The World Tree as Turning Ten-Dimensional Torus
“The ecliptic, which is roughly 14° wide, is the path followed by the sun, moon, and planets. The Maya saw the ecliptic as a double-headed serpent, as frequently portrayed in Maya sculpture and art. It is a foreground feature, and the four ‘stations’ along the ecliptic—the two solstices and two equinoxes—are important markers. Their slow movement toward the Milky Way is an indication of the phenomenon of precession…The ecliptic crosses the Milky Way through the constellations of Gemini and Sagittarius at roughly a 60° angle…
“This cross is recognized by the Maya and the Indians of South America today. The ancient Maya called it the Sacred Tree, and it is depicted on Pacal’s sarcophagus lid at Palenque… Astrophysicists, when confronted with the fact that the ecliptic crosses over the Milky Way near its central bulge, consider it a coincidence. However, since the Milky Way can be thought of as an enormous magnet, we might postulate some sort of magnetic field “entrainment” to explain it.
“At any rate, the ecliptic’s location is quite fortuitous, as it allows the celestial ‘deities’ traveling along the ecliptic to come into periodic conjunction with the central bulge in the Milky Way—the great galactic power station. As for the ecliptic’s solar “stations”—the equinoxes and the solstices—these approach the Galactic Center very slowly, and Maya astronomers considered the eras in which these quarter-stations conjunct the Milky Way through its center to be transformative, signaling a World Age shift.”—John Major Jenkins, “Maya Cosmogenesis 2012”1
It is said that when the gods collaborated to create the world they required three things to act upon their dream. These were: their words, their “wayob” (or “nawals”), and their “pus.”2 As I enter through the jaws of the White Bone Snake, standing like a shadow on both Orion and the Earth, I will speak of these things in their order of descent. If my memory fails, as without doubt it must, so be it. Let the reader put his or her trust in the power of confabulation, whose hands work wonders.
Words project an image into emptiness. The underworld turns, as by itself, before it stops to feed a small bird singing on a branch. Once bursting with sap, that branch is now black and haunted. Lost cities on dead constellations fume. Did they ever exist, or are the gods themselves the memory of a dream that never was? The first shaman, Itznama, then arms himself with an unconscious snake as he plots to launch a raid on the unspeakable.
First, he must make an incision in his tongue; then, knot by knot, as they kick and scream, he must pull his lineage through. Most likely, once the tongue has given birth, he will not know who he is.
Should we speak of a beginning? It both was, and was not. Darkness was hidden by darkness, the better to observe a star against the void. The gods are dark. The Earth is also. Yes, there are glyphs that tell each detail of its history, but to read them you must volunteer for death. Is up down? Is now then? The canoe that bears the mummy of the corn god, Wak Chan Ahau, is in danger, as it dips below the ecliptic. The primordial ego cannot see itself. From an S-shaped cloud, the hand of a director intervenes.
A word calls forth an image from the dark. Like a fissile material that radioactively decomposes, that image is able to take action at a distance. It can move masses. Who knows why, or where the figure 8 will end? The Earth, in fact, is almost altogether dark, because a ritual has removed the large eyes of the gods, and they must grow their ears to hear the next words of the text. 25,800 years have wheeled by in a second. The image gives form to the obscure desire that Itznama, in a grand collaboration with the Jaguar and the Stingray, conjures up.3
Itzamna, with the Stingray and the Jaguar, paddles. In the corn god’s hand are the Pleiades. Soon, they must be planted, and will shine. Wak Chan Ahau must be lifted to the belt stars of Orion, to the Place of the Three Skulls.
There is space above. There is energy below. Space holds the seeds of every preexistent form. The energy grows violent, and continues to increase. See, even now you can feel it, as, world by world, space threatens to explode.
There are no laws that the third dimension must obey. In a trance, Itznama takes to the road of the Black Transformer. The sky, which for so long lay on the surface of the water, stands quite suddenly up.4 The torus, like the carapace of a turtle, breaks, as Itzamna steps to the back side of a mirror. The shards are jagged, and leave many wounds, which hurt. The Earth is no bigger than an atom in the distance.
From exploded solar systems, the ghosts congregate. Treasures bob within the deep, like buoys.
At first, although light-years in the making, the human stick-figure is as weightless as a skeleton. It is a kind of fetish, to be carried in a pouch. Trapped within the coils of “junk DNA,” its heart is not connected to its body, and yet still you can hear it, almost imperceptibly, beat. A small amount of blood should not be too much to ask. Dumb actors rise and then dissipate like spume within the echo chamber of the Milky Way. Their lives are nasty, brutish, and short. They meet obscure deaths.
Standing close, to the rear but no more than a single breath away, Itzamna rests his hand on Wak Chan Ahau’s shoulder. Also, Wak Chan Ahau rests his hand upon the shoulder of Itzamna, as he stares, unblinking, at the back part of his head. The all too human superbeings do not—and never did—create something out of nothing. Appearances to the contrary, they too must learn, as they articulate their thoughts by trial and error. They conjure up a new race from the spare parts of the old, from the ruins of a world they half-remember to have existed.
Transparent consciousness had been clouded long ago. Their joints ache. Sore from the trauma of decapitation, their opened throats remember the touch of the flint knife.
It is dark. Like lightning, the branches of the world tree flash, bringing, for that split-second, the once indeterminate details of a landscape into focus. Darkness again follows the illumination.
I had originally planned to structure this essay according to the technique of “reverse variation,” as practiced by the contemporary French composer Henri Dutilleux, in which a theme is not immediately exposed but rather gradually developed, appearing in its complete form only after a number of apparently obscure turns and partial incarnations. Such a technique would be in keeping with our organizing image. I will, nonetheless, provide the reader with some idea of our destination, which would also be in keeping with our organizing image.
The roots and branches of the world tree form topographically a torus, a kind of donut, an explosion which turns continuously through itself, and whose end is in its origin. The sap moves from center to circumference and then back again to center. The whole of the tree is contained within one seed. In that seed is the city from which we set forth long ago.
