Ancient Maya Cultural Traits

The Sacred Calendar and New Year Renewal


Calendar glyphs. Copan Stela N (Back)

Sacred time is that in which the gods manifested themselves and created; so each time man wants to ensure a fortunate outcome for something, he re-actualizes the original sacred event—creation; what is actually sought is the regeneration of the human being. Sacred time is reversible, it’s a primordial mythical time made present.

Mircea Eliade

Many of the ideas put forth by professor Eliade in his groundbreaking book, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion applies to the ancient Maya. While reading his book, I made notes and provide here some of the ideas born out by research.

The Maya viewed the cosmos as a living entity that is born, develops and dies on the last day of every year—and is then reborn on New Year’s Day, the day on which time began. It’s important to note that ancient Maya ceremonies and festivals represented the “re-actualization” of sacred events from the mythical past. They were taking place “in the original or sacred time.” They weren’t just “reenactments.” They were the sacred events happening in the present.

While scholars sometimes refer to shamanic dances as “deity impersonation,” the dancers actually felt themselves as the god. Through hallucinogenic trance, they allowed the spirit to use of their bodies to perform the acts of creation and other mythical events. This becomes more understandable when we realize that the “gods” were personified forces of nature with names, faces, personalities, biographies and stories about their power and how they behaved.   

For the ancients, time was cyclical with repeatable characteristics. Each of many periods was perceived as a deity who carried the “burden” of his assigned time. In art, they were Imaged as a gods carrying a bundle on their backs with tumplines or forehead straps. Each calendar-god had both positive and negative characteristics, ushered in as “winds” such as a bountiful harvest, famine or illness, and these would repeat when the god  came again to assume his burden.

Every 52 years the world would be created new again. If it pleased the gods it would be destroyed. So renewal, the continuation of human life, was not taken for granted. Fortunately, with each turning of the year the world and human beings recovered the sanctity they possessed at the original creation event.

Tikal stela dated 475 A.D. Dots stand for one day. A bar is five days. At bottom left, note the face of a king wearing a large earflare and deity headdress. He faces left.

At the end of their journey, each deity set his burden down and the one next in line “assumed the burden” and carried it forward. On and on, virtually forever, the same deities representing many cycles, repeated their journeys, even to the present day.

At the end of each period, the god who came “to rest” was celebrated grandly, usually with blood sacrifices of gratitude to ensure his return. As noted, these “Period Ending” ceremonies were elaborate re-actualizations of sacred events from the distant and mythical past. The Spaniards reported that at one New Year feast, more than 15,000 people attended, some coming from 30 leagues away, about 75 miles. On these occasions, the kings, as bodily manifestations of time periods, erected stone monuments (stelae) and altars carved with the current date counted forward from the original Creation Day. That was 4 Ahaw 8 K’umk’u in the Maya calendar, September 8, 3114 B.C. in ours. The reason for this date is not yet known.

Kings didn’t just “end” the cycles. They “replanted” or “repeated” them, in the sense that they actively tended to (as one tends a garden; chabi, “to do a cornfield” in Maya) the periods to ensure their proper coming and going. The word tzutz (end, complete) points to the idea that the passing of a k’atun (20-year period) is one stage in a sequence of many such passings in the past and the future. When a Maya king “completed” a period, he was participating in a long chain of similar kinds of transactions, stretching far back as one could imagine. Time and human action are but a part of a larger cyclical structure with inherent repetitions. Kings didn’t “end” time in their rituals. Using a basic agricultural metaphor, they perpetuated it through replanting. They were the bodily manifestation of the time periods.

David Stuart, Author, The Order Of Days: The Maya World and the Truth About 2012


They renewed on this day (The First of Pop) all the objects which they made use of, such as plates, vessels, stools, mats, and old clothes, and the stuffs with which the wrapped up their idols. They swept out their houses, and the sweepings and the old utensils they threw out on the waste heap outside of town; and no one, even he in need of it, touched it.

Frey Diego de Landa, Spanish priest and chronicler


 20-Year (K’atun) Period Ending Sacrifice and Prophecy at Uaxactun, Guatemala

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 360 )

WE CROWDED INTO THE PLAZA AT BLACK WATER SKY TO witness the completion of the k’atun, the day when the bearer of the twenty-year period set down his burden so the next god in line could assume it. It had rained most of the morning and all through the circuit that Nine Cormorant made around Uaxactun to confirm land holdings, receive presentations of tribute and give his blessing to the outgoing ministers. When we arrived for the ceremony, the smoke was already rising atop Three Sky Place and we could hear the lords chanting the count of days. The man next us, a merchant, said Nine Cormorant, now revealed atop the eastern stairway as Lord of the K’atun, had already let blood and the strips were being burned in the offering bowl.

A female slave painted blue and wearing white flowers in her hair was led up the steps. We couldn’t see, but Red Back told us her sacrifice was necessary to assure the continuation of the world for another twenty years.

Moments later, Lord Cormorant, lavishly attired in quetzal feathers and a jade-studded skirt, came down the steps with his jaguar prophet. Stopping on the first terrace, the prophet replaced the ruler’s k’atun helmet with the sak huunal. The prophet raised his arms and the drums called us to order. I judged there to be near to six hundred people there, all huddled in blankets. After several moments of silence, looking to the sky with arms outstretched, he gave the prophecy for the next twenty years.

“Ca Lord has shouldered the burden.

Before us, here at Uaxactun, he lifted it up—that we may live.

His journey begins.

Now hear his words for the coming k’atun.

The markers of this k’atun will be expansion and separation.

Words divide the worlds, above and below.

Divided are gods and men, nobles and commoners,

Men and women.

Scaffolds will rise to the canopy.

Measuring cords will stretch far into the forest.

The wilds will be ordered to the ways of men.

Hunters will need to journey farther.

Ca Lord favors the long-distance merchant—

He favors the holy ones and women who give birth to sons.

He gives to those who have, takes from those who have not.

He separates the dry from the wet.

Where one house falls, three will rise.

Calm winds come from the west; storms come from the east.

Evil winds blow strongest from the west.

Faces and families are split.

The high are brought down. The low are raised up.

Smoke and sweat was the burden of One Lord, the builder.

Blood and tears are the burden of Ca Lord.

He is the expander and separator.

Here at Uaxactun the prophecy is given.

Ca Lord Ox Kumk’u—

So it happens, the dawning of the new k’atun.”


Time Referenced to the Creation of the World

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.


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

Here are the links To 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  

Maya Infancy And Childhood

Panajachel, Guatemala

At birth, the child is anointed and slapped three times, a reference to hearthstone symbology. Maya hearths for cooking consist of three stones. The ancients believed that the stones replicate three prominent stars in the constellation Orion, set in the sky by the maize god at the beginning of creation.

Because every day in the ancient Maya calendar had personal characteristics, a person’s birth date controlled his or her temperament and destiny. The given name was determined by a shaman at a divining ceremony. Generally, it was a composite of the father’s family name and the mother’s family name. And always, as the child grew, he or she was given an informal nickname.

Among the ancients, immediately after birth, mothers fastened the infant to a cradle with their heads compressed between two boards. In two days, a permanent fore-and-aft flattening of the skull occurred reminiscent of an elongated maize husk. Among the nobility especially, this was a mark of beauty. It has been suggested that in some places ancient kings favored decapitation in human sacrifices because it paralleled the “harvesting” of maize, considered the source of sustenance.

Also for the ancients, because children were considered to still be fresh from the Otherworld, they were favored for sacrifice to Chaak, god of thunder, lightning and rain. The archaeology bears this out.

Tecpan Market, Guatemala

In the birthing ceremony, a cord is cut over a maize cob with an obsidian blade. When a girl is three months old, a “Hip Carrying” ceremony is held where a white shell is tied to her waist cord. Boys have a white bead tied into their hair. Through infancy, boys and girls run naked. And both are dependent upon the mother until weaning ends. Meanwhile, fathers are tending to their fields and matters of the community.

Between three and four years of age, when there’s no longer a dependency upon the mother for food—breast milk or otherwise, the primary activity is learning social skills, gained by observing their parents. Through play, the child learns the culture and how to be socially appropriate.

The Maya generally value quiet children who are calm and relaxed. 

