A Lineage House And Temple
Where Maya kings held council and conducted shamanic rituals
Cerros is a gem! It’s one of my favorite sites and home to Fire Eyes Jaguar, the protagonist in my novel, Jaguar Rising.
Overlooking Corozol Bay, this small-to-mid-size Late Preclassic site of 140 structures is located within two miles of the New River. With proximity to an even longer river, the Rio Hondo, and given the evidence of certain trade goods, scholars believe that Cerros may have been established by the “Snake Kings” of El Mirador—111 miles northwest—as a trading port where cargo from sea-going canoes could provision her and other large cities to the west. Goods would be transferred from large sea-going canoes into smaller river canoes destined for Lamanai, Becan and other cities to the south and west. At its height, it’s estimated that approximately 2000 people lived in and around the Central District of Cerros, which was encircled by a broad canal where traders transported their goods around the city and into the river and lagoon.
David Freidel was the lead investigator at Cerros in the late ‘70s. At one of the Maya Meetings at the University of Pennsylvania, I asked about the significance of Structure 5C-2nd. “I’d call it a We Chok Te Nah a Lineage House,” he said, “a place where you had the founding of kingship at the site. It’s a succession house and the place where kings held council. It was a temple as well as all the above. Its primary function was to serve as a spatial context for shamanic royal ritual with the focus for action upon its long stairway.”
The above photo doesn’t show the masks that were on both sides of the stairway because they were covered over to protect them. At the Cerros website you can see them beautifully reproduced. Click on the arrow at the bottom of the page to see more of the site.
In a later paper, Dr. Freidel identified the faces as representing the Maize God and Itzam Yeh, the Principal Bird Deity who fancied his powers equal to the sun. For a variety of reasons, including finds of unique trade goods, ceremonial caches and ceramics, he advanced the idea that “Preclassic kingship may have evolved more directly out of shamanic orders than out of lineage patriarchies and matriarchies.”
Consistent with the shamanic attribution, in Jaguar Rising I refer to Structure 5C-2nd as “White Flower House” because the soul or spirit conjured there is depicted in Maya art as a white flower. To ensure this association in my story, I indicate that the temple was built by White Grandfather, a displaced shamanic ruler from the enormous city El Mirador. It’s there where he counsels pilgrims, conjures gods, speaks prophecy and dances as the Maize God. A scene in the temple’s upper room has White Grandfather guiding Fire Eyes Jaguar on a drug-induced journey to the upper world as part of his initiation into manhood.
White Flower House
Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 121)
ASIDE FROM LINGERING PURPLE STREAKS OVER THE WESTERN canopy, the sky was dark and clear. At my teacher’s request, the sentries who greeted him at White Flower House took their torches and stood at the east and west corners of his temple. Twenty paces out from the central stairway there was a mahogany bench, which he led me to. But we remained standing.
“Have you eaten anything?”White Grandfather asked. I shook my head. “Have you touched a female or let them touch you?”Again, I answered truly that I had not. “Then we begin your second trial. Do as we do and repeat our words.”He faced east and crossed his arms over his chest. I did the same. “We honor Lord K’in’s coming out place, the place where he rises from the underworld.” We turned and faced the remaining hint of purple where a severely bitten moon followed a lone bright wanderer making his ascent. “We honor Lord K’in’s going in place, the place where he makes his descent.” Turning again we honored the gods of the other directions, North and South. We offered our gratitude to the Thirteen Lords of Life above and the Nine Lords of the Night below. Finally, we bowed and spoke words of praise to Itzamnaaj and his spirit companion, Itzam Yeh, the great bird who dispenses life from his perch at Heart of Sky. Turning full around with open hands, I repeated my teacher’s words: “Here we stand, ordered and blessed at the center of all that is.”
The steps at White Flower House were wide and had short risers. The fifth step was actually a landing about eight strides long. I thought it strange, but we sat cross-legged on the pavement—the very spot where, at the first rite of the rainy seasons Laughing Falcon Cloud revealed himself as the maize god in both his Sky-Bearer and World Partitioner aspects. Months later, when the all-day rains stopped, he revealed himself as Itzam Yeh wearing a green feathered cloak and a helmet with the life-sustaining, twisted cords hanging from his beak.
White Grandfather pointed to the stuccoed face of the sun god in the middle of the roof. “Fix your gaze on Lord K’in there. Now look above the roof, about seven fingers—to the dark place between the three bright stars, where there is only darkness. Do you see it?”
“Just the blackness?”
“There grandson, that is Heart of Sky. Life begins there and comes down from there.” He pointed to the tall beams that rose above the temple’s roof at both ends. “If you sight the stars long enough against one of the beams, you will see how the gods and ancestors honor Heart Of Sky by circuiting around it. All that is Seven Maize, everything we know, began there and comes from there.”
Sitting cross-legged on the cold landing and in the dark talking like that was pleasant. After all that had happened that day, I didn’t even mind the sorcerer’s talk. “Is Lord Itzam Yeh really up there—perched in Heart Of Sky?”
“Dispensing his life-sustaining substance, Seven Maize. Because we cannot see it—. There is so much we cannot see, even with your young eyes.” The old man ran his finger across the bright path in the sky that Mother called The Great Serpent Way. There is the White Flower Serpent,” he said. “The path the brightest wanderers take—serpent lords entwined like vines, making one life-giving cord.”
“Where does it lead, Grandfather—the Serpent Way?”
“No one knows. But the sky gods and their brothers, our ancestors, have journeyed along that path since the beginning. Round after round.”
I’d heard that before. Mother didn’t like to think of it as a cord of entwined snakes. She preferred to think of it as the cord that carries life between a Mother and her seedling, or the cords tied to a roof beam that some women hung from to give birth. “This is how the ancestors plant their ch’ulel in us,” my teacher said. “This is why we cannot resist the way of our blood.”
I saw his trick but ignored it. When I helped him up he called for a sentry to bring a torch and he took me up the remaining steps. “With respect, grandfather,” I asked at the doorway. “If I could watch you make the journey into the upper world first, I could do it better.”
“Are you not ready for this trial, grandson?”
“I just want to do it properly. What if I do it wrong or cannot come back?”
“Did you ever dream wrong, not awaken from a dream? Journeys to the other worlds are like that. Your ch’ulel goes through the portal, but your body remains here. The ancestors show you what they want you to see, and then you return. This is how they teach us about All That Is and How Things Are.”
Inside the temple, White Grandfather set the torch in a holder on the wall and tied back the doorway drape a little to remove the thin veil of ash that lingered in the air. Following his gesture, I sat on an ocelot pelt with my back against a side wall. Painted black on the wall across from me was a medallion, a large circle with inset corners that framed the cross-eyed, shark-tooth face of Lord K’in. Taking fire from the torch with an ocoté stick, he lit some tinder in a censer. When it flamed, he added the stick and three others before setting it in front of me. He took a blue-painted calabash from under the medallion and nodded for me to take one of the many rolled-up leaves it contained. Inside the leaf was a cigar. “We wrap them with bits of copal bark,” he said, and scrapings from the backs of frogs.” It releases the ch’ulel to go through the portal.”
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