Ancient Maya Cultural Traits

Maya Creation Myths

The events of creation are recorded on monuments throughout the Maya region. At larger cities such as Tikal, Uaxactun, Copan, Palenque, El Mirador and Caracol the more detailed inscriptions name the involved deities and provide dates. The information varies somewhat from place to place and across time, but there are commonalities that closely match the creation myth described in the Popol Vuh, a written account of creation, and other stories derived from K’iche’ oral traditions, such that scholars tend to agree in principle, if not in the details of the ancient Maya view of creation. In Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and The Glories of Gods and Kings by Dennis Tedlock, the writer(s) provided this succinct overview:

And then the earth arose because of them

(the sky deities). It was simply their word

That brought it forth.

For the forming of earth they said ‘Earth.”

It arose suddenly, just like a cloud,

Like a mist, now forming and unfolding.

Then the mountains were separated 

From the water, all at once the great mountains

Came forth.

Given the limitations of space of a blog and variations in scholarly interpretation, I offer the following as a condensed but representative sampling of the key players and places in the ancient Maya creation story.

Creation Date: Time for the ancients was cyclical, spiraling in eras. There were three before the current one, which began in 3114 B.C.. Scholars still debate the precise date, but this began the “Long Count.” Every day in the future was referenced to it, literally by counting the days forward. There’s some indication that the days were counted using stones and that these were bound into bundles to represent periods. For instance, a t’un or one year “bundle” or “binding” consisted of 360 days or stones. Five more were added to make a complete year. A “binding of the k’atun” referenced a bundle of 20 years or 7200 stones. Why the date in 3114 B.C. was chosen is not known, 

Creation Deities: The names of creation deities differ between the Popol Vuh and inscriptions on monuments, but their attributes as diviners, healers, and makers is nearly identical. As the story goes, two creator “grandparents”—First Father and First Mother—had twin sons, identified by scholars as “The Hero Twins.” In addition, there were three sky gods. At Palenque, scholars refer to them as GI, GII, GIII. The Popol Vuh gives their names: Hurricane Thunderbolt, Youngest Thunderbolt and Sudden Thunderbolt. According to iconographer Karen Bassie-Sweet, these  gods paralled the “Heart Of Sky” deities, and the thunderbolt brothers were manifestations of the Maize God. 

Creation Events: According to art historian Julia Guernsey on August 13, 3114 B.C. the gods established three hearthstones in the sky as thrones. They named them “Jaguar,” Snake” and “Water.” We know them as the stars Rigel, Saiph and Ainitak in the Orion nebula. And what astronomers refer to as M42 Nebula, they saw as the fire in the cosmic hearth. Creation of the Earth itself was credited to the Maize God—Hunal Ye “First Father.” He “entered the sky and made proper” the raising of “Raised-Up-Sky-Place, the eight-house-partitions, house of the north on February 5, 3112 B.C.” That happened 542 days after the 3114 B.C. creation event. To make proper is to circumambulate, so this refers to the act of setting the constellations in motion around the North Star.

Cosmic Order: The cosmos was seen as a gigantic ceiba (kapok) tree growing at the center of the universe. Its branches reach to the Upper World; its trunk is the Middle World and the roots extend into the Underworld. As sap travels up from the roots of a maize stalk, souls travel up and down this sacred tree. At the top, where the three stones were set in the sky, sits Itzam Yeh, a bird deity who fancies himself greater than the sun. And from his perch, referred to as Heart Of Sky (the North Star region), he dispensed the life force.

Creation Locations: In the fourth creation, before human beings, Chahk, the lightning and rain god, went to the mountain that first rose above the water. There, he raised his gigantic axe and split the mountain, allowing Huun Ixim, the Maize God, to ascend and bring life-sustaining abundance to the Earth. That mountain was referred to as Yax Hal Witz “First True Mountain.” Archaeologically, many temples—such as Mundo Perdido (Structure 5C-54) at Tikal—and other structures—Uaxactun’s Group H—were replicas of the Yax Hal Witz.

Previous Creations: Eras before the present creation, First Father and First Mother attempted to create beings who would pay them respect and praise their names. The first world was inhabited by dwarf beings who resembled animals and couldn’t speak. In the second world they were made of mud, and in the third they were made of wood. These not being satisfactory, the creators said “The dawn has approached and morning has come for humankind—born in the light, begotten in the light.” So, from the maize that came forth at First True Mountain, First Mother fashioned the first human beings from maize dough and water. Grinding it nine times, it became human flesh.  And when she washed her hands, the grease became human fat. These humans were perfect and knowledgable. They were able to see as well as they gods, so they blurred their vision. In that way, they could only see what was close to them. 

Philosopher David Hume said we would be utterly incapable of making sense of the world around us were it not for the process of cause and effect. Every civilization attempts to explain how things are, how the universe, the world and we came to be. The sustained nightly dedication of the ancient Maya in observing the sky over centuries is beyond remarkable, a testiment to how determined they were to understand the workings of the visible universe and world. 

Equally remarkable, were the many and unique ways they attempted to replicate and invigorate the stories they told about creation and its perceived creators. In our era, the emphasis has shifted. Instead of naked-eye observation to understand the mysteries of the universe and life, we use sophisticated technologies. And there appears to be little interest in modeling—“clothing”—ourselves and our environments in either the creation story inherited from the East, or the Universe story that’s emerging from science. Hopefully, somewhere ahead, that connection will be restored.  

Author Willis Harman tells the story of talking with a Native American leader about how white people have difficulty understanding the Indian way of looking at the world. The Indian replied: “It’s easy. You only have to remember two things. One is, everything in the universe is alive. The other is, we’re all relatives.” 

First True Mountain
Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 254)

My brother went across the courtyard and stood on the steps above Red Paw and Pech. Dragonfly continued to translate. “What did the Makers do? They invoked Grandmother of Glory! And their thoughts came clear. Fox, Coyote, Parrot and Crow brought ears of yellow maize and white maize from the split place, from First True Mountain, Flowering Mountain Earth where Grandmother Of Glory ground the maize nine times. The water she used in rinsing her hands made fat—human fat. And with it Sovereign Plumed Serpent made the first humans, our Mother-Fathers.” With a swish of his robe, Comb Pace came down the steps and went to center. “The humans made from fat were different,” he said. “They made words! They praised the directions and they listened. They walked and they used their muscles. They offered their sweat, blood and smoke to the Makers and Modelers. Such was the making by First Grandfather and First Grandmother.” 

Comb Paca approached the dais, turned his back on us and spoke with his hands at his side. “Let it be said, let it be known. In our k’in, the making and modeling continues. As at the split place, First True Mountain, Flowering Mountain Place, so here at Kaminaljuyu. We see the making in the ground, in the trees, in the animals. We see the modeling in the lake. It comes clear to us what has been done when we honor the sky bearers and keep the count of k’inob. It comes clear when we celebrate the rounds of the wanderers and the turnings of the sun. It comes clear to us when we make our circuits at the sowing and the dawning, planting and harvesting. It also comes clear when Our Bounty stands before us as the Center of All That Is, as Great Tree, as Lord One Maize.”

Calendar Fixed To The Creation Date 
Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 45)

The shaman’s assistant took the bloodied cloths and put them into a ceramic jar with a lid. Meanwhile, a daykeeper dictated the time periods to a scribe—3,082 years and 242 days since the beginning of the fourth creation of the world. He said the gods who carried the burden of the day were Chan Ik’, Laju’n Pax. After this, it was recorded that “Lord Jaguar Tooth Macaw, Great Tree of Kaminaljuyu and his son, Lord Flint Axe Macaw, underlord at Ahktuunal, took Thunder Flute Rabbit, master merchant at Cerros, in regard as their brother. Later, the cloths would be fed into the conjuring house censer but for now the shaman’s assistants applied “takes-away” to their wounds, a sticky pink substance that stopped the bleeding and eased the pain. With his arm now cleaned, Lord Macaw pointed to the warlord who had the largest spray of quetzal plumage streaming from his helmet. Holding up a blue-and yellow-feathered shield, the hulking warrior led a procession of warriors carrying bundles and baskets from the side of the pyramid to the front, where they set them down on a long bed of fresh pine needles. 

The Three Stones Of Creation
Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 199)

Under the influence of six cups of chih, Lord Smoking Mirror praised the work of my uncles at the House of the Maize God. And judging from his wife’s expression, he told us something we were not supposed to know—that he was going to halt the construction on his brother’s temple in favor of a more modest but equally powerful snake mountain named for the place where the maize god set the three stones of creation in the sky. “It will be like the Three Stone Mountain at Mirador,” he said, “Just not as tall. Next to it will be a compound for warriors with a proper lodge, patios and a larger training field…” As he spoke, Thunder Flute’s glance told me that Smoking Mirror, like his brother, was desperately trying to win favor with his father. Had Laughing Falcon heard what his brother was planning he would have been furious.

For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To Amazon.com for paperback books and Kindle Editions—

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

The Dancing Maize God

Vessel of the Dancing Lords (A.D. 750/800)
 Photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago. Maya Image Archive

This vessel was produced in the Naranjo, Guatemala workshop for Lord K’ahk’ Ukalaw Chan Chaahk. At the top, above a band of symbols indicating the sky (a “sky band”), the hieroglyphs read: “His painting, (artist’s name?), artist sage, Lord Maxam, child of woman, Holy Lady Water-Venus, Lady Lord of Yaxhá (title?)(title?), child of man, Three Katun (60 year) Sacrificer, Lord Flint Face, Holy Lord of Naranjo, pure artisan.”

The Classic Period name of the youthful maize god depicted with a tonsure is not known for certain, but because it includes the number “One,” scholars have referred to him variously as Hunal’-Ye, “One Maize Revealed,” Hun Ixim “One Maize,” the creator deity, Hun Ajaw “One Lord” and “First Father.” Some scholars have suggested that he is the father of the Hero Twins, “One-Hunahpu,” in the Popol Vuh—the mythic story of the Quiché Maya. In the inscriptions, Nal is the hieroglyphic word for “maize.”

Frequently the tonsured maize god is shown in elaborate regalia dancing his descent into the underworld and his death and resurrection that mimic the life cycle of the maize seed which is buried in the ground. Then, due to the action of his “sons”—farmers—he rises from the dead and is revealed as a sprout. Our word “mimic” does not convey what was going on in the minds of the ancient kings. We can only imagine, but it has been suggested that the kings who reenacted the dance of the maize god, likely under the influence of a hallucinogen, allowed their bodies to be inhabited by the ch’ulel “spirit,” “soul” of the deity. So the depictions are of the actual maize god dancing. (This is what happens in Jaguar Sun. See the segment from my novel below).

As noted in the “Significance Of The Ancient Maya” link on the home page, every detail of the ancient Maya world, at least for the elites, had cosmic associations. This vase provides an excellent example.

