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 god. Not much is known about the levels, but there’s an indication that the fifth was a “Place of Fire” inhabited by fire serpents who emitted comets and meteors. One group called that level 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 levels. The black part above it was considered by some as the Ek Ue, “Black Dreamplace.”
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 in art (Copan Structure 9N-82 Bench; Quirigua Stela F) as a double-headed cosmic monster. These chords, perceived as entwined serpents in the Classic Period, emanated from the beak of an avian deity called Itzam Yeh, “Lizard House.” They were 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.
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 pass into the other worlds. An altar at El Peru/Waka’ describes the portal as tu yol ak, “at the heat of the turtle,” or in “the portal of the turtle.”
Epigrapher David Stuart suggests the portal sign represents a “vertical hole or cavity in the earth” such as a planting hole or cenote. He argued 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—far right—shown perhaps as a wall painting or a decoration for the vase— in a scene where the ruler is receiving gifts from visiting dignitaries. The gift on the throne appears to be a codex, bound and decorated with feathers. The medallion, shown only in half view, contains the 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.
“The MEDALLION IS QUIVERING, GRANDFATHER.”
“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?”
“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.”
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