Examining the symbolism and iconography on Maya vase K4932

by Carl de Borhegyi

Photographs © Justin Kerr

Maya vase painting, K4932 from the Justin Kerr Data Base, depicts three characters painted black holding staffs and carrying large sacks over their shoulder that the artist has made transparent, encoding what I will argue are sacred mushrooms inside.

In the Popol Vuh, we are told that the Quiche people received their gods at Tulan, the mountain of the Seven Caves. Jaguar Quitze received Tohil, Jaguar Night received Avilix, and Mahucutah received Hacauitz.  The patron god Tohil, has been identified as a Quiché variant of the god Quetzalcoatl. The Quiche god Avilix, or Auilix (P.V. Tedlock, p.326 1985) was the patron god of the Greathouse lineage given to Jaguar Night at Tulan Zuyua. According to Dennis Tedlock Lord Auilix was the title of the priest of the god Auilix; who was seventh in rank among the lords of the Greathouses and headed one of the nine great houses into which their lineage was divided after the founding of Rotten Cane. The Popol Vuh tells us that the god Tohil was actually loaded in the backpack of Jaguar Quitze and Auilix was the god that Jaguar Night carried, when they received their gods at Tulan Zuyua, known as Seven Caves and according to Tedlock also the name of the mountain where the Quiche people went to receive their gods (P.V. Tedlock, 1985 p.171).  Tedlock notes (P.V. 1985 p.326) that the patron god Auilix was given to Jaguar Night, at the mountain of the Seven Caves and taken to “the great canyon in the forest” (P.V. Tedlock p.178) to a location that came to be named Pauilix, literally “At Auilix”.  This may be a reference to the Guatemalan Highlands where the Quiche people call home, and where the Amanita muscaria mushroom grows in abundance.  The Guatemala Highlands is where the majority of effigy mushroom stones have been found. It should be noteworthy as well, that the Popol Vuh makes a reference to nine great houses and their patron gods which I believe is a reference directly linked to mushroom stones and the Nine Lords of the Night, or Underworld. Tedlock mentions  (1985 Popol Vuh 1985 :250) that he does not rule out the possible presence of a muscaria cult  in the Popol Vuh.


  For more on Middle American Mushroom Stones, see Stephan de Borhegyi’s 1961, publication,  “Miniature mushroom stones from Guatemala,” American Antiquity, vol. 26: 498-504.

According to testimony recorded in 1554 in the Colonial document entitled El Titulo de Totonicapan, the Quiché Maya revered mushroom stones as symbols of power and rulership, and before them they performed rituals (of blood sacrifice) to pierce and cut up their bodies. (Sachse, 2001, 186).

 ”  The lords used these symbols of rule, which came from where the sun rises, to pierce and cut up their bodies (for the blood sacrifice). There were nine mushroom stones for the Ajpop and the Ajpop Q’amja, and in each case four, three, two, and one staffs with the Quetzal’s feathers and green feathers, together with garlands, the Chalchihuites precious stones, with the sagging lower jaw and the bundle of fire for the Temezcal steam bath.” 

I believe that mushroom rituals and bloodletting rituals were likely timed astronomically to the movements of the planet Venus and possibly to the sacred period of inferior conjunction. At this time Venus sinks below the horizon and disappears into the “underworld” for eight days. It then rises from the underworld as the Morning Star. Among the Quiche Maya, Venus in its form as the Morning Star, was called iqok’ij, meaning the “sunbringer” or “carrier of the sun or day” (Tedlock, 1993:236).

There is good reason to believe that this mushroom ritual was regularly performed  prior to bloodletting rituals.  Bloodletting rituals were often performed in caves, which were believed to be entrances into the underworld. Cave ritualism on an elite level as apposed to a folk level is evident as early as 1000 B.C. at the Olmec influenced site of Chalcatzingo, near the Valley of Mexico (Pasztory, 1997:90).  This represents the same time period, 1000 B.C. that a mushroom stone cult came into existence in the Olmec influenced Guatemala highlands and Pacific coastal area along with a trophy head cult associated with human sacrifice and the Mesoamerican ballgame.

