Ancient Maya Cultural Traits

Dugout Canoes And Mythology

Paddler gods escorted the Maize God across the Milky Way

                                                                                                                Lake Peten Itza, Guatemala

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

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

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

Trees Favored For Carving Canoes

Cedar (K’u’che’)

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

Guanacaste (Ear Fruit)

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


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


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

Barba Jolote

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

Caribbean Pine

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


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

Canoe  Shape

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


An incised bone from the Late Classic Burial 116 in Temple 1 at Tikal shows the “Paddler Gods” and other creatures escorting the Maize God across the primordial sea—the Milky Way—at the beginning of creation. The bone is one of many artistic depictions and hieroglyphs that tell the story of the Paddlers “planting” or establishing three sacred god-stones referred to as “thrones.” It happened at a place called Na Ho’ Kan, “First Five Sky” in the Milky Way. Today, we recognize them as Alnitak, Saiph and Rigel, three prominent stars in the constellation Orion. The incised bone shows “Jaguar Paddler” at the front of the canoe, identified by his headdress. At the rear is “Stingray Paddler,” and in the middle is the Maize God whose head is tapered to resemble a maize cob. The canoe is tilted slightly, an indication that they are delivering him to the Underworld, the location of the Maize God’s rebirth.

The myth was codified at many sites by erecting three temples in honor of the stone-throne gods. Usually the temples, often very massive, sit atop an enormous platform. At El Mirador in Guatemala, fifteen “triadic” pyramid-temples have been identified.

This is the Canna pyramid at Caracol. On top are three temples. Two peak are at right and left.

I highly recommend a fabulous video of what it looks like today!

Finally, the great stones in the sky were, and continue to be, modeled in the hearths of Maya houses. Always, they consist of three stones, replicating the three celestial “hearth stones” in the Orion nebula.

On an Expedition, Pech Orders the Paddlers

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 32-33)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Links To 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

Maya Bloodletting And Elite Initiation

Rollout vase photo courtesy of Justin Kerr

The theme of the past three posts was initiation. Examples were from my novel, Jaguar Rising. In the story I added another ceremony, a rite of passage for individuals who would enter the brotherhood of elites. Typically for the Maya, this involved bloodletting. More than a ritual of endurance, the symbolism around blood was complex and powerful.

Inherited royal blood, whatever the status, was perceived as the rarified essence or “breath” of the ch’ulel “soul, ”a conduit between the world of the living and the world of gods and ancestors. This was because blood carried the life force. In the image above, just such a ritual is underway. That the man on the left has his heel raised means he is dancing. And in the dance, he and the man third from the left have let blood from their penises (notice the drops), usually by driving a stingray spine or other perforator through them to produce lots of precious and sacred blood. Other preferred areas to pierce were tongues, ears and elbows. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boom, Boom — Boom!

Boom, Boom — Boom!

Boom, Boom — Boom!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Links To for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

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

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

The Maya Celestial Realm

Rollout vase photo courtesy of Justin Kerr

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

The Milky Way

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

The Ecliptic

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

The Portal

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

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

Here’s an example of the portal, halved and far right in a frame, shown perhaps as a wall painting or a decoration for the vase. The scene shows the ruler sitting on a throne receiving gifts from visiting dignitaries. The gift on the throne in front of him is a codex, bound and decorated with feathers. The medallion contains a partial face of an otherworld god. The kneeling figure with arms crossed is a gesture of submission.

Rollout vase photo courtesy of Justin Kerr

The Initiations in Jaguar Rising

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Look around. Where are you?” 

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

“What is happening?”

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

“There are others with you.”

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

“You know the paddlers.”

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

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

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

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

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

“A stingray spine through his nose?”

“And wrinkled skin.”

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

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

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

“Beyond the tree—what do you see?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Untie the cord and open the bundle.” 

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

“Little Owl?”

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

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

“Approaching a canoe now—Little Owl!”

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

“Little Owl is asking you to trust.”

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

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

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

“What are you seeing, grandson?”

