The Hero Twins had to pass through the fire twice in the Popol Vuh story. The fire ordeal in the House of Fire was an initiation into the mysteries of the fiery serpent energy that flowed through the spinal cord. That was the first time. The second time was, well, let’s just say it was a complete transformation and regeneration of their being. How it was accomplished will be told later.
For now, it was our time to pass through the fire. That story is also worth telling. It happened after we arrived in Antigua, a city in the central highlands of Guatemala. At the time when the Spanish conquistadors conquered and occupied the Americas, the city was bestowed with the full title of “Muy Leal y Muy Noble Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemala” (Very Loyal and Very Noble City of Saint James of the Knights of Guatemala). That was in 1543, when La Antigua Guatemala (Old Guatemala) became the seat of Spanish colonial government for the Kingdom of Guatemala, which included most of Central America. Later, when we arrived in Santiago Atitlan, I became aware of the role that Saint James played in the historical conquest of the New World.
The first thing I noticed about Antigua was the surrounding landscape of three towering volcanoes. Directly south was the dominating view of Volcan de Agua (Volcano of Water). To the west stood the twin peaks of Acatenango (called Hunahpu, the Twin, by the Mayas) and Volcan de Fuego (“Fire Mouth” in the Popol Vuh). It was as if the story of the Hero Twins (Hunahpu and Xbalanque) and their descent into the underworld was commemorated by the three majestic volcanoes. I also thought of the three volcano cones as the three hearth stones set up in Orion – something we had learned from our excursion to Copan.
The second thing I noticed about Antigua was the spectacular ruins of colonial Spanish churches and the well-preserved Baroque-style Spanish architecture of some of the historical edifices. The beautiful city qualified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
The first building that caught my attention – as we walked up from the city center to our chosen hotel – was the Church of La Compania de Jesus (the Jesuits). The façade of the ruined church showed several headless statues. It seemed that the forced eviction of the Jesuits from the country in 1767 caused some heads to roll. Six years later, the great earthquake of 1773 brought most of the convent, school, and church down to the ground.
We walked up 6a Avenida Norte to the Hotel Posada San Pedro on 7a Avenida Norte. We quickly discovered that the city was divided into avenues running north and south, and calles (streets) running east and west. The four directions made the city look like a Maya design that featured four quarters of the world. The Parque Central was like the central World Tree.
Our hotel was hidden from view by iron gates. It was definitely a gated community with a guard, who also was the doorman and deskman. I found out that the outside of the buildings with their colorful stucco walls concealed beautiful colonial courtyards, restaurants, hotels, and living space for the people of Antigua. Our living space was exceptional, with a shared kitchen downstairs. The kitchen is where I spotted a unique form of art – wooden jugs carved with picturesque interior scenes. My wife felt like she was in a Spanish household, enjoying the services of a maid and the privacy of a room with a balcony.
It wasn’t long before we set out to explore the former colonial capital. We stopped at several shops and tourist agencies near the city center. There were rows of commercial buildings, and lots of places to select our next tour, adventure, or destination. Susie and I gravitated towards the advertisement for a Pacaya Volcano tour. The pictures of real lava flowing down a volcano captured our imagination and ignited our desire for new experiences. We had once planned to climb Mount St. Helens in Washington after its pyroclastic eruption, but our plans were thwarted by extremely hot weather. Now, we had an opportunity to see an actual active volcano with a river of lava flowing from its crater. We booked the tour for the following morning.
The Parque Central was the heart of the city. Everybody flowed to the park like water flowing from the streams to the source. Here at the center was the fountain that contained the water of life, gushing from the breasts of the great goddess in mermaid form. The Fountain of the Sirens, like the mythological sirens that lured the adventurous Odysseus with their enchanting song, captivated the onlooker with its sensuality and risqué features. I was surprised to learn that in colonial days, the fountain served as a water supply for commoners. It was truly a fountain of life-giving water. Later, I saw a painting of the fountain in the ancient plaza. The painting provided a beautiful representation of what the entire area looked like back in colonial days.
