Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Monday, March 26, 2012
Auilitz was one of the three gods the stories say the Quiche brought back from the magic city of Tulan Zuyua in the east. The gods took the form of stone icons that could speak in the time of "shadows," when the First People had just been created and the sun, moon and stars had not yet shown themselves. The actual icon of Auilitz was hidden in one of the plunging canyons near here.
It's tempting to think of the Mayans as innocents who were living their lives peacefully until they were set upon by European colonists. But at least in the case of the Quiche, that would be a mistake. The Quiche were expansionary and agressive, fierce conquerors who overthrew and colonized numerous other settlements ranging from Lake Atitlan all the way up to the border of the Peten. The captives in these wars were dragged back to Rotten Cane, where they were sacrificed in front of the temples of the Quiches' three main gods: Tohil, Auiliz and Hacauitz.
I have heard that in some Mesoamerican cultures, the victims of human sacrifice were honored guests, treated well right up until their death. That may be, but as the Popul Vuh makes clear, that was not the case for victims of Quiche sacrifice. The PV states that the Quiches earned the right to sacrifice the members of bordering tribes through a horrifying story of trickery, and that they took full advantag of that right.
The time of shadows was, as one would imagine, extremely cold. All the tribes were freezing to death, but only the god of the Quiches, Tohil, was able to generate fire. Naturally all the other tribes begged to get a bit of the Quiches' fire. The Quiches said they would give them fire on the condition that later on they could "suckle at the breasts" of the other tribes. The other tribes agreed, not knowing that what that meant was in fact cutting out their hearts.,/p>
After the sun rose, the icons themselves no longer spoke directly, but instead spoke through spirits of young boys that demanded that the First Men hunt down the men of the other tribes, possibly in were-animal form, and then feed their hearts to the bloodthirsty child spirits of the three gods. When they were done they'd leave the skulls in the road as a message to everyone else. It's nearly impossible to put a positive spin on the First Men here; to a modern reader they essentially appear to be forest-dwelling serial killers. The point of this is not to put down the Quiche or excuse the depradations performed by the colonists upon them, but to point out that the Quiche were, up until their fall, what we would call Bad Mother F**kers.
Now, however, their capital is a haunting forest full of dirt mounds, bird chirping in the trees.
But this would be the ballcourt with which the scribes that wrote down the alphabetic PV were most familiar, the ballcourt where they likely saw games played in their lifetime. The game must have been incredibly difficult; somehow you had to knock a rubber ball through a vertical stone hoop nearly the height of a basketball hoop just using your hips. Contrary to popular belief, the losers (or, as some say, winners) probably did not usually get sacrificed. The game was played only by high-born nobles, and the Spanish colonists wrote that the nobles played for money, cacao and slaves. It seems likely to me that the losers had to give up some of their own slaves to be sacrificed by the winners, maybe as symbolic substitutes for the lives of their defeated masters.
Though the Temple of Tohil is large and impressive next to the other delapidated mounds of Rotten Cane, it would be a pipsqueak compared to the much larger ruins of the Peten and the Yucatan. Neither its size or its condition is what is interesting about it.
The temple of Tohil, Hacauitz and Auilitz are in every way temples in active use. They are active today, and most likely have been active without interruption since the Spanish tried to destroy them and everything they stood for.
Rotten Cane is called a citadel, but it is a mistake to think of it as a city. Like a city, Rotten Cane had palaces, offices, towers and temples. But a city is also a palce where ordinary people work and live, marry and have children, run businesses and make homes.
The people who live in Rotten Cane would have been kings, officials, lords, commanders and priests. These men were most seized by the Spanish when the city fell, to be tortured and hanged or burned, something that was also recorded in the alphabetic PV, which was written after Rotten Cane's fall. But the regular Mayans would have lived in smaller villages on the surrounding hillsides, working milpas, raising families, building houses, keeping animals and hunting.
Five centuries later, the descendants of those people still live there.
But the working people would certainly have climbed to the citadel to make their own offerings to these temples for blessings on their marriages and childbirths, harvests and hunts.
In the 21st century, they still do.