In the sections to follow, let the world tree be our organizing image. I would ask, through each twist and turn of argument, that you keep this organizing image somewhere in your mind, at the edge or at the back, even if it’s shape is not, at any particular moment, visible. With many zigzags to collect covert intelligence from the dead, as well as from a scholar here and there, we will follow from brainstem to neocortex and from branch to geomagnetic branch, until, at the end of our circumnavigation, the world tree will stand revealed in all of its translucent splendor.
Let a flash of lightning break our own heads just enough. Let us court wounds to the ego, as we reenact the world-centering gymnastics of the Maya. Let us feel the claustrophobia induced when our bones are buried beneath the carapace of a turtle, and, unable to do much of anything at all, we can hear the large rubber ball bounce in the game of world destruction. Let us feel what it is like for our skulls to be hanging in a cieba tree, dazed, but still capable of telepathic speech. Let us look, and not be terrified, at the image of our doubles in the mirror.
Let us put aside our contemporary emotions. In silence, let us alter time by listening to the music in our blood, which is not different from the green sap of the tree. Hands may yet reach from the underworld that we do not believe exists, to align our feet with the patterns of the astronomical dance.
It is February 5th, 3112 B.C., the day that lightning is scheduled to invent the calendar. Let us enter the S-shaped cloud. Let us stop to experience the joy that felt like fear in that interval before the worlds were set in motion. Is it now safe to exist? No, not at all, yet there are those among us who have volunteered to give blood. If we had not been carefree in the shedding of our blood, the human body would still be fashioned out of clay, which was soft and lopsided, or out of sticks, which were way too stiff. Unable even to weep, the gods themselves would be just heaps of radioactive bones.
At the Lying-Down-Sky/ First-Three-Stone-Place the canoe pregnant with hallucinations docks. Itzamna puffs on a black cigar. The collaborators paint three hearth-stones with their blood, before planting them under the tongue of the black oceanic city. Fish-heads fertilize the chaos. The spheres are unturned. Signals pulse from a laboratory that the Deluge had dismantled. A drumbeat swells from the mass graves that Christ dug in Guatemala. He has much to answer for. Clouds boil across the mirror that is horizontal space. An alternate mode of vision will be required to see beyond them. About to stand, unable to sort echo from articulation, the sky, with its elbows out, then puts its hands on its knees. The image of the hearth separates, like an atom split apart, as the whole of the Earth’s history is played back in a flash. Group One stays on Orion. There, locked inside the carapace of a turtle, the genius behind the plot commands migrations at a distance. Group Two establishes a navel for the Earth, as well as outer zones of conflict, where shamanic heroes can compete to develop their martial arts.5
Time incarnates to predict the future. Currents alternate. Chance braves the elements to take a predetermined shape. Shrugging the cosmological back-rack from his shoulders, the mad god stoops to inhale the scent of death. Drunk with excitement, on the edge of passing out, Itzamna steps from a shooting star. He projects himself to inhabit the story that he speaks. Pain makes the imagination real.
He laughs at the victor of the intergalactic contest, whose immediate image is the Venus/ Tlaloc war. Extending a bone foot he trips the muscular shaman, the victor of the contest, the beautiful but doomed competitor, who had called him.
Lost species march. Transplanted cities burn. Uxmal gets electrocuted. Bonampac is a puff of smoke. A celebration thunders. Monkeys bang on drums that are taller than prehistory. Jaguars blow conches, shattering the conscious dream. Heads are taken off. The harvest of the Great Year is abundant. As he turns into his “way,” King 18 Rabbit dances on a captive. He waves to the crowd with his enormous crab claw gloves. At last, the obscure ultimatum of the telepath has been issued. Steam rises from the broken roof combs of the Yucatan.
Preparing for an evolutionary leap, a vertical snake dances on a globe. The ego falls prey to a mass extinction. Wak Chan Ahau leaps from his own cracked skull, up from the ball-court that the birds once built inside it, where, so to speak, he has lost the game. He gives birth to a small version of himself, a fractal Wak Chan Ahau. In the artist's hands are a paint-pot and a brush. The ejaculated double knows just what to do. On the sky's back, as on the back side of a mirror, he spontaneously traces the ancestral glyphs. Buds explode from branches. Suns change color, as his brush subtly reconfigures the precession of the equinox. Looks that can kill do, producing fuel for transformation.
A black road can be observed to run along the length of the Milky Way. It points directly at the intersection of the two arms of a cross, at the portal that the solstice sun will “enter”—so to speak—on February 5th, each year. This alignment is approximate, however, the commemoration of an act that had happened “in illo tempore.” For the most part, our concepts are the fruit of wishful thinking; if the sun enters, we do not. We cannot travel from the one place to the other without taking off our bodies. In fact, it takes 25,800 years for the Earth to be brought into alignment with the sky, and for the K’an cross to project us towards the city that we left.
And yet that intersection magnetizes the whole network of our memory. Space may, in the end, be topologically strange, and the three stones may exert an overwhelming force.
Again, the time has come to enter through the portal. For us, as for the sun that is our vehicle, time only appears to have moved in a vast arc. For there is no time other than the present to return.
It is due to hunger that the gods turn into monsters. The Milky Way, like a caiman, yawns. Each predator is transformed into the world age that he eats. The average visionary cannot see beyond the end of his own nose. Space mutters to itself in a nonexistent language, which, before the brain had coagulated like the digestive system of a cloud, had seemed as clear to us as the fact of our own breathing. As the world tree grows, the center turns through the circumference, subverting the fixed perfection of the spheres, and destabilizing the conjuration platforms of the gods. They are strong, but still far less experienced than we are. The very fullness of their power draws them down. 400 fall from the Pleiades.6
The Popol Vuh, as translated by Dennis Tedlock, says, “And then the Earth arose because of them, it was simply their word that brought it forth. For the forming of the earth they said ‘Earth.’ It arose suddenly, just like a cloud, like a mist, now forming, unfolding. Then the mountains were separated from the water, all at once the great mountains came forth. By their genius alone, by their cutting edge alone they carried out the conception of the mountain-plain, whose face grew instant groves of cypress and pine.”7
If words are to generate an effect, there are two conditions—at the least—that must be met. These are as follows:
1) The words must be spoken in an appropriate place, from which they will be heard. As time and space are interconnected, and work as two halves of a turning whole, or the two hands of one body, exact timing also may be important. If one is not to be the recipient of a slap, one must be able to sense what is happening in all of 360 degrees. The right hand should know what the left one is doing.