  • The maize god’s tapered head and tonsure represent the form of a maize husk (precious sustenance) and tassel. 
  • Although the precise meaning of hand-gestures is not known, their frequent and consistent repetition in Maya art is a demonstration of their significance. Here, they are very specific. “Today’s Maya, who sign, use the same gesture for corn as did the ancients.” (Justin Kerr)
  • He is decked out in jade (breath spirit) jewels—beaded necklace, ear flares, bands on his upper arms and knees and beaded ankle and wrist bands.
  • The headdress consists of iridescent quetzal feathers, the blue-green color symbolizing water, life and sky.
  • The uplifted heel and the long outward ends of his loincloth indicate vigorous motion, replicating the stars that “dance” circles around the North Star—sometimes referred to as “Heart of Heaven.” 
  • The belt assembly consists of a large Spondylus (spiny oyster) shell with three stars on it indicating the constellation Orion—that marks the three cosmic hearthstones and the split (birthing) place in the mythic turtle shell from the maize god arose after being reborn. The shape of the shell is a reference to Xoc, possibly the name of a kind of fish in the underworld. Shells were used to collect sacrificial blood, another allusion to rebirth.
  • What looks to our modern eyes like a jumble of elements alongside the dancer, are items of significance situated in a tall, very elaborate “backrack” attached to a waist-armature composed of interlacing elements. It’s worn to show that the dancer is the maize god, not just an impersonator. Each element of the backrack—faces, symbols, feathers, animal figures—reference cosmic events associated with the maize god after he was resurrected. Considering the weight and intricacy of the total costume, it’s likely that these elements were made of paper, palm fibers and fabrics painted with a thin plaster slip.
  • The head of the long-nosed figure toward the bottom-right is a “Witz Monster,” the personification of a hill or mountain deity, identified as such by the cleft in his forehead and circular symbols of stone.
  • The jaguar figure sitting atop the Witz Monster is a reference to “Waterlily Jaguar,” a transformer, indicating that the dancer has been transformed into the maize god. 
  • Above the horizontal band of five X’s in a frame indicating the “sky,” is a highly abstracted representation of a figure referred to by scholars as the “Principle Bird Deity.” On this vase, we’re looking at him from the back, indicated by the massive bundle of feathers at the top. His head, with a long, upward curling snout, is to the left. The feathers and scroll elements issuing from it represent the life force. In another post, I’ll talk about this mythic bird who set himself higher than the sun god because he dispensed the life force from Heart Of Heaven.

At the bottom of the vessel far left, there’s a figure of a dwarf. Often depicted on Maya vases, particularly alongside kings and the maize god, they were trusted companions. It has been suggested that they represent the stubby ear of corn that formed on the same stalk as the dominant ear. They are also seen as attendants to the king similar to pages, individuals chosen by the gods to manifest supernatural powers, leftovers from a previous creation and counselors. The line above his nose probably indicates speech. Dwarfs appear to have held high status at court. 

The Dance Of The Maize God
Excerpt From Jaguar Sun (p. 284)

THE WIND THAT HAD RUSTLED THE FEATHERS ON headdresses throughout the day had calmed by nightfall. As we entered the Court Of Sacred Directions, Venerable Amaté pointed out that the twenty men standing with torches around the courtyard were the sons of ministers. I judged there to be another thirty people already seated on the steps. My host made it very clear—“Lord Yellow Fire Macaw K’awiil will not be imitating the dance of the maize god. He will be surrendering his body, allowing him to dance again his rising from the Underworld.” 

The story preceding the maize god’s resurrection was well known. As Eyes told it, before the sun was, he lifted the sky off the water at a place called, “Raised Up Sky.” To bring order to the upper world once it was raised, he set three bright stones in the sky and connected them to the earth by establishing a great tree of stars. When this was done, he realized that he had weaknesses. To overcome them, he sacrificed himself and descended into Xibalba, the “Place of Fright.” Then, to defeat death, he ascended from the Underworld and released maize seeds—new life—from Sustenance Mountain. From the maize, which grew in great abundance, First Mother fashioned a dough and with it made the first human beings. It was why foreigners spoke of us as “maize people.” 

While we were waiting for the dance to begin, Venerable Amaté told me about the shrines that encompassed the courtyard, saying they were built in accordance with the ordering of the world directions—a red-painted House of the Sun on the eastern side where the sun is born, a black House of the Ancestors on the western side where the sun goes to die, a yellow House of the Underworld on the southern side and the tallest, a white-painted House of Raised Up Sky on the northern side to our left. 

He explained that about forty paces in front of us, the long platform made of lashed bamboo was, for the dance, the Underworld place called Seven Water. A blue covering with white-painted waves, waterlilies and fish made it clear that this was a watery world. Painted in the center of the great cloth, I recognized Xoc, the monstrous fish-serpent who, according to the story, aided the maize god’s rebirth. 

I wasn’t the only one growing impatient. “They cannot begin until the maize god fully enters Our Bounty,” my host said. “His wife offers him the sacred brew and watches until his eyes are no longer his own.”

“What brew? Do you know what it is?”

“Chih, but with the sap of the sacred buffo stirred in. Different frogs are more or less potent, so she has to keep giving it until his ch’ulel has gone wandering. Only then can the ch’ulel of Juun Ixim enter.”

“Where does his ch’ulel go?”

“Some say it treads the path of the Upperworld. No one knows. When Our Bounty returns, he has no memory of the dance or where he went during it. He describes it as a shimmering place with brightly colored serpents and other animals.” 

A DEEP-VOICED DRUM ANNOUNCED THE APPEARANCE OF a dwarf who, according to Eyes In The Sky, stood for the stunted ear of maize on many plants. This man wore a black hip cloth painted with yellow maize kernels, a yellow K’uhuuntak headdress pointed back and a shell pendant.

The Hero Twins followed behind him, walking toe first, with blowguns leaning against their shoulders. I recognized One Lord because he had black spots on his red-painted body. First Jaguar wore patches of jaguar pelt on his arms and legs. Next, I expected to see Yellow Fire come out dressed as the maize god. Instead, to the sound of a somber flute and a slow drum beat, the god himself entered just twenty paces from where we sat. “Ayaahh!” I whispered. He bore so little resemblance to my friend, the sight of him startled me. 

His head was drastically tapered, elongated and bald except for a yellow tassel tied high and hanging down the back. His skin color was lighter, painted, and he was naked except for a roll of twisted green cloth between his loins and drawn up to his waist. He even walked differently—more erect, also toes first. When he stopped, the drumming and flute playing stopped.

Suddenly, one drum pounded again, hard and fast. Chaak, the bulbous-nosed, serpent-legged lightning and rain god, came bounding into the courtyard, leaping and pounding his feet. Brandishing a long-handled axe and bent forward, he danced on his toes with alternating knee lifts. His bead-and-shell necklace clanked as he performed his well known swinging and chopping movements. I recognized the long black bag strung across his shoulder as containing rain.

The dwarf came to the front and gestured for us to sit. Avoiding the rain god’s swinging axe, First Jaguar approached, the drum went silent and he called out. “To atone for his weaknesses, Juun Ixim offers his body and blood.” 

One Lord came and stood beside his brother. “By sacrificing himself, he chooses to overcome three weaknesses. First, he is all good; there is only good in his being. To be a complete god there must be evil as well. Second, he believes he will live forever. Finally, there is fear in him—he is afraid of death.”

The twin gods parted and the maize god came forward. His wide eyes stared straight ahead as if he were looking through us. Chaak came and stood in front of him, not breaking his gaze. The maize god bowed low and stayed bent at the waist, while Chaak rose, spun around and swung the huge shiny axe high, bringing it down on the maize god’s neck. Somehow, as the twins danced in front of them, the bloody head of the maize god fell and rolled across the pavement. And now the black water bag was on the fallen body, covering the place where the head had been. 

Four men wearing black paint head-to-toe brought out a litter with a covering on it painted to look like a canoe. When they set it down, One Lord and First Jaguar lifted the lifeless body onto it. The painted men lifted it, and to the pounding of the drum, went forward with the twin gods paddling. Slowly, the bow of the “boat” tilted down to make its descent. With solemn footsteps, the canoe bearing the body of the maize god circled the courtyard and set the litter down in front of the watery Underworld. Behind it, was the face of the Xoc serpent.

With the dwarf swinging a ceramic censer over the body, the twins lifted it onto the platform and covered it with a black cloth. One Lord came before us again, to say the maize god’s body was being re-established by Xoc and the other fish. As he told about the fish-serpent, his brother danced the reconstitution rites in front of the altar with his arms upraised, hips swaying and toe-heel steps matched to heartbeats on the drum. Lub-dum, lub-dum. Behind him, the black cloth began to move. Slowly, the maize god pulled the cloth aside and sat up. I whispered to Venerable Amaté that, at Calakmul, the tellers said it was the twins, not Xoc, who restored his body.

With the dwarf guiding him, the maize god moved to the front of the watery Underworld. There, he was met by three young women, goddesses, naked except for red-painted arms and shoulders, pearl wristlets, jade ear ornaments and green waterlily headdresses. Two of the goddesses held out regalia items for the dwarf to cense. The third presented the items one at a time for the maize god’s appreciation and acceptance—by holding them up to his eyes, while averting hers. Pink anklets of thin shell-tubes came first. Then, attesting to his rebirth, they tied on the belt that had sky signs around it. And from it, a thick twisted cord hung over a white shell bearing the painted face of the Xoc fish.

Jewels came next—jade earflares and a necklace of jade beads surrounding a god-face medallion. Pearls sewn onto white sacrificial cloths were tied around his upper arms and then he bowed to receive a tall headdress of white flowers in front, with twisted and oversized maize leaves in back. 

Fully gowned, and gloriously adorned, the maize god expressed gratitude to the goddesses by facing the palm of one hand to them, while receiving the blessings from above with the other. 

I wondered, What about the skirt? In other places the story had him wearing a skirt made of jade tubes and beads in the form of an open net—like those on turtle’s carapace. Even the lords on monuments were shown wearing the beaded skirt. 

The dwarf escorted the maize god to the canoe again. Now, the twins turned and paddled with the bow rising. The dwarf followed, beating a turtle shell with an antler to call back the god of lightning and rain. While we were watching, another man painted black ran out, pulled the Underworld cloth off the platform and ran back. Six others clad in black paint with green leaves, twigs and vine carried out an enormous turtle shell, taller than a man and three times as long with the net pattern painted on its back. While they took it up the steps and set it on the platform, four more men painted black brought out torches and took positions alongside and in front of Great Turtle—the world. 

The tellers at Naachtun said the world was a bony skull. At Cancuen they said it was a crocodile. 

The tree drum pounded. Boom!—Boom! Another joined it. Boom!!—Boom!! Boom!! And then a third: BOOM!—BOOM! BOOM! Faster and pounding hard, the drums brought back Chaak who spun and swung his axe, dancing toes-first with knee lifts. I was so intent on the dance I didn’t notice that the canoe had disappeared into the darkness.

The twin gods came before us again, now with seed bags strung across their shoulders. When the drumming stopped, they raised their arms in a gesture that invited us to stand and recite the words we’d learned as sprouts and flowers. 

All is still, silent and calm. Hushed and empty is the womb of the sky. There is not yet one person, one animal, bird, fish, tree, rock or forest. All alone is the sky. The face of the earth has not yet appeared. Alone lies the expanse of the sea, along with the womb of the sky. There is not yet anything gathered together. All is at rest. Nothing stirs. All is calm, at rest in the sky. There is not yet anything standing erect. Only the expanse of the water, only the quiet sea. There is not yet anything that might exist. All lies calm and silent in the darkness of the night.  

After a moment of silence, there came a sound of knocking on wood. Chaak tilted his head and put a hand to his ear. The sound came again, louder. With the dwarf marking his steps on the carapace drum, the lightning lord approached the platform and went up the steps. Standing behind Great Turtle, he listened again. And then he spoke. “How shall it be sown? Who will be the Provider? Who will be the Sustainer? Let it be so. Let it be known. Let it be seen.”

To a flurry of drumming, Chaak gripped the handle of his axe with both hands, swung the head forward making it look heavy. Swinging it back and high, he brought it down with a single hard pounding of all the drums. After that, except for the fluttering of torches, silence. 

The sacred moment had arrived. I held my breath. And then it came—the sound of a crack. Then another, louder. The bearers in black leaned their torches toward Great Turtle. Another loud crack and the shell broke open. Chaak stood back with his palms facing the turtle, the sign of wonder and glory. First to rise out of the split shell were green maize leaves, then feathers and a headdress with yellow tassels. Beneath it, was the face of the maize god. Again, he seemed to be looking through us rather than at us. One Lord offered the seed bag to him, and he took a handful of seeds. Standing up to his knees in the crack, he turned and scattered the seeds to the four directions. 

At Waka’, the tellers said he rose from a split in a mountain. At Xultun they said it was the back of a peccary. So many differences.

The twins helped the maize god step out of the carapace. When he came down and his feet touched the floor a flute sounded and he began a joyful toe-heel dance with graceful arm movements, turning, taking more seeds from the bag, casting them to the four directions. 

