buried mirror: latest reflections

mesoamerica and the maya world

Author: xensen (Page 1 of 8)

chicken bus

Flowers in Mesoamerica

A festival in Chichicastenango, 1974, prob. Dec.

A festival in Chichicastenango, Dec. 1974.

I remember my first arrival in Guatemala, back in the 1970s. I had been studying literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, when I got what seemed to be an opportunity to teach at the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala (in fact I ended up teaching at the Colegio Americano). As we traveled from the airport to our new home in Mixco Viejo — then a rural suburb of Guatemala City where cattle grazed in fields, but today well inside the city sprawl — I saw workers sweeping mounds of flower petals out of the roads. Wow, I thought, I’m not in Madtown any more.

Flowers are so pervasive in Mesoamerica that it is easy to take them for granted.

Surrounded by flowers. Guatemala. Photo from Lucía García González's photostream.

Surrounded by flowers. Guatemala. Photo from Lucía García González‘s photostream.

It’s hard to image a festival in the lands of the Maya that does not involve flowers, and this tradition goes back to ancient times. In a discussion of the ruins at Uxmal, Linda Schele and Peter Mathews write of “a small torso in a rosette” found on that site:

This image represents the birth of a god from a flower. There are several beautiful figurines that show just such an emergence from a flower. Moreover, modern Lancandon myth holds that the gods were born from plumeria flowers, and among the modern Kaqchikel and K’iche’ of Guatemala the word for placenta is kotzij, or  “flower.”

Legends say that Quetzalcoatl sought to replace human sacrifice with offerings of flowers and butterflies. The Aztec gods Xochipilli, Macuilxochitl, and Xochiquetzal all had strong connections with flowers, and all were viewed as patrons of the arts.

Morning glories seemed to offer visions of the realm of the flowers. Their seeds (called “Ololiuhqui” in Nahuatl) were consumed to produce hallucinogenic visions during festivals to Tezcatlipoca, the god of rulers, sorcerers, and warriors (this is the god whose name translates as “smoking mirror“).

Some flowers offer connections to ancestors. Marigolds are a traditional offering on the Day of the Dead. Offerings of marigolds are mentioned in the Popul Vuh. In 1992, Jane H. Hill posited the existence of a “Flower World” among Mesoamerican peoples, and this work has more recently been extended by her together with Kelley Hays-Gilpin in an essay in the Journal of Anthropological Research. According to this research, the Flower World is the spirit land the dead go to, “a beautiful chromatic world that includes not only flowers but also colorful birds, butterflies, and rainbows.” Flowers, these authors conclude, are metaphors of the heart and soul.

Certainly flowers are at the heart and soul of Mesoamerican culture. And flowers continue to be a major motif in contemporary Maya painting (as witness any number of paintings at Joseph Johnson’s excellent Arte Maya).

A jacaranda tree, Antigua, Guatemala.

A jacaranda tree, Antigua, Guatemala.



Detail of carved mirror back.

Carved Mirror-Back with Hieroglyphs

Carved Mirror-Back with Hieroglyphs, 200-600. Guatemala Lowlands, Early Classic Maya. Slate with cinnabar, 15.3 cm diam. Jay I. Kislak Foundation, Kislak PC 0132.

Carved Mirror-Back with Hieroglyphs, late sixth century CE. Guatemala Lowlands, Early Classic Maya. Slate with cinnabar, 15.3 cm diam. Jay I. Kislak Foundation, Kislak PC 0132.

This royal mirror belonged to a ruler of the Maya Snake dynasty. This powerful dynasty controlled much of lowland Mesoamerica, including parts of current Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico during what archaeologists call the Classic Maya period. The Snake (or Kaanul) Dynasty — roughly contemporaneous with the dynasties between the Han and the Tang in China — probably represents the closest thing to a true Maya empire. Its history has only recently come into focus.

