Photographer's Notes
Gallery 20, Mayan Essay

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The Divine Serpent
(Wiki Commons)
Much has been written in books and expressed on popular television programs about the Mayan prophesies of the end times, predicted to arrive in the year 2012. Because of the considerable  interest in the Mayans, I have decided to include a photo essay of some of the images I collected during a recent visit to the Mayan ruins at Tulum and Chitizen Itza on the Yucatan Peninsula. I am no expert on ancient (or modern) Mayan culture, but there are facets of the culture that I find personally intriguing and that seem worth sharing in these notes.

Like a lot of North Americans I was under the mistaken impression for many years that the Mayans had simply abandoned their ancient cities and disappeared. This remains a common belief today among people outside of Mexico and Guatemala, and we still see the question, "What happened to the ancient Mayans?" often asked in current  documentary
videos. Unfortunately, this kind of thing contributes to the continuing belief that the Mayans have somehow disappeared. It is far from true. Back in the mid 90s I happened to meet a woman from Guatemala who identified herself to me as a native Mayan.  I had been working with one of her children in the public school system, and during the course of interviewing her, I learned that Mayans were far from extinct.  Not only are they prevalent in numerous villages throughout the Mexican state of Chiapas but also throughout the Guatemalan highlands.  Their language, it's numerous dialects, and also many of their customs are still very much intact thank you!
Even during the centuries when the Mayan city-states like Tikal, Palenque and Chitzen Itza flourished, the Mayan people themselves were predominately agrarian and rural.  Their cities were inhabited by the elite rulers and priestly class, and the large Mayan cities had gone into decline long before the Spanish conquest. There are many theories offered as to why this might have happened, but it seems certain that diminishing support of the cities by the peasant class had to play a role. Perhaps the Spanish conquest simply put the final nail in the coffin of the Mayan ruling class, followed by their abandonment of the cities altogether. The Mayan peasant class simply did what they have always done, persevered and resisted their would be rulers, whether they were Mayan or Spanish. They have continued to do that until current times, which is another story altogether.

The ancient Mayans, along with the Aztecs, Toltecs, Incas and Olmecs shared a number of similar cultural forms. All participated in blood sports and human sacrifice. (See image 230 illustrating how the loser (or possibly the winner) of a "soccer" match sacrifices his head and severed neck from which blood emerges in the form of snakes. Both Mayans and Aztecs worshiped the same feathered serpent god, named "Quetzalcoatl" by the Aztecs, and "Kulkulcan" by the Mayans (above left).  Visitors to Chitzen Itza at the equinoxes can watch as a shadow cast by the sun on the temple of Kukulcan forms the body of an undulating serpent that descends the northern stairway and joins the sculpted head of the serpent at it's base. The Mayans were masters at mathematics, astronomy and calendar making, and the temple of Kukulkan (images 226 and 229) is,
itself, basically a large calendar and observatory. Like the pyramids of Egypt, many of the pyramids of Mesoamerica are tombs for the ruling class as well as temples and observatories. The similarities are uncanny and intriguing.

Chaac Icons, Chitzen Itza
(Curtis Photo)


Mayan God Chaac
(Wiki Commons)
More intriguing, however, is the ubiquitous iconographic presence of the Mayan god "Chaac," god of rain and fecundation.  Chaac has a distinctly elephantine appearance with a long nose and large, ponderous body. This deity has been likened to the Hindu elephant deity "Ganesh," although the two have somewhat different influences in their respective cultures. Chaac's nose or trunk, however, appears everywhere (see photo above right) and has raised the question of where ancient Mayans might have seen elephants, given that the Columbian Mammoth is thought to have gone extinct several thoursand years before the rise of Mesoamerican  civilization. It seems possible, since the Columbian mammoth roamed as far south as Honduras at the end of the last ice age, that tribal memories of these creatures could have been passed on through oral traditions and drawings. They might ultimately have been turned into deities in the Mesoamerican consciousness.  I have seen the well preserved remains of Columbian Mammoths being unearthed from an ancient sinkhole in South Dakota.  These unfossilized remains, although thousands of years old, still had some of the hide intact along with bones and scat. The Yucatan penninsula is honeycombed with sinkholes (called "cenotes") and underground streams.  These places were virtually the only sources of water for the Mayans who explored them extensively. Finding the remains of Columbian Mammoths in association with their sacred water holes would have reinforced their ideas about Chaac.

Less likely, although still possible, is the theory that the Olmecs, Mesoamerica's earliest civilization, were a seafaring culture that came originally from Africa and brought with them the concepts of elephants as well as pyramids. These theories will probably never be either confirmed or disproved, but the extent of  cultural diffusion and Mayan knowledge shouldn't be underestimated.

Contemporary Mayan scholars dismiss the end of the world hysteria that has been stoked by the popular media in North America.  The Mayan calendar, they say, is simply like the odometer in your automobile, except that this odometer is attached to the earth as it revolves around the sun, and the sun revolves around the galactic center. After so many miles (and years) it turns over and begins again at zero. There is nothing special about the end of time in the Mayan calendar they say.  Even so, the locals in Yucatan enjoy the attention it has brought them from North Americans who come to explore the ancient ruins, learn about the Mayans and leave their dollars and pesos. Personally, I find the Mayan's iconography and architecture  distinctive, interesting and beautiful, which makes it a good subject for photography.

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