Perhaps the saddest period in Maya history is also when they were advancing the fastest, at least in terms of intellectual accomplishments. Their hearts seemed to lag behind the heads. This is the story of human sacrifice and the reason behind the subsequent bloodletting ritual. The story begins with tobacco and ends with perhaps half of the Maya common people escaping the human sacrifice. This story takes place on Isla Tigre, Honduras, and in Nicaragua, roughly from 8400 to 8250 BCE.
This blog post will trace the need for tobacco to the human sacrifice story in the Popol Vuh, will link that story to place names near Isla Tigre, and will then link the human sacrifice story to the surviving Maya who escaped, by translating the names of the tribes that descended from the escapees - the Miskito and related people and the Chibcha people. Finally, the blog will show that in the aftermath, a bloodletting ritual was started to deal both politically and spiritually with the crisis brought about by human sacrifice.
During their very first days in El Salvador, the Maya ancestors were exposed to tobacco. They soon named two of their first three gods after tobacco: Hakawitz, which means "beginning of happiness mountain," and Tohil, which means "see the offering" and is associated with a visual offering, i.e. animals, given for the right to tobacco. Tobacco was not allowed on the first day of the 20-day-week, Tohmar, when animal sacrifices were made, but was allowed on the other 19 days.
Things became more complicated when the Maya ancestors were forced by their enemy, the Xibalba, to move from the mainland to an island in the Gulf of Fonseca, Isla Tigre, and Xibalba took over the tobacco area. No doubt the Maya ancestors sent tobacco raiding parties back to the mainland to cut tobacco leaves and bring them back to the islands. But the Xibalba may have tightened up security. To try to get more tobacco, the Maya ancestors sent a messenger to Xibalba which resulted in a Xibalba negotiator coming to Isla Tigre.
The Xibalba were very shrewd. Not relying on only brute strength they tried to corrupt the Maya ancestors and weaken them spiritually. Keeping in mind the translation by Tedlock may need to be adjusted somewhat, the Xibalba negotiator said:
"Truly, since you have your god, your nurturer, and he is the representation, the commemoration of your Maker and your Modeler, don't give the tribes their fire until they give something to Tohil. You don't want them to give anything to you. You must ask for what belongs to Tohil; to him must come what they give in order to get fire." -- Popol Vuh, pg. 154.
"Fire" in this passage means tobacco. Instead of "is the representation" I would translate it as "require twine," tying this event to the later practice of bloodletting with twine of thorns run through the tongue. Basically, Xibalba is asking for a sacrifice to be made directly to Xibalba. This sacrifice would be a human sacrifice. If people wanted tobacco they would need to offer up one of their own as a sacrifice. From the place names it is possible to determine where this human sacrificing took place. Right across the water from Amapala, Isla Tigre, is Coyolito on Isla Zacate Grande, which is separated from the mainland only by a tidal channel. Coyolito means "sacrifice for smokes beside the large one":
k'oy - smoking, chewing
hol - large one
li - beside
toh - sacrifice
The verb k'oy, meaning smoking or chewing, could not be clearer that it refers to tobacco. The "large one" is clearly indicating the Xibalba hunter tribe who were taller than the Maya ancestors, as shown in the place names where the Maya ancestors were marched after they were captured a few days after arriving in El Salvador. The sacrifice was done beside the large one, while the Xibalba representative was watching. The name Coyolito does not directly indicate human sacrifice but a Popol Vuh passage soon following the visit of the Xibalba messenger connects the dots by discussing the abduction and killing of the tribes (the non-elite Maya ancestors).
It is about this time that the Maya ancestors began making very quick progress in their science, discoveries that are at the heart of what made them into Maya. The first was the 260-day tzolk'in calendar and with it the Mars retrograde long-count calendar. This was developed when the Mars retrograde calendar was pointing to the day-sign 9 Tzi'kin, or Clay and Sticks. A double meaning of Tzi'kin is Tzik'in, which means "counting days." This tells us that it was during 9 Tzi'kin or 8404 BCE to 8357 BCE that the tzolk'in was invented. Then, as already discussed, they learned how to tame the jaguar during the next daysign in the Mars retrograde long-count calendar or 8 B'ajram, which was 8357 BCE to 8325 BCE. Finally, they learned to cultivate tobacco during the next daysign in the Mars retrograde long-count calendar of 7 B'ajk (Cultivation), which was from 8325 BCE to 8278 BCE.
Given these four great discoveries in a short period of time: the tzolk'in, the long-count calendar, taming wild cats, and cultivation, the Maya-ancestor elites became full of arrogance and hubris. This is known because the Popol Vuh says these events took place at Silisib, which translates as "Rise Up and Puff Up". Because of that hubris, they continued the practice of heart sacrifice (human sacrifice). The Popol Vuh (pg 165) describes this as the "abduction of the people of the tribes" and the "killing of the tribes." "The tribes" are a euphemism for the common people, the common Maya (ancestors). Many sacrifice scenes from the Classic era like the one above, are likely a portrayal of events on Isla Tigre.
The Popol Vuh says that the killers (the elite) would roll the heads onto the main trail and make it look like a jaguar had done it. This was done at a time called ikolbal iwib - "the time of the exposed bodies and the time of the source of ghosts." And these actions would lead to ritzum, the "twisting twine," linking the actions to the bloodletting twine of thorns.
It is clear that these actions happened after the Maya learned to cultivate tobacco. The Popol Vuh says kakan ri xa kipich or they "had already learned fire when piercing hearts." They did not have the excuse of needing to provide Xibalba with a human sacrifice for tobacco, nor of needing to provide Tohil with a human sacrifice in order to urge tobacco plants to grow. They knew how to grow tobacco and the sacrifices continued.
