Thursday, March 28, 2013

2 - Incidents of Travel: Mayan Ruins

Part 2: Uxmal, featuring incidents of Travel by Rhondda Hartman

John Lloyd Stephens 1836

The last city visited by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood in their monumental trip to Central America in 1839 and the first site revisited on their return was Uxmal.  Stephens described the ruins as follows:

“The hacienda of Uxmal was built of dark gray stone, ruder in appearance than any of the others [cities visited].  … In the afternoon, [I] set out for a walk to the ruins.  The path led through a noble piece of woods, in which there were many tracks, and [my] Indian guide lost his way.  We took another road, and, emerging suddenly from the woods, to my astonishment came at once upon a large open field strewed with mounds of ruins, and vast buildings on terraces, and pyramidal structures, grand and in good preservation, richly ornamented, without a bush to obstruct the view, and in picturesque effect almost equal to the ruins of Thebes.
Uxmal by Frederick Catherwood

“The place of which I am now speaking was beyond all doubt once a large, populous, and highly civilized city.  Who built it, why it was located away from water or any of those natural advantages which have determined the sites of cities whose histories are known, what led to its abandonment and destruction, no man can tell.

Uxmal today
“… The first object that arrests the eye on emerging from the forest is the building [House of the Dwarf, see below].  From its front doorway I counted sixteen elevations, with broken walls and mounds of stones, and vast, magnificent edifices, which seemed untouched by time.

“… The other building is called Casa de las Monjas, or House of the Nuns, or the Convent.  It is situated on an artificial elevation about fifteen feet high.  Its form is quadrangular, and one side, according to my measurement, is ninety-five paces in length.  … Like the House of the Dwarf, it is built entirely of cut stone, and the whole exterior is filled with the same rich, elaborate, and incomprehensible sculptured ornaments.”

Uxmal "The Nunnery"
“While I was making the circuit of these ruins, Mr. Catherwood proceeded to the Casa del Gobernador.  It is the grandest in position, the most stately in architecture and proportions, and the most perfect in preservation of all the structures remaining at Uxmal. … There is no rudeness or barbarity in the design or proportions; on the contrary, the whole wears an air of architectural symmetry and grandeur; and as the stranger ascends the steps and casts a bewildered eye along its open and desolate doors, it is hard to believe that he sees before him the work of a race in whose epitaph, as written by historians, they are called ignorant of art, and said to have perished in the rudeness of savage life.  If it stood at this day on its grand artificial terrace in Hyde Park or the Garden of the Tuileries, it would form a new order, I do not say equaling, but not unworthy to stand side by side with the remains of Egyptian, Grecian, and Roman art.”

Compare Stephen’s  impression of Uxmal to this visit by Rhondda Hartman:
Rhondda Hartman
“We went in the early 1970s and took our 2 oldest girls with us; they were about 12 & 14.  Uxmal is the most delightful of all the pyramids I have visited, and the first.   It is 'soft' and architecturally beautiful with its rounded walls and elliptical shape.   I would call it a boutique archaeological site! Chichen Itsa, by comparison, is harsh and sharp and a military compound.   Uxmal is more like a palace.
“My belief is that the sacrificial rituals that are attributed to the Mayans were introduced by other civilizations of Toltec and Aztec!   As in Chichen Itsa,  Mayans are a peaceful culture, I think, at least Uxmal feels that way to me!  We were on a tour and our hotel was nearby.  One of my daughters and I could not wait for the guide.  We went on our own and climbed all over the pyramid and surrounding areas and felt so comfortable.   [House of the Dwarf pictured below]
“We also joined the tour at the established time, but when that was done, we wandered off by ourselves again and found the un-restored area of the park.  A kind worker saw our interest and gave us a tour of the jungle-covered part of the Mayan city and outside the walls where the commoners lived.  We were so comfortable and felt as though it was familiar territory for us. We seemed to know where we were and where to go!  Well, do I need to tell you that it sparked an interest in the Mayan civilization for both of us?  And you can be sure that if there is reincarnation, my daughter and I lived there!
“It was about that time that I went to UCD to get a Masters and I took several courses on the culture.  I have an interest in a trip to see the more important Mayan cities of Tikal , Palenque , Copan and Bonampak.  I cannot revisit Uxmal since the first time was so magical I could probably never achieve that experience again!”

