Thursday, April 4, 2013

3 Incidents of Travel: Mayan Ruins

Part 3: The House of the Dwarf

John Lloyd Stephens
John Lloyd Stephens, the New York attorney who made his fortune selling books chronicling his extensive travels around the world in the early 1800’s, was so successful, I think, because he was interested in everything and that made him an interesting read.  While exploring the ruins of the Mayan city Uxmal that had been decaying and vacant in the jungles of Yucatan for a thousand plus years, he was fascinated by how fearful the natives were of the city and its buildings, especially at night.  Like a good researcher, he questioned one of the natives about a large building the natives referred to as “House of the Dwarf” and came up with this explanation:

“The Indians regard these ruins with superstitious reverence.  They will not go near them at night, and they have the old story that immense treasure is hidden among them.  Each of the buildings has its name given to it by the Indians.  This is called the Casa del Anano, or House of the Dwarf, and it is consecrated by a wild legend, which, as I sat in the doorway, I received from the lips of an Indian, as follows:
Uxmal from a distance by Frederick Catherwood
“There was an old woman who lived in a hut on the very spot now occupied by the structure on which this building is perched who went mourning that she had no children. In her distress she one
day took an egg, covered it with a cloth, and laid it away carefully in one corner of the hut.  Every day she went to look at it, until one morning she found the egg hatched, and a criatura, or baby, born.  The old woman was delighted, and called it her son, provided it with a nurse, took good care of it, so that in one year it walked and talked like a man; and then it stopped growing.  The old woman was more delighted than ever, and said he would be a great lord or king.  One day she told him to go to the house of the gobernador and challenge him to a trial of strength.  The dwarf tried to beg off, but the old woman insisted, and he went.  The guard admitted him, and he flung his challenge at the gobernador.  The latter smiled, and told him to lift a stone of three arrobas or seventy-five pounds, which the little fellow cried and returned to his mother, who sent him back to say that if the governador lifted it first, he would afterward.  The gobernador lifted it, and the dwarf immediately did the same.  The gobernador then tried him with other feats of strength, and dwarf regularly did whatever was done by the gobernador.  At length, indignant at being matched by a dwarf, the gobernador told him that, unless he made a house in one night, higher than any in the place, he would kill him.  The poor dwarf again returned crying to his mother, who bade him not to be disheartened, and the next morning he awoke and found himself in this lofty building.  The gobernador, seeing it from the door of his palace, was astonished, and sent for the dwarf, and told him to collect two bundles of cogoiol, a wood of very hard species, with one of which he, the gobernador, would beat the dwarf over the head, and afterward the dwarf should beat him with the other.  The dwarf again returned crying to his mother; but the latter told him not to be afraid, and put on the crown of his head a tortillita de trigo, a small thin cake of wheat flower.
House of the Dwarf [Pyramid of the Magician]
“The trial was made in the presence of all the great men in the city.  The gobernador broke the whole of his bundle over the dwarf’s head without hurting the little fellow in the least.  He then tried to avoid the trial on his own head, but he had given his word in the presence of his officers, and was obliged to submit.  The second blow of the dwarf broke his skull in pieces, and all the spectators hailed the victor as their new gobernador.  The old woman then died; but at the Indian village of Mani, seventeen leagues distance, there is a deep well, from which opens a cave that leads underground an immense distance to Merida.  In this cave, on the bank of a stream, under the shade of large tree, sits an old woman with a serpent by her side, who sells water in small quantities, not for money, but only for a criatura to give the serpent to eat; and this old woman is the mother of the dwarf.”
All cultures have their colorful myths and legends often based upon at least some remnant of fact.  They are a way of interpreting and explaining things that need explaining but may not lend themselves to an obvious explanation.  The “House of the Dwarf”, known today more commonly as “Pyramid of the Magician”, separates itself from other ruins with its soft, rounded corners and majestic, almost pure, architecture.  It just had to have been built by someone extraordinary.
Link to Part 2
Have you been to one of the Mayan Ruins?  Share your story.

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