Caves: The Underworld
Caves, where one descends toward the k’u’x (heart or center) of a mountain, are especially hot places. This is due to their symbolic proximity to the powers unleashed by cosmic convergence at the axis mundi.
Eduard Fisher (Anthropologist)
The Yucatan Peninsula is one of the largest limestone shelves in the world. In the north, the bedrock is porous and the landscape relatively flat, so rainwater runs and collects in underground caves. There are no visible rivers here. When a cave ceiling collapses, the result is a sinkhole or cenoté (ts’onot “Sacred Well” in Mayan), that’s usually open to sunlight.
Farther south to Guatemala, especially toward the mountains where thick limestone increasingly mixes with harder volcanic rocks, there are many caves but no cenotés. North and south, caves were a source of water, especially during droughts. Because it was considered zuhuy, “virgin,” it was the preferred libation for use in ceremonies and rituals.
As entrances to Xibalba, caves were also used as portals, places of ritual—ecstatic dancing, feasting, sacrificing, places to bury the dead and journey to the otherworlds by ingesting psychoactive drugs.
Cenotés were especially favored as places of human sacrifice, the prime example being this one, the “Mouth At The Well Of The Itza” at Chichen Itza in Northern Yucatan. A popular belief was that virgins were the preferred sacrifice here, but archaeologist Guillermo de Anda of the University of Yucatan pieced together the bones of 127 bodies from a nearby sacred cave and found over 80 percent were boys between the ages of 3 and 11. The other 20 percent were mostly adult men.
Caves are heavily represented in Mesoamerica, appearing in Maya art beginning in the Early Preclassic period (1500-900 B.C.). On monuments and painted ceramics, they are depicted as open enclosures wherein are seated gods or rulers. In the Late Classic period, the doorways to temples atop the pyramid mountains in Yucatan were often made to look like the wide-open mouths of deities.
Since art had to communicate cultural information, it was restricted to symbolic imagery whose meanings were shared by members of the Maya community… Individual taste and creative expression had to be subordinated to the imperative of communication. Arbitrary change could not be tolerated… Because of its social function, Maya iconography was of necessity conservative.
Linda Schele and Mary Miller
On the left, Chaak, god of thunder, lightning and rain holds court from his mountain cave throne.
Perhaps musicians emerging from a deified cave (left) to welcome the ruler on his throne.
Piedras Negras Stela 5
Ruler 3 addresses a courtier from his mountain cave (temple) throne.
Drawing courtesy of Montgomery, John. The Montgomery Drawings Collection. 2000.
Because everything in the Maya world was perceived to be alive, it’s understandable that mountains (pyramids) and caves (mouths of gods) would be represented in their art and architecture.
The earth itself was conceived as a living sentient being bestowed with the capacity to see, breathe, and embody the concept of ‘personhood.’
Jeremy Coltman (Anthropologist)
Approaching The Mouth Of Death (Cave)
Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 129)
Finally, we came to a place under a dripping canopy where long ago the side of the hill had broken off and fell into an immense black hole. Now, tall trees with lianas hanging into the abyss grew up from the darkness. Others with long roots gripped onto moss- and lichen-covered boulders like talons. A jumble of jagged rocks, vines, rotting and threatening trees like poisonwood and thorny acacia made it impossible to get close enough to see the bottom of the hole but we could hear the drip-water coming off the lianas.
Rising sharply up the hill were the remains of rotting and weed-covered logs that once provided a stairway. Before going up I got a fist-sized stone and threw it into the black hole. Looking at me, White Grandfather poked up his fingers to count while we listened. On the sixth finger we heard a plunk and a fluttering of wings—parrots it turned out. “The Mouth Of Death,” he said.
Inside The Mouth Of Death
Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p.131-132)
White Grandfather kept going so I followed him to the back wall where the torches illuminated a hole large enough for a man to fit through, cut in the shape of the painted medallion at White Flower House. This one had a stucco frame around it painted blue. “Portal to the Underworld,” he said. When he poked his torch into the hole the flames came back with a whooshing sound. “The breath of Xibalba,” he said.