A common sign of poor health brought on by weaning or stress is hypoplasia, brown striations across the teeth. The enamel stops growing at age six. 

Beside Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Between the ages of nine and twelve, children practice adult behaviors without repercussions and are no longer dependent upon a parent for survival. Girls learn to weave by watching their mothers, and boys learn to hunt and garden alongside their fathers. In this phase, an initiation ceremony is held where the girls have the shell cut from their waist cords, and the boys have the white bead cut from their hair. Both are anointed (sprinkled) with holy water, ideally obtained from a spring or cave. Initiation signifies their readiness to be married, and they take on work expectations such as carrying water and wood and maintaining the household.

Tecpan, Guatemala

This information was provided by Dr. Amanda Harvey, anthropological archaeologist at the University of Nevada. It combines her talk, Being A Kid Again: A Cultural and Biological Examination of Childhood Identity, my interview with her afterward and her dissertation. While it mostly applies to the contemporary Maya across a variety of communities, it suggests patterns that have a deep history in the culture. The photographs are mine.


Birth Prophecy

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 20-21)

Ayaahh, finally. I was the only sprout in the caah who didn’t know his path and destiny. Mother said my birth prophecy was so special they couldn’t reveal it to anyone, not even to me—until I reached manhood. The prospect of hearing it now nearly distracted me from what I’d just learned about my blood.

“Your mother and I had taken cover in a cave during a great storm. There were many people around, so the women took her behind some boulders, close to a dark pool. They had a fire and except for the thunder outside, everything was quiet. Your crying out startled me awake. They were washing you when a young daykeeper came out of the darkness. He said the sound of your voice caused a spirit to move in him. He offered to say the gratitude and seek your prophecy in exchange for just touching your cheek. We had nothing to trade, so we were very grateful.”

“Touching my cheek? Why would he—?”

“Your mother thinks his ch’ulel recognized yours. He pressed your hand to the soil and welcomed you to the world. After saying a gratitude, he held a long crystal over your head and petitioned the ancestors to reveal to him your path and destiny.”

“With respect—”

Father raised his hand to silence me. “I am going to tell you this now, Seven Maize. Never again. Do not even ask. Listen carefully and remember. The lightning came fast and clear through the blood in the holy man’s leg. The ancestors said your path would be the path of the jaguar and that your destiny is to rule. They said you would rule as a great and powerful warrior.” Father turned and put a hand on my knee. “This is why we could not tell you—or anyone. If your roots or prophecy became known, you would not have lived this long.”

“Rule? How could I ever rule? We may be high placed, but we are still commoners. What does it mean—the path of the jaguar?” 

“You are forgetting what I said about your blood-father. The daykeeper could not tell us about your path. When we came here we asked White Grandfather. He did not know either. Jaguars are cunning and fast, great hunters. They go after their prey as easily in water as up a tree. Also, they watch and wait before pouncing. It could mean you are meant to hunt in the three worlds.”

“Did the ancestors tell him my number and direction?”

“They said you have two favored numbers, three and four. And south is your favored direction.” 

“What else did they say?”

“That was all. The ancestors give what they give.”

My father could talk forever—to boast, give orders or make a friend— but I had to fight for every word. Others I knew might have been excited by such a prophecy. I was disappointed. It was confusing and seemed not all to fit. My heart was already fixed on my uncles’ path. They were builders. As for ruling, that was like asking a butterfly to be a parrot. “He really said I would rule—and as a warrior?” I couldn’t believe it. It had to be a mistake, I wanted it to be.

Father insisted. “As a great and powerful warrior. He said it came clear. There was no doubt. That was the prophecy and that is your destiny. It is fixed. There is nothing to do but accept it. You cannot deny your blood.”


The White Shell and White Bead Rite Of Passage

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 142)

It happened quickly. The holy ones bowed to the wind and gestured for a deceased ancestor to stand beside each of us. With the spirits in place, the serpent lord danced and sung a petition to raise us to the position of full members of the caah. One by one, with an assistant holding a ceramic censer, he faced the female initiates with open arms as their mothers spoke the name of their daughters saying “…as First Mother, my mother and all mothers before me have done, I release you to your destiny and welcome you as a woman of Cerros.” After that, they used their blades to cut the white shells from their daughter’s waist cords. 

When it came time for Thunder Flute to release me, it surprised me to hear him speak my name as Macaw rather than Rabbit. “Seven Maize Chan Macaw,” he said, “As First Father, my father and all fathers before me have done, I release you to your destiny and welcome you as a man of Cerros.” 

Man of Cerros. Finally. While we waited for the others to complete the releasing and cuttings, I wondered if the ancestor standing beside me was Rabbit or Macaw. I wanted it to be Macaw. In truth, Lord Jaguar Tooth Macaw should have been the one to cut the white bead from my hair. I vowed: If I ever have sprouts or flowers, they will grow up knowing me. I will know them, and I will tell how they came to be.


Hypoplasia: Brown Striations in the Teeth

Excerpt From Jaguar Sun (p. 40)

I HAD BEEN LIVING AT THE LODGE OF NOBLES FOR NEARLY a year when, on one of my visits home, Mother told me that Sharp Tooth confided to Father and she that I had “special powers.” He said one sign of it was the brown lines that ran across my teeth. I’d had that since I was six. This, combined with the healing of my leg and then coming back from the “river of death” told him I had defeated both the demon and the lords of death. Regarding this, he advised them to watch for more signs. It could be that my path was that of a healer or shaman.


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

Links To 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




Copal Incense

The sweet-smelling blood of trees

Copal (Pom) tree with bamboo growing alongside it

The process of making copal incense begins by scraping the bark with a blade. When the sap comes out it’s collected on a piece of bark or corn husk. The resin, which wards off insects from the tree, is thick and sticky and has a white to yellow color. In contact with the air, it becomes hard like a shiny rock, so saliva is applied to keep it malleable.

Copal was traded locally as a resin in maize husks, and for long-distance transport it was shaped into hard nuggets that could be ground into powder for sprinkling onto a burnt offering or for burning in a censer. It was also traded as hardened, dusty granules. Here’s a nugget on a piece of bark.

Pom is the Maya word for the tree. It was tapped during a full moon when the yellow resin flows most readily. The bark of the tree, when boiled, made a tea that could help relieve stomach pains and kill intestinal parasites. The powdered bark was used as an external antiseptic. And the trees is able to survive burning.   It grows wild throughout the Yucatan Peninsula.

The ancients believed that a person’s breath constituted his soul essence, and that it continued after death. So incense coming out of the mouth of a god-faced censer was considered the god’s sacred breath. In ritual offerings, the spirits consume the “sweet-smelling blood of trees” and because it contains their ch’ulel or “soul, they are nourished by it. Sprinkled onto a burning offering such as a blood-soaked cloth, the smoke carried the sacrifice to the heavens. Other aromas that fed ch’ulel to the gods & ancestors included dried blossoms, alcohol, tobacco and the blood of animals and men.

In addition to god-faced censers, there were effigy censers considered to be the living representation of an ancestor, viewed as a conduit to the gods to solicit favors. To be close enough to smell the incense was to be in the spiritual presence of the god or ancestor.

Ritually, the burning of incense “activated” or “enlivened” the spirits, so burning censers were placed at the four corners of a pyramid to represent the four corners of the cosmos. When ancestors are portrayed on the upper parts of monuments such as stelae and altars, they’re often surrounded in curls of smoke that represent “precious wind,” or the perfume of flowers and incense, the carriers of ch’ulel.

Copal was shaped into little hearts to symbolize the seat of the soul and residence of ch’ulel. The powder was mixed with pigments to make them shine, and it made the paint adhere better to limestone, stucco and ceramic surfaces.


Copal Used In A Hallucinogenic Journey

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 121 )

Inside the temple, White Grandfather set the torch in a holder on the wall and tied back the doorway drape a little to remove the thin veil of ash that lingered in the air. Following his gesture I sat on an ocelot pelt with my back against a side wall. Painted black on the wall across from me was a medallion, a large circle with inset corners that framed the cross-eyed, shark-tooth face of Lord K’in. Taking fire from the torch with an ocoté stick, he lit some tinder in a censer. When it flamed, he added the stick and three others before setting it in front of me. He took a blue-painted calabash from under the medallion and nodded for me to take one of the many rolled-up leaves it contained. Inside the leaf was a cigar. “We wrap them with bits of copal bark,” he said, and scrapings from the backs of frogs.” It releases the ch’ulel to go through the portal.”