2) The words must become an interdimensional vehicle, which is conjured out of—as from a cloud—as well as fueled and driven by, the enigmatic force of “itz.” If we do not know what it is, we do know that, without it, our words will have no more potency than the power to describe, and the ear of space will be deaf to our intent.
Putting the noun before the verb, so to speak, I will present these conditions in the reverse of their cosmological order, in which energy precedes its projection into space. Our mouths are now connected to our bodies; our energies must interact with a location, however ambiguous that navel might later prove to be. It is, of course, necessary for our rituals to be more complex than they were, at the dawn of the world age, when our father/ mothers could act with the greatest of economy, and it seemed as though each thing almost happened by itself.
Again, in the “Popol Vuh,” we read, “Thoughts came into existence and they gazed; their vision came all at once. Perfectly they saw, perfectly they knew everything under the sky, wherever they looked. The moment they turned around and looked around in the sky, on the earth, everything was seen without any obstruction. They didn’t have to walk around before they could see what was under the sky; they just stayed where they were.” Like them, we must still begin from where we are, but, unlike them, we do not realize that our bodies are far larger than the Earth.
Which came first: the location or the animating force, and is there any way to separate the two? Vision works the shadow of a cloud, from which horizontal space will step. Once, the human body was as thin as a vertical and almost nonexistent line. The gods projected by the unspeakable have just a tiny hat to stand on—the hat formed by the plane of the ecliptic—but it is an open question as to whose head is beneath it, if it sits on a head at all. As we look upon the ruins of a city, Palenque for example, it appears to be a kind of stage-set that is waiting for its past or future inhabitants to arrive. In addition, there is something a bit off: This structure in the real world looks more like what you would expect to find in an alternate reality. It has, perhaps, materialized or landed, rather than being built. Let us now go further to imagine that space itself was the projection of a group of hallucinating actors, who desired to have a new stage on which to move.
Itzamna hammers at the inside of an egg, which rests on the palm of a large Itzamna, whose shadow flies across the contours of the prehistoric Earth.
The contemporary shaman Andres Xiloj tells us that the human body is the “mountain plain” mentioned at the start of the Popol Vuh, from whose face grew instant groves of cypress and pine.8 Let us begin with the more immediate of the two conditions for effective speech—the one that corresponds to the human
body. Having marked the square of our location with a cross, we can then follow an echo backward through the labyrinth of subterranean caves, where waters flow.
“What should we do with them now? Their vision should at least reach nearby, they should see at least a small part of the face of the earth, but what they’re saying isn’t good. Aren’t they merely ‘works’ and ‘designs’ in their very names? Yet they’ll become great as gods, unless they procreate, proliferate at the sowing, the dawning, unless they increase. Let it be this way: now we’ll take them apart just a little, that’s what we need…And when they changed the nature of their works, their designs, it was enough that the eyes be marred by the Heart of the Sky. They were blinded as the face of a mirror is breathed upon. Their eyes were weakened. Now it was only when they looked nearby that things were clear. And such was the loss of the means of understanding, along with the means of knowing everything, by the four humans. The root was implanted.”—from the “Popol Vuh,” Book Four
The words must be projected from a place of power—a place centered in relation to the four points of the compass, and perhaps tilted a few degrees east of north. Location, as I have said, exists only in terms of its dialogue with time. Space exists to serve the occlusion or articulation of a cosmological glyph. Movement turns inside of movement, so that the stability of the earth square is a dance of punctuated equilibrium. August 13th, 3114 BC, when the First Father, Hun-Nal-Ye, was born and the previous 13 cycles ended, and February 5th, 3112 BC, when Hun-Nal-Ye “entered into and became the sky,” are, among billions of others, two of the most immediately important dates.9 Important too, in the previous cycle, was the date of May 28th, 3149 BC, when the Hero Twins put the false sun, Itzam-Yeh, in his place, and made it possible for the sky to stand.
What could not—in its full complexity—be imagined is thus acted out above us. We are blind, yes, and have forgotten almost everything that we had set out to accomplish, but perhaps we only need to know a bit more than we do. Just a few more details should give us a complete image of the hyperdimensional geometry of the torus.
Let us say that a Mayan pyramid is turned 15 degrees, 25 minutes east of true north, no doubt for an excellent reason, of which we do not choose to conceive, and that this in turn connects in some way with the 52 year calendrical round. Granted, due to the precession of the equinox, these alignments would have changed over the past 5200 years, but they still do not make sense. There is a dark rift in our history, which may be similar to the dark rift at the heart of the Milky Way. Perhaps north has shifted during the last 12,000 years, and some newer sites were aimed to commemorate the pre-catastrophic alignment. The past, like a seed, is contained within the present. Thus, the pyramid also is a tomb. It is turned at an occult angle to the point of origin, Hunab Ku, to whose guardians all movement is a hallucination, if not a joke. The exact significance of such an alignment has been lost, and was perhaps subtle for even the most experienced of shamans.
Those guardians play games. Whatever their intent, they speak mostly by way of synchronistic scraps. Bit by bit, such signs come to seem more familiar than they did, uncannily so, and each victim is free to interpret them as he chooses. One choice leads to life; the other leads to death. Either choice may be correct if the timing is appropriate. If, for even a brief moment, we are able to see at all, we are so nearsighted that we are only a bit less blind than we were. A fog billowing from Prehistory still clouds our every action. We must, nonetheless, do our best to perform each task that is assigned. For it is possible that we know far more than we think we do, and that we have performed these actions a great many times before.
And so: the sky platform should be aimed so as to allow for maximum communication with the underworld, whose mouth, at key intervals during the turning of the year, when the ecliptic forms a K'an cross with the Milky Way, appears to gape open in the north. The earth square is a fractal cosmos. It once expanded, due to pregnancy, but now contracts like a tectonic plate in the throes of giving birth. Its power, like that of the gods behind the constellations, exists only as a relationship, which all actors, past and present, must continuously renew.
