Not everyone loves Christmas, but I do. Not all of the beads on the string are beautiful, in fact, several, especially the early ones with my mother, whose anxiety spiked with the pressure of creating a good Christmas, were pretty rough. Somehow our father and my three brothers and me always found a way to enjoy the day anyway. We’d just move around her, avoiding the whirlpool of her energy so that we wouldn’t be pulled down with her. It wasn’t her fault, she was just trying so hard for it to be wonderful that she was miserable.
Among other things, Christmas is about expectation. There is no other day of the year that has so many hopes pinned on it. If those hopes are not too extreme, it reminds us that good things are coming; that life gives to us as Her children, so that whatever suffering we’re experiencing, there is the possibility of relief. Each of our lives is unique, each of us suffers, and at Christmas we’re reminded that good can and will come.
Mother made a Santa suit for my father. We’d have poor-boy sandwiches, then father would disappear and reappear as Santa Claus. Since I was the oldest by the time this ritual was enacted, I already knew who was under the suit, but my younger brothers did not. He’d come in with a very loud, and hardy, “Ho HO HO” and scare the youngest of them half to death. I loved that and felt quite grown up to know the secret.
The tree was always beautiful, the gifts, thoughtful, and the food–Mother being French she was a very good cook–was yummy.
In those early years, my favorite thing was to lie down under the tree and gaze up at the lights above my head, when I’d give in to my imagination of flights to the stars; a habit that has continued through all the beads of my Christmas’s.
So, I do love Christmas; for it’s magic, it’s hope, it’s gratitude for our connection to others, no matter how challenging their particular nature.
My favorite beads were when my own children were born and I could make it magical for them. I’d learned not to worry over it; Mother had taught me the danger of too high expectations. My husband would wear the Santa suit and I could watch their eyes light up like the Christmas tree with the fun of it all.
This is the fifth in a series of articles that explores the philosophic and spiritual concepts of the Classic Maya. What did these intelligent people believe about themselves, life and the gods, and how did those ideas influence the way they lived? This article will explore my favorite place, Isla Mujeras, The Island of Women, and some of my favorite stories.
Half an hour from Cancun, I caught the ferry to the island. Perched precariously on the prow of the rickety weather beaten ferry, I leaned over the edge captivated by the unbelievably blue color of the water. The landing at Puerto Juarez disappeared behind as the long strip of Isla Mujeras slowly moved toward us. The chugging of the engine drowned out all but the high cry of an occasional bird overhead.
The town’s buildings; painted bright red, orange, purple and yellow, rose up like gifts the sea offered to the sky. So perfectly did the sky and sea reflect one another that the thin line between them was the only differentiating factor; that, and the occasional puff of white cloud passing by.
For two thousand years Mayan women have made the pilgrimage to Isla Mujeras (Island of Women). They’ve come with offerings –clay statues, cocoa beans, turquoise, hand woven objects, and the now rare feather of the Quetzal bird, a most prized object — to give to the great mother goddess Ixchel in thanks for what She’d given them and prayers for what they lacked.
Rowing across the turquoise water from the mainland would have taken two hours or more. Slowly Ixchel’s temple would become visible at the south end of the island; three buildings of limestone blocks fit snugly together, hunkered down close to the earth for protection from the hurricane winds that regularly flatten anything with height. Soft trade winds would now ruffle the warm air that welcomed the women to this gentle land.
When I’d heard about the island on a previous trip to study the Maya ruins of the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, my imagination was captivated. I wondered what was in the women’s hearts when they made such a journey and why this particular island had been chosen for a sacred site. I’d learned from Mayanologists that temple areas were built where the diviners of their religion perceived sources of particular power.
When the Spanish first came to the island, they discovered hundreds of female statues among the buildings of the temple. When they came to the town they found only women and children. The men were out fishing. For that reason they named the island, “Isla Mujeras.”
Set at the base of the village, the landing — where several other boats of varying sizes and shapes were tied up — jutted out to meet us. Beside the beach in either direction, a myriad of small boats bobbed in the turquoise water beside palapa style buildings planted in the white sand.
A flock of taxi drivers descended on me as I made my way through the crowd on the pier to the street. The scent of fish, hot tortillas, beer, and suntan lotion mixed deliciously with the salt-sea breeze as I was whisked away the five blocks to the hotel.
Hotel Nabalam –meaning the jaguar’s house — was at the north end with nothing but a wide, white sand beach and shallow, lake-still water for as far as you can see. Attractive low buildings were covered in bougainvillea surrounded by tropical gardens dotted with palapas and bright colored hammocks that swung leisurely in the breeze.
Late in the day when it was cool enough to venture out, I called a taxi to go to the south end, to the site of Ixchel’s temple. The taxi driver dodged the village traffic deftly and soon we were in new territory on a road that ran the length of the island on the west side. Where the pavement ended a dirt-rock road meandered drunkenly through low brush to the lighthouse where I got out of the taxi to walk. A trail led over rocky terrain above jagged high cliffs to a small structure built in the place of the temple to mark the spot.
Ixchel was the most important of the many females worshipped by the Maya. Her role was fertility, ease in childbirth, family harmony, and weaving of all kinds — very like the great goddesses of other cultures.
The spot was beautiful, and indeed, it did feel powerful even though the temple structure was flattened. This southern tip of the island received strong winds and water currents even on a mild day. As the waves hit the rocks below the water splashed high into the air that then carried drops up to dampen our faces as we peered out from the high vantage.
As it grew dark, my imagination was captivated by this place that had drawn women, not unlike myself, to sit and contemplate the night sky. It was a brilliant clear night, and as the sliver of a new moon rose out of the east, above my head the Milky Way glistened.
One of my favorite of the Mayan creation stories came to mind.
