We learn from the Popol-Vuh, sacred book of the Quiches, that the applicants for initiation to the mysteries were made to cross two rivers, one of mud, the other of blood, before they reached the four roads that led to the place where the priests awaited them. The crossing of these rivers was full of dangers that were to be avoided. Then they had to journey along the four roads, the white, the red, the green and the black, that led to where the council, composed of twelve veiled priests, and a wooden statue dressed and wearing ornaments as the priests, awaited them. When in presence of the council, they were told to salute the King; and the wooden statue was pointed out to them. This was to try their discernment. Then they had to salute each individual, giving his name or title without being told; after which they were asked to sit down on a certain seat. If, forgetting the respect due to the august assembly, they sat as invited, they soon had reason to regret their want of good breeding and proper preparation, for the seat, made of stone, was burning hot.
Having modestly declined the invitation, they were conducted to the “Dark house,” where they had to pass the night, and submit to the second trial. Guards were placed all round, to prevent the candidates from holding intercourse with the outer world. Then a lighted torch of pine wood and a cigar were given to each. These were not to be extinguished. Still they had to be returned whole at sunrise, when the officer in charge of the house came to demand them. Woe to him who allowed his torch and cigar to get consumed! Terrible chastisements, death even, awaited him.
[Sacred Mysteries Among the Mayas and Quiches, Dr. Augustus LePlongeon, p. 42-43]
The second trial was given in the House of Shadows, where to each of the candidates was brought a pine torch and a cigar, with the injunction that both must be kept alight throughout the entire night and yet each must be returned the next morning unconsumed. Knowing that death was the alternative to failure in the test, the young men burnt aras-feathers in place of the pine splinters (which they closely resemble) and also put fireflies on the tips of the cigars. Seeing the lights, those who watched felt certain that Hunahpu and Xbalanque had fallen into the trap, but when morning came the torches and cigars were returned to the guards unconsumed and still burning. In amazement and awe, the princes of Xibalba gazed upon the unconsumed splinters and cigars, for never before had these been returned intact.
[The Secret Teachings of all Ages, Manly P. Hall, p.195-196]
The Maya people of Lake Atitlan have a saying: “When the Xocomil arrives, that’s when either good things or bad things happen.” The good things would be if the warm south wind gathered up the sins of the inhabitants and carried them away; the bad things would be if the colliding cold north wind brought the devil’s fury (or as Elsa later called it, the fury of Maximon).
We drove in from the north through Solola, the departmental capital and gateway to the lake. We had taken a shuttle van to Lake Atitlan right after we came back to Antigua from Monterrico. Susie had planned out the logistics of the trip, and she figured that was the best way to utilize our time.
It was starting to get dark when we drove through Solola (“Water from the Oldest Tree”) and descended from the mountainous highlands to the lakeside town of Panajachel. I felt like I was descending into a vortex of energy as I glimpsed the large lake through the trees that lined the curvy road, and my head began to feel a pressure building inside. It was something I had felt before at the Oregon vortex, and also at the vortex in Santa Cruz, California. It was as if the swirling currents of the earth and the human body were somehow electro-magnetically interdependent, and a sensitive mind could pick up on the mysterious energy field that inhabited a certain spot. Later I would learn that the entire area had gone through a long history of geological, cultural, political, environmental, and spiritual transformation that made it the magical place that it was.
By the time we reached the lake, a rainstorm descended on our heads, and we had to run for cover into the first hotel that Elsa and Susie chose from the guide book. I think it was the advertising of a tranquil garden, that Elsa liked, and an in-house tuj (herbal) sauna, something Susie wanted to experience, that attracted them to the moderately priced Hotel Utz-Jay (“Good House”). The storm prevented the ladies from doing their regular hotel-comparison jaunts. We settled on the adobe-and-stone casita (little house).
Looking back in retrospect, the rainstorm and the quick decision to stay at the hotel were the first signs that something was astir in the territory that Maximon controlled and ruled. After all, the forces of nature were powerful in Lake Atitlan, and the Maya had a special deity of their own (i.e. Maximon) that was considered by some to be Mam – the Lord of the Universe.
Something was wrong the minute Susie stepped into the small room with two double beds. She started to sneeze – without stopping. Susie had a very sensitive nose that picked up on microscopic bacteria in the air. She went out of the room into the larger living room, which we shared with an adjacent casita. The sneezing stopped. It seemed obvious that there were microorganisms that contaminated the air in the confined room. Even I smelled something like mildew from the rock-and-plaster walls in the bedroom. So we laid out a bed for Susie in the living room, where she could sleep with some modicum of comfort.
The following morning, I woke up at the dawn of day. I decided I would let the ladies get their beauty sleep, while I went for a meditative walk to the lakeside. We were only two blocks away from the pier. There was a promenade along part of the shore, so I walked to the eastern side to see if I could catch the sunrise. I came to the end of the lakeside street. Below me was the Rio Panajachel. I walked up the river road to see if there was a trail down to the river. It was too muddy down below, so I decided to just enjoy the unfolding daybreak, and watch the workers who already were busy filling up bags with sand. A red truck was there to load up the bags of sand. A small soccer field with two goal posts was set up near the riverbank. I also noticed several fishermen casting their lines into the place where the river flowed into the lake.
Across the lake, I could begin to see two volcanoes clearly as the light of the sun began to illuminate the landscape. The morning fog still hovered over most of the southern area of the lake, but I could see most of the land formations, including a small hill at the foot of the volcanoes. From a small map of the Lago de Atitlan, I realized that I was looking at Volcan Toliman and Volcan Atitlan. From my perspective, they looked like twins.
I walked back to the lakeside road and went on the promenade to see how far it would take me. I ended up near another pier, from where I saw the sun already shining on the steep sides of the mountainous range that encircled the lake. The reflection in the water, on the calm morning surface, was spellbinding. I felt as if I was in an enchanted fairy land. I breathed in the fresh air that surrounded me, and I marveled at the beautiful basin-shaped lake and volcanic-formed hills that I was seeing in their full morning glory.
When I returned to the hotel, the ladies were up and ready to get out of the environment that was making Susie sick. We went to a restaurant, where Susie drank lots of tea to alleviate the discomfort from her stuffed nasal passages. Afterwards, we walked up the street that had all the shops and stores to find a drug store. Susie was recommended some pills for her illness by a local pharmacist. Susie was ready to try anything to help her recover from whatever had invaded her body.
We walked back down Calle Santander towards the hotel. We decided it would be best to get out of town as soon as possible. We would go to Santiago Atitlan, where we thought it would be better for Susie. I found out it was impossible for us to walk back to the hotel without looking into several shops that enticed us. The ladies were drawn to clothing and jewelry. I was drawn to maps and art. There was a map of the lake that I studied for some time. I had heard and read that some of the villages around the lake had biblical names, so they were called the twelve apostles. I saw San Pedro, San Pablo, San Juan, San Marcos, and San Lucas on the map. The other names were either Maya names (Panajachel, Tzununa, Solola) or Spanish names (Santa Catarina, San Antonio, Santa Cruz). Later, I learned that Santiago was Spanish for Saint James, so I added him to the name of apostles. That made six apostles or biblical names. Nevertheless, the concept of the twelve (apostles, villages) would perplex my mind until I solved it at the end of my journey.
Another map, a satellite map of the lake, showed a shape that looked like a heart or a tree. I located the three volcanoes on the southern side of the lake.
Elsa and Susie wanted to have a small breakfast before we left Panajachel. A boat for Santiago left every half-an-hour during the day, so we didn’t have a time schedule that we had to keep. The open-air restaurant that we chose had a painting on the wall that produced a vivid impression on my mind – something like the cosmic canoe painting that I saw in Tikal and in Peten. It was a painting of the quetzal bird and the green iguana. On the surface, to a normal mind, it was just a bird and a lizard. To me, it was the two major deities of the Maya pantheon: Quetzalcoatl (or Kukulcan), and Itzamna (the creator god). Here were the two aspects of the Sovereign Plumed Serpent drawn as a duality – the bird of heaven and the reptile of earth.
I was caught up in a reverie of everything that the Maya believed about the deities of an abstract reality that existed in their worldview. I was shaken out of that reverie by my wife and daughter, who were waiting for me to pay the bill so we could get our bags and head for the other side of the lake.
It was hard for me not to peak my head into every art gallery that we passed on our way back to the hotel. One gallery in particular drew me in, and the proprietor of the shop even let me take a picture of the fantastic art work. The paintings of the lake, the volcanoes, and the Maya people were definitely eye-catching. I liked the painting of a woman with a bundle on her head and a man rowing a boat the best.
The view of the lake was clear when we got to the pier. We could see all three volcanoes: Toliman, Atitlan, and San Pedro. The panoramic view was absolutely gorgeous.