The ancient cultures of the Nahua and Maya developed similar ideologies and mythologies from the same Olmec roots. The sacred mushroom ritual shared by these cultures was intended,  I believe, to establish direct communication between Earth and Heaven (sky) in order to unite man with god. As told in the Popol Vuh,  the sun-god of the Maya, Kinich Ajaw, and his Aztec equivalent, Huitzilopochtli, would be extinguished in the underworld if not nourished with the blood of human hearts. Quetzalcoatl’s essence in the world as a culture hero was to establish this communication. Quetzalcoatl bestowed mushrooms to mankind and taught that mankind must make sacrifices to this deity and transcend this world in order to achieve immortality.

Maya archaeologist  Brent Woodfil (personal communication) who has been mapping the Candelaria cave system in the highlands of Guatemala recently found two pottery mushrooms hidden on a ledge deep inside the cave. There has been a bit of  speculation that the caves may be the location of the legendary Chicomoztoc, the name given for the place of mythical origin of the ancient Mayas, Toltec and Aztecs–a place known as the “seven caves of emergence” (Woodfill,2002). According to Mary Miller and Karl Taube, (1993:136) the founders of the Quiche lineages,  “journeyed to Tulan Zuyua, the mountain of the seven caves, and there they received the gods, whom they then carried home in bundles on their backs. “Balam Quitze received Tohil, who gave humans fire, but only after human sacrifice to him had begun”. 

The system of caves where the pottery mushrooms were found is located in the south region of the Guatemalan Highlands and according to archaeologist Jon Spenard, the caves are called Saber, CHOC-05, Ocox, and Cabeza de Tepezquintle,  “Ocox is a canyon-like system that runs through a large hill and that the name Ocox is a Q’eqchi Mayan word for mushroom, in reference according to Spenard, to the large quantity of mushrooms that are growing from the floor of the canyon.  Could this be the legendary caves called Chicomoztoc, the name given for the place of mythical origin of the ancient Mayas, Toltec and Aztecs, called the “place of emergence”  ?

The complex iconography along the rim of this vase depicts what I have identified as a cross-cut mushroom shaped icon similar in shape to glyphs or symbols representing the planet Venus. The X-icon, which is a common symbol found on many Maya vase paintings, most likely represents an esoteric entrance or portal to the underworld associated with mushrooms and underworld decapitation and resurrection. The fact that the X-icon above is twisted may be a reference to the symbol olin, meaning movement or motion. If so it may refer to the portal’s movement of up and down as a death star in the Underworld and as a resurrection star from the Underworld.  Note that the characters are all dressed in black, attributes of the priesthood of Quetzalcoatl.

Fray Bernardino Sahagun states in Book 9 that merchant groups known as the pochteca, which translates to ” priests who lead,” were devout followers of Quetzalcoatl under his patron name of Yiacatecuhtli or Yacateuctil, Lord of the Vanguard.  Maya archaeologist J. Eric Thompson named the god Ikal Ahau or Black Lord, as the god of death among the Tzotzil Maya (Orellana,1987:.163

A passage reads:  “the eating of mushrooms was sometimes also part of a longer ceremony performed by merchants returning from a trading expedition to the coast lands. The merchants, who arrived on a day of favorable aspect, organized a feast and ceremony of thanksgiving, also on a day of favorable aspect. As a prelude to the ceremony of eating mushrooms, they sacrificed a quail, offered incense to the four directions, and made offerings to the gods of flowers and fragrant herbs. The eating of mushrooms took place in the earlier part of the evening. At midnight a feast followed, and toward dawn the various offerings to the gods, or the remains of them, were ceremonially buried.”

Above and below are scenes from the Madrid Codex which depicts a probable ruler on a throne being offered what appears to be an Amanita muscaria mushroom.  The ruler on the throne most likely represents the Underworld Sun God prior to self sacrifice. The character on the right presenting the sacred mushroom may represent the god Ikal Ahau or Black Lord, as the god of death among the Tzotzil Maya (Orellana,1987:.163.