With the dance completed and the dwarf drumming on his carapace shell, the dancers followed the maize god across the courtyard to House of Raised Up Sky. There, inside the shrine, according to Venerable Amaté, Yellow Fire’s wife would present him with the offering bowl containing the sacred bloodletter. Venerable Amaté said he preferred a stingray spine. 

WALKING BACK TO THE LODGE WITH MY BROTHERS, I mentioned some of the differences in The Dance of The Maize god story as it was told from place to place. “Just like us,” Venerable Amaté said, “the gods reveal themselves in different ways at different times and in different places.”

“Are you saying the stories can all be true?”

Venerable Toucan dropped back so he could see my face by the light of his torch. “It is the truth of the story that matters, what it says beyond what the tellers say about the gods—how they look and what they wear.”

“Even if I was authorized,” I said. “I would not tell god stories. I cannot know which of them is true.”

Venerable Amaté’s face flickered in the orange light. “Our Bounty is not a member of the brotherhood, but he took the vow of truth. Had he not believed the story of the maize god as it is told and danced here, he could not have surrendered his body to him.”

“If I were on your path,” Venerable Toucan said, “I would not want to be authorized. The gods are spirits. No one can say what they are like. Like rain falling on the hand, we cannot hold their descriptions. But we can and should grasp the truth of their stories—the lessons they provide.”    

“I have heard so many different voices on this, I do not know what to believe,” I said.

“What do your ancestors say?” Venerable Amaté asked.

“They were warriors, they have not guided me very well. I do not trust them.”

“Trust your ch’ulel, Wakah. That is where pure truth resides.”

____________________________________________________________________________

For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To Amazon.com for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

Maize

In the pre-dawn darkness, Gucumatz and Heart Of Heaven call on Fox, Coyote, Parrot and Crow to bring yellow and white maize from Paxil and Cayala, a mountain filled with seeds and fruits. Old Xmucane grinds the maize and, from the meal, the first four men are fashioned. Unlike the previous wooden race, these people of maize possess great knowledge and understanding and correctly give thanks to their creators. However, Gucumatz and Heart of Heaven are troubled; these corn men can see everywhere—through earth and sky to the limits of the universe. The creators decide that these people are too much like themselves and that their powers must be diminished. As though they were breathing mist on a mirror, the gods blurd the vision of the first people so that they can see clearly only what is near. In place of omniscience, the creators give the first men happiness by providing them with four beautiful wives to be their companions. With these four women, the first lineages of the Quiche’ are begun.              

Popol Vuh (Sacred book of the Quiché Maya)

The word “maize” was adopted by the Spanish conquistadors because it’s the word the natives used to describe what we refer to as “corn,” the western European term for grain. Maize was native to Mesoamerica, a staple by the Middle Preclassic (1000—400 BC). As early as Olmec times (1200-1500 BCE) the grains were “nixtamalized,” a word derived from the Aztec Nahuatl word nextli or “ashes” and tamalli meaning “wrapped,” to describe the process of boiling the kernels in crushed limestone to soften them for grinding, remove the clear husk and improve the flavor. Nixtamalizing maize enhances amino acids and niacin, making derivative foods such as tortillas and gruels more nutritious. Combined with beans it provides most of the proteins necessary for an average adult—and was capable of sustaining large populations throughout Mesoamerica for centuries.

Every kernel has a silk, which is the female part of the plant. The tassel is the male part that contains tiny grains of pollen, which in the wind, falls on the silk of neighboring plants. Each pollen grain pollinates the strand of silk it sticks to. After fertilization, a kernel grows at the end of each strand. And at the end of each silk is an egg. When the pollen reaches the egg it pollinates it and the egg becomes a kernel of maize. Inside the husk, hundreds of kernels grow into what we refer to as an “ear.” The ideal time to harvest is just before the silk turns brown. Growers leave some maize on the stalk until the brown silk dries. The kernels harden, and that becomes seed for the next crop. 

In ancient Mesoamerica the ears of maize were much shorter than they are now, evolving from two inches to four, then six. White and yellow maize were used for everyday meals. Black maize was often prepared for ritual meals. Maize today has to be planted in quantity and close together because the stalks would break without the support of neighboring plants. Considering the dietary cornucopia of today, it’s hard to imagine a society where food “diversity” meant the different ways that one food could be prepared. But that’s how it was for the ancient Maya, and vestiges of it carry on today. 

Ul (Atoli in Nahuatl)

Solid balls of white ground maize are mixed with water then cooked to reduce it into a liquid like a porridge or thick jelly depending upon the proportions. The gruel was drunk warm as the morning meal and consumed cold at mid-day. The ancients buried the dead with it for sustenance during their trip through the underworld. By adding whole grains of maize to it there was something to chew on. Today whole turkeys are cooked in atoli.

Keehel Uah (Tamalli in Nahuatl)

Nixtamalized maize dough is wrapped in leaves, then steamed or baked on or under the coals of the hearth. They were often smoked, sometimes for weeks, sprinkled with lime powder. Fillings included: beans mixed in with the dough, ground and toasted squash seeds, turkey, iguana, deer, turtle, fish and greens, especially chaya and chipilin. After filling, they are cooked with a little water and a framework of sticks so the tamales are steamed, not boiled.

In ancient times the dough, plain or with a filling, was wrapped in plantain or avocado or maize husks before cooking and tied with strands of the same material or cords. The white and yellow objects depicted on Maya vases may be firm tamales, made of white and yellow maize dough.

Tortillas

Tortillas originated in Central Mexico. They were introduced to the Maya in the Post Classic Period. The Maya shaped them on leaves and toasted them on a stone brushed with lime-water so they would puff up briefly. “Young Maize Tortillas” are shaped by the two-handed method of slapping the dough. The Lacandon Maya of Chiapas coated their cooked tortillas with a bean paste and then more maize dough, which was toasted again. Tortillas were made for travel by drying them in the sun until they become crisp. Spaniards reported that they needed teeth of steel to eat them. As with tamalles, there was/is a long (and similar) list of accompaniments.  

Making tortillas. Tecpan, Guatemala 2008

Maize Made For Traveling

Zahina

Maize dough was made into kind of bread by adding it to water to make a gruel.

Keyem (Posolli in Nahuatl)

Normally, maize is ground three times using a metate. To make keyem, after the first grinding the dough was mixed with water to form one of several maize beverages. Balls of the dough were carried by travelers. They were kept in a special ceramic container and wrapped in leaves from previous bundles of keyem to provide a culture so bacteria, yeasts and molds could work on the dough. They lasted months until they became sour. The sour dough was mixed with water and drunk. It was reported to have a “sharp pleasant taste.” After the 2nd grinding, the dough is suitable for tortillas. After the third, it’s smooth enough to be made into atolli. When entertaining guests, they added honey.

Maatz (Pinole in Nahuatl)

To make this beverage, toasted maize powder was stirred into water. Chile powder was added to spice it up. And elites would substitute cacao powder. The Spaniards reported that water was seldom taken in its pure state.

Zahina (Posolli in Nahuatl)

Uncooked ground maize balls are formed into a solid. These are carried by travelers and mixed with water to make a gruel.

Sacul (Atole in Nahuatl)

Maize that has not been nixtamalized is ground with water until it’s grainy. It’s sweetened with honey and served in bowls. It’s reported to be “rather sandy in texture,” but it keeps well.

Beers

Twelve kinds of beer were reported, most of them maize-based. They were drunk before going to sleep and they were considered “the drinks of chiefs.”

Maize Dough
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 26)

THE NEXT MORNING I AWOKE EARLY AND TOLD MY MOTHER I was going for a walk and wanted to be alone. She didn’t even question me while wrapping maize dough nuggets for me to take along. While I waited, Butterfly passed the doorway with a tall jar on her head. Mother untied the leaves and was sprinkling chili powder onto the balls of maize dough when she glanced at me with watery eyes. I took it to mean that she was sorry for my being burdened with the truth that she’d kept from me. 

Keyem
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 73)

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. 

Maize and Other Foods
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 125)

My muscles ached, my eyes burned and I was very thirsty. Women followed behind the warriors carrying blankets and clothing on their heads. Others had back-baskets, probably filled with maize, beans and avocados. One woman had live iguanas dangling from her belt. Another had a turkey hen tucked under her arm. White Grandfather patted me on the shoulder and pointed to Hummingbird coming with a bundle. Food. Although my legs were wobbly going down the steps, we met her at the long bench that faced the temple.

Father’s sister had brought kox-stuffed tamales, fried plantains, roasted squash seeds and persimmons. All I could manage were the seeds and some cold maize water spiced with chili. My hands seemed not to belong to me and I could barely feel my mouth, so I spilled some of the maize water down the front of me. (Kox is a small black bird).

Reference to humans being made of maize
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 254)

My brother went across the courtyard and stood on the steps above Red Paw and Pech. Dragonfly continued to translate. “What did the Makers do? They invoked Grandmother of Glory! And their thoughts came clear. Fox, Coyote, Parrot and Crow brought ears of yellow maize and white maize from the split place, from First True Mountain, Flowering Mountain Earth where Grandmother Of Glory ground the maize nine times. The water she used in rinsing her hands made fat—human fat. And with it Sovereign Plumed Serpent made the first humans, our Mother-Fathers.” With a swish of his robe, Comb Pace came down the steps and went to center. “The humans made from fat were different,” he said. “They made words! They praised the directions and they listened. They walked and they used their muscles. They offered their sweat, blood and smoke to the Makers and Modelers. Such was the making by First Grandfather and First Grandmother.” 

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For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To Amazon.com for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller  

 

 

 

 

 

Ch’ulel “Soul”

Plumeria, San Ignacio, Cayo, Belize

For the Tzotzil Maya, ch’ulel is the inner, individual soul which has thirteen parts and is centered in the heart. This life essence that animates the person is placed in the embryo at conception by ancestral deities and is inherited from the grandfather, not the father, because, after a person dies, the soul remains at the gravesite for the same period of time as the person lived. And once the ch’ulel has been placed in the new grandchild, he or she becomes a k’ex “substitute” for the departed ancestor. In Tzotzil, the term is k’exolil. (See the post on “K’ex Substitution,” July 27, 2019). 

Because death was the result of serious loss of ch’ulel (“soul loss”)—caused by the gods, the death of the animal companion, the sale of the soul to the Witz’ “Earth Lord, or by accident or murder—the soul spends its time at the grave site gathering up the fragments of ch’ulel that had been spread over the landscape to reintegrate itself. When that’s done, it joins a larger “pool” of souls kept by the gods, to be used eventually for another person.

Another form of ch’ulel is referred to as wayhel, “dream spirit.” It animates animals and the forest, and is characterized as unruly, uncontrollable, wild impulsive. When the sun sets, the wayhel spirits can attack one another, resulting in illness and death of anyone close. 

Breath was the rarified essence of ch’ulel, the conduit between the world and the living and world of the gods and ancestors. As essence, the breath of a person continues after death as the soul of the deceased person. It’s why, when a person or god or ancestor is portrayed in Maya art, a flower or jade bead is shown in front of or in the nose or mouth. It signifies the presence of their ch’ulel. There’s speculation that these were also placed there to absorb the “breath soul.” Further, it was believed that the gods and ancestors were nourished by the ch’ulel in the breath. And it’s the ch’ulel in blood that made it “precious substance,” the life force.

In the inscriptions, ch’ulel is symbolized by a white flower, likely the white plumeria. For example, these are expressions of death:

  • Ch’ay u sak nik nal, “Diminished, his white flower.” Yaxchilan Stela 12.
  • Iwal ch’ay u sak nik nal, “And then diminished, his white flower.” Copan stairway.
  • K’ay sak nik nal, “Ended the white flower.”  Copan stairway.

                                Sak Nik “White Flower”                           

 Although the plumeria blossoms shown in the photograph below the header are not “white,” they show their size and shape.

