Plague Diary #22: The Shrunken Universe

In My Life, the Maya Stand for the Universe at Large

The first time I traveled outside the United States, it was to Yucatán in 1975, when I was thirty years old. The last time I traveled outside the United States, it was the same—just as I reached the age of seventy-five. Almost immediately after my return to California, the Universe shrank suddenly. There was my apartment with its books and DVDs (and, yes, VHS tapes); there were the grocery stores and pharmacies and doctors’ offices. and precious little else.

Now, as the coronavirus is pulling out with the tide, the Universe is slowly growing larger. There are changes: people are wearing face masks (or not), and the rate of growth is incremental, with promise of sudden expansion after Independence Day. I have this sudden urge to travel, even if it is to the nearby desert, which is starting to heat up as summer nears. I would be content to travel somewhere in the United States with Martine. Currently, she is uninterested in visiting any foreign country except perhaps Canada.

On my kitchen table is a small pile of Lonely Planet guidebooks which I look into from time to time to remind myself that my present reality is just a small subset of what exists. I would not mind returning to Yucatán to visit the Maya sites that have so far eluded me: Cobá, Chacchoben, Dzibanche, Kinichna, Oxtankah, Calakmul and the Rio Bec sites, Yaxchilan, and Bonampak. Then, too, there are the Maya ruins in adjacent Belize—a new border to cross.

In fact, every time I look, there are more Maya sites to see. Most of them are in jungle terrain, which would mean protecting myself from mosquitoes, garrapatas, and other baddies referred to in Mexico as bichos. I rather like the fact that there is always more to see, to know, to absorb. To quote the Tao Teh Ching, “From wonder into wonder existence opens.”

 

 

House of the Turtle

The House of the Turtle at Uxmal

I have always had a special feeling about turtles. That comes from having lived at the edge of a desert for the last half century suffering from a chronic lack of rain. I strongly suspect that the Maya of the Puuc Hills (redundant: Hill Hills the way that Torpenhow Hill in England means Hillhillhill Hill) felt the same way. One of the simplest, most classical and beautiful structures at Uxmal if the House of the Turtle.

It is named after the row of carved turtles that appear along the top edge:

Detail of Carved Turtle

As I have mentioned previously, the hills of the Puuc are separated from the underground rivers of the Yucatán Peninsula by several hundred feet of impenetrable limestone. The Maya of the Puuc had to dig cisterns (called chultunes) which they hoped would fill with water during the rainy season. In good years, they did. But when a series of dry years came in the Ninth Century A.D., the Maya just walked away from Uxmal. Why obey the local god/king and get a hernia hauling stones to build new structures when they might easily die of hunger or thirst?

All the stones of Uxmal—and, for that matter, all the Maya sites—were hauled by human labor. There were no wheeled conveyances because there were no wheels, and what would be the point anyway when there were no draft animals to pull them over roads which they would have to build of other heavy rocks in the first place?

Looking Through the Two Doorways of the House of the Turtle at the Nunnery Quadrangle

When you think of it that way, you can understand why the Maya just walked away from their ceremonial centers and changed their way of government. It was a miracle that they allowed themselves to be used for so many hundreds of years hauling rocks and putting them into place—even creating such magnificent sites as Uxmal—for little reward in their hardscrabble lives.

The Maya who built Uxmal are still in the neighborhood: It’s just that they are not quite so much involved in major engineering projects. And their homes, if built of stone (or, more likely, cinder blocks) use trucks to do the heavy hauling.

 

The Crown Jewel

Overview of Uxmal Ruins Today

When John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood traveled in Mexico and Central America to visit Maya ruins, the only place where they went twice was Uxmal in Yucatán. Their description of the site appears in both of their books: Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatán and Incidents of Travel in Yucatán.

In fact, there is something about the place which calls one back. I have now visited it a total of four times, usually staying overnight at the Hacienda Uxmal Hotel and spending extra time with what I consider to be the crown jewel of Maya architecture.Over the next few days, I intend to share with you why I feel this way.

Pretty Much the Same View in 1839 as Drawn by Catherwood

On my first visit, I went on a group tour under the auspices of Turistica Yucateca in Mérida. As the tour van pulled up within sight of the Templo del Adivino, also known as the Pyramid of the Magician, I noted that he crossed himself twice. The Templo del Adivino is shown below in greater detail:

The Templo del Adivino, or Pyramid of the Magician

On previous visits, tourists were allowed to climb the pyramids, and a chain stretched from the base to the top of the Templo del Adivino to help with this. As you can see for yourself, the stairs are steep, with higher than usual risers and narrow treads. When some tourists fell to their deaths from the heights of the pyramid, INAH (the national Institute of Anthropology and History, which controls the archeological zones) began to forbid climbing the ruins. Because “boys will be boys,” some lesser and more easily scalable ruins still allow climbers—but only if the ruins are not as important as the Templo del Adivino or the Castillo at Chichen Itza.

