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November 2004

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Maya Underworld

By David Roberts
We had scarcely gone 200 yards into the Guatemalan forest, 20 of us weaving single file along the faint path behind our machete-wielding guide, when Diego Faustino Chávez warned us about a certain kind of bejuco, or vine. "If you step over it," he said to anthropologist Allen Christenson, "you can disappear. Or you think you've been gone for a few seconds, but it's really been three days."

We had already been told that if a snake or a jaguar or an owl crossed our path, we would have to turn around at once and go back to town. Now, the leaders of our pilgrimage marched up the hillside with hypervigilant care, alert to any of these omens that might prove it was unsafe to approach our distant goal. Five of our group were gringos, including Christenson, photographer Stephen Alvarez, and me. The rest were Tz'utujil Maya from the nearby town of Santiago Atitlán. Our leaders were the machete-wielding guide; Diego, an aristocratic Santiago entrepreneur; and an ajq'ij named Juan, one of only a handful of ajq'ijs among the Tz'utujil. More than a shaman, an ajq'ij is a day keeper (the term translates literally as "he of the day"), an initiate into the ancient mysteries of the Maya calendar, in which every day has a plethora of supernatural signs and overtones.

The goal of our pilgrimage was a remote cave called Paq'alibal. For the Tz'utujil, Paq'alibal is arguably the most sacred place in the universe, for it is the cave in which dwell the nuwals, deified ancestors who bless the world with rain and fertility. So dangerous was it to approach the cave unprepared, the Maya believe, that in Santiago several shamans had been performing ceremonies since August to ensure that the nuwals would welcome us. Christenson had been doing fieldwork in Santiago since 1988 and had learned about Paq'alibal early on; but it had taken 15 years for him to earn the trust of the Santiago shamans that now made our trek possible.

November 3, chosen by the ajq'ijs as the proper day for our pilgrimage, was named K'at in the Maya calendar, and for Juan that was not a good sign. Among K'at's deeper meanings were "to burn," "in nets," and "touchy" or "delicate." As Christenson had forewarned me, "'Touchy' is self-evident. But we could also be caught, as in a net. Another meaning has to do with the process of degraining maize. We could be pulled out at any moment, like a kernel of corn."

Our guide was setting so frantic a pace up the steep trail that it was all Stephen and I, who thought we were in pretty good shape, could do to keep up. We learned later that a barely controlled terror was dictating his pace. At one point he had seen the trees on either side of him start to tremble, despite there being not a breath of wind. As Diego later explained, "He was afraid of being betrayed. If we went up there in bad faith, he would get in serious trouble with the ancestors. If we went against the traditions, he feared for his very life."

In an hour we had climbed 1,500 feet above Lake Atitlán, whose glistening surface we glimpsed now and then through holes in the canopy. But the ajq'ij had heard a woodpecker singing on the left side of our column. A woodpecker on the right would have been all right, but a woodpecker on the left—the dark, female side—was a very bad omen.

Far above the lake we crossed a high ridge and immediately plunged into thick clouds. I felt completely disoriented: We seemed to be hiking through a limitless tangle of branches and leaves. Now, from Tz'utujil mutterings translated into Spanish and then into English, I learned that the Maya believed that the trail had suddenly and mysteriously stretched itself out for hundreds of yards. Diego paused beside our column, a finger to his lips demanding silence. We were almost in sight of the cave, he whispered to Christenson.

But we would not be allowed to visit Paq'alibal after all. There had been too many inauspicious signs.

That didn't mean that our day was over, however. In an utterly nondescript patch of forest, a piece of cloud-smothered ridge that seemed detached from Earth itself, we halted. The Maya celebrants unloaded their packs. Under the ajq'ij's careful direction, the Tz'utujil began laying out the paraphernalia for a ritual that would last for four hours.

To the Maya a cave is a portal to the underworld—to what some Maya call Xibalba, the Place of Fright. In the Maya cosmos, Xibalba is a complex realm, the dwelling place of monstrous supernatural beings but also the source of life-giving rain and corn, and the home of the beloved dead.

Today's Maya, who number perhaps seven and a half million people, occupy a region stretching from Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula to northern El Salvador and Honduras; although culturally a single people, they speak 30-odd languages. They trace their ancestry back at least as far as 2000 b.c. From about a.d. 250 to 900, the Classic era, they aggregated in cities of as many as 90,000 people, built lordly pyramids such as those that still stand at Tikal, Copán, Palenque, and Calakmul, and erected tall stone monuments, or stelae, to glorify their kings. During this period the Maya perfected the most complex writing system invented in the pre-Columbian New World. Then some monumental catastrophe struck the Maya world in the ninth century. The great cities were abandoned; the Maya stopped inscribing the stelae with rich hieroglyphic texts. A second great rupture occurred with the Spanish conquest after 1524. By the 18th century even the wisest Maya elders had lost the knowledge of the hieroglyphs, which scribes had stopped writing more than a century before.