“One day Ixchel, who was the most beautiful girl who ever lived, and who was the moon, was weaving in the afternoon in the yard of her father’s house. As was her custom when she worked, she dreamed dreams of her lover, Kinich Ahau, the sun. Suddenly, as if in answer to her prayers, he appeared and grabbed her in his arms and flew up into the sky to make his escape with his beloved moon. Just then her father came out from inside the house, and, upon seeing the two escaping, took out his blowgun and shot the sun. The sun sank and the moon, his daughter, fell into the sea and shattered into a thousand pieces. When the fish saw this, they tried to patch her together with their scales. When that failed, they linked themselves together, mouth to tail to mouth to tail and so on, until they formed a net in which they could lift her shattered body to her lover the sun. This also failed, and they could only leave her in the sky where she passes all her time chasing the sun across. The fish that tried to help her turned into the Milky Way.”
Modern physics describes the creation of the cosmos as beginning with a Big Bang that led to the formation of stars which gathered together into galaxies, with suns and moons and planets. They tell us exactly how that occurred according to physical facts; of atoms and force fields like gravity and the speed of light, quarks and particles so infinitesimally small hundreds of thousands of them live in a mote of dust. They describe exactly how it happened according to physical facts discovered by instruments so sophisticated that they must build underground tunnels miles long and force the particles to move faster and faster through those tunnels to collide with other particles. By this method they assure us they know exactly what the truth is about the stars and the formation of cosmic life. It is an awesome endeavor and full of wonder and beauty.
However, as a simple human being watching the night sky and wondering how it came to be, and further, wondering what does it have to do with me; a small being living in a dwelling with other beings that I love and hunting for my dinner in the jungle and growing corn in my garden to feed myself and my children and meeting birds and animals as I move through my day? As that person, I want to know what’s expected of me and who made me and why. Ixchel’s story satisfies my need when I imagine her as the moon and feel the sadness of her separation from the sun; something I can understand because I too suffer losses and separations from people I love. I know what it means to suffer, and so I have a relationship with the gods and am connected; no longer a drifting bit of nothing in a giant void, but a being who can relate to the most profound experiences.
These questions have intrigued humans since the dawn of time and the answers change with the time but are never diminished in importance. Today we are more oriented to science; to physical proofs to answer our questions, but need that diminish the value and correctness of the view of people of other times, who, lacking modern instruments, were more poetic in answering those fundamental questions?
Once there was a tiny snake. The reason to make this point from the outset is that its size plays such a very important part in the story I am about to tell you. So, once there was a tiny snake whose name was Tyrone, and he was yellow and blue. That is, in the main he was yellow with a thin stripe of blue going round and round in a spiral over his entire length and ending in a diamond of blue at the top of his head. His eyes were also blue. Tyrone spent his days in lazy abandon sliding from one comfortable spot to another depending on the temperature and place of the sun. He loved lying in the sun, at least he did until it became too warm, and then he would grudgingly move into the shade where he would return to a semi-somnambulant state. It was not so much that he would sleep, but that he would drift between the worlds of appearance and dis-appearance. Tyrone lived to drift and would surely have continued on in this vain for eternity if the following circumstance had not forced him onto a journey he did not ask for.
The sun had fallen low in the sky casting long shadows from the giant oaks over the grassy slope where he lay curled. His drift had taken him to the essence of the oak whose shadow he lay beneath. Knowing her for who she really was, he was in a state of awe, when he was abruptly jerked back into the world of appearances by a string of angry words whose meaning he was unfamiliar with. Opening his bright blue eyes he raised his head and looked around for the source of the anguish. Above him in the boughs of the oak sat a human boy with his legs draped over a branch and his pajamas tangled in the smaller branches from which he was pulling with all his might to free himself.
“How in this world did you get yourself into such a predicament?” Tyrone asked incredulous. And that is saying something about the nature of this particular adventure, for Tyrone had never had the experience of incredulity. He certainly was familiar with awe, wonder, horror, joy, abandon, misery, love, beauty, fear; those aspects of the essential world and of the material one, but none of his previous experience prepared him for such surprise; for what did not make sense.
A moving shadow passed over the boy– a red-tailed hawk hunting. Tyrone slid below a fern at the base of the tree.
The boy swore loudly.
“Hissssss– shhhh,” warned Tyrone. When the hawk had passed, the snake popped his head out and directed his intense gaze once again at the distraught child. “So, what is your answer?”
“Oh, do stop that at once. You’ll only get both of us into some kind of trouble if you insist on drawing attention to yourself. That hawk, for instance, after he had me for dinner might take you on. Though it is not usual, neither, I have to say, are you.”
The boy’s hair –which was bright red–stuck out in several directions. “I just woke up. Why am I not in my bed?” He opened his mouth to let out another string of obscure words.
“Hssss–Shhhh. Now, tell me everything you can remember and don’t leave anything out. I can’t help you sort this out until I know everything.
“How can you help me. You’re too small.”
The boy’s eyes grew large with wonder at the sound; a snake laughing is not something one hears everyday. “I remember going to bed and then drifting to sleep, something about flying. Yes. I had wings and a different sort of body. It was light, not like being awake with this heavy clunky body that is hard to move in. And now I’m awake and stuck up here. Stupid body — stupid snake.”
“Now, now, no need to call names is there. Won’t help a bit. It’s not a stupid body, just you don’t know how to work it yet, and I am by no means a ‘stupid’ snake. By the way, name’s Tyrone. Yours?”
The boy’s face was a mix between a pout and dis-belief. “Andrew, Andrew Benedict Aniston. They call me Andy — and, that-a-boy and Gopher. Sometimes mom calls me rascal and trouble but mostly Andy.”
Tyrone rolled his eyes causing the blue of his eyes to circle like the blue stripes around what could be called his neck.
The boy smiled. “Do that again.”
Tyrone complied, pleased to have diverted Andy’s attention from his distressed condition and giving himself time to consider the clues as they were presented.
Humans had seldom crossed his path so he was unfamiliar with their particular reality, but he knew from his observation of all life forms, that each has an esssential life that creates and nourishes the one in physical reality — the world of what Tyrone called, appearances. It seemed that the child had drifted between the worlds and was in a bit of a muddle-which is something like, but not really — the middle, for there can be no middle ground between above and below, at least not so far as Tyrone knew. But maybe, he thought, incredulous for the second time in one day, humans were capable of being in the middle.
How that would be sorted out is the adventure.
“What else do you remember before going to your nap?”