The towering ruins of Chichen Itza and Tikal, impressive though they are, are ancient remnants of stories long forgotten even by the people who still lived in the area. I am told that there are efforts in some places to revive these rituals, but as hard as anyone tries it can only ever be a reenactment.
But the story of Rotten Cane is still being told. Just as they have for the last five centuries, the Christan priests struggle unsuccessfully to get their parishioners to abandon their old faith completely and confine their worship to one jealous diety. And the Mesoamerican Indians still fear the oppression of Ladino overlords, whom some Mayans still call the 'Spaniards.'
The citadel is a ruin, its stone structures are destroyed. But it's not dead. In spite of all attempts to kill it, it is alive as it ever was.
Friday, March 23, 2012
I suppose I hoped for more from the Museo de Arceologico in Chichicastenango, though that's not really fair. They have two long rows of glass cabinets filled with old pottery ranging from the pre-classic (before 300 BC) to the post-classic (1100-1500 AD) period, along with a small collection of jade artifacts. (Unfortunately photographs are forbidden). But given that this is the central collection of archeology from the Quiche region in the heart of the Quiche department, one could only wish they had more.
Nevertheless, I'm extremely glad I went, because I met Hector, my guide to the Pascual Abaj shrine. I spent a long time looking at the pieces, and Hector asked me if I wanted a guide to the shrine. Based on my experiences in Santiago de Atitlan, I've learned that when a person who seems to know something offers to show you around it's worth paying what he asks.
The road up to the Pascual Abaj wouldn't stand out if you weren't looking for it. You pass through an older part of town, down a road lined on one side with houses made of adobe instead of rebar and cinder block like most of the newer buildings, and on the other with a fence overlooking a slope filled with milpas, or cornfields. I probably could have found my way myself, but paying Hector to guide me turned out to be well worth it. We passed up a small rise with a little sign labeling the direction of the shrine, and then through a building of orange stucco. This building was labeled the "museum of masks," something I was curious about. It appeared to be closed, so I kept going. We came to a path through another small milpa.
One thing distinctly lacking in this room was the cross. This is significant because often in Mayan syncretist altars there are at least a few, in order to show that the ritual isn't completely pagan. Although some of the glass candle holders had the Virgin Mary on them, this was the first place of worship I'd seen with no crosses at all (though not the last).
Duende is a term imported from Spain, where it means something like an elf or faerie. There are many Mayan tales of hills having a duende inside them that rules over the area, and provides good or bad luck depending on how well you treat them. I assume that just like in Europe, when pagan gods get demoted by the rise of monotheism, people start calling them duende or spirits instead.
At the top of the hill is Pascual Abaj, or sacrifice stone, itself. Pascual Abaj is in a U-shaped enclosure of black stones covered with offerings, with a small firepit inside. There is a cross here, a stone one. The Pascual Abaj stone is shaped like a roughly carved head, but most of the lower section is covered with ashes, as if it's been burned away. About twenty feet in front of the half-circle of stones is another, larger firepit.
The rituals are simple, but this is syncretism in action. Offerings of flower petals, tobacco and incense were the same thing that the Quiche lords gave their gods, according to the Popul Vuh.
On the way back, I asked Hector if the Museum of Masks was closed. Hector called to a man in an adjoining workshop. The man got out a key and opened the door to the museum.Maximon but with a painted face.
I asked if I could take a picture, and the proprietor said I could in that room, but not in the next. I asked what was in the other room. He said that these masks were old, but in the other room were new masks that he had made.
The masks in the other room were spectacular. Unlike the older masks, which were mostly stained wood with only a little decoration, these masks were finely painted in bright colors. Many of them were human faces with animals above them, animals that played an important part in Quiche mythology: owls, falcons, jaguars, snakes and toads. There was a mask with two catfish, which I recognized as symbolizing the reincarnated form of Hunahpu and Xbalanque after they are burned in the fire of the Lords of Death. There was another double mask labeled with the names of the Hero Twins, which warmed my heart.
Masks seem to play a bigger role to the Quiche today than I had anticipated. Nearly every room I entered in Quiche seemed to be hung with masks, and countless booths in the Quiche Market were selling masks as well. But none of them were near the quality I saw in the Museum of Masks.
