Ancient Maya Cultural Traits

Bloodletting

Photo courtesy of Justin Kerr

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

It signified noble lineage and descent based on blood, which was perceived to be the rarified essence or “breath” of the 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 Amazon.com for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

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

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

The 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. 

“The MEDALLION IS QUIVERING, GRANDFATHER.”  

“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 Amazon.com for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

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

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

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 Amazon.com for paperback books and Kindle Editions—

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

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

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller  

Kenep: A Delicious Tropical Fruit

My guide at the Maya site of Cerros, Belize picked up a small unripe fruit that had fallen from a very tall tree. There were dozens, lying all around. “This is kenep,” he explained. “It’s a local name. It ripens in the warm summer months and becomes bright orange—very tasty. Some of them get twice this size. You peel away the shell and suck on the fruit until the flesh is gone, then you spit out the stone. Kids pop ‘em like candy and make necklaces from the seeds. Believe me, it’s one of the best, most delicious tropical fruits there is. The ancients—and still today—people eat a lot of it.”

Later on, I discovered that the tree is in the soapberry family native to South and Central America and parts of the Caribbean. They can grow up to 80 ft. tall and their flowers have four petals. It’s not unusual to see them along roadsides in Belize, planted as an ornamental tree. The fruit is known as “quenepa” in Puerto Rico where it’s so abundant and appreciated, in the municipality of Ponce, they have an annual celebration called “The National Genep Fruit Festival.” Next time you’re in Belize, Cerros is a wonderful site to visit. And ask someone there to point out a kenep tree. If you live in Belize and know of this fruit, please let me know. Was my guide right about it?

 

Reference to the Kenep tree in—

Jaguar Rising (p. 347)

We arrived dusty and parched, eager to set our burdens down and put our feet up. Judging from the smoke on the approach, the entire region looked to be on fire due to construction. At least eight limestone kilns were pouring out smoke and fire around the central district. Slaves carried water, plaster, stucco and paint to men on scaffolds wearing wide brimmed hats to shade their faces. In one place there was so much white powder in the air we had to cover our faces to keep from choking. The limbs on many trees were bent under the weight of it.   

While the women waited in the shade of a tall kenep, a sentry led us to a compound cluttered with scaffold poles, beams, cording, piles of rock and broken tools. The person in charge, a huge man with a gruff voice, introduced himself as Hammerstone Turtle. He was surprised, even befuddled, that there were so many of us. His supervisor, the minister of construction who’d visited with White Cord at Cerros, had told him that three brothers could be coming from there, possibly with their wives—but it was not likely. 

White Cord’s suggestion that I wear black body paint with red over my shoulders, eyes and mouth in the manner of an unmarried hot blood turned out to be a good one. I had been standing back when this Hammerstone asked about me. Following White Cord’s gesture, I stepped forward. “I am honored to introduce my assistant,” he said. “This is Young Lord Fire Eyes Jaguar Macaw, fourth son of Lord Jaguar Tooth Macaw, the Great Tree of Kaminaljuyu. We invited him to come with us because he is on his way home—and he is an accomplished conjurer.” Although that wasn’t true, it felt good to be introduced that way. Hammerstone, whose belly was nearly as bulbous as his head, scrunched his eyebrows and looked at White Cord to see if he was joking. Seeing that he was not, he got down on one knee, touched his shoulder and gestured for the men watching to do the same. 

I acknowledged their respect and released them to stand. “I am only here to assist my friends,” I said. “It appears that Uaxactun is building out as well as up—so many scaffolds and kilns, so many men.”

“With respect young lord, considering what needs to get done, we could use about a hundred more men.” After that, his words to White Cord were a bit more respectful and accommodating. As they talked, I was beginning to feel like a jaguar in a dog pen so I went outside. Several men came and went, one of them wearing an owl feather in his headband. When White Cord came out with his brothers, he said that Hammerstone had sent the messenger to the minister of construction and we had to wait for the reply. 

Across the patio, some sprouts were up in the kenep dropping the sweet red fruit to friends. They offered us some, asking only that we spit the pits into a hat so their sisters could make necklaces. Immediately, it became a game to see who could spit a pit into the hat from the farthest distance. Walks In Stonewater beat everyone and we had a good laugh.

 


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

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

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

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

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

Xibalba: The Maya Underworld (2nd Initiation Trial)

Rollout vase photo courtesy of Justin Kerr

The Maya Underworld, called Xibalba (She-balba), “The Place of Fright,” was the realm beneath the surface of the Earth and under water. It was perceived to have nine descending levels arranged like an inverted pyramid, was ruled by the Bolontik’u, “Nine Lords of Death” and was often depicted on vases as a giant conch or snail shell which enclosed a mysterious other reality interpreted by some to be an infinite, eternal and bloody ocean of bliss. The Underworld was always pressing upward through portals—volcanoes, floods, and earthquakes—where the demons could emerge and work their dark magic.  As entrances to the Underworld, caves were considered sacred and preferred locations for sacrificial offerings. There is no evidence to suggest that Xibalba was a kind of hell. More generally, the belief was that to die in one world was to be born into another.