Sitting next to me, White Grandfather removed his headgear and re-tied the three-leaf headband so it fit snug on his forehead. After adding another stick and some copal nuggets to the censer, its sweet smoke replaced the acrid smell of burnt ash, and it wafted to a hole high in the back wall. As my eyes became accustomed to the dark, I noticed a round feather-standard leaning against the wall next to the doorway. Tied to crossed lances in front of it was a ceremonial shield with the face of a laughing falcon on it. Beside me, arranged on a reed-mat, were ceramic cups, an incense bag and an offering bowl containing strips of cotton and square leaf-packets that were tied with string and painted red. Next to my teacher was a bundle of ocoté sticks, an incense bag, a carapace drum, rattle, grinding stone and two gourds with stoppers.

White Grandfather took one of the burning sticks from the censer and lit a cigar. “This is the holy portal,” he said, puffing to get it lit. He handed it to me and told me to take several strong puffs, each time breathing it in. I’d smoked cigars with Thunder Flute and my uncles before, even inhaled, but this was very different. It was thick and tasted like a combination of tree sap and burnt thatch. The smoke stung my nose and bit my tongue. White Grandfather set the drum, rattle and incense bag in front of him. “Keep breathing it in, grandson.” I did, but I kept coughing. “Blow some smoke to the medallion,” he said pointing. “That is the place of entry, the doorway.” I noticed that it was shaped like the bottom part of a turtle shell, rounded except for inset corners. And it seemed to have been painted blue. “Fix your eyes on it,” he said, tapping the little drum with a thin white bone. Tap, tap, tap. Pause. Tap, tap, tap. On and on, always three taps and a pause. “Breathe it in, grandson…”


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

Links To 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  

K’awiil: Ancient Maya Lightning Lord

God of fertility, abundance and royal lineage


In Maya art, K’awill often appears in the form of a scepter that, when held, signifies royal lineage. Because one of his legs terminates in a serpent’s head, the Popol Vuh—the sacred book of the K’iché Maya—identifies him as Cacula Huracan, “Lightning One-Leg.”

His forehead is a mirror penetrated by a smoking axe, which references ancestors and designates him as a lightning lord. The hooks in his eyes securely identify him as a deity.

In Classic times, at accession events, when the kings displayed the K’awiil scepter they proclaimed themselves masters of the “vision serpent,” the ability to manifest benefits for this world from other world sources. The idea was that K’awiil cast down serpentine lightning to make the connection between the sky and earth, showering the divine seed of the ancestors upon his descendant, the current ruler.

As a ritual instrument, the scepter was made of wood and was carried in the right hand, except when that hand was needed for scattering blood or maize kernels during rituals.

Mythically K’awiil was the third born son of First Mother and First Father, the Maize God, born on the day Hun Ahaw, “One Lord.”

His brothers were the Hero Twins, and he was linked to the forces of fertility. To show his association with abundance, his upturned nose was depicted as maize foliage. In some depictions he carries sack of maize and cacao beans, further associating him with agricultural abundance.

Through him, revelations were made. And through his lightning-serpent strikes, human souls were transformed into shamans or “true men.”


K’awiil Scepter. Drawing by Linda Schele © David Schele 

There’s also speculation that he may originally have been the personification of the axe that Chahk, the rain and storm god, used to crack open the shell of Great Turtle—the earth—allowing the Maize God to ascend from the Underworld so he could deliver abundance to the world.

Drawing courtesy of Schele, Linda. Linda Schele Drawings Collection. 2000. 11-18-19. FAMSI.<;

The above drawing was made from four identical, wood and stucco-covered statues of K’awiil found in Burial 195 at Tikal.


Lady Jaguar Paw, Custodian Of The K’awiil Scepter

Excerpt From Jaguar Wind and Waves  (p. 13 )

Between my sister and me, I was the fearless one, more determined than my brothers to have my way and make Father proud. It wasn’t until he sent me to Tollan in fulfillment of his alliance with the lords there, that I took the title I came to share with my husband, Spearthrower Owl. When they raised him to “Supreme Anointer, Land of the Quetzal People,” they made us both, together, custodians of K’awiil, the lightning god who conveyed the authority to rule. From then on, because it fell to me to serve as the custodian of the living K’awiil scepter, I was sometimes introduced as Lady Jaguar Paw, Custodian of K’awiil.” I didn’t know it then, but that title—and the office and rituals that came with it—gave birth to the dark clouds that would grow into the thunderhead that took me down.


Presentation Of The K’awiil Scepter

Excerpt From Jaguar Wind and Waves  (p. 74-76 )

In silence but with soft drumming, Spearthrower returned to his place and Fire-born came forward. As he gave his speech, I followed Banded Snake up the steps and across the way to the shrine that housed the god bundle. He took my headdress and replaced it with a red, serpent-coil turban. Keeper of the Bundle was inside waiting for me. He had the K’awiil scepter ready, sitting on his red pillow with the serpent leg dangling over the front. 

Following the ritual I was taught at Tollan, I chanted the little god’s honorifics and passed two fingers, the sign of acceptance, across the blue-painted wood, front and back to insure that everything was as it should be—the feathers securely tied and rising high in his headdress, the obsidian axe-head firmly attached to his forehead, pearl wrist cuffs and anklets in place, the beaded jade necklace centered on his chest and the belt ornaments centered between his thighs.

Last to be inspected, was the little ceramic bowl that fitted into a cavity behind and at the bottom of his skull. Spearthrower always took it out and inspected it the night before an anointing, but he left it to me to push a brush through the cavity and channels that led from the bowl to his mouth and forehead to insure they were not obstructed. With that done I stepped aside so the keeper could put in a nodule of burning coal, which I then dusted with little beads of copal incense. With the skull panel replaced, the “precious breath” came out his mouth and the slit behind the axe that rested high on his forehead. 

While I waited with the breathing K’awiil, Banded Snake went down the steps and nodded to Spearthrower. He nodded to Fire-born and and he concluded his talk. “Now it falls to you!” he said. “The k’in has come for you to show the gods that we are one people, no longer Tollanos and Maya. We are Tikal!” Again, the Tollanos applauded and the Maya remained silent. 

Trumpeters standing atop the steps on both sides of the plaza raised their wooden horns and sounded a loud and prolonged call to announce the coming of Lord K’awiil. Holding the little god in front of me with sweet incense coming out his mouth and forehead, made it difficult for me to see at times. Even with Banded Snake steading me to the side with his arm, I took the steps slowly. Those who were not already on their knees knelt as Spearthrower, doing his best to talk louder, introduced K’awiil as a lightning lord and patron of rulers—the sky god who authorizes rulers to speak to, and on behalf of, the Makers. 

Spearthrower spoke rightly when he proclaimed that it was a day to be remembered. So many important things happened that day—he presented himself to the people of Tikal as the supreme prophet of Tollan, son and voice of the goddess, First Crocodile took the K’awiil anointing and was thereby authorized to carry the title, “Succession Lord,” K’awiil authorized Fire-born to serve as Regent until First Crocodile was ready to rule, and by having all this witnessed by the new ministers, Spearthrower established himself as the lowland kaloomte’, supreme authority. Sadly, it also marked the day when my people stopped resisting.


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

Links To 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

Dowsing / Divination

Are there underground forces that can be felt?

Xunantunich, Belize

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

I used to believe that. Then I experienced it first hand. My Maya guide at Xunantunich in Belize told me how dowsing was used to orient the primary structures, temples and palaces, across the long central plaza. Perhaps reading my expression, he went to a tree, cut off a branch and shaped it into the “rod” pictured above with his pocket knife. He specified that the rod had to be cut from a living branch.

Crossing back and forth over the central axis of the plaza, the rod dipped strongly at the invisible center line. When I asked if I could try it, he said “Gringos can’t do it.” He had often had non-Maya people try it and it never worked for them. Still, I wanted to try it.