Across the street from the park, in the direction of the rising sun, stood the spiritual center of La Antigua, the Catedral de Santiago, named after the patron saint James. What started out in 1545 as an establishment of Christianity on the bedrock of Maya civilization, the cathedral grew and expanded on the backs of conscripted Maya workers to five naves, eighteen chapels, and a vast dome that resembled the celestial sky of the Maya world. The façade held a host of church figures embedded in niches on the walls: the Eternal Father, the Virgin of the Assumption, Apostle Santiago (protector of the city), the Twelve Apostles, and Four Church Fathers. Carved into the wing-like sides were the coat of arms and a pair of shells crossed by swords, the symbol of the Holy Protector.
One figure that caught my undivided attention was my personal patron saint, St. Paul. My entire life was a quest to discover the person who was my namesake. There were several names that I uncovered from the monumental figures of history, but that’s another story, which is written in another work of mine. I recognized the statue immediately, because Saint Paul always carried the book of life in his hand. But what puzzled me was the missing sword of wisdom that had been chopped off of his right hand. What destructive force did that? Could it have been the great earthquake of 1773 that brought down the vast majority of the monumental cathedral?
Inside the cathedral, which presently was called the Church of San Jose, was a glass-sided coffin of El Senor Sepultado (the buried Jesus). The central truism of this display was the cyclical nature of life: “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it stays alone; but if it die, it brings forth much fruit.” (John 12:24) Here again, I began to think like the Maya and associate El Senor Sepultado with the Maize God, who also died and lived again in order to be “Lord both of the dead and of the living.” (Romans 14:9)
The central altar of the church exhibited a large altar with a salvific sacrificial lamb portrayed in silver with seven silver orbs beneath it. In the background was an ornate temple-columned altarpiece with silver corncob shapes and golden leaves at the base, a man on the cross in the center below a solar disk, and an eye-of-god in a triangle within the tympanum at the top. Santiago (Saint James), the protector and patron saint of the city and of Spain, stood on a pedestal to the left of the shrine. To the right side of the sanctuary was a white-robed statue of the suffering son of man, and above it was a painting of a white-robed risen son of God with beams of red and blue light emanating from his heart chakra (center).
We left the heart of the city and ventured outward to view the other places of interest within the cobble-stoned streets of the colorful city. The Arch of Santa Catalina was an impressive sight that we kept coming back to every time we walked down 5 Avenida. The remnant of the convent provided a window-like view of the volcano from the northern end, and a portal to the Church of La Merced from the southern end. As we stood on the street enjoying the view through the gateway, Elsa was accosted by a street vendor, who carried her bundle of goods around her shoulder. The Maya lady showed Elsa all kinds of jewelry. Elsa tried on one piece of jewelry after another. She finally saw something she liked, and when I told her it looked good around her neck, she bought it. The lady was so happy to have made a sale that she let me take a picture of her with Elsa.
Approaching La Merced was like approaching the colorful and substantive combination of yellow and white corn that was used in the creation of the present human race. It was as if the golden light of the sun and the white reflective light of the moon framed and shaped the terra cotta baroque-styled façade of the church. The central sculpture of Our Lady of Las Mercedes (Our Lady of Mercy) and the statue of San Pedro Nolasco above her adorned the front entrance, while the side entrance was adorned by a statue of Saint Joseph holding a baby Jesus. The main façade also had four archangels on the upper sides, and what seemed to me to be four Pahuatuns holding up the universe on the same level with the founding father of the church. Perhaps that was a subtle design added by the original Maya laborers, as were other designs, such as the outline of a corncob and other ornamental motifs.
The words of the Popol Vuh reminded me that it was the yellow ears of maize and the white ears of maize that “entered into their flesh by means of She Who Has Born Children and He Who Has Begotten Sons. . . . Thus their frame and shape were given expression by our first Mother and our first Father. Their flesh was merely yellow ears of maize and white ears of maize.” [Popol Vuh, Allen J. Christenson, p. 182-183]
A plaque attached to a wall gave information about the temple and convent of Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes: 1548, construction begun; many improvements 1548-1717; 1717, church ruined by earthquakes; 1767, reconstruction completed; 1773, convent destroyed by earthquakes; 1850-55, repairs to church carried out. The interior of the church had several circular markers on the ceiling: one was of an insignia with three red stripes on a gold background with a cathedral cross on a red background; another was a shield of the noble city bearing a white knight on a horse with a sword in his hand, and a scene of three mountains representing the three volcanoes.