The  Lords Of Xibalba

According to the Popol Vuh, the K’iche’ Maya’s mythical “Book of Counsel,” the Lords of Xibalba  possess three outstanding characteristics. In the first place, they were liars and tricksters. To trick the Hero Twins into playing a ball game, they said they admired their ability and the contest would be exciting. But it was just an enticement to kill them. 

Secondly, they are stupid. In a second attempt to create human beings who would praise them and offer them their blood and sweat, they made them out of wood. There was nothing in their created beings equivalent to hearts or minds, and they had no memory. It was a failed attempt. And lastly, in several instances, the Underworld lords demonstrated cruelty and hardheartedness. 

The Vase Shown Above

Above, center right, the Underworld Lord, known to scholars as “God A,” is shown dancing beside a witz “living mountain” throne, on top of which is an infant jaguar identified by its tail and paws. Art Historian Penny Janice Steinbach suggests that the infant with jaguar traits is being sacrificed  as “part of a pre-accession ritual serving to endow royal heirs with the ability to conjure, which, in turn, was integral to assuming the throne.” To the right of God A is a dog, known to escort the soul of the deceased across a river and into the Underworld. Above him, is a fanciful firefly, perhaps there to illuminate the darkness of the watery world below. To the left of the spirit-spewing mountain, the rain god Chaak dances, holding aloft a hand stone typical of those used in certain ball games and boxing matches. In his other hand, he wields the axe with which he creates lightning and thunder. Typical of Maya art, the image is filled with symbolism, glyphs and mythical references. Every element has meaning.

God A — Cizin “Farter.”

God A is a death god. He’s a skeleton figure with a distended abdomen, pronounced spinal column, truncated nose and grinning teeth. And he emits a stench, possibly that of dead bodies. He wears bell-bracelets on his hands and feet, a decapitation collar, and he has disembodied “death eyes” with the nerve stalks attached. His body is sometimes marked with “death spots,” which is a sign of decomposition. And he can be seen sitting on a throne of bones. Unlike the dance of rulers, his dance above is wild and undignified. His skeletal countenance is that of a trickster, typical for an Underworld deity.

Jaguar Rising — The Novel

The first initiation trial for 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. Below, the second trial is a drug-induced journey to the Underworld to see if he can hold his own with one of the Lords of Death. 

Making The Journey
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p 121-123 )

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…” 

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. 

“The MEDALLION IS QUIVERING, GRANDFATHER.”  

“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.” 

Encountering Cizin Ku (God A)
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 137-138 )

Looking down from the steps and trying to clear the burning in my nose and eyes, I saw a crouched figure in the ring turning this way and that. As the smoke thinned and the water in my eyes cleared, I saw a tall, menacing skeleton with a bulbous head, crooked front teeth and a distended belly. “Cizin Ku!” I whispered. What my teacher hadn’t told me about this lord of the underworld was that the thunder farter’s presence alone was so powerful I had to tighten every muscle in my body to contain my fright. Turning his gourd-like head side-to-side, he listened and sniffed one way and another, looking for something. Or someone. Commoners on their knees backed close to the wall. In front of him, the animal companion spirits cowered and glanced up timidly. With a jerk the lord of death turned and farted a smaller thunderclap side to side, leaving them writhing in clouds of stench.

When Cizin Ku turned and looked up I stood back.

“Grandson, did you say Cizin Ku?”

His bony feet clanked on the steps and within a few terrifying heartbeats, I could smell him standing over me, his feet wreaking with sludge. Following his command, I turned to face him and backed up until I felt the cold obsidian wall of the pyramid at my back. Besides the huge and ominous eyes above his nose, he had two more eyes on the top of his head. As he turned I saw a string of them, all bloodshot and gazing at me, running down his back. He stared at me and then directed his gaze to my hand. I’d forgotten that I was holding the brush. Because it had touched the terrace, the floor was turning from black to red. His square and cavernous eye sockets had lightning cords in them, shining painfully bright.

“Go to your knees, Grandson. Bow to him. All he wants is your respect.”

I couldn’t reply, but I did what he said. The stench from the excrement on the lord’s bony feet made me gag. Bending down to face me, the mirror medallion around his neck clanked against his ribs and putrid steam issued from a slit in his bulbous, pouch-like belly. Following his command, I handed him the brush and he pressed it against his knee bone. When nothing happened, the lightning in his eyes went dark and more steam came from his belly. He drew the brush along a leg bone. Nothing. He tried again without success. A growl rumbled from within him. With the eyes on the top of his head holding my gaze and his other eyes dangling, looking around, he snapped the brush in two and hurled the pieces over his shoulder, down to the ring without turning to look.

White Grandfather kept asking me questions but I was too stunned to say anything. Also, if Cizin Ku could command me without speaking, he was probably hearing my thoughts as well. Frustrated by not making a color, he straightened to the height of two men. I saw it coming, so I covered my ears as he doubled over and expelled another deafening thunderclap. Again, it shook the chamber. High above the shiny pyramid, dust and chunks of rock broke from the ceiling and apparently fell onto the cauldron sending sparks and flakes of obsidian tinkling down the terraces and steps. Through the smoke came the sounds of agony and the odor of vomit. 