Andy sighed heavily. ”Could you get me down first?”
“Not really. I don’t know where you are yet. Come on, try to remember.”
“I’m right here. Can’t you see me?”
“I see something, but it isn’t really you.”
Andy started to curse, but stopped up short. “My brother is sick. Everyone was busy taking care of him when I was put to bed. Mom was crying.”
Tyrone nodded. “Good. Tell me about your brother.”
Andy smiled. “The most important thing about him is that he’s my twin. Of course, he’s brave and strong and loads of fun. Since he’s been sick, Mom won’t let me see him. He’s in a dark room alone. Why do they do that to him?”
“They are trying to help him get well. They think that’s how to do it.” Tyrone shook his head. “Maybe they’re right, but it isn’t always best. There are many reasons for sickness in the physical world and knowing what lies beneath is not what most beings are capable of. Of course, a real doctor would know. Let’s hope your brother has one. What’s your brother’s name?”
“Billy — that’s for William.”
“And how old is Billy?”
“He’ll be nine, as I am.”
“Tell me more about your time flying.”
“It was great fun– at least it was for awhile, but then it got very dark, and there was a big wind and a terrible sound. I remember now. I was looking for someone. That’s why I was flying; to get up high and look around to find them. But then the dark and wind came, and the next thing was that I was here in this silly tree–sorry tree–you’re not silly. Nice tree. Would you let me down now?”
Tom would have laughed at this last bit if not for the terrible information that came before. This was not good–not good at all. “Andrew, go back and remember when you were flying. Can you do that?”
“I’ll try.” Andy squinched up his eyes tight. “Now what?”
“Who are you looking for? “
“Billy, he’s lost.”
“Very good Andrew. Can you see him?”
Andy shook his head hard nearly freeing his pajamas from the grasp of the oak’s hold on him, but she held her grip.
When Tom saw the oak reach her branches tighter to protect the boy, he smiled and nodded to her. “I see, so he is now present enough that he could be hurt. Do help him down then, won’t you?”
Andy looked back and forth quizically from the branches stuck to his sleeves and Tom. “Are you talking to the tree?”
Very gently the branches moved to lower the child. Unless one were looking very closely– as we are now — it would merely have appeared that the tree was moving in the wind.
“Thank you,” Andy said with great seriousness.
The oak appeared to nod.
“Better?” Tyrone raised up to his full height to better peer at Andy which brought him to Andy’s shins.
“You really are small aren’t you? How do you propose to help me then?”
Tom didn’t take offense, as he fully understood that it is in the nature of young beings of all types, human or otherwise, to be demanding and direct as is correct. “Good question. Here is what we know; you went on a journey to find your brother, along the way you lost yourself, you are now in neither the surface world where you consider yourself to be awake, nor are you fully in the world you associate with dreams and imagination. You are in the netherworld with me. This is the place I know best, so– if we’re going to find your brother and return you both to the world where your parents will be waiting anxiously for you– we must get on with it. Can you keep a secret?”
“Oh, yes, Billy and I have lots of secrets. What’s the secret then?” Andy sat down on the ground and put his face up close to Tom’s, who reached his body as long as he could make it to put his mouth up to Andy’s ear.
“No one–under any circumstances– can know that I am your guide. Do you have a pocket in that get-up you’re wearing?”
Andy pointed to a small pouch at his left hip.
“Good. I will travel with you in that pouch, but do you understand that once anyone knows of my existence, you will have dis-sed me–sent me to the world of dis-appearance– or appearance as the case may be; for it will depend on who you tell. As we are to be companions on this journey you may call me, Ty. Unless, of course, you’re in immediate danger and then TYRONE, will bring quick help. Got it?”
“Got it, Ty.”
“So, let’s go then.”
“But where are we going?”
Ty laughed, that sound unlike any other. “It’s a surprise.”
“But how will I know where to go?”
“Once I’m in your pocket your feet will be led by my knowledge. I will be your guide remember?”
Andy nodded and very carefully picked Ty up in both his hands. ”Please don’t wiggle, or I might drop you.”
This is the fourth in a series of articles that explores the philosophic and spiritual concepts of the Classic Maya. What did these intelligent people believe about themselves, life and the gods, and how did those ideas influence the way they lived? In seeking answers I went to the oldest and probably the largest ancient city on the Yucatan Peninsula, Coba.
I could see why Coba had been so named; the sun broke into a myriad of lights as it fell into the tiny waves made by the wind as it passed across the water of the lake and high-lighted the mist that rose phantom like from the tall grasses at the edge. From where I stood at the end of a small pier that jutted out from the barren shore beside the hotel, my eye was drawn further; toward the jungle at the far edge of the lake and the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan that rose above the mass of green like an aged forlorn space ship long forgotten, abandoned by the builders, no longer of use, a relic of past glory.
With such easy access to water—there are five lakes in the region — it was not only mankind who was drawn to this spot: all manner of animal, bird, insect and plant would also have made their homes here and for that reason my exploration on this trip would be of the ancient Maya’s relationship to nonhuman beings; both mythic and spiritual. Here the coral snake would have lived– famous for biting one’s shadow– the alligator was also dominant as well as monkeys, armadillos, coatimundi and jaguar. As I gazed into the water around the pier several turtles bobbed, heads raised curiously toward me, the intruder in their realm. Turtles were a favorite creature to the ancient people; the earth was thought of as the rounded circular back of a great tortoise.
Located 26 miles east of the Caribbean, Coba’s Mayan settlement was once one of the largest in the Yucatan, extending three miles by six miles, comprised of several distinct sites connected by Sacbeob, sacred roads. The roads varied in depth from two feet to over eight feet when crossing swampy areas, averaged thirty two feet in width and most ran perfectly straight. The shoulders were made from roughly dressed stone, the bed of the road from large boulders with smaller stones on top, and finally the surface was plastered with limestone cement. A stone roller, weighing over five tons was found here, probably used to compact the stones during construction. Over 50 of these Sacbeob were discovered in and around Coba making it the densest road system in Meso-America. One of these roads runs 60 miles to a settlement past Chichen Itza, another runs to the coast and others run both north and south, distinguishing Coba as an important trade center.
