Ancient Maya Hearth Stones
They modeled creation by establishing a center in a house and vitalizing it
Operating on the principle, as above so below, the ancients “centered” their homes in the world following the example of the celestial deities who placed three “stones” in the universe to establish the center. The hearth wasn’t necessarily placed in the center of the house. The centering it provided was symbolic and spiritual. A Maya farmer showed me this hearth in a house that was no longer used. The guardian-spirit had long been released.
According to art historian Julia Kappleman, at the beginning of creation when the sky had not yet been lifted away from the earth and the world was dark, the first stone, referred to a “Jaguar Throne Stone,” was set by the Paddler gods who’d escorted the Maize God into the Underworld. The second stone, “Snake Throne Stone,” was set by a god called Dawn Red Snake. And the third, “Water Throne Stone,” was set by Itzamnaaj the god above gods. These events took place on August 13, 3114 B.C.—the ancient Maya creation date and the beginning of their Long Count calendar. It happened at a location naturally referred to as “First-Three-Stone-Place.” In Maya art, the central axis of the universe was depicted as a three-stone hearth placed on the carapace of a turtle, representing the Earth. Sometimes the center of a turtle shell is marked with a cross (+), the sign for fire and centrality.
Astronomically, the three stones set by the gods are the stars Alnitak, Saiph and Rigel in the constellation Orion. At its center is the nebula M42, visible to the naked eye on a clear night as a cloud of smoke. For the ancients, it was the central fire. The text on Copan Stela 12 says the ruler, K’ahk’ Uti’ Witz’ K’awiil, “witnessed” the setting of the First Three Hearthstones in 3114 B.C. This might have been his way of saying he was either a god, like one or privileged to be in their company.
When the Tzotzil Maya of Zinacantan, Chiapas, Mexico constructed a house, they gave it life—ensouled it—by establishing a hearth and lighting it in a “Fire Entering” ceremony. The first fire affirmed the cosmological symbolism of the house and vitalized it with fire, light and heat. Essentially it was a sun-entering ceremony. Elderly couples refer to the first lighting of the hearth as “taming the new wild house.” Before, it was “wild” like a forest, lacking a soul. Afterward, with a guardian spirit established to protect the house and those living within, it became refined. Tame.
In America’s First Cuisines, Sophie Coe talks about cooking on a hearth —
- Sweet potatoes were placed on the stones, in the embers or in ceramic pots.
- Turtles and iguanas were grilled over the fire.
- Fish & poultry were often boiled in a stew with tomato, chili pepper and spices added.
- For steaming, a little water was placed in a ceramic pot and boiled, then food was placed on a lattice of sticks above the water to steam..
- Food was also smoked and toasted over the hearth
- Barbecuing was favored for dog, peccary, venison and poultry: the meat was skewered and placed on a wooden spit frame over the fire.
Gathering and Shaping Three Hearth Stones
Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (pp. 81-84)
IF I WAS GOING TO TAKE A PATH OTHER THAN THE ONE BEING cleared for me by Thunder Flute and Our Bounty, I had to do it within two moons. I knew not to even try to convince Thunder Flute that I belonged at Crooked Tree. Once he made up his mind that was the end of it. Again, I realized that White Grandfather was my only hope. As it happened, he would be joining us for the Fire Entering rites.
When Grandfather Rabbit died Thunder Flute decided that, rather than repair our house, which was next to his and badly in need of fixing, he would follow the common practice by terminating both houses and build a larger one over his father’s bones. Grandmother would move in with us.
Once the masonry platform was built, the house went up quickly. But before we could move in, its skin and bones had to be ensouled with a guardian spirit. Otherwise terrible things could happen. Somehow, within the seven days of the Fire Entering rites that invited a spirit to take up residence in the house, I needed to find a way to be alone with White Grandfather. I didn’t know what I was going to say, but with Thunder Flute being more willing to answer my questions now, I hoped I might learn something before then that would help.
I got my chance when he took me to an old quarry down by the New River. With the ensouling rites just two days away, he needed hearthstones to establish the heart of the house, the place where a spirit would enter. The three stones had to be a certain size and shape for cooking, so we used long-handled axes with wide flats to pull back the weeds, dig out the soil and expose a long section of white stone. The day was hot. Before we began to chop the stone itself, we sat on a ledge, wiped the sweat off our faces and took our keyem—a gruel made by stirring balls of maize dough in water. Mother spiced the dough with honey and chili powder, so I was eager for it.
