Ancient Maya Cultural Traits

Sacred Spaces

For the ancients, there was no separation between the secular and the sacred. Everything of the Earth was sacred, ensouled with a vital source that comes from the sun. Outside it was chaotic space, peopled by ghosts, demons, spirits and “foreigners” who were considered demons. Because human beings couldn’t live in chaos, life and living was all about maintaining order. And the model for it was (and remains) nature and the cosmos. In both, they and we observe constancy, beauty, pattern and cyclical motion, apparent features of absolute reality. Modeling these in architectural forms, they created sacred spaces, distinct from the “wilds” of chaotic fields and forests. In a way, using dimensions and forms found in nature, they consecrated a space by making is a universe.

For the ancient Maya, the parts of a house were correlated with parts of the human body and the cosmos. The floor was “feet,” the door a “mouth,” the thatched roof a “head of hair,” the walls the “bones,” and the four corners a replica of the cosmos. Houses were mostly for sleeping; the activities of daily life took place outside. Functional structures, such as kitchens, storehouses and workshops were generally separate from the house because it was not only sacred, it was a living entity. Doorways were open, without doors, to show hospitality. And for privacy, a fabric was pulled across the opening and tied to wooden pegs inserted into the walls. 

Making a new structure a “home” a living entity required an Och K’ahk’ “Enters the Fire” ceremony where fire was drilled between three large hearthstones. (On a clear night a “cloud” in the center of three bright stars in Orion is visible—Alnitak, Saiph, Rigel. We know that cloud of gas, dust and stars as nebula M42). By investing the space with life—heat and light—the home reflected health and vitality. At the same ceremony, the shaman offered a blood sacrifice, usually a bird, to entice a spirit—often a deceased ancestor—to take up residence in the house as a protector. 

Tikal Temple II

Temples, which were an extension of the Maya home, were considered the dwelling places of the gods. They also replicated caves, places where underworld supernaturals resided. When the temple curtain covered the doorway, the god was asleep in his resting place. At many sites, the inscriptions speak of three hearthstones being places in the sky as one of the founding acts of creation. The hearth in the temple was an essential conduit between it and the cosmic hearth planted by the Maize God. Ceibal, a medium-sized city in northern Peten, Guatemala may have been called “Three-Stone Place” anciently because there was a cache of three jade boulders under a stela in the center of a temple.

In his study of architectural dimensions, archaeologist Christopher Powell found that “the width of most Maya houses in Yucatan consisted of units called uinics ‘humans,’ which are measured by stretching a cord from fingertip to fingertip, with arms outstretched and perpendicular to the body. One uinic was virtually equal to the height of the person who was doing the measuring. Thus, a human being with arms outstretched and perpendicular to the body may be inscribed by a square.” This is seen in many temple doorways that are square. It calls to mind the drawing of the Vitrucian Man by Leonardo da Vinci. 

Besides the human form, Dr. Powell also found that the ancients incorporated the shapes of flowers and shells which display Phi, nature’s most common proportion. Flowers have five petals or multiples of five petals. Projected onto the Maya world, there were four directions and a center. “The shapes of houses, milpas, and temples and their works of art all share the proportions inherent in three simple geometric forms: the equilateral triangle, square and pentagon. These three regular polygons, with their square root of two, square root of three, and phi rectangular expressions, provide an underlying structure that unites the Maya cosmos… Pentagonal arrangements of seeds in the cross-sections of fruit are common. The phi equiangular spiral is observed in seashells and snail shells and in the growth spirals of various plants. The Yucatec Maya word for belly button, “tzuk,” or division place, divides the human form by the phi proportion. 

In the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Quiché Maya, there’s a passage that, according to Dr. Powell, may be viewed as a concise formula for measuring a phi rectangle with a cord. 