It was time for us to get on the lancha, the fast boat that would take us to our destination in about twenty minutes. We descended the stairs to the pier at the end of Calle Rancho Grande and got in the twelve-to-fifteen passenger boat. We were on our way. The lancha moved rapidly across the clear blue water, creating a wide wake behind the boat. We could see the volcanoes getting closer and closer as we sped toward Santiago Atitlan, the largest village on the lake. On our right side, we got a great view of Volcan San Pedro as we entered the inlet that formed the southern section of the lake, the part that looked like the trunk of a tree on the satellite photo. The clouds above the cone-shaped volcano looked like a mock eruption. I used my binoculars to locate what looked like the ruins of an ancient Maya site on the eastern slope. I saw some smoke near the site, and I thought there might be a Maya ceremony taking place, or perhaps someone making an offering to their deities. Later I found out that the Tz’utujil-speaking Maya had their fortified capital, Chuitinamit (“Atop the Citadel”), there. That was before the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado – whom some Maya people identified with Maximon – destroyed it and massacred its inhabitants.
Our first view of the town of Santiago Atitlan came as the boat rounded the corner of the curvy stretch of the inlet. It looked like we were approaching a small bay, with houses lining the hills of the semi-circular area. The Atitlan Volcano loomed in the background. We had asked the boatman to let us off at the dock of the Hotel Bambu, which – according to the local people – was the best place to stay in Santiago. We were glad we took their advice. From the dock, we watched as the boat turned around and continued on to the main part of the town to drop off the rest of the passengers. We climbed up several steps through a beautiful garden setting to the lobby-restaurant of the hotel.
There was a room available, a room with a balcony from which we could see the volcanoes, the lake, the garden below, and the town across the way. We could even see some activity along the shoreline. With my binoculars I was able to see that there were women washing their laundry on some rocks at the lake.
We found out from the hotel owner that there was a nice trail to the town that we could take. It would take us only about ten to fifteen minutes to get there. It was either walk, or take a tuk-tuk (small three-wheel taxi) to town. We needed the exercise, and Susie needed the fresh air. We walked along the shoreline on the dirt trail. Along the way, we met a boy who had just caught a couple of small bass. He was proud to show off his catch. He even showed us the cayuco (traditional carved-out boat) that he used to go out into the lake with his father.
We continued following the trail through tall cornfields, and through a maze of paths that led to the backyards of Maya homes. We stayed on the path along the shoreline, which was the shortest distance to our destination. Several workers with hoes passed us on the trail; they were going to tend their small plot of land. We said “Buenos Dias” to them, and they replied “Buenos Dias” to us. The Maya people, we found out, were very friendly to tourists.
Right before we got to the paved streets of the town, we came to a wide dirt road that led to the lake. That was where the “Maya Laundromat” was located. I watched a Maya man carry two sacks on produce on his back. I followed him down to the lake, where I saw a most fantastic sight – the ancient, traditional self-service laundry-washing facility. The women carried their plastic basket of clothes on their heads, and then they washed the clothes on a large rock, standing knee-deep in water. It seemed as if they had a schedule or some kind of agreement when they would come to the lake to wash their clothes. I counted about seventeen women at the lake. Susie and I wondered if they used biodegradable soap.
When we came into the actual town of Santiago Atitlan, we noticed a street going further south along the shoreline, a main street (Calle Principal) heading from the dock up the hill, and a road leading back to Hotel Bambu. We decided to sit a while at a corner shop, get something to drink, and talk to the local people. It wasn’t long before several Maya ladies came by to sell us clothing and handicrafts. A man sat at our table after we had ordered some drinks and tried to sell us some tours that were available, including a hike to Cerro de Oro. We later found out we could hop on a pick-up truck to Cerro de Oro and do our own hike for just the price of transportation. The coffee that Elsa ordered was way below her standards of good coffee, so we left the shop to discover the town on our own.
Along one street I saw what appeared to be school girls walking past a sign of their school. The sign advertised the school as being bilingual, and it had the words sabiduria, pureza, estudio, and unidad (wisdom, purity, study, and unity) as the values that were central to education. At the bottom of the painted logo (with a picture of the school, the lake, and the volcano) was the Maya name Tz´ikin Jaay – House of Birds (or birdhouse). I found out later that Tz’ikin Jaay was the ancient Maya name for the place now known as Santiago Atitlan. I also found out that Tz’ikin was a day sign, and a totem bird of shamans. I wasn’t aware of that until I met the shaman at the house where Maximon was located. But that’s a story that will be told later in this chapter.
We continued our adventure through the magical town by going up the main street (Calle Principal). A tuk-tuk (taxi) passed us. The older boy driver asked if we needed a ride. We told him we would rather walk. The shops and the local people could only be enjoyed by browsing their wares and talking to them.
And oh what colorful goods they were! I loved the tapestry with the two quetzal birds hovering over a Maya pyramid-temple. I almost wanted to buy it, but Susie convinced me that there were better scenes to choose from at the Chichicastenango market that we were going to on Sunday. And better prices!
We kept moving up the street to see what else there was to see. A shop with huipils (blouses), and other textiles, was another one of those places that you had to admire just for the colorful designs on the handicrafts.
A pick-up truck was coming up the street. It was the kind that picked up passengers, who stood in the back (bed of the truck) and held on to a metal frame. The local word for them was “fletes” (loads), probably because you could load anything in them, including men carrying their bundles of wood and women carrying their bundles of goods.
“We’re going to have to take a ride in one of those,” I commented to Elsa and Susie.
“No way am I going to ride in one of those things,” responded Elsa. That was that.
Further up the street Susie saw a lady with an old-fashioned icee machine. I knew Susie was feeling better when I saw her order an icee for herself.
Another surprise awaited me on the same street. There were original Maya paintings in an art gallery. The first painting showed half-naked Maya men performing some kind of dance or ceremonial ritual. The people in the audience were dressed in traditional Maya clothing. The other painting showed the local dress of the Maya women who also wore a cinta (headribbon) on their head that resembled a rainbow-like halo. They were at a marketplace.
The action on the streets of Santiago was something I could have watched all day. It was like watching a live movie, with picturesque scenes, unique characters, and unusual events. I always cherished the sight of school children, and here I saw the children carrying the same backpacks that were now commonplace in the States. We stopped to watch some men unloading a wrapped basket of watermelons from the roof of a chicken bus. That’s a sight you wouldn’t see back home. Susie told me that the chicken buses were transformed and repainted school buses that were rejected by the public school system in the USA. They were a major source of air pollution in Guatemala.
We were now approaching the most sacred site in Santiago Atitlan: the r’muxux ruchiliew (“navel of the face of the earth”), where the sacred opening into the realm of the underworld of the ancestors was located. Upon this sacred site, which formerly was a pyramid-temple, now stood a church named after the patron saint – Saint James the Apostle Church. We crossed the plaza (representing the Maya primordial sea) and stood in front of a four-tiered platform (symbolizing the four worlds) upon which stood the cross (of the World Tree).
The old colonial Catholic church was constructed in the 1570’s by the Franciscan friars and the Tzutuhil Maya people, according to a sign at the church. The sign gave additional information: “The Mayan Tzutuhil may have migrated from Mexico about 900 years before Christ and occupied the present site of Atitlan. Atitlan signifies ‘Place of Many Waters’ or ‘Hill surrounded by Water.’ The Mayan Tzutuhil dominated the Lake Atitlan area and the nearby towns of San Lucas Toliman and Patulul. Their ceremonial worship center was ‘Chutinamit’ (Mouth/entrance of the village) located on the north side of the entrance to Santiago Bay. Their commercial and military domination extended, at various times, from Quetzaltenango to the Pacific Coast.”
I stopped reading when I noticed a man near the entrance of the church. He seemed to be looking for something or someone. We approached the west stairway of the church, which had six pillars – three on each side – representing the six confraternities (religious brotherhoods) who were in charge of the veneration of the Maya/Christian saints. We climbed up the eighteen round stairs – and one last straight stair – leading to the entrance; the Maya year is divided into 19 months (the first eighteen having twenty days and the last one having only 5), with a total of 365 days. I was thinking that I was probably climbing up the stones from a previous Maya temple.
At the entrance was the man that I had noticed. He had a bilingual note in his left hand and a hat in his right hand. We crossed the threshold into the church. I read the note that the blind man was holding: “Estoy ciego. Busco una pequena ayuda economica. Puedes colaborar con migo? Por el Amor de Dios deja me en el sombrero, por favor.” The words “Por el Amor de Dios” (For the Love of God) touched my heart and convinced me that I should help the unfortunate man by placing a small donation in his hat, as he requested. I asked Susie to make a small request of him. He was more than willing to allow me to take a picture of him.