The third marker told me who the founder of the Order of Merced was: San Pedro Nolasco. I learned that Pedro Nolasco performed the redemptive work of ransoming Christian captives under the Moors in 1203 and later had a transformative Blessed Mary experience, which illumined his mind to establish a religious order to continue the work of freeing Christians in captivity wherever they might be. It was a life of self-sacrifice, emulating the self-sacrifice of the Redeemer.
The religious icons and statues inside the church evoked an admiration for the artistry of the work. One glass-enclosed scene had sculptures of the traditional trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, except that the central Tau-cross was like an embellished Maya tree of life with a dove on top. This brought to mind the biblical concept of “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Also, it brought to mind the World Tree and the Plumed Quetzal bird. The central altar had winged angels, which resembled the Ark of the Covenant with the cherubim, symbolizing the positive and negative energy of the spinal sushumna (kundalini) that ascended to the brain. Another glass-enclosed scene had a sculpture of a white-robed Jesus carrying a symbolical cross of suffering.
As I entered a side chapel, I was amazed to see parishioners kneeling in front of a painting of San Pedro Nolasco, the Ransomer who freed Christian prisoners from the Moors. Perhaps they were praying to be freed from their conquerors.
An excursion into the ruins of the former convent revealed a huge tiered fountain with four pools that were used by the inhabitants of the monastery to breed fish. The fountain was known as Fuente de Pescados (Fountain of the Fish), an apt symbol for the religion of the Piscean Age. The view from the area above the courtyard was enchanting, with the ruins in the foreground and the verdant hills in the background. The dome was a spectacular sight, with the guardian lions surrounding its base.
Every city has its marketplace. And no tour is complete without a visit to the vibrant center where the fruit of one’s labor is rewarded. Antigua had an outdoor market for handicrafts, and an indoor market for the farmer. Each stall had a vendor peddling his or her wares. A street preacher walked up and down the aisles, peddling his evangelical message with a Bible in his upraised hand.
Susie wanted to buy some avocadoes at a large bin that seemed to contain the fruit of an entire tree. The productive countryside was on display in the large arena-sized market. I marveled at the live chickens in netted baskets that were probably sold for Maya sacrificial ceremonies.
There was one other market that was worth visiting: Centro de textiles tradicionales, also known as Nim Pot. The market of Nim Pot was a magical place. I walked inside by myself while Susie and Elsa were browsing at another shop. At the entrance – hanging from the ceiling – were the largest kites I had ever seen. Enormous round kites. Every form of art work and handicrafts was either placed somewhere on the floor or hung on the expansive walls. Things to wear on the body and masks of every imaginable type to cover the face spanned one entire wall.
I stopped in my tracks when I encountered some old men sitting on chairs in one of the aisles of the large hall-like enclosure. I thought they were real. The life-like images seemed to jump out at you. They were actually “living idols” of the mysterious Maximon. This was the personal “evil saint” that we would encounter in Santiago Atitlan. At least, that is what was written about him in the tour book. To the present-day worshipper, he represented the evils of life that plagued humanity – alcohol, tobacco, drugs, gambling, sex, etc. – evils that he carried like a burden or cross on himself. In short, he embodied those evils of life. You could tell him about your secret sins and he would understand, because he suffered the same torments and ills as the rest of humanity.
But there was something more about the story of his life that I discovered in La Antigua Guatemala (The Ancient Guatemala City). He also represented all the evil that came upon the Maya people in the person of the evil Spanish conquistador Pedro Alvarado. Maximon also was the Ancient Mam – the spirit of the ancestors – who inhabited the underworld (Xibalba) of the Americas. There was said to be even a portal to the tomb of Alvarado behind the altar of the Catedral of Santiago – right across from the central plaza (formerly known as Plaza de Armas, i.e. arms) of the city.
The Mayas (and Egyptians) built pyramids over caves or openings where their royal kings (and gods) were entombed. The Spanish conquerors built cathedrals on top of those pyramids, burying their own heroes and saints in crypts below the sacred ground. Both the pyramids and the cathedrals contained relics from the past, relics of the ancestors, relics of king-gods, saints and heroes. Even Golgotha’s cross was enshrined above the cave of Adam’s skull-and-bones.
When you looked into the painted face of Maximon, you saw a reflection of the ancestors, and you saw a reflection of your own soul. Maximon was made out of a wooden tree, and on that wooden tree (or cross) hung humanity. Maximon was the World Tree, and we were his branches and leaves.
