in Mayan), that’s usually open to sunlight. 

Farther south to Guatemala, especially toward the mountains where thick limestone increasingly mixes with harder volcanic rocks, there are many caves but no cenotés. North and south, caves were a source of water, especially during droughts. Because it was considered zuhuy, “virgin,” it was the preferred libation for use in ceremonies and rituals.

As entrances to Xibalba, caves were also used as portals, places of ritual—ecstatic dancing, feasting, sacrificing, places to bury the dead and journey to the otherworlds by ingesting psychoactive drugs. 

Cenotés were especially favored as places of human sacrifice, the prime example being this one, the “Mouth At The Well Of The Itza” at Chichen Itza in Northern Yucatan. A popular belief was that virgins were the preferred sacrifice here, but archaeologist Guillermo de Anda of the University of Yucatan pieced together the bones of 127 bodies from a nearby sacred cave and found over 80 percent were boys between the ages of 3 and 11. The other 20 percent were mostly adult men. 

Caves are heavily represented in Mesoamerica, appearing in Maya art beginning in the Early Preclassic period (1500-900 B.C.). On monuments and painted ceramics, they are depicted as open enclosures wherein are seated gods or rulers. In the Late Classic period, the doorways to temples atop the pyramid mountains in Yucatan were often made to look like the wide-open mouths of deities.     

Since art had to communicate cultural information, it was restricted to symbolic imagery whose meanings were shared by members of the Maya community… Individual taste and creative expression had to be subordinated to the imperative of communication. Arbitrary change could not be tolerated… Because of its social function, Maya iconography was of necessity conservative. 

Linda Schele and Mary Miller

On the left, Chaak, god of thunder, lightning and rain holds court from his mountain cave throne.

Perhaps musicians emerging from a deified cave (left) to welcome the ruler on his throne.

Piedras Negras Stela 5

Ruler 3 addresses a courtier from his mountain cave (temple) throne.

Drawing courtesy of Montgomery, John. The Montgomery Drawings Collection. 2000.

Because everything in the Maya world was perceived to be alive, it’s understandable that mountains (pyramids) and caves (mouths of gods) would be represented in their art and architecture.  

The earth itself was conceived as a living sentient being bestowed with the capacity to see, breathe, and embody the concept of ‘personhood.’

Jeremy Coltman (Anthropologist)

Approaching The Mouth Of Death (Cave)

Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 129)

Finally, we came to a place under a dripping canopy where long ago the side of the hill had broken off and fell into an immense black hole. Now, tall trees with lianas hanging into the abyss grew up from the darkness. Others with long roots gripped onto moss- and lichen-covered boulders like talons. A jumble of jagged rocks, vines, rotting and threatening trees like poisonwood and thorny acacia made it impossible to get close enough to see the bottom of the hole but we could hear the drip-water coming off the lianas. 

Rising sharply up the hill were the remains of rotting and weed-covered logs that once provided a stairway. Before going up I got a fist-sized stone and threw it into the black hole. Looking at me, White Grandfather poked up his fingers to count while we listened. On the sixth finger we heard a plunk and a fluttering of wings—parrots it turned out. “The Mouth Of Death,” he said.  

Inside The Mouth Of Death

Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p.131-132)

White Grandfather kept going so I followed him to the back wall where the torches illuminated a hole large enough for a man to fit through, cut in the shape of the painted medallion at White Flower House. This one had a stucco frame around it painted blue. “Portal to the Underworld,” he said. When he poked his torch into the hole the flames came back with a whooshing sound. “The breath of Xibalba,” he said. 

Although he’d told me stories about the underworld and the lords of death who dwelled there, it didn’t lessen my fear of being so close to it—or them—especially when he handed me his torch, turned sideways and stepped through the portal. From the other side, he reached back and took the torch so I could come through with my own torch. When he offered his hand I grabbed it and he helped me through. Following him into the darkness with our torches held high, my sandals sunk into soft and very cold dirt. In front of us was the blackest black I’d ever seen. Behind us, the wall above the waist-high portal seemed to be moving. Bats! Winged monsters the size of serving platters, black and huddled together, writhed like palm leaves in a breeze. I shivered and drew my torch closer. 

Boulders bigger than a house, some black, some gray, others with dark lines running through them blocked our way, so we went around them and came to a flat where smaller boulders had been arranged to make an altar on a mound. Rocks at the bottom were burnt. Those higher up were encrusted with dried blood and soot. All around there were intact pots and three-legged plates, censers with stacked bird faces, figurines of broad-hipped women, mushroom stones and animal skulls. Dog, deer and tapir were the only ones I could recognize. “The ancestor we told you about, the one who told us it was proper that we were forced out of Mirador? This is where he revealed himself in the smoke.” 

White Grandfather led me beyond the altar, to a place where he held out his arm to prevent me from going any farther. Across an immense chasm of darkness in front of us there were jagged shapes and I heard the sound of running water.

My voice echoed when I asked if people went down there—if he had gone down there. He’d not heard of anyone attempting it. 

I spoke louder and was about to clap my hands when a flutter of wings told me that wouldn’t be wise. “Too deep,” my teacher said. “Treacherous. Throw a stone.” I picked one up and threw it as far as I could, counting out loud. On the count of “five” we heard a crash followed by a plunk. “The old woman we told you about—our ancestor—said there was a curse put on this place. She said the entrance was behind the hole in the ground where we climbed the wooden steps. Her grandfather spoke of pilgrims coming through there to make offerings to the Earth Lord and the mountain gods, until one of the lords of the underworld became jealous. He shook the ground and vomited up a river of water that flooded the cave. Many people drowned. After that, a black sorcerer put a curse on this place. People stopped coming. After a while, they terminated the caah and left.”

“Did she tell you about the curse—what it was?”

By the light of our torch, the lines on my teacher’s face looked deeper. “To keep people away, the sorcerer called it the Mouth Of Death. He said those who breathe the cold breath of Xibalba would die by drowning.” The expression on my face was easy to read. “No need to worry, grandson. We made proper offerings to the Xibalba Lords. The curse has been lifted.” 

“Do you know for certain?”

White Grandfather didn’t reply. Cautiously he led me along the ledge to a place where our torches lit spires coming down from the ceiling and boulders rising out of the abyss. We skirted more boulders and came to a place where there was a tunnel of blackness in the distance, a hole blacker than the surrounding rock. “There, grandson,” he said pointing his torch. “The throat of Xibalba.” 

He raised his torch and I raised mine, but they didn’t reveal anything more. “Will the lords be angry that we are here?”

“Few men are privileged to see this, grandson. This is the place where spirits enter when they leave their bodies.”

“The spirits of people? Commoners? They are here? Now?”

“All around. Crossing the river down there and going down the throat.” 

I’d been shivering. Now I was trembling. He knew this somehow because he turned back. Stopping again alongside the ledge, he leaned back and threw his torch into the trench. On the count of four it sparked, there was a brief shimmer and it went out.

Outside, the rain had stopped but water dripped from the trees and ran along the ground in finger-like rivulets through the brown leaves. Above the canopy, the clouds were turning pink. It was good to finally stop shivering and breathe some warm air, even if it smelled like rotting wood. 