As the sun gained height, the heat rose with it causing waves to rise from the dirt road and the last of the mist around the lake to disappear. The day would be too hot to explore the site until later, so I headed to the welcome cool interior of the hotel.
In the reception area I was greeted by a sculpture of a quetzal bird; a shy forest dweller capable of releasing humans from time’s bondage. One of the most important animals in their cosmology due to the importance they placed on both time and transformation, the quetzal’s feathers, beautiful iridescent blue-green, were highly prized by Mayans as totems. On the opposite side of the desk, housed in a glass case, was a serpent sculpture, dated 800AD. The designers of the hotel must have been cognizant of the ancient beliefs when placing these artifacts, as the serpent was considered the opposite of the quetzal bird and both represent aspects if the life/death cycle.
So far as Mayan gods were concerned, they were of two primary types: spiritual creation gods, and the creature gods who resembled a real animal, bird or insect in the physical world. Purely spiritual gods had no comparable form on earth and for this reason, the gods who took a recognizable earthly form were more loved by the simple people whom they could more easily understand. The Principal Bird Deity, one of the first deities revered by the Maya for power, was often shown holding a snake in its mouth, possibly a reference to storms and lightning. Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent god, the synthesis of bird and serpent, may have been derived from the Principal Bird in its relationship to both bird and snake, but whether or not they were connected, it was Quetzalcoatl who gained prominence and became one of the greatest gods in all of Mesoamerica. Associated with the life giving elements of wind, it was often the patron of rulers and priests.
When the sun sank low enough for me to venture out, I headed down the dusty dirt road that ran beside the lake to the ruins half a mile away. The mass of tour buses from earlier were gone, and the many guides so anxious for business in the morning, lounged casually in the shade by the ticket counter unmoved by my approach. Fine, I thought, I won’t have to turn them down. I was on the trail of creatures that live within the dense cloud cover of the jungle: of Toucans, Macaws and Motmots, brilliant turquoise crested birds, as well as a myriad of other flying beings.
Through the dense shrub that covered the site, butterflies drifted lazily, birds with high pitched voices called out from deep in the jungle, and I followed their calls. To either side of the path were many mounds that I recognized as unexcavated structures where the shrub had taken over; where lizards and iguana hesitatingly peeked their heads out of the shade they’d slept within for the hot part of the day and would now be looking for dinner.
Populated from at least 600 AD to well into the time of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, this city sprawled to include outlying areas for over 600 square miles. Today very few of the original structures have been excavated. There are three main sections of several buildings each which are separated by long neat trails, a ball court, and the tallest structure in the Yucatan, named Nohoch Mul is 120 steps and rises to 140 feet. The climb to the top is far better than any stair-master at the gym; the steps half broken and extremely steep; a purposeful design to require one to crawl like a jaguar when approaching the temple at the top.
The trail between groups of buildings is wide and easy to follow, and as I meandered alone through the growing dark, far ahead I glimpsed a large creature run across the path to quickly disappear into the dense undergrowth on the other side. I raced forward, my heart beating quickly with the hope of seeing who it was that had graced me with a vision. But once I reached the place I’d seen it enter, there was no sign or sound to tell me more. It could have been a jaguar– they are still seen occasionally — or it could have been a large house cat, but I was quite certain it was of the cat family. In my years of research about the ancient Maya, the references to the jaguar—both the animal and the god– are the most frequent, and for me, have been the most intriguing.
At the Mayan site of Uxmal the top of a mammoth pyramid rose above the surrounding jungle like an apparition; magnificent, eerie, and captivating to the imagination. A gentle rain in the night had sweetly scented the air, and by the time I’d dressed and eaten, the clouds had passed leaving everything wet and clean; the dust settled on the dirt paths that lead from one part of the ruins to another.
The city of Uxmal, meaning the place of plentiful harvests, was inhabited from 100–1000 AD and was rebuilt five times with a population at its height of 20,000 people.
Comprised of seven separate groupings, the surviving buildings were located on a broad plateau. As I’d seen at the nearby sites of Sayil and Kabah, the architectural style was unique and distinguished them from other areas of the Yucatan; long and low with exquisite proportions, decorated with elaborate ornate carvings of Puuc the rain god and several other deities.
“The Nunnery Quadrangle,” named by a 17th century Christian priest for its resemblance to the cloisters of Spain, is now believed to have had various civic and religious uses by priests and dignitaries of the city. The quantity of divine symbols in the friezes and excessive number of Chaacs – the rain god — speaks of sacramental spaces. Faithful to the design of the other ritual buildings of this site, the quadrangle was the most outstanding with its elaborate ornamentation and long low design.
Little is known about the people who lived here and their unique history. The ruins themselves speak of a culture that was highly religious and ritualistic, who lived according to the ancient books of the Classic Maya, but beyond that, we don’t know. I found myself remembering the Mayan creation stories I’d found in the Popul Vuh and the Books of the Chilan Balam. Here is an excerpt:
“In the beginning the two who came first from the one made the gods of the four directions and joined the two of heaven, and the six together created the seventh who is ‘heart of heaven’. Thus co-creation began and all else came forth from this co-operation. The word was spoken and action arose. It was green.
plants and animals were formed and multiplied. However the animals could not speak, but could only squawk and run about madly, could not name the gods who created them, could not honor and praise them, and so their flesh was brought low, they were eaten, they were killed — the animals on the face of the earth.
The Makers experimented with the human work and built them of earth and mud, but it did not look good to them; it kept separating and changing, it could only mimic, it could not create. No words of praise came forth from their distorted faces. The days of the gods were not kept by them. They were insufficient and therefore were dismantled.
the gods were successful in fashioning a human who could sustain its form. They were carved of wood and were led by the grandmother, the daykeeper, and by grandfather, the master of coral seeds. These could multiply, but there was not enough in their hearts, not enough in their minds, no memory of their mason and builder. They did not remember the ‘Heart of Sky’, but only knew the grandmother, ‘Heart of Lake’. Again a great destruction was made; a dismantling of the creation.