As far back as archaeologists can trace the culture, there is evidence of the profound importance of caves in Maya life. Yet though outsiders have been studying Maya civilization since the memorable voyages of John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood in the mid-1800s, most remain ignorant of the Maya underworld. Cave rituals and pilgrimages have been performed by the Maya at least as far back as the time of Christ, yet it was not until 1959 that any were documented.

On September 15 of that year, José Humberto Gómez, a Mexican tour guide, was prowling through the cave of Balankanche, near Chichén Itzá in Yucatán. The cave had long been known and, it was thought, thoroughly explored; only a few potsherds scattered along the main passageway testified to an ancient Maya presence. Suddenly Gómez noticed that a patch of wall was unnatural. Scraping away the mud, he uncovered a small portal sealed with clay.

Gómez chipped away the clay and crawled through a hole, emerging in a tunnel. A hundred yards on he came to a large chamber dominated by a column of limestone reaching from floor to ceiling. What Gómez saw astonished him. On the slimy cave floor was a dazzling assemblage of brightly painted clay vessels. Many were incense burners shaped as effigies of the rain god Tlaloc, whose grotesque, sneering face was molded in bas-relief on the clay itself. News of the find soon reached a nearby archaeological team. That team, led by E. Wyllys Andrews IV and sponsored in part by the National Geographic Society, performed an extensive survey of the cave.

Forty-four years later, on a miserably hot day in July, I took the hourly guided tour of Balankanche. Even though the cave is now tamed with electric lights and boardwalks, a sign in Spanish at the entrance warns anyone with cardiac or respiratory problems (as well as nerviosas and claustrofóbicas) not to enter. Three hundred yards in, we stepped through a gateway, a tourist-friendly portal enlarged from Gómez's crawlway, then hiked down the tunnel to the room with the column. There, I leaned against a wooden railing and stared. My breath came in shallow gasps—partly because of the fetid air and partly because of what I saw.

The 1959 team had left the objects they found in situ. The painted Tlaloc effigy pots still lay all around the column—not replicas, but the original vessels. About a thousand years ago the local Maya had performed elaborate rites in this secret lair so near the underworld. Tlaloc, moreover, was originally not a Maya but a central Mexican god. By appealing to this deity, rather than the Maya rain god, Chac, the Balankanche worshippers had demonstrated a close affiliation (only dimly suspected before 1959) with civilizations more than 800 miles away, north of today's Mexico City. Had Tlaloc failed them? For whatever reason, the Maya had sealed shut the shrine—no doubt forever, they hoped, for they had taken pains to camouflage the portal. Yet a faint memory of the lost shrine has perhaps come down through the centuries in the name of the cave. Balankanche translates as "throne of the jaguar" but can also mean "hidden throne."

Not long after the archaeologists entered the cave in 1959, Romualdo Ho'il, the hmen, or shaman, from the nearby town of Xcalakoop, told them he wasn't happy. At the time, George Stuart was a 24-year-old surveyor on the team; today the distinguished archaeologist, recently retired from National Geographic, is one of only two members of that party still alive. Stuart recalled the hmen's anger: "We had violated the cave. My wife and Andrews's wife had been inside, and taking women in was really bad. They—Ho'il and his assistants—would have to perform a ceremony, not only to purify the cave, but to protect us from serious harm."

Ho'il had a long list of goods for the ceremony, which he named the Reverent Message to the Lords. It included 13 chickens, 13 black candles made from wild bee honeycomb, leaf tobacco, bottles of the fiery alcohol aguardiente, garlic buds, black pepper, cumin seeds, and corn. On October 17, 1959, the team, along with Ho'il and his sizable Maya retinue, descended into Balankanche. The ritual would last almost 20 hours.

More than four decades later I sat in Stuart's study and listened to a wire recording of the ceremony. The shaman had drunk balche', a mildly intoxicating beverage, almost nonstop. But now, hours into the ritual, his voice rang clearly, a hypnotic stream of Maya syllables chanted on a single tone. At times he paused to imitate the guttural groan of the jaguar. In the background young boys mimicked the croaking of frogs.

Even for the gringos, who mostly sat and watched, the vigil was exhausting. The air was stiflingly close. But by morning Romualdo Ho'il had succeeded in purifying Balankanche of its profanation by Gómez and the archaeologists. What may have been the first Maya cave ritual ever witnessed by outsiders was complete.