The surrealistic vision of Maximon lingered in my mind for a long time after that encounter in Nim Pot. It settled down into my subconscious mind and resurfaced every time I thought of the Spanish conquest of the Maya land, or every time I thought of the evil habits that plagued humanity. Or whenever something went wrong. Was it the trickster, Maximon, performing his mischievous deeds? Trouble in any form seemed to be a manifestation of Maximon, whom the Maya regarded as the Lord of the universe.
On the way to our next place to visit, I peeked into every open door or portal to see what hidden surprises were inside. That was where the inner beauty of the city was revealed. Through one doorway I spotted a painting of the Last Supper that intrigued me. It was the sacred twelve and the central One who had a halo of the Maya four-directional cross. Another doorway revealed an artist’s studio with a painting of the pyramid of Tikal, a painting of a quetzal bird beside a cascading stream, and a colonial scene.
Las Capuchinas was for the ladies, a place that Elsa and Susie enjoyed because of the Capuchin nuns who lived there. The main building looked worn with age and resembled a fortress with a solid exterior. Those who came here to live a contemplative life were enclosed with walls that shut out any contact with the outside world. It was a life of solitude.
We walked through a large courtyard that had large circular earthquake-proof pillars that formed arches around the open area, with a water-flowing fountain in the center. We happened to be visiting the convent at the same time as several groups of school children, and we watched as they ran from section to section in their quest for historical knowledge. Their voices echoed through the various halls, rooms, and a subterranean chamber that they particularly enjoyed because of the acoustics.
Elsa and Susie enjoyed the tower the most. They played the role of the nun as they walked around the round stone building that had small stone recesses for the Stations of the Cross. Susie imagined the meditative life – something that she was familiar with. Elsa knew that the Capuchin form of confinement was not for her. However, they both posed in one of the eighteen tiny cells to show what the nuns were confined in. There was a restored cell that showed how a nun lived out her religious life.
Obviously, this was not the life either Susie or Elsa would choose for themselves. From the second floor of the ruins, Susie wanted to demonstrate what she would do if she were restricted to such a life and not have the freedom to go wherever she wanted to go. She stood on the ledge overlooking the courtyard, with the volcanoes in the distance, and pretended to throw her life over the edge. Elsa had to hold her back from such a fate.
There were a few interesting artifacts on display around the well-preserved ruins. The bust of the Empress of Heaven and the bust of the Ancient of Days were noteworthy. The ruined nave of the chapel was worth seeing from the nuns’ choir loft.
Also worth seeing was the model of the plaza as it looked like back in the 1700’s. There was a small museum that had an artifact that really impressed me. It showed a lady kneeling in front of a flame-covered altar with three volcanoes in the background; a cross with a crucified redeemer hovered within a white-clouded circle in the air above the altar; the central volcano was emitting fire and smoke. The words under the amazing scene said: “La Catolica Antigua Guatemala llora la cruel muerte de su Redemptor Jesus.” [translation: “The Catholic Old Guatemala cries for the cruel death of its Redeemer Jesus.”] The symbolical picture had an effect on me, for I saw not only mystical meanings in it, but I also saw it as an omen of our upcoming trip to the active volcano, Pacaya.
The following morning we woke up early for the six o’clock pickup. The day was perfect for a trip to the volcano. It was clear, and we could see the Volcano Agua perfectly from our street. I took advantage of the auspicious view and had a picture taken of me and my personal guide, my daughter Susie.
A mini-van drove us along with six other passengers to the Pacaya Volcano National Park. We drove past a sign on a wall inviting us to the town of San Vicente Pacaya, the gateway to the volcano. The sign had a mural of an erupting volcano, with a river of lava flowing to the sea. When we arrived at the base camp of operations, we were met by a bunch of Maya children with walking sticks in their hands. That was how they made a living for the family. We each rented a walking stick to help with their economy. We would find out soon enough how important it was to have a walking stick. While we waited for our guide to begin our tour up the trail, we studied the model of the volcano and the trail we would be taking up to the lava flow area.
The tourist industry at the Pacaya Volcano was humming with activity. Horses were available for rent, guides were allocated for each group, children had walking sticks ready for newcomers, and a small restaurant had drinks and snacks for sale. Susie bought an energy drink to help her ascend 2400 meters. We were all excited to get going on the adventure of a lifetime.