I couldn’t see him, so I whispered to White Grandfather that he broke my brush. “He is angry. What should I do?”

“Offer him another one, Grandson—in your headband.” 

Cizin Ku heard! As soon as I felt the cool handle slide against my scalp. He took it and pointed the bristles at my face. “Rise!” His voice bellowed inside me. I stood but kept my back to the cold wall. “Come!” He went up the steps and I followed. The lord on the fifth terrace backed away from his throne as Cizin Ku approached. The lord of death turned and said, “Make color.” I touched the brush to the seat of the throne. Red appeared and spread. He went over and pointed to the quetzal plumage streaming from the ruler’s headdress. I touched the brush to a single shaft and the blue-green color spread down and up until the entire spray became vibrant. 

On the sixth terrace, the brush made the ruler’s headband white and the macaw feathers yellow and blue. On the seventh, something changed. Cizin Ku pointed to the pavement beneath his feet. When I touched my brush to it, there came a red dot but it didn’t spread. I tried to paint a circle around it and still, the color didn’t spread. I was confused, but what happened next confused me even more. 

The skeleton lord stomped his foot on the dot and the color spread. The big eyes above his nose kept looking down at the color while the eyes on top of his head, worn like a headband, held my gaze. He stomped again and the color stopped spreading. Another stomp and the red spread faster than before. Much faster. Across the terrace, up and down the steps, across the other terraces. As the black pyramid was turning red the chamber fell quiet. 

“Grandson, repeat our words—I am returning to the sweat lodge…” I couldn’t. I dared not to even think of it as the bony lord came close. The lightning in his eyes dimmed again. With his face close to mine, he held my gaze and asked what I had to say about his turning the pyramid red. 

“With respect,” I whispered, “I must return to the sweat lodge. My teacher is calling for me.” 

Cizin Ku turned and stepped away, but the long strip of eyeballs down his spine stayed fixed on me. He stomped his foot again and the colors disappeared. The pyramid, the lords, what they wore and their thrones were all drab again. The onlookers whispered their disappointment. The lord’s eyes began to brighten and he stood tall again, apparently satisfied with his display of power. Dangling Eyes, the little blue dwarf, stomped his feet and rubbed his bony arms trying to make the red come back again, but it didn’t. Inside me, I heard, tap, tap, tap.

White Grandfather’s voice became urgent, insisting that I repeat his words. 

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

Links To Amazon.com for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

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

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

Ancestor Substitution: Maintaining balance and order in the cosmos

Concepcion, Guatemala: A shaman and his mother converse with my guide

The Tzutujil Maya who live around Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, use the term k’ex “substitute, exchange” to reference various ways in which the universe maintains balance or equilibrium. The perceived order in the cosmos has to be maintained on Earth—as above, so below. Substitution applies to generations. For instance, a child is considered a substitute for a deceased parent or grandparent. People are exchanged for one another through repetition, the same basic personality or temperament, even souls reoccurring through reincarnation. One person leaves, another enters. Balance.

Bringing a newborn into this world requires a replacement in the world of the dead: in this case, the deceased ancestor destined for the underworld is the k’ex for the newborn child.

Karl Taube, Maya Ethnohistorian

The shaman’s mother and grandchildren

K’ex can reference daily activities as well. Trade involves the substitution of one item for another. Anciently, the ritual calendar is a process where one deity substitutes for another in carrying the “burden” of various time periods, and crops replace the previous year’s crop. Among the Kiché Maya, children often take the names of long-deceased grandparents, a custom not uncommon in modern American and European societies. The Zinacantan Maya of Chiapas, Mexico replace the saints and flowers on their household shrines every fifteen days. In healing, an offering of tobacco or a maize-based drink is considered a substitute for a sacrificial offering. The god receives the soul of the liquid rather than the life of the healer’s patient.

Hieroglyphic inscriptions contain references to k’ex in the context of rituals. For instance, human sacrifice was an exchange to ensure the rebirth of the cosmos. And the blood sacrifices of kings, considered the most precious gift they could offer to the gods, were substitutes for the continuing survival and prosperity of their subjects.

When a child was born, something had to be given in return, often to the gods of death and the underworld, offerings of food, copal incense and animals were considered k’ex. In Maya art, infants being carried by jaguars are likely k’ex offerings, as are infants placed in offering bowls. A pit under Copan Altar Q contained the remains of 15 jaguars—the number of Copan kings, all k’ex offerings. And famously, the ruler of Palenque, K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, is depicted on his sarcophagus lid as sitting in an offering bowl.  His is a k’ex offering of self-sacrifice, an exchange that ensures the survival of his lineage. In all things, at all times everywhere, there must be balance. 