“You can say your gratitude if you like,” Father said. He knew that Mother had gotten my sister, brother and me into the habit of offering a gratitude for everything we took from the earth, field, forest or water. I was embarrassed to say it in front of him, but he was allowing it. I took off my hat, put my hands flat on the stone and bowed my head.
With respect Earth Lord,
I stand before you—Seven Maize Rabbit.
I speak for myself and for Thunder Flute Rabbit.
In this place of beauty, we offer you our gratitude.
Forgive us for uncovering your face here,
For chopping your white beauty.
We need three of your little ones for our hearth.
We will honor them at the Fire Entering rites.
We will honor them as the heart of our house.
With respect Earth Lord, receive our praise and gratitude.
Thunder Flute scratched some lines in the exposed stone. Following them, he cut grooves with his chisel and hammerstone while I cut into the stone from below. It took all morning, aching muscles and buckets of sweat, but finally, we had a ledge. By stomping on it we broke off three large blocks and rolled them to a pool of water where we could sit in the shade and wash them off as we shaped them.
Father wet two pieces of deer hide and gave me one. Then he gave me a piece of flint and he showed me how to wrap it tightly in my hand. “Hold the chipper close to the block,” he said. “Keep your hand low and chip from the side. This is a chipper, not a knife.” He showed me how to do it, sending a spray of fine chips into the water. White-crowns were there and they fluttered into the trees. I tried it, but the flint gouged the block and a little powder fell off. “Keep your wrist straight. The flint and your arm need to work like a hafted axe.”
Twice the flint skipped off the top of the stone. “Too hard, little sprout! Let the flint do the work. Short, sharp jabs. The stone is soft. No need to attack it…” I heard only a little of what he was saying. I didn’t care about his lessons. “Do not think about getting finished,” he said. “Your grandfather taught us—with stone, the slow way is the better way…”
For a long while, we chipped in silence. On expedition, even the black body paint that marked Thunder Flute as a long-distance merchant didn’t hide the long and jagged patches of rough, gravelly skin that ran from the top of his neck to the middle of his back. On the front of his right thigh, he had a long and jagged scar and a smaller one on the inside of his leg. Neither he nor Mother would talk about his scars, but he often displayed the straight-line scar on his upper right arm to crewmembers to prove that he and Lord Macaw had become blood brothers. The other mark he proudly wore was a tattoo on his chest, a large owl that he got on his first expedition to Mirador. The owl’s eyes were yellow outlined in black. And they stared out from a dark brown head framed by an open spray of wings with black talons below and a black beak in the middle.
“Seven Maize,” he said abruptly. “Your grandfather wants you to know he is grateful for helping with the termination of the houses.”
“He speaks to you?”
“Owl sons know the hearts of their fathers,” he said. “Even after they have taken the dark road.”
“Can I talk to him?”
“You can. But you will not hear him until after initiation. Ancestors only speak to men and women of the caah.”
“His stories always made me want to go to Tollan,” I offered. I hoped the mention of the place where he grew up would lead to his telling me about it.
“This part of the river reminds me of fishing with him.”
“There was a river at Tollan?”
“Wide, but not as deep as ours. In the dry season, it sometimes became a trickle. The soil is darker there. And red. Rocks and stone are mostly gray or black with red in them. Where we have savannas and forests, they have tall hills with mountains and wide valleys—very different from here.”
“Do you miss it—as grandfather did?”
“Tollan was good for all of us. We had a large house with seven rooms. That would be like putting three of the houses here together. The patio was small but we had a shrine in the middle with steps going up on all four sides. The roofs were flat—all beams and mortar. Eight compounds our size would fit into just one of them at Tollan.”
“He said it was big.”
“Beyond what you could dream. The pyramids are the tallest in the world. The ancestor gods live in shrines that face each other along a wide causeway that runs long and straight as far as you can see. It looks like a masonry river painted red. All of Cerros would fit into just one of Tollan’s districts. And there were more districts than I could count. One of her markets covered as much ground as Great Sea plaza. Rather than one, they had three rulers. And they welcomed foreigners. There were so many different tongues spoken there, even I could not speak them all.”
FINALLY, HE WAS TELLING ME ABOUT THINGS THAT mattered. He knew I was probing, but I didn’t care. I told him I overheard Grandfather Rabbit talking about something bad that happened on the migration from Tollan.
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