by Brooke Chilvers
With all I’ve learned in life, it seems I never knew that by the time the Spanish conquistadores set out to obliterate the Mayans, soon after Christopher Columbus’s younger brother first encountered—and looted—a Mayan trader’s canoe in 1502, its great urban populations had already crashed and dispersed by as much as 90 per cent. Scholars refer to this as Late Postclassic Maya, which says everything.
Christian self-righteousness, disease, and greed finished off the rest when Mayan wooden swords, flint-tipped spears, and bows and arrows encountered the hard metal of muskets, cannons, and crossbows. Not to mention crosses and horses.
It seems impossible today, standing at the foot of the 140-foot-tall pyramid called Caana (meaning sky place) that rises above the piney montane Chiquibul Rainforest in the Mayan site called Caracol in Cayo Province in Belize, that these numerous ceremonial stepped pyramids, along with hundreds of palaces and temples, were built without metal tools, beasts of burden, or even the wheel. Caana is still the tallest structure in Belize.
Incredibly, except for the swallow-tailed kite and keel-billed toucans, the Montezuma oropendola and collared trogons, we were almost alone with our guides at these sacred-vibed ruins and plazas in the jungle. To be dreaded is the day when the rugged roads from San Ignacio are transformed by tarmac in order to transport boatloads of day-tripping cruise-ship tourists.
The Mundo Maya (The World of the Maya), a term created in the 1980s, describes the maize-growing classical culture that began settling into Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Belize as early as 1500 B.C. Around 300 B.C., the developing city-states began organizing into a society built on a highly structured hierarchal system of government, with the king, nobility, and priests at the top, followed by merchants and artisans, with serfs, slaves and prisoners at the bottom. It endured for a thousand years.
Mayan culture is considered to have been at its height between 300 A.D. and 900 A.D., with elite scribes developing a hieroglyphic language, and observations by priests giving rise to mathematics and a remarkable 260-day calendar. Farmers farmed, artisans carved limestone stela, and ceramic artists mixed ground pigments with clay and water to decorate their daily and religious pottery.
The power of the Mayan king lay in his ability to communicate with the fate-determining gods who also owned all agriculture and the rain. The king’s job was to influence the many gods by propitiating them and paying homage through rituals, thus assuring the continuity of the sun that transforms into a jaguar at night and returns each morning from its voyage across the Underworld.
The purpose of ritual bloodletting and bloody sacrifice was to nourish the gods with human energy in return for the king’s divine power. In addition to the elaborate slaughtering of slaves and prisoners, of orphans and illegitimate children, the king himself drew blood from his penis with an obsidian knife or stingray spine; his wife ran a thorny rope through her tongue. The blood was collected on cloth that was burned, the smoke ascending to reach the gods.
The king’s strength and authority were expressed visually by his embodying the smart, wary, and deadly jaguar—the true king of the jungle—which possessed the ability to travel through the nine layers of the Underworld and the 13 layers of Heaven. The king thus transformed his traditional terrestrial enemy into his celestial ally. The king wore jaguar pelts (#1), and sat on a carved wood or limestone jaguar throne (#2). To physically reach the deities in the sky, he built Jaguar Temples to Jaguar Gods, such as Lamanai in Belize, which were covered in glyphs and bas-relief sculpture of jaguars (#3 and #4). His priests carefully monitored solar and lunar eclipses that were caused by the cat biting into the sun and moon. The Aztec, Olmec, and Inca also worshipped the jaguar.
The many Jaguar Gods are recognizable from their combination of human and feline features, their jaguar ears, fangs, tails, and spotted bodies or spotted cloaks. (#5) The Underworld Jaguar Gods are associated with warfare and the night, especially God L and the Jaguar God of Terrestrial Fire and War. The pelt-mantled and cat-tailed God L is also associated with trade, wealth, and sorcery, and lives in a jaguar palace. There is also the Jaguar Paddler, the Water Lily Jaguar, and the Jaguar Goddess who protects both fertility and war.
Kings incorporated the word and hieroglyph for jaguar into their royal names: Moon Jaguar, Bird Jaguar, and Jaguar Paw who ruled Tikal in the fourth century.
Strong leadership, improved agriculture, and irrigation helped expand the population to an estimated 400,000 to one million, which is thought to subsequently have been catastrophically devastated by extended drought and famine. This caused the Mayans to doubt and abandon their kings, who may have inadvertently contributed to depopulation through ever greater human sacrifices in rituals and in battle.
No longer united, the center did not hold, leaving Mayan power to dissipate and nearly vanish before the first Spanish gun was fired.
Later came the British buccaneers and smugglers with their slaves, who pirated the scrawny, wild-growing logwood, used for making an indigo-like dye for fabrics and paper, and later mahogany. Meanwhile, the Spanish and Brits signed treaties and then ignored them.
For those still locked into the British Commonwealth mindset, Belize, you recall, was the Colony of British Honduras from 1862 to 1973; it is still a member of the Commonwealth today. In fact, Belize is the only English-speaking country in the Mundo Maya, although everyone also habla español.
Brooke Chilvers thanks Julio Tut and the entire Tut family at Crystal Paradise resort, near San Ignacio, for creating so many wonderful memories of Belize’s natural and cultural wonders.