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.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Pascual Abaj - The Sacrifice Stone

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.

At the top of this path is an open-faced construction with a tin roof held up by wooden posts and adobe walls in the back on two sides. In the center of this structure is a square firepit filled with coals and stained with dripping candle wax. In the back of the structure is a long platform with several rows of gray stones that are naturally shaped like tombstones.

These stones are littered with pine needles, and have candles placed all around them. They also have other offerings, including bundles of sticks and bunches of flowers. There were also offerings of tobacco in thick cigars, something I had only seen before at the in front of Maximon in Santiago de Atitlan. Candles in glass holders burn off to one side, and smaller candles drip wax down the side of the rocks and off the front of the platform.

Pascual Abaj's lower shrine from the entrance

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).

A closeup view of Pascual Abaj's lower shrine

I thought this was it, so it was a good thing I brought Hector. He guided me further up the hill, on a steep mountain path. On the way, he told me that Pascual Abaj is a shrine to the duende, or spirit, of the hill, the town, and the surrounding area. He said that the duende was once a living person, a great and generous man, and when he died he became the spirit of the hill.

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.

Pascual Abaj, the 'sacrifice stone,' is the head-like shape in the center of the semicircle of rocks.

Unlike the lower shrine, this altar was in use. A man was kneeling in front of the sacrifice stone tending a fire. Other people were standing around a fire in the larger pit, which from its smell contained copal incense. One person was chanting and others were throwing in offerings of flower petals. I didn't want to take pictures, it seemed disrespectful. But Hector insisted, and several of the people at the fire said it was okay as well.

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.

These same offerings are for sale in an aisle in the Chichicastenango market now: candles, flower petals, bundles of flowers, bundles of resinous kindling, and balls of copal incense. In the Popul Vuh, the mother of Hunahpu and Xpbalanque used a ball of incense just like these to trick the Lords of Death. She delivered the copal to the Xibalbans through their messengers the owls in place of her heart, which the owls were to cut out.

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.

I entered a room that was covered from floor to ceiling on every wall with a spectacular arrangement of masks. Masks of deer, monkeys, jaguars, eagles, crows, skulls devils and heroes. In front of the room was a collection of figurines, a stone altar with candles, and a seated figure that was reminiscent of Maximon but with a painted face.

Two walls on the museum of masks

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

Chichicastenango - Nettles Heights

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.

This is the convent that Ximenez lived in. It is next to the Spanish-built church, which is between 400 and 500 years old. There is a plaque commemorating Ximenez's translation here. Ximenez was a friar devoted to converting the Maya, so he knew both Spanish and Quiche. Yet unlike other Spanish priests he transcribed the Quiche text and his own Spanish translation as best he could, with only a few disapproving notes about the influence of the Devil along the way. Sadly, the manuscript that Ximenez copied from is lost, as is the heiroglyphic scroll that the Quiche scribes copied their Latin text translation from. The loss of both these manuscripts is incalculable, because alphabetic text cannot convey all the graphic elements in the Mayan heiroglyphic language. According to Dennis Tedlock, the authorotative English translator of the Popul Vuh, the original heiroglyphic manuscript would not be written in a the narrative style we have now. It would mostly be notes about the motion of Venus and other planets with images that displayed the important stories. The Quiche scribes would have written the stories that the daykeepers would have told to accompany the text. But the Latin version likely had pictures as well, since many of sections open with text that is clearly meant to describe accompanying images.

This is the Spanish church, built in the 16th century. It's hard to get a good picture of it, since the stalls for the market go right up to the steps. The steps are steep and high, similar to the steps in front of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It seems clear that the Spanish copied the style of the steps leading up to the Mayan temples. People kneel on the steps now and burn incense in swinging coffee can containers. They burn flower petals and candles and copal on the steps as well. There is a shrine in the middle where pieces of copal are always burning.

There are no pictures allowed inside the church, for obvious reasons. It's a very active church, and there are people in there all the time worshipping. The ceiling is a high wooden corbeled arch, maybe 50-60 feet off the ground. The walls are white-stuccoed adobe, gray from the incense smoke that's always filled the church. It's maybe 50 feet wide, and 200 feet long, and along the sides of the walls are tall carved wooden shrines reaching most of the way to the cieling with recessions containing carved wooden milagros of various saints. The altars have rectangular faces that at first appear to be plain wood, but if you look closely you can see that they are old paintings of biblical scenes that have been obscured through centuries of incense smoke. An art restorer who got in there could probably uncover some amazing old paintings there.