The guide was nonplussed when it worked for me, so he gave me a test. With my eyes closed, he turned me around several times and then led me by the hand in a random course of maybe thirty yards. With my eyes still closed, I walked forward without any guidance for about twenty feet. Suddenly, the rod pulled down. Hard. I resisted, but the only way I could get it to raise was by walking away. Back and forth I went. Even at different distances, I got the same result, always with my eyes closed. Each time, when the rod bent down I was somewhere along the invisible centerline of the plaza. The guide was amazed. “I never seen nothin’ like it!” he said.

He thought that might have been an anomaly, so we tried it again at another location and got the same result—the rod pointed down forcefully wherever there was an eye-line (called a “ley-line”) between distant structures.

I came away a believer—that in addition to making  structural alignments relative to the position of the sun, moon and stars, the ancients may have also used dowsing rods to discover ley-lines. Because alignments maintained “as above, so below” order, they may have located their early settlements and cities along ley-lines. Normally, when I toured Maya sites I wore my “science hat.” But there were instances like this when I was challenged to keep an open mind.


Dowsing At Xunantunich

Excerpt From Jaguar Sun (p. 247-248 )

“I told him about your apprenticeship with the K’uhuuntak. He wants to see if you have powers.” 

“What kind of powers?”

My brother continued. “Some people have the gift of locating spirit forces—lines in the underworld made by the gods when they ordered the world. Have you heard of them?” I hadn’t. “He calls them ‘footprints of the gods.’ The man who he engages to find them lives three days from here, so he is always looking for someone who has that gift. He liked what you did with the chert. Just play along.”

“What do the lines look like?”

“They are felt, not seen. Xunantunich is a pilgrimage center because there are so many of them here. Everything you see, every structure here, is aligned with those footprints. ”

Knows Best stopped short of the middle of the plaza. He had me cover my eyes with both hands and then he turned me around three times. “Now,” he said. “Keep one hand over your eyes so you cannot see, and point with the other to the place where Lord K’in will make his descent.” There was no trick to it. Because of the heat on my face, it took only a moment to point west.

“Did the K’uhuuntak teach you that?” 

I told him about the heat on my face, but I didn’t tell him I was in the habit of turning to face the sun as a general rule—something I learned from the K’uhuuntak. Even as an apprentice, I just naturally aligned myself with the center of things, near and far. At Dos Pilas I was most comfortable sitting in the center of the cage—except when I was sleeping or when there was a commotion.

Knows Best had me take hold of the “handles” of the branch he’d stripped so the longest part pointed away of me. “Walk out,” he said. “Point the stick straight ahead. Grip it tight.” I started to walk. “Look ahead, not at the stick.” To my right, there was the high temple with its gleaming headband. Opposite, well down the plaza was the palace. “Slowly!” Knows Best shouted. 

Ayaahh, this is ridiculous. 

Suddenly, I felt a tug on the end of the stick, so I pulled it up. “Hold it tighter,” the man said. Three more steps and the branch pointed to the ground so forcefully the arms of the branch twisted in my grip. I resisted, but it was difficult. 

“Step back three paces,” Knows Best said. When I did, the tugging on the branch relaxed. I stepped forward again, and again it was like an invisible hand had grabbed hold of the stick and was pulling it down. “Continue on now.” Within four steps, the tugging eased and then stopped. Looking, I was standing on the north-south centerline between the temple and the palace.

Almost on a run, we followed Knows Best to the temple. On the upper terrace—apparently, following him was all the permission I needed—we walked around to the eastern side where he had me hold out the branch and walk south to north. At the mid-point of the temple, I felt the tug again and the stick pointed down—hard. At the front of the temple, Obsidian pointed to the palace in the distance. “Five hundred and twenty paces,” he said. “I walked it off.” Within a few steps of walking east to west the stick pointed down again and I couldn’t pull it up. 

“I do not understand,” I said to Knows Best. “What is doing that? What does it mean?”

“It means you have a special power. We will talk later.”

Special power? That was what Sharp Tooth, the healer, had said about my being raised up. So this is my special power?


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

Links To 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





Dugout Canoes And Mythology

Paddler gods escorted the Maize God across the Milky Way

Lake Peten Itza, Guatemala

By 400 B.C., salt was being “shipped” by canoes from northern Yucatan to Tikal in the Guatemalan jungle by way of Cerros, Belize down the New River. In 1502, Ferdinand Colon, a member of Christopher Columbus’s fourth voyage, described an encounter with a large group of Maya—or Maya-related people—in a seagoing canoe around the Bay Islands off modern Honduras.


By good fortune there arrived at that time a canoe long as a galley and eight feet wide, made of a single tree trunk like the other Indian canoes; it was freighted with merchandise from the western regions around New Spain. Amidships it had a palm-leaf awning like that which the Venetian gondolas carry; this gave complete protection against the rain and waves. Under this awning were the children and women and all the baggage and merchandise. There were twenty-five paddlers aboard, but they offered no resistance when our boats drew up to them.


Another Spanish report estimated a Maya trading canoe to be 131 ft. long, carrying kakaw beans, obsidian clubs, axes, pottery, woven cotton textiles, a mancanas (a wooden sword set with obsidian blades) and maize beer for the crew. And Cortés observed that there were “large numbers of Maya trading canoes moving into and out of the region (Lake Izabal).” Regarding the paddles, some of which have been recovered, they were flat and bound with rawhide to give the rower a good grip. To chop out the insides of a hardwood tree they used razor-sharp flint axes. 


Trees Favored For Carving Canoes

Cedar (K’u’che’)

K’u’che’ means “god tree.” Besides being used for canoes, it was favored for making idols, often during the month of Mol (December). Cedar was used for extra-long canoes—river and sea going. It was one of the trees left standing while those around them were burned. The hardwood is durable and resistant to insect attack. It lasts for centuries.

Guanacaste (Ear Fruit)

Pich in Mayan. It’s a giant, rising to 100 ft. or more. Its smooth gray trunk is massive but light and durable. It can last over ten years as a canoe.


Uakuz in Mayan. It has a large trunk and is lightweight compared to other trees.


Punab in Mayan. It’s long, straight trunk made it desirable for canoes. The ancients may have selectively logged the forest, allowing it to stand as they burnt other trees.

Barba Jolote

The wood is somewhat like mahogany, but it’s heavier and stronger. Being highly resistant to fungal and insect attack it was also used to make posts.

Caribbean Pine

The adult trees are fire-resistant. The white resin beneath the bark, besides being water repellent, helped protect the tree from insect attack by quickly sealing any cuts made in the bark. And it’s sap was used as glue to repair dugout canoes.


This tree grows best on sandy, clay soils. It is easy to spot in the Mt. Pine Ridge Forest Reserve in Belize during the dry season because it has yellowish blooms. Today the timber is used for house siding and boxes.

Canoe  Shape

In Classic Maya imagery, a standardized canoe shape had mythological and religious significance. The shape is seen in offering bowls used in blood sacrifices. On Izapa Stela 67 and Yaxchilan Lintel 15 the canoe shape is a symbol of spiritual transformation. 


An incised bone from the Late Classic Burial 116 in Temple 1 at Tikal shows the “Paddler Gods” and other creatures escorting the Maize God across the primordial sea—the Milky Way—at the beginning of creation. The bone is one of many artistic depictions and hieroglyphs that tell the story of the Paddlers “planting” or establishing three sacred god-stones referred to as “thrones.” It happened at a place called Na Ho’ Kan, “First Five Sky” in the Milky Way. Today, we recognize them as Alnitak, Saiph and Rigel, three prominent stars in the constellation Orion. The incised bone shows “Jaguar Paddler” at the front of the canoe, identified by his headdress. At the rear is “Stingray Paddler,” and in the middle is the Maize God whose head is tapered to resemble a maize cob. The canoe is tilted slightly, an indication that they are delivering him to the Underworld, the location of the Maize God’s rebirth.

The myth was codified at many sites by erecting three temples in honor of the stone-throne gods. Usually the temples, often very massive, sit atop an enormous platform. At El Mirador in Guatemala, fifteen “triadic” pyramid-temples have been identified.

This is the Canna pyramid at Caracol. On top are three temples. Two peak are at right and left.

The center throne-stone as I saw it in 2000. Don’t miss a fabulous video of what it looks like today!

Finally, the great stones in the sky were, and continue to be, modeled in the hearths of Maya houses. Always, they consist of three stones.