On both sides of the wall were statues of saints bedecked in indigenous attire. I walked down the central aisle, past the wooden pews, and counted forty-three syncretic Maya/Christian saints/deities. They were separated into six confraternities: (1) San Juan, (2) San Francisco/San Antonio, (3) San Rosario, (4) San Nicolas, (5) San Felipe, and (6) San Juan/San Gregorio. The picture I took of the San Felipe section had the following six statues: Licenciado St. Peter, St. Christopher, St. Philip of Jesus, unknown, Divine Christ, and St. Jerome. I located a book about the church and its entire contents later when I came home. It was called: Art and Society in a Highland Maya Community, The Altarpiece of Santiago Atitlan, by Allen J. Christenson. The book helped me understand what I was about to encounter.
The monumental altarpiece at the front of the church was a sight to behold. It looked like a mountain or a volcano rising out of the earth. Flanking the central altarpiece to the left (north) and right (south) were side chapels which could be seen from the west end of the nave, where we stood at the entrance. The smaller altarpiece on the left looked like a second mountain, and a similar altarpiece on the right was supposed to represent a third mountain. As a group, they were the three volcanoes of Lake Atitlan, or the Holy Trinity, as intended by the Franciscans.
The central altarpiece represented God the Father, who occupied the top position, with St. Francis, the patron saint of the Franciscans, below the Almighty. The next tier below was occupied by St. Paul, Simon Mam (Ancient One), and St. Mark. The bottom tier had Maria Andolor (the young moon goddess of childbirth), St. John (nicknamed San Juan Carajo), St. James (patron saint), Santiago Menor (his interpreter), and Maria Dragon (standing on head of the dragon). Quite an assortment of protective divinities!
The left altarpiece represented God the Son, with the crucified savior wrapped in Maya clothing and two Marys standing beside him, and another life-sized image of Jesus wrapped in flowery cloth and laying in a wooden sepulcher with a glass front.
The right altarpiece – by comparing it to the one in the book by Allen J. Christenson – had been replaced with a small crucifix, two cherubs, and a small altar. It was supposed to have a central image of Maria Conception holding the infant Christ. My guess was that the association of the Mother with the Holy Spirit was beyond the theological conceptualization of the Catholic priesthood, and they probably had it replaced.
So far what I was seeing resembled the Popol Vuh story of creation, with the three mountains representing the three hearth stones of creation in the Orion constellation. The three volcanic mountains rising out of the lake at the dawn of creation was an apt representation of the surroundings. The cosmic world-view of the Maya resonated in the symbols placed in prominent positions, like the world tree emerging from the top of the altarpiece (mountain). The subtle motifs of the Maize god were incorporated into the altarpiece, and also, as I eventually discovered, into the pulpit/lectern that I stopped at to study. The imagery of the tetramorph (four living creatures) was familiar to me. I had seen them as representations of the four evangelists in the domes of orthodox churches in Russia, and I had seen them on Catholic churches: the eagle, the ox, the lion, and the son of man. Those universal symbols of the fixed cross in the heavens had been described by Ezekiel and by John the Revelator. Now I was looking at the same symbols with the sacrificial lamb in the center, and a quetzal bird (the plumed serpent) in place of the eagle, and a deer replacing an ox. Mayan symbols combined with Judeo-Christian symbols to explain the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. These were symbols to explain the four sacred directions and the four sacred elements of air, fire, earth, and water.
What I didn’t expect was the discovery I made when I looked in Christenson’s book and learned that the pulpit I had photographed and the pulpit he had photographed had a different image in the center. The one I had photographed had a lamb; his had the Maize God, the substance of life for the Maya people. It appeared that the Maize God, who represented the “bread of life” for the Maya people, had been replaced by the sacrificial lamb of the Catholic people. The Eleusinian Mysteries – of the “corn of wheat” (John 12:24) dying and coming back to life – had been silenced once again! And yet the wisdom of the Maya artist was alive – the quetzal (Sovereign Plumed Serpent) was still on the pulpit/lectern. That symbol was the symbol of the initiate and the shaman: “Be wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”
I took one last look at the Man of Sorrows before I left the church of three mountains, the sacred three of Maya cosmology. The Man of Sorrows was also walking away from the central altarpiece, where he had been placed in the bottom left corner. His blue robe was not the purple robe of royalty, nor the white robe of the master, but the blue of the Maya creator Heart of Sky and the blue of the sacred Lake Atitlan.
I watched as a Tzutujil-speaking Maya man descended the stairs in front of me. He seemed to be counting the nineteen steps (and months) of the Maya calendar. I liked the design on the bottom on his knee-length pantalones (trousers). To the right (northwest) of the plaza I noticed a blue-colored building. This was the Capilla de Mam (the chapel or sanctuary of Mam, or Maximon, as he was more popularly known). This was his resting place, the place where his sacrificial death as the Maize-God was reenacted in the most elaborate Maya story of the spring season that I had ever heard. This, and much more, awaited me and my traveling companions as our encounter with Maximon was about to come to fruition.
No sooner had I descended the nineteen steps of the ancient temple-pyramid, than a short Maya man in white pantalones with thin purple stripes approached us. I say short because he was shorter than me. Actually, he was of the average height in the local community. He was interested in helping us (and helping himself) see the sights of Santiago – at a small price. Elsa and Susie were able to communicate with him, even though his Spanish was interspersed with Tzutujil inflections and colloquialisms. He told us about a special trip that he could take us on. It would be on a trail behind the town to the heights overlooking both the bay of the lake and the Pacific Ocean.
“Can you take us to see Makshimon?” I asked.
“Maximon?” he corrected us, using the local pronunciation of Ma-she-mon.
“Yes, I would like to see where he resides,” I said.
“I can show you where he lives, if that is what you wish,” he responded through Susie, my interpreter.
It was set. We paid our new-found guide, Miguel, a small down payment as a token of our commitment to meet him in the morning on the day after tomorrow – Friday. Tomorrow we would go to Cerro de Oro (Hill of Gold), as Miguel suggested. He originally wanted to guide us to the top of the hill, but when we agreed to go on the other hike with him – with the stipulation that he would show us where Maximon was – he told us we could get to Cerro de Oro by taking a pick-up truck there. He gave us the details and explained that there was an easy to follow trail to the top. We parted ways near the dock, where the Santa Maria ferry was waiting for its next load of passengers.
On our way back to Hotel Bambu, we walked past the Maya women doing their laundry at the lake. It looked like the late afternoon was the best time to do the laundry. It wasn’t as crowded as it was in the morning.
We had a relaxing evening and a good dinner at the restaurant of our hotel. We talked about our plans for the next day. There was no hurry to get to Cerro de Oro, so I proposed we take a kayak trip along the lake. The hotel had free kayaks for us to use, so we reserved two kayaks for the morning. Elsa and I would use the double kayak.
That night something ominous shook us out of our sleep. Both Susie and I felt it. It was an earthquake. It rocked us gently, like a boat rocking on the wake of several waves after a speedboat had passed by. It lasted for about twenty to thirty seconds. I looked at my watch and saw that it was only 2:30 AM. Later, we would find out on the internet that there was a 7.1 magnitude earthquake off the Caribbean coast of Honduras. That was now the second earthquake we had experienced in Guatemala. I wondered what kind of event this omen portended. The thought of Xibalba, and Maximon, were not far from my mind.
Susie and I woke up earlier than we anticipated. We decided to go for a walk on the lakeshore trail for our morning exercise. The morning air was fresh and clean, and the stillness in the air was palpable. The trail leading north of town passed alongside many fields and private homes. We were amazed that such a trail had been made, and we were even more impressed by the fact that a person could walk around the entire lake via the trail system. The view all around us was resplendent, just like the dazzling quetzal bird of Guatemala. We could even see the volcanoes Toliman and Atitlan as we walked through open sections of the trail.
The trail didn’t always follow the shoreline. It seemed that the trail was made to go on a higher level than the low-lying fields, probably to protect the cornfields and wetlands. The sun started to come up over the tall cornfields. It was like the Maize-God and the Sun-God were reaching out to each other, the maize from below and the sun from above, and finally embracing in a fructifying burst of energy. The light from above became the substance of life.
A surprise visitor jumped right in front of us on the path. It was a frog. The frog sat in the brush next to the path, waiting for us to pass by. Instead, we stood and admired its size and features. I thought of the Maya god of rain and thunder – Chac – who was associated with the frog. I also thought of the patron frog god – Sak or Zak – who carried the name of one of the nineteen months of the Maya calendar. Perhaps he was a messenger of the gods, like in the Popol Vuh story.
And then, as we rounded a bend of the trail, a placid lake appeared before us. Tranquility reigned supreme in the morning, with reflections of the trees and the volcano dancing in the ripples of the lake. Several fishermen in their wooden cayuco boats moved through the serene water.