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.

There is a smaller church across the plaza, and I was able to get a better picture of it. The cofradias were also active in front of this 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

Pictures from Lake Atitlan

Here are just a few pictures taken from the boat on Lake Atitlan

Santa Cruz de la Laguna

Yesterday I took a boat to Santa Cruz de la Laguna to see if I wanted to stay there. There are a couple of hotels right by the water, and they do look nice. But the hotels are completely separated from the village by a long winding pathway twisting up the mountain. I climbed up to the village there (actually one of several that are part of Santa Cruz de la Laguna). The view up the climb was spectacular.
The village reminded me a lot of San Mateo de Ixtatan; if anything it was even poorer. The houses are on a steep slope, maybe thirty degrees all the way up. Most are made of stones or cinder block, with some made of adobe. Like any Mayan village there are dogs everywhere in the street.
There was a small church, with kids playing basketball out front. There were some American or European volunteers playing basketball with them. I thought that if I went up far enough I'd find a road with a bus station that might have chicken buses going to Chichicastenango, but the town doesn't appear to be connected to a road.
On the way back down I wanted to find a place to change a Q100 note, since the boat drivers don't always have change. I stopped in a small restaurant that was run by a nonprofit that is educating the young Mayans in trades. When I opened the door the first thing I saw was a room full of sewing machines and weaving looms.
They had a small restaurant, run by culinary students. I ordered a tamale plate, and they made a fantastic little dish with small vegetable tamales under sauce and three kinds of salsa. There was a Mayan man in there who appeared to be in charge, and I asked him about the school. The vocational center is called CECAP, and in addition to sewing and culinary skills, it teaches metalwork, carpentry, computer skills, as well as traditional academics. It's run by an organization called Amigos de Santa Cruz. On the way back down I saw a sign off the main path that led to a cafe and event organizer, the Tours Atitlan Adventure Center. I stopped in for some coffee, and met a young man named Isalas, who worked for Tours Atitlan. He asked me what kind of things I wanted to do, and I explained to him that I wasn't that interested in things like kayaking and paragliding and so on, I was more interested in Mayan culture and history.
Isalas turned out to be incredibly knowledgeable, though I think he's still in his teens. His father and mother are Quiche and they were in the Quiche department when the military committed some of their worst atrocities, and barely survived themselves. He told me that the man who is president of Guatemala now was a general during that time, so not surprisingly most Mayans hate him. He showed me a book that described the civil war well, and I want to find it.
He had also been reading extensively about Mayan culture himself. He said that he felt a lot of it was being lost and forgotten. He knew of the events in the Popul Vuh very well, and was able to tell me some things I didn't know. He had been to Copan (should have an accent, but I can't figure out how to put it in), which was said to be the "magic city in the east" where the first people got their gods. He told me that there is a place near there called Sopas where the first people had their children, and had to wait six months before they could return. I asked him if he knew of a play about how the Mayan king Tekun Uman was killed by the Spanish. He said that he knew about it, but that it was being performed less and less. He also told me of a book that claims that that Tekun Uman wasn't really a king, just a mask. I need to find this book, preferably an English version, so I can understand that better. Today I'm heading up to Pana. It will cost a little more money to stay there, but I need to be closer to Chichicastenango and Santa Cruz del Quiche. I'm going to get my own place with wifi, maybe even a bathroom. Then I'm going to find the cheapest way to go north.

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.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

In Antigua

I'm in Antigua de Guatemala now. I paid twice as much for a room without a bath as I should've, and the exchange rate is worse, too. But I'm showered and ready to go out and look for a buys to Panajachel. There were fireworks as I came in to Antigua, and firecrackers outside the rom this morning. The driver told me the name of the holiday, but I don't remember. It's ask part of the celebrations leading up to Semana Santa, Holy Week. That's also probably why the rooms are ask booked, though it wasn't so bad last year. I came through Panama City, and the plane was packed with frat boys adhd sorority girls going to spring break in Panama. Apparently a popular destination. If I was a littler younger I'd have been convicted, but now I just found them kind of cute and adorable. Well, this blog post Ais sounding pretty dull to me. Time to go have some adventures.