Ancient Maya Cultural Traits

Clothing And Identity

Dress is not simply a passive reflection of identity—it has a powerful relationship to how individuals understand themselves and interact with others.

Cara Grace Tremain (Anthropologist)

Whether intended or not, clothing communicates. For example, an apron in modern society can signal that the wearer is a chef or manual laborer. It can also symbolize the wearer’s beliefs and values, as when it’s worn by a Rabbi. The elite Maya of the Classic Period went to extremes in the latter category, investing many items of clothing with meaning. 

While some Maya garments were simply intended to beautify or eroticize the body, those depicted on works of art—including regalia, jewelry and body manipulation (hair arrangments, scarification, tattooing, piercing, teeth filing and cranial modification)—were rich with meanings that  referenced and celebrated their myths and ideology. In the Early Preclassic period, symbols were largely based on ancestor veneration. In the Classic Period, belief systems evolved to where the emphasis was on stories of creation, gods and apotheosized rulers—those who’d died and became deified. 

With regard to body coverings, the materials at hand were mostly plant fibers such as cotton, kapok, yucca and agave which contains henequen and maguey fibers. Animal products such as duck and goose feathers, deer hides and feline furs were incorporated as well. Slaves and the poorest of the poor wore garments made of softened bark paper. A thousand years later, in Aztec Mexico, only the king could wear fine mantles of cotton. So it’s likely that cotton was also reserved for Maya elites. With regard to the commoners very little is known about their coverings, except they mostly consisted of maguey fibers. Soaking and cooking the leaves made them tender enough to scrape and shape into long soft threads that were dried in the sun and then woven into fabrics.

The principle device for weaving raw fiber into cloth was the backstrap loom, similar to the ones used today. Since the looms are not very wide, several widths were sewn together to create square or rectangular shaped garments that could be fitted in place with a belt or fabric tie. Weaving lent itself to the making of geometric shapes and patterns. Below, the patterns woven into the woman’s huipil and the ruler’s cape signify the four directions. 

Yaxchilan Lintel 24

Dated approximately 709 AD, Shield Jaguar holds a torch over his wife, Lady Xoc, who performs a bloodletting sacrifice by pulling a barbed cord through her tongue. Her huipil appears to be embroidered and trimmed with fringe and pearls, and the pectoral on her beaded collar—likely made of shell or jade plaques—depicts the sun god. The object at their feet is an offering bowl containing blood-splattered cloths to be burned along with copal incence. 

Although insect, vegetable and mineral dyes were traded extensively in the Classic Period, the archaeological record indicates a strong preference for painting on cloth—clothing—using stamps and brushes. Embroidered stitching, which was an easy and quick way to embellish a woven garment with color and designs is also in evidence, worn by elite women. Though scholars are still debating gender roles and responsibilities, weaving tended to be the domain of women, and farming the responsibility of men. Attire for both men and women varied depending on the individual, status, location and time period.

In this unprovenanced panel in the Cleveland Museum of Art dated 795 AD, a royal woman holds an effigy, a “God K” or “K’awiil scepter.” When kings held it out they proclaimed themselves masters of the “vision serpent,” the ability to negotiate with the gods. This could be another instance of a woman who ruled. (See my posting “K’awiil” for more details on this deity). 

Women wore huipils, a long outer garment that covered the shoulders, chest and hips. Those worn by commoners were likely plain or with little embellishment. The huipils of elite and royal women usually contained symbols. The four quatrafoil designs on the above figure are signs that represent the “portal” to the otherworlds. They also wore an undergarment that showed beneath the huipil. In hot climates, women of all ranks more often wore a sarong, a long garment tied under the arms that could more or less conceal the legs (See the figurine on the right in the first photo). 

Men of all ranks wore a loincloth, some with shorter or longer hanging ends (See the middle figurine), a long or short skirt, a short waist-length jacket and in some instances a short cape. Because males depicted on monuments are sometimes shown wearing long skirts as seen on Copan Stela H (Schele #1011), it took the decipherment of inscriptions for scholars to realize they were men. The length of a skirt alone is no longer considered an indication of gender. 

Piedras Negras Stela 8

Long or short, worn by a man or woman, whether as a skirt or cape, the jade-beaded latticework (Seen above on the king’s skirt) signifies the Maize god. Commonly, a Spondylus (spiny oyster) shell hangs from the belt with the face of a fish on it, a mythological shark who the Maize god defeated in Underworld, worn as a sign of victory. That the beaded garments are worn by men and women, anthropologist Karen Bassie-Sweet regards the beaded skirt as an example of gender “complementarity”  considering that maize plants—and therefore the Maize god—have both male and female elements.