A sign at the beginning of the trail gave information about the volcano and the sights we would be seeing along the way:
"Usted esta en el volcano mas activo de nuestro pais, debido a sus constantes erupciones. En el recorrido podra contemplar su diversidad de flora, paisaje y recursos naturals. Viva y disfrute este interesante Monumento Natural de la nacion. Recorrido: 2.8 kms. Duracion: 1.5 horas (ida)."
I asked Susie to tell me what the sign said. She roughly translated: "You are at a very active volcano in our country, because of its constant eruptions. Along the way you can contemplate the diversity of flora, landscape and natural resources. Enjoy the life of this interesting Natural Monument of the nation. Route: 2.8 km. Duration: 1.5 hours (going)."
We were on our way. I followed behind Susie and Elsa. The going was easy initially. A sign about the Laguna de Calderas announced the arrival of a viewpoint that we wouldn’t be able to see because of the low-lying fog:
"Unico cuerpo de agua dentro del parque, de origen volcanico ubicado en un viejo crater del complejo cuyo unico cono activo es el volcan de Pacaya. Es de singular belleza y genera agua a 14 comunidades vecinas." Susie again translated roughly: "The Caldera Lake is the only body of water within the park. It’s of volcanic origin from an old crater of the complex whose only active cone is the volcano of Pacaya. It is of singular beauty and it generates water to 14 neighboring communities."
After about a mile of walking up a trail through a wooded terrain, we finally ascended above the timberline. We were now walking on a trail of finely ground lava pebbles, with a view of the towering cone-shaped stratovolcano before us. I kept my eye on the peak, where I noticed a plume of smoke steadily puffing out of the crater. The landscape kept changing as we climbed higher. Rough, jagged volcanic rock was all around us. We passed by every imaginable shape and form of black hardened lava rock.
By mid-morning several groups snaked up and down the undulating trail through the ridges and ravines that formed the lower volcanic region. There was a group nicknamed pumas, and a group nicknamed panthers. We were with the panther group. We stayed close to our leader. We would depend on her expert advice and leadership as we came closer to the treacherous field of active lava flows. The mounds of old lava formations became more ghastly and weird-looking. Susie thought they were “cool”.
Our first sighting of actual red lava came at a distance of about fifty yards. Another group had taken another trail to a ridge where we could faintly see a flow of slow-moving lava. Our leader told us we would go a little higher to get closer to the river of lava. Sure enough, within ten minutes we were standing right next to a red-hot river of molten rock. I could smell the volcanic gases and feel the heat all around me. I was mesmerized by the slow motion of the viscous red-hot substance as it followed the force of gravity downhill. It looked like a large round thirty-foot long anaconda.
This was where a walking stick was an absolute necessity. The ground below needed to be tested by a hard hit with the end of the stick before taking a step. I watched as a male guide from another group inched forward, using his stick to test the newly-formed lava layers. Some of the layers had not solidified enough to walk on, and they crumbled when you stepped on them. This was where Elsa froze in her tracks and could not gather enough courage to go forward with us. Susie and I continued forward, following the young thrill-seekers who wanted to roast a marshmallow on a stick. Imagine that! Someone had actually brought a bag of marshmallows for the tourists. That was very thoughtful of the guide.
Susie loved marshmallows. She always loved the part of our camping trips when we had an evening fire and she was able to roast one marshmallow after another. This time, I told her I would roast a marshmallow for her. The meter-long thin stick was just long enough to roast a marshmallow with. I watched the male guide do it first, then I borrowed his stick and stepped on the same spot where he had stood. I stretched as far as I could, bracing myself with my walking stick. I could feel the intense heat on my sandaled bare feet. It felt as if I was in a dry sauna that was turned up to maximum heat. The marshmallow turned brown, and I quickly pulled back from the river of lava. Susie and I shared the hard-earned lava-toasted marshmallow. Yum!
We had survived the house of fire. Slowly we backed away from the fiery serpentine river. It was at that moment that I noticed another flow of lava beneath my feet. The soles of my sandals started to smell like they were ready to smolder and burn. I retreated further back as quick as I could. There seemed to be lava above ground and below ground all around us. I moved back up to the higher ridge where the other people stood. I was now on safe and solid ground. I gave a deep sigh of relief. That was too close for comfort!