The modern Tzotzil and Tzeltal peoples entered the highlands of Chiapas between 100 BCE and 300 CE. Before the Spanish conquest, they exported quetzal feathers and amber to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. They also produced salt.

Ch’ulel And Identity

Excerpt From Jaguar Wind And Waves (p. 12)

IT WAS WELL KNOWN AMONG MY PEOPLE, THAT CHILDREN inherited their ch’ulel—the spirit that made them who they are—from their grandfathers. Just as a crop of maize replaces the previous crop, so our sons and daughters replaced their grandfathers, walk for them on the face of the earth. When we remember them, they are present in both our lives and the life of the caah, the community. As I was growing up I could see that this was true for everyone around me. It certainly was true for my brothers and sister. But it was not true for me. Although I knew my grandfather, respected him and laughed with him, I was my father’s daughter. 

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The Ch’ulel Of Twins

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 76)

Thunder Flute picked up a stick and began peeling the bark. I got a smaller one and moved around to sit cross-legged in front of him. As he spoke he kept his eyes on the stick. “At Tollan the holy ones believed that twins share the same ch’ulel. They said the gods intended that one would serve the caah, and the other was to be sacrificed as a gratitude for Tollan’s bounty. When the twins came, the highest of the daykeepers came and told your grandfather it would be his privilege to offer one of them as an offering to the gods.” 

“Which one did they want?” 

“He let your grandfather decide. As my brothers grew, he and your grandmother saw that they did not share the same ch’ulel. Far from it. They had the same face, but they were different in many ways.”

“What did grandfather do?”

“He tricked the daykeeper. He said he would offer one of them to the gods, but in order to make the offering more pleasing, he wanted to wait until they became strong and stood as tall as a young maize stalk. The daykeeper not only agreed, he also petitioned someone and they were apprenticed at the Lodge of Builders—to put some muscle on their bones. That is where they learned the ways of building.”

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Ch’ulel Inherited From A God

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 88)

“You are more than you think, grandson. Much more. Your blood is precious because it contains ch’ulel inherited from Lord One Maize. You will not feel its lightning power until you are older, but it is there, asleep in your blood. With proper layering, it will awaken and you will recognize it. For now, all we can advise is that you seek your rightful path, walk it in truth and begin speaking the truth as you know it. If you do that, your layering will be greater than that of our brother who sits on the throne at Mirador adorned in jewels and feathers.”

“With respect grandfather, the prophet said my path was that of the jaguar. Can you tell me what it means?” He couldn’t. “What happens if I never find this path, my rightful path?”

“That cannot happen. For now, be as you are and follow your heart—.”

“That is what I hoped you would say. My heart tells me to live with my friends and apprentice myself to White Cord. Somehow, that is what will happen.” 

“Just as the sacred substance within the sap rises in a tree, as you grow older the ch’ulel of the maize god will awaken in you and call out your courage. You will do more than you think you can do.” White Grandfather stopped and dragged the end of his staff across the sand to make a line in front of us. “On this side of the line, you stand as a sprout, questioning your path. You wonder if your ancestors are Rabbit or Macaw.” He pointed ahead. “On the other side of the line lies your true path. Standing here, you worry because the prophet said it leads to the Mat. But it is best to not look too far ahead. Winds can come and blow the sands away. Water can come and wash it away—.”

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For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

The following are links to Amazon.com for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A Novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller  

Jade

Ear Ornaments

The Classic Maya ascribed a number of meanings to jade, including maize, centrality, and rulership, as well as a material embodiment of wind and the vitalizing breath soul. Because of its close relationship to the breath spirit, jade was an important component of funerary rites and the ritual conjuring of gods and ancestors. Carved in floral form, jade earspools were considered supernatural sources or passageways for the breath spirit, frequently portrayed as a bead or a serpent emerging from the center of the jade flare. A common Classic Maya death expression, och b’ih, pertains directly to resurrection of the soul through the symbolism of earspools. 

Karl A. Taube (Archaeologist, epigrapher, and ethnohistorian)

While “jade” is the common term for the mineral the ancient Maya considered “most precious,” technically the stone is jadeite, a mineral composed of sodium, aluminum, and silicates. The colors varied including green, blue, lavender, white, and black. Green was highly prized by the Maya, a color derived from the presence of chromium and nickel. On Moh’s scale of hardness, jadeite ranks 6.5 to 7, relative to diamonds that are 10. The Motagua River valley in Guatemala is one of only six known jadeite sources in the world. It is rare because it forms under high-temperature and low-pressure conditions associated with a tectonic fault.

Headdress Ornaments

Worn only by the elite, jade identified the wearer as having esoteric and ritual knowledge. Besides their use as adornments, they were sacred objects used to conjure the gods and ancestors,  and open portals to the underworld (beneath the surface of the earth) and the celestial world, home to sky deities. Jade was the most precious stone in Mesoamerica. The Aztec king, Montezuma, told Cortés that jade pieces he would send to the king of Spain were valued at more than two loads of gold each. 

 

 

Copan Ruler

Because it was extremely hard, it took weeks, months and years, sometimes generations to carve a single piece of jade. Tools consisted of chert and quartzite that had a hardness of 7, and jade itself. To saw it, one person would keep abrasive dust particles on the line while another pressed into it with a string, which was only good for about eight to ten strokes. Incising was done after polishing, often using the string-saw technique. Drills consisted of either quartzite or chert blades, some turned by hand, while others used a pump drill like the kind used to drill fire.

The Second Largest Maya Jade Artifact

 In 2015, archaeologist Jeffrey Braswell found a jade pendant in Nim Li Punit, a small site in southern Belize. Significantly, it’s unique in that it carries an inscription. The text reads: “This jewel was made for the king Janaab’ Ohl K’inich.” Its first use was in A.D. 672 for an incense-scattering ceremony. It talks about the king’s parentage, saying his mother was from Cahal Pech, a site in western Belize, and his father died before age 20, coming from somewhere in Guatemala. It also describes the accession rites of the king in A.D. 647 and ends with a passage that possibly links the king to the powerful and immense city of Caracol, also in Belize.

The Largest Maya Jade Artifact

The 6” tall, deep green and highly polished jade piece weighs close to ten pounds. Highly carved, it represents the head of the Sun God, K’inich Ajaw. In some legends he descends to the earth each day as a macaw, so the head features a prominent beak. Found in Structure B-4 at Altun Ha, a mid-sized city in Belize, it has been dated to between A.D. 600-650. In the tomb where it was found were the remains of an adult male, who was about 5’ 6” tall. 

The Jade Death Mask Of King K’inich Janaab’ Pakal Of Palenque

Scroll down to see the jade mask and associated jewels. Imagine the time and labor investment in making all these pieces. And realize that for all the jade plaques to fit together in the round, there had to be a design that each of the lapidaries followed. It’s a staggering achievement. Notice how closely the sculptured head of Pakal, shown first on this site, matches the features of the jade mask. Pakal ascended to the throne at Palenque on July 29, 615 A.D. He died in 683 A.D. I highly recommend this site.

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 30 )

NINE HEAVILY LOADED DUGOUT CANOES PADDLED BY FIVE MEN each cut through the fog and pre-dawn darkness that blanketed Ahkha. The traders had gotten an early start in order to present Lord Flint Axe Macaw, the eight-year-old ruler of Ahktuunal, with the tribute he required in order to trade in his markets. 

For a full season, the merchants had traveled down swift and muddy rivers, paddled through flooded, snake-infested jungle and had managed backbreaking portages around treacherous rapids. The challenge going south had been to trade perishable and household items—herbs and dried chilies, cording, logwood and other vegetal dyes, turtle carapaces, sharks teeth, and conch shells, fish hooks, sea-salt and honey from the north—for more durable goods and items of fine workmanship. 

In addition to a sizable quantity of figurines, incised ceramic wares, and hand censers, the traders took on high-status items intended for the noble lords and underlords, ministers, holy men and chiefs. These included ceremonial items: copal incense wrapped in maize leaves and tied with a thin blue cord; dried tobacco leaves tied with hemp two hundred to a bundle. Toucan, parrot, macaw and hummingbird feathers were rolled in barkcloth and tied. Jade earplugs, tubes, and flares, including necklaces, carved beads and pendants were all kept in a bundle at the master’s feet. For noblewomen, there were shell bracelets and necklaces, incised tortoiseshell containers, bone needles and textile dyes, all packed with protective palm fronds, bound in wicker, and carried in back baskets fitted with forehead straps. The larger textiles hung over poles. Smaller ones were folded and carried in cotton stuffed with kazcat, an herb that protected them from moths and mildew. Heavier items including ceramic wares, censers and stone tools were tied securely to bamboo litters carried on the shoulders of two men. 

For the highest-ranking lords, ministers and holy men the merchants traded for bloodletting instruments including bone lancets, shell perforators and stingray spines wrapped in strips of cotton and knotted at the ends. Tongue- and ear-piercing thorn-cords used in ancestor conjuring rites were coiled inside ceramic bowls and bundled in broadleaves for protection. Their most delicate and precious cargo, aside from jade and red shell beads acquired along the slopes of the great western sea, were the long and delicate blue-green quetzal plumes bound in lots of twenty and carried in bark tubes. 

Ahktuunal, the largest settlement on the southernmost leg of their journey, sat on the eastern shore of a lake shaped like a turtle shell. Although it was a small center and ruled by a young underlord, it was the best place to acquire the finest, most colorful embroidered cotton in the region. In its market merchants could find the greatest variety of clothing and textiles and acquire them at favorable exchanges. 

As the fore and aft torches penetrated the fog, Thunder Flute called to his men. “All boats! The ruler may be a sprout, but do not underestimate his power. He is the third son of Jaguar Tooth Macaw, Lord of Kaminaljuyu, one of the most powerful rulers who ever lived.” 

Excerpt from Jaguar Rising p. 37

From a heavy basket, one of the raiders dumped a number of green stones onto a blanket. Thunder Flute wanted to get a closer look so he motioned for Pech to stay where he was while he went around to the back of the residence. Crossing to the council house under the cover of streaming black smoke, he crouched behind a stairway and watched as three of the raiders examined the green stones with their leader. Thunder Flute counted six hand-sized ceremonial celts, at least ten equally long belt danglers, two jade tubes as long as a finger, four jade earflares shaped like flowers, a dark greenstone the size of a fist and scores of jade bead necklaces. When an assistant held one up with the bulbous head of the sun god at the bottom, the leader snatched it out of his hand and stuffed it into his already bulging pouch. From another warrior, he snatched a jade turtle shell the size of a fist, a magnificent piece with three red spots painted on the carapace. With great force, he hurled it down the plaza. Thunder Flute gasped as it hit the pavement and rolled into the smoke.  

After dumping some thorny oyster shells, red shell beads, and shell perforators onto a blanket, a warrior with a jagged scar down one arm gathered the ends and slung it onto his back. His brother warriors gathered up the other goods and the leader followed, all the while looking to see if there would be any resistance. There was none. Along the way, he stepped onto the back of a fallen Ahktuunal guard and struck a victory pose with his axe held high. Several of his men imitated the gesture, and together they howled like coyotes.

Thunder Flute took advantage of the distraction. He ran behind the retaining wall to where Pech was watching. Beside him, an assistant pointed to the temple of the Great Turtle. Through the smoke, high on the third terrace and hiding behind a fallen censer stand, a scout was signing: god bundle burned—six guards down. Warriors gone.

Gather their weapons, Thunder Flute signed. Return to the canoes. He whispered in Pech’s ear, “I want a man on the far side of the council house—to see where they will go. The leader threw a jade turtle down the plaza, a big one. I want it.”  

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For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To Amazon.com for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

Blood: Spiritually Hot Substance

In all of Mesoamerican history, human blood served as a means of channeling and infusing the world with the sacred essence or soul.

                                                                                            David Stuart (Archaeologist and epigrapher)

Among certain creation myths, there’s the indication that, in the beginning, “First Mother” mixed the blood of the Creator gods with maize dough to create human beings. Without blood, a person dies, so it was understood to carry the life force. Being sacred, blood was the highest kind of sacrifice a ruler could make to nourish the gods, especially Ajaw K’in, “Lord Sun,” whose radiant manifestation was both red and hot.

