Kakaw (Chocolate)

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

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… Read More

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… Read More

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…. Read More

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… Read More

Prophecy And Belief

A prophecy is a message that comes from a deity, delivered to a person attuned to receive it. Typically, the message expresses the divine will regarding the future. Ancient cultures all had prophets who delivered prophecies. And people believed what they heard, were willing to kill and die to be true to it. Gods, after all, were to be trusted.  Anthropologist Mircea Eliade noted that tribal societies believed that their stories, about the gods and sacred ancestors overcoming the forces of chaos, created a sacred cosmic and social order in which humans… Read More

Solar Observatory Or Performance Stage?

By 500 B.C. there were numerous large architectural assemblages throughout the central lowlands of Guatemala and Mexico. At first, they appeared to function solely as line-of-site markers of the sun’s solstice and equinox turning points. Archaeologists named them E-Group complexes.  Although there was great diversity in these structures across time and place, what they had in common was a large rectangular, flat, paved plaza with a square four-sided pyramid aligned to the cardinal  directions, situated west of a long narrow platform with small temples that ran north and south. The first to… Read More

Caves

Caves, where one descends toward the k’u’x (heart or center) of a mountain, are especially hot places. This is due to their symbolic proximity to the powers unleashed by cosmic convergence at the axis mundi. Eduard Fisher (Anthropologist) The Yucatan Peninsula is one of the largest limestone shelves in the world. In the north, the bedrock is porous and the landscape relatively flat, so rainwater runs and collects in underground caves. There are no visible rivers here. When a  cave ceiling collapses, the result is a sinkhole or cenoté (ts’onot “Sacred Well”… Read More

War And Warriors

Rollout vase photos courtesy of Justin Kerr It was the custom among them to pledge what they possessed to each other; upon collection and payment they began to quarrel and attack each other. Diego de Landa They never had peace, especially when the cultivation (of milpas) was over, and their greatest desire was to seize important men to sacrifice, because the greater the quality of the victim, the more acceptable their service to the gods.  Alfred Tozzer War was the way you got gifts for the gods and kept the universe running…. Read More

Infancy And Childhood

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