The mouth of the underworld is also the entrance to the Milky Way. It is known as the “Jaws of the White Bone Snake”; as the “Entrance to Sak Be,’” the “White Road”; as “Xibal Be,” “the Road of Awe”; as “Kuxan Sum,” the “Living Rope” (or Umbilical Cord); and as “Ek' Way,” the “Black Transformer.”10 At a king's death, it was said of him “Och Bih”: “He has entered the road.” The contemporary shaman, at the start of a conjuration, also sets his foot on this road.11
Participants in the reinvention of space must set out offerings, as though for guests about to sit down at a table. An actor no longer needs the courage to remove his or her own head. A hand above a computer keyboard can set up the appropriate arrangements for any tourists traveling south for the transduction. Nonetheless, a personal touch continues to be best when dealing with the gods. Today, the offerings may be as simple as flowers, cornbread baked in 13 layers (in imitation of the 13 heavens), wine made from honey and the water of a deep natural well, or “pom,” a fragrant tree sap, to be burned in a tin can brazier.12
The classic Maya were more elaborate in their preparations. They used stingray spines, corals, spondylus shells, eccentric flints and obsidians, sponges, jade sculptures, sea anemones, red pigments, small sharks, fossilized sharks teeth and other offerings, to duplicate the conditions of the primordial sea, from which, in imitation of the first action of the time cycle, they could then raise the sky from its laying down to its standing up position, and in so doing recreate the world.13
No action is insignificant, and each small cycle points to the greater one that surrounds it, on and on, until the beginning of the circle has been reached. Now, the human body is much smaller than the sky, but this does not mean that our words are without power, or that we need not be scrupulous in the preparation of our space. Yes, we are now more dependent on our feet to get around, and our bodies do not seem to be points of focus on a continuum, which it is up to us either to expand or to contract. It is true that, just by looking, we are no longer able to see everything at once, yet this does not mean that our responsibilities are less heavy than they were. We have hungry guests that are waiting to be fed. Without us, even the most powerful gods would starve. And without the square, the circle would be unable to give birth.
The Popol Vuh instructs us on the importance of the spatial context, and speaks to the pathos of our efforts to clear the mirror of the sky, which, for the better part of an age now, clouds have covered. It says:
“We shall bring it out because there is no longer a place to see it, a ‘Council Book,’ a place to see ‘The Light That Came from Across the Sea,’ the account of ‘Our Place in the Shadows,’ a place to see ‘The Dawn of Life,’ as it is called. There is the original book and ancient writing, but he who reads and ponders it hides his face. It takes a long performance and account to complete the emergence of all the sky-earth: the fourfold siding, fourfold cornering, measuring, fourfold staking, halving the cord, stretching the cord in the sky, on the earth, the four sides, the four corners.”14
In his book “Tortillas for the Gods,” an analysis of the contemporary Zuracanteco cosmos, Evon Vogt writes of the survival of this pattern. He says, “Houses and fields are small scale models of the quincuncial cosmogony. The universe was created by the VAXAK-MEN, gods who support it at its corners and who designated its center, the navel of the world, in Zinacantan Center. Houses have corresponding corner posts; fields emphasize the same critical places, with cross shrines at their corners and centers. These points are of primary ritual importance.”15
Dim surrogates have positioned the three stones of the hearth, on Earth as on Orion. They see no more but no less than is necessary. How strange that these beings have thrown away their power, so that, bent low, they can now read only three percent of what is written on their DNA. The tree whose roots are a crocodile explodes with a wealth of species. It spreads its fingers through outer space, and then still further outwards, through the indeterminate space beyond. Its branches support the future and the past. As the shaman throws his voice, the dark mouth of the underworld yawns open.
The sky platform is a circle squared, or a house divided against itself. Let us imagine that the square the manifest form of the circle, the projection of the word of the first shaman into action, a flat space able to serve as a theatre for conundrums of duality, and the form that primordial oneness must take when it wishes to be born on Earth. The sky square is rooted on a little disc of earth, suspended on the pregnant waters of illusion. At the edges of the turning disc the waters tower to the constellations, putting humans in perspective, and making them look small.
As it is forbidden for a devout Jew or Muslim to reproduce the image of a sentient being, for fear of competing with the original creation, perhaps it was forbidden for the Maya to make direct use of the wheel. The wheel as a circle divided by an X was certainly common as a two-dimensional form. It was also central to their thought as an abstract concept. Where we would expect to find a three-dimensional wheel, however, an odd kind of displacement seems to happen. Its spot has surreptitiously been taken by a square.
Not only was the wheel not used for transportation, it does not appear to have had a ceremonial use. Perhaps the Maya saw themselves as the servants of Itzamna, the primal shape-shifter, whose proper role was the manipulation of duality, and who accomplishes his every end by appearing to do its opposite. For them, oneness may have been the prerogative of an almost separate race, now little more than a memory, whose patented symbol was the wheel. Perhaps they saw themselves as the caretakers of an already perfected cosmos, a role their own hallucinatory energy drove them, simultaneously, to subvert.
The underworld and sky change places, raising the dead, and projecting the shaman towards a problematic dream. There were more wheels around and above the Maya than they could ever count, or productively employ. If they did not make actual wheels, although they could, as evidenced by the wheels on children's toys, they may have nonetheless bent their knowledge in a great arc across time. There was no moment at which the Maya were not working on the wheel. It was turning towards one point on the horizon, where, in a flash, the whole of its structure would be illuminated. Mummified birdmen would then blink before our perfect x-ray vision. We would stare at them as they were staring at us.
Perhaps the power of a place does not evaporate with the passing of those who constructed it. If the magic there invoked goes underground, this does not mean that the gods return to nothing, or that the early race is not intent on the completion of its project. Each year, we grow weaker than we were. We have forgotten most of what we used to know when it comes to the art of “action at a distance.” It could be that destruction acts as a purifying force, stripping an inflated tradition to the bare but still self-supporting skeleton.
