Would you go swimming in a hidden, sacred sinkhole or “cenote” that the Maya believed led to their gruesome underworld of Xibalba? Tourists may today brave the clear, refreshing pools, but do the locals dare trespass in the domain of their ancestors’ underworld gods?
What is Xibalba?
Xibalba (pronounced: Shee-bal-ba) is the name the K’iche Maya gave to their underworld and means “place of fear or fright“. The underworld was ruled by the Maya death gods and struck terror in every Maya man, woman and child. The Maya could not escape suffering in death and were either subjected to horrific trials in Xibalba, or had to die a violent death to avoid it. Those who entered Xibalba put their wits to the test against the cruel gods, but very few survived. The Maya believed freshwater sinkholes, or cenote, were the sacred portals to Xibalba. This underwater labyrinth of rivers, in the Yucatan peninsula, was a previously hidden domain. Only in recent history have adventurers risked their lives to explore the secret passages and caves littered with human remains and concealed temples to reveal a glimpse of the mysteries of the Maya underworld!
Where is the Maya Underworld?
According to the Popol Vuh, the sacred text of the Maya, Xibalba was situated just below the Earth’s surface, off the west coast of the Yucatan peninsula. The underworld was entered through a cave on the Earth’s surface, the first of the nine underworld levels. The Popol Vuh describes Xibalba as expansive with rivers, mountains, six houses where the dead were tested, the council place of the Lords and the ball court, where a traditional Maya ball game called Pokatok was played.
The Cruelty of the Gods
Xibalba served as a court for the dead and housed 12 gods called the Rulers of Xibalba, with two specific gods, Hun-Came (“One Death”) and Vucub-Came (“Seven Death”) governing the underworld. The gods operated in pairs to bring about human suffering and had names which personified their gruesome roles, like Pus Master, Bone Sceptre, Jaundice Master and Blood Gatherer! The gods would occasionally venture to the surface to inflict disease and anguish on the living, when they weren’t relishing in the suffering of the dead.
Xibalba’s Ruthless Tests
The Rulers of Xibalba were extremely proud and sought to humiliate or destroy those of lesser wit. For the dead to successfully enter and endure through to the ninth level of Xibalba, they had to overcome many deadly tests and traps set by the gods. The supplicant’s tribulations began on route to Xibalba, where they needed to first cross a river of scorpions, a river of blood and a river of pus! Thereafter, they were subjected to impossible tests, such as surviving a house of jaguars, being attacked by deadly, spinning razors, or being subjected to unrelenting fire!
The dead were usually buried with weapons and tools to help them overcome the god’s seemingly insurmountable tests. Maize, a symbol of rebirth, was placed in their mouths for nourishment, and jade paid the way for the journey to the underworld.
The Hero Twins Conquer the Gods
When the maize god (Hun Hunahpu) and his brother (7 Hunahpu) were playing Pokatok, the gods became annoyed by the noise and were envious of the brothers’ talents.
Pokatok was a particularly fast and violent ball game played with a solid rubber ball, which weighed up to 9 lbs. The mortals and gods were equally obsessed with the game. The stone ball court was situated just above the entrance to Xibalba, where the two brothers were summarily summonsed.
Hun Hunahpu and 7 Hunahpu almost outwitted the gods and made it through all nine levels of the underworld. Their tests, however, culminated in a game of Pokatok. When the brothers lost the game, they were sacrificed and their bodies buried just beneath the ball court. Hun Hunahpu’s head was placed in a calabash tree and found later by an underworld goddess, Blood Moon. She became miraculously pregnant after the head spat into her hands and subsequently gave birth to the legendary Maya Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque.
The twins were excellent hunters, and accomplished ball players; they even had magical powers! One day they caught a rat while out hunting and were told by the rodent what happened to their father and uncle in the underworld. Whether lured by this knowledge or by the irresistible challenge of a game of Pokatok, the two allowed themselves to be drawn to Xibalba. After surviving the many brutal tests, they spent their last night in the House of Bats, where a vicious bat bit off Hunahpu’s head. The gods then forced Xbalanque to play the ball game with his brother’s head as the ball! Xbalanque cleverly switched his brother’s head with a rabbit’s, before reattaching Hunahpu’s head to his body. Though they won the ball game in the end, the lords of the underworld still wanted the twins dead.
Hunahpu and Xbalanque allowed themselves to be sacrificed by fire, but eventually outwitted the gods by using their magical abilities. Not only did they come back to life, they also slew the Xibalba gods and resurrected their father, the Maize King!
Maya Hidden Treasure
The sacred cenotes, also considered to be the entrance to Xibalba, have only recently begun to be explored for all their ancient, hidden treasures! All the great Maya cities were situated next to sinkholes, which provided them with the fresh water they needed. There are no lakes or rivers above the ground in the Yucatan peninsula region. The dark passages and once-hidden caves now reveal their secrets to the brave adventurers who delve down into their depths!
Offers to the Rain God
Archaeologists have recently discovered offerings of stone tools and ceramics to the Maya rain god, Chaak, at a cenote in Cara Blanca, Belize. The sacred pool is surrounded by lush forest and is also the site of Maya water temple. The archaeologists suggest the offerings were from the period after the widespread drought began to destroy the whole Maya civilization.
Near Caracol in Belize, a large Maya city, National Geographic explorers plumbed the ruins of Las Cuevas and found a massive cave opening beneath one of the largest pyramids on the site. They also found a sinkhole and an underground river which was likely a ceremonial site, reaffirming the link between the sinkholes, or cenote, and the Maya’s sacred beliefs.
Mayapan was an ancient, walled Maya city founded after the decline of Chichén Itzá. Inside the city’s wall, there are a number of cenotes, but one cenote – Sac Uayum – is situated just outside the boundary wall. Local villagers won’t drink water from the Sac Uayum cenote or even let their children play near it! Perhaps the recent chilling discovery of human bones littering its two caverns explains their trepidation!
Archaeologists, intrigued by the position of the cenote, could not resist exploring its hidden depths. This required them to first rappel down 40 feet just to reach the water’s surface! They believed the cenote to be a burial spot as they discovered both human and animal skeletal remains in its depths. The cenote’s location, south of Mayapan, might have been associated with the underworld, the researchers purported. The victims may also have been buried there if they had succumbed to a plague. The cenote is nonetheless guarded now by the local legend of a horse-headed serpent which defends the mysteries of the sacred sinkhole.
Cenote’s Sacred Light
The acclaimed underwater archaeologist, Guillermo de Anda, made a remarkable discovery in a cenote near Chichén Itzá. The water at the bottom of the sinkhole acted as a sacred sundial for two days of the year: May 23rd and July 19th – when the sun reaches its zenith. The zenith light works only on those specific days as the sun is directly overhead and casts no shadow. The sunlight would be focused by the small opening of the cenote, and would plunge down vertically into the waters below. On the zenith day, the sun rises in line with the north east corner of Chichén Itzá’s El Castillo pyramid and later sets in line with the pyramid’s western staircase, and the cenote with the hidden Maya sundial!
The archaeologists and other brave adventurers who eagerly enter the realm of the Maya underworld seem to possess no fear or fright. But would they possess the wit to outsmart the ruthless gods of Xibalba too? At least they do not need to suffer through nine levels of hell to bring the sacred mysteries of the Maya to us!