MUSHROOM RITUALS AND DECAPITATION DEPICTED IN MAYA VASE PAINTINGS

by Carl de Borhegyi

In 2007, when I began searching the Justin Kerr Data Base of Maya vase paintings for mushrooms, one of the first Maya vase paintings I found with encoded mushroom imagery was Maya vase K1490, illustrated below. This Late Classic Maya vase painting (600-900 C.E.) from highland Guatemala was like a Maya vase “Rosetta Stone” in the amount of information it contained.  I immediately saw the mushrooms in the robes of the twin smokers on the far right. I also noticed that the artist had encoded mushroom imagery into the headdresses, and that mushrooms were on the tips of the noses of the executioners with obsidian knives. A dark loop symbol was repeated three times along the upper rim of the vessel. Because of this repetition, I suspected that it might be important and related to mushroom-inspired religious beliefs. 

In the Popol Vuh, numerous passages reveal obscure connections between Maya creation myths, the ballgame, ritual decapitation, self decapitation (Borhegyi,1969: 501) and Maya astronomy, involving the movement of the sun, moon, and the planet Venus that are commonly depicted on  Maya vase paintings.

  

  Photographs © Justin Kerr  K1490 

 In the vase painting above, the Lord of the Underworld is depicted as the white skeletal god in the center of the scene. He holds a decapitated head in one hand and a  serpent-bird staff in the other. Known as Skeletal God A, his fleshless body represents death and decay,  but also the transformation at death from which life is regenerated.

Like many other Late Classic period carved and painted vessels, Maya Vase painting K1490 depicts the sacred (and improbable) ritual of self-decapitation. Note that the third individual from the right has no head. He holds in his left hand the obsidian knife with which he has decapitated himself. In his right hand he holds the cloth in which he will wrap the head. The fourth individual from the right is shown holding the decapitated head by the hair with his right hand, and a knife in his left hand.  After a close examination of this scene, it occurred to me that it might depict an early version of an episode related in the colonial period document known as the Popol Vuh.

Archaeologist Michael D. Coe was the first to recognize that many of the scenes depicted in Maya vase paintings are images of the Maya underworld, Xibalba, and versions of the creation story of the Quiché Maya of highland Guatemala. This myth, written in Quiche Maya using Spanish orthography, is known today as the Popol Vuh,  It involves two sets of divine twins.

The first set of twins, known as Hun Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpu, play a ballgame in Xibalba with the Lords of Death and are defeated. The Popol Vuh  tells us that these twin Maya gods, were sacrificed by decapitation in the underworld after losing a ballgame against the Lords of the Death. Their bodies were buried under the ballcourt at the place of ballgame sacrifice. The sons of Hun Hunahpu, another set of twin gods known as the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, follow their father and uncle into the Underworld to avenge their deaths. They also play a ballgame against the Lords of Xibalba.  Hunahpu and Xbalanque, however,  were accomplished tricksters as well as ballplayers. They were  ready for any trap that might be set for them by the Lords of Death. (Coe,1973, 1975a). 

I believe that this complex scene illustrates the passage in the Popol Vuh in which the Hero Twins smoke cigars in the underworld.That they are smoking hallucinogenic cigars is suggested by the mushrooms that are clearly painted on their robes and in their mushroom-inspired headdresses. The two smokers are the first two individuals on the right. The two figures in front of them, since they wear the same clothing as the first pair,  may be the same set of twins. One of the twins, however, has  undergone sacrificial decapitation. Another interpretation could be that the two smokers, through their hallucinations, are seeing the fate of their father and uncle in their underworld struggle against the Xibalbans.

In the scene depicted above,  all four of the figures on the right wear sacrificial scarves around their necks. The figure in black wears what appears to be a helmet shaped like a mushroom.  As noted earlier, he holds an obsidian blade in one hand, and the decapitated head of the figure behind him in the other. 

 Dennis Tedlock has identified five episodes involving underworld decapitation and self decapitation in his translation of the Popol Vuh. He notes that, based on evidence discovered by Borhegyi and Wasson, he does not rule out the presence of an Amanita muscaria cult in the Popol Vuh (Tedlock,1985: 250).  In one episode the Hero Twins decapitate themselves in the underworld in order to come back to life. The two decapitated heads shown in this scene belong to the twins.   (Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress)

 Maya Archaeologist Stephan de Borhegyi…

  “According to the Popol Vuh, (Thompson, 1967, pp.27-28), the twin heroes Hunahpu, and Xbalenque (the decapitated Maya culture heroes who played ballgames with the Lords of Xibalba), became the moon (or morning star?) and the sun after their death. That the moon, sun, and morning star, as well as their cult symbols, the jaguars “sun” -vulture, moon-rabbit, and deer, were intimately connected with the Late Classic period ballgame is amply witnessed by their frequent representations on stone hachas and ballgame stone reliefs.” (1980:25)

Mesoamerican Scholar Esther Pasztory…

“The essence of the ballgame seems to be a contest between opposing forces, which may be represented by male twins or a couple, a contest which often involves a cyclically recurring pattern of death, rebirth, and revenge. in each case, one contestant is devoured or beheaded (an act ritually recalled by the practice of human sacrifice), as a result of which great benefits inure society, especially in the form of agricultural fertility”. (Pasztory 1976:209-210)     

  

Photographs © Justin Kerr

Maya vase K8936, shown above, also depicts scenes associated with the Maya creation story.