In certain periods and places, it was also believed that Ajaw K’in could perish from a lack of blood offerings. A thousand years later, according to Spanish chroniclers, this belief among the Aztec kings resulted in human sacrifice on a massive scale. To ensure a constant supply of blood for the gods, regular bloodletting rites among the Maya opened a portal between the human and sacred realms, allowing their kings to feed the gods in exchange for blessings of security, bountiful harvests and fertility.

Sacrificial blood was drawn from tongues, earlobes, fingertips, and cheeks. Blood from a ruler’s penis was an especially powerful sacrifice. Whatever the source, blood was let onto strips of white cloth or paper that were then burned in a sacred offering bowl along with incense.  In the smoke, their petitions rose to the gods in the celestial realm. Scholars note that the favored places on the body for sacrifice are not those with large numbers of blood vessels or pain receptors, so “it wasn’t as painful as we might think.” On monuments, the bloody cloths are shown tied in three knots, identifying them as carrying itz, “sacred substance.”

Because the royals traced their bloodline to the Maize God, their blood was considered especially powerful—spiritually “hot” compared to everyone else’s blood. In “Blood Inheritance,” the protagonist learns that blood determines his destiny. In “Hot Blood” (below), Thunder Flute proves that his stepson’s royal blood is not hot to the touch.

How Blood Was Inherited

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 18)

FATHER CAME UP THE EMBANKMENT, PASSED BY ME AND WENT to the trees where he picked up a stick and began peeling the bark. It was hard not to ask what I’d done, but he’d trained me well. I never spoke first. Coming to the water, he threw in a piece of bark and fish came to nibble on it. When he saw me looking at the stick, he tossed it aside. “I am not going to beat you,” he said. “Sit.” I sat and he went around behind me. “This will be worse than a beating.” He came around front, faced the water and crossed his arms. “It falls to me to burden you with a heavy truth, Seven Maize.” Whenever he said my name, I knew it was serious. My heart pounded like a tree-drum. “Hard to believe,” he said. “Twelve tunob since I brought you and your mother here. Already, you stand on the doorstep to manhood.” He came over, gathered his cloak and sat at the other end of the bench resting his forearms on his legs.

“Respect, Father. Whatever it is I can bear it.”

“A man needs to know the truth about his beginnings,” he said to the ground. “Otherwise, he goes mad, becomes useless to his family and the caah.” Laughing sounds from the compound caused him to look up, but only for a moment. “Did you see Lord Laughing Falcon leaving?” I nodded. “He came all this way—.” Father heaved an annoying sigh. “It comes to this: after initiation, you will not be going with the others to the men’s house. You will be going to the Lodge of Nobles.”

It took me a moment. “The Lodge of Nobles? How can that be? Are they raising you to the nobility? Finally?” Everyone knew that Father deserved it. We always thought he would one day carry the title, Minister of Trade.

He turned my way, but only to look at the necklace. “It has nothing to do with me,” he said. “It is because of you.”

“Me?” Suddenly, I remembered. Mother’s blood was hot. Long before I touched the earth, her Father ruled somewhere far to the south and west. “Because of Mother’s blood? I thought only blood from the male line could enter the lodge?”

“Not hers—yours.”

I shook my head. “I do not understand. Am I to be a servant there?” A chill of lightning flashed up my back. Or a sacrifice? Then I realized, he wouldn’t want me. He could get sacrificial blood from a slave. Still, it was a possibility.

“Your mother and I kept you safe these many tunob by not talking about your birth, not to anyone.”

Especially not me. I clenched my teeth and crossed my arms against the winds of his truth. Whatever storm he was blowing, I would face it like a mighty ceiba.

Father picked up another twig and began peeling the bark. Still, he talked to the grass in front of his feet. “I am not your father, Seven Maize.” When our glances met he looked away. “Another man planted the seeds in your mother, the seeds that called you down from the other world.” I heard what he said, but because it could not be true I tried to understand why he would speak such a mountainous lie.

“You heard me speak of Lord Jaguar Tooth Macaw?” I stayed steady and fixed my gaze on his fingers picking at the twig. “His is the blood that runs in your veins, not mine.” I got up and walked to the trees. I could feel my heart pounding. He’d spoken of that lord so often and with such admiration, I usually turned away at the sound of his name. “When I brought you here I told everyone that I found your mother in a regalia workshop at Kaminaljuyu. The truth is, Lord Macaw gifted her to me in gratitude for saving the life of his youngest son.”

“At Ahktuunal?” I knew something important had happened to him there. He always changed the subject when anyone spoke the name of that place.

“Your mother feared Lord Macaw—and for good reason. I will let her tell you about it. She was so afraid, she could not tell him his seeds were growing in her. So that was her secret. No one knew. Not until—”

“I want to hear this from her!” I surprised myself by interrupting and speaking boldly, but I no longer cared about what he would say or do to me. I went to the edge of the embankment hoping to see my mother. She was down there, standing in back of her workshop, wiping her eyes, apparently waiting to see if I might appear. When our eyes met and she nodded, it felt like I’d been hit in the chest with a beam. I dropped to the ground and doubled over.

“Get up!” Father shouted. “Show her you can shoulder this like a man.” I felt caged, like one of his dogs. Going to the water, I pressed my hand against my neck to hold back the lump that was growing in my throat. “Keep your head up, Seven Maize! Stand tall. Be grateful that you were raised in the Owl Brotherhood.” He barked his orders to me like I was one of his crew.

“If you are not My father, who are my brothers? If I am not a Rabbit, what am I?”

Father got up, came over and pointed his finger at the side of my face. “You, little sprout, are the fourth son of Lord Jaguar Tooth Macaw, the Great Tree of Kaminaljuyu…” He pounded me with that man’s titles and said something about my blood coming from the maize god, but my thoughts were darting like a deer catching the scent of a jaguar.

One thing made sense. This is why he favors my brother and sister. This is why he never beat me—or carried me as he did them.

“You should feel proud, Seven Maize. Kaminaljuyu is a sprawling place with thousands of people, more noblemen and tradesmen than you can imagine. All of Cerros would fit into just one of her districts—and there are five of them. Her temples sit on great red pyramids that rise above grassy aprons and mounds. The city surrounds a blue lake with canals. South from there, you can see First True Mountain, the fiery place where the world was made. At night the clouds turn red from the fire, and in the belching smoke, you can see lightning spears being hurled by the Chaakob. I was going to tell you after your initiation, but Lord Falcon—. He insisted that I tell you now. He wants you to enter the lodge after the ceremony. I will say, he honored us by coming to tell me in person. He could have sent a messenger.”

How Blood Was Considered To Be “Hot”

Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 206)

Thunder Flute came forward. “Red Paw Owl! Fire Eyes Jaguar Macaw! Come forward,” he said. My friend and I went up and faced the gathering. “Face each other. Now Macaw, show us your salute.” I crossed my arms and grabbed my shoulders sharply as if I were standing before the Mat. Although my chin was high, I watched Thunder Flute from the corner of my eye as he picked up a blackened stick lying close to the fire. Before I could even imagine what he was going to do with it, he made a black circle of charcoal on my arm above the elbow. Fortunately, the stick was only warm. He turned to Red Paw. “Owl, are you prepared to follow orders?”

“With respect master!” Red Paw’s quick and proper response, combined with his warrior stance showed that he’d learned well at the Crooked Tree men’s house.

Thunder Flute handed him the blade. “That circle is your target. Make it bleed!”

Red Paw looked at me, and then Thunder Flute. “Respect master, do you really—?”

“This is not a request. This is an order. Do it or leave.”

I couldn’t believe it. Red Paw poked my arm and it bled. Instinctively, I grabbed the wound.

“Take your hand away!” Thunder Flute shouted. “Owl, take the blood on your finger and taste it.” Red Paw put his finger out. When he hesitated, Thunder Flute pressed it hard against my arm. “You execute my order when the command is given. You do not hesitate. Do you understand?” Red Paw put his finger to his mouth like he was about to drink the venom of a yellow-jaw. Beads of sweat began appearing on his forehead and lip. Still, he tasted it. “More!” Thunder Flute said, marking my other arm with the stick. Red Paw tasted more of my blood and followed the next order by poking the other arm and tasting the blood that ran from the wound.

Those watching were shocked, but someone applauded and everyone joined in. Thunder Flute turned to them. “You who are new here, form a line. This is hot blood and I want you to taste it. Paint it on your noses. If you need more, draw more, but only from within the circles. We want Fire Eyes to wear these scars proudly—as a reminder of this k’in and the brotherhood of the expedition.”

One by one the men came up, dipped their finger in my blood, tasted it and drew more as needed. Thunder Flute stood beside me. “Eyes straight!” he barked when I looked at my arm. My heart was beating as fast as it had at the binding ceremony. As much as I wanted to grip my arms, I wanted to grab the blade, slash him with it and paint his nose with the blood. “I want you to see,” he said to the men. “What your Mothers and the holy ones told you is not true. Hot blood does not burn. It will not make you sick. Demons are not unleashed when you spill it.”

A man with frog-like eyes said he was taught that only holy men were allowed to spill the blood of the maize god. “You speak rightly,” Thunder Flute said. “It must be respected. You must have a good reason to spill it. Never waste or desecrate it. Just know that it cannot harm you and you will not be punished for spilling it for good reason.”

Another asked why hot blood wasn’t especially hot to the touch. Thunder Flute explained the difference between heat from fire and heat from ch’ulel. And then he took no more questions. “On expedition, you do not regard the blood of an attacker, neither do you regard the tongue he speaks, his dress, manner or title. When you are attacked, you have a choice—kill or be killed. Only the first is acceptable. The path of long-distance merchants is dangerous. There are many who are waiting, eager to relieve us of our cargo. An expedition is not an adventure. It is not an excuse to visit distant places or see how other people live. You will not be picking flowers along the way.” We laughed at the double meaning of the words “flower”—young females, and “wahy” meaning “dream” as applied to demons. “When I give the order to kill, you kill—without hesitation, without question. We teach the Tollan ways here, not just because I was one of them or because I enjoy killing. I do not. We teach their ways because they are the only way to survive and return with the cargo intact.”

For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Home Page—Novels

Links To Amazon.com

Jaguar Rising: A Novel of the Preclassic Maya

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A Novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

 

Storytelling Through Dance

Rollout Vase courtesy of Justin Kerr

Combined with music and the fragrance of burning offerings, dance was often visualized as the direct manifestation of supernatural forces.

Matthew Looper

Elite dances depicted in Maya art were part of rituals and celebrations. On sculptured stelae. the kings are shown dancing as a deity. The monuments mostly depict male dancers, but there are some women shown dancing, for instance, Lady Ok Ayiin dancing as the Moon Goddess on the Yomop stela. More often, women are shown as dancers or dancing assistance on painted pottery. Most of the performances on vases show more than one dancer, whereas the stelae only show one or two dancers. 

On painted vases dancing is often performed in association with feasting and gift exchanges. On these occasions, a ruler could formalize the political and marriage alliances between his and other elite families. It provided an opportunity to demonstrate his wealth, power and control over the trade in luxury goods. And just as the indigenous leaders of the Pacific Northwest Coast tribes of Canada and the United States gave away their accumulated wealth at lavish potlatch ceremonies, a Maya king could reaffirm polity relationships and his connection with the supernatural world by dancing “in their skins.” 

At the level of the court, dance wasn’t just entertainment, it was fundamental to the ruler’s social, religious and political identity, at times demonstrating his continuity with apotheosized ancestors. Through the use of costumes and psychoactive drugs in some instances, dance transported the participants into the supernatural characters they portrayed. It brought them to life.