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

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

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

Links To for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

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

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller


The Maya underworld and the god of death

Rollout vase photo courtesy of Justin Kerr

The Maya Underworld, called Xibalba (She-balba), “The Place of Fright,” was the realm beneath the surface of the Earth and under water, especially in caves. It was perceived to have nine descending levels arranged like an inverted pyramid, and was ruled by the Bolontik’u, “Nine Lords of Death” and was often depicted on vases as a giant conch or snail shell which enclosed a mysterious other reality interpreted by some to be an infinite, eternal and bloody ocean of bliss.

The Underworld was always pressing upward through portals—volcanoes, floods, and earthquakes—where the demons could emerge and work their dark magic. As entrances to the Underworld, caves were considered sacred and preferred locations for sacrificial offerings. There is no evidence to suggest that Xibalba was a kind of hell; the belief was that to die in one world was to be born into another.

The  Lords Of Xibalba

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

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

The Vase Shown Above

Above, center right, the Underworld Lord, known to scholars as “God A,” is shown dancing beside a witz “living mountain” throne, on top of which is an infant jaguar identified by its tail and paws. Art Historian Penny Janice Steinbach suggests that the infant with jaguar traits is being sacrificed as “part of a pre-accession ritual serving to endow royal heirs with the ability to conjure, which, in turn, was integral to assuming the throne.” To the right of God A is a dog, known to escort souls of the deceased across a river and into the Underworld.

Above him, is a fanciful firefly, perhaps there to illuminate the darkness of the watery world below. To the left of the spirit-spewing mountain, the rain god Chaak dances, holding aloft a hand-stone typical of those used in certain ball games and boxing matches. In his other hand, he wields an axe with which he creates lightning and thunder. Typical of Maya art, the image is filled with symbolism, glyphs and mythical references. Every element has meaning.

God A — Cizin “Farter.”

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

Jaguar Rising — The Novel

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

Journey Into The Underworld
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (pp. 121-123 )

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Look around. Where are you?” 

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

“What is happening?”

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

Encountering Cizin Ku (The god of stench)
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (pp. 137-138 )

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

When Cizin Ku turned and looked up I stood back.

“Grandson, did you say Cizin Ku?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Links To 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

Hunting Deer

Vase rollout courtesy of Justin Kerr

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

                                          Fray Diego de Landa, Bishop Inquisitor of Colonial Yucatan

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

                               Hernando Cortés, Conquistador (Referencing the Aztec) 

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

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

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

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

Hunting deer For Food

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

Hunting required communication with divine overlords

Because animals were the “property” of their overlord, humans had to persuade the gods to allow the giving (sacrifice) of one of its members for human survival or ritual necessity. And in order to maintain balance between human and animal, the debt had to be repaid. For commoners, this could be an assurance that the hunter would offer something in return. It could be as simple as a burnt offering of  copal incense, or maize gruel. Whatever the offering, what mattered was following through on the intention to restore balance.

We have to remember, because everything (rocks, trees, buildings, etc.) was endowed with a spirit and god-overlord, acts of taking involved a negotiation with a deity. In some instances, it was reported that the hunter gave back to insure the animal’s reincarnation. For the Tzotzil of central Chiapas, the “Lord of the Deer” used a whistle to inform a stag or doe that he was present or  returning home. And animals were perceived to reside in supernatural corrals inside mountains.  

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

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

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

In my novel, Jaguar Rising, one of the four trials given to the protagonist by his guide is the capture — not the killing— of a deer. He had to do it alone and with only a weapon or device that he would make. And he can’t return home until this is accomplished. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If Mother knew this she would be horrified. 

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Links To for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

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

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

The Sacred World Tree (Ceiba)

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

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


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

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

The Tree

(I’m 6’6″)

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

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

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

The Dance of Itzam Yeh

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 363)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They stand out blue with the moon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whether Itzam Yeh is a Macaw or a Laughing Falcon

Excerpt from Jaguar Sun (p. 239)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Links To 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

Ancient Maya Termination Rituals

Temples and other structures were ritually buried when no longer used

Caracol Structure B5

For the ancient Maya the most important interaction was not between persons, objects or buildings, it was their relationship with the spirits that resided within them. While everything was perceived as being alive, only those things that were useful were ritually ensouled with a guardian spirit—or a deity in the case of temples, palaces and sacred places.