Next: The so-called nunnery quadrangle.

 

The Russian Connection

Maya Glyphs—Interpreted Thanks to Two Russian Scholars

When I started my travels in Yucatán in 1975, only a handful of Maya glyphs had been deciphered. In fact, one prominent archeologist—J. Eric S. Thompson—was of the opinion that such glyphs as existed were primarily calendrical. Earlier archeologists had deciphered the vigesimal (base 20) numbering system of the Maya as well as the day glyphs for the two calendar systems. But the notion that the glyphs provided names and descriptions of events was considered as far-fetched.  It was Sir J. Eric S. Thompson who felt that ancient Maya was anti-phonetic.

It took two Russians to show that, yes, the Maya did have a history, and that the history was described on commemorative stelae at the various ruins.

Tatiana Proskouriakoff

First came Tatiana Proskouriakoff (1909-1985), born in Tomsk, who spent much of her professional life with Harvard University and its Peabody Museum. It was she who made a key discovery. According to Wikipedia:

Her greatest contribution was considered the breakthrough for Maya hieroglyphic decipherment in the late 1950s and early 1960s. While researching the chronology of changing styles of Maya sculpture, she discovered that the dates shown on the monumental stelae were actually historical, the birth, accession, and death dates for Maya rulers. Analyzing the pattern of dates and hieroglyphs, she was able to demonstrate a sequence of seven rulers who ruled over a span of two hundred years. Knowing the context of the inscriptions, Maya epigraphers were then able to decipher the hieroglyphs.

The next key person was one of her countrymen who had never even seen a Maya ruin first hand:

Yuri Knorozov

It was only after Thompson died in 1975 that the work of Yuri Knorozov came to the fore. During the height of the Cold War, he wrote a paper entitled “The Writing of the Maya Indians” (1963), followed by his own translations of many of the glyphs. His work opened the floodgates. New scholarly works on the Maya archeological sites come with dates, names, and even history.

If you are interested in the subject, I recommend you read Michael D. Coe’s Breaking the Maya Code, Third Edition (2012). The book is dedicated to Knorozov and his work.

 

World Enough and Time

The Codz Pop at Kabah

Back in June, I had a very exaggerated picture of the ruins I would be visiting. Because I wanted to see everything, I imagined that it was feasible to criss-cross four Mexican states to see Maya sites that were hundreds of miles apart. Although theoretically it was possible, I quickly realized that there were too many long bus rides and tours that required more than several participants (or else pay a steep price for guides and transportation for a single paying customer). Here is what I wrote in June:

I have been to Yucatán four times in all, the last time with Martine in November 1992. During my visits between 1975 and 1992, I have visited about a dozen Maya archeological sights. Since then, scores more have been developed, including one of the largest at Calakmul in the State of Campeche. In addition, I hope to visit Cobá in Quintana Roo, Ek Balam and Kinich Kakmó in Yucatán, Edzna and several Rio Bec sites to be decided later in Campeche, and Yaxchilan and Bonampak in Chiapas. In addition, I plan to revisit some of the sites I have already seen such as Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Palenque.

In the end, these were the ruins I visited (the ones I saw for the first time are marked with an asterisk):

  • Kinich Kakmó *
  • Kabah
  • Sayil
  • Xlapak
  • Labna
  • Uxmal
  • Edzna *
  • Chichen Itza
  • Ek’ Balam *
  • Dzibilchaltún

The Korbel Arch at Kabah

Because I never made it to Chiapas, that meant that Palenque, Bonampak, and Chiapas were out of the question. Calakmul and the Rio Bec sites in the State of Campeche were too expensive for a single-person tour, and ditto for Cobá in Quintana Roo. I did not originally plan on seeing Dzibilchaltún again, which was the first Mayan ruins I visited in 1975, but I had some time on my hands in Progreso, so I hired a taxi to take me there.

In the end, if I had seen everything I originally planned for, I would have been gilding the lily. As it was, I was delighted with what I did see—and I have a motivation for returning to the Yucatán Peninsula for more.

 

Back to Yucatán After 28 Years

I Began My Travels There 45 Years Ago

Yucatán is where I began my travels (in 1975), and I had returned three times because I couldn’t get enough of it (the last time in 1992). You know what: I still can’t. The busy streets of Mérida, the classical Maya ruins of Uxmal, a steaming hot bowl of sopa de lima, and an ice cold Dos Equis cerveza after a sweaty day visiting the ruins—no, I’m still not tired of the place.

