Balance In All Things: K’ex Substitution
Concepcion, Guatemala: A shaman and his mother converse with my guide
The Tzutujil Maya who live around Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, use the term k’ex “substitute, exchange” to reference various ways in which the universe maintains balance or equilibrium. The perceived order in the cosmos has to be maintained on Earth—as above, so below. Substitution applies to generations. For instance, a child is considered a substitute for a deceased parent or grandparent. People are exchanged for one another through repetition, the same basic personality or temperament, even souls reoccurring through reincarnation. One person leaves, another enters. Balance.
Bringing a newborn into this world requires a replacement in the world of the dead: in this case, the deceased ancestor destined for the underworld is the k’ex for the newborn child.
Karl Taube, Maya Ethnohistorian
The shaman’s mother and grandchildren
K’ex can reference daily activities as well. Trade involves the substitution of one item for another. Anciently, the ritual calendar is a process where one deity substitutes for another in carrying the “burden” of various time periods, and crops replace the previous year’s crop. Among the Kiché Maya, children often take the names of long-deceased grandparents, a custom not uncommon in modern American and European societies. The Zinacantan Maya of Chiapas, Mexico replace the saints and flowers on their household shrines every fifteen days. In healing, an offering of tobacco or a maize-based drink is considered a substitute for a sacrificial offering. The god receives the soul of the liquid rather than the life of the healer’s patient.
Hieroglyphic inscriptions contain references to k’ex in the context of rituals. For instance, human sacrifice was an exchange to ensure the rebirth of the cosmos. And the blood sacrifices of kings, considered the most precious gift they could offer to the gods, were substitutes for the continuing survival and prosperity of their subjects. When a child was born, something had to be given in return, often to the gods of death and the underworld, offerings of food, copal incense and animals were considered k’ex. In Maya art, infants being carried by jaguars are likely k’ex offerings, as are infants placed in offering bowls. A pit under Copan Altar Q contained the remains of 15 jaguars—the number of Copan kings, all k’ex offerings. And famously, the ruler of Palenque, K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, is depicted on his sarcophagus lid as sitting in an offering bowl. His is a k’ex offering of self-sacrifice, an exchange that ensures the survival of his lineage. In all things, at all times everywhere, there must be balance.
Reference to Generational Substitution
Jaguar Wind And Waves (p. 12)
IT WAS WELL KNOWN AMONG MY PEOPLE, THAT CHILDREN inherited their ch’ulel—the spirit that made them who they are—from their grandfathers. Just as a crop of maize replaces the previous crop, so our sons and daughters replaced their grandfathers, walk for them on the face of the earth. When we remember them, they are present in both our lives and the life of the caah, the community. As I was growing up I could see that this was true for everyone around me. It certainly was true for my brothers and sister. But it was not true for me. Although I knew my grandfather, respected him and laughed with him, I was my father’s daughter.
Apart from the little tattoo of a jaguar paw on my cheek, the hair on Father’s upper lip and the differences in how we wore our hair, our reflections on the water were much alike. Both our foreheads had been flattened, shaped to look like maize cobs. We both had long noses, broad cheeks, deeply folded eyelids, and our skin was the color of brown maize. Another difference, one I kept secret, was a white spot, about the size of a small lime, on my left side, under my ribs.
I delighted when visitors to the palace spoke of the likeness between my father and me. I hoped it went beyond our appearance and that, when I became a woman, I would have his manner of walking and talking, especially his determined yet kindly manner in battling the everyday storms that rained down on the Mat and flooded palace life. Although I’d seen him stern and demanding in the audience chamber, I knew him as a gentle and playful father. He carried me on his shoulders, danced to entertain me at court, and planted the thought in my head that, when I came of age I would make a “grand contribution” to our beloved Tikal.
Among foreign dignitaries, long-distance merchants, and his underlords, Father’s courage and ferocity as a warrior earned him the title, “Torch and Storm.” But at his accession to the Mat, he took the name, “Jaguar Paw.” Our lineage was Jaguar Paw. Twenty years later, celebrating his accomplishments on the completion of his first k’atun—twenty years on the Mat—the jaguar prophet introduced him as “Great Jaguar Paw.” Although he and Mother had seven children, only five survived. He also had a daughter by another woman. They sat with us at court.
We never knew Mother’s first born because he took the dark road four months after his arrival. My sister came next. She was introduced to the court as “Lady Dream Paw,” a name that suited her because her manner was soft and her steps small, making it seem like she floated across the floor, particularly when we wore long ceremonial robes. When my brother, Flint Dancer, touched the earth, the ancestors said he had the spirit of a warrior. He became one and distinguished himself as a first spear. I arrived after another son who only stayed on earth for three days.
After me came Knotted Tail, who, perhaps because he almost didn’t survive or because his skin was lighter than ours, was a worrier. He was afraid of everything. But by the time he was nine, he could outrun and count faster than any of us, except for Father. When we were just sprouts, he and I sat with some of the vendors to talk and learn how trading was done. That’s how it happened that at ten, I was the only flower in our family who could sum, place, and takeaway numbers as high as twenty-four thousand, the number of kakaw beans that Father received twice a year as tribute from his underlords.
Twelve days after I was born, Father named me Infant Jaguar,” after the twelfth ruler of Tikal. Mother said that when I began to say words, he started calling me “Palm Flower,” for the odor that was said to take a person to other worlds. At four, when it came time to present me at court, he gave me the house name in honor of the palace he’d just had constructed. At the dedication he introduced me as “Lady Jaguar Paw.”
Between my sister and me, I was the fearless one, more determined than my brothers to have my way and make Father proud. It wasn’t until he sent me to Tollan in fulfillment of his alliance with the lords there, that I took the title I came to share with my husband, Spearthrower Owl. When they raised him to “Supreme Anointer, Land of the Quetzal People,” they made us both, together, custodians of K’awiil, the lightning god who conveyed the authority to rule. From then on, because it fell to me to serve as the custodian of the living K’awiil scepter, I was sometimes introduced as Lady Jaguar Paw, Custodian of K’awiil.” I didn’t know it then, but that title—and the office and rituals that came with it—gave birth to the dark clouds that would grow into the thunderhead that took me down.
According to Mother, when the daykeeper read the seeds, beans, and crystals to divine my birth prophecy, it came clear to him—definite, and without hesitation. The ancestors said my path would be “the path of the jaguar,” and that “amidst powerful winds and waves,” I would battle “a mighty demon.” Father said that, unlike my wild temperament, the path of the jaguar was a path of listening and watching before pouncing. He said this would be my strength, and like the jaguar, I would “roam free and without fear in the forest of men.” As for the demon, neither the daykeeper nor my father knew what he would be like, but on the long journey to Tollan to take a husband, I kept an obsidian blade in my litter—the knife Mother used to cut the shell from my waist-cord when I became a woman of Tikal. As it happened, not even Father could have dreamed that the man he sent me to marry would unleash the demon.
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