 

Reference to Generational Substitution

Jaguar Wind And Waves (p. 12) 

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

Apart from the little tattoo of a jaguar paw on my cheek, the hair on Father’s upper lip and the differences in how we wore our hair, our reflections on the water were much alike. Both our foreheads had been flattened, shaped to look like maize cobs. We both had long noses, broad cheeks, deeply folded eyelids, and our skin was the color of brown maize. Another difference, one I kept secret, was a white spot, about the size of a small lime, on my left side, under my ribs. 

I delighted when visitors to the palace spoke of the likeness between my father and me. I hoped it went beyond our appearance and that, when I became a woman, I would have his manner of walking and talking, especially his determined yet kindly manner in battling the everyday storms that rained down on the Mat and flooded palace life. Although I’d seen him stern and demanding in the audience chamber, I knew him as a gentle and playful father. He carried me on his shoulders, danced to entertain me at court, and planted the thought in my head that, when I came of age I would make a “grand contribution” to our beloved Tikal. 

Among foreign dignitaries, long-distance merchants, and his underlords, Father’s courage and ferocity as a warrior earned him the title, “Torch and Storm.” But at his accession to the Mat, he took the name, “Jaguar Paw.” Our lineage was Jaguar Paw. Twenty years later, celebrating his accomplishments on the completion of his first k’atun—twenty years on the Mat—the jaguar prophet introduced him as “Great Jaguar Paw.” Although he and Mother had seven children, only five survived. He also had a daughter by another woman. They sat with us at court. 

We never knew Mother’s first born because he took the dark road four months after his arrival. My sister came next. She was introduced to the court as “Lady Dream Paw,” a name that suited her because her manner was soft and her steps small, making it seem like she floated across the floor, particularly when we wore long ceremonial robes. When my brother, Flint Dancer, touched the earth, the ancestors said he had the spirit of a warrior. He became one and distinguished himself as a first spear. I arrived after another son who only stayed on earth for three days. 

After me came Knotted Tail, who, perhaps because he almost didn’t survive or because his skin was lighter than ours, was a worrier. He was afraid of everything. But by the time he was nine, he could outrun and count faster than any of us, except for Father. When we were just sprouts, he and I sat with some of the vendors to talk and learn how trading was done. That’s how it happened that at ten, I was the only flower in our family who could sum, place, and takeaway numbers as high as twenty-four thousand, the number of kakaw beans that Father received twice a year as tribute from his underlords.  

Twelve days after I was born, Father named me Infant Jaguar,” after the twelfth ruler of Tikal. Mother said that when I began to say words, he started calling me “Palm Flower,” for the odor that was said to take a person to other worlds. At four, when it came time to present me at court, he gave me the house name in honor of the palace he’d just had constructed. At the dedication he introduced me as “Lady Jaguar Paw.”  

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.

According to Mother, when the daykeeper read the seeds, beans, and crystals to divine my birth prophecy, it came clear to him—definite, and without hesitation. The ancestors said my path would be “the path of the jaguar,” and that “amidst powerful winds and waves,” I would battle “a mighty demon.” Father said that, unlike my wild temperament, the path of the jaguar was a path of listening and watching before pouncing. He said this would be my strength, and like the jaguar, I would “roam free and without fear in the forest of men.” As for the demon, neither the daykeeper nor my father knew what he would be like, but on the long journey to Tollan to take a husband, I kept an obsidian blade in my litter—the knife Mother used to cut the shell from my waist-cord when I became a woman of Tikal. As it happened, not even Father could have dreamed that the man he sent me to marry would unleash the demon.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________

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

Links To Amazon.com

Jaguar Rising A Novel of the Preclassic Maya

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

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

____________________________________________________________________________________________________

Deer Hunt: First Initiation Trial

Vase rollout courtesy of Justin Kerr

They joined together in companies of fifty and roasted the flesh of deer so it would not be wasted; they make presents of it to their lord and distribute the rest among friends.

                                          Fray Diego de Landa, Bishop Inquisitor of Colonial Yucatan

Deer were treated like gods because their main god had appeared to them in that form. In some places there were deer parks and reserves where deer weren’t afraid of people because they were not killed.

                               Hernando Cortés, Conquistador (Referencing the Aztec) 

Hunting among the ancient Maya was multifaceted — a necessity for food, an act of communication between humans and animals, negotiation between men and gods and social engagement. The hunters shown above would have been an elite class, with modes of dress, rituals, gods, methods, weapons and territories specified by the ruler. Also specified, was how the meat would be divided. Given the depiction on this vase, I imagine these men comprised a group of Court Hunters.

Aside from deer being hunted, the Spaniards reported that it was common for women to raise them in their homes. At Cuello in Northern Belize, a young deer was buried ceremonially, an indication that as early as the Preclassic Period, deer were considered a suitable sacrifice for the gods. 

Of course, commoners hunted as well. Unfortunately, little is known about their rites and methods. Top to bottom, however, all classes of hunters used the same weapons. Above, the only weapon depicted is the blowpipe, but also common were spears with flint or obsidian tips, traps, slingshots (mostly for birds, iguana and other small animals) and snares. Bows and arrows came into use in the Postclassic Period, just prior to the arrival of the Spanish. 

