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Exploring The Writing Process With Leonide Martin.
In this new series of posts, I’ll be taking a look at The Writing Process. Whenever I’ve done an author interview, one question always asked is how I navigate the process of writing. Every author follows a personal writing process, so no single formula fits for all. There are common steps we all go through in conceptualizing, developing, planning, researching, writing routine, revising, editing, and publishing. This series will explore each step in the writing process, using my own experiences as examples.
The book I most recently completed is The Mayan Red Queen: Tz’aakb’u Ahau of Palenque. This is the third book in the Mists of Palenque series about four remarkable ancient Mayan women. Released in 2017 as an ebook, it’s now in the process of getting into print with publication date March 1, 2018. The Mayan Red Queen is the example through which I’ll dissect my journey through The Writing Process.
Inspiration for The Mayan Red Queen Story
My husband and I bought a house in Mérida, Yucatan, Mexico in 2005 and lived there for five years. Our main purpose was for me to become immersed in Mayan culture and history to better write historical fiction about this great civilization. Yucatan was a perfect location, peppered with Maya ruins and infused with a vibrant modern Mayan culture. I had already written my first historical fiction about the Mayas before we moved to Mérida, and now had a new book in mind. The first book, Dreaming the Maya Fifth Sun: A Novel of Maya Wisdom and the 2012 Shift in Consciousness, is a story of two women separated by centuries yet connected by
a web of history, whose destinies intertwine as the end of the Maya Calendar on December 21, 2012 approaches. Of course, the Mayas never predicted the calendar—much less the world—would end in 2012. For them, one great cycle rolled over into the next. This perspective is dramatized in the story.
While visiting Mexico during the years before we moved there, I’d been captivated by the ancient city Palenque located in southern Chiapas. I’d already done considerable research to write the first book, but was spurred to delve more deeply into the archeology and history of Palenque. Several famous archeological things happened there: John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood wrote their Incidents of Travel books that became international best-sellers in the mid-1800s and put Palenque on the map. Alberto Ruz Lhuillier excavated the tomb of famous ruler K’inich Janaab Pakal in 1952; it compares in riches to King Tut’s of Egypt. The series of Mesa Redondas conducted by Linda Schele and Merle Green Robertson during the 1970s brought together Mayanists from several disciplines; their combined skills deciphered the “king list” of Palenque rulers. Excavations by Arnoldo Gonzalez Cruz and Fanny Lopez Jimenez uncovered the tomb of a royal woman in 1994, her skeleton permeated with red cinnabar; it was the first queen’s burial ever found among the ancient Mayas.
Here is where the inspiration for my next book about the Mayas began. As I stood in the narrow passageway and peered into the chamber holding her empty sarcophagus, I wondered who this woman was. Her bones had been removed to Mexico City in a museum for preservation and study. Her burial adornments were in the Palenque museum; a jadeite mask, jade diadem, jade and stone jewelry, ceramics, tools, symbols of status. The partially restored pyramid housing her tomb (Temple XIII) adjoined the huge burial monument for Pakal (Temple of the Inscriptions); this made researchers think there was a relationship. By pure luck, I was browsing through Dante Books in Mérida and came upon a book about her: La Reina Roja by Adriana Malvido. I’d never have found this book unless I was in Mexico; I’d never been able to read it unless I had continued studying Spanish while there.
La Reina Roja: El secreto de los mayas en Palenque was written in 2006 by a journalist from Mexico City, working in consultation with INAH, Mexico’s institute for preserving national culture and history. It read like a novel yet contained extensive factual information about the archeological excavation and historical background. I learned that the woman whose red bones were interred might be Pakal’s grandmother, mother, wife, or daughter-in-law. At that time, good techniques for analysis of teeth and bones were not available. It took over ten years for scientists to determine that the Red Queen’s skeleton and Pakal’s skeleton did not share DNA, and their teeth had different strontium isotope signatures. This eliminated his grandmother and mother; making his wife
most likely to receive such an honored and richly adorned burial.
Reading Malvido’s book, I learned about the other candidates for the burial and became fascinated by this lineage of royal women. Pakal’s grandmother Yohl Ik’nal was the first Mayan women to rule independently, causing a shift in dynastic succession. His mother assumed the throne after her brother was killed in Palenque’s worst defeat. She weathered opposition and chaos to keep the throne until her son Pakal came of age. His wife was from another city, lived many years in Palenque and bore him four sons. His daughter-in-law kept the dynasty going although she married his youngest son; the older sons had no surviving heirs.
The Nucleus of a Story Emerges
It was simply evident that I had to tell the stories of these four great Mayan queens. At first I conceptualized a single book in four parts, did lots more research and made an outline. While in Mérida I began writing about Yohl Ik’nal, but the writing process was difficult. Anyone who has lived the ex-pat life knows how many distractions abound. Eating out at fine restaurants was inexpensive; there was abundant good wine; too many parties and musical performances; endless excursions to interesting sites around Yucatan; discussion groups and teas and local fiestas and carnivals. Serious writing had to wait until we returned to the States and then I discovered there was too much material for one book. The result: The Mists of Palenque series of four books, each dedicated to a queen.