On Expedition, Pech Orders The Canoes

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 32-33)

Pech stood and shouted to all the boats as he translated what the master said into an order. “When we get ashore I want the kakaw bundles rotated to canoes four and five. Cover and bind them quickly—same guards as before.” The best of the kakaw trading was behind them. They’d acquired nine bundles, each containing 8,000 beans. Because they were easily traded and accepted everywhere, they always wanted more.  

A man in the canoe directly behind the master called out: “Will we take on obsidian at Kaminaljuyu?” Irritation curled on Thunder Flute’s lips. The porter hadn’t been listening. He nodded for Pech to answer.

“Further on,” the first assistant said. “The trail north out of Kaminaljuyu takes us to the Chatalun, a river that empties into the faster currents of the Anamha. The high-grade cores are brought down from the fire mountains there. All we need to do is lash them onto rafts.”

“The Anamha is a demon,” said an experienced porter in the boat behind his. “Rafting is the only way through. Rapids and boulders the size of a house. Even the largest canoes can get swamped.”  

Thunder Flute and Pech exchanged glances. “Where the Anamha ends,” Pech continued, “we rotate back to sea canoes.” Next to “portage” where the canoes had to be dragged and twitched along on skids laid across the path, the most dreaded word for a porter was “rotation,”—unpacking and repacking the cargos—especially on the return leg of an expedition when the cargo is heaviest. “The handlers there are six brothers,” Pech said. “Agouti. Good men. If the water is calm and the sky clear, they will let us shove us off the next morning. If not, they will insist we wait. High winds and side current have swamped too many of their canoes.”  

The coxswain in Thunder Flute’s canoe pointed ahead. “Master!” Thunder Flute turned. Ahead a faint red glow in the fog looked like a torch dancing behind a curtain. When it grew brighter and another appeared some distance away, he stood and called out, “Hold the boats! All quiet!” The men held their paddles tight against the black current and the canoes slowed. The thickness of the fog prevented them from seeing flames, but a red glow that large and this early in the morning could only mean trouble. 

“Full on,” Thunder Flute said. “Full on!” Pech repeated. “All boats, full on!”

Pech stood next to Thunder Flute, facing the paddlers. “Coxswains, bows to the light! Head on! Form up!” The canoes fell into line, bows-to-sterns. In the distance and to both sides of the widening glow, flames suddenly ripped through the fog. 

Thunder Flute wondered aloud to his assistant, “Forest, or houses?” Pech exchanged his master’s wide-brimmed hat for a brown headband, which he tied beneath his leather-bound locks. “The flames are spreading out,” he said, pointing. “The highest there—that could be the temple. Black smoke—thatch and timbers. Call the boats to point.”

“Bows to point,” Pech called to his coxswain. He, in turn, repeated the command for the other coxswains. 

Thunder Flute took his seat at the bow. Pech sat across from him with his elbows on his knees, eager to receive his orders. “I want the crews in six and seven to scout both ends of the city. Two and three will follow us to the docking area. We will hold there until the reports come in.” 

In the distance, a conch sounded short bursts of three. “Two will go in and hold at the plaza. Three will do the running. Whatever this is, I want an experienced man on the temple; we need good eyes on the god bundle. Have six and eight ready to follow us down the embankment. I will take the royal residence. You take the council house. Everyone else stays with the cargo—use extra tie-downs.” 

Pech understood. As the bows of the canoes came together, the men grabbed onto a cord that pulled them into a circle. While the first assistant gave his instructions, the men put on their body paint and handed out weapons. When that was done, Thunder Flute tossed the bowline out and the canoes broke away. “No torches!” Pech said. “Only hand signs from here on!” 

Four canoes with paddlers looking like the Lords of Death escorting the maize god into the underworld dug their paddles in, quiet and deep. Although Thunder Flute’s canoe held back, he stepped onto the bow seat and rested his chest against the carved rabbit head that rose above it. Pech exchanged his master’s cloak for a cotton jacket and handed him a black paint pot. 

East to west, beyond the trees, Ahktuunal was engulfed in flames. Waiting for his canoe to touch the ground, Thunder Flute whispered to his assistant, “A trading partner saved is a partner for life.” Pech handed his master an axe with owl feathers tied at the neck. The boat slid into the sand and they jumped out. 

YELPS AND SCREAMS CAME FROM BEYOND THE TREES. THE sentry post in the docking area was engulfed in flames. One sentry lay face down, his blood pooling and turning the sand black; two others lay on the bank. Using hand signs Thunder Flute directed his men in the oncoming canoes to maneuver away from the dock and touch ground under a clump of trees that overhung the water. 


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

Links To 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 Order

What happened before will happen again

Prophecy was a prominent feature in all the known ancient cultures. Feeling at the mercy of the gods who represented the forces of nature, complex societies needed a way to understand their behavior so they could brace themselves for the next god-made flood, drought or other catastrophe and hope the gods would yield to the petitions and bargaining sacrifices of their kings and holy men.

Maya kings established order by relying on observations of the motions of the sun, moon and other heavenly bodies. Remarkably, because their daykeepers kept at it for hundreds of years, they achieved precision down to decimal points of modern calculations. What they observed was the order and predictability of celestial deities, and it gave rise to the Maya conception of time as “rounds” of days, periods of 20 days, 365 days, 7,200 days (20 years), 144,000 days or 394 years, an alawtun of 63,080.082 years—and likely more. That the gods repeated their “journeys” in cyclical rounds, meant the circumstances and characteristics of a particular time-carrying god would come around again and bring with him the same influences—much the way astrology functions today. 

In most indigenous cultures shaman-priests communed with the gods in a trance state in order to predict the future. The Maya kings relied heavily on  “Daykeepers” and other specialists who maintained and integrated their “sacred” calendar of 260 days with a “solar” calendar of 365 days. Together, various “calendar rounds” allowed these specialists to predict the future based on the influences of the gods in the past. Because the deities had personalities, past “behaviors” that resulted in hurricanes, floods, illness, death and so on, were likely to repeat. Not always, of course, but having some idea of what to expect can be comforting.

One example is contained in the 16th Century Book Of Chilam Balam Of Mani (Chilam Balam in English is “Jaguar Speaker” or  “Jaguar Prophet”). It specifies days and the conditions likely to appear on them.

  • 12 Kan             Bad day for those of royal blood, for there will be illness and death.
  • 1 Cimi              Bad day. Truly the demon’s day.
  • 10 Men            The burner brings the fire. There is thunder.
  • 13 Eznab         If there is rain from the west one may plant early.
  • 12 Ahaw          This is a day on which wise men and writers are born.
  • Wayeb days:   Misfortunes, snake bites, quarrels, and dissensions.
  • 5 Ben               A good day for deer hunters. Hurricane winds with rain.

From the same period, an entry in The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel predicts—

“When thunder is heard in the east on March 21, it is a sign that in coming years there will be many evils such as quarrels, misfortunes, and envy. If the thunder is heard in the south, or if there is an eclipse of the sun or moon, it is a sign that there will be deadly epidemics throughout the world. The bad will come from all directions; it will be an evil period.”


Excerpt from Jaguar Rising p. 55

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.” 

White Grandfather gestured to the guards to stand aside so the people could get to the food. “Orderly now!” he shouted. They ignored him, pushing with such force that Mother had to pull me off my perch before the benches and crates in front of us fell over. When I looked back, despite the warriors trying to control them, people were grabbing at baskets of fish, snails, beans and squash, honey logs and manioc. Limes, palm nuts, nance, wild jicama and papayas went sprawling, and people were chasing after them. We’d been told about the drought, but having enough to eat ourselves because of Father’s trading, I finally understood how bad it was.



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

Links To 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  


Photo courtesy of Justin Kerr

The theme of the past three posts was initiation, specifically the trials an initiate goes through in order to become a “man of the community.” Following on that ceremony would have been another rite of passage for individuals who would enter the brotherhood of elites. Typically for the Maya this involved bloodletting. More than a ritual of endurance, the symbolism around blood was complex and powerful.

It signified noble lineage and descent based on blood, which was perceived to be the rarified essence or “breath” of the ch’ulel “soul” that was the conduit between the world of the living and the world of gods and ancestors. This was because blood carried the life force. In the image above, just such a ritual is underway. That the man on the left has his heel raised means this is a dance. And in it, he and the man third from the left have let blood from their penises, usually by driving a stingray spine or other perforator through it to produce the most blood. Other preferred areas to pierce were tongues, ears and elbows. 