We rejoined Elsa, who was standing on high ground at least twenty yards away from the field of lava. I took one last look at the awesome sight that I had just witnessed. The incredible force of nature was wonderful to behold up close. Now we could take a well-deserved break and eat our lunch. We shared our lunch with the dogs that had followed us up the trail.
I made several videos of the Pacaya Volcano tour, but only two are presented here for your viewing pleasure.
Roasting a Marshmallow
When we returned to Antigua in the afternoon, we rested and cleaned up before going out for the last time in the colonial city. We still wanted to visit several places. One was the Church of San Francisco in the southeast section of town. We approached the church of the first religious order established in Guatemala from the side where the sign said “No Entrada.” It was the exit, and the ruined structure testified to that fact. We walked around to the entrance, which had an impressive baroque-style façade with seventeen niches. The bottom two niches on the sides of the arched-doorway were empty. The other fifteen niches contained stucco images of St. Francis, Santa Clara, the Virgin Mary, St. James, St. Hermano Pedro, and what seemed to be other Franciscan monks and nuns. I had never heard of St. Hermano Pedro.
We were soon to find out who the new saint was. We walked into a garden dedicated to Hermano Pedro de Betancourt, a Franciscan monk who founded a hospital and was credited with performing miracles. That’s why Pope John Paul II made him Central America’s first saint in 2002. The garden had a statue and a beautiful mural of the saint’s life. The mural celebrated the “octavo centenario” (800-year anniversary) of the Franciscan Order (1209-2009). An inscription said: “La Madre Tierra es un don de Dios para todos: cuidemosla y compartamosla como hermanos.” [The Mother Earth is a gift of God for all: we take care of her and we share like brothers.] The sun on the right, and the moon on the left, overlooked a tranquil landscape where the quetzal bird (symbol of the Sovereign Plumed Serpent) hovered above three volcanic peaks, with a river of life flowing down to the fountain, from which the Mayas and the Spaniards quenched their thirst.
Inside the church, the first thing we encountered was the sacred tomb of the saint. Pilgrimages were made to this shrine by pilgrims from the entire country. A solar disk with twelve golden rays and twelve silver rays embellished the front arch on the shrine. Within the golden circle was a figure of the heavenly woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of many stars. The monumental tomb had space around it for devotees to say their prayers. A plaque beside the tomb had a special prayer: “Let us pray with St. Hermano Pedro. Holy God, Holy mighty one, Holy Immortal one, have mercy on us, and you who have gathered us here, reunite us in glory.” A stained-glass window lightened up the chapel of the saint, showing the saint interceding for the petitioners at the heavenly abode of the Mother and the Son. The words above the colorful scene said: “Santo Herman Pedro ruega por nosotros.” [St. Hermano Pedro pray for us.]
The main church had a fascinating mural that hung like a tapestry above the altar that looked like a biblical ark with an angelic cherub on each side. The mural had four Maya-themed scenes, two on each side of a Christ-centered scene with a pool of water below and a Holy Spirit bird above. A symbolic candlestick stood on a rock below the central deity, and inside the sunburst of golden and white rays were the letters JHS. The sunburst seemed to demonstrate that Christ was the Light of the World, even to the Maya World.
Another picturesque scene in the hall also had a Maya theme: Maya people from different groups, and in a variety of colorful clothing, were at the bottom of the painting; on the upper sides were nuns and monks; in the center was St. Hermano Pedro with his hands extended in benediction, and a dove-centered cross above his head rose to an image of the Christ in the golden light of a heavenly scene.
Outside the church were the ruins. A small fee allowed us to enter the vast complex of the former Franciscan convent, where we walked through what was once the glory of the New World that the Spanish Empire had built on American soil. The shifting ground affected everybody that attempted to build eternal monuments, either to the glory of the Maya kings or to the glory of the Christian god. The land of earthquakes, plate tectonics, and volcanoes made sure that man learned the lesson of impermanence.
There was a four-directional cross-shaped pool that reminded me of the Maya design of the crossroads of Xibalba. There was another cross that reminded me of the X-shaped St. Andrew’s cross, which seemed to hold up a fallen arch.
Elsa did not want to stay long in the ruins. It was a very depressing sight. All the work of man – all for nought.