When a house, palace or temple was built, an och’ k’ak’ “fire-entering” ritual was held to ensoul it with a guardian spirit, often a deceased ancestor. The ritual affected a transformation from disorder (material) to order (spiritual). Throughout the ensouled object’s “lifetime” of use, its spirit was respected and ritually fed. The ritual was also performed to make objects— such as carved jade and stone monuments— sacred.

For a small item like a plate or jade carving, the ensouling ritual required an offering such as a small bird, copal incense, maize kernels, bits of spices or aspirations of a fermented  maize beverage. To ensoul a house, a bird or small animal like a paca (rodent family) would be sacrificed at the center-post, and the four corners of the house were anointed with its blood, incense and chants of gratitude and summoning. Flowers were likely involved as well, particularly those with white blossoms because they represented the ch’ulel—spirit or soul. A freqent phrase in the inscriptions is “the white flower soul.”

Spirit-entering rites for temples, palaces and other large structures were often done in the context of dedication ceremonies that could include the placement of ancestral burials and caches within, under or in front of a structure, sometimes in association with sculpted and inscribed stela, especially throughout the Classic Period. 

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

When an object, monument or building was no longer going to be used, termination rites were performed to release the spirit—or deity in the case of temples—back to nature, the state of disorder which the ancients referred to as “the wilds.” Wilderness.

My guide at Caracol in Belize showed me an enormous and steep unexcavated mound that had likely been a shrine or temple. At the top, the rubble among the trees and weeds consisted of limestone pebbles and  hundreds of large boulders, evidence that the structure had been ritually terminated. “Boulders don’t roll uphill,” he quipped. These were raw stones with no trace of ever having been carved. I paraphrase his analysis: “No amount of weathering, not even over fifteen hundred years, could have made this happen. Everything you see here was ritually destroyed—terminated and buried, laid to rest so it could become wild again.” The photo above is a different mound than the one the guide showed me. Here, I imagine the stones are a mixture of carved stones from the structure that sat atop the mound, and raw stones from when it was terminated.

Ritual termination is in evidence throughout Mesoamerica, often seen in ceramic plates that have “kill holes,” and monuments where the carved faces or features of former rulers had been smashed or destroyed in antiquity. Even to knock off a nose rendered a monument inert, no longer able to influence human affairs because the spirit of the depicted individual had been removed.


House Termination Scene

Excerpt from Jaguar Sun (pp. 180, 181) 

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Links To for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

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

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller  

Kakaw (Chocolate)

A highly valued trading commodity, and an elite beverage

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

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

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

A palace scene from Dos Pilas, Guatemala shows a flower bouquet being presented to a seated lord. In front and below him is a platter of kakaw pods.

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

The kakaw sacks shown in the Bonampak murals were labeled with the kakaw glyph surmounted by a number which David Stuart deciphered as 5 pik of forty thousand seeds. He also notes the frequent use of a 3 pik label—twenty-four thousand seeds—which coincides with a count of cacao seeds that was considered a “carga” in Postclassic highland Mexico.

At the time of the conquest, a “load” of kakaw—24,000 beans—was worth twice as much in Tenochtitlan as along the Gulf coast. A rabbit costs 10 beans, and a porter charged 20 beans for a short trip. A 1545 document written in Nahuatl states that a turkey was worth 200 cacao beans, a tamale worth one, and the daily wage of a porter at that time was 100 beans. It was also noted that dishonest traders made counterfeit beans by stripping the husks of the beans, filling them with sand, and mixing them with genuine beans. Careful customers squeezed each bean to test it.