This was when there was only a trace of dawn on the face of the earth; there was no sun. To this time and place there came the great warrior twins, the redeemers of mankind, Hanahpu and Ixbalamka who would transform the creation from the third to the fourth stage.”
The stories that describe stages of creation were consistent with the philosophic understanding that life is dependent on the creators and that the creators expect something in return. At the height of the Mayan civilization a great deal of attention was given to the gods, and Uxmal, like other sites, was where the people came for rituals to honor them.
Together with others who had come from the far corners of the world to see this magnificent site, I realized the honoring was still taking place. Maybe it was not with the same understanding, but we did gaze in awe and wonder all the same.
Here at Uxmal the separate groups of buildings were positioned in relationship to one another in intricate geometric patterns. It was truly a marvel to see and one wondered at how such a marvel was accomplished in a place where there were no mines, no metal tools, no dray animals, and the wheel had not been discovered. The wheel issue was another of the Mayan mysteries; for a people that charted the heavens without the aid of modern instruments, that came up with the concept of zero and were brilliant mathematicians, why did they have no concept of the wheel?
As I approached The Temple of the Magician, whose top I had seen from my room at the hotel, it was forbidding with its 118 steps leading to two platforms. The gargantuan size would have certainly impressed any visitors at any time. Five superimposed temples, each embedded in the other and added in different periods, made up the temple. At 114 feet, it was the second largest pyramid in the Yucatan.
Most Mesoamerican cultures played a form of the ballgame, and I was anxious to see Uxmal’s ballcourt. 111 feet long and 32 feet wide, its sloped walls ran the length forming a platform at the top for spectators. The equipment for the ballgame varied through time and space but generally consisted of a rubber ball and heavy padding for the players. Two teams of 2 or 3 players each competed to pass the ball through a ring suspended high on one of the walls of the alleyway. The players controlled the ball by hitting it with the upper arm and thigh; no hands could be used.
More ceremony than sport, the ballgame was another of the Classic Maya’s symbolic aspects; the struggle between day and night, dark and light, consciousness and the unconscious. A metaphor for the movements of heavenly bodies, particularly the Sun, Moon, and Venus, the ball itself may have been understood as the sun journeying in and out of the Underworld, seen as the narrow alley of the ballcourt. The most well documented description of the importance of the ballgame to the Maya was found in the Popul Vuh when the redeemer twins, Hanahpu and Ixbalamka must play the game with the lords of the Underworld to bring about the fourth stage.
Again a time came, when there was not a trace of dawn on the face of the earth; there was no sun. The lords of Xibalba challenged Hanahpu and Ixbalamka to a ballgame in the underworld, which is not something that can be refused.
Excerpt from my novel, The Jaguar’s House.
Hanahpu and Ixbalamka climbed down the craggy cliffs to the catapulting river below. After passing all of the tests put to them, they were put to the ultimate test; the House of Death where they would be sacrificed. Here the ballgame was played. Hanahpu lost his head, but with the aid of the animals and all allies of the earth, the brothers did utterly defeat the lords of Xibalba; because of superior knowledge they knew that death was a stage whose next step was rebirth, so when Hanahpu died, he knew he’d be reborn, and therefore was.
This feat was a miracle to the lords of Xibalba who believed death was the final frontier. The lords were envious of this mastery and wished to participate and gain its power. One Death bowed to them and said, “Please, sacrifice us, so that we may know this great truth.” Here the twins defeated them utterly, for when their heads were cut off, they could not reassemble themselves. They had no belief in transformation, and so were locked in the prison of their own minds; dead forever.
The game became the metaphor of life, death, and regeneration and the resurrection of the twins’ father, the Maize God, from the court of death. The principle ideas that form the foundation of Mayan thought were of stages, of a continual round of cycles of time, of transformation, and of the correct way to live in relation to the gods. All of these concepts can be seen in this excerpt from my novel, The Jaguar’s House.”
This is the second in a series of articles that explores the philosophic and spiritual concepts of the Classic Maya. What did these intelligent people believe about themselves, life and the gods, and how did those ideas influence the way they lived? In seeking answers I went to the Puuc region of the Yucatan where several ancient sites are located.
“Please, madam, do not go outside the grounds at night,” insisted the Mayan hotel desk clerk.”It is not the tarantulas or alligators that you should be concerned about. But the coral snake. She is the one to watch. She will bite your shadow.”
The Mayan meaning of having one’s shadow bitten is to lose one’s ability to defend oneself. I’d say the coral snake had most definitely bitten me, for I was defenseless against the spell of the place that conjured so much mystery and passion. That night, cradled by the chorus of insects that sing through the night, my dreams were multi-layered with meaning and symbols. Through an open window a dark form. Was it a shadow play or real?
I’d driven from Chichen Itza that morning on a two lane straight path that rolled in leisurely fashion over the low hills toward my destination in the Puuc region. It was well-paved and passed through land virtually uninhabited by man. Once away from the capital of Merida, except for an occasional small truck, I had the road to myself.
The Yucatan, a slab of limestone that divides the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean Sea has few lakes, no rivers and is honeycombed with caves and sink-holes, called cenotes that have broken through the limestone crust allowing underground water to rise. This relentlessly flat landscape carpeted in green hosts a medium-height tropical forest known most particularly for the over 475 species of birds who are responsible for one aspect of the wonder of the place.
Though Mayan, the Puuc is different than the rest of the peninsula in several ways that we know, and probably many that we do not. For one thing the 4700 square mile area is hilly rather than flat, and clothed in woodland, the hills are alive with a wider range of wildlife: puma, coatimundi, margay, armadillo, deer and spider monkeys, and of course, the birds. But the most important physical difference was that the area has no cenotes so they have no natural way to store water. The people of the Puuc developed a method for extracting the underground water and storing it in manmade pits. A system of cisterns and artificial watering holes are still in evidence. One of the mysteries of this region is why people settled here with no water. One possible explanation is that the hills are said to be extremely fertile due to the runoff from the hills. It is assumed that it was because they would be so dependent on rain for survival that their primary god was the rain god Chac.