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Precolumbian Art Research Institute. PARI Online Publication. Palenque Round Tables 1-8. (Mesas Redondas). 1973-1993. http://www.mesoweb.com/pari/round_table.html
Precolumbian Art Research Institute. PARI Online Publication. The First Mesa Redonda of Palenque. 1973. http://www.mesoweb.com/pari/publications/RT01/RT01_00.html
Adriana Malvido. La Reina Roja: El secreto de los mayas en Palenque. Conaculta/INAH, Mexico City, Mexico, 2006.
John L. Stephens. Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan. Volume I. With illustrations by Frederick Catherwood. Dover Pub., Inc., New York, 1969. Originally published in 1841 by Harper & Brothers, New York.
David Stuart & George Stuart. Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya. Thames & Hudson Ltd, London, 2008.
Arnoldo Gonzalez Cruz. The Red Queen. Mesoweb Online Publications, 1994 excavations of Temple XIII, Palenque. http://www.mesoweb.com/palenque/features/red_queen/text.html
Arnoldo Gonzalez Cruz. La Reina Roja, una tumba real en Palenque, 2011. (Wikipedia)
Mayan Queens and Kings were Shaman-Rulers charged to Maintain Balance between the Three Worlds of the Maya Cosmos.
Mayan Queens were powerful leaders in ancient Maya culture. Women rulers are well-documented during the mid to late Classic Period, 300-900 CE. Called K’uhul Ixik, Holy Lady in classic Mayan language, their role included entering shamanic states to access spirit domains and drawn upon the powers of deities and ancestors. The rituals rulers performed, and the sacred architecture of pyramids and temples in which rituals took place, were symbols of creation in the cosmos.
“They are all instruments for accessing spiritual power from the creative act . . . they are signposts on the Maya road to reality stretching across the landscape of history.” ̶ Maya Cosmos
Mayan queens and kings did rituals of sacrifice and sympathetic magic.
Accessing powers of Otherworld Gods and Ancestors was not easily achieved. Mayan queens or kings had to make appropriate offerings and know how to call the deities’ names properly. The most common sacrifice was self-bloodletting, because blood was ultimately sacred as itz, sticky fluid that was ch’ulul, the life force energy, life-essence and creative substance. The shaman-ruler let blood from tongue, earlobes or genitals to concentrate and channel this life force from the Otherworld.
“In a sense, the shamans were like modern engineers. But instead of nuclear power plants and electrical grids they used pyramids and Vision Serpent portals. Instead of electron flows they used itz. The spilling of blood, like the throwing of a giant breaker switch, brought life giving energy pouring into the universe from the underlying force fields of the Otherworld.” ̶ The Shaman’s Secret
Rituals for accessing spiritual powers propelled the shaman-ruler into altered states of consciousness, both by the act of self-bloodletting and use of mind-altering substances. The objective was to receive a tangible vision and an overwhelming experience of the deities; essentially a state of Divine Union or Communion. It is sympathetic magic through conjuring Divine beings, often intentional calling of a certain deity. Since all things mirror each other, in Mayan cosmology, when rituals re-enacted events from Creation Mythology, or conjured a warrior ancestor to guide a king through battle, these supernatural events were reactivated and manifested on earth.
Lady Kab’al Xoc Conjures an Ancestor Warrior
Lady Kab’al Xoc, first wife of Itzamnaaj Bahlam of Yaxchilan, was a famous Mayan queen. She is shown on carved lintels doing a bloodletting ritual, drawing a rope embedded with thorns through her tongue. As her blood fell on bark paper in a censer, it was set on fire and the rising smoke turned into the Vision Serpent. An ancestor warrior emerges from the snake’s open jaws, brandishing a shield and spear with Teotihuacan imagery (Tlaloc face mask, mosaic war helmet, double pointed spear). The ancestor brought important messages to guide the king during the upcoming battle.
Equinox Rituals Brought the Worlds Into Balance
An important responsibility of Mayan queens and kings was to perform rituals at key times according to their calendars. The Mayas had numerous calendars and many rituals were needed. Solar calendar events were especially potent: equinoxes, solstices, zenith, and eclipses. Each mid-fall and mid-spring, the sun reaches a point in its ecliptic when day and night come into balance. The concept of balance was critical to the Mayas; rulers were charged to keep the three worlds—Underworld, Middleworld, and Upperworld—in harmonious relationship. Only when the needs of deities of each realm were satisfied, and communion with deities was performed correctly, would humans enjoy lives of peace and abundance on earth.
Mayan solar priests, K’inob, used techniques to track the sun’s movement and predict accurately when the day of perfect balance arrived. On the equinoxes, rulers would undertake the prescribed rituals, making offerings to the Gods of the calendar periods and drawing their blessings into the world. Rulers conjured the Vision Serpent and sought prophesy for the coming calendar period.