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Cardamom growing in Guatemala

Cardamom pods. Photo by <a href="https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/64/Cardomom_pods.jpg">Quadell</a>

Cardamom pods. Photo by Quadell

Cardamom is the world’s third most expensive spice (after saffron and vanilla). Many people are unaware that, although the plant is native to native to the Himalayas, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, today it is Guatemala that produces most of the world’s supply (about twice as much as the second leading producer, India). The plant was first cultivated in Guatemala in 1914 by Oscar Majus Kloeffer, a German coffee grower.

Cardamom resembles an orchid on steroids. It can reach a height of twenty feet. Cultivation is labor intensive, which is part of the reason it is grown in Guatemala, where cheap labor is abundant. Individual pods are picked by hand, and they must be picked while still slightly green. The plants bloom from September through March, and harvesters revisit the same plants on about a two-week interval. Then the pods are dried and either split so that the seeds may be extracted or sold as whole pods, which is said to preserve flavor.

Cardamom flowers. Image from <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cardamom_flowers.jpg">Wikimedia commons</a>.

Cardamom flowers. Image from Wikimedia commons.

According to Amy Stewart in The Drunken Botanist, Japanese scientists have shown that linalool and linalyl, high levels of which are found in cardamom, are effective in reducing stress. Cardamom is one of the ingredients in Old Tom’s Aromatic Bitters.

This video from a few years ago shows how cardamom is grown in Guatemala. It was produced by Frontier Coop (based, I believe, in Iowa), in cooperation with the Alianza growers coop in central Guatemala.

Balam apju.

Balam Ajpu: Maya Hiphop as Political and Cultural Expression


Maya culture is among the most persistent in the world. People sometimes say things like “The disappearance of Maya civilization remains something of a mystery.” But anyone who has lived in the land of the Maya knows the culture remains vibrant and strong. Yes, the Maya abandoned their jungle temples for political, cultural, environmental, and climatic reasons. But their culture persists.

It doesn’t do this without adapting. The musical group Balam Ajpu shows how Maya musicians can incorporate assimilate trends without betraying their cultural heritage. (The band’s music is commonly called “Maya hiphop.” I don’t think “hiphop” is exactly right, but I have followed convention.) Following are some excerpts from articles about the group; follow the links for more.

Jose Garcia, Guernica magazine:

All of Balam Ajpu’s shows are that memorable. Far from a typical hip-hop recital, theirs is a ceremony, a rebellious spiritual gathering. Their lyrics are sincere tributes to the Mayan culture, Mother Nature, the forefathers and foremothers, the creators, the Earth, the stars, life. Their music: a fermented rendering of contemporary sounds. Marimbas, sonajas, turtle shells, hand-made drums, and birds chirping meet with acoustic guitars, basses, and violins to form slippery reggaes, smooth cumbias, and explosive Mayan raps.

Center for Latin American Studies, Vanderbilt University:

Balam Ajpu: Means Jaguar Warrior and represents duality, the opposites that complement each other, masculine and feminine energy. This group is made up of M.C.H.E., Tz’utu Kan, and Dr. Nativo, who crossed paths at Lake Atitlán…. Currently the three are part of the musical project Balam Ajpu, whose goal is to combine Mayan spirituality with art and to achieve a fusion between the indigenous Cosmovision, or worldview, and music. For the past five years, they have worked with girls and boys from the Atitlán region and Quetzaltenango through their school of Hip Hop Cosmovision, Casa Ajaw. They are part of the movement that is recovering the ancestral wisdom that the Conquest tried to silence, relying on ancient art and combining it with contemporary trends…. The musicians of Balam Ajpu refer to their creative work as “downloads” that they received through a series of ceremonies with spiritual guides like Venancio Morales. The lyrical content is based on a theological investigation in Tz’utujil. It evokes pre-Hispanic music, which it mixes with universal rhythms and influences.

Bandcamp Daily:

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Women, Latin America, and the U.S.

Laura Chinchilla, 46th President of Costa Rica.

Laura Chinchilla, 46th President of Costa Rica.