In a far different part of the Maya world Stephen Alvarez and I watched a ceremony with many elements strikingly similar to the one at Balankanche. On the ridge far above Lake Atitlán, the Maya celebrants changed into traditional dress—red shirts and white pants embroidered with bird patterns. Out of their packs they pulled three guitars, a violin with only three twine strings, a pair of maracas, a big skin-headed drum, and a tun, a drum made out of a split hollowed log. The musicians, including Juan himself, tuned up and began to play. In this ensemble, a careless ear might have heard a mariachi band enlivening some picnic in the woods, except that Allen Christenson informed us that most of the songs were hymns of supplication to someone named Francisco Sojuel.

"Who's he?" I whispered. "He's the principal culture hero of the region," Christenson whispered back. "He represents all the nuwals in the cave." "When did he live?"

Christenson smiled. "Francisco Sojuel lived either at the time of Creation, or at the time of the Spanish conquest, or at the end of the 19th century—or all of the above."

Earlier the ajq'ij had cleared a patch of ground, then covered it with pine needles to improvise an altar. Men cooked tortillas and an egg-and-tomato meal over a small fire. A jug of aguardiente was passed around. Each of us had to down a jigger of the stuff in one gulp. Then the ajq'ij censed each of us by waving a can full of smoking copal about our bodies.

Now the ajq'ij laid out the offerings to the ancestors on his makeshift altar. He placed a pile of slender white candles in the center, then surrounded them with corn kernels in a plastic bag, cigarettes and matches, and a paper plate laden with the food. At the corners of the altar he placed four full aguardiente bottles, with a beer bottle next to the right-hand liquor flask. I sneaked out my compass. To my astonishment, in this cloud-blinded hollow in the forest, the ajq'ij had somehow placed the bottles exactly at the points of the four cardinal directions, with the beer-and-liquor pairing to the east, the most sacred direction.

The lilting, ballad-like music went on and on. We were all offered food and entreated to down yet more aguardiente. The ajq'ij himself had drunk far more than anyone else. Now he placed half the candles upright, digging little holes in the earth to support them, the whole design making a dotted square divided into four quadrants. Among the candles he placed cigarettes, half also upright. Then he lit the upright candles and cigarettes. At one point a candle drooped toward an unlit cigarette. One of the other men started to right it, but Juan stopped him with an urgent gesture. As we watched, the candle dipped by itself and lit the cigarette. This, we learned later, was the best possible sign, indicating that the ancestors, who "eat light," were accepting the offering.

After two hours the ajq'ij knelt before the altar and began to chant. The monotonic stream of run-on syllables in Tz'utujil bore an uncanny resemblance to the shaman's invocations on the 1959 recording. The ajq'ij's endurance was formidable, as he chanted for 20 minutes, staring east, deep in trance, his upturned hands kneading the air.

At last, one by one, the other men took Juan's place, kneeling before the altar. Standing beside each supplicant, the ajq'ij filled his own mouth with aguardiente, then blessed the man by spitting a fine spray over his head. At the end of the ritual the ajq'ij poured a can of pineapple juice on the ground, to each of the four directions.

The men embraced, giddy with happiness. All the candles had burned flush to the ground—another propitious sign. But as we loaded our packs to start the long hike back to Santiago, Stephen and I were still disappointed that we had not been allowed to go to Paq'alibal. Then Christenson told us the good news.

The ajq'ij had determined that the nuwals had been so pleased with the offering, it would be safe to go the next day. Even as I rejoiced at this second chance, I blanched at the thought of repeating the grueling hike. Not to worry, Christenson said: We had followed the ancient ceremonial route to Paq'alibal. The success of our ceremony meant that tomorrow we could take the shortcut.

Since the discovery of the hidden throne at Balankanche, archaeologists have found potsherds, rock art, and stone altars dating back to before the time of Christ inside underground grottoes all over the Maya world. Whether the ceremonies that left behind these vestiges were anything like those of today's Maya remains an unanswered question. But sometimes the artifacts are so rich, we can reconstruct the ritual that produced them.

One such ritual took place on a day in the second half of the ninth century a.d., as a group of Maya gathered before the hourglass-shaped mouth of a cave deep in the rain forest of what is today highland Belize, about 215 miles northeast of Paq'alibal. The celebrants carried huge orange and brown pots, grinding stones hewn from granite, copal to burn, and corn to offer. The priests waded into the stream rushing from the mouth of the cave, then, holding high their flaming pine torches, swam across the blue entrance and into the dimness beyond. The rest of the entourage followed. Among them was a woman, about 20, who would not emerge from the underground.

Slowly the procession wound into the realm of perpetual night. The supplicants pushed deeper, clambering over giant boulders, squeezing through keyhole slots, wading chin deep against the current. Their torches gave off a smoky orange glow, too faint to reach the ceiling above, from which daggers of slow-dripping calcite hung like portents.

