Thursday, July 8, 2010

Diving into the Mayan underworld

Watch this diver "melt" into the sand off the coast of Belize in Central America. She is entering a portal to the Mayan underworld.

Researchers funded by National Geographic are studying 25 pools in Belize (1st image) and 14 caves in Mexico (2nd image), some of which are underwater and many of which are connected by passages. "These sacred tunnels and caves were natural temples and annexes to temples on the surface," said Guillermo de Anda, one of the lead investigators at the site in the Yucatan. The Mayans, who thrived from 250 to 900 A.D., considered openings in the earth to be entry points to Xibalba, which was described as a court underground populated by 12 death gods whose names included Xiquiripat ("Flying Scab"), Cuchumaquic ("Gathered Blood"), and Ahalpuh ("Pus Demon"). In Mayan myth, the souls of the dead had to endure many challenges and humiliations before they could rest in the afterlife. They followed a dog with night vision on a horrific journey during which they faced burning heat, bone-chilling cold, rattling hail, complete darkness, sharp blades, hungry jaguars, shrieking bats, spiders, and a river of scorpions.

While some are unsure whether the caves inspired the myth or vice versa, an expert on Mayan culture at Boston University, William Saturno, believes the maze of temples was built after the story. "I'm sure the myths came first, and the caves reaffirmed the broad time-and-space myths of the Mayans," he said, adding that having to penetrate deep into the forest and to hold their breath and dive underwater to build the shrines indicates the significant effort the Maya put into creating these portals. The freshwater pools called "cenotes" are now more than doorways to the underworld, although they have yielded evidence of the Mayans' beliefs about the afterlife, including remnants of ancient bonfires and human and animal sacrifice. "The cenotes are true time capsules, and the Maya finds were only part of the yield. Debris and deposits have rained into the cenotes for centuries, and depth and darkness have protected them. The rise and fall of ice ages is written on their walls, and the fossilized bones of prehistoric animals are preserved in their sediment."


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