Death and the Journey

Ancient people from around the world share similarities in ideology and afterlife beliefs, even though they never communicated, interacted or they simply lived in different time periods. There are many mythological realms and places we go to when we die and that varies from culture to culture. The Ancient Romans had Tartarus, a place where evil souls go to be tortured, and the Fields of Elysium, the place where wariors and normal citizens souls go. In Judaism, there is a place for the souls that are not prepared, a place similar to a purgatory or limbo, where souls go through a period of reconciliation and are shown how their lives could have been different and better. They need to be cleansed first then move on to their peaceful place with God. We have the Christian belief with a hell where Satan reigns supreme, where the souls of the damned go to suffer and be tormented in a fiery pit under the earth for all of eternity, and heaven, where God the Father is and where there is no more pain and suffering.

In 1320 Dante Alighieri wrote an amazing poem, “Commedia”, or “The Divine Comedy” as it later became known. The poem is divided into three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. He plays the protagonist, “Dante”, and together with his guide, Virgil, they travel through the first two levels: Inferno and Purgatorio. At the end of Purgatorio, he meets his love, Beatrice Portinari, and they both travel through the third level, Paradiso. Inferno is the most popular of the three parts and both men enter the Ante-Inferno by going into a cave. Dante’s description of the afterlife is based on imagery found in the bible but it also includes a mix of Greek and Roman mythology. In Christianity, the Holy Bible mentions Christ descending onto the top layer of hell to a place called the “Bosom of Abraham” where Christ preached to the people of the Old Testament and redeemed their souls to heaven.

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In many cultures and ideologies, people associate a bad place, the underworld, with being under the Earth, possibly because caves are void of light, with strange animals that live in darkness and we are uncertain of what else may be inside . The sky is normally associated with heaven, a peaceful place, possibly because of its beautiful clouds, sunrises and sunsets. The creation story of the Ancient Maya mentions an upperworld, a place where the creator gods reside among other gods that traverse the upperworld like the Sun God “Kinich Ahau” and the Rain God “Chaac”. The Maya also mention the underworld, “a place of fright”. This place is located under the Earth and is accessed in death though a cave.

Life expectancy then was shorter than what we have today, which is possibly why the Maya spent a significant amount of time conducting and participating in rituals. Upon death, if the person was of the noble class, the body was placed in a vaulted crypt within a temple. The number of individuals within a burial varies from place to place. In Caracol, Belize, it is common to have multiple individuals in one chamber, while in other areas like in Cahal Pech, it is usually limited to one person per burial. This, however, does not apply to all burials. The burials were normally adorned with multiple ceramic vessels, bowls, dishes, obsidian or shell caches, and many items made from jadeite like earplugs, pendants and beads.

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The journey begins as you awaken in the afterlife. In some burials, items were placed inside to guide you or direct you on what to do next. In the Burial of Ah Cacao in Temple 1 at Tikal, Guatemala, an archaeologists found ninety eight bones and four that had an image of a canoe with several characters going on a voyage. In Palenque, Mexico, archaeologists working in the burial of “Pacal” at the temple of inscriptions found a carved sarcophagus placed over the remains. The funerary art was an image of Pacal falling downwards into the maw. This was what the Ruler Pacal had to do. He had to fall into a sinkhole and transition to Xibalba. As these rulers would awaken in the afterlife, these images were to remind the soul of what to do next. In the case of the lowlands, like here in Belize and Guatemala, it was believed that you came upon a river. Waiting for you was a canoe with two paddler gods, one being the Jaguar paddler and the other being the Stingray paddler. Your place would be in the middle of the canoe and they would take you into a cave. The image on the bones are very detailed and the artist shows the exact moment that the canoe transitions into Xibalba, and it does so by sinking the canoe. We are lead to believe that the gods paddle the canoe and take you and others into a cave. The canoe then gains momentum and sinks downward to the underworld.

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Xibalba is the name of the underworld, and it derives from “xib” that means “fear”, interpreted as a place of fright. The underworld is described in the manuscript of Francisco Ximénez from the Dominican Order. He was a missionary who worked in Santo Tomás, Chichicastenango, Guatemala, from 1701 to 1703. During this time, he documented the creation story and other mythological events of the Kʼiché Maya. The book later became known as the Popol Vuh. In Xibalba, your soul will undergo a series of trials and if you fail, you will remain there. The underworld is described as a place that has day and night. There are gardens, landscapes, architecture that include residences, temples and plazas. There is a pungent smell of decaying flesh and of feces. There are several houses where some of the trials take place. The Popol Vuh mentions the Maya ball game that is played several times and where failure is not an option. There are other trials to test you: houses with a specific danger where you need to survive the night, the house of darkness where it is pitch black inside, the house of jaguars that is filled with hungry jaguars awaiting to devour you, the house of blades and the house of bats with deadly vampire bats inside. The purpose is to survive the night by being cunning, smart and overcoming its dangers.

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The inhabitants are disgusting and unsightly. They take the full form of humans and animals, or certain animal and skeletal characteristics. They are also depicted as old, toothless and decaying. A more visual depiction of the underworld is on a vessel from the Late Classic Period, 600-800 AD, featuring 3 Xibalbans. In the scene, they have received a severed head as an offering and they gather to celebrate. The first character has a feline head with its mouth open belching and emitting very bad breath. The artist included a vivid visual representation of this. The character in the middle has a skeletal face with a skinny and boney body which gives the impression of being staved and diseased, confirmed by the bloody entrails coming out of its belly and the stream of excrement coming out of its rear end. The third character also has a skeletal head and insect wings, a parasitic puffed-out belly and its farting is so awful that the artist again included a very vivid representation of this behind him.

The triumphant finale is the rising out of Xibalba and onto the place of eternal rest. Very little is known of this transition, as most funerary rituals and deposits were left to help the soul though the journey in Xibalba. There are two examples from Palenque Mexico, a stone tablet and a Palenque Panel. The stone tablet depicts Chan-Bahlum, son of the Ruler Pacal and Lady Ahpo-Hel. Chan-Bahlum is dancing with his left heal raised upwards on the water surface as he made his way out of the underworld three years after his death. His mother, Lady Ahpo-Hel waits for him with a figurine of the God K. On the Palenque Panel, there is a scene with Kan-Xul as he also dances out of Xibalba. To his right is his mother, Lady Ahpo-Hel, and to his left is his father, Pacal.

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The Maya believed that the north is associated with the ancestral dead. In many sites, burials are aligned head to the North and feet to the south or ancestral tombs are located on the north side of its epicenter. In the Belize River Valley, burials are mostly common the opposite way, with the head to the south. However, in Cahal Pech, Belize, Burial 7 shows that the two elite individuals placed inside were aligned with their heads towards the north. After the winter solstice, when the Sun begins to move towards the north, it takes the dead to their resting place on the north sky to be reborn and to guide their descendants.

4 thoughts on “Death and the Journey”
  1. This is fascinating and wonderfully written, Cruz! Belize holds such a rich and important history and I’m thankful that people like you continue to share the stories of these discoveries.

    1. Aww Em thank you so very much for reading much goes to Berta my editor and wify . I really wish I could spend more time writing I do have some interesting stories coming up.

  2. Very interesting! There’s always something new to learn. This article has clarified some doubts that lingered in my head for some time. Thank you for sharing this information.

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