Indigenous people didn’t kill animals for the thrill of it. While there were likely individual exceptions, animals were considered sacred beings endowed with individual spirits offsprings of gods. To take the life of an animal for any reason other than food, would have been a grievous offense to its overlord. And there would be a price to pay —personally for the killer, his family and the community. And, because meat was scarce, a prized commodity, wasting it would never occur to anyone at any level. It would be like us throwing a hundred-dollar bill in the garbage can. Hunting for  “sport” was virtually non-existent.

Hunting Deer For Food

Large animals, like white-tailed deer and tapir, were generally hunted for special occasions. Without refrigeration, meat had to be either prepared and consumed within a day or two, or salted in brine to extend its viability for several more days. There were strict codes of meat distribution. Typically, the hunter who made the kill got first choice, then his family, then the ruler, his or her family (the Maya had female rulers), their courtiers and so on down the line. And no part of the animal was wasted.  Bones contained life force, one reason why they were carved as object of ritual, for instance fragments used as sacred bloodletters, along with stingray spines and obsidian lancets. 

Hunting required Communication

Because animals were the “property” of their overlord, humans had to persuade the gods to allow the giving (sacrifice) of one of its members for human survival or ritual necessity. And in order to maintain balance between human and animal, the debt had to be repaid. For commoners, this could be an assurance that the hunter would offer something in return. It could be as simple as a burnt offering of  copal incense, or maize gruel. Whatever the offering, what mattered was following through on the intention to restore balance. We have to remember, because everything (rocks, trees, buildings, etc.) was endowed with a spirit and god-overlord, acts of taking involved a negotiation with a deity. In some instances, it was reported that the hunter gave back to insure the animal’s reincarnation. For the Tzotzil of central Chiapas, the “Lord of the Deer” used a whistle to inform a stag or doe that he was present or  returning home. And animals were perceived to reside in supernatural corrals inside mountains.  

Among the Tz’utujil, who live on the shore of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, there was the belief that whatever animal a hunter kills, as the son or daughter of a god, he will be responsible for that animal’s upbringing in the otherworld.

Hunting Methods
  • The ancients preferred to hunt for deer in the dry season, between November and May. It was easier because they could hear leaf rustles as they walked in the forest, and they stood out through the sparse foliage. During this time, there would be animal round-ups, ceremonial drives that were part of an agricultural ritual.
  • Hunting teams, as many as fifty or as few as five, would spread out in a wide circle and use the bleat of conch shells — as shown above — to frighten deer to a central point where there were snares or camouflaged men waiting with blowpipes or spears hurled with atlatls. 
  • A similar technique requiring fewer men, was to use dogs to chase the deer to a given location. One limitation, however, was that dogs could not outrun a deer in swampland. 
  • Snares made from rope woven from plant fibers were placed along paths that led to watering holes. The hunters dug a shallow trench next to a springy sapling, drove in a straight stake on one side of the trench and a stake with a crooked top on the other side. They bent the tree over and attached the stick between the stakes so a noose hung over the trench. With scattered leaves to disguise it, the animal would run into the trap and the recoil of the tree would string it up by the neck.
Initiation Trial One: Capture A Deer

In indigenous societies, initiation into adulthood typically involved a trial (“Vision Quest” in the Native American culture), and a ritual where, among other things, the initiate was welcomed into the community and given the name he would use the rest of his or her life. 

I introduce the subject of initiation here, because in Jaguar Rising, one of the four trials given to the protagonist by his guide is the capture — not the killing— of a deer. He had to do it alone and with only a weapon or device he would make. And he can’t return home until he did it. 

Part of the ritual for the male initiates, was having their father cut the white bead from their hair, an worn as a sign of adolescence. For females, it was the cutting of a white shell that hung from the front of their waist-cord. With these cut, they were welcomed as men and women of the caah, “community.” 

Postings to follow —

Initiation Trial Two: “Visit The Underworld.” (A hallucinogenic experience)

Initiation Trial Three: “Visit The Upperworld.” (A very different hallucinogenic experience)

Initiation Trial Four: “Initiation Into Elite Status” (The bonding of men through endurance).   

Initiation Trial One: Capture A Deer
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p.100)

BEYOND AXEHANDLE, WHERE THE FINGER OF THE LAND turned into a broad thumb, we stopped beside a tree marked with a tall hunter’s hat and two black bands. “Grandson,” my teacher said. “Here begins the first of your three trials, one in each of the worlds. Ahead is your middle world trial.” 

I was excited. “What do you want me to do?”

He pointed in the distance to the narrowing of the beach where the forest nearly met the water. “Stop along there and say an apology and gratitude to the forest lord. Then go into the wild and capture one of his sons or daughters, a fully-grown deer. Do not kill him. Use no weapons. Make your shelters and drill your fires along the coast. If you need a cord, cut some vine and braid it. If you need a net, get some thin fronds and weave one. Ask and accept help from no one but your ancestors. Eat what you alone can gather or kill. Go as far as you need—to take a deer. Remember, you must not kill or injure it. Instead, deliver it live to your father’s pen.”