Far into the cave, the pilgrims climbed onto a high shelf of limestone. The sound of the river faded below them. At last they gained a broad terrace where dams formed by thin stone ridges sectioned off dry pools. They laid down the things they had so arduously carried to this remote sanctum. As one torch guttered, they used it to light another. The priests prepared their invocations.

Another season had come and gone without a drop of rain. For reasons no one could fathom, Chac, the Maya rain god, had chosen to afflict the people. Some had already starved, and there was talk in the plazas about leaving the homeland for good, to wander north or west in search of reprieve. But if there was anything the people might do that could persuade Chac to relent, that could restore the world to the glory their forefathers had known, it was the deeds these celebrants would perform during the next several hours.

More than 11 centuries later Stephen Alvarez and I were guided into the same cave—Actun Tunichil Muknal, or the Cave of the Stone Sepulchre—by Jaime Awe, a Belizean archaeologist. We too swam across the entrance pool, waded chest deep in the rushing stream (as unseen fish nibbled at our legs), then climbed a steep and slippery rubble pile.

Eight hundred yards and almost two hours in, we reached the spacious chamber at the heart of the cave. Two hundred ceramic pots lay scattered about, most of them whole or nearly whole, some arranged in natural niches as if placed in museum display cases. The shock came, however, as we gazed upon our first skeleton—one of 14 Awe has found in the cave. "This is a human sacrifice," he said. During the next several hours we hovered over one victim after another, including one pile of tiny bones, all that was left of an infant. The most startling skeleton was that of the 20-year-old woman. She lay sprawled in the position of her death, legs and arms akimbo, as some priest had either slit her throat, cut her heart out, or disemboweled her. The skull, staring upward at eternity, seemed frozen in a silent scream.

Awe believes the skeletons were sacrifices to Chac. "Earlier the Maya had implored Chac near the entrances to the caves," he said. "But by the middle of the ninth century, something wasn't working. The rain never came. So the Maya went deeper and deeper into the caves, making more and more desperate petitions to Chac. This is what they left."

Even these prayers failed. Within 50 years the Classic civilization had collapsed and the center of Maya culture moved north to the Yucatán Peninsula. Actun Tunichil Muknal slept with its dark secrets for more than 1,100 years, until a small group of die-hard cavers in the 1980s rediscovered the portal deep in the Belize rain forest.

On our search for Paq'alibal, we headed once more up a faint path near Santiago Atitlán through the forest. From close by came the sharp reports of men, invisible in the jungle, chopping at trees with axes. Now Juan told the policemen accompanying us to unholster their pistols, for this was a dangerous area: not on account of woodpeckers on the left, but of bandits known to attack locals and tourists alike. I was not reassured to hear the policeman just behind me mutter in response, "Quien va a morir, va a morir, y quien no, no—Whoever's going to die is going to die, and whoever isn't, isn't."

After a steep hike of only 15 minutes, we stopped in front of a cliff with a small orifice at ground level. I thought we were taking a rest, until Allen Christenson said, "This is it."

I looked again. This is the storied Paq'alibal? I wondered, unable to squelch my disappointment. Sensing my mood, Christenson murmured, "To the Maya, it doesn't matter how big a cave is."

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. One of the Maya men popped open a can of fruit juice. A policeman wolfed down a pack of soda crackers. Diego's cell phone abruptly rang; he took the call, standing before the cave.

Above the mouth of the grotto, a pole had been affixed horizontally, from which, we learned, celebrants still hang offerings of fruit. Melted candle wax crusted the bedrock on either side of the opening. One by one, we poked our heads inside and crawled a few feet toward the darkness. The cliff was not limestone but a prickly basalt. The "cave" was little more than an alcove, but in the light of my headlamp, I could see that a level tunnel stretched a remarkable 40 or 50 feet back into the hillside, culminating in what looked like a natural altar. The ajq'ij asked us not to penetrate to that inner sanctum.

I waited for Juan to begin some sort of ceremony, but apparently none was needed. We had completed the propitiatory rites the day before, in that patch of cloud-shrouded ridgeline in the middle of nowhere.

Christenson's face was aglow. After all, he had waited 15 years for this moment. Now he said softly to Stephen and me, "Do you realize that we are the first Anglos ever to visit this place?"

The ajq'ij spoke to the anthropologist in Tz'utujil. Christenson translated: "He says his heart feels happy when he's close to the nuwals. And the nuwals are happy that he brought strangers here who have come here to honor Paq'alibal."

I felt my disenchantment slip away. All my own notions of the sacred, I realized, were based on Christian models—the sermon, the hymnal, the prayer on bended knee. Here in highland Guatemala I had been plunged into the midst of an altogether different conception of the sacred. Without the cave, the hike through the forest, and the days among the Maya, it was a revelation I could never have received.


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