Counting Kakaw Beans

Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 205)

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

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


Kakaw Valuation

Excerpt from Jaguar Sun (p. 98)

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


Checking For Counterfeit Beans

Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 67)

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


Pouring Kakaw To Make Foam

Excerpt from Jaguar Wind and Waves (p. 67)

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

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


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

Links To 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  

Maya Buildings and Houses Were Made Sacred

By installing spirits within them, they were given life

For the ancients, there was no separation between the secular and the sacred. Everything was sacred, ensouled with ch’ulel, a vital source that came from the sun. Beyond the city or village there were chaotic spaces referred to as “the wilds.” These were the places of animals, ghosts, demons, spirits and “foreigners.” While these were sometimes talked about as hostile, the wilds (wilderness) and everything in it contained ch’ulel, a spirit.

Because human beings couldn’t live in chaos—the wilds—life and living was all about maintaining order within the caah, the community. The model for the caah was (and remains) nature and the cosmos, where the Maya observed constancy, beauty, pattern and cyclical motion—the apparent features of absolute reality. Modeling these in architectural structures and houses, they created sacred spaces distinct from the wilds. In a real way, by using dimensions, patterns and forms found in nature, they consecrated a space and considered it the center of the universe.

For example, the parts of a Maya house were correlated with parts of the human body and the cosmos. The floor was considered its “feet,” the door a “mouth,” the thatched roof a “head of hair,” the walls the “bones” and the four corners a replica of the cosmos. Houses were mostly for sleeping; the activities of daily life mostly took place outside. Functional structures such as kitchens, storehouses and workshops were generally separate from the house because it was not only sacred, it was a living entity. Doorways were open, without doors, to show hospitality. And for privacy, a fabric was pulled across the opening, tied to wooden pegs inserted into the walls. 

Making a new structure a “home,” a living entity, required an Och K’ahk’ “Enters the Fire” ceremony where fire was drilled between three hearthstones—modeled after three bright stars in the Orion nebula. Our names for them are Alnitak, Saiph, Rigel. Astronomers refer to that nebula, a cloud of gas, dust and stars, as M42.

By installing a structure with life—heat, light and a guardian spirit—a Maya house or temple became a healthy and vital home. At a typical Och K’ahk’ ceremony, a shaman offered a blood sacrifice, usually a bird, to entice a guardian spirit—often a deceased ancestor—to take up residence in the house to protect it and the inhabitants. 

Tikal Temple II

Temples, which were an extension of the Maya home, were considered the dwelling places of the gods. Their homes. The temples also served as replicas of caves, the residence of underworld supernaturals. When the temple curtain covered the doorway, the god was asleep in his resting place. 

At many sites, the inscriptions speak of three hearthstones being places in the sky as one of the founding acts of creation. The hearth in the temple was an essential conduit between it and the cosmic hearth planted by the Maize God. Ceibal, a medium-sized city in northern Peten, Guatemala may have been called “Three-Stone Place” anciently, because there was a cache of three jade boulders under a stela in the center of a temple.

In his study of architectural dimensions, archaeologist Christopher Powell found that “the width of most Maya houses in Yucatan consisted of units called uinics ‘humans,’ which are measured by stretching a cord from fingertip to fingertip, with arms outstretched and perpendicular to the body. One uinic (pronounced winnik) was virtually equal to the height of the person who was doing the measuring. Thus, a human being with arms outstretched and perpendicular to the body may be inscribed by a square.” This is seen in many temple doorways that are square. It calls to mind the drawing of the Vitrucian Man by Leonardo da Vinci. 

Besides the human form, Dr. Powell also found that the ancients incorporated the shapes of flowers and shells which display Phi, nature’s most common proportion. Flowers have five petals or multiples of five petals. Projected onto the Maya world, there were four directions and a center. “The shapes of houses, milpas, and temples and their works of art all share the proportions inherent in three simple geometric forms: the equilateral triangle, square and pentagon. These three regular polygons, with their square root of two, square root of three, and phi rectangular expressions, provide an underlying structure that unites the Maya cosmos… Pentagonal arrangements of seeds in the cross-sections of fruit are common. The phi equiangular spiral is observed in seashells and snail shells and in the growth spirals of various plants. The Yucatec Maya word for belly button, “tzuk,” or division place, divides the human form by the phi proportion. 