We walked out of the ruins and started to leave the church-convent complex when I noticed something interesting in a small corner outside the main building. It was a cross with the symbols of the passion, a small emblematic shrine with the images that were familiar to Christians who were told the Easter story of the crucifixion and resurrection each year. It was a cross with a vertical beam having the letters INRI on top, signifying Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaenum, and a horizontal beam with a spear and a rod with sponge at the ends. Also on the horizontal beam were the pliers, the ladder, the crown of thorns, and a hammer. On the vertical beam was a white hand, a seamless white coat, two dice with a four and a three showing, and three nails. As I stood and contemplated the images of the cross and the story of Golgotha (place of the skull), I remembered something I had read about the INRI letters. Various meanings were given for that acronym, and the one that stood out for me was: “Igni Natura Renovatur Integra” (All of Nature is Renewed by Fire).
We stopped at one last place as we searched for a place to have dinner. It was the former church and convent of Santo Domingo. A tiled sign on the exterior wall of the former monastery said:
“En este convento de Santo Domingo se fundo la Primera Asociacion Penitencial de America, La “Cofradia del Cristo Muerto de Los Padres Dominicos”, hoy Hermandad del Senor Sepultado del templo de Santo Domingo de la Nueva Guatemala de La Asuncion. La Antigua Guatemala, Ano Jubilar del Senor 1547-1997.”
I understood that the Dominican Order was an order of preachers who were followers of Santo Domingo de Guzmán. The monastery was destroyed in the earthquake of 1773 – like so many of Antigua’s religious places. Presently, the ruins were converted into the Hotel-Museum Santo Domingo House. As we walked through the large entry doors, an ancient world transformed by modern renovations opened up to our visual gratification. The first thing that struck my eyes was an ancient painting of the Last Supper. The faces seemed to represent Spanish personages. The stones of the vast complex seemed to speak volumes of pages of a monumental epoch, when the treasures of the monastery showcased some of the finest colonial art. An old facsimile of a map of La Antigua Guatemala embellished one of the walls.
We walked through the extravagant five-star hotel with its expensive restaurant. We decided it was too rich for our taste, and our pocket. We would seek a moderately-priced place to enjoy. However, we did spend some time walking through the museum ruins in the back.
For Susie and me, the best part was meeting the scarlet macaws at the museum-hotel. We had fun trying to talk with them. We talked to them like we would be talking to Seven Macaw, the boastful individual in the Popol Vuh. Seven Macaw had excessive pride in his glorious appearance, which caused his ultimate downfall as ordained by Heart of Sky. It appeared that the entire story of the proud macaw spoke of the individual ego that mankind exhibited, and how to overcome the self-inflating ego in order for the child of light (union of sun and moon) to be born:
There was only a little light upon the face of the earth at that stage: it was not yet Day.
But there was a certain being who cherished surpassing vanity; Seven-macaws was his name.
The heavens and the earth existed; but the face of the sun, of the moon, was veiled.
Said Seven-macaws: “In truth, the ethereal remnant of these people who perished in the deluge is marvelous: their Shades are like the archetypal Gods themselves. Mighty once more above all created beings shall I be; for I am their Sun, I am their radiant Halo, I am their Moon: so be it.
“Great is my splendour; I am he by whom men come and go. . . . .
“Thus, of a truth, I am the Sun, I am the moon, because of the radiance of my subjects, the luminous halo of my devotees. So be it; for my seership extends over all space.”
So spoke Seven-macaws; but in fact he was not that Seven-macaws who is the Sun; only he was glamoured by his sparkling jewels and precious metals. In reality, his seership ended at a set limit, and did not include everything under the heavens.
Not yet were revealed the sun, the moon, the stars; not yet had come the opalescent Aurora.
After this fashion Seven-macaws imagined himself superb, and simulated the sun and the moon, although as yet the illumination had not come, and the light of the sun and moon had not begun to irradiate; he was but a braggart, desirous of surpassing all things.
Thus it was at the time of the deluge provoked by the wooden manikins. So now we shall tell of the dethronement and death of Seven-macaws, and of the nature of man as constituted by the Former and the Creator.