Chac was a benign god who caused trees and plants to bud and flower and ripen. Besides his stylized elephant nose, his face was painted black; his jacket was a net symbolizing clouds and his crown was of heron feathers. He carried rattles to create thunder and stylized images of him show large circular eyes that give the appearance of goggles.
It’s only 50 miles from Merida to the first area of ruins at Uxmal, but with each mile devoid of human life, and nothing but monotonous scrub for as far as I could see, I felt I was going further and further from civilization, to the middle of nowhere. The feeling was exhilarating, until I remembered the state of my rental car, which had no odometer, no speedometer and no air-conditioning. Though as the temperature outside went up, I did occasionally fiddle with the switch on the dash that lured me with the promise of coolness.
My thoughts reached toward this place I’d read so much about but had never seen. The unique beauty of the architecture that Frank Lloyd Wright admired had captured my imagination, as well as the opportunity to explore ruins hardly touched by modern man. The area had been inhabited since 800BC and reached it’s height in power and architecture between the 7th and 9th century AD. Around 1200AD it disappeared. Unlike many of the classic Mayan sites that continued to be inhabited for some time after their height, the ruins in the Puuc were entirely abandoned. Why, I wondered?
My long study of the Classic Mayan philosophy and cosmology had showed me that their core beliefs were monotheistic and centered on cycles of change, love and consciousness. The many surviving myths make this point clear. Many Mayanologists believe that the acts of blood rituals and homicide came later and were a distortion of what had once been a complete vision of man’s place in the universe.
The Chilam Balam of Chumayel, the Maya collection of sacred books, expresses their philosophy of monotheism as well as a resonance with other world religions:
Where there was neither heaven nor earth sounded the first word of God. And He unloosed Himself from His stone and declared His divinity. And all the vastness of eternity shuddered. And His word was a measure of grace and He broke and pierced the backbone of the mountains. Who was born there? Who? Father, thou knowest: He who was tender in Heaven came into Being.
The Mayan belief that creation would continually recycle; ending and beginning endlessly, can be seen in another place in the Chilam Balam:
All moons, all years, all days, all winds, reach their completion and pass away. So does all blood reach its place of quiet, as it reaches its power and its throne. Measured was the time in which they could praise the splendor of the trinity. Measured was the time in which the grid of the stars would look down upon them; and through it, keeping watch over their safety, the gods trapped within the stars would contemplate them.
Here again was the concept of the cyclical nature of life I’d explored in their calendars at Chichen Itza. Within the movement of the heavens extending three million years, stillness was felt, like a spoked wheel that when it whirls at great speed appears solid and at rest. Everything turns on its cycle, reaches completion and finds its quiet place, it’s power and its throne. Here is fulfillment and back to the beginning; the perpetual cycle seen in the heavens and reflected on earth.
As I drove through miles of almost complete emptiness these beautiful ideas of the Maya seemed particularly haunting. Where were they now? The Yucatan still has a Mayan population but the people live mostly in small villages that have not physically changed in a thousand years. The early beliefs that had been responsible for the rise of a sophisticated culture were all but lost to the modern Maya.
Suddenly out of the empty landscape, a vision of oasis quality materialized; hundreds of palms and tall graceful trees, elegant Spanish buildings with red-tile roofs, and a sweeping entranceway that was Uxmal’s Hacienda Hotel.
As I walked to dinner that night a Toucan greeted me from his perch in a grass roofed hut-cage on the veranda of the hotel. His huge yellow beak was backlit in the last of the sun’s rays, reminding me of the classic Maya profile with hooked nose, and of the rain god Chac whose main feature is that famous shaped nose. The Maya are known for their interest in the meaning of things beyond the material which made me wonder what meaning they were referring to beyond the prominent nose whose shape ornaments so many of the temples. Was it the crescent moon, the arc planets make around a sun, the passage of time itself?
As I sought to understand these underlying meanings, I felt that my own mind was being bent by this place where Mayan minds thought such thoughts, where they pondered the secrets of the universe. Was my present bent of mind being stimulated by the sounds in the air; enchanting me with songs of love and truth?
The next morning dawned full of birdsongs and filtered light through the canopy of occasional clouds. I’d decided to head first for Kabah and Sayil, two sites nearby said to be untouched and lovely, and explore the larger and more famous ruins of Uxmal tomorrow. I filled my camera bag with all types of film, since I didn’t know what the conditions would be; the weather in the Yucatan can change in minutes and often does.
At Kabah I could hardly believe my good fortune when I drove the 23 miles to the site and pulled up in the grass on the side of the road with no parking lot, no buses, no one but me and the ancient man at the entrance — a wood hut with dresses hanging on a line for sale — who took my 20 pesos–2 dollars, with a toothless grin and a warm, buenos dias.
Kabah, The Lord of the Strong and Powerful Hand, closely linked to Uxmal and the two other primary centers, epitomizes the Puuc style of architecture. The main buildings were larger than I’d seen at other sites and the design was definitely unique. A thin limestone veneer covered over a cement and rubble core; decorated cornices swirled around the columns in doorways; frets and lattice like designs criss-crossed over the surface, and lavish stone mosaics in the upper façade emphasized sky-serpent faces with long hook shaped noses!! Chac was everywhere and most particularly on the Kodz Poop which means rolled-up matting, a long building with over 250 stone masks of Chac that ran row after row over the entire westside of the structure. The repetition was absolutely breath-taking in its effect and clearly expressed their reverence for this god.
I was reminded of the Buddhist prayer wheels that are lined up and run in a circle so that one can walk and spin one after the other sending one’s prayer to the gods over and over again. The builders of this structure must have had something similar in mind. The idea of the repetition of prayers is not unlike present day affirmations. But in this case, the Maya actually created the prayers in physical form, once again demonstrating their symbolic way of thinking. They believed that whatever existed on the physical was representative of the unseen—of the spiritual.
The eastside of the Kodz Poop was equally impressive in an entirely different way. Delicate lattice work and stylized huts were set below two huge statues of humans that looked out from their vantage point across the hills imparting a sense of guardianship and safety. The head of one was missing but the other’s face was decorated with tattoos, marking them as nobility. Facing east was probably connected to their concept of eternal return; the cycle of life seen in the rising of the sun in the east. They believed that the west and not the east is the seed ground, perpetual re-creation of life out of death. Rebirth occurred when the light dawned in the east the following day. As the sun dies or disappears, the seeds of its rebirth are planted.