According to the Popol Vuh, after the Xibalbans (the Lords of the Underworld) defeated Hun Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpu in a ballgame, they sacrificed them and hung the severed head of Hun Hunahpu in a calabash tree. The head of Hun Hunahpu  impregnated a daughter of the Xibalbans, named Blood Woman, with the Hero Twins by spitting into her hand.

In the scene above, the jaguar god of the underworld, shown on the far left, holds a decapitated head (likely the head of Hun Hunahpu). Seated below the jaguar is the pregnant daughter of the Xibalbans known as Xquik “Blood Woman”. She is painted blood red, and is shown stretching out her palm beneath the decapitated  head. The decapitated head of Hun Hunahpu spits semen onto her hands which fertilizes, giving birth to the legendary Hero Twins.  Her father, one of the Lords of death in the Maya underworld, is the skeletal god to the far right who also holds the bloody head of Hun Hunahpu.  

 In front of Blood Woman sits a character marked with cimi death signs (looks like a % sign) on his legs. He wears on his head what, I believe, is a mushroom-inspired headdress. In his hand he holds a drinking vessel which may contain a mushroom-based beverage which he will use to journey or portal into the underworld. The large jar or olla  that sits on his lap most likely contains cultivated mushrooms. The skeletal death god on the right  also carries a ceramic jar. It likely also contains a mushroom-based beverage to be taken at death for the ritual cross-over, or underworld journey. The large blood-stained  X-icon located on his skull cap represents the portal door to this journey of transformation.  

Directly behind Blood Woman, at the bottom of the scene, is a large transparent view of the inside of her womb. In it we see the unborn Hunahpu, the eldest of the Hero Twins. He is shown on his back with his knees pointed upwards. Hunahpu,  the first born of the Hero Twins,  personifies Venus. His daysign is One Ahau or Hun Ahau, the sacred date of the heliacal rising of Venus as Morning Star in the Venus Almanac of the Dresden Codex. To the left of the unborn Hunahpu is a coiled serpent in the shape of a ballgame hoop.The hoop bears symbols of the four cardinal directions. The inner circle denotes the goal of the hoop as well as the central portal of resurrection. It is associated with the color green, which is the green quetzal-feathered serpent aspect of Quetzalcoatl as the planet Venus.

In Mesoamerican mythology Quetzalcoatl represents the Lord of the Ballgame and Lord of decapitation.  It is likely his image that the Maya saw as a decapitated ballplayer in the constellation of Orion. Orion was believed to be the belt or ballgame yoke of Hun Ahau or Quetzalcoatl.  The three stars of his yoke represent the three hearth stones of creation. 

Behind the serpent is a rabbit, a symbol of the moon and fertility, holding a ball between its knees. The ball is marked by the symbol of three, referring again to the three hearth stones that were placed at the time of creation by the pair of twins depicted directly above. These are clearly the Hero Twins from the Popol Vuh. The twin on the left with jaguar features can be identified as Xbalanke. He holds what appears to be the three hearth stones of creation (the three thunderbolts in the Popol Vuh?). Two of the three stones appear under the right arm and he is  placing the third stone in his left hand into the sky at the place of ballgame sacrifice.  Xbalanke’s trademark attributes are his jaguar spots, (note his spotted ear), symbolic of the Moon and underworld sun or Sun God.  He most likely represents the Evening Star aspect of the planet Venus. To the right of Xbalanke is his older twin brother Hunahpu. He can be identified by his blowgun, which he holds like a paddle, rerminiscent of the Paddler Twins.  He is likely an aspect of the planet Venus as Evening Star. Both twins wear the scarf of underworld  decapitation, and both are depicted above their unborn bodies. The womb of Hunahpu is directly behind Bloodwoman, while the womb of Xbalanke is in the shape of a curled up jaguar and is depicted directly behind the rabbit holding the ball.

In summery, I believe that Mesoamericans,  came to the conviction, that, under the influence of the sacred mushroom, a divine force actually entered into their body–a state they may have described as “god within”.  Because mushrooms appeared to spring to life magically over night  from the underworld,  apparently sparked by the powers of lightning, wind and rain,  it would have been easy for these ancients to conclude that they were gifts from god, brought to them by the wind god Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl and the rain god Tlaloc.

While I may be the first to call attention to this encoded mushroom symbolism and imagery, these roll-out photographs can be viewed and studied with ease at Justin Kerr’s Maya Vase Data Base and at F.A.M.S.I. ( Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc). 

For more read “BREAKING THE MUSHROOM CODE” at  mushroomstone.com

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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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