What a story! So much depth! Here was an account on so many levels: cosmological, mythological, physiological, and spiritual. It was the journey of the heavens and the earth through cyclical space and time. It was also the journey of the pilgrim soul through initiations of self-awareness and through the houses of fire, water, earth, air, and through all the tests and trials that the Popol Vuh writes about. After all, the Maya conception of the universe was one in which the entire cosmos was seen as a House. The pilgrim soul was also a House, within which was the entire universe. To journey within oneself was to journey through the universe. And the cycle of transformation and regeneration, the cycle of life-death-rebirth, was the great cycle and the great work that encompassed the entire journey.
Our journey in Antigua was almost complete. We would have our last dinner at a restaurant overlooking the ruins of the former glory of the Cathedral de Santiago (Church of San Jose). Behind us was a mass of fallen masonry, rotting beams, broken arches, and cracked pillars. The ruins reminded me of the fall of Seven-macaws. The pride and vainglory of the Spanish Empire was gone. The pride and vainglory of each individual person (Seven-macaws) was a matter of personal conquest or personal defeat.
The following morning we awoke to find another clear view of Volcano Agua. One more photo opportunity. As we drove to our next destination, the three volcanoes that towered above Antigua receded from view. There was one painting that I visualized in my mind as we drove toward the place of the setting sun. It was a colorful orange-red scene of the volcano, giving it the appearance of the House of Fire.
THIS, then, is the memorial to the deaths of Hunahpu and Xbalanque. We shall now tell it in memory of their death.
What they had planned to do, they had done despite all their afflictions and misfortunes. Thus they did not die in the trials of Xibalba. Neither were they defeated by all the ravenous beasts that lived there.
And then they summoned two seers. Visionary persons they were. The names of these sages were Descended and Ascended:
“The lords of Xibalba may inquire of you concerning our death. They are even now putting together their thoughts on the matter, because we have not yet died. We have not been defeated. We confounded their trials. Nor have the animals seized us. This, therefore, is the sign that is in our hearts. Heated stones will be the means by which our murder will be accomplished. Thus when all Xibalba has gathered together to determine how to ensure our death, this shall be the idea that you will propose. If you are asked about our death when we are burned, this is what you shall tell them, you, Descended and you, Ascended, if they should speak to you about it:
“‘Wouldn’t it perhaps be good if we scatter their bones in the canyon?’
“Then you are to say, ‘This would not be good, for they would merely arise again to new life.’
“Then they will say to you, ‘Perhaps it would be good to merely hang them in the top of a tree?’
“You will then reply, ‘Certainly that would not be good, for you would see their faces before you.’
“Then the third time they will say, ‘Would it be a good thing if we merely scatter their bones in the course of the river?’
“If then you are asked this, you will reply, ‘It is good that they should die. And it would be good if their bones were ground upon the face of a stone like finely ground maize flour. Each one of them should be ground separately. Then these should be scattered there in the course of the river. They should be sprinkled on the river that winds among the small and great mountains.’
“This, then, is what you will say. Thus will be made manifest what we have said to you in counsel,” said Hunahpu and Xbalanque.
For when they had thus counseled them, they already knew of their death. The Xibalbans were even then putting together the great heated stones in the form of a pit oven, placing large hot coals within it.
Then came the messengers of One Death and Seven Death to accompany them:
“The lords say to us: ‘May they come! Bring them so that they may see what we have cooked up for them.’ This is the word of the lords unto you, boys,” they were told.
“Very well,” they replied.
Thus they went quickly to the mouth of the pit oven. There the Xibalbans wanted to force them into playing with them:
“Let us jump over this our sweet drink. Four times each of us will go across it, boys,” they were told by One Death.
“You cannot trick us with this. Do we not already know the means of our death, O lords? You shall surely see it,” they said.
Then they turned to face one another, spread out their arms and together they went into the pit oven. Thus both of them died there. Then all the Xibalbans rejoiced at this. They contentedly shouted and whistled:
“We have defeated them. None too soon have they given themselves up,” they said.
Then they summoned Descended and Ascended, with whom word had been left by the boys. And the Xibalbans divined of them what was to be done with their bones.
Thus according to their word, the bones were ground up and strewn along the course of the river. But they did not go far away; they just straightaway sank there beneath the water. And when they appeared again, it was as chosen boys, for thus they had become.
[Popol Vuh: Sacred Book of the Quiche Maya People, Allen J. Christenson, p. 165-168]
Bonus: Maps of Antigua
Thumbnails of Antigua
CHAPTER 6: MONTERRICO (House of Cold)