Leaves grow from the broken head of Hasaw Ka'an K'awil, the dead ruler of Tikal. His eyes are blank. Small puffs of red dust turn. In stunted weeds an iguana inspects a Coke can and a styrofoam Big Mac container. A dog runs past with the decomposing thighbone of the corn god, Wak Chan Winik, or “Raised-Up-Sky-Person,” which an earthquake had dislodged from the ballcourt at Copan. A passenger jet leaves a contrail above the Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza. A few minutes later, almost no trace is left. The sky appears to be as empty as it was.
Steam hisses from the lid of a volcano. Inducing visions, fumes coil like snakes from the bowels of Xibalba, from which no traveler has yet returned the same. Oil rigs clank above a prehistoric labyrinth. A drumbeat echoes across the mountains of Guatemala, out of mass graves plowed by the evangelical death squads. Insects buzz through the smoke from a heap of broken pots at the altar called “Four Huti Zabal,” or “Little Place of Declaration,” at Momostenango. Centuries of burnt copal have blackened the navel of the Earth, across from which a few kids kick a beat up soccer ball.
Let us say that the shamans of the early race may have fallen prey to arrogance, and, in spite of themselves, engaged in a kind of architectural contest with the wheel. For this they were punished, and were forced, for many centuries, to subsist with minimal technology in the jungle. Is the best altar then a finger pointing at the moon? The practical shaman would not go that far. Simplicity is nonetheless the contemporary standard. The weight of history on their heads, like terracotta jars, the servants of Itzamna now bend and breathe heavily at their labors. Disjunction of the earth square from the wheel has made a virtue of necessity. Today's Maya, in constructing a Ch'a Chac altar at Yaxuna, no longer need more than sticks and branches to image the primordial geometry of the cosmos.16
The shaman, a surrogate for the god Itzamna, is “the one who does itz, or an itz-er,” in Linda Schele's amusing formulation. She explains the concept by enumerating the forms its transformation takes. She says, “’Itz’ refers to secretions from the human body like sweat, tears, milk, and semen. But it can also refer to morning dew; flower nectar; the secretions of trees, like sap, rubber, and gum; and melting wax on candles. In Yukatan the ‘itz’ of melting votive candles is directly analogous to the ‘itz’ (the blessed rain) of heaven that god sends through the portal opened during shamanic rituals.”17 Among the contemporary Maya, copal is burned as a substitute for blood.
Perhaps each of these other substances is also a substitute for a substance left in an alternate creation. Adapting to Earth changes, the practical shaman uses the materials on hand.
“Itz” is like gravity: in that we know what it does, but not what it is or exactly how it works. This does not stop us from being inhabited by the force, or from putting it to use, or from volunteering to act as its attendants. The relationship is a work in progress; it cannot be anything else, as, year by year, we attempt to keep a record of its attributes, and to follow its almost nonsensical twists and turns. Is “itz” a concept? It both is and is not. However much we might theorize, it is a cause that can be understood only through the immanence of its effects.
This brings us to the concept of “pus,” which means cutting of the flesh with a sharp instrument. Creation feeds on the paradox that division gives birth to multiplication. Abundance grows from death.
Without sacrifice, the world would not exist, nor would there be a difference between the maize god and a statue. Frighteningly perfect, the spheres would not revolve. The ancestral tree would not explode with buds. The nucleus of the cell would not divide, or the cell become more complex through karyokinesis. Protozoa would not evolve. Chromosomes would not unzip, to jump like warriors through the bone jaws of the Black Transformer, or throw themselves into new and unpredictable combinations. A transplanted seed would not be able to populate a planet.
As they first strove to activate the ritual stage-props of creation, the gods had nothing but their own blood to use.18 The male gods pierced their generative organs. They leapt into the sun, in order to jump-start its stalled thermonuclear reactions. The female gods, like toruses turning through themselves, turned inside out. They opened their tongues, donating blood by drawing the knotted lineages through. They would nurse and discipline the heroes of the new sub-lunar race. Drawn towards the ancestors that the burning blood had called, and with yet unspecified acts of disruption to perform, shadows flickered from the mouths of vision serpents. Smoke rose in spirals from the broken planetary pot.
Through bloodletting, the gods first conjured—“tzak”—their companion spirits, the “way.”19 They smeared blood on their statues' mouths, to feed the emotions of the beings trapped within them. Would nothing ever encourage them to move? Only further sacrifice could break the spell of suspended animation. The future wheeled across an artificial ocean. Lost cities, for millennia buried beneath a wasteland, sprang up again like green shoots from the ash. They rebuilt themselves down to the smallest of details. In an S-shaped cloud, those who spoke observed the first signs of autonomous phenomenon.
To appear, if the hallucinating shaman determines that so they should, and as commanded by the next glyph in the Ur-Text, the worlds frozen by the Cryogenic Institute must part. The gods welcome death by slow and convoluted torture, of the mind also, at the hands of those more ignorant than are they. If the rite is voluntary, it is nonetheless difficult. Death comes as the joyous consummation. What is death? It is an occult art in search of a muse. It is the edge that removes amnesia. To the few, it is an open secret, the most ancient mode of transportation. Death to the omnipotent is what we call birth.
When a bloodletting image is used as a glyph in a sacrificial context it means “ch'am,” to harvest.20 To put food on the table, as did the gods before him, as well as to commemorate the first ritual decapitation, that of Wak Chan Ahau, the Mayan farmer plucks ears of ripe maize from their stalks. Karl Taube points out that the act of husking maize is an analogue to the perforation of the foreskin of the penis.21 The ear to be shucked is held waist high. An instrument is inserted near the tip of the cob. The awl in use by the contemporary Maya is the same sort that we see in ancient murals.