Evident in the art, lavish clothing, regalia and costumes signified elite status. Fabric embellishments could include jaguar pelts, bird feathers, flowers and wood, leather or thinly painted ceramic constructions that represented fish, waterlilies, the heads of gods and monsters and other mythical or symbolic creatures. At the other end of the spectrum, nudity signaled disgrace.

The elaboration of footwear was another element that distinguished the elite from commoners. Slaves went barefoot. Most everyone else wore sandals, although I notice the royal woman wearing the decorated huipil in the above drawing is barefoot. Kings always wore high-backed and probably animal hide sandals, often embellished with feathers and jewels that included symbols. For example, notice the jaguar pelt sandals worn by the king in the drawing where he holds a torch over his wife as she performs a blood sacrifice. 

Reference to backstrap looms
Excerpts from Jaguar Rising (pgs. 31 and 223) 

Thunder Flute interrupted. “Of all the places we trade, none offers better embroidery. On the last trip, the exchange was better here than at Kaminaljuyu. Lord Macaw gives his son an advantage—and we take it.”

“All the women weave,” Pech said. “You will see—as soon as a flower can talk she will be sitting beside her mother at the loom. Unfortunately for us, the women at court do the best work. Most of it never reaches the marketplace. If I or one of the assistants is not nearby, do your best. Better to acquire fine work than not. You will know it when you see it.”

The steward led us across the plaza to a large house that sat on a high, white-painted platform with scarlet macaws in flight painted on both sides of a broad stairway. He told us his master was holding council, but he went in anyway to let him know that we were there. While we waited, Standing Rock led us to the corner of the platform that overlooked a patio where women were weaving with back-strap looms. Thunder Flute spoke from behind me and close to my ear. “Ladies of the court. They weave from dreams. The cotton is the finest you will see anywhere.” Voices behind us were three men in red robes coming through the doorway. They nodded to us and went down the steps.

Ruler Wearing Maize God Skirt
Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 360)

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.

A Gift Of Elite Sandals To A Merchant
Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 315) 

BLOOD SHARK HAD THE SERVANTS MOVE MY ITEMS TO THE side and he gestured for me to follow. Blue Skin stepped down from the dais and Yellow Stone admitted other servants with bundles intended for Thunder Flute as he came over. “Thunder Flute Rabbit,” the lord said gesturing, “Your compensations for teaching Blue Skin and our first spears the ways of the Tollan warriors.” 

The largest bundle contained a tapir pelt and seven embroidered mantles, beautiful pieces for Thunder Flute’s wearing. Next, came an assortment of colorful feathers which Blue Skin named: turkey, eagle, toucan, duck and owl. The great white heron feathers were especially beautiful, but it was the owl feathers that Thunder Flute chose to touch with two fingers and express his gratitude. From a third bundle, he held up a pair of high-backed sandals. “The bottoms and straps are crocodile,” Blue Skin said. “The backs are doe-hide. Very soft.” Owl faces were burnt into both backs. When he put them on and walked, Thunder Flute’s face lit up like never before. 

“For when you become raised and titled,” Lord Tapir explained. “The burner tried to match the tattoo on your chest.” 

All drawings courtesy of The Montgomery Drawings Collection, 2000. FAMSI Resources.


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


Climate Change and Drought

Land bridge between reservoirs. Tikal, 2008

In the Late Classic period (A.D. 500-900) this path separated two immense reservoirs in Tikal’s city center. When I was there in 2008 it was overgrown and hard to see the bottom, but I estimated both of them to be about as deep as an eight-to-ten-story building.  

Maya farmers are still around today; kings, however, disappeared 1,000 years ago. There is a lesson here on how people and water managers respond to long-term climate change, something our own society faces at present.

Lisa J. Lucero (Anthropologist)

There were a series of droughts during the latter part of the Classic period. Isotope analysis shows that there were at least eight in northwestern Yucatan between A.D 800-950 that lasted from three to eighteen years. These impacted different centers differently depending on social, environmental and political circumstances, which helps to explain why the “collapse” extended over 100 years in the southern Maya lowlands.