I was so shocked I could neither interrupt nor believe what I was hearing. “With respect, grandfather. Is this even possible? An adult deer could be taller than me. Even a little one could outrun Thunder Flute.” 

“Trust your ancestors. They are always with you.”

Hunting deer required skill and muscle. Usually, bands of six or more men went out with dogs and spears and strong cords. For me to do it alone and without any of these things was unthinkable. 

If Mother knew this she would be horrified. 

Like vultures on a carcass, stories that Thunder Flute told about men in the wilds swooped down and began pecking at my throat and stomach. Deadly yellow-jaws lay coiled in the weeds and hung from trees. There were blood-sucking bats as large as eagles, and frogs whose loud and constant croaking made men crazy. And there were jaguars. Hunters told stories of them taking down tapirs, deer and peccary and carrying them up a tree. Even water didn’t stop them. More terrifying for me as a sprout was the prospect of encountering an underworld demon, bony creatures with bulbous skulls and bellies who roamed the wilds at night in search of human flesh and blood. Their sweat and flatulence alone were known to kill any who walked into it. “With respect grandfather, what should I do about the dark lords?”

There was not much left of the day. “Keep your thoughts on what you have come to do. If a crosswind comes at night, take shelter away from your fire. Wear this.” He removed his necklace, a single jaguar tooth on a leather cord, and put it over my head. “By this, demons, jaguars and snakes will know you are under our protection.” He had me kneel and he held the serpent on his staff against my head while he chanted. Then he tapped me on the shoulder and turned away. I watched as he left. He didn’t even glance back.

Capture Of Kicking Deer And Muddy Fawn
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p.101)

Within the sorcerer’s ring, there was a dark grotto, a long mud pit overhung with a thicket of bush with palm and nance trees blooming yellow and orange rising above it. Not far from the edge of the pit, a fawn lay on its side, lifeless and splattered with mud. Two vultures were trying to get at it, flapping their wings to stay above the mud. Farther out dark splatters on top of the lighter-colored mud drew my eyes to an adult deer who was submerged except for its head. Flies, dragonflies and mosquitoes flitted around its nose and closed, seeping eyes. I threw a stick at the vultures and they backed away, but the largest of them jumped onto a branch above the lifeless brown body. When he leaned down and pecked at an ear, it twitched, so I knew the deer was alive. I began throwing clumps of mud at the big ugly and he went higher in the tree.  

To get to the fawn I gathered some fallen branches and laid them on the mud. Crawling out on my stomach I had no trouble getting my arm around her, but when I pulled her by the neck she kicked, the branches broke and we sank. Fortunately, the mud and water was only waist deep. I managed to get some footing, enough to pull the little one onto the bank. The big ugly jumped down again and sidled along the branch closest to the doe. This time when I threw mud at him, one of his brothers darted at the fawn and pecked at its rump. Shouting and throwing mud in both directions, I chased them back. 

So it went until I could gather enough dried fronds and weeds to cover the trembling fawn. With the vultures pushed back I managed to pull some creeper vine and twist it into a cord about an arm’s length. I broke off a branch from a fallen tree and stripped the small branches to make a pole. Using it for balance, I went into the pit to see how far I could go—all the while warning the vulture lord that if she didn’t keep her sons and daughters back, I would be forced to use it against them. Nearly up to my neck in mud, I got the cord around the doe’s neck and tied the ends together. When I pulled on it she opened her eyes, pulled back and kicked me hard in the side, ripping the cord from my hands. 

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

Links To Amazon.com for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

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

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

The Blood Of Kings: Inherited from the gods

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

                                               David Stuart, Archaeologist and epigrapher

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

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

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

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

 

How Blood Was Inherited

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 18)

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not hers—yours.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Blood Was Considered To Be “Hot”

Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 206)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links To Amazon.com

Jaguar Rising: A Novel of the Preclassic Maya

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

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

Termination Rituals

 

Caracol Structure B5

For the ancient Maya the most important interaction was not between persons, objects or buildings, it was their relationship with the spirits that resided in them. While everything was perceived as being alive, only those things that were useful were ritually ensouled with a guardian spirit—or a god in the case of temples, palaces and sacred places. When a ceramic vessel was made or a house built, a och’ k’ak’ “fire-entering” ritual was held to invite a spirit, often a deceased ancestor, to take up residence in it. The process substantially affected a transformation from disorder (material) to order (spiritual). Throughout the ensouled object’s “lifetime” of use, its spirit was respected and ritually fed. 

For a small item like a plate or jade carving, the ensouling ritual required an offering such as a small bird, copal incense, maize kernals, bits of spices or aspirations of a fermented  maize beverage. For a house, a bird or small animal like a paca (rodent family) would be sacrificed at the center-post, and the four corners were anointed with blood, incense and chants of gratitude and summoning. Flowers were likely involved as well, particularly those with white blossoms  because they represented the soul. A freqent phrase in the inscriptions is “the white flower soul.” Spirit-entering rites for temples, palaces and other large structures were often done in the context of dedication ceremonies that could include the placement of ancestral burials and caches within or in front of the structure, sometimes in association with sculpted and inscribed stela throughout the Classic Period. 

