Secret Places, Sacred Places

Mexico has some very famous ancient religious sites: Chichen Itza, Palenque, Teotihuacan. They’re often referred to as ancient cities, but cities always grew up around a sacred structure and an annual program of rituals and festivals. Urban and administrative functions were mostly secondary.

I’ve never verified the number, but one guide at a site I visited told me there are an estimated 4,000 ball-courts in Mexico, for playing a ceremonial game that might have had a fatal outcome for the winners or losers. The Spanish destroyed all the records in the 1500s, so we have only documentation of pre-Conquest Mexico from the few friars who chose to record information for posterity, plus what’s been found by archaeologists. The picture becomes more complete all the time, but a huge amount of it is murky, or is derived from comparing what’s been found in one place with what appears to have been going on elsewhere.

It’s surprisingly common to visit a site of ancient worship that has very little documentation or artefacts. In the hills right behind my house are a couple of concentric, low walls for what was once a place of ritual reverence. In accord with local custom, it’s referred to as a ruined piramide. Who was worshipped there? We’re not sure. This is the village of the Plumed Serpent, the legendary birthplace of the ruler Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl. Maybe it was him, though his mother, two or three names for whom have come down to us from different sources, was also presumably worshipped here.

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The piramide above my home. The stones looks like nothing in particular, but the walls are too low to function as physical barriers, and archaeologists in the 1950s realised this was a small sacred site.

A few days ago, avoiding people and buses, and exploring a trail out of a nearby village, hiking buddy Ixchel and I came first upon walls made of piled-up stones, which are very common here, but then upon a variety of rocks and small boulders a little higher up, in a place that was suspiciously impractical for field agriculture. One almost flat rock looked as if it had toppled off a few supporting stones, and might once have been an altar. The site had an east-west orientation, perhaps implying a solar connection, but all we had to go on was the flatness of part of the area, the mountains rising close to it, a bizarre tree that was in fact three different species that had grown onto each other, and a distinctive if indescribable atmosphere to the place. The tree was the kind of thing people here in central Mexico would automatically associate with divine powers, so it was the combination of all these factors that impressed us. Maybe we over-interpreted what we were seeing, but given how many sacred sites there are in this area, it’s quite likely we didn’t.

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A farmer’s stone walls, of the type common in fields around here…
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…and the larger rocks at our suspected sacred site, scattered a long time ago, which would have required gangs of people to put them in place.

I’ve read a fair bit about mesoAmerican mythology, without coming to terms with it. The gods are wholly unlike the almost-human deities of Greece, the strong, uncluttered, natural forces I’ve come to associate with the deities of the Nile Valley, or the dreamy mahadevas of India. They seem crude at first, ‘chthonic,’ to borrow a term that Jung used a lot, and strongly identified with the natural world. Human sacrifice was frequently part of the regular worship, but very rarely on the Aztecs’ industrial scale of bloody slaughter. But behind that earthy immediacy, you find a subtler essence lurking, hard to define, but not devoid of warmth or mythic depth.

A problem – or perhaps a pleasure – of archaeological work is site interpretation. The cool objects make it into the museum, artfully lit in cases, but many sites yield just a few pieces of pottery or some cooked seeds. The configuration of the whole thing gives the clues, along with the geographical or stellar orientation, and you have to visit the place to appreciate that properly.

So with our ‘discovery’ the other day, which was no doubt pre-empted years ago by the archaeologists who’ve prowled over this area. The location, beneath an almost sheer cliff, and the way it had to be approached, indicated a place charged by its surroundings. We were there in the late afternoon, when the mountains already blocked the Sun, but in the morning it would have been a bright place, with a view down the plain in the south-east, hundreds of feet below us.

Possibly we can find out who excavated it, and what was found. But archaeology itself can seem a sterile science, because it’s restricted to what it can ascertain, not what might have been, but has left no traces behind. The reason people visit such places is because of the aura of mystery and the unknown, not to affirm that such-and-such a place is post-Classic or some other term for dating ancient ruins.

There’s no harm in letting our imaginations build up an idea of what was once there, and of trying to respond to the subtle clues of terrain and mountain, gulley and natural platform. And quite often, I’ve learned, allowing yourself to do this can open a genuine intuition about what you’re looking at, and what it might have been for. If sacred sites were chosen because of the landscape (as they were almost always in Mexico), and these human interventions are still at least somewhat discernible, there’s a part of us that can jump to a sense of what it was all for, and then ponder what the people who went there must have hoped and prayed for.


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