There were dire consequences if balance was not maintained between the worlds. When balance was lost, the natural world was in danger. If this world, the Middleworld of earth , remained out of balance with the other two worlds long enough, it could bring destruction to a city, a region, or perhaps the entire Maya lands. Many experts believe that losing balance in the natural world is what led to the collapse of Maya civilization. The “Maya Collapse” is a complex phenomenon, not readily explained by any single factor, following different courses and timelines in various parts of the Maya lands. Beyond doubt environmental changes played a major role.
El Mirador Out of Balance
The collapse of El Mirador is reasonably well explained. It was a thriving Pre-Classic city of about 100,000, surrounded by satellite cities in northern Guatemala that flourished between 300 BCE and 150 CE. Perhaps the largest Maya city, its main pyramid sat on plazas covering 45 acres, on a platform 980×2000 feet, rising 230 feet tall. Toward the end of its occupation, extravagant building programs using inordinate amounts of plaster were carried out; some of the thickest plaster coatings ever found. To create lime plaster and cement, the Mayas burned massive amounts of wood, causing deforestation in surrounding areas. The swampy regions that supplied water and rich mud for agriculture were destroyed by clay runoff from damaged forest floors. With no close-by rivers, and perhaps a time of relative drought, the once great city faced declining water, food, and wood for fire. Between 100-200 CE, El Mirador and other cities of Mirador Basin were abandoned. Archeologist Richard Hanson, prime investigator of El Mirador, says the underlying reason for its decline was a loss of balance with the natural environment. The rulers and elite became immersed in “conspicuous consumption” through over-building using excessive resources, trying to sustain an image of wealth and progress. This lack of foresight and judgment—an imbalance between the worlds—led to the collapse of civilization in the region.
Mayan queens and kings were successful at keeping the worlds in balance for over a millennium. Thousands of large cities thrived in a difficult tropical jungle climate. The Mayas learned to adapt agriculture and conserve natural resources, and created the most brilliant, artistically and technologically advanced civilization in the Americas. While they upheld their expansive cosmology and properly honored the Gods and Ancestors, their culture succeeded. They lived an ongoing re-creation of their worlds by mutual Divine-human interaction; in essence, shaman-rulers became “mothers” of the Gods even as the Gods gave birth to humanity and the worlds.
Around 900-1000 CE that creative partnership dissolved. Not only environmental factors, but an internal spiritual dissonance led to abandonment of Maya cities. The Holy Lords and Ladies lost ability to fulfill their mandate, the deities were no longer satisfied, and the common people left for better livelihoods elsewhere. But this is yet another story.
Read about how Mayan queens kept worlds in balance in my book series about Mayan Queens in the ruling lineage of Palenque.
Click Links Below:
Chip Brown. El Mirador, the Lost City of the Maya. Smithsonian Magazine, May 2011.
John Clark and Richard Hansen. The Architecture of Early Kingship. In Royal Courts of the Ancient Maya, Vol. 2 (Eds. Takeshi Inomata and Stephen Houston. Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 2001.
David Freidel, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker. Maya Cosmos. Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path. William Morrow and Co., New York, 1995.
Douglas Gillette. The Shaman’s Secret. Bantam Books, New York, 1997.
Solar Eclipse Was a Potent Time for the Mayas.
The ancient Mayas were the most advanced astronomers of their time. They calculated the solar year, lunar cycles, periodicity of the planets, solstices and equinoxes with amazing accuracy. They were able to readily predict lunar eclipses, and had calculated a pattern of dates for solar eclipses, including predicting the solar eclipse of 1991. (Bricker & Bricker)
Solar eclipses were known as chi’ ibal kin to ancient Mayas, translated as “to eat the sun.”
This phenomenon was depicted in the Dresden Codex as a serpent with huge open jaws about to devour the solar eclipse glyph. Although modern experts believe eclipses were a cause of distress for ancient peoples, terrifying because they did not understand the science behind such phenomena, this was not true for the Mayas. With their sophisticated knowledge of astronomy, the Mayas understood the movements of celestial bodies and how the moon moving between the sun and earth caused a brief blacking out of sunlight. To the Mayas, this held profound symbolic meaning, signaling a major shift of cosmic influences upon earth. Such potent occasions were prime time for ceremonies and invoking celestial powers into human actions.
In the story of K’inich Janaab Pakal, most famous Maya ruler who reigned in Palenque from 615-683 CE, the power of a solar eclipse was used to increase potency of a most important ritual. His prophesied mission was to restore the spiritual charter of his city, and resurrect the Jeweled Sky Tree that formed a portal to communicate with the Gods and ancestors. This version of a World Tree, called Wakah Chan Te by the Mayas, had its roots in the Underworld, its trunk rose through the Middleworld of earth, and its
branches soared into the Upperworld of the cosmos. In Palenque, Pakal built a new temple in which to raise the Jeweled Sky Tree, since the original shrine was destroyed and desecrated in an enemy attack by Kalakmul during his childhood.