Ensouling (English term) was referred to as jaloj k’exoj, “regeneration, the giving of life.” And the dedication ceremonies could involve days-long celebrations, feasts with visiting dignitaries, elaborate offerings with gift exchanges, feasting, gift exchanges, blood-letting ceremonies, dances, ball games and fire dances. At times they included human and animal sacrifices as well—jaguars and tapirs in particular. 

When an object, monument or building was no longer going to be used, termination rites were performed to release the spirit—or god in the case of temples—so the material could revert back to disorder, a state the ancients sometimes referred to as “the wilds.” My Maya guide at Caracol in Belize showed me an enormous and steep unexcavated mound that had likely been a shrine or temple. At the top, the rubble among the trees and weeds consisted of limestone pebbles and  hundreds of boulders, evidence that the structure had been ritually terminated. “Boulders don’t roll uphill,” he quipped. These were raw stones with no trace of ever having been carved. I paraphrase his analysis: “No amount of weathering, not even over fifteen hundred years, could have made this happen. Everything you see here was ritually destroyed—terminated and buried, laid to rest so it could become wild again.”  The photo above is a different mound than the one the guide showed me. Here, I imagine the stones are a mixture of carved stones from the structure that sat atop the mound, and raw limestone from its termination.

Ritual termination is in evidence throughout Mesoamerica, particularly in ceramic plates that have “kill holes,” and monuments where the carved faces of former rulers had been smashed or destroyed in antiquity, rendering them inert, no longer able to influence human affairs.  

House Termination Scene

Excerpt from Jaguar Sun (pp. 180, 181) 

Facing us at the end of the patio, there was a tall masonry gate with a doorway. Going through, we entered another patio and saw a group of people standing well back, watching two houses engulfed in flames. A holy man paced in front of them facing the fire, chanting and shaking a gourd rattle, while an assistant cast copal nuggets into the inferno. Both roofs had fallen in, the thatch was sending up sparks and the roaring flames spun blue and orange around the roof beams. Because of the noise and everyone watching the fire, they hadn’t noticed us.

Among the thirty or more people, all wearing black, three men stood at the front wearing heron headdresses with long yellow beaks similar to what my father wore on ceremonial occasions. On both sides of the burning heaps, men stood ready with buckets of dirt and water in case sparks or flames would leap to one of the other roofs. One of the men up front turned to talk to someone and he saw us. He in turn got the attention of another man, and when he turned abruptly, everyone looked our way. Someone pointed and instantly, as we might have expected, young men ran to a long rack and took up spears. They kept their blades high, but we were quickly surrounded. (p. 180)

The leader grabbed my wrist and put his hand on my shoulder as he turned. “Everyone! This is Wakah, fourth born of Smoking Claw! He has come from Naranjo.” He turned to me. Speaking above the noise of burning timbers, almost shouting, he said he was Father’s oldest brother, Thunder Maker. The other two wearing heron headdresses were also my uncles—introduced as Singing Sling and Flint Thrower. Judging from the painted white teardrop under their eyes and the fresh wounds on their arms, I realized they were in mourning. “Your coming is a blessing,” Thunder Maker said. “We are terminating the houses of two of my sons. They fought under the supervision of our brother, Throwing Spear. They all distinguished themselves at Tikal.” Thunder Maker led me by the arm to one of the burning houses. “This was the house of my first son,” he said. “They say it took a warlord and eight holcan to bring him down. The three of us were with Our Bounty, so we did not see it.” 

Our Bounty? Ayaahh, they led the attack with Yuknoom Claw!

I had to ask. “Did you see my father at Tikal?”

Thunder Maker shook his head. “We wondered if he was there, kept an eye out for him. But there were thousands. We fought many battles, never one like that. We mourn our defeat. What could we do? The gods willed it.” (p. 181)

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

Links To Amazon.com for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

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

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller  

Kakaw (Chocolate)

 

Kakaw trees can’t tolerate high altitudes or temperatures below 60º F. They need moisture year-round, so during prolonged dry seasons irrigation is necessary. Given these considerations, they were domesticated in the Pacific coastal plains of Guatemala and Chiapas around 1000 B.C., at the height of the Olmec civilization at San Lorenzo. The area around Izapa, a Late Formative site in Chiapas, was a particularly rich source of kakaw (cacao) because it was very hot with volcanic soil. 

The variety of cacao grown in the Maya area is called theobroma bicolor—“pataxte” in Mayan. The tree’s flowers and fruits or pods grow directly on the trunk. Each fruit is around 11” long and 4” wide with an average weight of one pound. The color ranges from reddish to green, but it changes to yellowish orange as the fruit matures. The pods contain 20 to 40 beans enveloped in a sticky, white pulp. The beans are large and flat, and are sometimes eaten raw. Each tree will produce around 40 pods, yielding about 4.5 pounds of chocolate. It has been suggested that the name “chocolate” derives from the Mayan word chokola’j, “to drink cacao together.”

