Ancient Maya Termination Rituals
Temples and other structures were 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 in them. While everything was perceived as being alive, only those things that were useful were ritually ensouled with a guardian spirit—or a god in the case of temples, palaces and sacred places. When a house, palace or temple was built, a 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 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 kernals, bits of spices or aspirations of a fermented maize beverage. For a house, a bird or small animal like a paca (rodent family) would be sacrificed at the center-post, and the four corners were anointed with blood, incense and chants of gratitude and summoning. Flowers were likely involved as well, particularly those with white blossoms because they represented the 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 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 god in the case of temples—back to nature, the state of disorder the ancients referred to as “the wilds.”
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 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 limestone from its termination.
Ritual termination is in evidence throughout Mesoamerica, particularly in ceramic plates that have “kill holes,” and monuments where the carved faces of former rulers had been smashed or destroyed in antiquity, rendering them inert, no longer able to influence human affairs because their spirits have 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)
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