Although the history of Palenque’s defeat by Kalakmul is well known (Stuart & Stuart), and Pakal’s mandate to restore the damaged portal to the Upperworld has been described (Aldana), the actual process of resurrecting the Tree is a mystery. My task as an author of historical fiction was to use informed imagination to envision this process. This I did through the character of Pakal’s wife, Tz’aakb’u Ahau (Lalak in my story, called The Red Queen), whose training in sexual alchemy brought the immense power of life creation to join with Pakal in “conceiving and birthing” a new Wakah Chan Te. (Martin) To further enhance the potency of this event, the ceremony was enacted during a solar eclipse.
Historical records show there was a solar eclipse that crossed over Guatemala and southern Chiapas on February 2, 650 CE. Palenque, located in Chiapas, would have experienced at least partial solar eclipse between 1:00-4:00 pm that day, which worked perfectly for the ceremony done by Pakal and Lalak and resulted in the climactic moment of their story.
Read the historical fiction story of Pakal, his wife Lalak–The Red Queen, and the solar eclipse ritual to resurrect the Wakah Chan Te:
How the Mayas predicted solar eclipses.
Predicting lunar and solar eclipses is more complex than determining sunrise, sunset, solstice, and equinox. Movements of the earth, the sun, and the moon all must be taken in to account because this involves correlating the synodic lunations with the solar calendar. Because the orbital plane of the moon is inclined by 5 degrees to the plane of earth’s orbit, eclipses do not happen at every full and new moon. Rather, they take place only when the moon enters the ecliptic plane at the same time that it is in correct position between the sun and earth.
Maya astronomer priests were able to determine the nodes when the paths of moon and sun cross, which occurs every 173.31 days. In this time period, eclipses may occur within 18 days of the node. Most would result in lunar eclipses; the Dresden Codex contains eclipse tables made of columns and rows based on the numbers 177 (6 lunations), and 148 (5 lunations). The Codex is a
folding bark-paper book with pages coated in thin stucco, with glyphs painted in red and black and many symbolic figures. There are tables containing predictions of the phases of Venus over a 104-year interval, and predictions of lunar phases for 33 years. The Mayas used these to calculate solar eclipses.
The average interval between solar eclipses is 153.79 days. They had calculated a synodic lunar period as 29.533 days (modern value 29.530 days). Since the Mayas did not use decimals, they varied between 28 and 29 days for lunations. A grid of dates in the Codex linked Venus phenomena with lunar nodes to predict solar eclipses. Using the derived multipliers they were able to determine solar eclipse intervals that varied by +7 and +8 days. Combining an inferior conjunction of Venus with the predicted solar eclipse gave better accuracy.
The Dresden Codex is one of only four Mayan manuscripts that escaped destruction by the Spaniards when they invaded Mexico in the 16th century. The surviving codices are 11-12th century copies of older Mayan books. When researchers recently compared dates of Mayan calendars with our current one, then used modern data on planetary orbits and cycles, they found the Maya’s data was surprisingly accurate. The Maya astronomical calendar correctly predicted a solar eclipse to within one day in 1991, centuries after Classic ancient Mayan civilization ended. (Bricker & Bricker)
Had the Classic Mayan civilization continued, undoubtedly they would have predicted our current eclipse occurring on August 21, 2017.
More about Leonide Martin’s Mayan Queen books: www.mistsofpalenque.com
Aldana, Gerardo. The Apotheosis of Janaab’ Pakal. University of Colorado Press, 2007.
Bricker, Harvey & Bricker, Victoria. Astronomy in the Maya Codices. American Philosophical Society, 2011.
Martin, Leonide. The Mayan Red Queen: Tz’aakb’u Ahau of Palenque. Made for Success Pub., 2015.
Stuart, David & Stuart, George. Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya. Thames & Hudson, 2008.
The movements of the sun were particularly important to the ancient Mayas.
The sun god, represented as the K’in glyph in Classic times, had a Roman nose, central notched tooth, and crossed eyes with square pupils. Considered a male deity and addressed as Father Sun, he was ruler of time and space, and oversaw the seasonal agricultural cycles. K’inich Ahau—Sun-Faced Lord—was identified with ruling lineages and connected with the Maize God, bringer of fertility and renewal. In the late Classic many Maya rulers added K’inich to their names, signifying their oneness with the sun deity. To demonstrate this unity, rulers needed astronomical knowledge to predict exact timing of the sun’s annual cycle. Through this they directed farmers when planting and harvesting should take place. The sun’s arrival at important stations during the year was celebrated with rituals, and correct timing was essential. The ruler’s sacred duty required properly performing these rituals, offering the deities suitable gifts, and thus maintaining beneficent relations between Gods and humans. (more…)
Excerpts from The Visionary Mayan Queen: Yohl Ik’nal of Palenque
The Travel Writers of Their Time
Thanks to the remarkable four-volume books Incidents of Travel, by John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, we are given much insight into the hardships of travel and the impact of this splendid and high civilization on these explorers.