Lately I have been trying to figure out why there is such an extreme strain of misogyny and gynophobia in the United States. A related question, and maybe a clue to the answer, would be why Latin America has been the region with the most women presidents in recent years. According to the Inter-American Dialogue think tank, as reported in Diplomatic Courier, “since 1970 eight of 29 women elected as heads of state around the world have come from Latin America or the Caribbean—an impressive 27.5 percent.”

Nicaraguan poet, writer, and political activist Gioconda Belli, in an article in The Economist (published before the U.S. presidential election) argues that “behind every macho man there’s an insecure boy in need of mothering, so in Latin America men in all their virile glory have not disputed the suitability of women for the higher office.” My instinct is to recoil from this pop psychology (which Belli says is “based on my powers of observation as a writer and my feminine intuition”), which seems a bit offensive in its implicit condescension. Then again, is it so different from some of what Octavio Paz argued? Belli goes on to say that

It is a big step to have women as presidents, but in the patriarchal structure of power we have all inherited, very often women are still forced to prove that they are as “tough” as the toughest of men. A woman president who would defy the masculine model of power and infuse it with the feminine ethic of caring and real equality is still in the making. Although women as Latin American leaders have many challenges ahead, they have managed to get to the right place, and now they have to be daring enough to seize or declare that it is the right time.

As a woman who has spent her life in Latin America, Belli has cred that I can never have. Still, I return to the issue of misogyny in U.S. politics and culture. Is the implication then that the role of the mother is comparatively devalued in the U.S.? Maybe to an extent, but I don’t think that can be the biggest part of the answer.

Whatever the reason, our fear of powerful women is an embarrassment, and a factor that impedes our social and political progress.

Mexico returns to its roots

Over at Frisco Vista I recently posted about my new bitters, called Old Tom’s Maximon Mole Bitters. They will definitely spice up a cocktail. So what better time to have another listen to Lila Downs’s great “Cumbia del Mole”?

Actually, I had planned to insert a video by Natalia Lafourcade, but I didn’t find one I liked enough. The impulse derived from this article in the New York Times, which says that Mexico is experiencing a new back-to-roots movement. (I think Ms. Downs was already there). The article begins:

When the pop singer Natalia Lafourcade stepped onto the stage of National Auditorium here last fall, it was a high point of a career that began more than 10 years ago, when she performed in grunge-inspired attire.

But for this concert, Ms. Lafourcade eschewed the ripped jeans. Instead, she wore pants from a Mexican designer and a crown of red roses, paying homage to the artist Frida Kahlo. Halfway through the show, she was joined by a band playing jarocho, a style of folk music from Veracruz.

“It was time to connect back with my origins,” said Ms. Lafourcade, 32. “I wanted to infuse my music with Mexican character.”

In a country that is struggling with pressing social, economic and political challenges yet possesses a rich cultural heritage, many emerging artists and trendsetters no longer feel compelled to look abroad for inspiration.


Travel in Mesoamerica and the Maya World

Lunch with Carol at Puerto Morelos

Lunch with Carol at Puerto Morelos.

This post will be sticky in the “travel” category. To start with, here are some links that might be helpful. For now, many of these utilize the old Buried Mirror html, which is less responsive for mobile than the current look. Some are blog posts that may also appear below. These issues will get addressed.

Travel in the Maya World

Overview of Mesoamerica and the Maya Region

Maya Sites

Chichen Itzen

The Observatory


The arch of the sacbe
The western group


The House of the Turtles
The Great Pyramid
Borges at Uxmal


Map of Copan
The East Court
Stela B


and Hurricane Dean

Some Places

Felipe Carrillo Puerto
Hot Waterfall
Casita in Mixco, Guatemala
Antigua Walls
Volcanos of Lake Atitlan
Photography by Ivan Castro
The Talking Cross
Puerto Morelos,
on the Maya Riviera


Four Keys to Haggling

Restaurants and Cafes

Antigua Guatemala, Bagel Barn

History of Mesoamerica and the Maya World

Ancient handprint at the ruins of Kabah

Ancient handprint at the ruins of Kabah.