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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  

War And Warriors

Rollout vase photos courtesy of Justin Kerr

It was the custom among them to pledge what they possessed to each other; upon collection and payment they began to quarrel and attack each other.

Diego de Landa

They never had peace, especially when the cultivation (of milpas) was over, and their greatest desire was to seize important men to sacrifice, because the greater the quality of the victim, the more acceptable their service to the gods. 

Alfred Tozzer

War was the way you got gifts for the gods and kept the universe running.

Linda Schele

Purpose and Objectives

In the Early period, warfare was practiced as a confrontation between spiritual forces, primarily involving the capture and sacrifice of royal captives. Most valued were captives of high rank. The sacrifice of royal blood was the ultimate gift to the gods. Rather than “battles” between large forces, warfare initially amounted to raids and attacks to take captives. In the inscriptions, what was important was the captive’s name, title and who captured him. A large part of ceremonial warfare amounted to capturing not only a worthy sacrificial victim but also the patron banner of the polity, the ruler’s god-bundle which containing the relics of his deified ancestors, his palanquin and war paraphernalia. All of these sacred items increased the power and prestige of the victor and his lineage. It also brought economic benefits to the community that fueled the emerging elite and contributed to the massing of both commoner and slave labor for construction projects. 

According to archaeologist Dr. Arthur Demarest, warfare in the Middle-to-Late Classic was about status and charisma. It helped to define who the royals and elite were and how much power they had with the gods. This was important because knowing who the gods favored provided a means for resolving dynastic succession, it opened trade routes, reinforced the status of elites by providing them with prized possessions such as quetzal, obsidian and jade and it bolstered the victor’s access to tribute labor. Dr. Demerest says, “In this period they did not ruin the enemy’s fields, or take a chance on harming its population because this brought no prestige. The necessary pact between humans and gods was sealed by the bloodletting of rulers.”

Other possible benefits included the acquisition of tribute from subject polities, boundary maintenance, the establishment of warlords which fostered elites and ranking, opportunities for public rituals and spectacles. It legitimized the ruler’s power in dealing with the gods.

Method

Early Maya warfare (Preclassic and first centuries of the Early Classic), pitted the leaders of communities, their noble followers and a reasonable complement of commoner militia against one another on well-known battlefields and on known and planned occasions. I think that Maya warfare had some clear-cut rules of conduct during this early phase of the civilization… The primary tactic was the raid or brief battle aimed at surprise attack and quick defeat rather than total conquest or subjugation.

David Freidel (Archaeologist)

Maya artworks show warriors marching behind battle standards—tall poles with large shields attached to the tops, decorated and edged with bright featherwork. (Much larger than those shown here and above). The fighting itself amounted to free-for-alls where the principal lords and warriors, decked out to represent supernatural forces, engaged each other in close-order combat. The sounds of the battlefield came from conchs, rattles, wooden trumpets, wood and turtle carapace drums, whistles and frantic shouting.

Weapons

In the Preclassic period, most polities weren’t large enough to maintain standing armies, so the rulers assembled able-bodied men and boys and armed them with brine-hardened cotton armor, wooden helmets, short stabbing darts, wooden axes with obsidian blades anchored along the sides, spears, axes and slings. It wasn’t until the Postclassic that the Maya used bows and arrows. 

Timing

Generally, wars were fought during the dry season, mostly because men would be available after the harvest and before the planting. Aside from agricultural needs, the rainy season with extensive flooding and muddy paths would have made it difficult, at times impossible. The Nacom (chief warlord) presided over an annual festival in the month of Pax (Mid-May). Rites were performed and he was treated as a god and  he discussed military matters with the ruler and other members of the court.

A Significant Shift

According to inscriptions at a variety of sites, on January 31, 378 an emissary from Teotihuacan in Central Mexico called Siyaj K’ahk’ (Born Of Fire) arrived at El Peru/Waka’. On the same day, Tikal’s ruler, Chak Tok Ich’aak (Great Jaguar Claw) “entered the water.” He and his entire lineage were killed and  replaced by a new male line drawn from the ruling house at Teotihuacan. Foremost among them was a high nobleman from Teotihuacan named Spearthrower Owl. This event marks the beginning of major changes in Maya society, among them the purpose, strategy and scale of warfare. 

The shift was from the modest scale taking of royal captives for sacrifice to the creation and maintenance of city-states through the acquisition of tribute (bounty and labor) from subject polities, the expansion of trade routes, and in the case of the Snake Kings of Calakmul, the establishment of allies to encircle Tikal, their bitter enemy, through marriage alliances. From then on, the “Peten Wars” ratcheted up involving many thousands of warriors in a single battle. 

After decades of the Calakmul kings building alliances, on August 3, 695 the current ruler, Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ (Fiery Claw) led his allies into an enormous battle against the Tikal king, Jasaw Chan K’awiil. In a major twist, Yich’aak K’ahk’ was defeated.

(My novel, Jaguar Wind And Waves, is about this momentus event).

Postclassic Period (950-1539 AD)

There is evidence of constant warfare in Northern Yucatan among competing city-states throughout these years. The Spaniards reported that Maya armies were large during important campaigns, numbering in the thousands, but they were not maintained very long because they were logistically sustained through temporary appropriations of food and materials from unhappy peasant villagers. And those city-states were then governed by royal families, likely including other elites, rather than individual rulers.

The information provided here derives largely from a collection of scholarly opinions and interpretations. Warfare among the ancient Maya is one of the many cultural practices that changed over time and from place to place. The benefit of collected research and discussion is that it gives us a “taste” of what it was like. In that, we can consider the past as we shape the future.

Green Band Raid on Ahktuunal, Guatemala
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 35-36 )

Across the plaza at the base of the Great Turtle temple, a similar fate had befallen the Mother of the underlord, members of his council and court including their wives, even his steward. They and the most holy jaguar prophet who speaks to the people on behalf of the ruler and prognosticates for him were also being stripped, bound and tied together. Wherever the green band raiders were from, they apparently needed slaves—probably for construction projects—and a hot-blood for their master’s altar. 

Above the chain of captives, the zapote beams of the Holy House of Lord Turtle were engulfed in roaring flames. Tall, red-and-green feather standards on both sides of the doorway burst into flames sending an explosion of sparks into the smoke and fog. With the exception of the residence and the lineage house behind it—where Thunder Flute and Pech were taking cover—all the structures of the central district, the shrines, temples and other structures made of perishable materials, were going up in flames. 

The Green Bands brought their looted items to the center of the plaza and dumped them into baskets and onto nets, mats, and blankets, ripping open the tied bundles and spilling out their contents for their leader to inspect. Thunder Flute signed to Pech that he wanted a count of the raiders, including those not in the plaza. In turn, Pech signed an order to an assistant at the back of the Flower House and the message was passed on. Thunder Flute signed again, saying that if the raiders all come together in the plaza, we will attack. If not, they would “target and track” them when they leave. Again, the message was passed. Thunder Flute watched a while longer, then signed again to Pech. Why are they not talking? Pech shook his head and signed back. No one was talking, not a word passed between them.