Later, when Susie and I returned to the hotel, Elsa wanted to still go out in the kayak, so the two of us kayaked together to the same tranquil place. It was so peaceful and quiet that we sat in the double kayak and enjoyed the special ambiance of the Maya universe for a while. This place seemed to transmit an otherworldliness that transcended time and space. It was the world of the gods and the ancestors who inhabited the water, the trees, the volcanoes, and even the caves that led to the underworld of Xibalba. It was all there at one moment. And we were in that eternal moment, relishing the thrill of the ride in the kayak and the energy field that we had entered as we seemed to float between heaven and earth.
The Maya women were doing the morning laundry when we passed by on our way to town to catch a passenger pick-up truck (a flete). It was a timeless scene that made us stop and watch each time we saw it. It was even immortalized in a beautiful painting that I saw in one of the art galleries. In the painting, you could see the quetzal bird flying overhead in a gesture of benevolence. A boatman and a volcano made the picture complete.
One of the other interesting things that I saw on the way to town each time we walked on the lakeshore trail was an indigenous-style nursery, with rows and rows of small plants in containers.
Once we were in town, it was again a feast for the eyes, especially the women in their distinctive huipils (blouses) and variegated faldas (skirts). The modest attire of the woven wraparound skirt reached to the ankles and was held together by a faja (sash) at the waist. The geometric, floral, and bird designs on the varicolored clothing identified the person with a certain village, and it also identified them with their ancestral heritage.
As we walked through a section of town that we had not visited the day before, we ran into one of the many evangelical Protestant churches that had mushroomed in the Maya world. It was called Alfa y Omega (Alpha and Omega), signifying the beginning and the end. Somehow, even though I knew it referred to the Christian savior, I thought of what a Maya believer might identify it with; perhaps with the beginning and end of the Maya calendar that everybody was talking about. Some might identify it with the end of times, and others with the long count calendar that would end in 2012.
Churches gave sustenance to the soul, schools gave sustenance to the mind, and the tortilla lady that we saw gave sustenance to the body using a portable flat metal surface griddle. Her quick hands flipped the tortillas from one side to the other with such dexterity that it seemed like she was the Maize-goddess.
We were ready to find the pick-up truck that would take us to Cerro de Oro. The small hill looked like an adventive cone (a lateral cone) of a larger volcano. On a painting of the lake and the volcanoes, the cone-shaped hill looked like it literally grew out of the side of Volcan Toliman (Pral, “At Her Children”). It looked similar to what I saw every time I drove by Shastina, the satellite cone of Mount Shasta in California.
We boarded the Toyota pick-up truck from the back and held on tight to the metal frame as the driver drove down the road out of town and towards Cerro de Oro. Elsa had given in and reluctantly boarded the pick-up with us. She was beginning to realize that an adventure called for some courage from time to time.
Miguel had told us to look for a trailhead on the left side of the road when the driver turned off of the main road. We had asked if the driver was going to Cerro de Oro, and he said he was. So we figured he was going to let us know when we had reached our destination. However, we were not aware of the fact that there was a village also named Cerro de Oro, which was about two kilometers from the base of the hill.
When we drove into the village, the driver told us that we had arrived. We told him that we had wanted to stop at the trailhead so we could hike up the hill. His face expressed a smile of understanding, realizing that the gringos had made a mistake. He drove us to the trailhead, where we disembarked directly opposite a large sign advertising the rural route to see Cerro de Oro: the Maya altar, the stone monuments, the viewpoint, and the mysterious door to Xibalba.
We had found the trailhead, now we had to climb up the steep incline and find the door to Xibalba (the underworld). The trail had stone steps in some real steep places, with a handrail to hold onto. The hill was densely wooded, and we saw what looked like coffee shrubs at the lower elevation and thin tall avocado trees at the higher elevation.
At one point on the trail we had to move aside for a man carrying a load of wood on his back; he had a tumpline (strap) slung across his forehead to help support the load and make it easier to carry. I noticed quite a few bundles of cut wood along the trail. It appeared that the tall thin trees were harvested for the wood stoves that were used for cooking. The “hill of gold” was in reality the resources that it provided for the Maya household – not the oro (gold) that most people assumed was located in a treasure trove somewhere within the hidden crevasses of the hill.
When we finally reached the top after walking for about thirty to forty minutes, we saw that the mirador (viewpoint) was in reality different viewpoints, depending on where we stood on the rock-strewn, lava-covered odd-shaped hill. From one viewpoint, we could see the village of Cerro de Oro. From another viewpoint, we could see lakeshore homes and private docks. Another small village seemed to be nestled into a hillside rising from the lake. A peninsula, a lagoon, an extensive shoreline, and a beautiful lake with the rim of a mountain range in the background – all this was part of the scenery that we saw from the various points on the hilltop.
But I had come for a more mystical viewpoint – to see if there was an entrance into the dark and mysterious underworld of Xibalba. The first clue that there was something extraordinary about this particular hill was the Maya altar, a majestic lava rock formation that was shaped like a monkey. The totem sculpture of the sacred monkey loomed above us like the iconic representation of man’s earlier creation. Here was the totem animal of the Mayan 13 moon calendar, the earlier set of hero twins who turned into monkeys in the Popol Vuh, the monkey who rode in the cosmic canoe to the Milky Way. This was the patron of the arts, especially the writers and sculptors. This was the divine being that traveled through the underworld of the jungle and the canopy of the heavens – the lowest and the highest. And yet, being a sign of a previous human creation and design, the monkey was – according to the Popol Vuh – a mere manikin, a creature carved out of wood. Something like Maximon.
We could see that the interior of the monkey-rock formation was a real altar, blackened by the numerous fire ceremonies that took place here. Here the ancient shamanic initiations took a person on the transformative journey through the sacred dark mysteries of the inner wilderness (or underworld). Here the potential shaman sat in meditation and went on a vision quest – an adventure into his ancestral past and an adventure into his present destiny. It was a journey into the lowest depths (Xibalba) in order to ascend to the celestial heights (the Milky Way). It was a cosmic journey in a cosmic canoe with the spirit guides of the solar (stingray paddler) and lunar (jaguar paddler) energies descending into the underworld of incarnation with the Maize-God, and then being reborn and regenerated as a new creature – a World Tree – a shamanic consciousness giving spiritual illumination and sustenance to his people.
I saw the rod/staff that was used in the shamanic initiations, and I took it into my right hand and lifted it up, just like the serpent of the liberated spinal fire was lifted up in the wilderness in the Moses story. “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me” were the words that I thought in my mind as I held the budding staff of life high in my consciousness.
After that sublime experience, I went to look for Xibalba. Miguel told us that the Maya people had found a passageway near the monkey-altar that was an opening into the subterranean world. I found a rock formation that was the highest place I could find on the hilltop, and I poked the magic staff into an opening, hoping to locate the mysterious dark interior of the underworld.
We wandered on the hilltop through the tall thin trees for a while, and then we started to look for the way back down. I had resigned myself to the realization that the passageway was the inner experience of the shaman as he tore the veil between the material world and the spiritual world to uncover the secrets of his own soul. As he dismembered the old self (personal ego) through the trials and tests of Xibalba, a new self emerged, like the Maize-god emerging from the carapace of the turtle shell.
As we started descending the steep trail, I held the staff in my hand to balance myself on the volcanic rocks that formed part of the trail. After several minutes, we realized that we were going down a different path than the one we ascended. We decided to continue rather than turn back. It turned out that this trail terminated near the village. We had made a complete loop. It was then that I realized I should leave the magic staff at the trailhead. It belonged to the Maya altar, and I was sure someone would take it back to the top.
We started to walk on the road from the village to the main road, hoping to catch a ride back to town. We asked a Maya farmer if the pick-up truck would come by soon, and he said that the pick-up was not on a regular schedule. We would have to trust our lucky stars. As we walked on the road we looked up and saw a clear view of the hilltop where we had been. It looked like a lava dome covered with trees. There were some bare spots on the very steep side.
A bulldozer passed us on the road. He was transporting a monolithic rock to the village, probably for a monument or a shrine, or maybe for landscaping purposes.
We walked past several fields that were carefully tended at the fertile base of the volcanic hill. We were starting to think that we might need to flag down a taxi. We had seen a couple of them pass us. But we knew that they would charge ten times as much as the pick-up truck. Eventually, we were lucky and a pick-up truck stopped to let us into the back of the flat bed. We climbed aboard and held tight to the metal frame, looking back at the hill that we had ascended. Further down the main road, I glanced one last time to see Cerro de Oro shaped as a flat table rock. The local people called it “El Elefante Dormido” (the sleeping elephant).
