Maya Caves Across Time and Space

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The Castilian conquerors of Mexico and Central America were quite effective in their efforts to destroy documents that might reflect a complex culture with a deep understanding of history and place. When Pedro de Alvarado came to and burned the capitol of the second largest empire of Mesoamerica, along with its kings, we can only speculate what else was committed to those flames. But among those who survived were well-educated bards in service to the court, who some scholars suspect kept the contents of the burned books in their heads, only to later commit them to European paper in Latin letters, in secret, over a generation later (Tedlock, 1985.) The book thus produced is most commonly called the Popol Vuh, or Book of Council. While the original remains hidden or lost, a Spanish friar made a copy from that original K’iche’ over a 150 years later, and a variety of translations began to emerge in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is now the national book of Guatemala, there are numerous translations, and a rich field of interpretation, to which in a small way this chapter contributes (also see Earle, 1983b.)

A central theme of the book’s mythic tales involves decent by heroic twins from the surface of this holy earth into the underworld, where they meet with challenges from the lords of death and sickness. The first generation is defeated, after a series of travails. The second pair, miraculous offspring of the skull of one of the first, make a better go of it, despite being sent to many of the same life and death trials, an excerpt of which is quoted above. Of all the intimidating places to survive in the deadly territory of Xibalbaj, I have always wondered what was the danger of the house of bats. The others were clear. Cold, knives, jaguars, fire all seemed inherently fatal, but this danger I assumed, as did Dennis Tedlock, was that these bats were “monstrous beasts” of another dimension, bats out of hell, so to speak. Yet my doubts remained.