Occasions

The primary occasions for ritual dancing were accessions to the throne, birth anniversaries, building dedications (Quirigua Altar L), sacrificial bloodletting by a wife (Yaxchilan Lintel  32), celebrations of military victory (Tikal Temple 4 Lintel 3), tribute presentations (El Abra vase) and designations of a royal heir (Bonampak mural),

Components

Resplendent quetzal feathers invested the dancers with the spirit of the bird. The same with jaguar pelts. Seashells connotated the underworld, and Spondylus shells, in particular, were associated with the celestial realm and the rebirth of the Maize God. Mirrors made of pyrite flakes made the dancers sparkle. Bark paper, worn as headdresses and aprons was associated with sacred words (glyphs) and blood sacrifice. Dancing with jadeite conveyed a sense of the breath essence of the soul, the essence of life. White flowers were the visual representation of the soul. The colors and textures of woven fabrics referenced the vegetable world and gardens. And the various colors of body paint and painted cloth referenced an object and its associated myth. For instance wearing yellow, the color of maize, conveyed the notion of abundance and fertility. Red connoted blood; black represented death and blue was the color of “precious.” 

Movement

The Spaniards reported that Maya dance was “mannered.” In their art, the upper body doesn’t appear to have played much of a role in dancing. Instead, there’s a slight bending of the knees and a graceful shuffling of the feet. Researchers suggest the movement was at court was either “highly stylized” or “the artists chose a very narrow repertoire of motions and gestures for their canon of acceptable display.” 

Dance Of The Colomche

Chroniclers describe a dance with reeds that was much like a game. A large group of dancers formed a circle. Two of them moved to the center to the beat of the music—drums, flutes, wooden trumpets, ocarinas perhaps. One dancer holds a handful of reeds and dances standing up, while the other crouch in a wide circle. The person holding the reeds throws them with all his might to the others and they have to catch them with small sticks. 

Dance of the Hero Twins

The dance is based on the Popol Vuh, the ancient mythological text of the K’iché Maya. The performance opens with the appearance of two youths, the twin gods Junahpu and Xbalanque. The Xibalbans, lords of death from the underworld, dance around and try to kill them, but the twins escape their attacks and are unharmed. 

Celebrating, the brothers dance in a frenzy and the underworld lords get caught up in it. Hunahpu and Xibalanque flit around with torches, light a fire and wood is thrown into it until the smoke gets dense. Then, facing one another, the twins appear to hurl themselves into the fire. The lords of death follow them. The smoke obscures everything. When it clears, only ashes remain.

Then, on the ground, a compartment opens up, and an emissary in a feathered cape comes out carrying a censer. He points to a chamber off to the side. And with the drums and shell trumpets sounding, the Hero Twins come out covered with beautiful feather capes—their former masks replaced with faces of young lords. They greet the onlookers and proclaim their victory over the fearsome Xibalbans.

Dance of The Warriors

Xq’ul was a war dance. It began with a dancer hunting for an enemy warrior. To the sound of flutes and the beating of ceramic drums covered with leather, enemy warriors come out dressed like beasts—jaguar, cayote, tapir, their identity strengthened with like-in-kind headdresses. The hunters, wearing headdresses of eagles or other birds, dance around them carrying swords, axes and spears. How it ends was not reported.

It’s interesting, the contrast between indigenous dancing where the intent is spiritual and modern dance where, regardless of the style, it’s mostly about personal experience or expression. The former has to do with maintaining and celebrating horizontal (social) and vertical (heavenly) relationships, the latter being individual, even when many people are involved. The one form I can think of that retains storytelling in modern dance is ballet, but even there the stories are about an individual. I’m not saying that our modalities are bad. Considering that our worldview is based more on science than myth, that’s understandable. But in seeing ourselves separate and the world as inanimate, we’ve lost something precious, perhaps essential, in our quest for meaning and more satisfying relationships.  

Dancing Brothers: One Lord vs First Jaguar

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 166-171)

While the minister and the other dancers got Red Paw into his costume and gave him instructions, two of the drummers heightened our excitement by displaying their speed in twirling and throwing torches back and forth while their brothers pounded the skins of the tall drums. 

The dancers came forward escorting Red Paw, now dressed as a messenger with a deerskin apron and a barkcloth overshirt. In place of the owl feather worn by messengers, they’d stuck a broken palm leaf in his headband. His head hung in embarrassment as we laughed and applauded. 

The drums stopped abruptly and we became silent. Billowing his cloak again, the minister strode forward with a flourish to begin the story. “There was a messenger of the court—.” As directed, Red Paw ran around the dancers in a circle. Two ceramic drums and now rattles and flutes played by the other dancers quickened his pace. “He ran fast,” the minister said. “Faster! The messenger was true to his master’s words. When he was not running messages, he helped his father in the field.” Red Paw stopped and made the motions of a man casting seeds and tamping them down with a planting stick. Behind him, other dancers comically exaggerated his movements. “He hunted iguana—.” Red Paw turned to the wahy dancer dressed as an iguana and chased him with the stick. “At the men’s house the messenger practiced his warrior skills. He took a wife and he built her a house.” Red Paw pretended to lash poles together. “He was a good husband. He emptied his own chamber-pot!” We laughed as a dancer handed Red Paw a large gourd. He looked into it, sniffed, wrinkled his nose and made the “pot” look heavy, hoisting it to his shoulders. Struggling under its weight, he wobbled over to the initiates and spilled the contents—crumbled dried leaves—onto the heads of the men in the first and second rows. 

“Listen now!” The minister shouted over their shrieks and our laughter. “The messenger had a flaw—he was lazy! He only did what he was forced to do.” Red Paw plopped down and lay on the ground with one leg resting on the other knee. “Having found most men to be like the messenger, One Lord and First Jaguar argued among themselves: ‘What is the best way to get the human beings to attend to us, praise our names and feed us their blood and sweat?’” The minister turned to us and opened both arms. “Cerros! This is the question they put to you! The gods tell me they will not release their abundance until it is settled.”

An initiate called from behind saying Red Paw could settle it. When we laughed, my friend raised his hands in confidence and we laughed even louder. The minister stepped back and bowed as One Lord, the dancer wearing a jaguar helmet and wrapped in a cloth with black spots, came bounding down the steps swinging his axe. He stopped here and there thrusting his menacing face close to us. From the stories we’d heard growing up, we knew his pointed tooth was a perforator and that his breath could instantly burn flesh off a bone. Dutifully, we screamed and backed away. When he went to center again, he paced and gestured as the minister spoke on his behalf, directing the words to his brother lord. “First Jaguar! Brother! Maker of men! There is only one way to get the human beings to praise our names and offer us their sweat.” Boom! A drummer pounded. “Watch, we will show you!” Boom! Boom! One Lord pointed and the wahy monkey bounded forward, twirling with a tall wooden box painted with sky signs. Monkey set the “throne” down and One Lord stepped on it. He held his head high, turned to the side to show the mirrors dangling from his belt and he pulled on it to make them clink. 

While this was happening, Red Paw received further instructions from the minister. When they finished, my friend went over to the spotted lord, knelt, bowed his head and showed his submission and respect with arms across his chest in the “sky” sign. To the slow agonizing beat of the drums, the other wahyob—Macaw, Jaguar, and Opossum—entered from the side struggling under the weight of a huge boulder. Like their axes it was made of stiff painted cloth, but the way they carried it and set it down in front of Red Paw, made it look heavy.

Again, the minister spoke on behalf of One Lord. “To respect us the human beings need to see that we are powerful.” Behind Red Paw, Iguana got up on Macaw’s shoulders. “We make clouds!” the lord said. Macaw reached into his pouch and rained down ash on Red Paw’s head. Quickly he cowered and brushed it out of his hair. While he was not looking, a drummer approached from behind and pounded his drum hard and fast. Shocked, Red Paw fell against the god-dancer’s feet, nearly knocking him off the little throne. I laughed so hard my cheeks hurt.

The minister spoke for the spotted lord. “We make thunder!” The drummers stood close on both sides of Red Paw and pounded their drums hard in his ears. “We make lightning!” Red Paw crouched as Macaw pummeled his back with palm stems painted yellow. We saw what was coming next. Monkey held an enormous jar over Red Paw’s head. It too was made of stiff cloth but the red rings painted around its neck made it look real. Glancing up Red Paw covered his head. “We make rain!” When, instead of water, more leaves fell, the laughter turned to sounds of disappointment.

As Red Paw shook off the leaves and brushed more of the ash out of his hair, the wahyob set a boulder in front of him. At the same time, One Lord opened his arms to us. “Young men and women of Cerros!” the minister shouted on his behalf, “Did your mothers and fathers teach you properly? Did they teach you to praise our names, keep the count of k’inob and offer us your sweat?” Prompted by our shouts and a dancer standing behind Red Paw, he shook his head emphatically, saying they had. Many of us knew better. “You have seen our power?” Again, Red Paw agreed and the spotted lord turned to him. “We say to you then, praise our names and raise this boulder over your head that we may taste your sweat.”

Red Paw rose to his knees and repeated the words the minister had whispered to him. “With respect, One Lord. Awinaken,” he said. “I praise your name.  I will give you my sweat—as one who runs messages. But I do not lift boulders.” The drums pounded fast and stopped abruptly. We were shocked. It was an unthinkable reply. Many of us on the steps, parents especially, made scowling sounds and hurled scolding remarks at Red Paw.

One Lord put his hands to his head as if the reply pained him greatly. The minister spoke his words: “What did you say? It seems we did not hear you correctly.” 

Red Paw received instructions again, folded his arms in defiance and looked up at the lord. “With respect lord, I was trained to run messages, not to lift up boulders.” Again the drums. The wahyob dancers had changed their helmets and costumes, coming back as Grasshopper, Snake, Scorpion and Vulture, now rattling threats at the messenger’s head and heels. One Lord danced his anger at Red Paw’s response, twirling around him and the wahyob. In a more demanding tone, the minister, speaking for the spotted lord pointed at the stone and shouted, “Son of Cerros, we order you to lift that boulder!” 

“With respect, One Lord. My tribute is to run messages. This is my agreement, my privilege, my obligation to the caah. I—do—not—lift—boulders!” The drummers gave it all they could and the wahyob rattled the lord’s furious dance. When he stopped and pointed to the side, the noise stopped. A dancer dressed as a warlord pulled a captive woman onto the plaza by a cord around her neck. Her head was down and her hair covered her face. We’d not seen her before. All the dancers were men. 

The warrior pushed the woman to the ground beside Red Paw and pulled the cord tight so she would rise to her knees and look up at One Lord. Higher up, someone in back of me whispered that it was Lady Sandpiper, second daughter of Laughing Falcon. Others agreed and word spread. To see a hot- blooded Cloud kneeling next to Red Paw was amazing. To see her wearing a barkcloth sarong with her hair hanging down and strips of cloth pulled through her ears was unbelievable. The dance was her father’s surprise. Seeing his daughter bound and treated like a captive was an even greater surprise.

When the murmuring among us stopped, Lady Sandpiper—the captive—bowed to One Lord. Scorpion handed the god his bloody axe and he held it over her head. The command came again—“Son of Cerros! Raise that boulder! If you do not, we will harvest the head of your wife!” His wife? That was funny. But when Red Paw turned and smiled at us with a stupid grin on his face, my friends and I almost fell off the steps laughing. After the minister whispered something to Red Paw, my friend bowed to One Lord, loudly praised his name and took hold of the boulder. Slowly, laboring under the weight, he lifted it over his head with wobbling legs. One Lord turned to First Jaguar with crossed arms and a satisfied posture. “You see my brother,” the minister said. “This is how we get the human beings to praise our names and offer us their sweat!” We applauded, stomped our feet and shouted. The wahy dancers stepped back to change their helmets, and the god dancer stepped down from the throne.

While both gods wore jaguar helmets, we recognized One Lord by his black spots and First Jaguar by orange-and-black tufts pasted onto his skin. Also, he wore rounded jaguar ears and paw mittens.