That evening, as the sun was setting, I looked toward Volcan San Pedro and saw what looked like a solar crown on its peak. San Pedro was known as Chuchuk (“above the curve in the path”) to the indigenous people. It looked like a pyramid-temple-mountain, and the path of the sun passed through it and then curved around it, descending into the darkness of night, where it would travel through the underworld of Xibalba and then ascend over Volcan Toliman the next morning. The cycle of life and the journey of the sun went round and round; the journey of the sun and the journey of mankind went up and down the mountain of existence. When I closed my eyes, I could still see the solar disk at the apex of my skull (mountain). It was the all-seeing eye that the initiates and shamans nourished with the fiery serpentine energy of their being.
We told Miguel we would meet him by the boat dock at nine o’clock in the morning. We came several minutes early. The La Pinta ferry had just docked, and the passengers were disembarking and heading towards town.
An Atiteco lady, thinking that I was one of the passengers from the ferry, approached me. The people of Santiago Atitlan refer to themselves as Atitecos (from Atitlan). Anyway, I immediately realized that the Atiteco lady was trying to sell me something – a huipil. I didn’t think this was something for a man, so she told me I could hang it on a wall. Or buy it for my lady. Elsa shook her head; she didn’t want to have anything to do with it.
There was something about the Atiteco lady that intrigued me. It must have been the smile, and the persistence in her desire to sell one of her huipils. The more I looked at her and watched her show me the colorful hand-woven Mayan blouses, the more I realized that it was her traditional Maya clothing that intrigued me. She had the complete ensemble, the traje (traditional clothing) of the Maya woman: a huipil with numerous bird embroideries, a patterned skirt, a woven belt, and a special headdress.
The special red cotton headdress with geometric designs was wound around her head many times to make the winding headband a work of beauty. It represented the rainbow serpent of the Maya goddess Ix Chel, the divine grandmother of the Hero Twins in the Popol Vuh story and the goddess of the moon and childbirth. The rainbow serpent was also the umbilical cord that connected the human to the divine, the earth to the heavens, and the body to the spirit. To the shaman, it was the crowning moment when the red (fiery) serpentine divine energy in the spine ascended to the top of the head, giving birth to the divine. The feminine energy was the midwife of that ascension and illumination.
I told the Rainbow Lady that I’d buy the purple huipil with the beautiful birds – if it fit me. I tried to fit the huipil over my head. My head was too big. Lady Rainbow took the huipil and stretched the opening. I could hear a few threads tearing. The quatrefoil neck opening was placed over my head, and my head emerged through the portal into the light of day. I felt like I had been reborn, and now I was wearing the Tzutujil shirt as if I too belonged to the House of Birds. Lady Rainbow was like a midwife who had played the role of the divine grandmother Ix Chel, who facilitated my symbolic birth through the center (Lake Atitlan) through which the Maya world emerges. I felt like I was one with the Tz’utujil (“those of the Maize flower”) – I was one with the Corn People.
When I told the Rainbow Lady that I would buy the huipil, she was so happy that she kissed me on my cheek. That definitely made her day – and mine, too. I would never forget that moment. And I would never forget the Rainbow Lady of Lake Atitlan.
When I turned around, I saw Miguel standing several paces behind me, waiting patiently for me to finish the transaction with the Rainbow Lady. He was ready to go. He had brought his teenage son, Diego, with him. I guess he was teaching his son how to take foreigners on tours. Miguel had a wool shoulder bag with a double-headed phoenix design, and he asked if I wanted to let him carry the huipil for me. I handed the hiupil to him, and he put it in his bag.
We walked through town for a while, following the main road along the lake. We had a good view of a cove of the southern section of the lake. There was an outdoor laundry facility by the lakeshore in the cove, with a long row of large flat rocks to wash the laundry on.
The main road (Highway 14) came to a fork in the road, one part of it going up the hill to the left and one part going along the bay to San Pedro la Laguna. Miguel led us straight ahead on a wide dirt road, which went through a desolate place. A concrete building stood vacant along the dirt road. It looked like it had been a school. A mural on the side of the building had a painting of an ABC book with the flame of knowledge above it; above the flame were open hands releasing a dove above a panoramic view of the lake and volcanoes. The words around the circular mural said: “Escuela Oficial Rural Mixta Canton Panabaj.” It was the rural school of the village Panabaj.
“What happened to the school?” I asked Susie to find out.
“There was a huge mudslide here in 2005, after the big hurricane passed by,” answered Miguel. He did not want to stop too long to explain what had happened. He had a mission to accomplish – to take us to the top of the viewpoint and then show us where Maximon was.
“This entire area was destroyed by the mudslide,” explained Diego, who was walking beside Susie. She was able to get more information from him. Miguel was setting the pace up ahead, and we hurried to keep up with his quick pace.
“Diego says that hundreds of people died when the mudslide covered the village of Panabaj,” interpreted Susie after Diego told her about the tragic event.
We passed by the wide expanse of dry mud where the mudslide had destroyed the homes, the trees, and the lives of countless people. We were probably walking on the ground where people had been buried alive. It was sad to think of such a tragedy hitting a small village like Panabaj (“Many Rocks”).
The feeling of gloom pervaded my mind as we followed Miguel up the trail. The thought that an entire village could be wiped out by a mudslide was disheartening. The sudden arrival of death, and the image of Xibalba and its underworld denizens, was a sensation that brought fear to my soul. That feeling was soon dispelled as we saw new terraced fields being tended by several workers. Life goes on, and we continued to put one foot in front of another as we trudged up the hill for our anticipated view of the ocean. Miguel had promised that it would be spectacular.
However, I soon realized that there would be no viewpoint (mirador) from the top. Fog was coming in from the ocean, and it snaked down from the ridge towards the lake. It followed the same pathway that the Xocomil (wind) had followed the night we arrived in Panajachel.
There was no way we could have known it was the top unless Miguel had told us it was. We were totally in the fog. It was like being blind in a dark room, except that here we were blind in the fog. We turned back.
Miguel was disappointed. There was nothing he could do. I told him that we at least had a good walk. Anyway, I was really anxious to see Maximon, the evil saint that was advertised in our guide book.
We had to go through the area of the mud avalanche again. This time, Miguel led us through the temporary housing and makeshift shelters that had been set up on the site of the former village for the survivors. Several small girls came running toward us. They wanted to sell us a few trinkets, like quetzal and butterfly key chains made out of beads. I bought one of each and told the girls to share the change.
We came out on the road that branched off to San Pedro la Laguna, and there it was – the current home of Maximon, the La Casa Sagrada (“the holy house”) of the Mayan deity. A sense of apprehension seized Elsa as we walked up the driveway past several covered stacks of wood. A small compound of concrete-block buildings formed the home of the Cofradia Santa Cruz (the brotherhood of the Holy Cross), the official overseers of the shrine.
“I’m not going in there,” said Elsa, squeezing my arm.
“You can stay outside, if you want,” I said. “I’ll go in with Susie just to see what it’s all about.”
The entrance overhang was decorated with purple and pink flowers made out of cloth material.
We were welcomed inside by the attendants of Maximon. They took care of him and guarded him. Elsa reluctantly followed us in. She stood in the back of the room, as close to the door as she could in case she wanted to slip out unnoticed.
My first impression was that he was smaller in stature than I imagined him to be, standing in his brown leather shoes to a height of only four feet. My second impression was that I was standing in the presence of a great Mayan deity, an ancestral god called Mam (“Lord of the Universe”). For a split second I saw myself putting my hands together and making a slight bow of my head as I approached the sacred idol. That was a habit I had developed during my pilgrimage to India, where I had encountered a multitude of sacred idols (called murti in Hindu). The sacred idol was a living divine likeness of the deity, whose spirit was manifested in the material object. When Maximon was carved out of the sacred divinatory tree, the Tz’ajtel (coral tree or Palo de Pito), he was made from the same wood as the manikin race of humans of the third creation, the automatons who presently inhabit and automatically repopulate the surface of the earth, according to the Popol Vuh:
“They lived and multiplied; they begat sons and daughters, manikins worked in wood, but they had not heart or wisdom, nor memory of their Former and Creator. They led a useless existence and lived like the four-footed brute creation. They remembered not the Heart of the Heavens – and behold how they perished. It was only a trial and experiment at making men, who spoke at first, but whose faces withered; feeble their hands and feet; they had neither blood nor nutrition, neither moisture nor fat; sunken cheeks were their faces, withered were their feet and hands, emaciated their flesh.
It was because they did not direct their thoughts to the overshadowing Father who bestows life.”
[The Book of the Azure Veil, James M. Pryse]
Maximon (Mam) was the deity of that former race of human beings. He represented all their fanciful wishes, human desires, and subconscious yearnings. His mask of carved wood depicted him as “the Ancient One,” with the furrows on his wrinkled face showing his longevity, like the tree rings of a Sequoia sempervirens (“ever-living tree”). His present manifestation as a cigar-smoking, alcohol-drinking deity with sexual appetites represented his association with common humanity.