Like the gods in their early state of suspended animation, maize is a plant that cannot seed itself. It is necessary to cut the head off if the seeds are to be removed. Initiation rips the green husk from the ego. It cuts the head from the body, as well as the heart from the chest. In a gust of wind, the soul departs from the cities of the Yucatan, leaving only the deactivated laptops of the Ancients. Monkeys clap on the ruins. They too turn to stone. The skull of the first father, One-Hunaphu, hangs in the upper branches of the gourd tree at the edge of the Ballgame Sacrifice. When the twins, Hunaphu and Xbalanke, at last reunite his body with its head, he is, for some reason unable to speak properly. Drunken geriatric farmers dance in the mouth of the White Bone Snake; each is a hero, and each is a corn-product that is eager to be harvested. Tens of millions appear to have died in a split-second. Fish fly. Space-stations beach themselves. S-shaped clouds attend the opening of the murals at Bonampac, transmitting messages in every known language, before a hand lifts the edge of the ocean like a sheet.
The “wayob” were the strangest and most explosive element. They were wonderful but dangerous. The Mayan concept of the “way” echoes the Greek concept of the “daimon,” whose root syllable means “to distribute” or “to divide.” “A person's daimon—or character—is his fate,” said Heraclitus. Let us say that each primal human could be imagined as a sphere, whose active image is the torus: the “person” would then be located at the tiny, central point, and the “way” or daimon” much further out toward the circumference. The “way” was an alternate version of a person or a god, which was similar to, but nonetheless different from, the primary version of the self. As did the “person,” the “way” operated according to its own agenda. They were antipodes, in a sense, and yet a generative tension was the whole point of the exercise; the relationship between the two was anything but fixed. The “wayob” were the double-agents of the revolutionary spheres, whose ends were inscrutable, perhaps, even to themselves, and could change if they so much as blinked.
The “way” was the unknown companion, as close to the actor as the shadow stretching from his feet, a thing foreign but disturbingly familiar, to which an actor could appeal for help, and into which he might change, most often during a ritual performance.22 In the heat of combat the “way” might appropriate the body of a Mayan warrior, making him fearless, calm amid chaos, and contemptuous of death. When a warrior would lift his braided topknot in his hand, to shout, “If you dare, come take my head!” it was no doubt his “way” who threw this challenge at the enemy. A head was no more important than a kernel of corn. There was no real reason that the “way” should care. Its power did not depend on the location of its vehicle.
Inhabitants of a “liminal” wonderland where memory and matter mixed, the “wayob” were masters of the art of bending a projected image, of editing a phenomenon, as if matter were no more solid than a hologram. To see was to create. By tweaking the archetype, they could alter the event. By knowing the Ur-Text, they could substitute a glyph. Our genetic engineering was no more than the aftermath, the imitation of a teacher by a student. It was they who turned the object in their minds, which were not yet located on the insides of their heads, and it was they who were in charge of the intersecting lasers. They shifted shapes. Without traveling across the distance in between, they were able to go from here to there. They jumped between elements as fluently as their more solid counterparts spoke. They might traditionally appear as animals, stars, or monsters.
To the gods, their “wayob” might even present themselves as dancing humans, as ours might present themselves as hungry gods. It is likely that the Maya viewed the planets and the constellations as the “wayob” of the gods, of their own ancestors, or as members of a preexistent audience to whom the gods themselves were small and ignorant children.23
Particular companions were associated with particular lineages and kingdoms, and were frequently depicted in visual form in manuscripts and on pottery. It is certainly strange, then, that kings almost never recorded the names of their “wayob” in the texts carved on their monuments. Where we would most expect to find them, they are missing. Every rule has its exception, however: As a part of their names, Palenque ruler Chan-Bahlam, his younger brother K'an Hoc’-Chitam, and a later ruler called Bahlam-K'uk, did choose to record for posterity the glyph for their shared “way.” This was “Bakel Way,” which translates as “Boney Thing.” Nicolai Graube suggests that the skeletal death gods that we see dancing on Mayan pots are quite probably the visual counterparts of this glyph.24 If these skeletal figures are dead, then they are nonetheless full of energy! If, for the most part, they preferred not to see their names in stone, but were sometimes inconsistent in the enforcement of their rules: well, it would be foolish to pretend that we are shocked.
It is possible that, for most of human history, the “wayob” were concerned about getting stuck within the psyche, whose contractive force they saw as, to some degree, contagious. Similarly, we are ill at ease in the space beyond the psyche, and can tend to see the explosive force of the “wayob” as a threat. Perhaps, for this reason, the primary relationship was between the “wayob” and the lineage, of which the person was no more than the momentary vehicle. In order to keep the worlds at a functional distance from each other, a number of semi-permeable prophylactic shields were put into position. Our DNA was one. The contemporary Lakandon Maya believe that the “way” can be inherited from one's parents. It is all in the family. Death recycles the relationship with an alternate version of the self. As leaves fall, and the clockwork of the torus clicks each period into place, it seems possible to imagine that nothing of significance has changed.
Since the same relationship can be experienced from diametrically opposed angles, however, there are other groups beg to differ with this view. Among the contemporary Yucatec speaking Maya of Quintana Roo, for instance, the old respect for, and relationship to, the “wayob” has changed beyond repair.25 They now see the “wayob’s” superabundance of “itz,” which once gave birth to the otherworldly cities of the Yucatan, as clear evidence of evil. If a black pig follows a farmer through the forest, whose few remaining trees are bare, past the rubble of pyramids and the clank of oil derricks, to his house, it is sure to be the “way” of a delinquent shaman, up to god knows what. The “way” is not house broken, and does not know how to behave.
They “wayob” were the doorways to an overwhelming power. They were ambiguous in their attributes, like tricksters, and yet they operated by a set of closely guarded laws, like guides. No one knew exactly where they came from, or just what they might do. They terrified even the most experienced of magicians. They could defend the actor who had called them out of hiding, destroy those who opposed the actor's cause, or wreak havoc for no good reason on all of the above. Danger was at the heart of their educational system. The word “way” is derived from the roots for “to sleep” and “to dream.”26 It is only in the dream that anything can happen, and does.
Freud taught us to believe that dreaming was just a replay of the day’s events. Once, when I asked a seventh grade art class, “What is a dream?” those with college-educated parents all repeated this description almost word for word. If we are honest with ourselves, however, we will realize that dreaming is far more essential to our survival. It is our reconnection to an earlier and now buried state of existence. It is our umbilicus to an underworld that also opens onto the stars.
