It’s the brutality of the Mayans that is foremost in my mind after visiting the ruins at Chichen Itza, near Cancun, Mexico. Yes, the Mayans were known for their excellence in mathematics, agriculture, pottery, and calendar creation. They also had an advanced system of writing.
But after seeing the sacrificial altars at Chichen Itza (pronounced chee-chen eat-sa), the brutality of the sacrifices is what I can’t quite get out of my mind.
There were two ways to sacrifice humans. One was simply to cut off the head and attach it to a pole, which the shaman priests would use to bless the altar in ceremonial events. The other was to hold down the victim by the arms and legs and dig out the heart while it was still beating. A still-beating heart was a great gift to the gods.
What saddened me most was that the majority of the sacrifices were children.
As a child, I saw drawings of Mayans playing a ball game where the teams vied to get a ball through a stone ring attached to a wall nine meters above the ground. I thought it might be fun to play myself. But here’s what I didn’t know.
I didn’t know that the game was primarily ceremonial, not competitive. There were two teams of seven, and once the game (or ceremony) was complete, one of the athletes was selected by the shaman priests to be sacrificed to the gods, by means of having his head cut off. The selected athlete could come from either the winning or losing team; there seemed to be no logical selection process. So it didn’t seem to matter if you played well or played poorly, you had a one in fourteen chance of not going home for supper that night.
The only thing I don’t know is if it was an honour to be chosen for sacrifice. Were the 14 athletes who were awaiting the shaman’s decision secretly whispering ‘pick me, pick me’? Or were they praying not to be chosen?
The Mayans were also into self-mutilation in order to impress their gods. The men would take sharp objects and slice into their penises, letting the blood flow onto the altar. Women would attach a sharpened stone to a long cord, bore a hole through their tongues with the stone, and then pull the cord through.
No wonder everyone was high on mind-altering plants all the time. Especially the shaman priests.
If you can get past the brutality, you will be very impressed with Chichen Itza. It is a World Heritage Site, and in 2007, the site’s El Castillo was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, a status which our guide, Gama, tells us is at risk because the unregulated site is swarming with merchants at every turn. “Please don’t buy anything from these merchants,” Gama pleads.
I booked my Chichen Itza tour in Cancun through my downtown hostel for 49 USD. A fellow traveler said he paid 100 USD for the same trip through a hotel in the tourist district. If you’re going to go, shop around.
The trip included a stop in the colonial town of Valladolid, where most of the old colonial houses have been turned into commercial shops for the tourist trade, a stop for lunch at a Mayan arts and crafts outlet, where we were blessed by a shaman priest, a visit to the ruins at Chichen Itza, and a swim in Ik Kil Cenote (pronounced se-no-tay), one of 7,000 cenotes, or natural wells, in the Yucatan peninsula.
On the bus, Gama talked about the Mayan culture, both past and present. He taught us a few Mayan phrases as well. One of my favourites is that the Mayans don’t say, ‘How are you?’, they say, ‘How is your path?’, which sounds like ‘bish-a-bell’. I used it often on the tour.
Gama would sometimes ask us questions, and if one of us responded with the correct answer, he would give us a shot of tequila. Of the five that were given out, I won four of them. I wasn’t necessarily trying to win, but when nobody offered an answer, I jumped in.
Here are the four questions I answered correctly.
1. What does Cancun mean? (Since I had just posted about this on my blog, I would have been embarrassed to get it wrong. The answer is ‘the place of snakes, or the place of the golden snake’)
2. What was the end date of the Mayan calendar? (Only one person even guessed the correct year, but Gama wanted a more specific date. I said, ‘December 20, 2012’. Gama said it was the 21st, but gave it to me. Later, at the ruins, our new guide told us that there was no such thing as the 21st of the month, since Mayan months were only 20 days.)
3. What was the ancient Chinese parchment called? (some people guessed it was called ‘papyrus’, but that was the ancient Egyptian paper. Correct answer: rice paper.)
4. What is a Cenote? (Now this surprised me that no one had the correct answer, since visiting a Cenote was part of the tour. All of the Yucatan Peninsula is one big limestone slab. You don’t see any rivers here because they all run underground. But fresh water was available to the Mayan civilization through natural wells, called cenotes.)
Gama’s job as a tour guide was not only to educate us and provide us with a quality experience. It was also to try to extract as much money from our pockets as possible to support the Mayan cultural industry.
He showed us a personalized calendar of his birth, with his name written in the Mayan alphabet, written on original paper cut from local trees in the Mayan tradition. He spoke of modern Mayan poverty and their willingness to get off government support through the arts and crafts industry. And if we wanted a calendar as well, we could get one in the market, a personalized copy, with our age in Mayan years and our name in the Mayan alphabet for only 30 USD. “A real bargain,” Gama said. Only a couple of people bought one.
Lunch at the Mayan outlet was delicious and the music charming. To enter the restaurant, we were required to have our photo taken with a couple of Mayans in ceremonial Mayan battle costumes. On the return trip on the bus, Gama introduced us to his cousin, a young man of 16 who had just finished school and was now learning to speak the Mayan language more fluently. He aspired to be like Gama, going to university, speaking English, and entering the tourist trade. He provided all of us with a shot of alcohol made in the Mayan tradition with honey and anise. We did a traditional toast in Mayan and drank the beverage. Well, I can only say that I absolutely loved it. It was delicious. So when the scam finally dropped and we were all provided with a micky-sized bottle of the stuff with our pictures with the Mayan warriors taped to the front of the bottle, and we received the story that young Mayans were trying to get away from the free government handouts by earning their way as entrepreneurs, and the final request for 25 USD for the bottle which could probably be bought in the liquor store for a fraction of the price, well I was happy to oblige. I really did love the stuff that much. I was happy noting that I had been set up craftily to have my money extracted from me, and then happy to have succumbed to the trick.
In the end, I tipped Gama and the driver generously. Despite the antics, he really did provide us with an excellent experience. He is a master story teller and I’m happy to have met him.