Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Sun Is Going to Be Shining

Three hours on the bus, and finally we arrive at the Maya ruins that Tom and I have come to see. Ventura, our guide, ushers us out of the bus. We follow him along dusty roads to the entrance of a long-deserted city. He gathers us in a half-circle and sweeps his hand across his body. “When the Maya get across the peninsula of Yucatán,” he says. “They walk. That because no rivers out there. That’s why the construction of the streets. We can see that one over there.” He points. “Sac-bay. The name of this. Sac, Maya for white. Bay, Maya for road-e. White Road-e.” Ventura’s accent is like music playing. “And they walk-ed from one city to another. From Chichén Itzá to Tulum.”

“Only the lee-ders live in-si-dee the ci-tee,” Ventura tells us because, in times of war, the invaders only killed the leaders. The common people, they worked. Ventura smiles. “So the leaders, they don’t kill the workers. The workers live out-si-dee the city walls.”

The conquered people often adopted the gods of their invaders because a god that could lead an army to victory was powerful, deserving of some respect and attention. In fact, many of the temples of Tulum are dedicated to Kukulkan, but his origins are uncertain. Later invasions probably resulted in some blending of Kukulkan and the primary god of the Aztecs, Quetzalcoatl. A Mayan merger of sorts. Not so different from the lee-ders of today, I think.
Ventura points to the eastern side of the city, where the temple of Kukulkan towers above the rest of the ruins. “This is where the lee-der sits and watches the people and thinks,” he tells us.

But it is to the little temple to the left that Ventura directs our attention. “The amazing of this,” he says, his words more lyrical than notes wafting from a flute, “is that the astronomers capture the mo-ment of the sun in the two solstices. In the two solstices the sun is going to be seen inside of the temple.”

In the space between yesterday and today, Kukulkan rises, drawing the sun across the sky, bringing life. I stand beneath the Mayan god who brings light, and I wonder how a people who understood the movement of the planets and the stars, who charted the fragile journey of our own little planet through space and time could believe that this god or any other demanded the life blood of his subjects in exchange for his light.

A little voice , perhaps Kukulkan himself, whispers in my ear: “It is so different from other religious wars,” he says, “wars fought and people killed to bring the Word of the One God to unbelievers?”

I don’t think he needs an answer, so I give none.

Ventura explains the Maya perception of heaven—nine levels of hell and four of heaven. The noble class was guaranteed a place in heaven, but the average citizen could hope, at best, to land in one of the upper levels of hell. For the majority of the population, the only hope of ascension to a better place was through stardom (as a sacrifice to the gods) or sports.

Tulum has no ball court for playing pitz, the Mayan ballgame that could end in the death of one or more players. Ventura tells us a little of the game. Spectator sports have never been top of the list for me, and my mind wanders out to sea, up to the sky. Ventura yanks me back to present moment, though, when he says that it was the winner of the game who offered his life to the gods. The captain of the losing team cut his opponent’s head off.*
“Can you imagine that going on today?” I say to my brother. “A CEO orchestrates a merger or acquisition, and the CEO of the “winning” company gets to cut his head off?”

We chuckly at the impact this would have on modern-day, enterprising nobility.

“That ought to be an episode of South Park,” I say.

Tom points his finger, assuming the identity of Cartman, one of South Park’s stars. “But wait,” Tom-as-Cartman says, “I won.” He shakes his finger. “You must respect my a-thor-e-TIE.” Rules are rules, though, and Cartman loses his head.

Ventura ushers us along, stopping in front of another temple. I am still lost in the why, why, why would the winner want to die?

While we examine the stone tablet that was a book, and I consider carrying one of those stone blocks to class, the thought seeps in that perhaps the Mayans valued something more than life. To win at pitz was to assure one’s place in paradise. After all, in the end, as Kukulkan sets on the last day of our life, what can we carry with us but the memory of how we lived?

(*This is not what I found on many of the websites dedicated to the topic. Most say that the a noble was pitted against a starved and drugged slave so that he could show off his prowess in a risk-free environment, or that the losing team was killed as a sacrifice. It’s a testament to our times, I think, that we assume the loser lost his head rather than the other way around.)

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