Water animates the imaginary object. 25,800 years is a long time to wait to say “Hello” to our “wayob,” without masks, face to face. We are shocked by what we almost learn about ourselves. At the end, we have forgotten what we had always wanted to ask. Knowledge, in any case, would not alone be enough to transform us. We do not remember the larger context of the dream. No Megabucks are involved. The welfare of the planet is of less importance than our cars. The key thing is to get from point A to point B with the maximum of personal style. We would prefer not to break free of all of our dead habits. The explosion that is the world tree moves from center to circumference and then back again to center. In the process of transformation many branches are cut off. Weak from starvation the gods abandon us, as we have them, as well as almost every other species.
The key coordinates of the Mayan cosmos are fixed, more or less. Their manifestations are continuously mutable. The precession of the equinox subverts the grand illusion of solidity. Signs revolve, shutting the mouth of the great White Bone Snake and obscuring the passage through the Black Transformer. There are three stones on Orion, which act as the proton, neutron, and electron of an atom—the Ur-Seed, let us call it. It is the catalyst of duality. Each year we drift further from that generative hearth, until, at the end, the whole of space is shattered. Constellations precede each other in a thunderous but at times inaudible march. The solar system is a sounding chamber, like the inside of a shell. The Earth is an enormous ear.
The corn-fed human is the product of genetic engineering, the embodiment of the speech-scroll that had once unfurled from a cloud. The first father, One-Hunaphu, is a field that must be harvested by violence, a scorched vessel waiting to communicate its emotions to a flame. He is the zero on which turns the circumambulation to the four dead ends of the square, beyond which water towers.
Robert Carlsen and Martin Prechel compare the modern Tzutuhil cosmos to a Moebius strip.27 The inside becomes the outside. The living, in a ceremonial march, change places with the dead. The above appears below. The underworld revolves through the constellations. The Moebius strip has two sides that continuously turn into each other. The concept that unifies these contradictions is “jal,” pronounced “hal,” which means “transformational change.”28
Change is not just random sequence. It is also an appropriate reversal of fortune, and a paradoxical exchange of roles.
This generational replacement is known as “kex.” It can be understood as a process of making the new out of the old. Joy Parker writes, “The child can often be addressed as parent, and males will address their fathers as ‘muk jol,’ or ‘my son.’ Likewise a woman will often call her father ‘wal,’ which translates as ‘child.’”29 The gods who first created humanity, at such great cost to themselves, now find themselves in an uncomfortably passive position. They require nourishment from the beings that they once called forth. As he cries out for a drop of blood, God-Nine-Footprints has become as helpless as a baby.
Life, at the appointed moment, reactivates a heap of radioactive bones, which then search for their head. The First Father generates the Hero Twins, Hunaphu and Xbalanque, on whom he must then depend to disinter his body from the ballcourt at Copan. This is also the carapace that hides the three belt-stars of Orion, our home away from home, which, if we are able to remember much of anything at all, has become no more than the memory of a memory. A victim of the misuse of hallucinogens, the father, Wak Chan Ahau, has lost a good part of his mind.30
On a blackened branch, birds chirp as the underworld revolves. Great waves rise and cities that look like asteroids crash. New species sprout from the lightning tree. The father and his two dead sons are glad. In their suits of skin, with just a bit of skull left to show around the mouth, they whoop it up. The three dance as the Morning Star touches the horizon.
The “I” is an “other.” Monkeys copulate on the ruins of Palenque. Printing their feet on mud, in an alternate state of consciousness, the gods now bravely set forth on a journey. Should they take part in the contest? It seems like a good idea. The map that their feet leave is the surface of the Earth, as before it was the lines between the constellations. Due to circumstances beyond their control, and in accordance with the rules of the game, each day they grow smaller. The ancestral spheres look tiny. Saturn is smaller than the flame of a match. It occurs to them that they have shrunk to the size of humans, and not even very large humans. However beautiful their noses, or well attended by visitors their tombs, it is not enough. They become sad and confused.
Alcohol distorts their memory of the coastline of Antarctica. This is not how the Earth looked from their campfire on Orion. 10,400 years speed by, as the turning of the sky accelerates. Do the Guatemalan Indians love Jesus? They worship a green cross, at whose foot sits a pot of geraniums, at whose top a hat of pine cones tilts towards chaos. As if it had nothing better to do, the pineal gland has seen fit to reproduce! Death squads will remove each shred of the genius of the early race, and then bury even the echo of their acts. Vast megaplexes will vanish as we look at them, and the skulls of bird-men, with their giant cranial vaults, will not strike us as in any way significant. Is the world tree just a stump, of no political importance? The court instructs Itzamna to answer “yes” or “no.” The mountain stays green. Cars for no good reason plunge off cliffs, as speed-demons dot the slopes with twisted sculpture. Radial belted ties fume on the outskirts of Copal.
Before there ever was a world an ancestral tree existed. To say that it “existed” is a convention of the human tongue. The world tree was the nonexistent center, from which the existent grew. It generated death. It was the axis of what was, of what then and now is, of what could be dreamed, by him or her, or by a race in the future beyond the gods' imagination. As the creation of the present Earth approached, the intersection became pregnant with potential life. Its branches grew one of everything in the form of self-destructive fruits.
Not only did gross objects such as iron eggs, clay spirit-pots, and talking skulls appear, there were also such elements as lightning, and such puzzles as time, in its abstract configurations. There were migratory paths. There were geometric solids, as well as body parts cast in plaster. There were species that had wings and fins and legs, in every recombination. There were weapons and musical instruments. There were star-producing nebulae, called “nurseries,” like the one located near Orion’s sword. There were targets that had already been struck with many arrows. There were wind harps. There were wormhole flutes. There were drums that were as tall as a world age, which each came with a pair of hands. The abundance was perhaps too much for the one tree to support. Branches creaked, bending low. Ancestors hung by their necks from nooses. The shadows of failed superpowers rustled among the leaves. War banners flapped and fluttered. Like freshly laundered clothes, skins were waiting for the creatures that would one day be instructed to put them on.
