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Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Find newer posts soon at my forthcoming blog, Revolutionary Time.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Learning from a Mayan Shaman, #3: Chichen Itza

A few thoughts of my own before I return to Israel's . . .

Chichen Itza, a post-classic Mayan City in the northern Yucatan important between 600 and 1200 A.D., is included in some Seven Wonders of the World lists. I could see why when I stood at the foot of the Pyramid of Kukulkan and looked up its steep steps toward the hulking temple on top, when I walked Chichen Itza's sprawling grounds until its structures seemed to look back at me and I had to turn away, let my mind wander.

Actually, this isn't true. While I was at Chichen Itza, I registered very little. I was too overwhelmed. Most of these thoughts and feelings surfaced in retrospect.

From my limited travels, I've been able to call up only one comparison to this haunted place--the Roman Forum. Both the Forum and Chichen Itza were built over time and contain structures used for religion and government. Chichen Itza was also a city, of course, where people lived, worked and were laid to rest, whereas the Forum was only part of a city, a gathering place for the people in charge. But both are artifacts of empires that perished. Both insist on the ultimacy of power.

The Arch of Titus, for example, located just off the Roman Forum, commemorates the emperor who led the siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D, resulting in the destruction of the Second Temple, the deaths of a million Jews, and the Diaspora. "Whoopee!" this structure seems to say. "We wiped out an entire culture!" The Romans didn't succeed in wiping out the Jewish people or their culture, of course, although Europeans would continue trying to do this for millennia to come.



Like the Pyramid, Chichen Itza's Temple of the Warriors is dedicated to Kukulkan, the plumed serpent, whose role in classic Maya society centered on sacrificial rites. The serpent served a sort of lightning rod up to the gods. In post-classic Chichen Itza, when the city was most powerful, Kukulkan was also a king. This double identity confused me until I remembered that Augustus Caesar was also both god and king (at least according to Augustus Caesar).


The Temple of Warriors was built about 1000 AD. By this time the Toltec people and the Maya had interacted, possibly in wars that left the Toltec in charge. Toltec influence on the Temple is said to be strong. The ranks of columns, each column representing a guerrero, once supported a roof. Roofless, the columns seemed to move rather than stand still, as if in procession.

Israel laid a hand on one of these columns and said, "A warrior built this, to make himself immortal. And now he is."

I said above that Chichen Itza was haunted, but the spirits seemed all male to me.

"These buildings are all towers, built toward the sky," I said to Israel. "Toward sky gods. Male gods."

"No, there are structures that go down too," Anyaa, one of the trip planners and a shamanic priestess, said.  "Remember the excavation Israel showed us." Archaeologists had unearthed above-ground structures before looking below ground, but the digging down had begun. "Remember the seven points."

During our purification ceremony, we'd followed Israel's lead by turning toward the East, South, West and North (I may have the order wrong), by reaching for the sky and kneeling to touch the ground. At the center of the circle was the point at which an axis--knowing a little more, I see this now as a snake or  tree--connected the underworld, this world, and the realm of the gods and ancestors above. Seven points.

Cenote at Chichen Itza, inaccessible to visitors
I remembered as well that we were going to visit several cenotes, the underground rivers that made Mayan life in the Yucatan possible. I looked forward to swimming in one or two.

Israel drew a series of concentric circles on the ground, identifying the gatekeepers between the circles, officials whose importance increased the closer they stood to the center. Many of these officials, Israel said, were women.

Yet the bottom line for me was that Chichen Itza was built by the powerless for the powerful. I was as uncomfortable there as I'd been at Versailles or Hearst Castle. The spirits of the women who'd lived and worked there, raised their children there, didn't speak to me. Nor did those of the men, some of them slaves (as is true in nearly all ancient cultures), whose lives were consumed by hard labor.

More to come: Evenings together talking about collapse.

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Photos from Google Images