Today Martine asked me if I wouldn’t really rather live in Mexico. I told her no, but I don’t mind going there again. And again. And again..

I returned yesterday afternoon after a long two-leg journey that took me from Mérida to Guadalajara, and from Guadalajara to LAX. I was exhausted, as I woke up at 1:30 am Pacific time and didn’t hit the sack until 9:30 pm, at which point I was barely able to pour myself between the sheets. At Martine’s request, I bought her two guayabera shirts and the makings for some great hot chocolate from ki’XOCOLATL in Mérida’s Santa Lucia Park.

Some things I missed from previous trips: Jugos California was apparently no more, as was Calle 60’s Restaurant Express. But I loved Chaya Maya on Calle 55. Passenger railroad service from Mexico DF to Mérida was no more, but bus service was vastly improved. The ratty old second class buses from the Unión de Camioneros de Yucatán were replaced by shiny new air-conditioned vehicles bearing the logos of Oriente, Mayab, ATS, and Sur—and their windows weren’t cracked and broken either!

One thing that hasn’t changed: The Mexican people were great hosts. It broke my heart that I didn’t have the Spanish to carry on a fluent conversation with the men and women I met, but I had no great difficulty communicating with them on a basic level. Plus: Over the years of traveling in Latin America, my Spanish had improved by leaps and bounds.

Okay, I’m ready to go back….

 

Holding the Gods to Account

A Rare (and Forbidden) Interior Shot of the Chamula Religious Observances

My brother and I visited the Tzotzil village of San Juan Chamula in 1979. We stood in the back of a stake truck from San Cristóbal de las Casas along with dozens of Chamulas. In the village, we requested permission to visit the church, which was at one time Catholic until the Tzotzil threw the priests out and took over the churches for their own syncretic observances. In the alcalde’s office, we had to sign a promise that we would not take any photographs inside under pain of the severest punishment. (During the 1980s, at least European tourist was killed by an angry mob for just such a transgression).

I found the following description in Paul Theroux’s On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey, which I have just finished reading:

On the way to Oventic I stopped at the town of Chamula, famous for its weird church observances, where the interior of the basilica of San Juan Bautista was ablaze with flames. Worshipers crouched on the floor arranging candles, fifty or a hundred in symmetrical patterns, then lighting them and, in the candlelight, drinking Coca-Cola and ritually burping—eructation believed to be salutary—and splashing libations of Coke on the church floor, which was covered with sand.

The Church at San Juan Chamula

There were no pews, there were no priests, there was no Mass or formal service. It was a gathering of curanderos—medicine men—and those wishing to be cured. Other solemn groups were chanting, passing hens’ eggs around the the faces and bodies of prayerful pilgrims in a limpia—a purification—or holding a squawking chicken near a kneeling devotee, and a moment later the chicken’s neck was wrung, and the softened, drooping carcase placed near the candles.

As I watched, a man approached me holding a bottle and a glass. He said, “Mezcal,” and poured me a slug and offered it. I drank it, blinked away the dazzle in my eyes, thanked him, and kept looking.

It was a fusion of pre-Hispanic traditions and Christian dogma, the result an observance involving a mass of candles, throttled chickens, and soda pop. (But sheep are sacred, never harmed or eaten: the town of Chamula is full of grazing sheep.) Added to these rituals was a chance for retribution, because if the chosen saint did not grant the supplicant’s wish, the deity could be punished, just as the Zapotecs and mayans punished their gods and saints, lashing their images with whips. In this church, the statues of saints, which had been ceremonially draped, with an uttered prayer, could be stripped of their robe if the prayer was not answered.

Check out the above YouTube video, which gives a you a feeling of life in this Tzotzil village.

Different

Columbus Discovered a Whole New World

As we approach Columbus Day (October 12), it is useful to note that there few monuments to him in most of the New World. Just as there are few monuments to Hernan Cortés or Francisco Pizarro. It would be sort of like Jews creating monuments to Heinrich Himmler or Adolph Eichmann. Since most Gringos are of European ancestry, we have a hard time seeing the world from the eyes of the Caribs who first saw Columbus on San Salvador on October 12, 1492. Oh, by the way, there are no more Caribs. They all died off from the diseases the conquerors brought with them or the subsequent enslavement by their new masters.

The above image from Quito’s Mindalae Museum has a distinctively non European air about it. Pre-Columbian art, in general, looks odd to Gringos, unless they have developed the fine art of seeing the world through the eyes of other peoples. This is something even our President hasn’t done, inasmuch as he sees Mexican and Central American refugees as rapists. (Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!)

