On the Trail of Mayan Secrets, Coba, Wind Ruffled Waters
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.
“Wind ruffled Waters.”
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.