In response to droughts, kings performed ceremonies to the rain god, Chaak, royal ancestors and other supernaturals to ensure adequate rainfall and maintain clean water supplies. Generally, they maintained control by exacting tribute and labor, managing the times for planting and harvesting, allocating water, constructing and repairing reservoirs and designing plazas and buildings to direct as much rainwater into them as possible. It’s been estimated that the six central reservoirs at Tikal could easily have provided water for 45,000 to 62,000 people over six months. But because rainfall was the only source of water in the Southern lowlands, changes in its amount and timing had major consequences. 

To keep the water potable through the dry season, the Maya incorporated plants such as pondweeds  and other small plants—and their associated bacteria and algae—which filter the water, feed on the spores of parasites and absorb nitrogen and phosphorus that builds up in standing water. In today’s terms, they transformed artificial reservoirs into wetland biospheres.

In response to droughts, kings were able to reassure their people through daykeepers—managers of the sacred calendar—who, because the nature of reality was believed to be cyclical, predicted the return of rain according to the auguries of the past. In some places the kings intensified their building programs, temples especially, to appease the gods. And they increased the frequency and spectacle of ceremonies and sacrifices. When the rains came, people believed in the power of the rulers. When it didn’t, they lost faith in their ability to deal with the gods and they left. Loosing power with their people, the kings and their courts began to disappear by the early 900’s. 

Nonetheless, although populations decreased, farmers adapted. Freed from tribute and labor demands, they generally migrated north to where there were lakes, rivers and cenotes. No longer dependent on the court and its restrictions, they learned how to manage the environment and diversified their subsistence to include hunting, fishing, planting fruit trees and so on. In some areas, well-adapted farmers continue to persevere in the present.

An aguada (catchment pond) at Tikal in 2008. A guide said they sometimes covered them with thatch to prevent evaporation.

Maya kings used the same rituals that had served them in the past in the hope that conditions would change; they did not. The same is true for global climate change. We know global climate change will not end anytime soon, so it is up to individuals, families and communities to act now and not wait for conditions to change. The only viable long-term solution is adaptation… It is the people, not politicians, who in the end resolve problems.

Lisa Lucero

Source: Climate Change and Classic Maya Water Management by Lisa J. Lucero, Joel D. Gunn and Vernon L. Scarborough, published in Volume 3 of the journal Water in 2011.

Along The Reservoir Trail At Tikal
Excerpt From Jaguar Wind And Waves (p. 59 )

APPARENTLY MY HUSBAND HAD BEEN COUNTING THE DAYS of my grieving because, early on the fifth day, servants with muscles like stone haulers came to move my belongings into the chamber next to his. I didn’t want any part of it, so Honey and I went for a walk between the reservoirs. The water levels were still high and the ducks made us laugh, splashing and upending their tails.

      Whenever I walked the reservoir trail I remembered what my father said on the morning of his accession. Standing before thousands he’d said, “I come to the Mat not just to rule; I come to contribute.” The children heard this many times, but I couldn’t resist saying it again when Honey asked if I was still hoping to make a contribution beyond my duties as mistress of the palace and residence. Not having an answer, her question stayed with me.

      Later in the day, alone with my thoughts, I sought an answer. Considering what has happened, is there anything I can do to contribute to Tikal? Was my grand contribution the fulfillment of Father’s alliance? Or is there something I can do now?

Excerpt From Jaguar Wind And Waves (p. 141 )

Because it held so many memories of my family, the reservoir trail had become my favorite place to walk and think. Early the next morning, with a thin blanket of fog resting on the water on both sides, I sat alone on the stump of a tree intending to speak to my ch’ulel about the vases when a tall, strikingly handsome young man with a severe, cob-shaped head approached. At first I thought he was carrying a staff, but it turned out to be a walking stick painted yellow. Judging from the tonsured hair that hung below his waist in back, his cotton loincloth, and high leather sandals, I judged him to be the son of a nobleman, perhaps an apprentice to a holy man, but he bore neither scars nor tattoos and his only jewels were jade florets in his ears. Unmarried men and warriors wore black body paint, yet his flesh was unpainted and fair beyond any I’d seen. Almost pink, like the inside of a shell.

Excerpt From Jaguar Wind And Waves (p. 163-164 )

Leaving them where the reservoir trail met the causeway, Gray Mouse and I continued around the elbow of the reservoir to see if we might reach the stone by going down the steps. Several women were down there getting water, so we knew the clay was solid enough to walk on. But there was vegetation growing high on mounds that blocked our view of the place where we saw the stone.