This post will be sticky in the “history” category. To start with, here are some links that might be helpful. For now, many of these utilize the old Buried Mirror html, which is less responsive for mobile than the current look. Some are blog posts that may also appear below. These issues will get addressed.

The image is a photo I took in February 2007 of a red handprint on the interior of the arch at the Maya ruins of Kabah in the Puuc region of the Yucatan. Most Maya structures were brightly painted, and this handprint was left in red paint. The handprint was originally obscured by a stucco surface, which has peeled away. Similar handprints in blue paint can be seen at Uxmal, about 20 kilometers northeast. (See more below.)

Maya History

Maya Timeline
Proto-Mayan and the Origins of the Maya
About Yik’in Chan K’awiil, 27th ruler of Tikal
The Great Collapse: The Decline and Fall of Ancient Maya Civilization
The Cult of the Talking Cross, and the Caste War of the Yucatan
Old School Mayanists:
Sylvanus G. Morley and J. Eric S. Thompson

Recent Discoveries

Ancient Tomb Discovered at Copan (May 17, 2007)
Ancient Offerings found at Nueva de Toluca (May 25, 2007)

Modern History

Revolution in Guatemala, 1944


Gibson Girl

Culture of Mesoamerica and the Maya World

Festival, Chichicastenango, Guatemala, 1975

Festival, Chichicastenango, Guatemala, 1975.

This post will be sticky in the “culture” category. To start with, here are some links that might be helpful. For now, many of these utilize the old Buried Mirror html, which is less responsive for mobile than the current look. Some are blog posts that may also appear below. These issues will get addressed.

Mayan Languages and Cultures

The Mesoamerican context
New system of orthography
Classification of Mayan languages and cultures
More on Mayan languages, Proto-Mayan, and the origins of the Maya
The Garifuna Journey

Maya Cosmology and Belief

Principal gods
Maya Calendar(s)
Maya numeric notation
Maximon, an auspicioius folk deity
Yaxche, the Maya Tree of Life

Daily Life


Maya Art and Architecture

The Maya and the Golden Section
The Fountain at La Merced, La Antigua, Guatemala
Door knockers at La Antigua, Guatemala

Maya Symbology


The Contemporary Maya World

Penguins in Bed

Festivals and Celebrations

Palos Voladores
Kites at Santiago Sacatepequez


The Art of Political Murder
Rigoberto Menchu in Poptun


Mesoamerican animal husbandry

Illustration of stone rabbit sculpture from the Oztoyahualco 15B apartment compound. (Manzanilla ed.1993; drawing by Fernando Botas). http://bit.ly/2bEl0bZ . Via http://bit.ly/2bDOKEN

Illustration of stone rabbit sculpture from the Oztoyahualco 15B apartment compound.
(Manzanilla ed.1993; drawing by Fernando Botas). http://bit.ly/2bEl0bZ. Via http://bit.ly/2bDOKEN.

A team of researchers led by Andrew Somerville of the University of California San Diego, as reported by Cynthia Graber in Scientific American, have produced new evidence that ancient Mesoamericans raised animals for food. Traditionally it was felt that they did not engage in such acitivites, evidentally because researchers were looking for large food animals such as the cattle and pigs introduced by Westerners.

Archaeologists had already noted ample rabbit remains at Teotihuacan, near modern Mexico City. The current research team, however, noted a few curious things:

  • Carbon isotope analysis provides evidence of the rabbit’s corn and cactus fruit diet, which is different from that of wild rabbits and suggests that they were raised domestically.
  • Ruins of what appears to be a dedicated rabbit pen have been discovered.
  • A rabbit statue was found at the site of the pen.

