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Monday, November 29, 2004

Descent into the Maya Underworld

    Posted by Adam Crouch

Source: National Geographic
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 Chavez 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."

That's the opener of an article in the November 2004 issue of National Geographic, entitled "Descent into the Maya Underworld".

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, that 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.

It's an interesting account, which provides a window into the religious practices of the modern-day decendents of the ancient Mayas, 7 million of whom live in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. Also lots of discussion about the importance of caves as an entrance into the world of the gods, and about some of the interesting cave finds of recent years.

About a different cave the author had entered, and the remains of a sacrifice thousands of years ago:

800 yards and almost 2 hours in, we reached the spacious chamber at the heart of the cave. 200 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 disembowled her. The skull, staring upward at eternity, seemed frozen in a silent scream.

National Geographic only has an excerpt online, so you'll have to find the print edition to read the whole thing. Find it in a library -- that's the only interesting article in the issue (though they do have an updated version of the World at Night map, with different colors for things like fishing lights, fires, etc).

There are a number of additional multimedia features online, however, like a flash presentation of the "sights and sounds of the Maya Underworld", and the full audio recording from 1959 of the ceremony to purify Balankanche, after E. Wyllys Andrews IV's archeological team angered the rain god by entering the cave.

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