In the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Quiché Maya, there’s a passage that, according to Dr. Powell, may be viewed as a concise formula for measuring a phi rectangle with a cord. 

It took a long performance and account to complete the emergence of all the sky-earth: the fourfold siding, the fourfold cornering, measuring, fourfold staking, halving the cord, stretching the cord, in the sky, on the earth, the four sides, the four corners, as is said, by the Maker, Modeler, Mother-Father of life, of human kind… 

Christopher Powell

The ancients used cords (intertwined vines) of different lengths with knots along them to lay out the location and length of walls. To lay out a floor, for instance, a cord was dowsed with white lime powder (pulverized limestone), stretched taught at the specified location and then snapped to leave a white impression, along which the builders would lay their stones to build a wall. The cords were equivalent to today’s measuring tapes, providing a means to create and reproduce lines with consistency over time and place. In this way, they replicated the proportions found in nature and the cosmos. 

Geometry and numbers are sacred because they codify the hidden order behind creation.

Stephen Skinner

Ensouling A House
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 74 )

When Grandfather Rabbit died, Thunder Flute decided that, rather than repair our house, which was next to his and badly in need of fixing, he would follow the common practice by terminating both houses and build a larger one over his father’s bones. Grandmother would move in with us. 

Once the masonry platform was built, the house went up quickly. But before we could move in, its skin and bones had to be ensouled with a guardian spirit. Otherwise terrible things could happen. Somehow, within the seven days of the Fire Entering rites that invited a spirit to take up residence in the house, I needed to find a way to be alone with White Grandfather. I didn’t know what I was going to say, but with Thunder Flute being more willing to answer my questions now, I hoped I might learn something before then that would help. 

I got my chance when he took me to an old quarry down by the New River. With the ensouling rites just two days away, he needed hearthstones to establish the heart of the house, the place where a spirit would enter. The three stones had to be a certain size and shape for cooking, so we used long-handled axes with wide flats to pull back the weeds, dig out the soil and expose a long section of white stone. The day was hot. Before we began to chop the stone itself, we sat on a ledge, wiped the sweat off our faces and took our keyem—a gruel made by stirring balls of maize dough in water. Mother spiced the dough with honey and chili powder, so I was eager for it. 

“You can say your gratitude if you like,” Father said. He knew that Mother had gotten my sister, brother and me into the habit of offering a gratitude for everything we took from the earth, field, forest or water. I was embarrassed to say it in front of him, but he was allowing it. I took off my hat, put my hands flat on the stone and bowed my head. 

With respect Earth Lord,

I stand before you—Seven Maize Rabbit.

I speak for myself and for Thunder Flute Rabbit.

In this place of beauty, we offer you our gratitude.

Forgive us for uncovering your face here,

For chopping your white beauty.

We need three of your little ones for our hearth. 

We will honor them at the Fire Entering rites.

We will honor them as the heart of our house.

With respect Earth Lord, receive our praise and gratitude.

Thunder Flute scratched some lines in the exposed stone. Following them, he cut grooves with his chisel and hammerstone while I cut into the stone from below. It took all morning, aching muscles and buckets of sweat, but finally, we had a ledge. By stomping on it we broke off three large blocks and rolled them to a pool of water where we could sit in the shade and wash them off as we shaped them. 

Using Measuring Cords (At Xunantunich, Belize)
Excerpt from Jaguar Sun (p. 246)

Approaching the broad steps of the temple, I saw again, high up, the beautifully stuccoed figures of men and gods that I’d seen from a distance. The deeply sculpted, brilliant red frieze wrapped around the temple like a headband. At the foot of the steps, Obsidian explained that he and the other workers were the only ones permitted to be up there, so I waited and watched while he and his brother-in-law took the cords to several men who were pacing on the floor above the sculpted band. 

It was fascinating to watch my brother moving the measuring cords back and forth and dusting them with lime powder. I couldn’t see when they stooped down, but I knew a firm snap of the cord would leave a white line to show the placement of the walls and doorways so another worker could chisel small holes to mark them permanently for the stone setters.


