Posts Tagged ‘Teotihuacan’

Where the Maya Fit In

March 28, 2010

With all the history of the Mesoamerican region pretty well mapped out one might think this should be rather simple to explain. But there are still so many questions about the ancient Maya and their culture that even consulting the present Maya cannot answer.

We do know that they followed a lot of the same cultural characteristics of the Olmec culture that (possibly) preceded them but were they borrowing from the Olmec, or did both of them borrow from a third source, or – as believed by the present Maya – the Olmec borrowed from them as they were far older?

There are a few inscriptions that historians have uncovered that they term proto-Olmec but until enough are found to begin actual work at translation, they are nothing more than a curiosity. Perhaps though, someday, enough will be found to help fill in the blanks.

Yet for all the declaimers among some historical circles attempting to move the credit for a lot of the discoveries to one or another of the cultures in Mesoamerica, it remains that the first and only truly literate culture we have found is the Maya.

Many historians point to Teotihuacan and claim that the Toltecs were the “great” civilization of ancient Mexico but I have yet to see any evidence that the historically known Toltecs had anything to do with the site of Teotihuacan. That ancient city seems to be outside the current scheme of Mesoamerican history and the inhabitants were not kind enough to leave us written evidences of themselves.

The classic Maya alone seem to come down to us as the only completely cohesive culture, almost as if (and this is extremely hypothetical) they were trying to make sure their message got through. Now that’s rather a New Age thought, I know, but it could very well be.

And the widely believed notion that the Maya simply abandoned their cities is now thought to be an erroneous conclusion. Many of the Maya cities continued, some merging with Toltec invaders, others continuing for centuries holding out against the Spaniards. The cities that were abandoned, were simply vacated by the inhabitants as they melted back into the forests from which they came.

Again, one wonders if this could be to make sure their message continued?

But, then, what exactly was their message?

the Ancient Ball Game

December 7, 2009

One of the most prevalent things in the Mesoamerican world is the ball court. A game played – almost impossible to score – where the loser actually loses his head. At least, so the modern interpretation goes.

There seems to be an unusual prevalence of the head in the Mayan literature of the Hero Twins. The father of the Hero Twins lost his head which then spit into the hand of a girl, who then became pregnant with the Hero Twins. The pair grew to journey to the Underworld and beat the game to “resurrect” their father – as some sources say: free him to be reincarnated. During the ensuing Ball Game one of the Hero Twins loses his own head, which is used for the game ball for a while until replaced by a gourd.

Perhaps the tale is mixing metaphors. On one hand, giving some basis for belief in reincarnation, and on the other: describing cosmological events.

So, is the tale of the Hero Twins really a cosmological story? The head that spits to impregnate the young goddess sounds much like a “god” figure (i.e. planet – round like a head; see the previous post on the Olmec heads), so where in the cosmology is a “god” killed and spits to impregnate another that gives birth to twins?

Are they compressing a couple of suns into one here or what? And how does this relate to the classic Ball Game?

“In prehistoric Mexico, the ball bouncing between the players on opposing teams represented the sun struggling to rise out of the night sky and then falling again at the end of the day, as well as a changing of the seasons.”

“Fertility is a theme of the ballgame from the earliest times; for example, Formative period ballplayer figurines – most likely female – often wear maize icons. The theme of solar movement is tied to fertility and the bouncing ball is thought to have represented the sun, and the sacrifice of a ballplayer represented the death of the sun, which would then be reborn. In its inherent duality, the game appears as a struggle between day and night, and/or a battle between life and the underworld. The stone scoring rings are said to signify sunrise and sunset, or equinoxes. Courts were considered portals to the underworld and were built in key locations within the central ceremonial precincts.”

Here, the interpretations about the ball relate it to the movement of the Sun and specifically it’s struggle against the darkness of nighttime.

The Hohokam, early inhabitants in Southern Arizona, as well as the Sinagua, in Northern Arizona, seem to have had ballcourts. The one at Wupatki, near Flagstaff, AZ, appears to be the northernmost example of the ballcourt.

While living in Northern Arizona, I had the good fortune to come across another apparent ball court in the National Forest there. It was a long depression ringed with stones – not as deep as the ritual ballcourts so perhaps this one was used only for recreation – about seventy-five feet along each side with rounded ends.

What is puzzling is that there are no ritual ballcourts at that greatest of ancient cities, Teotihuacan. But murals there show that several ball games were played there for recreation, even if not for ritual purpose: a two-player game in an open-ended masonry ballcourt and a game with teams using sticks on an open field whose end zones are marked by stone monuments.

So there were various versions of the game over the centuries from something resembling field hockey to something similar to soccer. Modern scholars assume the “hip-ball” version to be the most widespread variety.

It seems to have been more than a simple sport to the Maya and Aztecs. The Maya saw the game as a battle between the lords of the underworld and their earthly adversaries, the Aztecs saw it as a battle between the forces of night led by the moon and the stars. Both are cosmological and mythological in orientation, but what interpretation

So how far was the ballgame spread? And where did it come from? And, more importantly, what did it really mean?


June 27, 2009

The Aztecs found this marvelous city long-abandoned and thought it had to have been the home of the gods themselves. Their mythology of the birth if the fifth Sun takes place at Teotihuacan.

The legend goes that the Sun had been formed and destroyed four times. In the darkness after the fourth destruction, the gods gathered at Teotihuacan to counsel among themselves about what to do and they decided someone of their number should sacrifice their self to restart the Sun.

A rich and haughty god stepped forward and claimed the honor. A weak and sickly god, Nanauatzin, volunteered to become the Moon. The wealthy god offered copal incense in the flames while Nanauatzin could only offer his scabs, which he picked off and threw into the flames.

When the time arrived, the haughty god approached the flames but pulled back as they rose to great him. Four times this act was replayed. The gods grumbled and urged Nanauatzin forward.

He dove into the flames without hesitation and became the new Sun. Chagrined, the rich god followed him into the flames and became the Moon.

Adrian Gilbert (The Mayan Prophecies) pictures this as the remnants of the Toltec nobles hanging around Teotihuacan after it had been abandoned. They threw themselves into the flames to try and end the drought that had caused most to leave the area. But I cannot see how a drought-stricken community would want the Sun to come back in all its glory; shouldn’t they have been praying for rain instead?

Anyway, as “the gods” to the ancients were the planets, I wonder what sort of cosmological dance they were witnessing with this large “god” approaching the flames four times before following the smaller one into the inferno.

It would certainly have been legendary… or myth creating.