Monday, March 26, 2012

Rotten Cane

To get to the ruins of Kumarkaaj, the ruins of the citadel that was the capital of the Quiche empire, you can take a bus from the front of the church in Santa Cruz del Quiche for a single quetzal. When I went, everyone else on the bus was Mayan. Most of these were heading to other stops in tiny villages along the way; in fact, only one other person got off at the ruins, a young Mayan man.

They drop you off at the bottom of a small paved road that you have to climb to get to the ruins. The vegetation is mountainous, mostly tall pine trees, many hanging with long strands of Spanish moss. The ground is grassy, and littered with long pine needles and pinecones. It could hardly be more like the mountains I grew up in back in New Mexico.

At the top of the road is a guard station at which you pay Q30 to get in. This is followed by a small museum with a few relics and a scale replica of what they think the citadel must have looked like before it was destroyed by the Spanish. It was constructed on a mesa at the top of a high peak, with steep slopes and cliffs plunging off on every side.

Coming out of the museum, you are on a wide dirt road with remnants of old bricks under it. Around the road are small mounds and trenches that look like they are the remains of something artificial, though you can't be sure. The bricks on the road feel hollow when you tap them with your finger; most of the structures here were constructed of a very light pumice that may have been mined from one of the steep white cliffs around the citadel.

Kumarkaaj was also known as Utatlan, but I will call it by the English translation of its name: Rotten Cane. It was the third capital of the Quiche, the other two having been on smaller hills nearby. Each citadel was higher and more elaborate as the Quiche became more powerful.

As you approach Rotten Cane, at first all you see are small raised mounds overgrown with grass, with perhaps just a bit of stone emerging from the side. Then you see a much bigger mound, perhaps thirty feet high. This is the temple of Auilitz. It's covered with grass, with footpaths going up to the top

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.

When you come around Auilix's temple, you find yourself in the central plaza of Rotten Cane. The plaza is now a quiet field of grass, perhaps half the size of a soccer field. In the center of the plaza is a circular firepit, and as I approached a man was standing by it scattering flower petals into a fire there. On one side of the plaza stands the temple of Auilix, and on another stands the temple of Hacauitz, a slightly larger mound with similar paths climbing up it. But on a third side stand the most significant structures, the ballcourt and the temple of Tohil.

Unlike the rest of the other structures distributed around Rotten cane, which mostly resemble large mounds of dirt now, the Temple of Tohil and the ballcourt are distinct structures of stone. In fact, the ballcourt appears to be partially reconstructed, as the bricks are in far better condition than anything else in the vicinity. The temple of Tohil is taller and in better shape than any of the other structures except the ballcourt. I don't know if this is because it's partially excavated, or if it is because it's built of tougher stuff than the light pumice that makes up everything else.

My attention was drawn to the ballcourt first. This would not be the ballcourt where the PV says the Hero Twins played their games before they were drawn down into the Land of Death to play the Xibalbans. According to Dennis Tedlock, that would be up near Coban, on the border of Verapaz.

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.

But if you played in the underworld of Xibalba against the Lords of Death, according to the PV, it was another story. The Xibalba home court was adjoined by a Place of Ball Game Sacrifice, where the losers most certainly were killed. Among those losers were One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu, the father and uncle of the Hero Twins, and part of the Hero Twins' mission to Xibalba is vengeance for these two. The scribes of the PV most certainly would have been thinking of a similar place of sacrifice near the ball court of Rotten Cane. Most likely this would have been in front of the Temple of Tohil.

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.

what is interesting about this temple, and the even more ruined temples that neighbor it, is the thick smoke stains that run up the bricks around its recessed altar, the candle wax that drips down its front, and the recent offerings are scattered everywhere around it. What's interesting are the worshippers that even now burn incense in the firepit in the central plaza.

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.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, at the height of Rotten Cane's power, the Quiche priests and lords would have led great ceremonies and sacrifices to celebrate military victories, coronations, ball games and holy days. Many of those rituals have vanished, leaving only a huge grassy plain scattered with trees growing from hills that were once their high offices.

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.'

Rotten Cane contains many more structures, all of them mounds overgrown with grass today. Away from the plaza the forest takes over completely, bromeliad-hung pines stretching to the terrifying cliffs at the edges of the plateau. Locals tie flowers to some of these trees and sing songs, either because certain trees have powerful spirits or just because it's away from the eyes of tourists like me. Then there is the deep sacred cave dug under the mountain by the builders of the citadel, something that will get its own post.

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.

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