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

Links To 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  

Maya Creation Myths

The events of creation are recorded on monuments throughout the Maya region. At larger cities such as Tikal, Uaxactun, Copan, Palenque, El Mirador and Caracol the more detailed inscriptions name the involved deities and provide dates.

The information varies somewhat from place to place and across time, but there are commonalities that closely match the creation myth described in the Popol Vuh, a written account of creation, and other stories derived from K’iche’ oral traditions, such that scholars tend to agree in principle, if not in the details of the ancient Maya view of creation. In Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and The Glories of Gods and Kings by Dennis Tedlock, the writer(s) provided this succinct overview:

And then the earth arose because of them

(the sky deities). It was simply their word

That brought it forth.

For the forming of earth they said ‘Earth.”

It arose suddenly, just like a cloud,

Like a mist, now forming and unfolding.

Then the mountains were separated 

From the water, all at once the great mountains

Came forth.

Given the limitations of space of a blog and variations in scholarly interpretation, I offer the following as a condensed but representative sampling of the key players and places in the ancient Maya creation story.

Creation Date: Time for the ancients was cyclical, spiraling in eras. There were three before the current one, which began in 3114 B.C.. Scholars still debate the precise date, but this began the “Long Count.” Every day in the future was referenced to it, literally by counting the days forward. There’s some indication that the days were counted using stones and that these were bound into bundles to represent periods. For instance, a t’un or one year “bundle” or “binding” consisted of 360 days or stones. Five more were added to make a complete year. A “binding of the k’atun” referenced a bundle of 20 years or 7200 stones. Why the date in 3114 B.C. was chosen is not known, 

Creation Deities: The names of creation deities differ between the Popol Vuh and inscriptions on monuments, but their attributes as diviners, healers, and makers is nearly identical. As the story goes, two creator “grandparents”—First Father and First Mother—had twin sons, identified by scholars as “The Hero Twins.” In addition, there were three sky gods. At Palenque, scholars refer to them as GI, GII, GIII. The Popol Vuh gives their names: Hurricane Thunderbolt, Youngest Thunderbolt and Sudden Thunderbolt. According to iconographer Karen Bassie-Sweet, these  gods paralled the “Heart Of Sky” deities, and the thunderbolt brothers were manifestations of the Maize God. 

Creation Events: According to art historian Julia Guernsey on August 13, 3114 B.C. the gods established three hearthstones in the sky as thrones. They named them “Jaguar,” Snake” and “Water.” We know them as the stars Rigel, Saiph and Ainitak in the Orion nebula. And what astronomers refer to as M42 Nebula, they saw as the fire in the cosmic hearth. Creation of the Earth itself was credited to the Maize God—Hunal Ye “First Father.” He “entered the sky and made proper” the raising of “Raised-Up-Sky-Place, the eight-house-partitions, house of the north on February 5, 3112 B.C.” That happened 542 days after the 3114 B.C. creation event. To make proper is to circumambulate, so this refers to the act of setting the constellations in motion around the North Star.

Cosmic Order: The cosmos was seen as a gigantic ceiba (kapok) tree growing at the center of the universe. Its branches reach to the Upper World; its trunk is the Middle World and the roots extend into the Underworld. As sap travels up from the roots of a maize stalk, souls travel up and down this sacred tree. At the top, where the three stones were set in the sky, sits Itzam Yeh, a bird deity who fancies himself greater than the sun. And from his perch, referred to as Heart Of Sky (the North Star region), he dispensed the life force.

Creation Locations: In the fourth creation, before human beings, Chahk, the lightning and rain god, went to the mountain that first rose above the water. There, he raised his gigantic axe and split the mountain, allowing Huun Ixim, the Maize God, to ascend and bring life-sustaining abundance to the Earth. That mountain was referred to as Yax Hal Witz “First True Mountain.” Archaeologically, many temples—such as Mundo Perdido (Structure 5C-54) at Tikal—and other structures—Uaxactun’s Group H—were replicas of the Yax Hal Witz.