The gray Stetson hat and numerous silk scarves adorned him and make him look like a revered figure. Two vases of white flowers, signifying purity, stood in front of his throne; lit candles were at his feet, and a wooden offering plate was placed like an altar before him. Maximon’s two attendants sat at his side, accepting donations and offerings on his behalf.
“The attendants want to know if we wish to petition or make a request of Maximon,” interpreted Susie.
“I wish to take some pictures and ask some questions about Maximon,” I replied, letting them know that it was my cultural curiosity that needed to be satisfied. I didn’t have any pressing needs, at the moment. Susie didn’t say anything about her physical condition, which was still nagging her. Elsa shook her head.
“What does Maximon represent?” I asked for starters. “Who is he?”
The two attendants turned their heads toward a screen behind the other idols. They were waiting for the shaman to come out and answer my questions. As if on cue, the shaman appeared. He was wearing purple-striped white knee-length trousers, with a woven dark blue belt tied around his waist. He had a russet-colored shirt. He had slipped his bare feet into a pair of leather shoes.
“Maximon is the Mayan destiny machine,” said the shaman with a wide smile on his face. “You ask him for something, and he does your bidding and gets it for you. Or you want him to get rid of somebody for you, and he goes out and does that. But there is always a price to pay.” It sounded like a demi-god or a genie-out-of-a-bottle, or other gods of destiny. There was always a positive or a negative effect, bringing either fortune or misfortune. It was like asking God for something, or perhaps like making a deal with the devil.
“I heard that his name was based on the biblical Simon Peter or Judas, son of Simon Iscariot,” I said. “Is that true?” Susie relayed my question to the shaman.
“There are many stories about Maximon,” began the shaman. “Some say he is Simon Judas, the one who betrayed the Christ. Some say he is Simon Peter because he holds the keys to the upper world and the underworld, Xibalba. Some even say he is Simon Magus, the sorcerer who could fly through the air.”
“But who do you say he is?” I asked.
“To me he is mainly Mam, our great ancestor, who is like a grandfather to all the Maya people,” answered the shaman. “It is Mam who speaks through me when people ask for forgiveness of their sins. I perform a ceremony in their behalf, and I bring a message from Mam for those who ask.” He sounded like a Catholic priest who absolves the petitioner of their sin, and he reminded me also of a medium who brings messages from the other world.
“I also like to think of him as the Lord of the dry season,” he continued. “It is Maximon who sacrifices himself at the end of our solar year, during the five terrible days, so that the rainy season can come.” He was referring to Semana Santa and the five days between the Maya solar cycle of 360 days (the Maya calendar, 18 months of 20 days).
“And who do these statues represent?” I asked, turning to the right side of the room, where about half-a-dozen costumed figures stood beside a glass-enclosed Santo Entierro (Holy Burial).
“That’s Maria Castelyan, the patron deity of Lake Atitlan,” said the shaman, pointing to a figure on the left. I wasn’t sure if it was the small female statue with a golden sunburst on the floor or the larger female-looking figure with arms extended. “She guides and oversees the birth of the lake and the volcanoes. And she also is the one who brings Mam, the Ancient One, into being. He is her child, and later he becomes her husband – after he dances with her.” The shaman smiled as he imparted his esoteric lore. Later, I learned that the Maya tradition had twelve or thirteen Marias, one for each month (moon). She was the moon-goddess, and the lady of the lake (and water). And, I would say, Mother Earth.
“The other one is San Felipe, and then there is San Pedro,” the shaman concluded. He didn’t want to go into any more detail. There were other small statues that he skipped. I wasn’t going to insist on a more elaborate explanation. I would try to do some research when I got home. The name San Felipe reminded me of the story of Saint Philip and Simon Magus, the sorcerer. Philip supposedly converted the magician, who claimed to be the great power of God. Then later Simon tries to buy the gift of performing miracles.
I turned my attention to the figure in the glass-enclosed coffin. The coffin was set up on a sturdy wooden piece of furniture. There were Christmas lights strung all around it, with ornate cloth flowers on the front.
“And who is this?” I asked, assuming that it was probably Jesus. I had seen the Santo Entierro in many churches, both in Mexico and in Guatemala.
“That is MaNawal JesuKrist,” said the shaman. I had never heard that name before, so I asked him to repeat it. “MaNawal is the title of the Ancient One. He is the one who travels with the sun on the journey of the seasons. At the end of our solar year, when Maximon hangs on a pillar, he waits for the sacrifice of MaNawal to bring in the rainy season. So when MaNawal JesuKrist is taken out of this death chamber and put on the cross, he is the corn seed that is placed in the earth to die and be reborn as the maize plant. His sacrifice brings Mam, who has been traveling for five dangerous days in the underworld, back to life. And so our new solar year begins, with Mam (or Maximon) back here in his House of Santa Cruz, and MaNawal JesuKrist’s body back in his glass coffin. However, the spirit of MaNawal continues its journey in the House of the Sun.”
The story that the shaman told me reminded me of the Popol Vuh, where one of the hero twins is sacrificed, but then is brought back to life through the sacrifice of the other hero twin. The death of one brings about the resurrection of the other. The drama that was reenacted each year was part of the agricultural cycle, where the dry season gave way to the wet season, the planting of corn gave rise to the harvesting of corn, and the sun was the main character in the drama. It was the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Natural forces and natural events in the agricultural cycle were personified, dramatized, spiritualized, and performed on the grand stage (and on a grand scale) of Lake Atitlan, and also in the Maya world (both on earth and in the heavens).
Before I left, I asked the shaman if I could take a picture with him. He granted my request, and he also put the famous cigar in the mouth of Maximon. It was the cigar whose smoke was like incense to the ancestral gods. It was the cigar whose smoke reminded the inhabitants of Lake Atitlan that the smoking volcanoes could be benevolent or malevolent, just like the gods. It was the cigar that the Hero Twins of the Popol Vuh kept lit all night during their test in the House of Gloom (or House of Darkness), a test that – on one level – was like the test the shaman had to pass by keeping the divine fire of the kundalini (in the cigar-shaped spine) under control, without getting burned. Maximon was “the smoking seer.”
I handed the shaman an offering (donation) before I left. He smiled and gave us a few words of encouragement and blessing. I knew he was grateful for our visit, and so was I. Elsa wasn’t happy at all that we had come.
“That was the ugliest devil that I have ever seen,” said Elsa when we left the Cofradia Santa Cruz, the sacred grounds of Maximon and Santa Cruz (the sacred tree, the world tree). “I couldn’t wait to get out of there.”
“Mom, that’s very disrespectful,” said Susie, who was more understanding of other people’s cultures.
I was regretting the fact that Susie and I missed a golden opportunity of seeing a ritualistic ceremony performed by a genuine shaman. He would have done it for us, for a small fee. Susie concurred with me. Well, maybe next time.
When we got to the road, I paid Miguel the money that we had agreed on, plus a small tip for his son. We thanked them for their services, and then we hailed a tuk-tuk taxi to take us back to our hotel. Susie had booked a boat to pick us up in the afternoon; she had arranged that when I was buying my huipil.
The tuk-tuk had driven about a hundred meters when I remembered that Miguel still had my huipil in his bag. I asked the taxi driver to turn around and go back. Elsa was already telling me that we shouldn’t have gone to see Maximon, the evil saint, that he was already bringing us bad luck. Just as we turned around and were heading back towards the place where we parted with our guide, a pick-up truck came our way. I noticed that Miguel and Diego were standing in the back. I had the taxi driver wave down the driver of the pick-up truck. Miguel knew right away that I had remembered about the huipil. He returned it to me.
I clutched the plastic bag that had the huipil in it as we rode to our hotel. I clutched the bag with the prized possession when we got our suitcases into the boat, and I clutched the bag as the boat rode on the choppy waves to our next destination: Santa Cruz la Laguna.
During the ride in the boat, I thought of my encounter with Maximon. There was so much that I still wanted to know. I promised myself that I would find a book about him and read about his story. I discovered that the stories of Mam and Maximon were legion. Two books in particular stood out as worthy of my attention: Vincent Stanzione's Rituals of Sacrifice (subtitled Walking the Face of the Earth on the Sacred Path of the Sun) and Nathaniel Tarn and Martin Prechtel's Scandals in the House of Birds (subtitled Shamans and Priests on Lake Atitlan). Anyone wanting to find out everything you wanted – and didn’t want – to know about Maximon, should read those two books.