-- Rhondda Hartman is an expert on natural childbirth, renowned speaker and is the author of “Exercises For True Natural Childbirth”.  Rhondda has travelled all over the world and says that one of her favorite places in the world is Uxmal.
Have you travelled to see the Mayan ruins? I would like to hear your story. If you are willing to share your story, please submit it by clicking here. Throughout this series, I will be posting stories from readers and comparing their experiences with those of Stephens and Catherwood.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

1 - Incidents of Travel: Maya Ruins

Part 1: John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood

John Lloyd Stephens
 On a dark night in October, 1839, a wealthy attorney from New York and an architect from England, set sail on an adventure that they could not have imagined.   The attorney, John Lloyd Stephens, had made his wealth as an author profiting from a trip to Europe for “health reasons”.   He had acquired a “persistent streptococci throat” while politicking for Andrew Jackson.   His doctor recommended a trip to Europe.  While in Europe, he sent articles on “incidents of travel’ back to his friend at the American Monthly magazine which were quite successful.  The influx of immigrants to America flooded all means of transport back home, so Stephens extended his travels to Egypt, Arabia, the Holy Lands, Petra, Turkey, Russia, Poland and eventually England.  While visiting Jerusalem, he met Frederick Catherwood, an English architect trying to make a living drawing the ruins of Rome and sketching the architecture of the Holy Lands.  Stephens purchased a map of the Holy Lands drawn by Catherwood and was so impressed by it that he later looked up Catherwood in England.  They became great friends.
Frederick Catherwood
Back in New York, Stephens compiled his notes and “Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land” was published in 1837.  It was wildly successful and was followed up by “Incidents of Travel in Greece, Turkey, Russia, and Poland” setting up Stephens financially.   
Rumors of great cities in Central America were floating about and Stephens enlisted his friend Catherwood, who had relocated to New York, to join him for a trip to Central America.  Stephens described his friend as, “… an experienced traveler and personal friend, who had passed more than ten years of his life in diligently studying the antiquities of the Old World; and whom, as one familiar with the remains of ancient architectural greatness …”
At that time, only three archaeological sites were known in Central America – Copan, Palenque, and Uxmal.  No one connected the cities with any known culture and the name “Maya” was scarcely known.  According to Victor Wolfgang von Hagen, who wrote an introduction for a re-printing of Stephen’s book, “Incidents of Travel in Yucatan”,  “The acceptance of an indigenous ‘civilization’ demanded of an American living in 1839 a complete reorientation; to him an ‘Indian’ was one of those barbaric, half-naked tipi dwellers, a rude subhuman people who hunted with animal stealth.”
Before leaving, his old friend and now president of the United States, Andrew Jackson, appointed Stephens Ambassador to Central America.  He accepted the post hoping it would aid him in his search for “lost civilizations”.  Again from von Hagen, “Landing within the political and social chaos which was Central America, they found that it was far easier to find lost cities than to locate lost governments."
So, in October, 1839, John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood set sail for Belize on a momentous journey that would expose, for the first time, the wonders of the lost Mayan civilization to America. 
Stelae in Copan
by Frederick Catherwood
As the pictures at left/right and below show, Frederick Catherwood's drawings were amazingly accurate and provide a true feel for what they discovered in their visits to Central America. The statues are the stelae found at Copan. Below a picture of Uxmal compared with Catherwood's.
Uxmal, by Frederick Catherwood

Recent picture of Uxmal

Have you travelled to see the Mayan ruins?  I would like to hear your story.  If you are willing to share your story, please submit it by clicking here.  Throughout this series, I will be posting stories from readers and comparing their descriptions of what it is like now to what Stephens and Catherwood experienced in 1839

preview video

Thursday, March 14, 2013

5 - How the Chumash turned the wayward sun around

Part 5:  The Chumash Origin Stories
One of the things I enjoy most  about studying ancient cultures is the stories explaining how things originated.  The Chumash are no exception.  To conclude this series, I want to share some of those great Chumash stories.
Chumash Sun God

As mentioned before, the Sun is a man who carries a torch and gathers up children as he travels and stuffs them in his head band and an occasional adult, as well.  He lives in a crystal house with his two daughters.  He has two wives, the evening star and the morning star.  When he snuffs out his torch, the sparks form the stars.  In the evening, he throws down the people he has collected and he and his daughters pass the bodies over the fire several times and then eat the people half cooked.  To quench their thirst they drink blood.
Pleiades Constellation

As I have reported in other articles, all Native American cultures seem to have stories about the constellation we call the Pleiades.  In the Chumash story, seven young boys were abandoned by their parents and rescued by Raccoon who taught them to dig roots to eat.  The boys decided to go north and wanted to take Raccoon with them.  They sprinkled goose down on themselves and sang songs and danced around the “temescal’ (sweathouse) for three days and as they did so, they began to rise up higher and higher except for Raccoon who couldn’t fly.  When their mothers saw what was happening, they felt bad for abandoning them and begged them to come back down, but the boys turned into geese and flew away north becoming the seven stars of the Big Dipper.  Their mother’s tried to follow them and became the seven stars of the Pleiades.  That is why when geese cry, they sound like little boys.

Interestingly, there is a second version of the Pleiades.  In this story, there were eight men who decided that they would fare better if they lived together and pooled their various talents.  One was a better hunter, one was a better fisher, one was a good cook, etc.  The plan worked very well and they were happy with the arrangement except for one who just disappeared.  This story is particularly significant to astronomers because the Pleiades was, in fact, once made up of eight bright stars until one of them faded over time. 