The morning passed quickly as I explored every nook and cranny of Kabah, so different than any site I’d visited previously. The long structures with several stories expressed a more expansive multi-layered attitude. Except for the pyraminds, other Mayan sites on the peninsula tend to be square, single storied and with little ornamentation. It was no wonder that Frank Lloyd Wright had been so impressed with this architecture that had reached the height of sophistication
A five minute drive brought me to Sayil where another surprise awaited me. A well tended path wound through dense jungle and into a beautiful flower garden with a traditional Mayan thatch-roofed hut tended by a gracious woman. I was so surprised to find myself in what was obviously her private garden that I stumbled an awkward, Tres bonito jardin, mixing my small French with smaller Spanish.
She laughed kindly. “Thank you, Senora. It is my passion.” Fortunately speaking English.
“Are you guardian of the ruins?”
“My other passion. Will you look?”
“I will. What do you know about them that I should know as I go through?”
“The structures are far from one another, so look for the signs and don’t give up and come back too soon. Are you alone?”
“Si, it’s just me.”
She nodded and smiled what seemed to be approval. “The jungle is dense in this region, and the way is long from the Great Palace to the other buildings. But it is safe, so, please, don’t worry.” She patted my shoulder.
Sayil means, The place of Ants, hardly a name our modern minds relate to positively, but what did it mean to the Maya? Did they have a special love of ants, or did they mean something entirely different?
It was nearing noon, and the sky was free of clouds, making the day warmer than usual as I headed into the dense growth where flowering vines leapt across the space from tree to tree, and plants, more root than stem, grabbed at my feet as I carefully walked the rock strewn path. I was soon glad of the woman’s warning, for it seemed I’d walked forever without seeing anything or anyone besides the jungle. It was probably no more than half an hour but alone in such a place had a forever quality about it. The only sound was of birds. I was in their territory where there was no illusion of whose place it was.
But what a delight awaited me when suddenly the jungle gave way to a huge open space and the largest single structure I’d seen. The Great Palace reminded me of the ancient Minoan palace at Knossos. There were over 100 rooms reached by wide stairways to three separate floors where I imagined robed figures with feathered head-dresses conducting elaborate rituals.
Both Kabah and Sayil would have been the spiritual centers for the villages around them where the priests and elite served the needs of the people by imparting the wisdom they had come to understand and conducting regular rituals for the maintenance of their way of life. These were a people whose spiritual lives were deeply woven with the physical and with their concepts of multi-layered symbolism, they would not have believed there was a difference.
Might the Maya have lost sight of the truth they had come to know and by so doing, lost their creative edge as a culture, falling back into superstition as the village people of today had. The distortion that occurred in their thinking is demonstrated before the fall of the Classic period when they embraced violence and blood sacrifice. Could that have been the beginning of a loss of consciousness? I see a great people in their concepts, and by virtue of their awareness, there is an ability to do great things. The vast and glorious sites of Kabah and Sayil were for ritual worship of the gods for all the surrounding villages. But when the gods become terrifying who will want to come near them?
The front of the palace structure had been excavated but the back had been left untouched. Trees and vines grew from cracks in the tumbling rocks conveying the sense of a long passage of time. The Mayan concept of destruction and creation occurring from out of the rubble of what went before was obviously in evidence here.
I decided to explore the palace more closely, and peering inside one of the many openings to the rooms, was startled by dozens of birds that flew out and around me. Curious, I looked in several others and discovered that thousands of birds were now the inhabitants of Sayil’s Great Palace. I chuckled at the idea that maybe the visionary Maya had been moved to build these semi-permanent nests for the rightful inhabitants; tricked into doing so by the will of the bird god?
Able to wander alone in the silence with the many elegant structures reclaimed by vegetation and creatures of all sorts, I felt privileged and could practically see the moment of the high culture’s disappearance hovering in the air like a message left by those who’d loved this place and left. It was not an answer in words but in feeling; of sadness and loss, of dreams ended and an unknown future, of courage and vision, and ultimately of humanities vast ability to recreate itself, watched from above by the gods trapped within the stars. With their ability to foresee the future, had they known the end was coming and gone to nearby centers, transforming their lives as the hero twins had taught them to? There are as many theories about the end of the Classic Maya as there are theorists but one thing is certain; they understood cycles of change probably better than any other culture.
As I made my way back through the dense growth to my car, I thanked all the creatures seen and unseen for the gifts of this day. I had received more than I could have hoped for and still there was Uxmal tomorrow.
Astonishing travelers! What noble stories we read in your eyes as deep as the seas! Show us the coffers of your rich memories, those marvelous jewels made of stars and ether.
We want to travel without steam, without sail! To enliven the tedium of our prisons, set sailing over our minds, stretched out like canvas, your memories with the horizon for their frame.
Tell us, what have you seen?
Charles Baudelaire, “Le Voyage”Travel Stories
The Classic Mayan period of history in Mexico and Central America is unique in all the world and, as such, has captivated our imagination since we first became aware of them. What we’ve learned is only a small part of their story but one from which a vague outline of their civilization can be drawn. My intention in this series of articles will be to explore a few of their central concepts in an attempt to better understand what these highly intelligent people with very complex ideas believed about themselves, life and the gods, and from that, how they lived.
The road from the Cancun airport to the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza cuts so straight through the jungle that I imagined even the crows eye it with suspicion. I was in the interior of the Yucatan, land of the Maya. Their accomplishments were known to me from previous trips and 20 years of study. I’d just completed an historical novel about the Classic Maya and had returned to explore the astronomical beliefs associated with the observatory at the ruins of Chichen Itza.
Who were these people whose master mathematicians came up with the concept of zero, whose brilliant astronomers charted the heavens without the aid of modern technology, creating calendars as accurate as any in the Old World, who built architectural wonders in the Puuc region that Frank Lloyd Wright hailed as the best in the western hemisphere? I was determined to learn more about them and thought to spend time at each of the major archaeological sites on the peninsula delving into a different aspect of their cultural and spiritual beliefs at each place.