Susie was looking at the passing shoreline as the boat speeded toward the next place on our agenda. She was looking at the homes we had passed by on our morning walk. A flat hill in the background looked like the pyramidal mound of the ancient Tz’utujil ruins of Chukumuk (“above the temple stairs”). Further on, past several small inlets, was the hill that we had climbed – Cerro de Oro.
As Cerro de Oro came closer into view, I began to think of the outgrowth of my experience during the quest to discover the Maya world. I thought back on the days when I taught ancient civilizations in the sixth grade, and how I had tried to make the Popol Vuh story come alive for my students. I had even brought fresh corn tortillas from a local bakery to make the substance of life and the story of the Maize-god a part of their lives. Now I was realizing that the questions that we had raised in the classroom – about the disappearance of the Maya people and the collapse of their civilization – were questions that were answered by my pilgrimage to Lake Atitlan. The Maya people had packed up their bags, their traditions, and their beliefs, and they had moved to the safety of the highlands of Guatemala. Even though the Spanish conquistadors and the Franciscan monks eventually found out where they had moved to, their attempt to destroy and convert them was met with a unique skill at survival and adaptation. It was the skill of syncretism, a fusion of different systems of thought and belief: the strong conqueror with his gods became integrated into the Maya belief system. Saint James, the son of Zebedee, came to Guatemala on a white horse as Santiago the Matamoros (Moor-slayer). Because of Saint James’ reputation as a “son of thunder,” he was assimilated with Hurucan and became the patron saint of Santiago Atitlan, right under Mam (the Ancient One). The Franciscan monks wanted to establish a New Jerusalem on earth (Gal.4:26), and the Maya groups of Lake Atitlan obliged by adopting the Mother Mary as the “Mother of us all.” After all, she was the Moon-goddess, the water of the lake, and the primordial sea from which life arises. And if the Franciscan Order wanted to bring all their saints to the New World, then the Maya leaders would amalgamate them with their ritual calendar and agricultural cycle of the year. After all, that was the same way most of the feast days of the saints were determined, according to the seasons and the pagan festivals that preceded Christianity.
Reality at Lake Atitlan and in the Maya world was like the allegorical cave of shadows, where names were like shadows on the wall, and the only reality that the name (or shadow) had was the one that you attached to it. The names of apostles for villages meant one thing to a Christian and another thing to a Maya. Whereas a Franciscan monk might think of the real person behind the name, the Maya would think of an attribute or a correspondence with a local deity.
I was pondering all those thoughts as the boat approached the small village of Santa Cruz la Laguna. I realized that to the Maya people, Santa Cruz (Holy Cross) was the ultimate symbol of life. It was the World Tree, the tree of life whose roots were in the earth and whose branches reached into the heavens. It was the great Milky Way, which extended across the celestial world above. It was Lake Atitlan, the navel of the universe, which was linked with the underworld of Xibalba and the Heart of Sky by none other than Maximon, the personification of Mam (the Ancient One).
It looked like most of the village was set up on a hill. The houses along the shoreline looked like resorts and hotels. The dock was in view, and so were the ubiquitous tuk-tuk taxis. The cliffs behind the hilltop village towered into the clouds. Even though the cliffs were covered with trees, the entire landscape looked like the remnant of a giant caldera.
When the boat docked, I helped the ladies get their suitcases out of the boat. As I started to climb the stairs from the dock to the street above – with two suitcases in tow – a nagging thought in the back of my mind tried to remind me that I had forgotten something. It was only when I had reached the road above that an image of the bag with the huipil flashed in my mind.
“Oh, my God!” I exclaimed. “I think I left the huipil in the boat.”
“How could that happen?” responded Susie. “You had the bag in your hand all the time.” Susie knew how important that huipil with the birds was to me.
“I told you we shouldn’t have gone to see that evil saint Maximon,” admonished Elsa. “Now you’ve lost your shirt. What’s next?” From that moment on, my wife would ascribe any misfortune or bad luck to Maximon.
I turned around to flag down the boat. I waved my hands, but the boat was already turning around in the open water and heading back to Santiago Atitlan. I quickly snapped a picture so I could see the name of the boat. When I magnified the digital photo, I saw that the boat was named “Estelita” (Little Star). The boat that had carried us to Santiago Atitlan was “Maribel” (beautiful Star of the Sea), and the coincidence reminded me of the law of synchronicity: the motion of the universe in time and space had an orderly arrangement, which was perceivable when certain events, images, and concepts coincided, or happened with a purposeful intent.
Behind the “Welcome to Santa Cruz la Laguna” sign was a waiting area. That’s where I waited while Elsa and Susie inquired about a hotel. Several boys were on hand to assist the ladies with the search. They took them from one hotel to another. The sight of a tuk-tuk with the words “California taxi” caught my attention, making me forget momentarily about my insignificant misfortune.
My eyes again looked out across the lake, watching the boat that carried the bag with the huipil. I wondered what was going to happen to the huipil. Would the boatman give it to his wife or some other woman? Maybe somehow Miguel would get it, signifying that it was really meant for him. Or maybe it would be returned in a full circle back to the Rainbow Lady who had created it on her loom.
Half-an-hour later I found out where we would be staying at Santa Cruz. Susie wanted to stay at the youth hostel – La Iguana Perdida (Lost Iguana) – next to the waiting area. Elsa and I would stay in a bungalow at the Arca de Noe Hotel (Noah’s Ark). A monarch butterfly landed on a flower at our garden-enclosed hotel. A welcome sign.
Our hike up the steep road to the hilltop village was uneventful. We did see a sheltered laundry facility with quite a few water basins. There was a small white colonial church. It was closed. The courtyard was used as a playground for playing soccer and basketball by the indigenous boys and girls.
The hike depleted Susie of her energy. She didn’t want to explore the surroundings any further. She went to rest in the hostel and to mingle with the young people there. Elsa and I walked to the eastern end of the shoreline, where resorts and private homes lined the rugged lakeshore. A yoga retreat was the highlight of the shoreline. A painting at the retreat portrayed the spiritual nature of the retreat and the lake: a female figure was doing a yoga asana; below her was a lotus plant, and above her was a star-shape (Venus or the Sun); she was arching her back in a snake-like fashion, making a circular connection of the hands to the feet, and the frame of her body overlapped with the backdrop of the volcanoes. She was a personification of the Lady of the Lake.
That night, Susie had a hard time sleeping at the crowded youth hostel. She said it was too stuffy for her. She was starting to feel a relapse in her physical condition. The air in our bungalow was cleaner, and it was easier for her to breathe if we left the front door ajar. The next morning, Susie’s head was completely congested.
“I told you we shouldn’t have gone to see that evil saint Maximon,” repeated my wife. “We’ve had nothing but trouble ever since that time. Now what do we do?”
“I’ll be all right, Mom,” said Susie. “I just need some hot tea.”
“I suggest we take the first boat back to Panajachel and go back to the pharmacy to get some better medicine,” I said. We found out that the next boat wouldn’t be leaving until after noon. Susie said she’d lounge around the hostel. Elsa and I would go out for a morning hike.
West of Santa Cruz la Laguna was the trail that led to the small village of Jaibalito, which was only about two miles away. Elsa and I loved to take long hikes. The view from the hillside trail was spectacular – the majestic lake below and the towering volcanoes in the distance.
One resort in particular stood out from the trail high above the waters below – La Casa Del Mundo (the House of the World). A Maya stone head stood at the top of a long flight of stairs to the resort below.
We continued on the trail down to the village, where we saw a couple of boys using their bows and arrows to shoot down avocadoes from a tree. I thought of the story of the Hero Twins in the Popol Vuh, where the young boys were shooting at Seven Macaw in the tree with their blowguns.
Jaibalito was a very small village, and we wandered through its narrow streets. There were a few foreigners here that evidently were entrepreneurs with their own businesses, trying to entice us to stay at their small resort or hotel. We didn’t find the village as attractive as Santa Cruz, so we headed back. As the trail rounded a bend, the area of Santa Cruz came into view, and we stood for a while admiring the beautiful sight. As we descended to the shoreline again, there was a boat swing that Elsa wanted to sit in for a while and take in the wonderful ambiance of the lake.
When we met up with Susie again, an extraordinary sight appeared in the sky above us. We looked up and saw a fantastic rainbow circle around the sun. The inner red and the outer blue rings of the halo around the sun were formed by the refraction of sunlight through the tiny ice crystals that were suspended in the atmosphere. It was at that moment that I had my epiphany of the Maya Circle of the Lake – the sacred twelve surrounded the one true light of the world, with the names of the twelve apostles, the saints days of the nineteen districts around Lake Atitlan, the ritual year with its fiestas, and the Popol Vuh and Maya zodiac placed on the circle of the Maya Cosmos with the Milky Way and its central sun as the navel of the universe. Later, I would gather all the details and information into a circular graph that would show what I had seen inside the rainbow circle above Lake Atitlan (“the place where the rainbow gets its colors”).
