Sunday, August 31, 2014

Petitioning the Gods in Times of Drought: Ancient Maya Pilgrimage at the Cara Blanca Pools, Belize

The CAS will open its 2014-15 lecture season on September 28 when guest lecturer, Dr. Lisa J. Lucero escorts us into the lost world of the Belizean Maya. Because so much of the Maya glyphs are known, we know more about the Maya and their culture than any other New World Pre-Columbian culture. We know more about the cities than remote ceremonial centers such as Cora Blanca, and Dr. Lucero is filling in many missing pieces of the Maya mosaic.

Dr. Lucero will open new perspectives on an ancient Maya landscape that was imbued with sacred, animate qualities, which the Maya either left untouched or transformed using established customs. Of particular significance were openings in the earth, such as caves and pools, which the Maya considered portals to the underworld. They would leave offering at openings and petition gods, ancestors and other supernatural entities for plentiful rain and bountiful crops. 

Cara Blanca in central Belize is such a place with its 25 pools. Their isolation from settled communities and the relatively sparse but unique architecture near pools, such as water temples and sweat baths, suggest that Cara Blanca served as a pilgrimage destination.

Growing evidence from exploratory dives and excavations at a temple at the edge of one of the pools indicate that the Maya increased their visits to Cara Blanca in response to a series of prolonged droughts that struck the Maya area between c. 800 and 930 C.E. 

In addition to yielding information on ancient Maya pilgrimage, water ceremonies and sacred geography, pools also yield information about rainfall patterns and landscape transformation.

Personal memories:
An effective teacher at some time told you something about the past that made you wonder about how people survived in the past. Dr. Lisa Lucero had too many unanswered questions. She decided to become an archaeologist and her non-academic parents supported her decision. Today she is a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, continuing her search and inspiring her students. You can google Dr. Lucero and find information about her Maya studies and excavations in Belize. You can find her abstracts online too.

Drone view of Rath Pool. Photo by Tony Rath. 
Since the mistaken idea that the Maya predicted the end of the world in 2012 made headlines, curiosity about the mysterious Maya has increased. People questioned “did they die out?” There are millions still living in villages and farming their milpas (corn fields). What did die was a hierarchal system with a bloated ruling class who told the people when to plant and when to harvest. They made the rules about their lives and how to appease the gods.

Years ago Bob and I lived in a Maya village in the Yucatan with students, to study the Mayas. These Mayas must have been descendants of ancient Maya who lived near sites such as Ek Balam. They probably were farmers because that was what they were when we stayed with them. When the ancient hierarchical system broke down, their ancestors left and found places to live together co-operatively. 

What did they do if they guessed wrong and the rains did not come after the seeds were planted? They did a ritual. We learned that it had happened to these village farmers at least once. They gathered their sacred objects and the gifts to the gods and went to a certain place and set up their table. Four boys assumed the role of frogs at the table’s corners and made frog noises all night. One of the elders decided to ask the priest if they could borrow the small carved saints from the church. The priest said no; but they borrowed them anyway. And what happened? It rained, of course. 

What they did in that village, may or may not, have much to do with what actually happened in ancient times. And it may, or may not, have little to do with what happened in a remote village in Belize where Dr. Lucero has been working. And Dr. Lucero has been working with archaeological tools to answer many nagging questions. We are wondering. What did they do when there was a drought? What did Dr. Lucero discover?

By Deb Stelton

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