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Maya Underworld @ National Geographic Magazine
By David RobertsPhotographs by Stephen L. Alvarez

Mesoamerican farmers still perform ancient rituals in sacred caves—portals to the "place of fright."

Read or print the full article.

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. 

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Sights & Sounds
Discover the mysteries of the Maya underworld, where ancient rituals sustain contemporary practitioners

Hear the 1959 recording of the Maya purification rite, "The Reverent Message to the Lords," with an introduction by anthropologist George Stuart, president of the Center for Maya Research.
RealPlayer   WinMedia

What traditional rituals do you take part in?  Why are they important to you?

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Despite the Maya's development of the most complex pre-Columbian writing system in the Americas, only a few pieces of writing have come down to us on anything other than stone. Of all the literature that must have been written on perishable materials, we have only a few examples available for study today. Of these, the most well known are the Popol Vuh, the four Maya codices, and the Books of Chilam Balam, which recorded Maya myth, prophecy, and history.
When the Spanish moved into Mesoamerica in the 1500s, they destroyed large numbers of hieroglyphic writings by the Maya. As the Maya learned Latin letters, they transcribed some of their older works into alphabetic script, which made them less easily spotted as heretical texts by the missionaries. One such text was the Popol Vuh, or Council Book, a Maya creation myth that was written down in the K'iche' language of present-day Guatemala in the mid-1500s. Originally, the stories would have been passed down by word of mouth, or perhaps in one of the hieroglyphic texts that was destroyed.
The Popol Vuh managed to remain hidden until 1702, when a priest, Padre Francisco Ximénez of Chichicastenango, Guatemala, found the text and in an enlightened moment chose not to burn it. Instead, he copied it and wrote down a Spanish translation of the work. The original K'iche' text is now lost, but the priest's transcription and translation survive in the Newberry Library in Chicago.
The extant Maya codices are illustrated hieroglyphic works painted in colored inks on long strips of the treated inner bark of fig trees and pleated accordion-style. They are not in great condition, and only portions are readable, yet they are still an excellent resource for Maya scholars. Three of the codices are named after the cities in which they now reside: Madrid, Dresden, and Paris. The fourth, the Grolier Codex, was discovered in 1965 in a cave in Mexico and is now stored in Mexico City.
—Elizabeth Snodgrass
Did You Know?

Related Links
Center for Maya Research
The Center for Maya Research is an educational organization founded by George Stuart in 1984. The center's purpose is to encourage research in Maya anthropology and art history, including archaeology, epigraphy, ethnohistory, ethnology, and linguistics; publish educational materials and research findings with a focus on Maya writing; and conduct small-scale research projects.

Canadian Museum of Civilization: Mystery of the Maya
Browse this great all-purpose site established in 1995 (but still being updated) by the Canadian Museum of Civilization to accompany an exhibit. Well-illustrated sections cover topics from the peoples, language, cities, cosmology, calendar, and astronomy to the modern Maya, a historical time line, and a glossary of Maya words.

Mundo Maya Online
Pick and choose among your favorite Maya-related topics. A collection of articles on specific subjects, this website gives focused information on archaeology, nature, daily life, history, handicrafts, legends, and Maya notes—updates on developments in the Maya world.

Santiago Atitlán
Learn more about the town of Santiago Atitlán, beautiful Lake Atitlán, and the Tz'utujil Maya. Santiago's history is explored from Maya times through the Spanish conquest, the recent Guatemalan civil war, and to today. Weaving, art, and religion sections feature detail on local traditions, worship, and the yearly religious cycle.
Archaeology Magazine Interactive Digs
Dig deep into the topic of Belizean cave archaeology through Archaeology's website of interactive digs from 2000 and 2001 at Actun Tunichil Muknal and other caves in west-central Belize. Sit in on a conversation with archaeologist Jaime Awe of the Belize Institute of Archaeology, read student journals, browse field notes from the people excavating the caves, and enjoy a story about traveling through the caves of Belize by an Archaeology staff member.
Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc.
Interested in doing your own studies of the Maya? For the scholarly approach, check out FAMSI's website. The foundation was "created in 1993 to foster increased understanding of ancient Mesoamerican cultures. The Foundation aims to assist and promote qualified scholars who might otherwise be unable to undertake or complete their programs of research and synthesis." The second link takes you to an illustrated explanation of the Maya codices—bark paper hieroglyphic manuscripts that survived the Spanish conquest.

Weaving the Fabric of the Cosmos
Come and study the religious rituals around Santiago Atitlán with anthropologist Allen Christenson. The site features explanations and step-by-step photographs of the Tz'utujil Maya as they carry out traditional rituals, but is also available in a text-only format. An interview with Allen Christenson rounds out the offerings.

Popol Vuh, translated by Dennis Tedlock
Curious about the K'iche' Maya's sacred book, the Popol Vuh? Here's the full translation (253 pages) by Dennis Tedlock. This site takes time to download, but once it's up and running, you can read all about the Maya creation myth and the adventures of the Hero Twins and their family.
Actun Tunichil Muknal
Walk through the Cave of the Stone Sepulchre yourself by following this first-person account of a visit to Maya caves in Belize.


Coe, Michael D. The Maya, 6th ed. Thames and Hudson, 1999.
Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens. Thames and Hudson, 2000.


NGS Resources
Tarpy, Cliff.  "Place of the Standing Stones: Unearthing a King From the Dawn of the Maya." National Geographic (May 2004), 66-79.

Tourtellot, Jonathan B.  "Major Move in Maya Land." National Geographic Traveler (May/June 2003), 42, 44.  
Inomata, Takeshi. "Aguateca: New Revelations of the Maya Elite."  National Geographic (May 2003), 110-19.
Kaufmann, Carol. "Sistine Chapel of the Early Maya." National Geographic (December 2003), 72-7. 

Vesilind, Priit J. "Watery Graves of the Maya." National Geographic (October 2003), 82-101.
Zackowitz, Margaret G.  "Royal City of the Maya." National Geographic (August 2003), 96-9.
Stuart, George E.  "Yucatán's Mysterious Hill Cities." National Geographic (April 2002), 54-69.
Stuart, George E.  "Maya Heartland Under Siege." National Geographic (November 1992), 94-107.
Agurcia Fasquelle, Ricardo, and William L. Fash, Jr. "Maya Artistry Unearthed." National Geographic (September 1991), 94-105.


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