Also similar to other cultures, the Chumash believed that there is an upper world, center world (where they lived), and underworld.  The center world was supported by two giant snakes and when we feel the earth move (earthquake) we are feeling the snakes moving.  The upper world is held up by the great eagle who must stand immobile forever.  So, to keep from getting tired he slowly stretches his wings which blocks the moon and causes the phases of the moon.
The Chumash people came from seeds planted by Hutash (in this case "Mother Earth") planted on the channel islands west of the California coast.  Sky Snake saw her creations and decided to pitch in by giving them fire by sending down lightning bolts.  The people were happy, food was bountiful, and they produced many babies.  But as the population grew the happy people also grew noisier.  Hutash and Sky Snake could not sleep they were so noisy.  The next morning, Hutash placed a rainbow connecting the island to a mountain peak on the mainland and told the people that some would have to crossover to live on the mainland.  The people were afraid to cross because the rainbow was so high.  Hutash told them to keep their eye on their destination and they would be alright.  But some did look down and got dizzy from the height and fell into the ocean below.  As they fell, they cried to Hutash to save them.  She felt bad since she had forced them to take the rainbow bridge so as they hit the water she changed them into dolphins.  That is why the Chumash say the dolphins are their brothers.
Game of Tshung-kee similar to Hoop-and-Pole

The water for rivers and streams was provided by the frogs urinating.   Thunder is the sound of the Thunder Brothers playing the Chumash “Hoop-and-Pole” game.  One brother roles a hoop across the ground causing the sound of thunder, the other brother tries to throw a pole (speer) through the rolling hoop.  After a long game, one brother sat to rest forming a deep depression in the ground.  A local villager was incensed by his action and shouted insults while the other villagers were afraid and ran away.  When they looked back,  their friend was gone and there was a lake filling the depression.  They call it Lake Zaca today.

These wonderful and imaginative stories were told for centuries from generation to generation.  It is a shame so few stories survive today.
Link to Part 1
Link to Part 2
Link to Part 3
Link to Part 4
-- Courtney Miller

Thursday, March 7, 2013

4 - How the Chumash turned the wayward sun around

Hutash -- Chumash sunstick
Part 4: The Chumash Winter Solstice Ceremony
After the season of Hutash (autumn), the Chumash people became more and more fearful as the winter solsctice approached (around December 20th each year).  Guided by their astronomer/priest, the Alchuklash, and his twelve helpers, everyone participated in preparing for the winter solstice ceremony.  All the powers of the individual and the supernatural powers of the priests would be required to stop Sun from his journey south and turn him back to them.   Over many years of observing, they knew that the sun would rise and set at the same spot for two days before starting its progression back north.  So the winster solstice ceremony lasted for two days.

On the first day of winter solstice, the Antap (the Alchuklash and assistants of the various Chumash villages), prepared for the ceremony by digging a hole in the plaza where they would place a Hutash (sunstick, refer to Part 3) the next day.
Sun God gathered people on his travel

On second day of the winter solstice, the Alchuklash hid indoors so that Sun would not gather him up on his travel across the sky and eat him.  Ceremonies honoring the dead and offerings to Sun were presided over by the Antap.  All peoples settled their debts on this day so that they could start the new year with a clean slate.  In the afternoon, the chief priest of the village who assumed the role of “Image of the Sun” and twelve assistants who were “Rays of the Sun” erected the Hutash in the plaza to entice the sun to turn northward again.  At noon, the Hutash represented the center of the earth where the four cardinal directions intersected.   Once the Hutash was standing by itself, the “Rays of the Sun” encircled it holding goose or eagle down feathers and as the “Image of the Sun” stood, they tossed the down feathers simulating rain.  The “Image of the sun” chanted “It is raining.  You must go in your house”.  Then, he tapped the stone disk attached to the top of the Hutash twice to release its powers and began a ritual speech.  From Ray A. Williamson’s, Living the Sky,

“A miracle!  Here is the force of the Sun – see how it drives this into the earth.  Believe!  Courage!  Pay attention!  Bring all your children to see, so they can see the staff of Hutash.  Look!  It is going to stand!  Observe it in its place and always remember it so!  Yes, always remember!”
Chief Solares
in Dance Costume

The “Image of the Sun” ended with predictions for the year.  The “Rays of the Sun” then danced in honor of the Sun.  That night, all of the villagers returned to dance and decorate “Sun poles” with paint, beads, and feathers.   The dancers would dance around the Hutash in a clockwise direction until midnight and then reverse direction and dance until sunrise. 

During this one night only, any man could sing to any woman, married or not, and at the end of his song, all taboos were lifted and the woman would accompany him to a discrete location for sexual intercourse.

At sunrise, three elders sang to the Sun beckoning him to “Come out to see your grandfather”.  Then six women took up the singing with arms extended to welcome the Sun back and entice it to re-enter the Hutash.  That night, the people remembered the past year and the deceased.   Then they gathered to witness the sunrise and rejoiced when the sun rose north of the solstice point!  The Sun poles they had decorated were carried outside the village and erected  to the west with offerings to the twelve months of the new year.  The priests collected the Hutash and stored it for the next solstice and that ended the ceremony.  The wayward sun had been turned and a prosperous new year assured.