      Gray Mouse and I spent the next day talking about what, if anything, could be done about it. First of all, I needed to get close to the stone. Given its size and shape, it was either a small monument, a piece of one, or not one of the monuments from Precious Forest. No matter, the possibility that it could have a foot carved into it gave me hope. I knew the palace reservoir had been the first to be dug at Tikal and lined with clay—long long ago. So in all that time any stone could have fallen into it—or been dumped there.

      Gray Mouse suggested that I approach the stone haulers and compensate them to take a closer look and tell us what they found. I started on that course, but the thought of their seeing the stone before me changed my mind.

AT FIRST LIGHT, WITH FOG RISING FROM THE RESERVOIR, now looking like an enormous muddy canyon with trees and bushes growing out of mounds, Gray Mouse and I met  Knotted Bee and his sons, Nakal and Nakoh, at the top of the steps. With cords on their shoulders and carrying slashers to cut through the vegetation, we descended the long wooden steps to the bottom where just a few strides away, women were filling their water jars. Had a guard or sentry seen me walking with sandals, wearing a bark-cloth sarong with no jewels, they would never have believed that I was the wife of the Great Prophet of Tollan. The black clay was hard along the wall, so we had no trouble getting over to the cliff face.


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 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 applys to the ancient Maya. While reading his book, I made notes and provide here some of his information born out by research.

The Maya viewed the cosmos as a living entity that is born, develops and dies on the last day of the year—and is then reborn on New Year’s Day, the day on which time began. It’s important to note that their ceremonies and festivals represented the “re-actualization” of sacred events from the mythical past. These were taking place “in the original or sacred time.” They weren’t “reenactments.” They were the sacred events happening in the present. While scholars sometimes refer to shamanic dances as “deity impersonation,” the dancers believed they became the god. Through hallucinogenic trance, they allowed the god use of their bodies to perform acts of creation and other mythical events. This becomes more understandable when we realize that the “gods” were personified forces of nature with names,  images, personalities, biographies and stories about their power and how they behaved.  

For the Maya, every 52 years the world would be created new again, or if it pleased the gods it wouldl be destroyed. Renewal was not taken for granted. Fortunately, with each turning of the year the world and mankind recovered the sanctity they possessed at the original creation event. Each period, perceived as a god, carried the “burden” of their assigned time. Imaged in art as a god carrying a bundle on his back with a tumpline or forehead strap, each had positive and negative characteristics, ushered in as “winds” such as a bountiful harvest, famine or illness that would repeat when they came around again.

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.

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. 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-creations 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— 4 Ahaw 8 K’umk’u in the Maya calendar (September 8, 3114 B.C.) 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 (Archaeologist/Epigrapher)

“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


 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  

Infancy And Childhood


Panajachel, Guatemala

This information is taken from my conference notes. The paper, Being A Kid Again: A Cultural and Biological Examination of Childhood Identity, was given by anthropological archaeologist Dr. Amanda Harvey, professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. Gratefully, she provided consulting on the topic of health when I was writing The Path Of The Jaguar trilogy. While the information here mostly applies to the contemporary Maya across a variety of communities, it suggests patterns that have a deep history in the culture. Following Dr. Harvey, I use the present tense unless the evidence suggests otherwise.

  • At birth, the child is anointed and slapped three times, a reference to hearthstone symbology. A person’s birth date controlled his or her temperament and destiny. And their given name was determined by a shaman at a divining ceremony. Generally, it consisted of the father’s family name, the mother’s family name and 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 occurred reminiscent of a maize husk. Among the nobility especially, this was a mark of beauty. It has been suggested that the Maya 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 at this time is learning social skills, gained by watching 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, the boys have the white bead cut from their hair and both are anointed (sprinkled) with holy water. It’s a sign they ready to be married, and they take on work expectations such as carrying water and wood and maintaining the household.

Tecpan, Guatemala
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

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 of 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. It 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.

Copal nugget on a piece of bark

Pom is the Maya word for the tree. It was tapped during a full moon when its 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 also used as an external antiseptic. And it was one of the trees that survived burning. It grows wild throughout the Yucatan Penninsula.

Breath constitutes the soul essence, which continues after death as the soul of the dead. So incense coming out of the mouth of a god-faced censer was considered his sacred breath. The  spirits consume this “sweet-smelling blood of trees” and are nourished by it because it contains the entity’s ch’ulel, “soul.” Sprinkled onto a burning offering such as a blood-soaked cloth, it carried the sacrifice to the gods. 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, considered 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 are often surrounded in curls that represent “precious wind,” or the perfume of flowers and incense, the carriers of ch’ulel.