John Lloyd Stephens is a masterful storyteller and Frederick Catherwood a fine artist. Their first two-volume book, featuring Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, was published in 1841. It became an instant success, with publisher Harper and Brothers in New York making 11
printings of 20,000 copies each in only three months. I keep a copy with me to enjoy comparing their impressions with present-day Palenque. Although his prose is typical for that period, it’s richly descriptive and amusing. Stephens weaves details of their harrowing adventures, gives astute character profiles, evocative descriptions and levelheaded reasoning, spiced with wry humor. Catherwood provides distinctive drawings and quality architectural designs with floor plans, elevations and outside views of Palenque’s major structures. Thirty-one of his Palenque drawings were converted to engravings and published in the two Central American volumes.
You get a real sense of travel in the mid-1800s in the back-country of Mexico and Central America.
Stephens and Catherwood came from Guatemala to Ocosingo and followed the same route Dupaix took thirty years earlier, an ancient Indian path over mountains giving “one of the grandest, wildest, and most sublime scenes I ever beheld.” They made the trip in five days to reduce nights in the wild during the rainy season. Clambering along steep paths hovering over thousand-foot precipices, they mostly walked leading mules and occasionally risked being carried in a chair by an Indian using a tumpline across his forehead. The chair-bearer’s heavy breathing,
dripping sweat and trembling limbs failed to inspire confidence and made them feel guilty, so they used the chair very little. The descent was even more terrible than the ascent, and the sun was sinking. Dark clouds and thunder gave way to a violent rainstorm, men and mules slipping and sliding. Stephens admits “. . . it was the worst mountain I ever encountered in that or any other country, and, under our apprehension of the storm, I will venture to say that no travelers ever descended in less time.”
Once on the plains below and camped for the night, they suffered an onslaught of “moschetoes as we had not before experienced.” Even fire and cigars could not keep the vicious insects at bay. After a sleepless and much-bitten night, Stephens went before daylight to the nearby shallow river “and stretched myself out on the gravelly bottom, where the water was barely deep enough to run over my body. It was the first comfortable moment I had had.”
“Moschetoes” and rainstorms continued to plague the explorers after they arrived at the ruins of Palenque. They no sooner got their wood frame beds and stone slab dining table set up, with a meal of chicken, beans, rice and cold tortillas prepared proudly by their mozo Juan, than a loud thunderclap
heralded the afternoon storm. Though located on the upper terrace of the palace and covered by a roof, the fierce wind blasted through open doors followed instantly by a deluge that soaked everything. They moved to an inside corridor but still could not escape the rain, and slept with clothes and bedding thoroughly wet.
Rather, they tried to sleep but “suffered terribly from moschetoes, the noise and stings of which drove away sleep. In the middle of the night I took up my mat to escape from these murderers of rest.” Finding a low damp passage near the foot of the palace tower, Stephens crawled inside and spread his mat as bats whizzed through the passage. However, the bats drove away the mosquitoes, the damp passage was cooling and refreshing, and “with some twinging apprehensions of the snakes and reptiles, lizards and scorpions, which infest the ruins, I fell asleep.”
They solved the mosquito problem by bending sticks over their wood beds and sewing their sheets together, draping them over the sticks to form a mosquito net. Not all insects were odious. At night the darkness of the palace was lighted by huge fireflies of “extraordinary size and brilliance” that flew through corridors or clung to walls. Called locuyos, they were half an inch long and had luminescent spots by their eyes and under their wings. “Four of them together threw a brilliant light for several yards around” and one alone gave enough light to read a newspaper.
Exploring the Ruins
To explore the heavily forested ruins they hired a guide, the same man employed by Waldeck, Walker and Caddy. It’s hard now to imagine how dense the jungle was then, trees growing on top of every structure and filling plazas. Without the guide, they had no idea where other structures lay and “might have gone within a hundred feet of all the buildings without discovering one of them.” The palace was most visible and could be seen from the northeast path leading to the ruins. Stephens described its many rooms, stuccos, tablets, and ornaments while Catherwood rendered detailed floor plans and copied images. Stephens hoped their work would give an idea of the “profusion of its ornaments, of their unique and striking character, and of their mournful effect, shrouded by trees.” Perhaps readers could imagine the palace as it once was “perfect in its amplitude and rich decorations, and occupied by the strange people whose portraits and figures now adorn its walls.”
According to the guide, there were five other buildings that Stephens numbered, but none could be seen from the palace. The closest was Casa 1, a ruined pyramid that apparently had steps on all sides, now thrown down by trees that required them to “clamber over stones, aiding the feet by clinging to the branches.” From descriptions and drawings, this structure is the Pyramid of the Inscriptions. Bas-relief stuccos on the four piers of the upper temple were reasonably well preserved, depicting four standing figures holding infants. The famous hieroglyphic tablets covering the interior wall were also in good condition.
