Palenque

It is difficult to figure out the Mayan relationship with nature. At times it is exceptionally harmonious, and at other times it verges on the wary or suspicious, even superstitious. It was in no way a passive relationship anyway. Institutions, society, and the power of the leaders were all underpinned by this rapport with the heavenly bodies. The very fact of observing the sky was an inseparable part of the structure of the sacred landscape of the Mayas, a place where hierophany was common—that is, the physical manifestation of a divinity via some mechanism, duly linked with a celestial cycle. To learn more about this, we shall visit one of the most fascinating archaeological sites in the world, the Mayan city of Palenque, Chiapas.

Although the place had been inhabited since preclassical times, the monumental center of Palenque was built later, over the course of a century, during the reigns of Pacal (603-683 AD) and his son, Chan Bahlum (635-702 AD). The center of the city is dominated by a large palace, and opposite it, by the Temple of Inscriptions. The temple, one of the masterpieces of Mayan architecture, is a nine-stepped pyramid with a small structure on top. To the north of the temple, facing a square, we find three other pyramidal buildings, known as the Group of the Cross, because one of them houses a relief with an inscription of what looked like a Catholic cross to the Spanish (but that we know represents the intersection of the Milky Way with the ecliptic).

Before elaborating on the pyramidal structures, permit me to digress briefly. The Americas are chock-full of pyramid-type structures. We have already come across many in North America and Mexico and further ones await us in Peru. It will have dawned on many people that it is no coincidence that pyramids crop up all over the place (by the way, also in Italy, at Monte d'Accoddi in Sardinia, and in Greece, at Hellenicon in the Peloponnese), and that there must have been a common origin to the idea of building pyramids (see, for example, Schoch and McNally 2003). I disagree with this "diffusionist" idea, because there is no evidence to support it, and it is known that similar ideas and symbols can come into being independently in different cultures and peoples (see, for example, Boas 1943). We still have a long way to go to understand fully the reasons and symbolisms of single cultures, let alone determine any possible hidden links between them.

Having said this, the answer that archaeologists gave to the question of whether Mesoamerican pyramids had any connection with Egyptian ones or not was brusque and categorical: "The Egyptian pyramids were built as tombs, and nothing but tombs, while the Mesoamerican pyramids were built as temples, and nothing but temples."

We shall see in the last part of the book what great complexity and profundity (of the ancient Egyptians, of course) lies behind the first part of the statement, substantially true though it is, namely that Egyptian pyramids were "nothing but tombs." The second part of the statement, however, is wrong. The first to discover this was the Mexican archaeologist, Alberto Ruiz, who studied the Temple of Inscriptions of Palenque in 1949 (Plate 18). One day, one of the laborers on his team noticed an inconsistency in one of the paving slabs on top of the pyramid. The workers lifted up the slab to reveal a step, and then another. This was in fact a steep staircase that went deep down into the building as far as ground level. The staircase had, however, been filled in with debris by builders, and the work of removing it out took 2 years. At last, on June 15, 1952, Ruiz had the enormous satisfaction of discovering, at the foot of the staircase, in the core of one of the most important "temples, and nothing but temples" of Mesoamerica, a magnificent tomb. The tomb, which had been constructed before the erection of the pyramid and was therefore part of a single integrated architectural design with it, had not been desecrated and the funerary apparatus of the Mayan chief buried therein, Pacal, is today on display at the Anthropology Museum of Mexico City. It is likely that Chan Bahlum, Pacal's son, was also buried in a temple, possibly one of the Group of the Cross structures. Since that time, numerous other Mayan rulers have been unearthed in the temples they commissioned, in Tikal and Copan, for example.

Pacal, a haughty individual with an intelligent and pensive face, as depictions show him, was laid in an enormous stone coffin, sealed with a delicately inscribed lid. The image depicted on the lid, possibly the most famous Mayan work of art, has triggered the most unbelievable and inane idiocies ever written in the already abundant history of pseudo-archaeological garbage, such as that Pacal is depicted at the controls of his spaceship. Actually, the scene carved on the lid is instead a complicated and fascinating representation of deep astronomical-cosmological significance.

The Tree of the World crosses the whole slab in the direction of the longest side, and the figure of Pacal is arranged at the intersection between the Milky Way and the ecliptic. Beneath him there is the entrance to Xibalba, the Kingdom of the Dead, guarded by the "monster" and represented materially by the nine tiers of the building constructed above the tomb. The king is thus captured, as I see it, at the very moment of death. But the death of the king must also be a rebirth, since there is his son to reign after him and his people, who have to survive. To understand this mechanism, it is crucial to make the following observation. The two zones in which the Milky Way crosses the ecliptic mark the rising of the sun on two days of the year. Due to precession, these two dates vary in the course of the centuries, but during the classical Mayan period these dates coincided with the two solstices. Hence, Pacal is also placed at the solstitial point, so that his death might be identified with rebirth, in an analogy with the resumption of the solar cycle and thus of agricultural activities, particularly the cultivation of maize.

The stone lid, with its complicated symbols, sits on the coffin, and was thus inaccessible after the king's burial and the filling in of the staircase. However, as an explicit reminder of the connection between the deceased and the rebirth of the solar cycle, a hierophany was created in Palenque. On December 21st, in fact, the day of the winter solstice, looking from the building, the setting sun alights on the hill behind the Temple of Inscriptions, indicating the starting point of the staircase leading down to Pacal's tomb. The angle at which the sun sets is more or less the same as that of the staircase; it is thus as though the sun itself were descending into the crypt. On the following day, the sun reverses its path and the life of the city flourishes again, symbolically, under the new sovereign, Chan Bahlum, who ordered the construction of the three temples of the Group of the Cross. Linda Schele (1977) has shown that the arrangement of these temples was also dictated by the desire to create a hierophany, which occurred immediately after that of Pacal. Indeed, once the winter solstice sun has disappeared behind the Temple of Inscriptions, the monumental center of Palenque is enveloped in shadow, apart from the Group of the Cross. In

Palenque Astronomer
Figure 9.14: Pacal's carved lid.

particular, the facade of the Temple of the Cross is lit up fully only on the day of the winter solstice. When the light fades, a final ray strikes the figure of the "God L'' depicted on a panel (the phenomenon is similar to what happens at Abu Simbel; see Chapter 4).

Summarizing, for the Mayas the boundary between the world of humans and the world of the spirits was therefore evanescent, and there existed efficient ways of communication between them. One way, which we shall come back to in the second part of the book, is the vision induced by drugs or self-induced physical suffering, which in the Temple of Inscriptions was aided by the presence of a "psychoduct"—a small shaft that runs parallel to the staircase and was supposed to allow Pacal's spirit to emerge and manifest itself to his son in the mouth of the Vision Serpent, a scene explicitly depicted in the panels of the temples making up the Group of the Cross. Another means of communication is hierophany, the physically tangible manifestation of the supernatural. In a way the temple acts as a sort of theatrical device, whose mechanism is triggered only on the day of the solstice.

Other ways may still be discovered, but in any case I have kept the most famous and spectacular for the conclusion of this chapter.

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