I spent another day in Chichi, just to see the market, but I didn't buy anything. It's nice stuff, but it's heavy and I am carrying enough already. I'm having serious shoulder problems; I've tried to minimize the weight of my pack by taking a bunch of stuff out and carrying it in a separate bag, but the damage is done and from my experience it will likely last a few weeks at least.
While I was in the market I ran into my old roommates, who told me that they'd been up to Kumarkaaj yesterday and seen a ceremony of some sort. I was kind of furious that they'd seen it and I hadn't, since they had neither interest in it nor appreciation. If I'd stayed with them I'd have seen the ceremony they saw, but seeing it with them might have been worse than not seeing it at all.
In any case, I went up to Santa Cruz del Quiche the next day, and then to Kumarkaaj. I didn't see a big ceremony like they saw, but I saw plenty. I'll write about that when I get back.
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Yesterday I took the boat across Lago de Atitlan, planning to stay there that night, but I found a cheap ride to Chichicastenango, and decided to go.
The name Chichicastenango comes from a Mayan word that meant "Nettles Heights." It was a Kaqchiquel city that was conquered by the Quiche king Kiquab in the early 15th century. Most people come here for the enormous market that takes place on Thursday and Sunday, but I was looking for something else. It was here that the Spanish friar Francisco Jimenez found the transcript of the Popul Vuh written by Mayan scribes in the Latin Alphabet version of Quiche.
There are also glass cabinets near the front door that contain larger figures of various saints. For each saint there is a cofradia, a religious society of men who come in the church and burn incense and candles for the saint. Right now, probably because Semana Santa is approaching, the church is hung with bright purple fabric and has several floats of saints that belong to the cofradias. Unlike the stern old milagros in the cabinets, these milagro floats are decorated with flowers, bright parrot feathers and mirrors encased in bright fabric. They are brightly dressed in clothes that have quetzal notes hanging off them. I sat through a service in the church yesterday, but during the whole service men from the cofradias were walking back and forth in front of their milagro floats on their knees burning incense.
There is also a much larger float, perhaps 30 feet long and 10 feet high and made of dark, carved wood. It has figures of angels in Semana Santa purple on it. I know from the ceremony I saw last year in Antigua that the cofradias carry this enormous float on their shoulders, probably mounted with the large figure of Jesus carrying the cross in the middle of the church.
I have so much more to write, but no time now. When I get back online I will talk about the shrine of Pascual Abaj and the Museum of Masks.
Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Last night I watched Venus and Jupiter together over the volcanoes of Lake Atitlan from the deck of the Casa de Santa Elena in San Pedro de La Laguna while a gang of British, Australian and Canadian backpackers played a drinking game with cards and Dominican rum behind me. I am happy that this astrological coincidence is happening during my visit to Guatemala; I can't help but think it's a good omen.
I don't know what role Jupiter played, if any, in Mayan cosmology. But Venus was incredibly important to the Mayans. Venus' motions were at least as significant in their calender as the moon and the sun. The motions of Venus through Mayan astrological signs was connected to the journey of the Hero Twins through the Land of the Dead. So though I have no particular evidence, I can't help but believe that a Mayan astrologer watching the sky would have seen the joint appearance of Venus and Jupiter as the Hero Twins showing themselves together in the sky.
I've been staying in San Pedro de la Laguna for a couple of days. I've been sharing a room with some British hitchhikers I hooked up with on the van here. They have been kind to me and trustworthy. They're also racist and completely condescending of the natives. They have been everywhere: Australia, the South Pacific, Thailand -- more places than I'll ever go. Bob1 is cheerful, indulgent and friendly, but likes to tell racist jokes and a story about going to the place where the sea turtles hatched from their eggs and turning them around so they walked away from the water. Emma is pretty and gregarious, but complains about how Lago de Atitlan is not tropical enough and is disgusted when Mayans bathe in the lake outside the hotel.
Yesterday I met an American backpacker from Oregon who told me of a dirt-cheap place where you can get your own rooms. I was going to do it, but I have changed my mind. I'm heading up to Panajachel today, because I want to be closer to Chichicastenango and Santa Cruz de Quiche.1These aren't their real names, as I'm afraid I'm not painting a very flattering portrait of them.