Planets sang in the middle branches. Below, in the big branches, and above, in the small ones, the reversals of perspective were enough to strike one dead. Black holes, like drowsy eyelids, blinked. On pinheads, tornadoes tilted. Mirrors stepped back and forth through themselves as hieroglyphs from every culture revolved in the stiffening breeze. There were gods and monsters, fishing nets and oceans, and tiny terracotta humans who burned brighter than the sun. Some argued that these figures were no more than souvenirs, that the tree itself sprouted from a keyhole in their brains, and that its sap was in no way different than their blood. Modern inventions were disguised as the most ancient of technologies, and vice versa. White blossoms grew. Red dwarves became enormous. Cities fell, like superconductive seeds. Every known variety of shoe was waiting for its foot.31
Ancestral spheres dissolve. Today the world tree is a tiny stump at the edge of the ruins of Zinacantan.32 It looks like nothing much. This unimportant stump is the original father/ mother. Does it wake or sleep, or continue even now to act? A few leaves grow. The mystery of the Black Transformer is hidden in plain view.
Illustration at top: Brian George, Split Head, 2004
1) John Major Jenkins, Maya Cosmogenesis 2112, Bear and Co. Publishing, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1998, pages 108-109
2) Dennis Tedlock, Popol Vuh, The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of the Gods and Kings (With Commentary Based on the Ancient Knowledge of the Modern Quiche Maya, Simon and Schuster, N.Y., N.Y., 1985, page 253
3) Linda Schele, David Freidel, Joy Parker, Maya Cosmos, Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path, Quill, N.Y., N.Y., 1993, page 79
4) Douglas Gillette, The Shaman's Secret, The Lost Resurrection Teachings of the Ancient Maya, Bantam, N.Y., N.Y., 1997, pages 48-57
5) Douglas Gillette, The Shaman's Secret, The Lost Resurrection Teachings of the Ancient Maya, Bantam, N.Y., N.Y., 1997, pages 622-75
6) Linda Schele, David Freidel, Joy Parker, Maya Cosmos, Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path, Quill, N.Y., N.Y., 1993, page 96
7) Dennis Tedlock, Popol Vuh, The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of the Gods and Kings (With Commentary Based on the Ancient Knowledge of the Modern Quiche Maya, Simon and Schuster, N.Y., N.Y., 1985, page 71
8) Dennis Tedlock, Popol Vuh, The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of the Gods and Kings (With Commentary Based on the Ancient Knowledge of the Modern Quiche Maya, Simon and Schuster, N.Y., N.Y., 1985, page 252-253
9) Linda Schele, David Freidel, Joy Parker, Maya Cosmos, Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path, Quill, N.Y., N.Y., 1993, page 95
10) Linda Schele, David Freidel, Joy Parker, Maya Cosmos, Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path, Quill, N.Y., N.Y., 1993, page 222
11) William Hanks, Referential Practice, Language and Lived Space Among the Maya, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Ill., 1990, page 349
12) Linda Schele, David Freidel, Joy Parker, Maya Cosmos, Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path, Quill, N.Y., N.Y., 1993, pages 55-56
13) Linda Schele, David Freidel, Joy Parker, Maya Cosmos, Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path, Quill, N.Y., N.Y., 1993, page 256
14) Dennis Tedlock, Popol Vuh, The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of the Gods and Kings (With Commentary Based on the Ancient Knowledge of the Modern Quiche Maya, Simon and Schuster, N.Y., N.Y., 1985, page 72
15) Evon Vogt, Tortillas for the Gods; An Analysis of Zinacanteco Rituals, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Ma., 1976, page 58
16) Linda Schele, David Freidel, Joy Parker, Maya Cosmos, Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path, Quill, N.Y., N.Y., 1993, page 32
17) Linda Schele, David Freidel, Joy Parker, Maya Cosmos, Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path, Quill, N.Y., N.Y., 1993, page 210
18) Douglas Gillette, The Shaman's Secret, The Lost Resurrection Teachings of the Ancient Maya, Bantam, N.Y., N.Y., 1997, pages 48-57
19) Linda Schele, david Freidel, Joy Parker, Maya Cosmos, Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path, Quill, N.Y., N.Y., 1993, page 202
20) Linda Schele, Joy Parker, Maya Cosmos, Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path, Quill, N.Y., N.Y., 1993, page 206
21) Karl Taube, letter to Linda Schele, dated March 16,1992
22) Linda Schele, Joy Parker, Maya Cosmos, Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path, Quill, N.Y., N.Y., 1993, page 190-193
23) Nikolai Grube, Commentary on the Way Glyph. A letter dated November 17, 1989, sent to David Friedel, Linda Schele, Joy Parker and other epigraphers.
24) Nikolai Grube, Commentary on the Way Glyph. A letter dated November 17, 1989, sent to David Friedel, Linda Schele, Joy Parker and other epigraphers.
25) Linda Schele, David Freidel, Joy Parker, Maya Cosmos, Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path, Quill, N.Y., N.Y., 1993, page 52-53
26) Houston and Stuart, The Way Glyph; Evidence for Co-essences Among the Classic Maya, Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing 30, Washington, D.C. Center for Mayan Research, page 5
27) Carlsen and Prechet, The Flowering of the Dead; An Interpretation of Highland Maya Culture, Man # 26, 1991, page 27
28) Carlsen and Prechet, The Flowering of the Dead; An Interpretation of Highland Maya Culture, Man # 26, 1991, pages 23-42
29) Linda Schele, David Freidel, Joy Parker, Maya Cosmos, Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path, Quill, N.Y., N.Y., 1993, page 285
30) Anthony Aveni, Skywalkers of Ancient Mexico, University of Texas Press, Austin, Tx., 1980, pages 32-36
31) Carlsen and Prechet, The Flowering of the Dead; An Interpretation of Highland Maya Culture, Man # 26, 1991, page 27
32) Linda Schele, David Freidel, Joy Parker, Maya Cosmos, Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path, Quill, N.Y., N.Y., 1993, page 125Image: Split-Head, by Brian George, 2004Tweet