Mentioned frequently in the inscriptions as a trade good and an elite consumable, it seems kakaw was an array of beverages rather than a single drink. Beverages are described as “honeyed kakaw,” “flowered kakaw,” “bright red kakaw, “black kakaw,” “ripe kakaw,” “sweet kakaw,” and “frothy kakaw.” The ancients toasted the beans and used them to make gruels and porages. Additives could include honey, chile peppers, annatto (to make it red), fruit juices, flower blossoms and vanilla. And through fermentation, they produced a cacao flavored  alcoholic beverage. Perhaps because kakaw concoctions were such an imported extravagance, some of the inscriptions specify the cities where and when they were served.

This palace scene from Dos Pilas shows flowers being presented to the seated lord. In front of him is a platter of kakaw pods.

A study by Joanne Baron, published in Economic Anthropology, revealed that cacao beans, “originally valued for their use in status display, took on monetary functions within a context of expanding marketplaces among rival Maya kingdoms. These products would eventually go on to serve as universal currencies across the different Maya regions and were used to finance state activities, as well as household needs. By the time the Spanish had arrived in the early 1500s, these (kakaw) products were being used to pay tribute or tax to leaders, to buy and sell goods at the marketplace or pay workers.” 

The kakaw sacks shown in the Bonampak murals were labeled with the kakaw glyph surmounted by a number which David Stuart deciphered as 5 pik of forty thousand seeds. He also notes the frequent use of a 3 pik—twenty-four thousand seeds—label, which coincides with a count of cacao seeds that was considered a “carga” in Postclassic highland Mexico. At the time of the conquest, a “load” of kakaw—24,000 beans—was worth twice as much in Tenochtitlan as along the Gulf coast. A rabbit costs 10 beans, and a porter charged 20 beans for a short trip. A 1545 document written in Nahuatl states that a turkey was worth 200 cacao beans, a tamale worth one, and the daily wage of a porter at that time was 100 beans. It was also noted that dishonest traders made counterfeit beans by stripping the husks of the beans, filling them with sand, and mixing them with genuine beans. Careful customers squeezed each bean to test it.

Counting Kakaw Beans

Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 205)

OUR EARLY TRAINING HAD TO DO WITH TRADING, TERRITORIES, the names of places, rulers, ministers and counting. We learned the value of goods, especially those desired by lords, noblemen and holy men. We learned hand signs, not only to trade and speak with foreigners but also to signal each other under conditions of scouting and attacking. We learned how to use vines, moss on the side of trees and the stars as directional pointers. Especially, we learned which goods would be traded in the various markets. 

To learn how to show respect to power and speak in our trading partner’s favor, we put on hats and bargained with each other. Instead of using stones and sticks for counting, Pech taught us to use lucina shells for “zero,” kakaw beans for “one’s,” and flat hands for “five’s.” A hand covering our chins stood for “twenty.”  In the counting trial, we had to place and call, sum and subtract numbers in orders of thousands because kakaw beans were traded in “loads”—cloth bundles of eight thousand, what one man could carry.

Kakaw Valuation

Excerpt from Jaguar Sun (p. 98)

BY THE THIRD DAY IN THE MARKETPLACE AT IXKUN, SO many warriors and farmers were coming to have me rework their cherts and flints, Eagle fixed the exchange at two, four or eight hundred kakaw beans depending on how long it took me to do the work. After another day, a line formed. I was spending nearly as much time counting kakaw and shell beads as I was shaping stone, so Eagle had one of the assistants do the counting for me. It felt good to be contributing to the expedition, but by the end of the day, the muscles in my chopping arm were chattering. And I was out of Strong Back. Darts came by several times and stopped to watch me work. Whenever I looked at him or nodded he turned away. 

Checking For Counterfeit Beans

Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 67)

In the days leading up to Grand Procession, the counters and court scribes examined every needle, bead, feather, hide and kakaw bean. Day and night, a band of guards walked the perimeter of the compound while others armed with spears, axes, knives and flint-tipped darts walked the patio. Two of them stationed at the stairway searched everyone who came and went, including those of us who lived on the compound.

Pouring Kakaw To Make Foam

Excerpt from Jaguar Wind and Waves (p. 67)

For the feast I had arranged for the ministers to sit on reed mats in a circle. Lime Sky and her assistants prepared maize leaf tamales, most stuffed with turkey, others with paca meat. Four of my serving women had never been to court before, so I worried that they would drop or spill something—or not understand a minister’s gesture. Along with the tamales we served roasted grubs with mashed beans and platters of cooked chayote greens topped with crumbled roasted squash seeds that she dusted with chili powder. For the beverage we served chih with lime juice and honey. The final offering, an extravagance usually reserved for lords and their ladies, was kakaw poured into tall cups from the height of the server’s breast to raise a dark brown foam.

(Photo of the palace scene courtesy of Justin Kerr “Maya Vase Database”)

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

Links To Amazon.com for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

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

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller  

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