Casas 2, 3 and 5 are part of the Cross Group. Stephens and Catherwood were deeply impressed by the stuccos and tablets that we now know belong to the Temple of the Cross and Temple of the Foliated Cross. The fantastic tablets from the first temple were incomplete and only the left tablet containing glyphs was in place. The middle tablet with two figures facing a cross had been removed and carried down the side of the pyramid, but deposited near the stream bank below. A villager intended to take it home, but was stopped by government orders forbidding further removal from the ruins. The right tablet was broken and fragmented, but from remnants they saw it contained more glyphs.
The second temple contained another tablet in near-perfect condition. It had a central panel with two figures facing a large mask over two crossed batons, flanked on each side by panels of glyphs. The four piers of the temple’s entrance once contained sculptures; the outer two adorned with large medallions were still in place. The other two panels had been removed by villagers and set into the wall of a house. Copied earlier by Catherwood, these panels depicted two men facing each other. One was richly dressed and regal, the other an old man in jaguar pelt smoking a pipe. Later these famous sculptures were moved to the village church, and again later to the Palenque museum.
Casa 4 was farthest away, southwest of the palace. It sat on a pyramid 100 feet above the bank of the river with the front wall entirely collapsed. The large stucco tablet inside showed the bottom half of a figure sitting on a double-headed jaguar throne, the lovely Beau Relief partially destroyed by Waldeck. Stephens regretted this loss greatly (as do I) because it appeared to be “superior in execution to any other stucco relief in Palenque.” This small structure is now called Temple of the Jaguar.
This story is told in my post:
Difficult Working Conditions
Stephens complains that artists of former expeditions failed to reproduce the detailed glyphs in Casas 1 and 3, and omitted drawings of Casa 2 altogether. He believes these artists were “incapable of the labour, and the steady, determined perseverance required for drawing such complicated, unintelligible, and anomalous characters.” Catherwood used a camera lucida to project a light image of the glyphs and sculptures onto paper, and then drew the images to accurate scale and detail. He divided his paper into squares for copying glyphs to give accurate placement, reducing these large images and hand correcting the later engravings himself.
One must admire these two men, working under terrible conditions with limited equipment, yet providing such a thorough account of the Palenque structures they saw. They needed to scrape off green moss, dig out roots, clean away layers of dissolved limestone, use candles to light dark inner chambers, build scaffolds to access high places, and endure a plethora of climate and insect assaults. They paid the price of multiple mosquito bites, for both men contracted malaria and suffered repeated episodes of illness.
They left us a few astute conclusions. Stephens proved more insightful than later Mayanists by writing, “The hieroglyphics doubtless tell its history” and “The hieroglyphics are the same as were found at Copan and Quirigua . . . there is room for belief that the whole of this country was once occupied by the same race, speaking the same language . . .”
“Here were the remains of a cultivated, polished, and peculiar people, who had passed through all the stages incident to the rise and fall of nations; reached their golden age, and perished, entirely unknown . . . wherever we moved we saw the evidences of their taste, their skill in arts, their wealth and power.” John Lloyd Stephens
Excerpts from The Visionary Mayan Queen: Yohl Ik’nal of Palenque
These excerpts from the Archeological Field Journal of Francesca Nokom Gutierrez, a fictional archeologist in my books, describe the history of archeological exploration at Palenque. I’ll be doing several posts taken from her journal in the first 3 books in my “Mists of Palenque” series.
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Balboa Park, San Diego Museum of Natural History.
While in San Diego for the holidays in December, 2016, I spent a mesmerizing afternoon in the Maya Exhibit at the Museum of Natural History, Balboa Park. This wonderful display of Maya monuments, ceramics, and art had many original pieces on loan from other institutions, as well as reproductions of murals and larger monuments. In this blogpost, I’ll focus on ceramics, adornment and artwork.
The Mayas produced a wide variety of beautiful and intricately designed ceramics. Artists were allowed quite a free range of expression, their designs varying from one workshop to another. Artistic quality was more valued than adherence to standardized forms, and certain artists’ works were in high demand among elite. Some artists signed their works, or named the bowls for their owners and functions: “The cacao drinking vase of Ahau Ukib.” These vessels with detailed scenes were used in the form of straight-sided beakers for drinking chocolate mixed with chili peppers, or as bowls for food. Often they
were used as grave offerings in the tombs of their owners. Simpler and more utilitarian vessels were used by commoners.