When we left Santa Cruz la Laguna and headed back to Panajachel, it was like we were coming full circle to where we had started our Lake Atitlan adventure. We settled on a hotel overlooking the lake: Hotel Casa Ramos (House of Branches). The hotel had a beautiful golden yellow exterior with a green trim, and it was a short walk from the public beach and street (Calle Playa Publica).
The ladies went to look for a stronger medicine, and to do some more window shopping. I went to a place I had seen before and had a desire to visit: Museo Lacustre de Atitlan (Arqueologia Maya Sub acuatica) at Posada de Don Rodrigo Hotel. At the entrance to the hotel was a place where a couple of Maya women were making tortillas. A quote from the Popol Vuh was displayed in front of their work place: “And that way they found the food and this one entered into the flesh of the created man, into the formed man. The food was his blood. From that one the man’s blood was made. In that way the corn became part of the man’s creation by act of the direct ancestors.” The word tortilla was translated into the local Maya languages: Lej (Quiche, Tzutuhil, Cakchiquel), Cua (Kekchi), and Waa’j Man (the name given to the tortilla in Panajachel).
I paid a small fee to enter the museum. A map of Lake Atitlan showed me eighteen villages, nine archaeological sites, and eight cerros (hills) and volcanoes that surrounded the lake. A scale model of the lake and its surroundings gave me a birds-eye view of entire area.
The most interesting part for me – besides the artifacts that had been recovered from the depths of the lake – was the charts of information about the geological history of Lake Atitlan. The charts showed that volcanic activity in the area began about twelve million years ago. It seemed that there were four periods of volcano growth and caldera collapse. I recalled my trip to Yellowstone National Park, visualizing a similar stratovolcano and caldera like what I was now looking at. The most recent Atitlan caldera was estimated to have been formed by a large explosive eruption about 84,000 years ago. The lake formed afterwards because there was no outlet to the sea. I had taken a boat trip on Crater Lake in Oregon, but that lake was formed from the single eruption of Mount Mazama. Lake Atitlan was formed from a super-eruption and a collapse of a large magma chamber. Another volcanic memory surfaced in my mind – the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in May, 1980. I was living in Oregon at the time, and the aftermath of that eruption was a hundredth of what happened with the Los Chocoyos Batholith, which formed into the huge cauldron and lake now known as Lake Atitlan.
When I came out of the museum, I felt like I had traveled through millions of years of geological history. The entire landscape – including the escarpments, volcanoes, and lake – now had a greater significance for me. Lake Atitlan National Park was now the greatest national park that I had ever been to.
I walked down the main street to find the ladies. A marimba group was playing typical Guatemala music, and I stopped to listen to the family ensemble.
I found the ladies at a travel agency, making arrangements for tomorrow’s trip to Chichicastenango. Sunday was market day there, and Susie wanted to make sure we culminated our trip together with one of the most exciting experiences she remembered from her trip to Guatemala six years ago.
The travel agency office had several outstanding charts of the indigenous groups of Guatemala and their trajes (dress, costume) on one wall. I took pictures of the three charts. One chart had the Kiche Maya group; the second chart had the Kaqchikel Maya group; and the third chart had various groups, including the Mam, Tz’utujil, Ixil, Poqomam, Poqomchi, Q’eqchi, Chuj, Achi, and Q’anjob’al.
We concluded our evening with a dinner at a restaurant that had good food, and a reminder that we were in the town that had been transformed by the Franciscan order. The official (or colonial) name for Panajachel is San Francisco de Panajachel. As I ate the meal, I was facing a wall that had an artistic rendition of the Oracion por la Paz (A Prayer for Peace) that was attributed to Saint Francis. It said:
Oracion por la Paz. (A Prayer for Peace)
Senor hazme instrumento de tu paz. (Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.)
Donde haya odio, siembre yo amor. (Where there is hatred, let me sow love.)
Donde haya injuria, perdon. (Where there is injury, pardon.)
Donde haya duda, Fe. (Where there is doubt, faith.)
Donde haya sombra, Luz. (Where there is darkness, light.)
Donde haya tristeza, alegria. (Where there is sadness, joy.)
Donde haya soberbia, humildad. (Where there is pride, humility.)
Oh! divino maestro! (Oh Divine Master!)
Concedeme que no busque (Grant that I may not so much seek)
ser consolado sino consolar. (To be consoled, as to console)
Que no busque ser amado sino amar. (To be loved, as to love)
Que no busque ser comprendido sino comprender. (To be understood, as to understand)
Porque dando es como recibimos, (For it is in giving, that we are received)
Perdonando es como tu nos perdonas, (It is in pardoning, that we are pardoned)
Y muriendo en ti es como nacemos a la vida eterna. (It is in dying, that we are born to eternal life.)
THE MYSTERIES OF XIBALBA
The actual ordeals of the Xibalbian Mysteries were seven in number. As a preliminary the two adventurers crossed a river of mud and then a stream of blood, accomplishing these difficult feats by using their sabarcans as bridges. Continuing on their way, they reached a point where four roads converged--a black road, a white road, a red road, and a green road. Now Hunahpu and Xbalanque knew that their first test would consist of being able to discriminate between the princes of Xibalba and the wooden effigies robed to resemble them; also that they must call each of the princes by his correct name without having been given the information. To secure this information, Hunahpu pulled a hair from his leg, which hair then became a strange insect called Xan; buzzing along the black road, the Xan entered the council chamber of the princes of Xibalba and stung the leg of the figure nearest the door, which it discovered to be a manikin. By the same artifice the second figure was proved to be of wood, but upon stinging the third, there was an immediate response. By stinging each of the twelve assembled princes in turn the insect thus discovered each one's name, for the princes called each other by name in discussing the cause of the mysterious bites. Having secured the desired information in this novel manner, the insect then flew back to Hunahpu and Xbalanque, who thus fortified, fearlessly approached the threshold of Xibalba and presented themselves to the twelve assembled princes.
When told to adore the king, Hunahpu and Xbalanque laughed, for they knew that the figure pointed out to them was the lifeless manikin. The young adventurers thereupon addressed the twelve princes by name thus: "Hail, Hun-came; hail, Vukub-came; hail, Xiquiripat; hail, Cuchumaquiq; hail, Ahalpuh; hail, Ahalcana; hail, Chamiabak; hail, Chamiaholona; hail, Quiqxic; hail, Patan; hail, Quiqre; hail, Quiqrixqaq." When invited by the Xibalbians to seat themselves upon a great stone bench, Hunahpu and Xbalanque declined to do so, declaring that they well knew the stone to be heated so that they would he burned to death if they sat upon it. The princes of Xibalba then ordered Hunahpu and Xbalanque to rest for the night in the House of Shadows. This completed the first degree of the Xibalbian Mysteries.
The second trial was given in the House of Shadows, where to each of the candidates was brought a pine torch and a cigar, with the injunction that both must be kept alight throughout the entire night and yet each must be returned the next morning unconsumed. Knowing that death was the alternative to failure in the test, the young men burnt aras-feathers in place of the pine splinters (which they closely resemble) and also put fireflies on the tips of the cigars. Seeing the lights, those who watched felt certain that Hunahpu and Xbalanque had fallen into the trap, but when morning came the torches and cigars were returned to the guards unconsumed and still burning. In amazement and awe, the princes of Xibalba gazed upon the unconsumed splinters and cigars, for never before had these been returned intact. . . . . . .
The exploits of Hunahpu and Xbalanque take place before the actual creation of the human race and therefore are to be considered essentially as spiritual mysteries. Xibalba doubtless signifies the inferior universe of Chaldean and Pythagorean philosophy; the princes of Xibalba are the twelve Governors of the lower universe; and the two dummies or manikins in their midst may be interpreted as the two false signs of the ancient zodiac inserted in the heavens to make the astronomical Mysteries incomprehensible to the profane. The descent of Hunahpu and Xbalanque into the subterranean kingdom of Xibalba by crossing over the rivers on bridges made from their blowguns has a subtle analogy to the descent of the spiritual nature of man into the physical body through certain superphysical channels that may be likened to the blowguns or tubes. The sabarcan is also an appropriate emblem of the spinal cord and the power resident within its tiny central opening. The two youths are invited to play the "Game of Life" with the Gods of Death, and only with the aid of supernatural power imparted to them by the "Sages" can they triumph over these gloomy lords. The tests represent the soul wandering through the sub-zodiacal realms of the created universe; their final victory over the Lords of Death represents the ascension of the spiritual and illumined consciousness from the lower nature which has been wholly consumed by the fire of spiritual purification.
[The Secret Teachings of all Ages, Manly P.Hall,p.195-196]
Map of Santiago Atitlan
Map of Lake Atitlan