Tag: mayan spirituality

The Mayan Mysteries of Palenque

Read Sacred Earth Journeys’ participant and travel writer Lori Erickson’s second instalment about her journey to Mexico & Guatemala in this week’s feature guest blog.

mayan ruler pakal
The Mayan ruler Pakal was buried with richly ornamented and highly symbolic finery (Bob Sessions photo)

Striking, isn’t it?

And maybe a bit unsettling?

I came upon this figure at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Bob and I and our friend Brian spent several days in Mexico City before starting our Maya Temples of Transformation tour with Sacred Earth Journeys. Our time at this museum—one of the world’s greatest—gave us an invaluable background for what we would later see on our Maya trip.

Of all the marvels we saw at the museum, the figure pictured above most intrigued me. The jade mask and jewelry were found on the body of a Mayan leader named Pakal, who ruled the city-state of Palenque for almost 70 years in the seventh century. Every part of his elaborate burial finery had symbolic significance, from the number of strands in his necklace to those peculiar ear pieces that jut out from his head. Note, too, that the mask has crossed eyes, which were considered beautiful in Mayan culture.

I stood transfixed by this mask for quite some time, though I wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was the sheer weirdness of it, as well as the beauty of its craftsmanship. There was a haunting quality about it as well, something that seemed to speak in words I couldn’t understand about a culture very different from my own.

A few days later, I stood in front of Palenque’s Temple of Inscriptions, the place where this mask was found.

temple of inscriptions at palenque
The Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque is one of the masterpieces of Mayan architecture (Bob Sessions photo)

Located in the Mexican state of Chiapas, Palenque was founded around the year 100 BCE. It reached its height between 600-800 CE, and then declined in the early 10th century, for unknown reasons. Today it’s one of the most studied of all the Mayan sites. Though smaller in size than Chichen Itza or Tikal, it has exquisite architecture and carvings. Only a small fraction of Palenque has been excavated, but what’s there is marvelous indeed.

As at all Mayan sites, the temples here were likely built to align with astronomical phenomena. Working without telescopes, the Mayan nevertheless had an amazingly sophisticated knowledge of astronomy and mapped the movements of the stars and planets with great accuracy. They also kept multiple calendars geared to various celestial cycles and developed complex writing and mathematical notation systems.

As soon as I entered Palenque, the Temple of the Inscriptions immediately drew my gaze. It’s the largest of the many buildings at the site, with steps arranged in nine levels. Built during Pakal’s reign, it’s named after the hundreds of glyphs located on the temple walls at its top. Originally it was painted red, with its carvings detailed in bright colors. But even with its present appearance of weathered, gray limestone, it’s a exquisite building, perfectly proportioned, beautifully designed.

In 1952, Alberto Ruz Lhuillier made a remarkable discovery atop this temple: he uncovered the beginnings of a stairway that led down through the center of the structure. After four years of excavation, he at last came to Pakal’s tomb, one of the greatest treasures of pre-Columbian archeology. This is the New World equivalent of the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in Egypt.

And while the jade mask in the museum was stunning, I was even more amazed when I learned what covered Pakal’s sarcophagus (see below).

pakal sarcophagus
The sarcophagus of the ruler Pakal is a roadmap to the complexities of Mayan spirituality (Wikimedia Commons image)

This massive lid of limestone, 12 x 7 feet in size, is covered with an intricate, carved design that people have been trying to interpret ever since it was discovered. The image shows a man either descending or ascending a World Tree, a symbol that has roots in the underworld, a trunk in this world, and its branches in paradise. The man is wearing garments similar to those of the Mayan Maize God, and surrounding him are sacred symbols of many kinds.

If this all looks vaguely familiar, it’s because you might have seen it on a late-night TV program on ancient aliens. The craze started with a 1968 book by Erich von Daniken called Chariots of the Gods. When he looked at this image, he saw a space man being propelled by a rocket ship, a theory that’s been giving anthropologists headaches ever since. “No! No! Don’t believe him!” they collectively say, pointing out that Mayan culture was perfectly capable of creating its many wonders all on its own without the help of overlords from the stars.

Thankfully, you don’t have to buy the ancient aliens thesis to appreciate this remarkable work of art (which we saw only in pictures, since you can’t get inside the tomb without special permission). But there is indeed something otherworldly about this image, which shows a spiritual transformation of some sort, a movement between realms.