It took a long performance and account to complete the emergence of all the sky-earth: the fourfold siding, the fourfold cornering, measuring, fourfold staking, halving the cord, stretching the cord, in the sky, on the earth, the four sides, the four corners, as is said, by the Maker, Modeler, Mother-Father of life, of human kind…

Christopher Powell

The ancients used cords (intertwined vines) of different lengths with knots along them to lay out the location and length of walls. To lay out a floor, for instance, a cord was dowsed with white lime powder (pulverized limestone), stretched taught at the specified location and then snapped to leave a white impression, along which the builders would lay their stones to build a wall. The cords were equivalent to today’s measuring tapes, providing a means to create and reproduce lines with consistency over time and place. In this way, they replicated the proportions found in nature and the cosmos. 

Geometry and numbers are sacred because they codify the hidden order behind creation.

Stephen Skinner

 

Ensouling A House
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 74 )

When Grandfather Rabbit died, Thunder Flute decided that, rather than repair our house, which was next to his and badly in need of fixing, he would follow the common practice by terminating both houses and build a larger one over his father’s bones. Grandmother would move in with us. 

Once the masonry platform was built, the house went up quickly. But before we could move in, its skin and bones had to be ensouled with a guardian spirit. Otherwise terrible things could happen. Somehow, within the seven days of the Fire Entering rites that invited a spirit to take up residence in the house, I needed to find a way to be alone with White Grandfather. I didn’t know what I was going to say, but with Thunder Flute being more willing to answer my questions now, I hoped I might learn something before then that would help. 

I got my chance when he took me to an old quarry down by the New River. With the ensouling rites just two days away, he needed hearthstones to establish the heart of the house, the place where a spirit would enter. The three stones had to be a certain size and shape for cooking, so we used long-handled axes with wide flats to pull back the weeds, dig out the soil and expose a long section of white stone. The day was hot. Before we began to chop the stone itself, we sat on a ledge, wiped the sweat off our faces and took our keyem—a gruel made by stirring balls of maize dough in water. Mother spiced the dough with honey and chili powder, so I was eager for it. 

“You can say your gratitude if you like,” Father said. He knew that Mother had gotten my sister, brother and me into the habit of offering a gratitude for everything we took from the earth, field, forest or water. I was embarrassed to say it in front of him, but he was allowing it. I took off my hat, put my hands flat on the stone and bowed my head. 

With respect Earth Lord,

I stand before you—Seven Maize Rabbit.

I speak for myself and for Thunder Flute Rabbit.

In this place of beauty, we offer you our gratitude.

Forgive us for uncovering your face here,

For chopping your white beauty.

We need three of your little ones for our hearth. 

We will honor them at the Fire Entering rites.

We will honor them as the heart of our house.

With respect Earth Lord, receive our praise and gratitude.

Thunder Flute scratched some lines in the exposed stone. Following them, he cut grooves with his chisel and hammerstone while I cut into the stone from below. It took all morning, aching muscles and buckets of sweat, but finally, we had a ledge. By stomping on it we broke off three large blocks and rolled them to a pool of water where we could sit in the shade and wash them off as we shaped them. 

 

Using Measuring Cords (At Xunantunich, Belize)
Excerpt from Jaguar Sun (p. 246)

Approaching the broad steps of the temple, I saw again, high up, the beautifully stuccoed figures of men and gods that I’d seen from a distance. The deeply sculpted, brilliant red frieze wrapped around the temple like a headband. At the foot of the steps, Obsidian explained that he and the other workers were the only ones permitted to be up there, so I waited and watched while he and his brother-in-law took the cords to several men who were pacing on the floor above the sculpted band. 

It was fascinating to watch my brother moving the measuring cords back and forth and dusting them with lime powder. I couldn’t see when they stooped down, but I knew a firm snap of the cord would leave a white line to show the placement of the walls and doorways so another worker could chisel small holes to mark them permanently for the stone setters.

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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  

Maya Creation Myths

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

And then the earth arose because of them

(the sky deities). It was simply their word

That brought it forth.

For the forming of earth they said ‘Earth.”

It arose suddenly, just like a cloud,

Like a mist, now forming and unfolding.