According to Mexconnect, domesticated rabbits are still a common feature of central Mexican cuisine:

The rabbit, still hunted but more often raised domestically, is popular in Central Mexico, where it is most often eaten adobado – marinated in a chile and spice rub – or estofado – stewed. The latter is a more suitable way of cooking larger rabbit, from three-and-a-half to four pounds. Smaller ones generally run from one-and-a-half to two pounds and can be prepared using shorter cooking methods such as frying or grilling. In either case, even domestically raised rabbit benefits a great deal from being marinated first.

Buen provecho!

Child labor in Guatemala

Young worker in market in Antigua, Guatemala. Photo copyright Rudy Giron, all rights reserved.

Young worker in market in Antigua, Guatemala. Photo copyright Rudy Giron, all rights reserved.

It’s been four years since I’ve posted on this site. During those years I was focused on print projects (I published three books), but now I am renewing my web activities. When I thought of reviving this site, the first place I looked was Rudy Giron’s blog, Antigua Daily Photo, which is the source of this photo. I wanted to begin with Rudy, because he is a knowledgable resident of Antigua and an indefatigable blogger, as well as a talented photographer. Rudy’s blog now says that unauthorized use of his material is prohibited except for links and excerpts, so I am requesting permission. Please do not use his materials without authorization.

One of the most troubling features of Guatemala and the Maya world in general is that it is so damned photogenic even when the situations the photography documents are problematic. I’ve seen this so many times. Here we have a beautiful photo of a young girl in a market, and the picturesque quality, if we’re not careful, can blind us to the harsh realities of child labor.

Rudy writes on his blog, “It breaks my heart to see SO MANY children working instead of being in school like they should if the laws were enforced in Guatemala.” He is quite right, and I urge you to visit his blog to learn more about Antigua, Guatemala, from an insider’s perspective.


Maya quiz

national geographic quiz on maya

National Geographic has an interesting quiz on the Maya. It’s fairly challenging — anyway, I got two answers wrong.


I posted this over at rightreading, but I’ll repeat it here, since it pertains to Mesoamerica:


When you attempt something ambitious you’re bound to make some mistakes along the way. I’m sure the book I’m working on will have its fair share (recently I realized I had confused the Mughal painters Bichitr and Bishandas). But sometimes a mistake is so stunning that it’s hard to recover from.

I was finding Charles H. Parker’s Global Interactions in the Early Modern Age, 1400-1800 generally interesting and credible. Then I came upon this sentence:

The lack of any indigenous pack animals, except for the llama, and the absence of a wheel meant that humans formed the primary source of portage in Mesoamerican trade.

Probably another reason Mesoamericans depended on humans for portage is that the nearest of their “indigenous” llamas was nearly 2000 miles away in the South American Andes.

This reminds me of a visit to the market in Chichicastenango in Guatemala a few decades ago. The blanket vendors all touted their blankets as pura lana, which means “pure wool.” At the market I met a foolish young Spanish-challenged gringo carrying a blanket he had bought. He’d paid a high price, but it was worth it, he assured me, proudly proclaiming it “pure llama!”


Image from felipe ascencio‘s photostream.

Drinking vessel, 600-800 CE

lacma drinking vessel from campeche area

The portion of this painted ceramic drinking vessel that is shown in this image shows a well-turned- jaguarsporting a knotted scarf and a deer antler. He is a wayob’ — the companion spirit of a Maya ruler. Other wayob’ shown on the other sides of this vessel are a toad and a serpent (the young man at right is emerging from the serpent’s jaws). The vessel, from the southern Campeche area, is in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.


Drinking Vessel, 600-800 CE. Mexico, Southern Campeche. Ceramic with cream, red, and black slip, H: 5 3/8 in., D: 5 1/8 in. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of the 2006 Collectors Committee.


Photo Wednesday: Water delivery

water delivery vehicle in yucatan

This photo from Izamal in the Mexican Yucatan comes from larry&flo’s photostream.