Previous Creations: Eras before the present creation, First Father and First Mother attempted to create beings who would pay them respect and praise their names. The first world was inhabited by dwarf beings who resembled animals and couldn’t speak. In the second world they were made of mud, and in the third they were made of wood. These not being satisfactory, the creators said “The dawn has approached and morning has come for humankind—born in the light, begotten in the light.” So, from the maize that came forth at First True Mountain, First Mother fashioned the first human beings from maize dough and water. Grinding it nine times, it became human flesh.  And when she washed her hands, the grease became human fat. These humans were perfect and knowledgable. They were able to see as well as they gods, so they blurred their vision. In that way, they could only see what was close to them. 

Philosopher David Hume said we would be utterly incapable of making sense of the world around us were it not for the process of cause and effect. Every civilization attempts to explain how things are, how the universe, the world and we came to be. The sustained nightly dedication of the ancient Maya in observing the sky over centuries is beyond remarkable, a testiment to how determined they were to understand the workings of the visible universe and world. 

Equally remarkable, were the many and unique ways they attempted to replicate and invigorate the stories they told about creation and its perceived creators. In our era, the emphasis has shifted. Instead of naked-eye observation to understand the mysteries of the universe and life, we use sophisticated technologies. And there appears to be little interest in modeling—“clothing”—ourselves and our environments in either the creation story inherited from the East, or the Universe story that’s emerging from science. Hopefully, somewhere ahead, that connection will be restored.  

Author Willis Harman tells the story of talking with a Native American leader about how white people have difficulty understanding the Indian way of looking at the world. The Indian replied: “It’s easy. You only have to remember two things. One is, everything in the universe is alive. The other is, we’re all relatives.” 

First True Mountain
Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 254)

My brother went across the courtyard and stood on the steps above Red Paw and Pech. Dragonfly continued to translate. “What did the Makers do? They invoked Grandmother of Glory! And their thoughts came clear. Fox, Coyote, Parrot and Crow brought ears of yellow maize and white maize from the split place, from First True Mountain, Flowering Mountain Earth where Grandmother Of Glory ground the maize nine times. The water she used in rinsing her hands made fat—human fat. And with it Sovereign Plumed Serpent made the first humans, our Mother-Fathers.” With a swish of his robe, Comb Pace came down the steps and went to center. “The humans made from fat were different,” he said. “They made words! They praised the directions and they listened. They walked and they used their muscles. They offered their sweat, blood and smoke to the Makers and Modelers. Such was the making by First Grandfather and First Grandmother.” 

Comb Paca approached the dais, turned his back on us and spoke with his hands at his side. “Let it be said, let it be known. In our k’in, the making and modeling continues. As at the split place, First True Mountain, Flowering Mountain Place, so here at Kaminaljuyu. We see the making in the ground, in the trees, in the animals. We see the modeling in the lake. It comes clear to us what has been done when we honor the sky bearers and keep the count of k’inob. It comes clear when we celebrate the rounds of the wanderers and the turnings of the sun. It comes clear to us when we make our circuits at the sowing and the dawning, planting and harvesting. It also comes clear when Our Bounty stands before us as the Center of All That Is, as Great Tree, as Lord One Maize.”

Calendar Fixed To The Creation Date 
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. 

The Three Stones Of Creation
Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 199)

Under the influence of six cups of chih, Lord Smoking Mirror praised the work of my uncles at the House of the Maize God. And judging from his wife’s expression, he told us something we were not supposed to know—that he was going to halt the construction on his brother’s temple in favor of a more modest but equally powerful snake mountain named for the place where the maize god set the three stones of creation in the sky. “It will be like the Three Stone Mountain at Mirador,” he said, “Just not as tall. Next to it will be a compound for warriors with a proper lodge, patios and a larger training field…” As he spoke, Thunder Flute’s glance told me that Smoking Mirror, like his brother, was desperately trying to win favor with his father. Had Laughing Falcon heard what his brother was planning he would have been furious.

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

Links To for paperback books and Kindle Editions—

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

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

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

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