After parading his prize in front of the warriors, the Owl leader tied the underlord’s neck-cord to the great stone turtle at the base of the temple. The goods being brought into the plaza were more bountiful and precious than Thunder Flute would have thought possible. They overturned a crate filled with ceramic and carved stone turtles packed in dried pine needles. Another contained the hides of deer, peccary, and ocelot. Two of the raiders labored over a large wooden crocodile. With his foot on the back of his neck, he pried out the obsidian eyes with his knife and broke off two rows of shell that served as its teeth. The rest he left, turning his attention to a prickly armadillo goblet offered by a young warrior. When another held out a ceramic censer in the shape of a turtle, he swatted it down and it smashed against the pavement. Thunder Flute noticed that any object carrying the likeness of a turtle—painted, molded, or incised—was either rejected or destroyed. 

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.”  

____________________________________________________________________________

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

 

Ball Game

Ball Court: Copan, Honduras

Scholars believe that in earlier Maya times, the contest was a ritual that represented the fight of the opposing and forces of the universe—life-death, Sun-Moon, day-night, light-darkness—in order to insure balance, continuity and fertility. Some say it was a metaphor for the movements of heavenly bodies, the ball representing the journey of the Sun god passing in and out of the underworld. Because some courts have stone rings on the walls for the ball to pass through, other say it was about the Earth swallowing the sun where the loosers would be sacrificed as a offering to the Sun god to insure his rebirth the next day. 

In 2008 my guide on the right told how the ball game bore a strong relation to the Popol Vuh account of creation. I had my recorder going. The following is an abbreviated version of his account. 

The ball game was a ceremony of creation. The Hero Twins, Hun Hunahpu and Xbalanque, danced here and woke up the Lords of the Underworld. The owls came and invited them to go to the Underworld. There, they defeated the bad forces and saved their father who was reborn, apotheosized as Orion in the sky. Hunahpu, Hun Hunapu’s son, was reborn and became the Sun. Xbalanque became Venus. And Xmucane, their grandmother, became the Moon. This is how the Maya universe was created. 

The shaman, or specialized dancers of the ball game, were men who prepared their whole lives to fight against the bad forces—storms, earthquakes, epidemics, drought—all of which came from the Underworld. The ball represented the movement of the creators. Everything was alive. The ball bouncing up and down represented sunrise and sunset. And when it hit one of the macaw heads placed in the center and the ends of the risers, it signaled the defeat of the bad forces.

Here, Vucub Kakich, the Principle Bird Deity, was reconstructed atop the ball court riser. The central macaw head is below, a side-on view beneath the open-air corbled vault. 

Continuing the story, Hunahpu tried to defeat Vucub Kakich—the vein god who fancied himself more powerful than the Sun—using a blowgun. Repeating that event here in the ball court, the players tried to hit a macaw head with the ball to defeat this great bird. He’s shown in the celestial realm, on the highest level of the court. When the ball hit the floor in the alleyway, it  amounted to the Hero Twins knocking on the door of the underworld, a demonstration that they had the courage and power to wake the forces of evil to fight against them. When a king engaged in this enactment of good versus evil it was an opportunity for him to assume the persona of a Hero Twin and defeat death. The ancients didn’t look for winners or losers. They wanted a hero, somebody who had the courage to fight against the forces of evil. 

Loosers Were Sacrificed

According to the inscriptions, loosers were decapitated, their heads symbolic of the “sacred sun” ball. At Yaxchilan and possibly other places, the heads of war captives were thrown from the top of a long stairway, emulating the rolling of the ball. This was briefly depicted in Mel Gibson’s 2010 movie, Apocalypto.

Here, elite individuals engage in a ball game ritual. The ball (with a glyph inside) is about to connect with the king’s hip and chest deflectors. The horizontal lines are the ball court steps. Black body paint was often worn by warriors. Here, they are warring against the forces of evil. On the murals at Bonampak, bird headdresses were worn by winners, deer was worn by the losers. (Rollout photo courtesy of Justin Kerr)

Royal Players

It was a badge of honor for royalty to be good ball players. It’s reported that after great battles were waged, prisoners were brought back to the city of the victor where they were starved and dragged onto the ball court for a match. With depleted strength, they lost the game—and their heads—but shedding their blood on the court meant dying with honor. One writer suggests “The highest goal of Classic kings seems to have been to capture the ruler of a rival city in battle, torture and humiliate him (sometimes for years), then, following a ball game decapitate him.

Another says, “To capture an enemy and then let him be defeated in the ball game was to let him die with dignity. Royals became apotheosized—made divine—in this way. And the winner captured the loser’s power (the head was seen as the center of power).”

The Ball Itself

Ol, the Maya word for “rubber” is also the word for “heart” and “motion.” The ball was referred to as cahuchu “weaping wood” because of it was made from the sap of a tree. Inscriptions give the size of the ball, for instance, a circumference of “twelve-handspans” is indicated on a vase from Motul de San Jose in Belize. That meant it could be 12-18 inches in diameter. Spaniards also reported that the balls weighed six to eight pounds. And the juice of Morning Glory vine s were added to give them more bounce.

Later, When It Was Played As A Game

The object was to keep the ball in the air without touching it with the hands. Only shoulders, forearms, hips and knees could contact the ball. A goal was scored when the ball bounced off the wall and hit one of the stone markers—or a macaw head at Copan. If it ever went through a ring mounted on the walls—as at Chichen Itza—the person who did it won automatically. Scoring was based on faults: touching the ball with head or hands or feet; failing to connect with the ball; sending the ball out of the court. After one bounce, the other player got to serve the ball. If it bounced twice the other person scored. The first person to reach thirteen points won. 

The Mesoamerican ball game provided a formalized context and ritual wherein the mystery of death and the mythology of creation could be repeated and celebrated with an eye to the future. As a contest between the forces of good and evil, arranged so the good—perceived as the Sun god—would prevail and the world would not end.

Game Played Between Brothers To Determine The Heir To The Throne
Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 411)
(In this scene, Fire Eyes Jaguar, the protagonist, surrenders his body to Lord K’in, the Sun god by taking a hallucinogenic drug and dawning the Sun god helmet. His brother, Flint Axe Macaw, does likewise wearing the helmet of Chaak Ek’, god of Venus. The “god” with thirteen skulls (points) on the wall at the end of the game will replace their father as the Lord of Kaminaljuyu. “Dark Sun” is a reference to the ball).

AS HAD BEEN ESTABLISHED IN THE SKY—CHAAK EK’, GOD OF the morning star preceded Lord K’in, the sun god, along the White Flower Way— my brother danced onto the alleyway making quick turns, swinging his invisible axe and pounding the ground with his feet to taunt the lords of the Underworld. I waited for him to make a full circle, then followed behind him. Since Lord K’in was believed to prowl at night as a jaguar, I danced him as Red Paw had in Father’s courtyard the night after my presentation. I strutted, crouched and eyed Chaak Ek’ as if he were my prey.  

The veil of brightness over my eyes burned even more because of the hundreds of torches that surrounded us. I poked my fingers through the eyeholes to rub them, but it didn’t remove the veil or ease the burning. Watching my brother dance, I had the feeling that I’d done this before.  