First Jaguar crouched and pawed at the women, then the men. Finally, he stood on the skybox throne. As before, the minister spoke for him, exalting him as one of the lords of the night. Instead of threatening Red Paw, First Jaguar presented him with gifts—a brown cloak, a planting stick and a spear for hunting. Following instructions again, Red Paw danced a hunt by chasing the wahyob demons who now wore tapir, fox, deer and peccary headdresses. After applauding the capture of his prey, First Jaguar gestured and Red Paw assumed a kneeling position. Lady Sandpiper came forward, now wearing a shell necklace over a plain white sarong with her hair wound high into a braid with spiraling red ribbons. “You have shown us your goodness and loyalty,” the lord said to Red Paw. It would please us if you would accept this beautiful woman as your wife.” Lady Sandpiper held out her hand toward Red Paw and he bowed.

Hoots and whistles turned to laughter and cheers as Red Paw danced around the lady to the sweet sounds of a bamboo flute. When First Jaguar gestured to the ground in front of him, Red Paw went before him and knelt. “You are a good and loyal messenger,” the lord said. “Speaking words properly and repeating them with care is a sign that human beings are well made. Also, it shows you respect your masters and their words. Now, from the River Of Abundance, it is our pleasure to give you everything you need and want.”

After some prompting Red Paw replied, “With respect, First Jaguar, Lord of the Night. Awinaken. I am grateful for all that you have given. What can I offer you in exchange?”

The First Jaguar dancer looked our way, tilted his head and raised his hands as if to say the argument was settled. During the applause Tapir, Fox and Peccary got the boulder and set it in front of Red Paw. “Faithful messenger,” First Jaguar said. “It would honor us greatly if you would praise our name and raise this boulder over your head.” Without hesitation, and to our foot stomping and shouting, Red Paw loudly praised his name, lifted the boulder over his head and paraded it around the dancers. First Jaguar folded his arms and turned to One Lord. “Brother,” he said. “Do you see? This is the better way to get the human beings to praise our names and offer us their sweat.” 

Our applause continued as the minister, Red Paw and the gods came forward. “Son of Cerros,” the minister said. “You have witnessed the arguments of the god twins. Now, the burden is yours. Tell us, which of them carries the greater argument?”

____________________________________________________________________________

For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To Amazon.com for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

Stone Monument: Stelae

(Stelae) were more than mere representation; they were themselves animate embodiments of the king, extensions of the kingly self that always ‘acted’ to insure the perpetual renewal of time and the cosmos.

David Stuart 

Maya stelae are tall stone monuments, erected in the Classic Period between 100 and 300 AD. Many of them were sculpted in low relief on all four sides with kings, gods, ancestors and hieroglyphs. They were mostly painted red—the color of the life force—but uncarved stelae were also found. It’s speculated that these had been painted with images and glyphs.

Stela E at Quirigua, Honduras (Above)

This is the largest monolithic monument ever erected in the New World. It’s over 24 ft. tall, and  below the carving 10 ft. more is sunk in the ground. The worker in the top right corner was one of several men building a new shelter. Stela E was dedicated on January 22, 771 AD to commemorate the completion of the 16th K’atun—a period of 7200 days—and the rise to power of Lord K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat. On the front and back, he’s shown standing on the earth monster wearing a tall headdress and holding the scepter of divine rulership across his chest.  The text on the sides records his accession under the auspices of Waxaklajun Ub’ah K’awiil, the ruler of Copan whom he later tried to best—in part by erecting larger monuments and performing rituals to establish his supernatural identity.

Twelve years after his accession, K’ak’ Tiliw captured and beheaded Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil to secure Quirigua’s independence. Then on November 28, 762 he raided Xkuy, a polity under Copan’s control. He captured its sacred palanquin—a litter platform used to ceremonially transport a king, born on the shoulders of slaves—and displayed it in public at Quirigua.

Function

Sculpted stelae recorded ritual moments in time and held them forever, depicting rulers who communed with the gods and divine ancestors to validate their power and authority. Beyond carrying information, they extended the ruler’s gaze and influence. Because there was a sameness between image and subject, sculpted eyes were believed to emanate the life force. So the ruler, apotheosized after death as a divine spirit, could impact the people with his sacred heat and continue to act on their behalf—but only if he and his deeds were remembered. Curiously, the English word is re-member, in a sense to re-establish someone as a member of the community. That’s what remembering did for Maya kings, and it’s why faces proliferate on their monuments, buildings and artifacts. 

The stelae functioned within the ritual landscape as surrogate ritual performers. The images of gods portrayed on them were understood as the actual manifestation of those deities, not merely a representation.

David Stuart

Dedication Ceremonies

Because stela were the embodiments of the ruler, they were given names and treated with great respect and ceremony, helping to define their ritual placement and dedication as everlasting testimony of significant events in the life of the ruler, the community and beyond. Among these rituals was the binding and covering of stelae in cloth shrouds, possibly in imitation of maize husks which could then be ceremonially “shucked” to reveal the substance (kernel) of the event depicted. In the Maya world, everything was perceived to be alive in the first place. Then, once a stone or other object was subjected to a “spirit-entering” ritual, a particular spirit—the ruler in the case of stelae—or a deceased ancestor. 

What The Stelae Recorded

These monuments recorded accession to power, lineage birth dates, bloodletting ceremonies, calendar dates and rituals,  the dedication of buildings and monuments, marriage alliances, presentation of the heir-apparent, the taking of captives and their sacrifice and war events including the capture of sacred palanquins and god-bundles containing the bones of apotheosized ancestors. 

Whether a person was living or dead, commoner or elite, any power they had resided in the spirit that dwelled within. For rulers, spirit power could be acquired by capturing and then sacrificing another elite as an offering to the gods. 

Of course we don’t kill people to capture their power today. Instead, we align ourselves and support those with influence. Always, I think it’s a good idea to ask why.

Re-Membering In Stone

Excerpt From Jaguar Wind And Waves (p. 105-109)

(Jaguar Wind And Waves is largely about a woman’s search to find the stela that her deceased father, the Tikal ruler, had commissioned. In this scene, a holy man is showing the monument to her and her son. They’d been away for many years, so they’re seeing it for the first time. Here, the stela is being described as a whole monument. Later in the story, only a piece of it is found—illustrated as a drawing below).

_________________

I nodded to Father’s monument. “Were you here when he dedicated it?”

“I supervised some of the carving as well, mostly his face and headdress.” We got up and he led me back to the monument where he retrieved a stick with a white feather on the end. Using it as a pointer, he asked Crocodile and Honey a feature in Father’s headdress. “What is this?”

“Jaguar Paw!” Crocodile said immediately. “His name.” 

“Well done, young lord.” He pointed the feather to the word-signs at the bottom of the monument. “What about this?”

My son went in close and easily read, “He completed it—the seventeenth k’atun—at Tikal Sky place.”

“Again, well done! I see you are laying well, following in your father’s footsteps. Far Sky gestured and we followed him a few steps into the plaza. He pointed to the top of First True Mountain across the way. Bending slightly, he favored my son and daughter. “Up there is where your grandfather celebrated the completion of that k’atun. Do you know what that means?”

It was Honey’s turn to respond. “The calendar god who carried the burden of the last twenty tunob, completed his journey, set the burden down so the next god could pick it up and carry it forward.”

The old man turned to me with an astonished look. Turning back to Honey, he called her a “bright flower.” We followed him back to Father’s monument. “You know, my lady, your parents were very proud of you. They spoke of you often. Your father said you were making a grand contribution to them and the caah. They missed you greatly.”

Far Sky led us around to the front of the monument. Careful not to block the view of those presenting gifts in front of it, we stood to the side. First Crocodile pointed to the object in my father’s hand, another jaguar paw, long, with the claws extended. “Is that an axe?” he asked.

“With respect young lord, that was his scepter. Your uncle Flint Dancer made it, and I ensouled it for your grandfather. He used it at all the Period Ending rights. That was real pelt, covering a real jaguar bone. It was not painted. The claws were pieces of carved shell.”

“What happened to it? Can I see it?”

“Last I saw, it was in a box in the regalia chamber at the palace. If it is not there, it was probably taken in the attack.”

I asked who sculpted Father’s monument. “He came from Kaminaljuyu, a journey of twenty k’inob. He treated him very well, even had a shelter built at the quarry so he and his men could work through the rains.” He pointed. “The block they cut from the quarry was not much taller, but it was much thicker and broader than what you see here.”

First Crocodile had his head tilted back, looking up. The monument was at least four times his height. Frown-lines creased his smooth forehead. “How did they get it here?”

“That is quite a story. Once it was cut, they wrapped it with green palm fronds, three layers thick. Then they tied on thick matting using cords as thick as your arm.” He explained what a hoist was, telling how the cords worked front and back. “Very slowly, with many strong men, they lowered it onto logs—eight, I believe. Again very slowly, they rolled it on the logs to the causeway and then to here— all in six k’inob.”

“They were actually carved here?” I asked. “Not at the quarry?”

“Always. As for this one, your father wanted the carving to be deeper than the others.” Far Sky pointed to Father’s elbow with the feather. “See here? To make it look like he was standing in front of the temple doorway, they carved his arm so it overlaps the frame—which he said was the doorway to the palace.

Tikal Stela 39

Drawing by Linda Schele © David Schele

“What was the dedication like?”

“Grand, my lady. Colorful. We were up on First True Mountain, the ministers and I wore our jades and quetzal headdresses. The plaza was filled with people. As part of your father’s oratory he repeated what he said when he ascended to the Mat, words that earned him the title, Contribution Lord. You were just a flower—”

“I’m so glad you reminded me of that. I’d almost forgotten. What did he say?”

“I can hear his words as if he spoke them this morning, my lady. He said, ‘I come to the Mat not only to rule, but also to contribute.’”

“He was always talking about how we were privileged to make a grand contribution.”

Far Sky nodded and raised his eyebrows. “I proclaimed that title whenever I introduced him.”

Honey Claw pointed to the figure of a man under Father’s feet. He lay partly on his side but with his sandaled feet rising in back with his head and shoulders high, grasping a bundle to his chest. “Is that one of his captives?” she asked. 

I wondered as well. The figure’s artificial beard, the black mask across his eyes, the sacrificial knots on his sandals, and especially the knotted burial cloths around his midsection made it not likely that he was a captive. Far Sky provided the answer. “That is his father, Lord Radiant Hawk Skull—your great-grandfather. His name is also carved on the back. 

Crocodile asked, “Why did they show grandfather standing on his back?”“He wanted to be shown rising above him, just as a maize stalk rises from its seeds. Because rulers are the Great Trees of their cities, he honors his father by showing him as both his seed and root. The signs in Lord Skull’s headdress say he held the Mat and celebrated the calendar rounds.” 

“What is the bundle he is holding?” Honey asked

“It shows that your great-grandfather was the keeper of a precious bundle, a god-bundle that contained ancestor bones, likely those of the founder of the Paw line.”

First Crocodile went closer to the stone and pointed. “Why is a k’in sign on grandfather’s right anklet? On the other it reads ak’ab.

He explained the k’in—“day”—sign stands for light and ak’ab—“darkness”—showed that his grandfather had one foot in the sky and the other in the underworld. “He spoke to the gods in both realms.”

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For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To Amazon.com for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prophecy And Belief

A prophecy is a message that comes from a deity, delivered to a person attuned to receive it. Typically, the message expresses the divine will regarding the future. Ancient cultures all had prophets who delivered prophecies. And people believed what they heard, were willing to kill and die to be true to it. Gods, after all, were to be trusted. 

Anthropologist Mircea Eliade noted that tribal societies believed that their stories, about the gods and sacred ancestors overcoming the forces of chaos, created a sacred cosmic and social order in which humans could safely dwell. He said their myths and rituals divided the world into two realms, the sacred and the profane. Those who live the sacred order are human beings; all others are strangers who come from the realm of chaos and are different and those differences threaten the life-sustaining stability of their sacred order. Around the world, he showed that ancient tribal societies saw themselves as living at the center of the cosmos, the place where the gods and ancestors brought things into being. In such a physical and mental space, trusting the will of the gods and sacred ancestors was inborn, automatic, a matter of life, destiny and death.