Initiations into elite status could also take the form of circumcision, mutilations, tattooing or scarring, forms of bloodletting that indicated death of one’s profane identity and resurrection into the sacred self. In addition to bloodletting rites, candidates were given the names they would use for the rest of their lives—their “true names.” They learned a secret vocabulary, and the ways of elite customs, manners and expectations for both men and women. Virtually everything began fresh. The initiate was born into a larger (sometimes cosmic) order that obliged him or her to assume responsibility for it.

Perforators such as stingray spines and bone needles were deified. Depicted in Maya art, they often had long handles that took the form of a long-lipped god head with a stack of knots topped by quetzal plumes as a kind of sacred headdress. And blood was never wasted. Rather, it was collected on cloth knots or strips of white paper and placed in censers, burnt with copal as an offering to the gods. 

The following scene in Jaguar Rising was based on a ritual observed and recorded by Frey Diego de Landa, a Spanish priest. I included it in the story because it marks the transition of the protagonist, One Maize, into elite society because his mother had royal blood. His true name becomes Fire-Eyes Jaguar in response to the belief that he got so close to a jaguar he could see the reflection of his torch in its eyes. That the group tied together backed onto burning coals was creative license on my part, considering that fire played a major role in most Maya rituals. The ritual takes place at night. Tzab is a star, and the Great Tree is the Milky Way. Huracan was a storm god, from whom we developed the word for hurricane.

An Elite Bloodletting Ritual
Excerpt in Jaguar Rising (p. 156-158) 

The men on both sides gripped my shoulder and I gripped theirs. On a third round, the assistant hung a white cloth on the knee cords. As mine was being tied, I remembered what White Grandfather had said about Tzab, so I looked up and found the rattlesnake stars high alongside the Great Tree. I’d told Red Paw about Tzab, so he was probably gazing there too—and sweating as much as I was.

The waterlily brew made my head feel soft. Although I couldn’t move my legs apart, the cord that bound them felt less tight and the back of my legs was feeling less heat. Gratefully, I could no longer feel the sweat trickling down my face and sides. That’s when it occurred to me—like the Warriors For Beauty, I could offer my sweat, even my blood, to Tzab. I stared at him hard and whispered my offering.   

The lodge brothers had formed a circle around us. As the shaman and his assistant danced, they drummed and rattled their rattles. Occasionally, the old shaman interrupted his dance to look at our eyes. With his nose close to mine, he appeared to be more monkey than man. When he was satisfied that the brew had taken effect, he gestured to the onlookers and altogether they drummed louder. Much louder. 

Boom, Boom — Boom!

Boom, Boom — Boom!

Boom, Boom — Boom!

On it went. The shaman began a different dance, with a chant that invited the daybearer, Two Water, to come and witness the binding. To summon our ancestors as witnesses, he had us call out the names of our lineage founders. I didn’t know who founded the Macaw at Kaminaljuyu, so I just called to “Lord Macaw.” The occasional glint of quetzal feathers in the shaman’s headdress as he passed, reminded me that I was standing with the sons of noblemen and ministers. It made me stand a little taller.

THE MEN ON BOTH SIDES OF ME Raised their arms, so I raised mine and faced my palms to Tzab. To keep the sweat and body paint out of my eyes so I could fix them on the stars, I had to keep blinking and jerking my head to the side. The daykeeper and his assistant came to me first, censing the little white bundle and then opening it. 

As soon as I felt his hands and grasping me, I looked up. And just in time. A jolt of lightning went through me. Burning. Like a startling fire, like I’d been punched as well as pierced. I breathed hard and fast. Tzab! Keep me from moving! The cord—. Pulling—. Pulling it through. I gritted my teeth but that made it hard to breathe. On my toes, I thrust my palms as high as I could. Tzab! Keep me steady. Now, instead of the lightning fire coming on the final drumbeat, the hard drumbeat, it came on the beats before it. 

The shaman pulled the perforator and cord through my penis to the man on my left. Ayaahh! Lightning again—then sustained fire. The pulling was worse than the piercing. Tzab! Help me! I gulped air as fast as I could, knowing the lightning would rake through me four more times—and knowing that to speak even one word would be a sign of weakness. 

After the last pull there came a moment of calm and steady fire, such that I let my heels touch the ground. As the assistant tied one end of the cord to the other in front of me—to make a complete circle—I could feel every little tug and movement. 

Ayaahh! Tzab! Intense burning. Several jolts of lightning. I didn’t mean too, but I had to look. Kneeling beside me, the assistant kept tightening the cord with a stick, forcing us to close the circle and back into the coals. Tzab! Keep me still! Every turn of the chock sent a streak of fire and lightning through me, a drawn-out stinging that made me wonder if I’d been ripped. Ever so gently, slowly, tenderly, I backed onto the coals and tightened the hold on my brothers’ shoulders. The burning in front was too intense to worry about my feet. As frightful as the thought of being strung together like bundles of maize stalks was, even more frightening was knowing that if one of us broke away we would all suffer permanent damage. What’s more, if we let down our arms or spoke the binding would have to be done over again in twenty days. Tzab! Keep us strong! I wished I’d taken even more of the waterlily brew. The face paint ran into my eyes so badly I finally had to close them tight.

Suddenly, the drumming became slow and quiet. I knew the cord had to be untied and pulled back, but I didn’t know how they would do it. The drumming stopped altogether. Then came rattling, loud and hard. With it came a long and constant stream of fire, pulling like the stripping of a branch. Higher than ever, on my toes and reaching for the stars I couldn’t see I thought I was going to faint. 

The stream continued, but the jolting stopped. There was gripping again and pressure, but the worst seemed to be over. Someone pulled my hands down, cut the cord between my knees, led me away from the coals and put a wet cloth in my hands. I wanted to wipe my eyes with it but a hand stopped me. A voice told me to keep pressure on the wound. Moments later a dry cloth was offered and I used it to wipe my eyes and face. Over our coughing and looking—amazingly—at the coals we’d been standing on, the shaman put the bloodstained cloths in an offering bowl and pronounced the binding “complete and proper.” He said our ancestors were pleased. We looked at each other relieved. The assistant poured more of the yellow liquid onto another cloth and had me hold it against the wound while he wrapped it with strips of cotton to keep it in place. Without looking up, he said I did well.

When our wounds were bound, the five of us gathered around the coals again, put our arms around each other’s shoulders, pressed our heads together and screamed as loud as we could. And then we laughed. Our feet were black but none had been burned—a sign, according to the shaman, that our courage had defeated the fire. 

After tying on our aprons again, we collapsed on the grass with the other men and watched the shaman and his assistant dance their gratitude to the gods. While this was going on, I found Tzab again and said a gratitude for helping me not break the circle. Master of the Lodge said we performed well, and everyone applauded. 

Servant women wearing yellow sarongs came out carrying baskets of food with beverage gourds on their heads. Each man gave his name and lineage, told how long he lived at the lodge and explained his tribute to me. There was much laughter and teasing, especially when it came to passing the perforator bone and cord. It amazed me that such a little needle could cause so much lightning and fire.

Back in my sleeping chamber, I untied the strips of cloth and looked at my wound. Although it hurt and I worried about urinating, I found that holding myself tight lessened the soreness. For a moment the sprout in me wanted to cry, but I quickly defeated him. As much as I hurt on the outside, on the inside my heart was full. I was a man of the caah and a brother in the Lodge of Nobles. I need to ask Mother about Huracan and his tantrum—and where I touched the earth.


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

Links To 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 Maya Celestial Realm (3rd Initiation Trial)

Photo courtesy of Justin Kerr

Similar to the Maya Underworld, the Upperworld was populated with demons. Instead of nine levels, however, the celestial realm had thirteen, each with a ruling god. Not much is known about the levels, but there’s an indication that the fifth was a “Place of Fire” inhabited by fire serpents who emitted comets and meteors. One group called that level the Na Ho Chaan or “First Five Sky,” portrayed in art as long, twisted cords— an association with the umbilical cord and the cords wrapped around a pointed stick to drill fire. For the Aztec, a thousand years later, the fifth level was the place from which souls descended into the developing fetus on earth.

