Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Why did the Ancient Mayans go after the hearts?

Chichen Itza is one of the new seven wonders of the world, but I never really considered visiting this place. You know how you read about certain destinations, but you know in the back of your mind, you'll always be an armchair traveler there. However, an actual trip to Mexico sort of fell into my lap recently without much effort on my part. As life goes on with its changes and surprises, my daughter and her fiance live in the Yucatan peninsula now. I will be going there to visit them on a yearly basis. Consequently, I just returned from a week in Merida, with a visit to Chechen Itza under my belt, and it was a most pleasant experience for my first time in Mexico. I'm looking forward to going back again.

We rented a car and went on a road trip to Tulum one weekend and stayed overnight in Playa del Carmen. The beach at Tulum is fabulous! Blue water and white sugar sand. I joyfully wallowed in that sand like a pig in mud, avoiding contact with any wayward sharks by staying out of the water, and settled down for a nice nap in the sun with my sun hat balanced over my face.

The next day, we stopped for an afternoon at Chichen Itza. My daughter and her fiance wanted to surprise me, so they had me close my eyes while they led me into the site. As we passed the vendors selling their wares along the pathway, someone started playing a flute. Farther along, another started playing a drum. Being led in that way with my eyes closed, I thought, "this is like a ceremonial procession." I imagined myself as a Mayan Princess blindfolded and being led in for some special purpose centuries ago.

At the base of the pyramid of Kulkulcan, they positioned me so that when I opened my eyes, I would be looking straight at it.

"OK, you can open them now," said my daughter's fiance.

I opened my eyes and nearly suffered whiplash. (OK, I exaggerated about the whiplash, but that pretty well described my feelings.) I sucked in my breath as my spirit leaped within me, and I could hardly speak for a few moments. Pictures don't capture the imposing nature of this pyramid, especially with it suddenly appearing before me "in the flesh" so to speak.

As I walked around, my thoughts turned to what I have read about this place, and it was quite mind-boggling. Not only was this a society that practiced human sacrifice and all the horrors of that from a captive's (bound for death) point of view, but also these people are a mystery. How could they have built such structures, studied the stars, and come up with a calendar that is the focus of so many today as we approach the end of that calendar in 2012? Yet their civilization declined and their work was seemingly abandoned.

One thing for sure, all of us tourists walking so boldly around the site would have been dead if we were back in the times of the Maya! One structure at Chichen Itza called The Tzompantli or Temple of the Skulls was a place to display severed heads on pikes as a warning of the consequences to anyone who might want to trespass.

Archeologists have been studying the sacred well (cenote) at this site where they have found human remains and other objects that were thrown into the well. (Note: there is evidence of severe head injury on the remains so perhaps they were knocked out or even dead before hitting the water? Let's hope so.)

Previous to arriving at Chichen Itza, we had visited another cenote in the region where my daughter pointed out that she had read reports that all the cenotes in the region are interconnected by underground cave systems. These cenotes were the source of water for the Mayans, and if it is true that they are all connected, I'm wondering what effect throwing humans into the sacred well at Chichen Itza might have had on all of the water supply in the surrounding area. Rotting bodies must have fouled the water at least in the sacred well. Could disease have spread through the underground cave system and contaminated other cenotes? This is just a theory on my part, but it sounds plausible as perhaps one way an entire group of people might disappear from drinking contaminated water, leaving a few survivors to be absorbed into other tribes.

I did have one particular question that I sought the answer to in my preparation for visiting Chichen Itza. Why did they sacrifice humans, and in particular, why did they go after the hearts? The Maya sacrificed via auto-sacrifice the majority of the time which was bloodletting of the genitals or other areas of the body by both high ranking men and women. Blood was a very important part of their worship practices as it is in many religions across the globe, but the treatment of the human heart stands out in my mind as somewhat of a mysterious addition to what might be expected in religion focused upon blood.

Statues are found at various ruins of a reclining figure with a plate on its stomach. These are called Chac Mools. Sacrifices were placed on the plate, not always of human hearts, but also of fruits, grains, etc.

But what about the heart? I found an interesting reference to the importance of the heart to the Maya in a copy of a press release for a book called "Mayan Hearts" by Robert M. Laughlin. You can read the full version at Google Answers. Here is a brief quote from that press release:

" . . . While documenting the Tzotzil language of Santo Domingo Zinacantan, the friar discovered that the indigenous group considered 'the heart not only the source of emotion but also the true seat of thought and reason.' 'Everything we call "human" was there in the heart,' Laughlin said, recalling that 'only under Spanish rule did the mind become divorced from the heart and set in the head.' Modern Mayas still use dozens of metaphors for heart in everyday speech and still hold the same understanding of its importance."

As Mr. Laughlin is a Smithsonian anthropologist, linguist and pre-eminent Mayan scholar, I think we can safely conclude from his statement that the Maya considered the heart to be of utmost importance and that offering a heart to the gods was the greatest gift of all, representing the entirety of all they considered human.

I believe I also found some clues as to how human sacrifice and the method of presenting a heart to the gods might have come about. This is found in the book entitled, "Aztec & Maya Myth and Mankind: Gods of Sun & Sacrifice" by Time Life Books.

The legend goes like this: One day all the Mayan fires in Tulan Zuyua went out in a hail storm. They prayed to their god, the one-legged, Tohil, who was the bringer of fire, and petitioned him to restore their fires. So Tohil made a deal with them. If the people would allow the god to "suckle on their side," he would restart their fires. To them, this meant that hearts were to be cut out through a hole in the ribcage, and produced the practice of holding a sacrificial person down, ripping out the still beating heart, and offering it to the gods. The heart was then burned for the god to consume it.

According to in their article Maya Civilization, "for the Maya, blood sacrifice was necessary for the survival of both gods and people, sending human energy skyward and receiving divine power in return."

As I walked around the grounds of Chichen Itza and felt the heaviness of its history lying upon it, I thought how ironic that a place where thousands were brutality killed, is now one of the seven wonders of the world.

You'll be hearing more and more about the Mayans as the end of their calendar approaches on December 21, 2012. Learn more at:

Wikipedia: Sacrifice in Maya Culture
The Mayas
Secrets of the Mayan Calendar - Video Teachings by Ian Xel Lungold