As part of the divinely created order of the cosmos, to maintain personal safety and stability in a tribal society, human beings needed to model the cosmic order—maintain the center. There were many threats—rivalry, disease, beasts and demons that roamed the wilds, malevolent deities, climate fluctuations and outsiders. So it was necessary to understand the will of the benevolent gods and appeal to ancestors who in death became guardians of the sacred order.  

It is not surprising that, according to archaeologist David Freidel, the Maya institution of “divine” kingship derived from the much earlier Olmec culture in southern Mexico. Maya kings were more than elites who ruled. Their power, at least until the Late Classic period, derived mainly from their ability, along with their priest-daykeepers, to discern the will of the gods and divine the future. 

Privileged to meet and photograph a Maya shaman in his Santa Catarina, Guatemala healing center, I took the above picture of the sacred items he used to do a “layout” that would inform him about a client’s health and prognosis. Using two types of beans and crystals, his procedure was to arrange them in rows using sacred numbers. On a trip to Belize, I met a shaman who used beans and crystals in the same way, but an important part of his discernment had to do with the feelings he got in different parts of his body. 

Maya kings used psychoactive drugs, auto-sacrifice and ecstatic dancing to commune with the gods and deified ancestors. In the modern era, prophets emerged and we built religions around them. And today there are individuals who claim to be gifted with precognition, the ability to foretell the future. Whatever the underlying reality, then and now, there is no question that belief is one of our most powerful capacities. It’s the rudder that steers the canoe and the ocean liner.

This is a make-believe world. We make it according to our belief.

Jerome Perlinski 

Your beliefs become your thoughts.

Your thoughts become your words.

Your words become your actions.

Your actions become your habits.

Your habits become your values.

Your values become your destiny.

Mahama Gandhi

Prophecy Of The Cloud Kings At El Mirador

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 57-59 )

“According to the prophecy there were to be two trials,” White Grandfather said. “Our grandfathers survived the first. Now it comes to us. And it will not pass when the k’in bearer sets his burden down. It will only pass when the gods see how we are shouldering this, their final trial.”

The same man spoke again. “Respect, Grandfather, people are saying that Laughing Falcon has not bargained well with the gods, they are not honoring his requests.” When others in the crowd agreed, White Grandfather shook his head and looked side to side. Someone called out. “Enough talk! Release the food! Give us the food!” The people shouted, stomped the ground, and clapped their hands. “Food! Food! Food…” 

White Grandfather took a step forward and pointed to the crates and baskets beyond the guards. “Do you know where this comes from?” he shouted.

“From us!” someone yelled. Another called out, “Tribute!” Someone else complained that it was his family’s sweat that filled the storehouse.”

“All that we have, all that we receive is a gift from the gods,” White Grandfather said. “Lord K’in provides the heat and light for your crops. The Chaakob water them with rain. One Maize gives us the maize to eat and the seeds to plant. All this and more is given through the appeals, the blood sacrifices, petitions and offerings of Our Bounty. Turn away from what you lack. Instead, fix your gaze on the bounty that is coming, that has been foretold…”

A calmer voice interrupted, “With respect, Grandfather, how can I, when my family is starving? My eyes are fixed on their misery.” The man turned and pointed beyond the guards. “We cannot eat the words of a prophecy.”

White Grandfather bent down. “We understand. We know it is difficult—” A noblewoman next to the man got his attention and spoke. All I could see was nodding behind a deer headdress with a spray of macaw feathers. White Grandfather stood straight again. “The lady asks why the trial has been so long and severe. Those who gave the prophecy did not say. But they understand—when sustenance is withheld, trust, belief, and hope are all challenged. By standing firm against the drought, against the fields of rotting maize, the pain of hunger and the loss of our elders, we show ourselves to be worthy of the abundance they promised.”

“What prophecy do you speak of?” the lady asked. “When and where was it given?”

“The Cloud prophecy, given nine k’atunob past, at Mirador.” In a voice only those around us could hear, a round-faced guard said a one-hundred-eighty-year-old prophecy could not be trusted. He said it was no longer valid.

“I have not heard of it,” someone called out. “What did it say?” 

White Grandfather opened his arms and waited for the crowd to quiet. “The prophecy said the destiny of the House of Cloud—and the challenge to its rulers—was to raise temples to Lord K’in and One Maize that reach to the clouds. It said that when this is fulfilled there will be many seasons of abundance, but first, there would be trials—to determine if the people living in the Cloud territories are deserving of such abundance. Further, he said there would be two long seasons when the skin of the earth and skins of the people dry up. There will be too much water and then not enough. A mingling of strong winds from the east and west will bring black smoke, a blanket of death. It advised that we, along with the rulers, make offerings of blood and incense—and stand tall through the trials.” White Grandfather walked closer to the shelter’s roof. “Already, we have raised temples that reach the clouds. Now, if we stand tall—like a forest around our Great Tree—offering our sweat and patience to the gods, the abundance will come.”  

A young warrior raised his feathered spear and called from the middle of the crowd. “With respect, did the prophecy come from the Cloud ancestors—or from the gods?”

“Our ancestors gave the prophecy that we might understand what the gods want,” the old man said.   

“What do they want?” An older warrior standing beside him asked.

Rather than answer, White Grandfather removed his three-leaf headdress and held it out. Mother whispered in my ear. “Remember what tell—about Those Born First?”

“How they wore three maize leaves in their headdresses?” I answered.

She nodded. “Tipped with jade beads. 

“I forget what they were for.”

“Listen,” she said, pointing to White Grandfather.

“This is what they want,” he said. He pointed to the leaves and named them in turn: “Beauty—Respect—Gratitude. To your eyes, they look like maize leaves painted white. To our eyes, they are the seeds that, when sown in the hearts of men, flower into the coming abundance. When we make beauty in our houses and fields, when we show respect for the gods, ancestors, Our Bounty, our brothers and sisters of the caah—all that lives, when we have gratitude in our hearts for what we have been given, the gods will be satisfied. When they see the seeds of beauty, respect and gratitude growing in each of us and in the caah, they will be eager to sustain us, continue the world for another round and bring the promised abundance.” 

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For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To Amazon.com for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller  

Solar Observatory Or Performance Stage?

By 500 B.C. there were numerous large architectural assemblages throughout the central lowlands of Guatemala and Mexico. At first, they appeared to function solely as line-of-site markers of the sun’s solstice and equinox turning points. Archaeologists named them E-Group complexes. 

Although there was great diversity in these structures across time and place, what they had in common was a large rectangular, flat, paved plaza with a square four-sided pyramid aligned to the cardinal  directions, situated west of a long narrow platform with small temples that ran north and south. The first to be investigated in the Maya area was Uaxactun Structure E-VII-sub. Above is how it looked when I visited there in 2000. Although it was severely weathered, early photographs showed that there were large deity masks and stairways on all four sides.

We can imagine—as I had when writing Jaguar Rising—a priest-ruler on top of the pyramid before dawn. Adorned with jade and wearing a tall headdress of blue-green quetzal feathers, he and his family, daykeepers and principle courtiers are all there, lit by a brazier, waiting  to witness the rising of the Sun god at the corner of the easternmost temple, an opportunity to  verify that both the sacred (tzolkin) and solar (haab) calendars were accurate and congruent, marking the seasons and times for particular rituals. 

After years of investigation at many sites, the consensus is now that, while E-Groups may have originally been built to mark and celebrate the solstice and equinox, their more prolific purpose was to establish a large space with a bonifide sacred center, a theater stage, where kings could perform elaborate calendar rites and other ceremonies. One of these common to the E-Groups was to celebrate the k’atun (20-year) Period Ending, the day when the current god of that period set his “burden” down and the next god in line picked it up to carry it forward with his particular influences for the next twenty years. Cycles of 13 k’atuns—about 256 years—were also celebrated.

The west-situated pyramid that established the sacred center of an emerging polity or city did so by symbolizing the cosmos and the time cyclicals they held sacred.

  • The four sides and stairways have the shape of a cross (+), the symbol for k’in, which is the Maya word for “day” and the glyph for “sun.” 
  • Aligned to the cardinal points, the pyramid “celebrates” the four directions. In particular, the east-west stairway references the journey of Ajaw K’in the “Lord Sun.” He is born in the east, reaches his highest holy place over the top of the pyramid, descends to his “dying place” in the west to dwell overnight in the Underworld—under the pyramid. In making this journey, Ajaw K’in creates the day. To insure that his journey continued, sacrifices were made on the last day of each period. And they ranged from one day to thousands of years. 
  • Cosmologically, it was believed that the celestial realm had several layers, or “steps” that Ajaw K’in had to ascend and then descend in his journey. We can imagine then, the king ascending the pyramid steps slowly and thoughtfully.
  • As at Uaxactun, E-Group pyramids in other locations often displayed stucco reliefs, masks with cosmological themes. Those on E-VII-sub reference Ajaw K’in, the watery underworld and long-lipped gods representing the earth and sky. According to archaeologist David Freidel, they represent the sun cycle surmounted by Venus. And because the four-sided pyramids usually appear in the middle of open plazas they also represent the center of the universe and the centering point of the four world quarters. 

Did E-Groups serve as seasonal observatories or as stages for ceremonial spectacles? More work needs to be done, but it appears that they served both functions. Perhaps even more— at different times and in different places.

E-groups were most widely constructed as Maya society was becoming increasingly stratified, an indication that the ritual they framed ensured both cosmic and political order. By expressing a fundamental cosmological concept on a monumental scale, and as settings for religious and political ritual, E-groups provided an experientially powerful and symbolically meaningful condensation of Maya reality. 

James Aimers and Prudence Rice

Visiting The E-Group Complex At Uaxactun

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 348-349)

We turned north and came to an enormous open and paved, gleaming red plaza where, in the center, gods flanking a pyramid’s steps looked in all four directions. On the eastern side of the pyramid, a stone monument faced a long platform that supported three shrines. Because the plaza itself was one of the holy places Hammerstone told us about, Fishbone pointed to where we could cross, while he, his brothers and Butterfly took a long way around. Judging from the men atop the pyramid wearing quetzal headdresses and dancing to drums, a ritual was in progress. 

We met up with the slaves on the other side of the plaza. They were out of breath from running, so White Cord called for a rest. Fishbone took it as an opportunity to tell us why that particular plaza was holy ground. “After the founder built the first shrine in the sacred district,” he said, “he came here, cut a living branch and walked with it until it pointed down—to a little pool of black water. He marked it with stones and then walked east until the branch told him to stop.” Fishbone pointed about fifty strides away to a tall shaft of stone painted red. “That stone marks the eastern ahkantuun. There are three others—white to mark the north, black for west and yellow for south. With the ground so ordered, he made another circuit to mark the trees to be cut. By recognizing the ground as holy, he established it so for the eyes of his followers. They felled the trees to burn limestone and they hardened the ground with mortar between the markers.

When the new plaza was paved and painted red, the founder came again. In the center—where the pool had reflected the canopy—they drilled new fire. And there he offered his blood and the blood of a young woman so the place would forever bring new life. He named it Plaza of Black Water Sky. Nine tunob later his son erected a building over that center, a shrine, and he named it Three Sky Place. Inside he planted a bundle containing the bones of his Father and the female offering. So it was established—the caah of Uaxactun. The shrine has been built over many times since. The bundle that gives life to it is still there.”

Fishbone answered some of our questions and told how the current ruler built the shrine we were seeing, Raised Up Sky—the place where the maize god raised the sky off the water to reveal the land. “Very hot,” Fishbone said. He pointed to three more shrines across the plaza by about two hundred paces. “Now, every solstice, Our Bounty marks the journey of Lord K’in by sighting his face over there.” 

White Cord was eager to move on. We all were. The women especially wanted to get settled while there was still some light—and we didn’t know how much farther we would have to go. 

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For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To Amazon.com for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

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