Above we see the black death god, ruler of the Underworld with a flint knife in one hand while offering up an Amanita muscaria mushroom in the other.  The four characters in the upper registry all are depicted in the act of self decapitation.

Patron deities could appear in human form, but were also represented in art as a sacred bundle (see representations of K’awil at Palenque). The Maya god K’awil”s image as a royal scepter is frequently seen in the hands of the High Priest or royal elites. According to the Popol Vuh, the migration of the Quiché tribes was led under the spiritual “guidance” of Tohil, their patron deity. Like the Itzas, the Quiche people also believed that they were led by Lord Plumed Serpent from Tollan /Tula. He led his people eastward to the “land of writing” to a sacred mountain top citadel called Bearded Place, and it was there that the Quiche people settled down to live. This brave leader was descibed as a white man “whose face was not forgotten by his grandsons and sons” as described on page 205 by Tedlock (Tedlock: 1985: 205. 213).

“And when war befell their canyons and citadels, it was by means of their genius that the Lord plumed serpent and the Lord Cotuha blazed with power.  Plumed serpent became a true Lord of genius: on one occasion he would climb up to the sky:…“On another he would go down the road to Xibalba (the Maya underworld). On another occasion he would be serpentine, becoming an actual serpent.  On yet another occasion he would make himself aquiline, and on another, feline; he would become like an actual eagle or jaguar in his appearance. On another occasion it would be a pool of blood; he would become nothing but a pool of blood.  Truly his being was that of a Lord of genius.”

And this was the beginning and growth of the Quiché, when the Lord Plumed Serpent made the signs of greatness.  His face was not forgotten by his grandsons and sons.  He didn’t do these things just so there would be one single Lord, a being of genius, but they had the effect of humbling all the tribes, when he did them.  It was just his way of revealing himself, but because of that he became the sole head of the tribes.

This Lord of genius named Plumed Serpent was in the fourth generation of Lords; he was both Keeper of the mat and Keeper of the Reception House Mat”.

Page 24 of the Mixtec Codex Vindobonensis

  Above is page 24 of the Mixtec Codex Vindobonensis, also known as the Codex Vienna. The codex is one of the few prehispanic native manuscripts which escaped Spanish destruction. It was produced in the Postclassic period for the priesthood and ruling elite.  A thousand years of history is recorded In the Mixtec Codices, and Quetzalcoatl (9-Wind), who is cited as the great founder of all the royal dynasties, is depicted above bestowing sacred mushrooms to his children “mankind”.

While reading through one of Borhegyi´s letters I found that he had quoted two interesting passages from native chronicles written around 1554.  Both related to indigenous use of mushrooms in Guatemala.  One,  from The Annals of the Cakchiquels,  (1953:82-83), records:

“At that time, too, they began to worship the devil.  Each seven days, each 13 days, they offered him sacrifices, placing before him fresh resin, green branches, and fresh bark of the trees, and burning before him a small cat, image of the night.  They took him also the mushrooms, which grow at the foot of the trees, and they drew blood from their ears.”

 Another passage from the Popol Vuh, (Goetz,1950:192) reads:

 “And when they found the young of the birds and the deer, they went at once to place the blood of the deer and of the birds in the mouth of the stones that were Tohil, and Avilix.  As soon as the blood had been drunk by the gods, the stones spoke, when the priest and the sacrificers came, when they came to bring their offerings.  And they did the same before their symbols, burning pericon (?) and holom-ocox (the head of the mushroom, holom=head, and ocox= mushroom”).

Still another passage from the Popol Vuh identifies Tohil, not as a stone god, but as the charismatic leader of the Quiche Maya and a variant of Quetzalcoatl, ..Even though Tohil is his name he is the same as the god of the Yaqui people who is named Yolcuat and Quitzalcuat “.  (Tedlock, 1985:183)

For more read “BREAKING THE MUSHROOM CODE”  at http://www.mushroomstone.com/index.htm


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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