Lightning flashed and a thunderclap shook the ground. I’d never heard anything so loud, not even in the House of Obsidian. I and everyone I could see had crouched. Just as suddenly, the light tapping on my helmet turned to pounding rain which quickly seeped into the eye- and mouth-holes. Oddly, the padding in my helmet was colder than the rain on my shoulders. My brother danced as if he welcomed it, running the alleyway like a freed deer, turning and leaping over the markers and darting back and forth to the end zones. 

Feeling the power of the cheering, I danced jaguar staring, sprinting and pouncing but missing his prey. There came another bright flash and three breaths later a thunderclap so loud I yelled into my helmet. “Ayaahh! Huracan! First Lightning! Here we are! Do you see?” I crouched and stayed still. “Great Thunderbolt! Is this your doing? I said I would have the head of the Iguana. If Lord Tapir and the Iguana are the cloud of death, I will be the destroyer, the cloud breaker. But enough of this rain! Enough of this dancing. Father wants a ball game. Let us begin.”

Chaak Ek’ took a position on the northern side of the center marker, facing the eastern end zone with his hands on his knees. Facing him ten paces away, I took my stance. Keeper of the Ball went to the eastern marker where he held Dark Sun low, between his knees with both hands. To distract me from the pounding on my helmet, I kept repeating out loud, “Thirteen skulls, thirteen skulls, thirteen…” With my eyes trained on the menacing face of Chaak Ek’, words came into my head that shocked me. “Flint Axe, you are standing in the way of my destiny.” It was then that I knew—Lord K’in had entered my body, taken my place. I would never have had such a thought. Where Fire Eyes Jaguar had gone I did not know. 

AS HAD HAPPENED IN THE MAKING OF THE WORLD ON the first day, the game began with the rising of Dark Sun from the east. Ballplayers referred to the opening volley as “Comes the dawning.” Chaak Ek’ got under the ball and deflected it off his hip. It bounced toward me. I turned and connected hard with my hip and the ball went out of his reach. It bounced once and rolled across the alleyway. I let out a yelp when the keeper of the count set a white skull on the northern wall. 

As the keeper took his stance at the eastern end zone, the rain let up. He didn’t squat very low this time. The ball fell short. I deflected it off my hip and it went low. After one bounce Chaak Ek’ slid under it and connected on the underside of both wrists. I ran and connected high on my hip protector. The impact sent a sharp pain through my ribs, reminding me of Gourd Scorpion and the injury sustained in the Nine Step court. The ball bounced twice before Chaak Ek’ could get to it, so I gained another skull. 

On the next round, the onlookers applauded our keeping the ball in play, back and forth without any misses. I tried to keep it high. Chaak Ek’ kept it low, apparently to take advantage of my injured leg. He made an elbow deflection and when the ball hit the ground it rolled. That put a yellow skull on his wall.

Chaak Ek’ connected with a stylish combination of a lunge and hip deflection. I returned it the same way and the onlookers applauded—even more, when he deflected with his knee and the ball rolled between my legs. Another skull for him.

The keeper squatted and turned his back to us. Chaak Ek’ went back and I stayed close. The ball fell short and I connected with both wrists. Chaak Ek’ got under it and butted the ball with his helmet, sending me running. I wasn’t even close.

Spectators in the end zone behind Chaak Ek’ were all a blur. The ball came to him and he connected with a stylish standing twist. I returned it off my hip. He deflected it back and we closed the gap between us. He turned and did a front deflection. On my return, he jumped back and connected with his knee-protector. I dove but missed.   

I scored on the next round. Chaak Ek’ took the following two. He was managing better than me to either send the ball where I wasn’t or to hit it so forcefully I couldn’t get to it in time to connect. He was ahead of me by three skulls, but I was learning fast. By playing closer—which he seemed to want—and trusting the nubs on my sandals, I defeated him twice.    

Hoping to slow me down, Chaak Ek’ kept deflecting the ball toward the center where the rain was pooling. I wasn’t slipping, so I played close to the marker and kept him on the sides. On a quick turn, he slipped and fell and the ball ran along the northern platform. When he slipped and missed again, I counted the skulls—Lord K’in seven, Chaak Ek’ six.

____________________________________________________________________________

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

 

Clothing And Identity

Dress is not simply a passive reflection of identity—it has a powerful relationship to how individuals understand themselves and interact with others.

Cara Grace Tremain (Anthropologist)

Whether intended or not, clothing communicates. For example, an apron in modern society can signal that the wearer is a chef or manual laborer. It can also symbolize the wearer’s beliefs and values, as when it’s worn by a Rabbi. The elite Maya of the Classic Period went to extremes in the latter category, investing many items of clothing with meaning. 

While some Maya garments were simply intended to beautify or eroticize the body, those depicted on works of art—including regalia, jewelry and body manipulation (hair arrangments, scarification, tattooing, piercing, teeth filing and cranial modification)—were rich with meanings that  referenced and celebrated their myths and ideology. In the Early Preclassic period, symbols were largely based on ancestor veneration. In the Classic Period, belief systems evolved to where the emphasis was on stories of creation, gods and apotheosized rulers—those who’d died and became deified. 

With regard to body coverings, the materials at hand were mostly plant fibers such as cotton, kapok, yucca and agave which contains henequen and maguey fibers. Animal products such as duck and goose feathers, deer hides and feline furs were incorporated as well. Slaves and the poorest of the poor wore garments made of softened bark paper. A thousand years later, in Aztec Mexico, only the king could wear fine mantles of cotton. So it’s likely that cotton was also reserved for Maya elites. With regard to the commoners very little is known about their coverings, except they mostly consisted of maguey fibers. Soaking and cooking the leaves made them tender enough to scrape and shape into long soft threads that were dried in the sun and then woven into fabrics.

The principle device for weaving raw fiber into cloth was the backstrap loom, similar to the ones used today. Since the looms are not very wide, several widths were sewn together to create square or rectangular shaped garments that could be fitted in place with a belt or fabric tie. Weaving lent itself to the making of geometric shapes and patterns. Below, the patterns woven into the woman’s huipil and the ruler’s cape signify the four directions. 

Yaxchilan Lintel 24

Dated approximately 709 AD, Shield Jaguar holds a torch over his wife, Lady Xoc, who performs a bloodletting sacrifice by pulling a barbed cord through her tongue. Her huipil appears to be embroidered and trimmed with fringe and pearls, and the pectoral on her beaded collar—likely made of shell or jade plaques—depicts the sun god. The object at their feet is an offering bowl containing blood-splattered cloths to be burned along with copal incence. 

Although insect, vegetable and mineral dyes were traded extensively in the Classic Period, the archaeological record indicates a strong preference for painting on cloth—clothing—using stamps and brushes. Embroidered stitching, which was an easy and quick way to embellish a woven garment with color and designs is also in evidence, worn by elite women. Though scholars are still debating gender roles and responsibilities, weaving tended to be the domain of women, and farming the responsibility of men. Attire for both men and women varied depending on the individual, status, location and time period.

