Pre-Columbian Rituals of Decapitation and Mushroom Venus Underworld Resurrection

By  Carl de Borhegyi


 There is evidence of a very early relationship between ritual decapitation, jaguars, serpents and mushrooms.  Priests dressed as were-jaguars and emulating one of the creator gods performed the ritual decapitation of ball players or captives. Were-jaguars, half human/half feline supernatural beings, were associated with caves, pools of water, mountains, volcanoes and Venus. They were also linked to mushrooms and the underworld. Aztec legends relate that the sun, as a jaguar, descends each night into the underworld to battle the forces of death in order to return, triumphant, each morning to the sky as an eagle. The Maya believed, as recorded in the Popol Vuh, that the Lords of Xibalba challenged the Hero Twins to a ball game in the Underworld. The Hero Twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque, were the ball playing culture heroes who, after playing a ballgame with the Lords of Xibalba in the underworld, are decapitated and then resurrected into the sky as the sun and moon (Venus?) (Thompson, 1967: 27-28). In Mexican mythology the twins are Quetzalcoatl and his underworld twin named Xolotl. Both represent the patron gods of the ballgame, and both deities represent the dualistic aspects of the planet Venus, as a Morning Star and Evening Star.   

Archaeologist Stephan de Borhegyi…

 “While human decapitation was a widespread custom throughout both the Old and New Worlds as early as the Paleolithic period, its association with ancient team games seems to have occurred only in central and eastern Asia, Mesoamerica, and South America “.  “I suggest that the custom of using human heads in competitive ballgames be added to the growing Pre-Classic inventory of ‘trans-Pacific contacts” (Borhegyi, 1980)

Human sacrifice by decapitation was, in actuality, often the fate of one or more of the ballplayers in the Mesoamerican ballgame. In some of these games decapitated human or jaguar heads were used in lieu of balls. (Borhegyi,1966;1980:3). The ballplayers’ sacrifice and the blood offering on the ball court, just as the sun’s victory over the forces of darkness with each new dawn, enabled the sun to rise, the plants to grow, and human life to thrive.This sacrificial death also allowed the decapitated ball player to pass through a divine portal to the Underworld where he was reborn through the auspices of the mythological were-jaguar. The ballgame became, then, a metaphor for the eternal cycle of life, death and resurrection.

According to mycologist R. Gordon Wasson,  the origin of ritual decapitation may lie in the mushroom ritual itself. In a letter to Borhegyi dated June 7, 1954, he writes:

“The cap of the mushroom in Mije (or Mixe) is called kobahk, the same word for head. In Kiche and Kakchiquel it is doubtless the same, and kolom ocox is not “mushroom heads”, but mushroom caps, or in scientific terminology, the pileus of the mushroom. The Mije in their mushroom cult always sever the stem or stipe (in Mije tek is “leg”) from the cap, and the cap alone is eaten. Great insistence is laid on this separation of cap from stem. This is in accordance with the offering of “mushroom head” in the Annals and  the Popol Vuh.  The writers had in mind the removal of the stems”.

  In the religion of the Maya, various twins or brothers represent the dualistic planet Venus. Maya creation stories record that twins were responsible for placing the three stones of  creation into the night sky at the beginning of this world age. These three stones, which represent the three original hearthstones, may also refer to a trinity of gods responsible for creating life from death. One of these gods, known as the Maize God, ruled as the Sun God in the previous world age. He was decapitated by the Lords of Death after being defeated in a ballgame. His twin sons, after finding his bones buried under the floor of the ballcourt, resurrected him from the underworld and placed him into the night sky as a deified ballplayer. I believe that the Maya could see this resurrected decapitated ballplayer, still wearing his ballgame belt, in the constellation Orion (see stela 10 Kaminaljuyu below).The resurrected Maize God, called First Father, is also identified as Quetzalcoatl and the planet Venus.  As the planet Venus, Quetzalcoatl rules the underworld, and was responsible for creating life from death, including that of the underworld sun or Sun God. The Toltecs, Aztecs and Maya all believed that Quetzalcoatl would return at the end of days. According to the Maya, he would perform the completion rites and then, like a seed of corn, sprout from a crack in the earth to become the new Sun God. 