Although he’d told me stories about the underworld and the lords of death who dwelled there, it didn’t lessen my fear of being so close to it—or them—especially when he handed me his torch, turned sideways and stepped through the portal. From the other side, he reached back and took the torch so I could come through with my own torch. When he offered his hand I grabbed it and he helped me through. Following him into the darkness with our torches held high, my sandals sunk into soft and very cold dirt. In front of us was the blackest black I’d ever seen. Behind us, the wall above the waist-high portal seemed to be moving. Bats! Winged monsters the size of serving platters, black and huddled together, writhed like palm leaves in a breeze. I shivered and drew my torch closer.
Boulders bigger than a house, some black, some gray, others with dark lines running through them blocked our way, so we went around them and came to a flat where smaller boulders had been arranged to make an altar on a mound. Rocks at the bottom were burnt. Those higher up were encrusted with dried blood and soot. All around there were intact pots and three-legged plates, censers with stacked bird faces, figurines of broad-hipped women, mushroom stones and animal skulls. Dog, deer and tapir were the only ones I could recognize. “The ancestor we told you about, the one who told us it was proper that we were forced out of Mirador? This is where he revealed himself in the smoke.”
White Grandfather led me beyond the altar, to a place where he held out his arm to prevent me from going any farther. Across an immense chasm of darkness in front of us there were jagged shapes and I heard the sound of running water.
My voice echoed when I asked if people went down there—if he had gone down there. He’d not heard of anyone attempting it.
I spoke louder and was about to clap my hands when a flutter of wings told me that wouldn’t be wise. “Too deep,” my teacher said. “Treacherous. Throw a stone.” I picked one up and threw it as far as I could, counting out loud. On the count of “five” we heard a crash followed by a plunk. “The old woman we told you about—our ancestor—said there was a curse put on this place. She said the entrance was behind the hole in the ground where we climbed the wooden steps. Her grandfather spoke of pilgrims coming through there to make offerings to the Earth Lord and the mountain gods, until one of the lords of the underworld became jealous. He shook the ground and vomited up a river of water that flooded the cave. Many people drowned. After that, a black sorcerer put a curse on this place. People stopped coming. After a while, they terminated the caah and left.”
“Did she tell you about the curse—what it was?”
By the light of our torch, the lines on my teacher’s face looked deeper. “To keep people away, the sorcerer called it the Mouth Of Death. He said those who breathe the cold breath of Xibalba would die by drowning.” The expression on my face was easy to read. “No need to worry, grandson. We made proper offerings to the Xibalba Lords. The curse has been lifted.”
“Do you know for certain?”
White Grandfather didn’t reply. Cautiously he led me along the ledge to a place where our torches lit spires coming down from the ceiling and boulders rising out of the abyss. We skirted more boulders and came to a place where there was a tunnel of blackness in the distance, a hole blacker than the surrounding rock. “There, grandson,” he said pointing his torch. “The throat of Xibalba.”
He raised his torch and I raised mine, but they didn’t reveal anything more. “Will the lords be angry that we are here?”
“Few men are privileged to see this, grandson. This is the place where spirits enter when they leave their bodies.”
“The spirits of people? Commoners? They are here? Now?”
“All around. Crossing the river down there and going down the throat.”
I’d been shivering. Now I was trembling. He knew this somehow because he turned back. Stopping again alongside the ledge, he leaned back and threw his torch into the trench. On the count of four it sparked, there was a brief shimmer and it went out.
Outside, the rain had stopped but water dripped from the trees and ran along the ground in finger-like rivulets through the brown leaves. Above the canopy, the clouds were turning pink. It was good to finally stop shivering and breathe some warm air, even if it smelled like rotting wood.
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