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Field Notebook

January 13, 2009
Giving Birth to the World

One night in the Petén of eastern Guatemala I sat at the edge of the jungle in the ruined city of Tikál. I was watching a fire ceremony set up between two steep limestone pyramids, twin monuments shaved of vegetation so that they could be clearly seen. Firelight jumped up the Temple of the Moon on the left, and the Temple of the Jaguar on the right, both largely abandoned since the 11th century. Above them the canopy opened into a marvelous field of stars.

A group of about 20 Mayans and Hispanics had traveled across the country to be here for this moment, an old ritual for the spring equinox, March 21st, a time of balance when the sun strikes both northern and southern hemispheres equally. I would have been escorted off the grounds at nightfall, but Regan was with me, and with her Korean complexion and hair she somehow blended into the group, and was invited to join the night's ceremony. It was a shaman and his followers, not ragtag Mayans like the villagers who come with their own ceremonies, leaving decapitated rooster heads and greasy votive candles at lesser-known temples, but colorfully dressed folks with fine shawls and turquoise jewelry plopped down in the veritable center of Tikál. They approached the fire along chalk lines drawn on the ground, the universe cut into quadrants, and from each quadrant they threw in handfuls of colored candles, wax hissing and popping in the flames.

A guard sat next to me, rifle across his lap. There were six other guards within reach of the firelight. Two stood with rifles over their shoulders near a carved stone nearly as tall as their heads. A few others were smoking cigarettes beneath the shadowy ruins of the North Acropolis. One sat alone on the lower step of the Temple of the Jaguar, his face lapped with firelight. Most of the illegal diggers themselves are not the gun-toting guards, but blue-collar Guatemalan dressed in sweaty button-downs, shovels over their shoulders, earning five to ten dollars a day at best as they turn Mayan artifacts into bread, fuel, and brand new televisions. Many were originally trained by archaeologists working at Tikál in the 1970s. They learned how to dig for the sweet spots, hit the tombs and get out.

I asked the guard sitting next to me what he thought of the ceremony. He shrugged, in Spanish said it's interesting, breaks the monotony. I suggested that if these guys didn't do their little dance the world might actually end. The guard laughed and gestured at the ruins around us, saying, mira, it already has ended.

I had spoken with the shaman-leader and he had said this was a ritual his people have performed since the days when they built great cities of stone in these tropical lowlands. He wanted to bring it back here to give it life again. Of course, the old, indigenous rituals were far bloodier than this. In pre-Columbian Mesoamerica human sacrifice used to be a popular cause, evidence regularly showing up in the archaeological record. Back then the going religion was that the gods had sacrificed themselves to give birth to the world. In turn, humans and other assorted living things were to be sacrificed, a way of greasing the wheels of the universe, keeping everything moving. A forfeiture of some sort was required.

Watching the fire ceremony I was enchanted by the notion that after so many centuries people have returned to offer themselves in whatever way they could. The event went on for hours, chanting, singing, people moving toward the fire and back. I could not tell my wife from anyone else, each figure given to the flames.

Things suddenly became louder, and both me and the guard with the rifle watched closely. Silhouettes wavered as energy rose around the shaman. He was a charismatic dancer chanting and lifting his arms in trembling, ritualistic gestures. Against the light he struck a black pose, a vacancy, as if I could see through him to someplace else. He moved from one person to the next, from my vantage cutting across their throats and hearts with the swift blade of his hand, turning the wheels of the universe, giving birth to the world.


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