The god identified with decapitation was particularly important to the highland Maya at the site of Kaminaljuyu. This drawing from Stela 10, a carved monument at Kaminaljuyu, depicts the trefoil eyed god (upper left) holding an axe in a scene of ritual ballgame sacrifice. The two floating or suspended gods above in this scene may represent the Hero Twins from the Popol Vuh, creator gods and divine mythical ancestors of the ancient Quiche Maya. The character below wearing a ballplayer’s yoke would than represent the Hero Twins father, Hun Hunapu who is decapitated by the Lords of Death in the Underworld.  Thus the three characters may represent the so-called three hearth stones of Maya creation who can be linked with the so-called Palenque Triad (GI, GII, GIII). Freidel and Schele (1998) have identified two of the Palenque Triad with the Hero Twins of the Popol Vuh. From inscriptions at Palenque scholars have identified that rulers believed they were the incarnation of GI (Secrets of the Maya 2004, p.109) a Maya god who began his mythical reign before the so-called creation, on March 10, 3309 B.C (GMT), or 3569 B.C. using the Herbert Spinden correlation of the Mayan calendar. The individual at the bottom, representing a ballplayer is about to be decapitated, by the trefoil eyed deity above. The soon to be decapitated ballplayer below wears a ballgame belt which incorporates three circles which I believe is code identifying the three hearth stones of creation, (Palenque Triad above?) with the so called “place of ballgame sacrifice”, which we know from the Popol Vuh is the Underworld (Popol Vuh).  The scene represents the belief that decapitation in the Underworld assures divine resurrection, and that the three circles on the ballplayers belt is code identifying the constellation of Orion, as a decapitated and thus resurrected ballplayer. Quetzalcoatl was as we know “Lord of the ballgame”.

According to Stephan de Borhegyi, the subject matter depicted on stone objects related to the ballgame consisted of  crouching or seated jaguars, bats, monkeys, vultures, toads, coatimundis, deformed and/or decapitated human, monkey and jaguar heads, sacrificial victims, and dismembered limbs. He believed that this indicated the existence, from late Pre-Classic times onward, of a rich, widely spread, and uniformly accepted folk tradition connected with the ballgame. Since this folk tradition transcended local, ethnic and linguistic boundaries, he believed that a close study of the related symbolism would shed much light on the ballgame itself (Borhegyi,1969: 253)

     The story of creation and destruction, death and rebirth appears frequently on Classic period  monuments and vase paintings. When we look at pre-Columbian art and see images that celebrate death, we must keep in mind that death to all Mesoamericans was just a prelude to rebirth–a portal to divine immortality. The sacrifice of one’s own life was believed to be the greatest gift one could give the gods, because it emulated the ways of their creator god Quetzalcoatl, who in legend sacrificed himself (at Teotihuacan) so as to become the new fifth sun and bring light back to the world: (Coe 1994:91)



About deborhegyi
My research was inspired by a theory first proposed by my father, the late Maya archaeologist Dr. Stephan F. de Borhegyi, that hallucinogenic mushroom rituals were a central aspect of Maya religion. He based this theory on his identification of a mushroom stone cult that came into existence in the Guatemala Highlands and Pacific coastal area around 1000 B.C. along with a trophy head cult associated with human sacrifice and the Mesoamerican ballgame. My study, which is exclusively my own work, presents visual evidence that both the hallucinogenic Amanita muscaria mushroom and the Psilocybin mushroom were worshiped and venerated as gods in ancient Mesoamerica. These sacred mushrooms were so cleverly encoded in the religious art of the New World, "Hidden in Plain Sight" that prior to this study they virtually escaped detection. This online research study, "BREAKING THE MUSHROOM CODE" is an enormous document containing over 300 images, is presented in five parts at this time (the Home Page, Soma in the Americas, Part I and Part II, and 2012 Alert ). In the course of my study have found an abundance of archaeological evidence supporting the proposition that Mesoamerica, the high cultures of South America, and Easter Island shared, along with many other New World cultures, elements of a Pan American belief system so ancient that many of the ideas may have come from Asia to the New World with the first human settlers. I believe the key to this entire belief system lies, as proposed by R. Gordon Wasson, in early man's discovery of the mind-altering effects of various hallucinatory substances. The accidental ingestion of these hallucinogenic substances could very well have provided the spark that lifted the mind and imagination of these early humans above and beyond the mundane level of daily existence to contemplation of another reality. In summary, the encoded mushroom imagery occurred with such frequency and in such indisputably religious context that there can be no doubt as to their importance in the development and practice of indigenous religion.

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