Photo Wednesday: The Stone of the Sun

This image of the Aztec calendar wheel — also known as the Stone of the Sun — that was excavated in the Zócalo (main square) in Mexico City comes from Drogdon’s photostream. The basalt stone is about twelve feet in diameter. It is now in the collections of the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City.

It’s possible that this is a photo of a replica, as it doesn’t look sufficiently aged to be the real stone. (If anyone knows, please leave a comment.)

Maya foods that changed world cuisine

Christine Delsol identifies ten revolutionary Maya foods.

  1. Chocolate
  2. Vanilla
  3. Corn
  4. Chiles
  5. Tomatoes
  6. Black beans
  7. Avocado
  8. Sweet potato
  9. Squash
  10. Papaya

Pretty good list. Read what she has to say here.


image from a Chiapas market from 10b travelling’s photostream


Friday roundup

Incidents of virtual travel in Mesoamerica.

Photo Wednesday: Hanging plants

This photo of hanging plants at the Hotel Lunata in Playa del Carmen on the Mayan Riviera comes from theilr’s photostream

Friday roundup

Incidents of virtual travel in Mesoamerica and the Maya world

Photo Wednesday: Colorful hammocks

I hope to return to more regular blogging soon. We might as well start with our regular feature, Photo Wednesday. This image of hammocks against a bright wall comes from CasaDeQueso’s photostream. CasaDeQueso says that the hammocks were for sale at a roadside souvenir shop, near Coba, Quintana Roo, Mexico.

Photo Wednesday: Beach near Tulum

This photo of the Caribbean near the ancient Maya city of Tulum is from mdanys’ photostream.

Friday roundup

Incidents of virtual travel in Mesoamerica and the Maya world.


Guatemala in danger

In an opinion piece in the Global Post, Mark Schneider argues that the Guatemalan state is in danger of collapsing. This is how he begins:

While U.S. attention has rightly been focused on Mexico’s drug wars – with high-profile trips by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before this weekend’s Summit of the Americas – Mexico’s southern neighbor is in far more serious danger of becoming a failed state. Reeling from gangs, corruption and pervasive poverty, Guatemala now faces well-armed, well-financed drug cartels.

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A new discovery at El Mirador

A pair of monumental (26-foot) stucco panels have been discovered at the important classic Maya site of El Mirador in the Peten by a team led by Richard Hansen of Idaho State University. The figures in the panels appear to represent the heros twins of the Maya creation myth.

This is clearly an important find. The panels can be dated to the Late Preclassic period, from about 300 BCE to a little after the beginning of the common era.


Video via MSNBC


Happy Haab 5125

chajchaay, a maya ball game

Yesterday, Sunday Feb. 22, marked the first day of the Maya year 5125, according to the Maya solar calendar, or haab. The haab is also known as the “vague year,” because it did not adjust for the extra quarter day in the solar year. The Maya were, however, perfectly aware of the discrepancy, which they had calculated more precisely than was the case in Europe’s Julian calendar. Because they had several calendar systems it was not important to them that the haab include such an adjustment.

According to Prensa Latina, over the past couple of decades traditional Maya calendrical celebrations, which had been forced underground by centuries of repression, have become less secretive. The photo (by AFP via Straits Times (of all places, shows  men playing chajchaay, which is described in the caption as “an ancient Maya ball game,” in Guatemala City. It is questionable whether this game has any connection to those played on the ball courts of the classic Maya. Below is one of several YouTube videos showing the game.


Friday roundup

Incidents of travel in virtual Mesoamerica

Landslide death toll rises

The number of dead from a landslide near Aquil Grande in Alta Verapaz in Guatemala has risen to 37; that number does not count an equal number of missing persons. A previous slide had hit the same road on December 14, killing two people, and barricades were put up to keep people away from the danger area. Many of the dead in the second slide were coffee plantations workers who simply went around the roadblocks.

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Photo Wednesday: Furniture delivery

antigua, guatemala, street scene

This photo of a furniture deliveryman on the streets of Antigua, Guatemala, comes from Michael R. Swigart’s photostream.


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