Today Pakal’s body rests underneath the Temple of Inscriptions, while most of the items found in his tomb are safely ensconced in the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. I felt fortunate to have seen those treasures, because it made me fully experience what I experienced at Palenque.

palenque palace reliefs
Reliefs in the Palace courtyard at Palenque bring us face to face with the Mayan world (Bob Sessions photo)

On our tour of Palenque, I also greatly appreciated the fact that we were given time simply to be. Too often tours try to cover so much information and territory that you’re left exhausted. But if you’re going to truly experience a sacred site, you need some time to settle in. I was grateful to spend much of the afternoon wandering on my own amid the temples, climbing up steep steps to perch on platforms overlooking the green lushness of the surrounding jungle, drinking in the vistas.

Here’s a curious thing, one that I’m a little embarrassed to admit. Our group had arranged to meet back at the entrance gate late in the afternoon, and I stretched out my time at Palenque as long as I could. Nearing the departure time, I realized I needed to hurry.

A shortcut led through a dimly lit tunnel that we’d walked through before as a group, a passageway that wound through the ruins of the palace. I started to enter it, and then stopped.

The light had shifted from earlier in the day, and it seemed darker than I remembered. There were no people around, not even voices in the distance. And I realized that I was scared to go into the passageway. I didn’t fear other humans, but instead I wasn’t entirely sure that spirits weren’t hovering around. Something about the way the walls loomed high around me, perhaps. Or maybe it was just an over-active imagination. But I took the long way back to the entrance, even though it entailed much more walking.

I smile when I think back to that moment now, because it sums up to me the essence of Palenque. This is a place that exudes the Mysteries of the Maya. Palenque is both dead and alive. No one lives there, and yet perhaps they do.

Next post: Yachxilan, where I learn about Mayan ceremonies.

~ Lori Erickson

Other blog posts in this series:

The Splendor of Tikal
A Ceremony Amid Sun-Dappled Mayan Ruins
Exploring Sacred Mayan Sites in Mexico and Guatemala
Finding the Holy in a Tradition Not My Own

This blog was first published on www.patheos.com

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/holyrover/2017/02/14/the-mayan-mysteries-of-palenque/

 

Exploring Sacred Mayan Sites in Mexico and Guatemala

Sacred Earth Journeys’ participant and travel writer Lori Erickson shares her recent experience of travelling to Mexico & Guatemala in this week’s feature guest blog.

palenque mexico
Tour Leader Freddy Silva exploring sacred Mayan sites with the Sacred Earth Journeys group

For years I’ve been getting press releases from Sacred Earth Journeys, a company that specializes in trips to spiritual sites around the world. So much about the company appealed to me—its focus on spirituality, its expert guides, and the locations of its trips. But the timing was never right and there was always a good reason I couldn’t go.

mexico guatemala tour
Bob and I spent a week on a Sacred Earth Journeys tour of Mayan sites in Mexico and Guatemala

But last month, I finally got the chance to travel with Sacred Earth Journeys—and the experience more than lived up to my expectations. A tour called Maya Temples of Transformation immersed me in the culture and spirituality of pre-Columbian Mexico and Guatemala. During the week we visited three major Mayan sites: Palenque, Yachxilan, and Tikal. Along the way we trekked through jungles, took part in ceremonies with ancient roots, and listened to howler monkeys in the treetops above. It was a marvellous trip! And over the next posts I’ll be telling you about what I experienced.

I was accompanied on the tour by my intrepid husband, Bob, and our equally intrepid friend Brian. But during the week I also got to know our fellow travelers, who hailed from Australia, England, and Canada as well as the U.S. Some had been part of Sacred Earth Journeys before; others were newbies. All of us shared an interest in the spiritual side of travel, and all of us wanted to truly experience the places we were seeing, not just skip across the surface.

misol ha mexico
Misol Ha Waterfall in Mexico (image by Cronoser, Wikimedia Commons)

My week with these people made me realize that in all my years of spiritual journeying, I’ve missed one of the classic elements of pilgrimage: being put together in a group with complete strangers, fellow pilgrims who during the course of the journey become friends. Though we hailed from far-flung corners of the globe, we quickly formed bonds. During conversations over breakfasts and dinners, on bus rides, and walking down forest paths, I heard their personal stories and learned from their insights and wisdom. It was a little like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a moveable feast of spirituality and camaraderie.