The drive passed through several small Mayan villages; traditional homes of wood and grass roofs, surrounded by gardens and low rock walls where the women wear hoichel — a white cotton dress with brightly colored embroidery around the neck and hem. Most people living in the villages of this area maintain the ancient way of life; they plant their corn with ceremony, conduct their families traditionally, and appoint a calendar-keeper, a daykeeper, to track the auspicious days and direct their lives.
By the time I reached the hotel at Chichen, the sun was just going down, and the night creatures were already singing in full voice. The songs of the night were far more elaborate than the day. Rather than the sporadic cheeps and rasps of insects with an occasional bird call, there was a seamless blend of voices. It seemed as if every unseen creature — of which there were millions — had a voice to contribute and didn’t hesitate to do so.
The Mayaland Hotel, built on the boundary of the ruins, has 100 acres of gardens that surround the main house and its outlying bungalows where the grounds are alive with birdsong and butterflies and exotic fruits and flowers of the tropics.
From the top of the steps of the hotel entrance I turned to look back, and my breath caught with delight. The ruins of the shell-shaped observatory named El Caracol by the Spaniards, rose in the golden glow of the setting sun like a beacon of mystery.
What must it have been like 1100 years ago when it was in its prime, a haven of scientific observation? Estimates suggest that as many as 50,000 people lived at the center at its peak around 900 AD. I could hardly wait to check in and go to the site. A private back-gate leads into the ruins where you’re free to walk in anytime between eight and five, and again for the light show at seven, fostering a sense that you too are one of the early explorers.
Fascinated with time and its relationship to events in their lives, the Maya became one of the first cultures to chart the passage of the stars in the heavens — with an accuracy that rivals modern technology. In fact, they were so intrigued with time that they built whole systems of thought around it. For hundreds of years they studied the sky and elaborated a complex system about the relationship between the gods and man. So practical are their beliefs that each day has a god. The qualities of that particular god inform the people how to relate to that day so that they may live with assurance that they’re in harmony with the will of the gods. They call it Hanab Ku.
Eight o’clock on the dot the next morning found me at the back-gate ready to explore the observatory before the tourist buses arrived. Today the road is lined with present day Maya selling their wares to the tourists. I approached the snail-shaped building, I imagined the area as it had once been; the temples brightly painted, the square paved and lined with trees where dozens of people went about their morning errands.
The circular superstructure consists of a lower story with radial shafts emerging from its center, and in the interior, a circular stairway rises to the top where more shafts located at precise compass points allowed the ancient astronomers to chart sunrises, sunsets, eclipses and planetary transits. From these observations they drew the heavens and from those charts they deciphered the passage of time.
Thus a complex system of calendars emerged; a system unique in human history for it deciphered millions of years into the past and thousands of years into the future, predicting a continual round of days with particular attributes. Armed with this information the priests could inform people both about their history and about what was to come. It was also used to make decisions about planting crops, about going to war, about times for rituals. In fact, the calendar was used for all decisions both cultural and individual. For example, on an inauspicious day, one might not travel to the market. When I say calendar, I’m over-simplifying because there are actually three calendars; each with a particular function that work together to create pin-point accuracy.
of 365.24 days, which is straightforward to our way of thinking.
which is entirely different but operates concurrently with the Solar; with a 20 day cycle, each day representing a different god with particular attributes. The attributes of the god make up the quality of the day. The days are also attached to 13 numbers. The 13 numbers are multiplied by the 20 day gods to make a 260 day cycle. This calendar was the more significant for the Classic Maya as they used it for divination and for decision making; both for matters of state and for personal choices. It was also called The Book of Good and Bad Days.
based on the transits of the planet Venus.
— with a beginning and an end –reflecting the spiritual belief that the world is continually created and destroyed. At the end of the long count of the calendar cycle the gods may decide that humans have fulfilled their vision for them and it will continue. However, if they have failed to please the gods, the creation will be destroyed. This concept also supported the ruler’s choice of action. For example, the best time to go to war would be at the end of a cycle.
When I wound back down the stairs to stand once again on the wide platform that supported El Caracol, I could just imagine an event when a priest stood at this very point after having predicted an eclipse, and the people bowed down in awe as it occurred on schedule. To be able to describe the secrets of the universe through their calculations must have been truly inspiring, and also reassuring.
Might this ability of the Mayan intellect be responsible in a fundamental way for the richness of the Classic Maya period for when people feel secure– and this knowledge would certainly have that effect– they’re more open, creative and productive.
Source: Everyday Gratitude
Tennessee Valley is one of my favorite places to walk; a two mile valley that runs east/west to the beach just north of San Francisco. There’s a side path that goes through a horse pasture to an overgrown pond where I like to go looking for things to photograph. On this occasion a few months ago, as I was passing the horses, five very large, very angry turkeys blocked my way.
Ignorant of the ways of turkeys, I charged on through them thinking, mistakenly, that they’d back down, instead they surrounded me and with wildly, and incredibly strong beating wings, proceeded to beat me up. With nothing but the jacket I carried, I swung at them. However, I was also intend on documenting the event and continued to take photographs.
Above is some unknown part of the turkey as it was beating me with its wings which are incredibly hard and strong.
Since they were intend on blocking my path and would certainly do me harm, I was ready to give up and turn for home, when a ranger came and drove them off. They were guarding a nest of babies.
Tomorrow millions of people will eat turkey, myself included. A delicious bird that has come to symbolize our gratitude for the abundance in our lives. After more than 200 years of being prey on this day, it’s no wonder the creature is feisty.
I’m glad that there is a day assigned for giving thanks. I really do appreciate the gesture, however, each day we’re alive to experience the unfolding of life on this gorgeous, fragile, powerful, multi-faceted planet, is a day to celebrate. No matter what one believes about life after death, once dead, wherever we go from here, we will no longer be a part of life on this planet.
So I thank the turkeys for showing me something of their power and their willingness to put themselves at risk for the sake of their off spring; to remind me that