Climate Change and Drought

One of the forces that brought the civilization down Land bridge between reservoirs. Tikal, 2008 In the Late Classic period (A.D. 500-900) this path separated two immense reservoirs in Tikal’s city center. When I was there in 2008 it was overgrown and difficult to see the bottom on either side. I estimated them to be about as deep as an eight-to-ten-story building.   Maya farmers are still around today; kings, however, disappeared 1,000 years ago. There is a lesson here on how people and water managers respond to long-term climate change, something… Read More

The Sacred Calendar and New Year Renewal

  Calendar glyphs. Copan Stela N (Back) Sacred time is that in which the gods manifested themselves and created; so each time man wants to ensure a fortunate outcome for something, he re-actualizes the original sacred event—creation; what is actually sought is the regeneration of the human being. Sacred time is reversible, it’s a primordial mythical time made present. Mircea Eliade Many of the ideas put forth by professor Eliade in his groundbreaking book, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion applies to the ancient Maya. While reading his book,… Read More

Copal Incense

The sweet-smelling blood of trees Copal (Pom) tree with bamboo growing alongside it The process of making copal incense begins by scraping the bark with a blade. When the sap comes out it’s collected on a piece of bark or corn husk. The resin, which wards off insects from the tree, is thick and sticky and has a white to yellow color. In contact with the air, it becomes hard like a shiny rock, so saliva is applied to keep it malleable. Copal was traded locally as a resin in maize husks,… Read More

K’awiil: Ancient Maya Lightning Lord

God of fertility, abundance and royal lineage   In Maya art, K’awill often appears in the form of a scepter that, when held, signifies royal lineage. Because one of his legs terminates in a serpent’s head, the Popol Vuh—the sacred book of the K’iché Maya—identifies him as Cacula Huracan, “Lightning One-Leg.” His forehead is a mirror penetrated by a smoking axe, which references ancestors and designates him as a lightning lord. The hooks in his eyes securely identify him as a deity. In Classic times, at accession events, when the kings displayed… Read More

Dowsing / Divination

Are there underground forces that can be felt? Xunantunich, Belize Dowsing is a type of divination, typically used today to locate ground water, buried metals, gemstones, oil and grave sites without the use of scientific instruments. It’s consider a pseudoscience and there is no scientific evidence that it is any more effective than random chance; the dowsing rod only moves due to accidental or involuntary movements of the person using it. The entry in Wikipedia says it probably originated in Germany in the 16th century. I used to believe that. Then I… Read More

Prophecy And Order

What happened before will happen again Prophecy was a prominent feature in all the known ancient cultures. Feeling at the mercy of the gods who represented the forces of nature, complex societies needed a way to understand their behavior so they could brace themselves for the next god-made flood, drought or other catastrophe and hope the gods would yield to the petitions and bargaining sacrifices of their kings and holy men. Maya kings established order by relying on observations of the motions of the sun, moon and other heavenly bodies. Remarkably, because… Read More

Bloodletting

Photo courtesy of Justin Kerr The theme of the past three posts was initiation, specifically the trials an initiate goes through in order to become a “man of the community.” Following on that ceremony would have been another rite of passage for individuals who would enter the brotherhood of elites. Typically for the Maya this involved bloodletting. More than a ritual of endurance, the symbolism around blood was complex and powerful. It signified noble lineage and descent based on blood, which was perceived to be the rarified essence or “breath” of the… Read More

The Maya Celestial Realm (3rd Initiation Trial)

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… Read More

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… Read More

Xibalba: The Maya Underworld (2nd Initiation Trial)

Rollout vase photo courtesy of Justin Kerr The Maya Underworld, called Xibalba (She-balba), “The Place of Fright,” was the realm beneath the surface of the Earth and under water. It was perceived to have nine descending levels arranged like an inverted pyramid, was ruled by the Bolontik’u, “Nine Lords of Death” and was often depicted on vases as a giant conch or snail shell which enclosed a mysterious other reality interpreted by some to be an infinite, eternal and bloody ocean of bliss. The Underworld was always pressing upward through portals—volcanoes, floods,… Read More