The Milky Way

Without the glare of city lights,  the Milky Way is an exceptionally pronounced feature on a clear night. The ancient Maya considered it a visible symbol of the Great Ceiba Tree that stood at the center of the universe. It was also known as the Sac Be or “White Road” that transects the various levels. The black part above it was considered by some as the Ek Ue, “Black Dreamplace.”

The Ecliptic

In the Maya world, what we know as the ecliptic—the path that the sun, moon and planets follow across the sky—was seen as an invisible twisted cord represented in art (Copan Structure 9N-82 Bench; Quirigua Stela F) as a double-headed cosmic monster. These chords, perceived as entwined serpents in the Classic Period, emanated from the beak of an avian deity called Itzam Yeh, “Lizard House.” They were the umbilicus of the Maize God and conveyers of the Sac Nik, “White Flower” soul substance. On Kaminaljuyu Alter 10 there are flowers on the nose of the serpent. And on TakalikAbaj Stela 4, the Sak Nik Serpent ascends through a medallion portal.

The Portal

In Maya iconography, portals to the other worlds are depicted by the outline of a turtle shell.  Because the shape is used as a frame in Maya art, scholars refer to it as a cruciform “cartouche” or “medallion.” Wherever it occurs, it signifies an entryway or doorway through which souls pass into the other worlds. An altar at El Peru/Waka’ describes the portal as tu yol ak, “at the heat of the turtle,” or in “the portal of the turtle.” 

Epigrapher David Stuart suggests the portal sign represents a “vertical hole or cavity in the earth” such as a planting hole or cenote. He argued persuasively that “images of emergence from open maws of serpents and bony snakes—one of the most common tropes in Maya iconography—were visual metaphors for birth.” In this sense, the cosmic serpent’s mouth is an entryway where the soul is “born” into another realm. It’s also important to note that the Maize God was resurrected from the Underworld through a crack in the shell of Great Turtle—the earth.

Here’s an example of the portal—far right—shown perhaps as a wall painting or a decoration for the vase— in a scene where the ruler is receiving gifts from visiting dignitaries. The gift on the throne appears to be a codex, bound and decorated with feathers. The medallion, shown only in half view, contains the face of an otherworld god. The kneeling figure with arms crossed is a gesture of submission.

Photo courtesy of Justin Kerr
The Initiations in Jaguar Rising

The first initiation trial undertaken by One Maize to become a “man of the community” was to capture, not kill, a deer and bring it into his father’s pen alive. The second trial was a drug-induced journey through the portal to the Underworld to see if he can hold his own with Cisin Ku, one of the Lords of Death.

In this, the third initiation, again under the influence of a hallucinogen, his challenge is to stand up to the manifestations of the sky lords, to “defeat” their attempts to have power over him. The  hallucinogens themselves were perceived as the means by which one entered the portal. Descriptions of the journey into the Upperworld in Jaguar Rising were taken from first-hand reports, drawings and artwork representations of such journeys experienced by indigenous Amazonians under the influence of Ayahuasca, a psychedelic drug.  

The roll-out image of the vase above shows one of the more powerful celestial lords manifesting as an armadillo. That journey began by smoking a cigar laced with fluid from the back of a certain frog.

Entering The Portal
Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 122)

White Grandfather took one of the burning sticks from the censer and lit a cigar. “This is the holy portal,” he said, puffing to get it lit. He handed it to me and told me to take several strong puffs, each time breathing it in. I’d smoked cigars with Thunder Flute and my uncles before, even inhaled, but this was very different. It was thick and tasted like a combination of tree sap and burnt thatch. The smoke stung my nose and bit my tongue. White Grandfather set the drum, rattle and incense bag in front of him. “Keep breathing it in, grandson.” I did, but I kept coughing. “Blow some smoke to the medallion,” he said pointing. “That is the place of entry, the doorway.” I noticed that it was shaped like the bottom part of a turtle shell, rounded except for inset corners. And it seemed to have been painted blue. “Fix your eyes on it,” he said, tapping the little drum with a thin white bone. Tap, tap, tap. Pause. Tap, tap, tap. On and on, always three taps and a pause. “Breathe it in, grandson…” 

My teacher chanted in a whispery voice, words having to do with good sight, good happenings and good remembering. I passed him the cigar but he shook his head. “We remain behind—to guide you. Do what we ask, answer our questions as you journey along. All will become clear. There is nothing to fear.” He chanted again, louder, adding some rattle sounds in the pauses between taps on the drum. This went on so long, twice he bumped his knee against mine—hard, probably to keep me from dozing off. 


“Fix your gaze on the dark center, grandson. Relax and allow yourself to go through.” The tapping stopped and I felt a damp cloth, first on my brow and then on the back of my neck. “Close your eyes now.” As I did, he tied the cloth over my eyes. Amazingly, faintly, I could still see the quivering medallion, only now it was definitely blue turning purple with blackness growing in the center. “Keep puffing, grandson. Breathe in the smoke.” More and more of the medallion was becoming black. Suddenly, I felt something in my hand. Wood. “What do you see, grandson?”

Suddenly I saw my Little Owl. “My canoe, Grandfather!” The loudness of my voice startled me. After that, I whispered. “I see Little Owl—clearly as when I painted her feathers.” 

“Look around. Where are you?” 

White Grandfather’s voice seemed to be coming from inside me, the sound filling me like a hollow jar. “In the canoe, in Little Owl.” What I said is not right. I am not in the canoe, I feel like I am the canoe.

“What is happening?”

“Floating—smooth—on a black river. Waterlilies all around. Maybe sky wanderers.” 

“There are others with you.”

“As he said this they appeared. “Paddlers,” I reported. “One in front, one in back. They paddle slowly, but we are moving fast. Shining black water. Floating white flowers. Fast but smooth—like a pond at night.” With each comment there seemed to be two of me, one watching the canoe and whispering as if from the sky, the other looking ahead at the river of stars in the distance as we approached them. 

“You know the paddlers.”

The one at the bow had his back to me but I knew who he was. “White Cord! My uncle.” It made no sense, how could he be there? Suddenly I felt like I was myself, the river, the canoe, the paddlers and their paddles all at once. No difference.

“White Cord has jaguar ears and paws, does he not?” 

I hadn’t noticed. “He does—and black spots on his body.”

“The paddler behind you is old, is that so?”

I knew without even turning. “Very old. Without teeth. Red eyes.”

“A stingray spine through his nose?”

“And wrinkled skin.”

The Celestial Armadillo
Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 123) 

  “Look ahead, grandson. What do you see?”

“Ayaahh! Faster now, much faster but still smooth. Passing through waterlilies. The sky all around is green, bright green streaming down and waving like curtains. In the distance there is a tall tree—of stars. Everything is quivering. Approaching the tree, the quivering—Ayaahh! The branches are snakes!”

“Beyond the tree—what do you see?”

“A great forest of starry trees—all quivering. Blue, yellow, green—they move together, like in a dance. Their colors, they are so—”

“The colors are holy breath, grandson, streaming out from Heart Of Sky—all that you see is alive there—one living thing.”

“Slowing now. The forest—the trees are headless serpents, hundreds of them, all quivering and rising up like a curtain—uncountable serpents—green and red and purple. It feels like something is holding us back. Now they have heads—pointed like spear points and with big red eyes, all of them coming up, streaming up, out from a sea of blackness—heads to tails that seem never to end. Even these, seem to be me. “Ayaahh! An armadillo with bright white eyes! Enormous! Coming through the curtain of—now they are flaming feathered serpents, still quivering. In front of them is the armadillo—rising big as a tree—glaring at me.”

“Grandson, find a bundle at your feet with a cord attached.” 

I felt a cloth and a cord in my hand. “He is coming closer.”

“Untie the cord and open the bundle.” 

I suspected what was inside: An unshaped smoky obsidian, a blue-green jade and a small brown flint. “Armadillo went out in a puff of smoke. Ayaahh! Little Owl again?”

“Little Owl?”

“She is alive! Has me in her talons, carrying me over the black sea. Going up now, rising, rising toward green—very fast.” 

Like calling out in a cave, my teacher’s voice filled me. “There is nothing to fear, grandson. You are doing well—.”