Bringing like-minded pilgrims together is one of the missions of Sacred Earth Journeys, according to its founder and owner, Helen Tomei, who also was part of our group. “Traveling solo can be wonderful,” she told me. “But there are things that happen in groups that you can’t get when you travel on your own. When you travel to sacred places together, you benefit from hearing about other people’s experiences, and they can help you process your own experiences. You learn from each other.”

Helen sees many transformations among the groups she coordinates. “Most of us live in a world of endless distractions, especially because of the overwhelming presence of technology,” she told me. “On trips like this, we’re given the chance to disconnect, slow down, and look inward. I think that’s one of the reasons why interest in spiritual travel is growing. My hope is that people will come home from a journey with us changed in some way, and that their lives will be better once they return to their ordinary routines.”

tour leader freddy silva
Freddy Silva (Photo: Lori Erickson)

During our week together, we were fortunate to have two leaders with great experience in guiding people through spiritual transformations. Freddy Silva is one of the world’s leading researchers of sacred sites, ancient systems of knowledge, and the interaction between temples and consciousness. His books include First Templar Nation and The Divine Blueprint. And Miguel Angel Vergara is a native of Mexico who studied for 17 years with Mayan elder and wisdom keeper Don Vincente Martin. Today Miguel teaches seminars in Mexico and abroad on Mayan shamanism, traditions, and culture and is also the author of The Sacred Knowledge of the Maya.

The two were a powerful combination. Miguel led us in ceremonies and provided a deep background in the spirituality of the places we were seeing. And Freddy was our trickster teacher, making us laugh, inviting us to consider new possibilities, and sharing his knowledge of similarities between sacred sites around the world.

As the week went on, I especially appreciated Miguel’s deep kindness and his unassuming way of teaching profound truths. One day as we entered the jungle on our way to the Guatemalan site of Tikal, for example, he made an off-hand comment that is one of the most profound pieces of spiritual wisdom I’ve ever heard. “You know, the most important part of a ceremony is the love in your heart,” he said. “If you don’t have that, it doesn’t make any difference what rituals you do. And if you have that love, all the rituals will work, no matter how you do them.”

During our trip, Miguel did a masterful job of leading us in rituals designed to open our hearts to the spirit of the sacred places we toured. On our first day, for example, we visited Misol Ha Waterfall, a gorgeous cataract in the forest near the Mayan site of Palenque. On the bus ride there, he told us that many sacred sites have a cave of some sort associated with them. They provide a direct connection to the divine spirit of the earth, the mother who sustains us all.

“Surrender your ego and be humble,” he told us, echoing the message that spiritual teachers of many traditions give. “Ask yourself: what do I need to give up? What do I need to heal?” At the site, we got out of the bus and walked down a slippery path leading to the waterfall, then passed behind its torrent on our way to the cave itself. In darkness lit only by a few flashlights, we made our way into an inner chamber, where another, smaller waterfall cascaded into a pool.

“Water is a connection to the Spirit,” Miguel told us. “Enter the water if you’d like. Ask for healing for yourself and for others.”

I watched as most members of our group slid into the water. Fighting a cold, I felt it would be unwise to join them, because as much as I believe in the power of the Spirit, I’m also a believer in the power of a virus to make a trip miserable. So I sat there with my feet in the pool, savouring the sounds of the waterfall, watching as my fellow pilgrims immersed themselves in holy waters that have drawn seekers for millennia.

Palenque in Mexico
Miguel Angel Vergara is a master teacher of Mayan spirituality.

It was one of my favourite moments of the trip. And if I’d had some paint supplies with me, I’d have drawn animals on the walls, just like in those French caves covered with prehistoric paintings. It was that kind of moment, a time-out-of-time when I felt I could have channelled something wild and mysterious.

In my next post I’ll take you to Palenque, one of the greatest of the ancient Mayan sites. But let me leave you with another comment made by Miguel, one that summarizes much of his perspective on the world. He told us that the traditional greeting exchanged by the Maya translates as, “How is your sacred path today?”

That’s a question we all can ask, whether we’re in a sacred cave in the middle of a jungle, or sitting at a desk in Iowa.

~ Lori Erickson

This blog was first published at www.patheos.com