To produce pottery, the Mayas used a device that rotated between the potters’ feet, called a kabal. An early ceramic style, called Amyan, appeared in the Guatemalan highlands around 1,000 BCE. It was monochrome with simple design. Originally the Mayas used gourds cut into cup and bowl shapes, and the first ceramics resembled gourds. These were decorated with rocker stamps and simple slips for color. By the Early Classic (250-550 CE) the ceramic style Tzakol developed with more complex jars, plates, bowls and vases having polychrome decorations. This style evolved into Tepeu of the Late Classic (550-700 CE) with more elaborate scenes and color variations. The polychrome slip paint was of various colors, made from plant and mineral sources. Predominant colors are red, orange, black, brown, yellow and cream. These two ceramic styles are considered the most beautiful made in ancient Mesoamerica, primarily depicting animal deities, grotesque monsters, nobles and priests, ceremonial activities, and scenes of sacrifice. New shapes were developed, including the lidded basal flange bowl, which usually had a knob on top in the form of an animal or human head. The painted body of this being often spreads across the pot. Many also had tetrapod legs for support, called “mammiform” since they resembled animal or human legs.
An especially valued polychrome called “Codex style” was produced during the late Classic re-occupation of the pre-Classic sites El Mirador and Nakbe in Guatemala. These ceramics are characterized by scenes and glyphic texts drawn in dark lines on cream-colored backgrounds, usually framed by red bands on the
edges of the vessels. This gives them a resemblance to the post-Classic Maya Codex texts. This fine painted Codex-style pottery depicts extraordinary mythological scenes, and is highly sought by antiquities collectors, accounting for extensive looting of house mound complexes in Peten. In ancient times, these ceramics were in demand by elites, and have been found throughout the Maya regions.
Figurines and Effigies
The Mayas created many small figurines, busts and effigies that represented deities, specific individuals, symbolic monsters or creatures, or roles in society. Materials used to create them include clay, limestone, sandstone, trachyte, wood, jade, bone, shell, and copper. Very few artifacts were made of gold. As these often depict typical activities of ancient Maya life, archaeologists have learned much about costumes, musical instruments, religious rituals, household customs, ballgames, warfare and sacrifice. Among the most well known figurines are those from Jaina, an island off the coast of Campeche, Mexico, used for elite burials.
Figurines were painted with the usual plant and mineral pigments. A unique shade of blue appears on some figurines, and in many murals and codices. Called “Maya blue,” it is the most durable Maya color and has only recently been reproduced. The ancient Mayas combined skills in organic chemistry and mineralogy in their technique for creating Maya blue. The pigment is a composite of organic and inorganic constituents, primarily indigo dyes derived from the leaves of the anil (Indigofera) plant, combined with palygorskite, a natural clay. The mix is cooked at low temperature (100 degrees C) until its color turns from blackish to this exquisite sky blue. Other trace elements are present, including copal incense, leading to the idea that producing Maya blue was a sacred process. Copal, resin of a native tree, is dried into incense and burned in symbolic “incensarios” during ceremonies. Using copal in making Maya blue produces the low heat necessary, and imbues the pigment with sacred qualities.
Jewelry and Body Decoration
Body adornment was very important to ancient Mayas. They dressed in lavish costumes, wore huge and heavy jewelry, wore complex headdresses with feathers and decorations, had earplugs that needed a balance weight behind, and often embedded gems in their teeth. Facial scarification was also used along with body painting. The Mayas excelled in working with jade, which was highly prized, as it represented the green vibrancy of new plants and the azure of water. Excavations of tombs have yielded large amounts of jade jewelry, mosaics, masks, effigies, plaques and small figures. Royal burials rich in these items have been found in several Maya sites, particularly Palenque, El Peru-Waka, and Tonina. Metal work did not make a significant appearance until after 900 CE, the Post-Classic Period. The Mayas mostly worked in copper, with a small amount of gold appearing as bowls, cups, rings, and effigies. Other items made from copper include bells, tweezers, axes, earplugs, rings, discs, and small masks.
The island of Cozumel, called Cuzamil by ancient Mayas, lies off the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. It was a shrine and pilgrimage destination for women, sacred to the goddess Ix Chel. Mayan women made the journey to Cuzamil twice during their lives, at menarche and menopause. They sought the blessings of Ix Chel for a good marriage, fertility, abundance and safe childbearing. Thousands would travel by canoe from Pole, present-day Playa del Carmen, across treacherous currents. The trip took twelve hours, and specially trained men, who understood the shifting currents, rowed the canoes. Legends tell that between 600-800 CE only women and children could live on the island. It was a place of sanctuary for marginal women, and sheltered orphans, widows, barren women and those who crossed sexual boundaries.
Today in Yucatan, the ritual crossing to Cozumel is held annually, called “La Travesia.” It is a re-creation of the ancient Cuzamil pilgrimage that was lost for over 500 years. The ruins of a city called San Gervasio hint at its former splendor, with columns rising on large platforms, shrines to the goddess and the elements, and a long causeway (sakbe) leading to the landing point for canoes bringing women for pilgrimage. One shrine to Ix Chel holds a carved stone column with a woman giving birth, with imprints of red hands over the carving. Another shrine called “Las Manitas” has a stucco facade with murals
decorated by designs in black lines on a Maya blue background. To the right side of its facade, Maya visitors left their own red hand prints on the wall, a common practice in the region. Passages run underneath these structures leading to small shrines inside caves, and causeways connect many complexes. The site was abandoned during the 10th century, but it continued as a pilgrimage site, noted by Spanish friars in the early 16th century.