“Approaching a canoe now—Little Owl!”

“Coming again like that, the canoe assures your safety, enfolds you.” He told me to repeat his words, saying I was safe. When I did, the owl was solid and I was in it, riding on a river of stars, alone. “Moving, but I am not paddling.”

“Little Owl is asking you to trust.”

“Overhead, are two entwined serpents—fiery cords made of stars.”

“As we told you, grandson—the White Flower Serpent.”

“At their ends are serpent head stars, quivering, facing the sea of blackness.” White Flower Serpent, I said to myself. I didn’t want my teacher’s words, not even one, to disturb the quiet and beauty of what I was seeing. So badly, I wanted linger undistracted.

“What are you seeing, grandson?”

“Cannot talk now.” The canoe rode easy then slowed. Seemingly on my back without any feeling of the canoe, drifting on the sea of blackness, I watched the slow movement of White Flower Serpent above until it turned black. “All is black now. Floating still—I cannot see anything, but—I do not understand—it feels like it is all me.

“Heart of Sky, Grandson. Be at peace, Grandson. Let yourself drift.”

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

Links To 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

A Lineage House And Temple

Where Maya kings held council and conducted shamanic rituals

Cerros is a gem! It’s one of my favorite sites and home to Fire Eyes Jaguar, the protagonist in my novel,  Jaguar Rising.

Overlooking Corozol Bay, this small-to-mid-size Late Preclassic site of 140 structures is located within two miles of the New River. With proximity to an even longer river, the Rio Hondo, and given the evidence of certain trade goods, scholars believe that Cerros may have been established by the “Snake Kings” of El Mirador—111 miles northwest—as a trading port where cargo from sea-going canoes could provision her and other large cities to the west. Goods would be transferred from large sea-going canoes into smaller river canoes destined for Lamanai, Becan and other cities to the south and west. At its height, it’s estimated that approximately 2000 people lived in and around the Central District of Cerros, which was encircled by a broad canal where traders transported their goods around the city and into the river and lagoon. 

David Freidel was the lead investigator at Cerros in the late ‘70s. At one of the Maya Meetings at the University of Pennsylvania, I asked about the significance of Structure 5C-2nd. “I’d call it a We Chok Te Nah a Lineage House,” he said, “a place where you had the founding of kingship at the site. It’s a succession house and the place where kings held council. It was a temple as well as all the above. Its primary function was to serve as a spatial context for shamanic royal ritual with the focus for action upon its long stairway.” 

The above photo doesn’t show the masks that were on both sides of the stairway because they were covered over to protect them. At the Cerros website you can see them beautifully reproduced. Click on the arrow at the bottom of the page to see more of the site.

In a later paper, Dr. Freidel identified the faces as representing the Maize God and Itzam Yeh, the Principal Bird Deity who fancied his powers equal to the sun. For a variety of reasons, including finds of unique trade goods, ceremonial caches and ceramics, he advanced the idea that “Preclassic kingship may have evolved more directly out of shamanic orders than out of lineage patriarchies and matriarchies.” 

Consistent with the shamanic attribution, in Jaguar Rising I refer to Structure  5C-2nd as “White Flower House” because the soul or spirit conjured there is depicted in Maya art as a white flower. To ensure this association in my story, I indicate that the temple was built by White Grandfather, a displaced shamanic ruler from the enormous city El Mirador. It’s there where he counsels pilgrims, conjures gods, speaks prophecy and dances as the Maize God. A scene in the temple’s upper room has White Grandfather guiding Fire Eyes Jaguar on a drug-induced journey to the upper world as part of his initiation into manhood.


White Flower House

Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 121)

ASIDE FROM LINGERING PURPLE STREAKS OVER THE WESTERN canopy, the sky was dark and clear. At my teacher’s request, the sentries who greeted him at White Flower House took their torches and stood at the east and west corners of his temple. Twenty paces out from the central stairway there was a mahogany bench, which he led me to. But we remained standing. 

“Have you eaten anything?”White Grandfather asked. I shook my head. “Have you touched a female or let them touch you?”Again, I answered truly that I had not. “Then we begin your second trial. Do as we do and repeat our words.”He faced east and crossed his arms over his chest. I did the same. “We honor Lord K’in’s coming out place, the place where he rises from the underworld.” We turned and faced the remaining hint of purple where a severely bitten moon followed a lone bright wanderer making his ascent. “We honor Lord K’in’s going in place, the place where he makes his descent.” Turning again we honored the gods of the other directions, North and South. We offered our gratitude to the Thirteen Lords of Life above and the Nine Lords of the Night below. Finally, we bowed and spoke words of praise to Itzamnaaj and his spirit companion, Itzam Yeh, the great bird who dispenses life from his perch at Heart of Sky. Turning full around with open hands, I repeated my teacher’s words: “Here we stand, ordered and blessed at the center of all that is.” 

The steps at White Flower House were wide and had short risers. The fifth step was actually a landing about eight strides long. I thought it strange, but we sat cross-legged on the pavement—the very spot where, at the first rite of the rainy seasons Laughing Falcon Cloud revealed himself as the maize god in both his Sky-Bearer and World Partitioner aspects. Months later, when the all-day rains stopped, he revealed himself as Itzam Yeh wearing a green feathered cloak and a helmet with the life-sustaining, twisted cords hanging from his beak. 

White Grandfather pointed to the stuccoed face of the sun god in the middle of the roof. “Fix your gaze on Lord K’in there. Now look above the roof, about seven fingers—to the dark place between the three bright stars, where there is only darkness. Do you see it?” 

“Just the blackness?”

“There grandson, that is Heart of Sky. Life begins there and comes down from there.” He pointed to the tall beams that rose above the temple’s roof at both ends. “If you sight the stars long enough against one of the beams, you will see how the gods and ancestors honor Heart Of Sky by circuiting around it. All that is Seven Maize, everything we know, began there and comes from there.” 

Sitting cross-legged on the cold landing and in the dark talking like that was pleasant. After all that had happened that day, I didn’t even mind the sorcerer’s talk. “Is Lord Itzam Yeh really up there—perched in Heart Of Sky?”

“Dispensing his life-sustaining substance, Seven Maize. Because we cannot see it—. There is so much we cannot see, even with your young eyes.” The old man ran his finger across the bright path in the sky that Mother called The Great Serpent Way. There is the White Flower Serpent,” he said. “The path the brightest wanderers take—serpent lords entwined like vines, making one life-giving cord.”

“Where does it lead, Grandfather—the Serpent Way?”

“No one knows. But the sky gods and their brothers, our ancestors, have journeyed along that path since the beginning. Round after round.” 

I’d heard that before. Mother didn’t like to think of it as a cord of entwined snakes. She preferred to think of it as the cord that carries life between a Mother and her seedling, or the cords tied to a roof beam that some women hung from to give birth. “This is how the ancestors plant their ch’ulel in us,” my teacher said. “This is why we cannot resist the way of our blood.”  

I saw his trick but ignored it. When I helped him up he called for a sentry to bring a torch and he took me up the remaining steps. “With respect, grandfather,” I asked at the doorway. “If I could watch you make the journey into the upper world first, I could do it better.” 

“Are you not ready for this trial, grandson?”

“I just want to do it properly. What if I do it wrong or cannot come back?”

“Did you ever dream wrong, not awaken from a dream? Journeys to the other worlds are like that. Your ch’ulel goes through the portal, but your body remains here. The ancestors show you what they want you to see, and then you return. This is how they teach us about All That Is and How Things Are.”

Inside the temple, White Grandfather set the torch in a holder on the wall and tied back the doorway drape a little to remove the thin veil of ash that lingered in the air. Following his gesture, I sat on an ocelot pelt with my back against a side wall. Painted black on the wall across from me was a medallion, a large circle with inset corners that framed the cross-eyed, shark-tooth face of Lord K’in. Taking fire from the torch with an ocoté stick, he lit some tinder in a censer. When it flamed, he added the stick and three others before setting it in front of me. He took a blue-painted calabash from under the medallion and nodded for me to take one of the many rolled-up leaves it contained. Inside the leaf was a cigar. “We wrap them with bits of copal bark,” he said, and scrapings from the backs of frogs.” It releases the ch’ulel to go through the portal.”


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

Links To 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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