In this unprovenanced panel in the Cleveland Museum of Art dated 795 AD, a royal woman holds an effigy, a “God K” or “K’awiil scepter.” When kings held it out they proclaimed themselves masters of the “vision serpent,” the ability to negotiate with the gods. This could be another instance of a woman who ruled. (See my posting “K’awiil” for more details on this deity). 

Women wore huipils, a long outer garment that covered the shoulders, chest and hips. Those worn by commoners were likely plain or with little embellishment. The huipils of elite and royal women usually contained symbols. The four quatrafoil designs on the above figure are signs that represent the “portal” to the otherworlds. They also wore an undergarment that showed beneath the huipil. In hot climates, women of all ranks more often wore a sarong, a long garment tied under the arms that could more or less conceal the legs (See the figurine on the right in the first photo). 

Men of all ranks wore a loincloth, some with shorter or longer hanging ends (See the middle figurine), a long or short skirt, a short waist-length jacket and in some instances a short cape. Because males depicted on monuments are sometimes shown wearing long skirts as seen on Copan Stela H (Schele #1011), it took the decipherment of inscriptions for scholars to realize they were men. The length of a skirt alone is no longer considered an indication of gender. 

Piedras Negras Stela 8

Long or short, worn by a man or woman, whether as a skirt or cape, the jade-beaded latticework (Seen above on the king’s skirt) signifies the Maize god. Commonly, a Spondylus (spiny oyster) shell hangs from the belt with the face of a fish on it, a mythological shark who the Maize god defeated in Underworld, worn as a sign of victory. That the beaded garments are worn by men and women, anthropologist Karen Bassie-Sweet regards the beaded skirt as an example of gender “complementarity”  considering that maize plants—and therefore the Maize god—have both male and female elements.

Evident in the art, lavish clothing, regalia and costumes signified elite status. Fabric embellishments could include jaguar pelts, bird feathers, flowers and wood, leather or thinly painted ceramic constructions that represented fish, waterlilies, the heads of gods and monsters and other mythical or symbolic creatures. At the other end of the spectrum, nudity signaled disgrace.

The elaboration of footwear was another element that distinguished the elite from commoners. Slaves went barefoot. Most everyone else wore sandals, although I notice the royal woman wearing the decorated huipil in the above drawing is barefoot. Kings always wore high-backed and probably animal hide sandals, often embellished with feathers and jewels that included symbols. For example, notice the jaguar pelt sandals worn by the king in the drawing where he holds a torch over his wife as she performs a blood sacrifice. 

Reference to backstrap looms
Excerpts from Jaguar Rising (pgs. 31 and 223) 

Thunder Flute interrupted. “Of all the places we trade, none offers better embroidery. On the last trip, the exchange was better here than at Kaminaljuyu. Lord Macaw gives his son an advantage—and we take it.”

“All the women weave,” Pech said. “You will see—as soon as a flower can talk she will be sitting beside her mother at the loom. Unfortunately for us, the women at court do the best work. Most of it never reaches the marketplace. If I or one of the assistants is not nearby, do your best. Better to acquire fine work than not. You will know it when you see it.”

The steward led us across the plaza to a large house that sat on a high, white-painted platform with scarlet macaws in flight painted on both sides of a broad stairway. He told us his master was holding council, but he went in anyway to let him know that we were there. While we waited, Standing Rock led us to the corner of the platform that overlooked a patio where women were weaving with back-strap looms. Thunder Flute spoke from behind me and close to my ear. “Ladies of the court. They weave from dreams. The cotton is the finest you will see anywhere.” Voices behind us were three men in red robes coming through the doorway. They nodded to us and went down the steps.

Ruler Wearing Maize God Skirt
Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 360)

Moments later, Lord Cormorant, lavishly attired in quetzal feathers and a jade-studded skirt, came down the steps with his jaguar prophet. Stopping on the first terrace, the prophet replaced the ruler’s k’atun helmet with the sak huunal. The prophet raised his arms and the drums called us to order. I judged there to be near to six hundred people there, all huddled in blankets. After several moments of silence, looking to the sky with arms outstretched, he gave the prophecy for the next twenty years.

A Gift Of Elite Sandals To A Merchant
Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 315) 

BLOOD SHARK HAD THE SERVANTS MOVE MY ITEMS TO THE side and he gestured for me to follow. Blue Skin stepped down from the dais and Yellow Stone admitted other servants with bundles intended for Thunder Flute as he came over. “Thunder Flute Rabbit,” the lord said gesturing, “Your compensations for teaching Blue Skin and our first spears the ways of the Tollan warriors.” 

The largest bundle contained a tapir pelt and seven embroidered mantles, beautiful pieces for Thunder Flute’s wearing. Next, came an assortment of colorful feathers which Blue Skin named: turkey, eagle, toucan, duck and owl. The great white heron feathers were especially beautiful, but it was the owl feathers that Thunder Flute chose to touch with two fingers and express his gratitude. From a third bundle, he held up a pair of high-backed sandals. “The bottoms and straps are crocodile,” Blue Skin said. “The backs are doe-hide. Very soft.” Owl faces were burnt into both backs. When he put them on and walked, Thunder Flute’s face lit up like never before. 

“For when you become raised and titled,” Lord Tapir explained. “The burner tried to match the tattoo on your chest.” 

All drawings courtesy of The Montgomery Drawings Collection, 2000. FAMSI Resources.

____________________________________________________________________________

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

 

Climate Change and Drought

Land bridge between reservoirs. Tikal, 2008

In the Late Classic period (A.D. 500-900) this path separated two immense reservoirs in Tikal’s city center. When I was there in 2008 it was overgrown and hard to see the bottom, but I estimated both of them to be about as deep as an eight-to-ten-story building.  

Maya farmers are still around today; kings, however, disappeared 1,000 years ago. There is a lesson here on how people and water managers respond to long-term climate change, something our own society faces at present.

Lisa J. Lucero (Anthropologist)

There were a series of droughts during the latter part of the Classic period. Isotope analysis shows that there were at least eight in northwestern Yucatan between A.D 800-950 that lasted from three to eighteen years. These impacted different centers differently depending on social, environmental and political circumstances, which helps to explain why the “collapse” extended over 100 years in the southern Maya lowlands.

In response to droughts, kings performed ceremonies to the rain god, Chaak, royal ancestors and other supernaturals to ensure adequate rainfall and maintain clean water supplies. Generally, they maintained control by exacting tribute and labor, managing the times for planting and harvesting, allocating water, constructing and repairing reservoirs and designing plazas and buildings to direct as much rainwater into them as possible. It’s been estimated that the six central reservoirs at Tikal could easily have provided water for 45,000 to 62,000 people over six months. But because rainfall was the only source of water in the Southern lowlands, changes in its amount and timing had major consequences. 

To keep the water potable through the dry season, the Maya incorporated plants such as pondweeds  and other small plants—and their associated bacteria and algae—which filter the water, feed on the spores of parasites and absorb nitrogen and phosphorus that builds up in standing water. In today’s terms, they transformed artificial reservoirs into wetland biospheres.