Copal balls were often shaped into hearts to symbolize the heart, the seat of the inner soul and residence of ch’ulel. Copal powder was mixed with pigments to make the colors shine, and it made the paint adhere better to stone 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 God of Fertility, Abundance and Energy Exchange


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

Linda Schele, who made the above drawing from four identical, stucco-covered figurines found in Burial 195 at Tikal, spoke with a Maya ritualist who said K’awiil was a supernatural “host object.” (Schele, Maya Cosmos, p.199). This aligns with the god’s frequent appearance in Maya Art as the scepter of rulers, likely to indicate royal lineage. Rulers who are shown wearing a smoking headdress do so after death to denote royal ancestry, the most famous example being the curls of smoke eminating from K’inich Janaab’ Pakal’s headdress on his sarcophagus lid at Palenque.  

Scholars have given K’awill, “scepter” a variety of names and associations. John Eric Thompson said the name meant “Abundance of our sustenance.” In Paul Schellhas’ classification he is “God K or God II .” Because he only has one leg and it terminates in a serpent’s head, the Popol Vuh identifies him as Cacula Huracan, “Lightning One-Leg.” His forehead is a mirror penetrated by a smoking axe—also a lightning designation, so Dennis Tedlock speaks of him as Nehm K’awill, “Mirror Scepter.” The hook in the eye designates him as a deity. (Below, there is a drawing of the K’awiil scepter)

In Classic times, often at accession events, when the kings held out the K’awiil scepter they proclaimed themselves masters of the “vision serpent,” the ability to manifest benefits for this world from other world sources. It was believed that K’awiil used his lightning-serpent leg and the smoking axe in his forehead to break the heads of shamans and bring them enlightenment. As a ritual instrument, the scepter was made of wood and was carried in the right hand, except when that hand was needed for blood “scattering” rituals.

Mythically K’awiil was the third born son of First Mother and First Father, born on the day Hun Ahaw, “One Lord.” His brothers were the Hero Twins. He was linked to the forces of fertility—his nose being maize foliage—abundance and energy exchange. Through him revelations happened and through his lightning strikes, human souls were transformed into what the Maya called “authentic human beings” or “true men.” There’s some speculation that he may originally  have been the personification of the axe that Chahk, the storm god, used to crack open the shell of Great Turtle allowing the maize god to ascend from the Underworld so he could deliver abundance to the world. 

Lady Jaguar Paw, Custodian 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.


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

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

Xunantunich, Belize

Dowsing is a type of divination, used to locate ground water, buried metals, gemstones, oil and gravesites 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. As practiced today it probably originated in Germany in the 16th century. So says Wikipedia.

I used to believe that its effectiveness was due to random change combined with the mental state of the person doing the “divining.” Then I experienced it first hand. My Maya guide at Xunantunich in Belize told me how dowsing was used to orient the primary structures across the long central plaza. Reading my expression, he went to a tree, cut off a branch and shaped it into the “rod” pictured above. Crossing back and forth over the central axis in the plaza, the rod dipped strongly at the invisible center line. He specified that the rod had to be cut from a living branch. When I asked if I could try it, he said “Gringos can’t do it.” He had several non-Maya people try it and, sure enough, they couldn’t do it. I wanted to try.

You’re not going to believe this, but it worked for me. He couldn’t believe it, so he had me close my eyes, turn around several times and he led me by the hand in a random course of maybe thirty yards. With my eyes still closed, I walked without any guidance and the rod pulled down—hard. I resisted, but the only way it would release was by my walking away. Back and forth I went. Even at different distances I got the same result. With the rod pointing straight down I opened my eyes and was clearly standing in the center of the plaza. The guide was amazed. “I never seen nothin’ like it!” he said.

I thought that might have been a setup or an anomoly, so I tried it again at another location and got the same result—the rod pointed down forcefully wherever there was a central eye-line (called a ley-line) between two 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 verify ley-lines, perhaps even find water. Normally I wear my “science hat,” but there are instances like this when I’m 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

Lake Peten Itza, Guatemala

As early a 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.

The 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 at the beginning of creation. At the front is “Jaguar Paddler,” 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 Milky Way

One of the perceptions of the Milky Way was as a sacred river. At the beginning of creation, it was the Paddler Gods who seated the first of three sacred throne stones there—“Jaguar Throne Stone.” They set it at a place called Na Ho’ Kan, “First Five Sky.”

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


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)

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

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