Nowhere is the difference between our culture and theirs more prominent than on the subject of religion. Below, for instance, is an image of the Maya maize god, Hun Hunahpu:

The Maya Maize God

The gods of the Maya pantheon at times appear to partake of the characteristics of lizards, alligators, monkeys, and other creatures—quite different from the Judaeo-Christian and Islamic Deity.

Different as they were from us, the Maya developed a calendar that, even after over a thousand years, is more accurate than our own. They had writing, which, though resembling monsters more than characters in the Greek and Roman alphabets, still enabled them to write their history.

Mayan Glyphs

Even though the cultures of the Old World have proven so dominant, we are only now discovering that the Maya had their own strengths. Although the Aztecs and Inca are no longer active cultures, there are still six million Maya speaking some thirty dialects of the Mayan tongue. The old Mayan glyphs may no longer be in use, but there is still an active Maya culture—actually, a number of them.

 

War All the Time

Ball Court at Maya Ruins in Copán, Honduras

I have just finished reading Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path by David Freidel, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker. It was not an easy book to read, and it was a bit on the speculative side, but it brought forth a highly original interpretation of the fall of Classical Maya Civilization (approximately AD 250-800):

In their own way, the Maya thus acknowledged the terrible truth of war as statecraft: the authority of a small number of people over the many who must suffer and die in combat. But unlike our leaders, Maya rulers themselves went to war with the men they sent; and Maya kings and their noble vassals put not only their bodies but also their souls in jeopardy every time they clashed. It is no exaggeration to say that they lived for those moments of truth, those trials of the strength of their spirits. Every major political activity in their lives—the dedication of every public text, image, and building of royal and community importance—required the capture and sacrifice of rival peers. Only in this way could the proper rituals of sanctification be fulfilled, the gods nourished, and the portals of communication opened between the human and the divine.

When the Maya stopped inhabiting their ceremonial centers around AD 800, it wasn’t because they had disappeared: They found that there was too high a price to pay to maintain the god/kings in their position of rule. My personal belief was that certainly was one of the reasons why the Classical Civilization fell, but not the only reason

Macaw Markers from the Copán Ball Court

Intimately connected with the endless wars were a serious of gladiatorial combats in the form of … a ball game. Ball courts were scattered throughout Mesoamerica. At times, the games were friendly and/or ceremonial, but often they were played with the god/kings and nobles of other cities. The losing side was sacrificed to the gods. During the game, the ball could not be hit by the hands or feet: Only the thigh or hip could be used. The ball, made of rubber, was bounced against the sides of the ball court—but at no time was it allowed to touch the ground. If it did, game over—and lost.

Many a Maya god/king was sacrificed in this way, including the great 18 Rabbit of Copán, who was sacrificed at Quiriguá, which was a much smaller Maya polity.

 

The Talking Stones of Yaxuna

The Mayan Glyph Stairway at Copán

The Maya believe that certain inanimate objects, such as stone glyphs and statues had souls. The following excerpt, entitled “The Talking Stones,” comes from Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path by archeologists David Freidel, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker:

When I read Paul Sullivan’s book [Unfinished Conversations: Mayas and Foreigners Between Two Wars] it helped me understand something I had witnessed among the village people of Yaxuna who worked with me on the nearby ancient city. When excavation first began, the villagers were deeply concerned that we might try to remove stones, especially carved stones, from the ruins. I had difficulty understanding their anxiety. I explained to them that sometimes artifacts had to be removed for analysis, but that they would be returned faithfully when safe storage could be built for them. The matter was of such importance to the villagers that finally Don Pablo, the local shaman, took it personally  upon himself to ensure that no carved stones be removed from the site. There were some strained moments when the archeologists of the Mexican government insisted that carved stones be taken to safekeeping and the Yaxuna people insisted that they stay; but the tensions were finally resolved. The stones of Yaxuna are still there, under the watchful eyes of the villagers, and now I know why the matter loomed so large: such stones are likely k’an che’, seats of supernaturals.

I had one other encounter with Don Pablo and talking stones. One day in the summer of 1989, after he had done some work on the camp kitchen, I found a clear glass marble in the area. Thinking it belonged to Don Pablo and was one of his saso’ob, the “lights” he used when focusing spiritual forces, I took it next door to him that evening. He took the marble and inspected it carefully.

“Yes,” he said finally, “this is a stone of light.”

Then he smiled, “However, it won’t speak until it has been soaked in maize gruel, sak-a’, and then it will speak only Maya.”