In response to droughts, kings were able to reassure their people through daykeepers—managers of the sacred calendar—who, because the nature of reality was believed to be cyclical, predicted the return of rain according to the auguries of the past. In some places the kings intensified their building programs, temples especially, to appease the gods. And they increased the frequency and spectacle of ceremonies and sacrifices. When the rains came, people believed in the power of the rulers. When it didn’t, they lost faith in their ability to deal with the gods and they left. Loosing power with their people, the kings and their courts began to disappear by the early 900’s. 

Nonetheless, although populations decreased, farmers adapted. Freed from tribute and labor demands, they generally migrated north to where there were lakes, rivers and cenotes. No longer dependent on the court and its restrictions, they learned how to manage the environment and diversified their subsistence to include hunting, fishing, planting fruit trees and so on. In some areas, well-adapted farmers continue to persevere in the present.

An aguada (catchment pond) at Tikal in 2008. A guide said they sometimes covered them with thatch to prevent evaporation.

Maya kings used the same rituals that had served them in the past in the hope that conditions would change; they did not. The same is true for global climate change. We know global climate change will not end anytime soon, so it is up to individuals, families and communities to act now and not wait for conditions to change. The only viable long-term solution is adaptation… It is the people, not politicians, who in the end resolve problems.

Lisa Lucero

Source: Climate Change and Classic Maya Water Management by Lisa J. Lucero, Joel D. Gunn and Vernon L. Scarborough, published in Volume 3 of the journal Water in 2011.

Along The Reservoir Trail At Tikal
Excerpt From Jaguar Wind And Waves (p. 59 )

APPARENTLY MY HUSBAND HAD BEEN COUNTING THE DAYS of my grieving because, early on the fifth day, servants with muscles like stone haulers came to move my belongings into the chamber next to his. I didn’t want any part of it, so Honey and I went for a walk between the reservoirs. The water levels were still high and the ducks made us laugh, splashing and upending their tails.

      Whenever I walked the reservoir trail I remembered what my father said on the morning of his accession. Standing before thousands he’d said, “I come to the Mat not just to rule; I come to contribute.” The children heard this many times, but I couldn’t resist saying it again when Honey asked if I was still hoping to make a contribution beyond my duties as mistress of the palace and residence. Not having an answer, her question stayed with me.

      Later in the day, alone with my thoughts, I sought an answer. Considering what has happened, is there anything I can do to contribute to Tikal? Was my grand contribution the fulfillment of Father’s alliance? Or is there something I can do now?

Excerpt From Jaguar Wind And Waves (p. 141 )

Because it held so many memories of my family, the reservoir trail had become my favorite place to walk and think. Early the next morning, with a thin blanket of fog resting on the water on both sides, I sat alone on the stump of a tree intending to speak to my ch’ulel about the vases when a tall, strikingly handsome young man with a severe, cob-shaped head approached. At first I thought he was carrying a staff, but it turned out to be a walking stick painted yellow. Judging from the tonsured hair that hung below his waist in back, his cotton loincloth, and high leather sandals, I judged him to be the son of a nobleman, perhaps an apprentice to a holy man, but he bore neither scars nor tattoos and his only jewels were jade florets in his ears. Unmarried men and warriors wore black body paint, yet his flesh was unpainted and fair beyond any I’d seen. Almost pink, like the inside of a shell.

Excerpt From Jaguar Wind And Waves (p. 163-164 )

Leaving them where the reservoir trail met the causeway, Gray Mouse and I continued around the elbow of the reservoir to see if we might reach the stone by going down the steps. Several women were down there getting water, so we knew the clay was solid enough to walk on. But there was vegetation growing high on mounds that blocked our view of the place where we saw the stone.

      Gray Mouse and I spent the next day talking about what, if anything, could be done about it. First of all, I needed to get close to the stone. Given its size and shape, it was either a small monument, a piece of one, or not one of the monuments from Precious Forest. No matter, the possibility that it could have a foot carved into it gave me hope. I knew the palace reservoir had been the first to be dug at Tikal and lined with clay—long long ago. So in all that time any stone could have fallen into it—or been dumped there.

      Gray Mouse suggested that I approach the stone haulers and compensate them to take a closer look and tell us what they found. I started on that course, but the thought of their seeing the stone before me changed my mind.

AT FIRST LIGHT, WITH FOG RISING FROM THE RESERVOIR, now looking like an enormous muddy canyon with trees and bushes growing out of mounds, Gray Mouse and I met  Knotted Bee and his sons, Nakal and Nakoh, at the top of the steps. With cords on their shoulders and carrying slashers to cut through the vegetation, we descended the long wooden steps to the bottom where just a few strides away, women were filling their water jars. Had a guard or sentry seen me walking with sandals, wearing a bark-cloth sarong with no jewels, they would never have believed that I was the wife of the Great Prophet of Tollan. The black clay was hard along the wall, so we had no trouble getting over to the cliff face.

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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 Sacred Calendar and New Year Renewal

 

Calendar glyphs. Copan Stela N (Back)

Sacred time is that in which the gods manifested themselves and created; so each time man wants to ensure a fortunate outcome for something, he re-actualizes the original sacred event—creation; what is actually sought is the regeneration of the human being. Sacred time is reversible, it’s a primordial mythical time made present.

Mircea Eliade

Many of the ideas put forth by professor Eliade in his groundbreaking book, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion applys to the ancient Maya. While reading his book, I made notes and provide here some of his information born out by research.

The Maya viewed the cosmos as a living entity that is born, develops and dies on the last day of the year—and is then reborn on New Year’s Day, the day on which time began. It’s important to note that their ceremonies and festivals represented the “re-actualization” of sacred events from the mythical past. These were taking place “in the original or sacred time.” They weren’t “reenactments.” They were the sacred events happening in the present. While scholars sometimes refer to shamanic dances as “deity impersonation,” the dancers believed they became the god. Through hallucinogenic trance, they allowed the god use of their bodies to perform acts of creation and other mythical events. This becomes more understandable when we realize that the “gods” were personified forces of nature with names,  images, personalities, biographies and stories about their power and how they behaved.  

For the Maya, every 52 years the world would be created new again, or if it pleased the gods it wouldl be destroyed. Renewal was not taken for granted. Fortunately, with each turning of the year the world and mankind recovered the sanctity they possessed at the original creation event. Each period, perceived as a god, carried the “burden” of their assigned time. Imaged in art as a god carrying a bundle on his back with a tumpline or forehead strap, each had positive and negative characteristics, ushered in as “winds” such as a bountiful harvest, famine or illness that would repeat when they came around again.

Tikal stela dated 475 A.D. Dots stand for one day. A bar is five days. At bottom left, note the face of a king wearing a large earflare and deity headdress.

At the end of their journey, each deity set his burden down and the one next in line “assumed the burden” and carried it forward. On and on, virtually forever, the same deities representing many cycles, repeated their journeys, even to the present. At the end of each period, the god who came “to rest” was celebrated grandly, usually with blood sacrifices of gratitude to ensure his return. As noted, these Period Ending ceremonies were elaborate re-creations of sacred events from the distant and mythical past. The Spaniards reported that at one New Year feast, more than 15,000 people attended, some coming from 30 leagues away, about 75 miles. On these occasions, the kings, as bodily manifestations of time periods, erected stone monuments (stelae) and altars carved with the current date counted forward from the original Creation Day—13.0.0.0.0 4 Ahaw 8 K’umk’u in the Maya calendar (September 8, 3114 B.C.) The reason for this date is not  yet known.

