I had the great fortune this Christmas of visiting Chichén Itzá in Mexico. For those of you who don’t know, it is a pre-Colombian, post-Christ Mayan civilization in the heart of the Yucatán jungle.
I learned marvellous things over the course of this trip. First of all, we went to a Cenote, which is Yucatec Mayan for a “well” or a grotto. The one we went to, Suytun Cenote, has a freshwater well at the bottom of a cave filled with breathtaking stalactites, and echoes of centuries of bathers hovering like mist above the water. Naturally, I swam in it, and I now feel only seventeen again. But the real prize was the Temples of Chichén Itzá. Here are a couple of “facts”* about the Mayans. They had a game, similar to Quidditch just in the fact that it was so hilariously foreign to me when first described, that they played in the city. It was a holy game for the Mayans, and the captain of the winning team was sacrificed out of great honor. They played with a ten pound rubber ball which they passed around sort of like a mix between rugby and basketball. To score, though, you had to pass the ball through a hoop about 10 meters high on the opposite side of the court – with either your thigh or your hip. Talk about hard. Apparently people would train their entire lives just for the honor to play on that court, with the ultimate goal, of course, of pleasing the gods. On the subject of sacrifices, they sacrificed people on the regular doe. Seriously. They started with paralyzing the sacrificees, so that they could not change their minds (unlike the Aztecs, these weren’t hostile sacrifices. You wanted to be sacrificed. It was the HOV lane to Eternity!), and then they took their hearts out while they were still beating. Incredible. And finally, the math. These guys had it such that every single detail of the place, from the number of echoes you heard when you said your own name (seven) to the number of echoes heard when you said it at the orthogonal corner (six) to the number of months in their calendar (twenty) to the number of days in their cycle (thirteen) to the perfect fertility cycles of the woman, and of the harvest, was coordinated, and fit together with no remainder. It was so elegant and complete, and completely different from how we do it. ** They figured out that at the vernal equinox, at 4:24pm, the sun would be lined up in such a way that it would cast a shadow of light down the side of their pyramid, illuminating one triangle after another over the course of a few minutes, forming what looked like a brilliantly illuminated snake crawling down the mountain. They put all of these details into a series of great books, those which were burned by the conquistadors. And those who made it into the leadership circles, who were supposed to have the ability to commune with the gods, would have access to this information, which was kept in the holiest of temples. This is “knowledge is power” MANIFEST. Seriously. These Mayan leaders would then gather the 200,000 members of the city (magical and utterly, utterly brilliant acoustics, such that you can speak in normal volume and hear your own voice echoed perfectly back to you across a football field and a half), and using their superior knowledge, create magic for their entire civilization. I know the math, and understand the astronomy and the cosmology, but the magic was still real for me. You could *feel* the spiritual energy in that place. It remains the most magical place I’ve ever seen. I want to see more. I want to learn more.
*When the Spanish came, they saw the hieroglyphics, art, and writing of the Mayans and interpreted it as Satanist, so burned the vast majority of the history in an act of Christian faith. Sigh.
**Notice I didn’t say wrong. Modern science likes to think its “right”. No, it’s just fairly empirically accurate. Other systems have been, too…