The Oracle of Cuzamil. The Spaniards reported that Mayas sought advice of an oracle on the island of Cuzamil. A large statue of Ix Chel, made either of ceramic or wood, allowed a person to remain concealed inside. Pilgrims would ask the oracle questions, either directly or through a priest, and the Ix Chel priestess inside the statue would give answers. Pilgrims believed the Ix Chel oracle gave true answers to questions about their lives and guidance about which choices to make. It was even reported that the oracle would prophesy outcomes of conflicts and wars.
Oracles exist in many cultures, and usually function under the influence of mind-altering substances. The famous Oracle of Delphi, Greece, who prophesied during the seventh to the fourth centuries BCE,
was said to allow Apollo to possess her body and speak through her. Called Pythia, she sat on a tripod seat over a fissure in the earth. Myth relates that when Apollo slew the great snake Python, its body fell into this fissure and fumes arose from its decomposition. The priestess breathed these fumes and became intoxicated, falling into a trance during which Apollo spoke through her. Plutarch described that Pythia would lapse into semi-consciousness, and respond to questions in an altered voice. At other times, her trance involved frenzied delirium, with wild thrashing of limbs, groaning and inarticulate cries. After this delirium, she died in a few days and another Pythia took her place.
According to toxicologists, these symptoms are associated with inhalation of hydrocarbon gasses. Similar effects are observed in “huffers” who breathe fumes from glue, paint thinner, or gas. The presence of a sweet smell, which Plutarch reported during Pythia’s trances, indicates the hydrocarbon gas ethylene. Greek geologists have identified a small fracture in the earth extending up from the intersection of two major fault lines running underneath the Delphi temple. The limestone under the temple is bituminous (oil-bearing) with a petrochemical content as high as 20 percent. It appears that slippage in the faults heated adjacent rock masses, vaporizing the lighter petrochemicals in the limestone and expelling gasses upward through the fissure. They believe that gases produced rose up the crack and entered the temple just below the stool on which Pythia sat. Ethylene is known to produce violent trances. Probably when smaller amounts were expelled, the oracle was less affected and was able to speak lucid prophesies.
The Oracle of Cuzamil also used hallucinogenic substances to vacate her body and offer it as a vessel for the goddess Ix Chel.One such substance came from the skin glands of a large bufonid marine toad. A disproportionate number of these toad bones are found in human burials on Cuzamel, probably because of their ritual uses. The poison from toad glands was prepared in special ways, because when ingested it can cause tremors, paralysis, convulsions and death. It appears that the ancient Mayas made it into an enema; these clysters or enema syringes had a distinct glyph and appear frequently in painted ceramics. The clysters were gourds with an elongated, pointed end. Other substances were included, such as concentrate made from crushed Datura flowers and fermented maguey juice. Maguey is an agave plant related to those used for tequila. Datura, which grows wild in regional jungles, is a well-known hallucinogen. The oracle’s preparation probably included ritual purification in a steam bath, infused with herbs such as basil, cedar, vervain and Pay-che; and a period of fasting. She likely smoked potent tobacco in a small clay pipe that also affected her senses. A rare blue-leafed tobacco was grown on Cuzamil that is said to produce a floating sensation and separate consciousness from the body. Morning glory seeds, which alter consciousness, may have been used, along with other herbs, in an ointment to massage the oracle’s skin, opening the path to disembodiment.
After such a potent mixture of hallucinogens, the oracle would be semi-conscious and need assistance walking. She may have been carried by attendants to the temple and helped into the statue, where she probably was tied to a chair or other type of support to prevent falling over. It seems amazing that the oracle could function, much less understand communications and give coherent responses. But, such is
the sacred mystery of the oracle. Those with mystical leanings will believe that another intelligence took charge of this vessel, emptied of its human awareness and ritually purified. Whether goddess, god or the collective consciousness, this intelligence reached down through the human vessel to deliver messages to seekers.
To be an oracle required extensive training, unwavering commitment and a strong constitution to survive the rigors of the process. Still, oracles did not have a long life expectancy, either in Greece or Cuzamil. The great honor of serving the Goddess and her people drew many young women into training, and the gifts given in appreciation built the wealth of the oracle’s city.
The Oracle of Cuzamil appears in the final book of the Mists of Palenque Series, as youthful K’inuuw Mat makes the sacred pilgrimage to the island of Ix Chel and hopes to remain there to serve the goddess. However, fate has other plans and she is destined to marry Pakal’s youngest son in Lakam Ha (Palenque), and through this union to continue the dynasty.
The Prophetic Mayan Queen: K’inuuw Mat of Palenque, Book 4 by Leonide Martin (expected publication date summer 2016)
Buy Books 1, 2 & 3 at my Amazon Author Page