With both hands, high priest Ildelfonso Ake Cocom raises the gourd of sacred baalche mixture to the skies one last time, sweat beading his brow as he calls out a closing plea to the gods in the full, rounded phrases that characterize spoken Maya.
Perched on a stone platform below his uplifted arms is a table with the elements of the saka purification ceremony: a cloth painted with ideograms, candles in black, yellow, red, green, representing the Mayan world's four cardinal directions, a hand-made box of sacred herbs, four stout tobacco cigarettes, to smoke out bad spirits, deer antlers, bone rattles decorated with feathers.
Save for rhythmic taps on a hollowed-out wooden drum, little disturbs the silence of Mayapan, this great ruined city ringed by the low green forest of the Yucatecan plain. Using a whisk of siip-che leaves, and pure water, he blesses fellow priest Jorge Coronado Arceo, then all the participants, and with a mellifluous blast on the caracol, a rosy-pink conch shell from deep in the sea, the ritual is over, the sun glancing down hard as ever.
The last kings of this region were named Cocom, and shaman Ildefonso Ake Cocom is their direct descendant. For several hundred years, Mayapan, or “standard of the Maya” was Yucatan's cultural capital, and a proud one, with a large, vibrant population who claimed that Kukulcan himself (the Mayan name for demigod Quetzalcoatl) had founded their city.
In addition to being skilled astrologers, mathematicians, and engineers, the Maya were profoundly spiritual people, subscribers to a unique set of beliefs about the world. Describing their complex pantheon as religion or philosophy would be equally fair, as demons and angels, disasters and bounty all had their explanation tethered to a well-defined, sacred balance with Mother Earth.
Faith was an ordinary and an all-encompassing matter – a village priest was called simply jmen or “practitioner” - a king would have been chief arbiter but also an active priest, interpreting signs, representing the deities in rituals.
But the Maya were also fiercely territorial warriors, and listening to the hum of dragonflies in the slight breeze, it is easy to imagine the shock when, returning from a journey, a lone royal family member came upon the still-smoking city, devastated in a raid by a more powerful kingdom near Chichen-Itza. Vowing never to return, the survivors melted away into the countryside. By splitting up into small groups, the Cocom family ensured its bloodline, but ended, suddenly, the glory of what was clearly a kingdom of greatness.
Here in the heat of mid-day, with the brilliant yellow of the lluvia de oro (golden shower) trees all around, these stories don't seem like history. Though no one but the most learned scholars can read Maya, it is still spoken widely, and there is a feeling that in re-discovering the achievements of this culture, that there will always something more to the mystery of their collapse.
It is a common question to ask: what happened to the Maya? How could such an accomplished civilization just disappear?
But ask priest and musician Alfonso Ake Conte, though, who is leaning up against the cool rocks of a pyramid after the ceremony, and his answer is beautifully simple: “We never left...”
October 17, Mayapan, Mexico