Kings didn’t just “end” the cycles. They “replanted” or “repeated” them, in the sense that they actively tended to (as one tends a garden; chabi, “to do a cornfield” in Maya) the periods to ensure their proper coming and going. The word tzutz (end, complete) points to the idea that the passing of a k’atun (20-year period) is one stage in a sequence of many such passings in the past and the future. When a Maya king “completed” a period, he was participating in a long chain of similar kinds of transactions, stretching far back as one could imagine. Time and human action are but a part of a larger cyclical structure with inherent repetitions. Kings didn’t “end” time in their rituals. Using a basic agricultural metaphor, they perpetuated it through replanting. They were the bodily manifestation of the time periods.

David Stuart (Archaeologist/Epigrapher)

“They renewed on this day (The First of Pop) all the objects which they made use of, such as plates, vessels, stools, mats, and old clothes, and the stuffs with which the wrapped up their idols. They swept out their houses, and the sweepings and the old utensils they threw out on the waste heap outside of town; and no one, even he in need of it, touched it.” 

Frey Diego de Landa

 

 20-Year (K’atun) Period Ending Sacrifice and Prophecy at Uaxactun, Guatemala
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 360 )

WE CROWDED INTO THE PLAZA AT BLACK WATER SKY TO witness the completion of the k’atun, the day when the bearer of the twenty-year period set down his burden so the next god in line could assume it. It had rained most of the morning and all through the circuit that Nine Cormorant made around Uaxactun to confirm land holdings, receive presentations of tribute and give his blessing to the outgoing ministers. When we arrived for the ceremony, the smoke was already rising atop Three Sky Place and we could hear the lords chanting the count of days. The man next us, a merchant, said Nine Cormorant, now revealed atop the eastern stairway as Lord of the K’atun, had already let blood and the strips were being burned in the offering bowl.

A female slave painted blue and wearing white flowers in her hair was led up the steps. We couldn’t see, but Red Back told us her sacrifice was necessary to assure the continuation of the world for another twenty years.

Moments later, Lord Cormorant, lavishly attired in quetzal feathers and a jade-studded skirt, came down the steps with his jaguar prophet. Stopping on the first terrace, the prophet replaced the ruler’s k’atun helmet with the sak huunal. The prophet raised his arms and the drums called us to order. I judged there to be near to six hundred people there, all huddled in blankets. After several moments of silence, looking to the sky with arms outstretched, he gave the prophecy for the next twenty years.

“Ca Lord has shouldered the burden.

Before us, here at Uaxactun, he lifted it up—that we may live.

His journey begins.

Now hear his words for the coming k’atun.

The markers of this k’atun will be expansion and separation.

Words divide the worlds, above and below.

Divided are gods and men, nobles and commoners,

Men and women.

Scaffolds will rise to the canopy.

Measuring cords will stretch far into the forest.

The wilds will be ordered to the ways of men.

Hunters will need to journey farther.

Ca Lord favors the long-distance merchant—

He favors the holy ones and women who give birth to sons.

He gives to those who have, takes from those who have not.

He separates the dry from the wet.

Where one house falls, three will rise.

Calm winds come from the west; storms come from the east.

Evil winds blow strongest from the west.

Faces and families are split.

The high are brought down. The low are raised up.

Smoke and sweat was the burden of One Lord, the builder.

Blood and tears are the burden of Ca Lord.

He is the expander and separator.

Here at Uaxactun the prophecy is given.

Ca Lord Ox Kumk’u—

So it happens, the dawning of the new k’atun.”

Time Referenced to the Creation of the World
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 45)

The shaman’s assistant took the bloodied cloths and put them into a ceramic jar with a lid. Meanwhile, a daykeeper dictated the time periods to a scribe—3,082 years and 242 days since the beginning of the fourth creation of the world. He said the gods who carried the burden of the day were Chan Ik’, Laju’n Pax. After this, it was recorded that “Lord Jaguar Tooth Macaw, Great Tree of Kaminaljuyu and his son, Lord Flint Axe Macaw, underlord at Ahktuunal, took Thunder Flute Rabbit, master merchant at Cerros, in regard as their brother. Later, the cloths would be fed into the conjuring house censer but for now the shaman’s assistants applied “takes-away” to their wounds, a sticky pink substance that stopped the bleeding and eased the pain. With his arm now cleaned, Lord Macaw pointed to the warlord who had the largest spray of quetzal plumage streaming from his helmet. Holding up a blue-and yellow-feathered shield, the hulking warrior led a procession of warriors carrying bundles and baskets from the side of the pyramid to the front, where they set them down on a long bed of fresh pine needles.

____________________________________________________________________________

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

Here are the 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  

Infancy And Childhood

 

Panajachel, Guatemala

This information is taken from my conference notes. The paper, Being A Kid Again: A Cultural and Biological Examination of Childhood Identity, was given by anthropological archaeologist Dr. Amanda Harvey, professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. Gratefully, she provided consulting on the topic of health when I was writing The Path Of The Jaguar trilogy. While the information here mostly applies to the contemporary Maya across a variety of communities, it suggests patterns that have a deep history in the culture. Following Dr. Harvey, I use the present tense unless the evidence suggests otherwise.

  • At birth, the child is anointed and slapped three times, a reference to hearthstone symbology. A person’s birth date controlled his or her temperament and destiny. And their given name was determined by a shaman at a divining ceremony. Generally, it consisted of the father’s family name, the mother’s family name and an informal nickname.
  • Among the ancients, immediately after birth, mothers fastened the infant to a cradle with their heads compressed between two boards. In two days, a permanent fore-and-aft flattening occurred reminiscent of a maize husk. Among the nobility especially, this was a mark of beauty. It has been suggested that the Maya favored decapitation in human sacrifices because it paralleled the “harvesting” of maize, considered the source of sustenance.
  • Also for the ancients, because children were considered to still be fresh from the Otherworld, they were favored for sacrifice to Chaak, god of thunder, lightning and rain. The archaeology bears this out.

Tecpan Market, Guatemala
  • In the birthing ceremony, a cord is cut over a maize cob with an obsidian blade. When a girl is three months old, a “Hip Carrying” ceremony is held where a white shell is tied to her waist cord. Boys have a white bead tied into their hair. Through infancy, boys and girls run naked. And both are dependent upon the mother until weaning ends. Meanwhile, fathers are tending to their fields and matters of the community.
  • Between three and four years of age, when there’s no longer a dependency upon the mother for food—breast milk or otherwise. The primary activity at this time is learning social skills, gained by watching their parents. Through play, the child learns the culture and how to be socially appropriate.
  • The Maya generally value quiet children who are calm and relaxed. 
  • A common sign of poor health brought on by weaning or stress is hypoplasia—brown striations across the teeth. The enamel stops growing at age six. 