Then the mountains were separated 

From the water, all at once the great mountains

Came forth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

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

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

The Dancing Maize God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What brew? Do you know what it is?”

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

“Where does his ch’ulel go?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

Maize

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

Popol Vuh (Sacred book of the Quiché Maya)

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

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

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

Ul (Atoli in Nahuatl)

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

Keehel Uah (Tamalli in Nahuatl)

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

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

Tortillas

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

Making tortillas. Tecpan, Guatemala 2008

Maize Made For Traveling

Zahina

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

Keyem (Posolli in Nahuatl)

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

Maatz (Pinole in Nahuatl)

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

Zahina (Posolli in Nahuatl)

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

Sacul (Atole in Nahuatl)

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

Beers

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

Maize Dough
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 26)

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

Keyem
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 73)

I got my chance when he took me to an old quarry down by the New River. With the ensouling rites just two days away, he needed hearthstones to establish the heart of the house, the place where a spirit would enter. The three stones had to be a certain size and shape for cooking, so we used long-handled axes with wide flats to pull back the weeds, dig out the soil and expose a long section of white stone. The day was hot. Before we began to chop the stone itself, we sat on a ledge, wiped the sweat off our faces and took our keyem—a gruel made by stirring balls of maize dough in water. Mother spiced the dough with honey and chili powder, so I was eager for it. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links To Amazon.com for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

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

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller  

 

 

 

 

 

Ch’ulel “Soul”

Plumeria, San Ignacio, Cayo, Belize

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                Sak Nik “White Flower”                           

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

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

Ch’ulel And Identity

Excerpt From Jaguar Wind And Waves (p. 12)

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

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The Ch’ulel Of Twins

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 76)

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

“Which one did they want?” 

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

“What did grandfather do?”

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

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Ch’ulel Inherited From A God

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 88)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

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

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller  

Jade

Ear Ornaments

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

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

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

Headdress Ornaments

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

 

 

Copan Ruler

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

The Second Largest Maya Jade Artifact

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

The Largest Maya Jade Artifact

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

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

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

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 30 )

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excerpt from Jaguar Rising p. 37

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

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

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

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

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

Links To Amazon.com for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

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

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

Prophecy And Order

Prophecy was a prominent feature of all the known ancient cultures. Feeling at the mercy of the gods who represented the forces of nature, complex societies needed a way to understand their behavior so they could brace themselves for the next god-made flood or drought and hope the gods would yield to the petitions and bargaining sacrifices of their kings and holy men. One of the primary characteristics of “civilization” is the imposition of order in the midst of chaotic, unpredictable nature. 

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

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

The 16th Century Book Of Chilam Balam Of Mani (Chilam Balam in English is “Jaguar Speaker” or  “Jaguar Prophet”) specifies days and the likely conditions.

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

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

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

Excerpt from Jaguar Rising p. 55

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nodded. “Tipped with jade beads.” 

“I forget what they were for.”

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

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

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

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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  

Cerros 5C-2nd (Belize)

Cerros is a gem! It’s one of my favorite sites and home to Fire Eyes Jaguar, the protagonist in 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. They would transfer goods from large sea-going canoes into river canoes destined for Lamanai, Becan and other cities to the south. 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.” 

In the above photo, the masks on both sides of the stairway were covered over to protect them. Now, they have been beautifully reproduced: god masks. In a later paper, Dr. Freidel identified the faces as representing the Maize God and Itzam Yeh, the Principal Bird Deity. 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 the “White Flower House” because the soul or spirit conjured there is depicted in Maya art as a white flower. To ensure this association, I had it built by White Grandfather, a displaced shamanic ruler from El Mirador who counsels pilgrims conjures gods and speaks prophecy there. A scene in the temple’s upper room has White Grandfather guiding Fire Eyes Jaguar, the protagonist, on a drug-induced journey to the upper world as part of his initiation into manhood. I’ll provide a segment from that journey in another posting, but for now, here’s the setup.

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 (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

 

Balance In All Things: K’ex Substitution

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.

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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

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