Beside Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
  • Between the ages of nine and twelve children practice adult behaviors without repercussions and are no longer dependent upon a parent for survival. Girls learn to weave by watching their mothers, and boys learn to hunt and garden alongside their fathers.
  • In this phase an initiation ceremony is held where the girls have the shell cut from their waist cords, the boys have the white bead cut from their hair and both are anointed (sprinkled) with holy water. It’s a sign they ready to be married, and they take on work expectations such as carrying water and wood and maintaining the household.

Tecpan, Guatemala
Birth Prophecy
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 20-21)

Ayaahh, finally. I was the only sprout in the caah who didn’t know his path and destiny. Mother said my birth prophecy was so special they couldn’t reveal it to anyone, not even to me—until I reached manhood. The prospect of hearing it now nearly distracted me from what I’d just learned about my blood.

“Your mother and I had taken cover in a cave during a great storm. There were many people around, so the women took her behind some boulders, close to a dark pool. They had a fire and except for the thunder outside, everything was quiet. Your crying out startled me awake. They were washing you when a young daykeeper came out of the darkness. He said the sound of your voice caused a spirit to move in him. He offered to say the gratitude and seek your prophecy in exchange for just touching your cheek. We had nothing to trade, so we were very grateful.”

“Touching my cheek? Why would he—?”

“Your mother thinks his ch’ulel recognized yours. He pressed your hand to the soil and welcomed you to the world. After saying a gratitude, he held a long crystal over your head and petitioned the ancestors to reveal to him your path and destiny.”

“With respect—”

Father raised his hand to silence me. “I am going to tell you this now, Seven Maize. Never again. Do not even ask. Listen carefully and remember. The lightning came fast and clear through the blood in the holy man’s leg. The ancestors said your path would be the path of the jaguar and that your destiny is to rule. They said you would rule as a great and powerful warrior.” Father turned and put a hand on my knee. “This is why we could not tell you—or anyone. If your roots or prophecy became known, you would not have lived this long.”

“Rule? How could I ever rule? We may be high placed, but we are still commoners. What does it mean—the path of the jaguar?” 

“You are forgetting what I said about your blood-father. The daykeeper could not tell us about your path. When we came here we asked White Grandfather. He did not know either. Jaguars are cunning and fast, great hunters. They go after their prey as easily in water as up a tree. Also, they watch and wait before pouncing. It could mean you are meant to hunt in the three worlds.”

“Did the ancestors tell him my number and direction?”

“They said you have two favored numbers, three and four. And south is your favored direction.” 

“What else did they say?”

“That was all. The ancestors give what they give.”

My father could talk forever—to boast, give orders or make a friend— but I had to fight for every word. Others I knew might have been excited by such a prophecy. I was disappointed. It was confusing and seemed not all to fit. My heart was already fixed on my uncles’ path. They were builders. As for ruling, that was like asking a butterfly to be a parrot. “He really said I would rule—and as a warrior?” I couldn’t believe it. It had to be a mistake, I wanted it to be.

Father insisted. “As a great and powerful warrior. He said it came clear. There was no doubt. That was the prophecy and that is your destiny. It is fixed. There is nothing to do but accept it. You cannot deny your blood.”

The White Shell and White Bead Rite Of Passage
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 142)

It happened quickly. The holy ones bowed to the wind and gestured for a deceased ancestor to stand beside each of us. With the spirits in place, the serpent lord danced and sung a petition to raise us to the position of full members of the caah. One by one, with an assistant holding a ceramic censer, he faced the female initiates with open arms as their mothers spoke the name of their daughters saying “…as First Mother, my mother and all mothers before me have done, I release you to your destiny and welcome you as a woman of Cerros.” After that, they used their blades to cut the white shells from their daughter’s waist cords. 

When it came time for Thunder Flute to release me, it surprised me to hear him speak my name as Macaw rather than Rabbit. “Seven Maize Chan Macaw,” he said, “As First Father, my father and all fathers before me have done, I release you to your destiny and welcome you as a man of Cerros.” 

Man of Cerros. Finally. While we waited for the others to complete the releasing and cuttings, I wondered if the ancestor standing beside me was Rabbit or Macaw. I wanted it to be Macaw. In truth, Lord Jaguar Tooth Macaw should have been the one to cut the white bead from my hair. I vowed: If I ever have sprouts or flowers, they will grow up knowing me. I will know them, and I will tell how they came to be.

Hypoplasia: Brown Striations in the Teeth
Excerpt From Jaguar Sun (p. 40)

I HAD BEEN LIVING AT THE LODGE OF NOBLES FOR NEARLY a year when, on one of my visits home, Mother told me that Sharp Tooth confided to Father and she that I had “special powers.” He said one sign of it was the brown lines that ran across my teeth. I’d had that since I was six. This, combined with the healing of my leg and then coming back from the “river of death” told him I had defeated both the demon and the lords of death. Regarding this, he advised them to watch for more signs. It could be that my path was that of a healer or shaman.

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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

 

 

 

Copal Incense

Copal (Pom) tree with bamboo growing alongside it

The process of making copal incense begins by scraping the bark with a blade. When the sap comes out it’s collected on a piece of bark or corn husk. The resin, which wards of insects from the tree, is thick and sticky and has a white to yellow color. In contact with the air, it becomes hard like a shiny rock, so saliva is applied to keep it malleable. It was traded locally as a resin in maize husks, and for long-distance transport, it was shaped into hard nuggets that could be ground into powder for sprinkling onto a burnt offering or for burning in a censer. It was also traded as hardened, dusty granules.

Copal nugget on a piece of bark

Pom is the Maya word for the tree. It was tapped during a full moon when its yellow resin flows most readily. The bark of the tree, when boiled, made a tea that could help relieve stomach pains and kill intestinal parasites. The powdered bark was also used as an external antiseptic. And it was one of the trees that survived burning. It grows wild throughout the Yucatan Penninsula.

Breath constitutes the soul essence, which continues after death as the soul of the dead. So incense coming out of the mouth of a god-faced censer was considered his sacred breath. The  spirits consume this “sweet-smelling blood of trees” and are nourished by it because it contains the entity’s ch’ulel, “soul.” Sprinkled onto a burning offering such as a blood-soaked cloth, it carried the sacrifice to the gods. Other aromas that fed ch’ulel to the gods & ancestors included dried blossoms, alcohol, tobacco and the blood of animals and men.

In addition to god-faced censers, there were effigy censers considered to be the living representation of an ancestor, considered a conduit to the gods to solicit favors. To be close enough to smell the incense was to be in the spiritual presence of the god or ancestor. Ritually, the burning of incense “activated” or “enlivened” the spirits, so burning censers were placed at the four corners of a pyramid to represent the four corners of the cosmos. When ancestors are portrayed on the upper parts of monuments such as stelae and altars, they are often surrounded in curls that represent “precious wind,” or the perfume of flowers and incense, the carriers of ch’ulel.

Copal balls were often shaped into hearts to symbolize the heart, the seat of the inner soul and residence of ch’ulel. Copal powder was mixed with pigments to make the colors shine, and it made the paint adhere better to stone and ceramic surfaces.

Copal Used In A Hallucinogenic Journey
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 121 )

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…”

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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