At about this time a bee swarm occurred, attacking the common people. While the Popol Vuh translated by Tedlock makes it seem like the elite caused the bee attack, the text is not so clear to me: q'eqal jab' musmul jab or "time of the furious honeybees, crumbling mound of honey bees." It may have just happened.
The names of the two oldest Maya lineages also hint at this time of heart sacrifice. Ch'orti' means "language of the breast" but could also mean "opening at the breast," which would be one way to describe the heart sacrifice. Similarly, Quiche means "speaking from the heart" but if the second syllable is che' instead of che, Quiche becomes "handle hearts."
The Popol Vuh then discusses the common people escaping from Isla Tigre: echalamicat or "observe the cats cross the tired water." The "tired water" is the Gulf of Fonseca, which has little tidal movement. The "cats" refer to a group of Maya - while the elite were at time called (tamed) jaguars, all Maya were called cats. The Maya ancestors had learned how to tame the jaguar less than 100 years earlier and make them into cats.
The Popol Vuh backs up to explain how the escape happened. Two young women were sent to seduce the Maya elite so that they wouldn't notice the escaping folks, who were "looking for an escape through the teeth (of the jaguars)": saq loq' oj. It says that the women were from esteemed homes: "ch'om" (choh ohom) and that they were desirable - "pulpy" and "hanging": xtaj xpuch'. In being deceived by the women, the Popol Vuh blames the Maya elite: ki b'atz'unja, or "cursed with greed and rotten hearts."
The women pretended to be catching turtles: chaka chaxinaq, which is "lying down in skin (naked) (catching) turtles with our nets," and xil kiwach - "sleeping turtles raised," which has a sexual double meaning. Then the Popol Vuh makes a sexual pun with the name Nicaragua, soon to be the place of residence by the escaping Chibcha and Miskito, using the metaphor of a turtle: chiyulinik wach(i), "our growth to break through (by means of) trembling sleeping turtle." "Trembling and sleeping" - nikwa - sounds somewhat like Nicaragua.
Those escaping took sail rafts off the island, "solowik:" which is "extended arch (sail) into source of wind." The departure of the common people greatly pained those who remained. The Popol Vuh says katzonon uq uxik, or "the beginning of the pain in our hearts; mournful painful search." The Maya elite tried to find the escapees. And joxol ch'ek, which is "this choice caused ulcer in (their) chest."
The Popol Vuh explains that very young children escaped, including orphaned babies still breast-feeding whose mothers had been killed through the heart sacrifice: tz'alam ch'ut kej b'ej, or "from the fatigued current, still wet from the opening of the breast, orphans were transported."
The Popol Vuh tells us that the tribes were called the Tam and the Iloc and that these tribes had begun to speak differently. These were the ones who were killed. Raphael Girard in Esotericism of the Popol Vuh, provides a more complete translation when he names them the Tamup and the Ilocap. Tamup is tam mup - "showing the interior," with a double meaning of tam up, "hearing the interior." Both meanings are consistent with a heart sacrifice, with the second meaning showing the possibility of wanting to hear the inside of the body (perhaps due to a tobacco rasp?). Ilocap is il lo'k kahp or "see the opening up and escape." They saw the heart sacrifices and decided it was time to leave. This implies that the Ilocap were not sacrificed themselves but they knew they might be next. So among the two groups who escaped there were people who were directly affected and those who saw it happening.
Were did the Maya refugees go and who did they become? The groups immediately to the south are a place to start: the Miskito and related groups, who are in Nicaragua, and the Chibcha speaking nations, who are in Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Venezuela, and Colombia. A look at the names of the major groupings in these two groups demonstrates that these are the two lineages who escaped from the Maya elite at Isla Tigre and place names show that both were in Nicaragua before most of the Chibcha moved further south.
Today the Miskito live on the Atlantic Coast of southern Honduras to southern Nicaragua. The name Miskito could not be clearer: mis ki' toh, "cat heart sacrifice." Cat could refer to the Maya elite - the tame jaguars (b'ahram) - or it could refer to the Maya common people - cats as opposed to jaguars. The Matagalpa lineage has a name associated with an agricultural advance that I'll discuss later. The third main language group is the Sumo which is sum mo' or "parrot on a rope." Perhaps the Sumo are from the lineage that first tamed the parrot or macaw on Isla Tigre.
The names along the north Atlantic coast of Nicaragua indicate that is where the Miskito, etal, escaped to. Puerto Cabezas, the center of Miskito life, is Bilwi in Miskito. In Ch'orti' this is "bir wih" and means "path from the origin (Isla Tigre)." Zelaya, the Miskito name of the region is xel lah ha' or "torn from the fatigued waters." Fatigued waters or current is one way of saying the Gulf of Fonseca. Tuapi, a town on the coast just north of Puerto Cabezas, seems to be "wahpi," or "continue on." Another town near Puerto Cabezas tells of the refugee status of the Miskito - Quaquel, which is kah ker or "separated at the beginning."
On their escape, the Miskito, etal, may have turned inland a bit south of Isla Tigre on the Choluteca River and boated to the present-day city of Choluteca, Honduras, whose name is hard to explain except for this flight: ch'or' ut tek kah or "opening of the breast beginning to open up." This would make sense if there are women wet nurses for the orphan babies. The village a couple kilometers to the east supports the idea of the flight of the Miskito: Santa Ana de Yusguare or yux wa'ar, "dividing the jaguars." This may indicate the switch from boat to foot, the jaguar people were divided.
The next town where the trail may pick up is Somoto, Nicaragua, which is soh moh toh - "offering for the closed up arch," which may have been a place to sleep. The journey was hard. The next town is Yalagüina or yah lah wi'nah: "sickness, fatigue and hunger." The next town to the east, Palacagüina, indicates that they may have made boats to go downstream to the Rio Coco, which flows to the Atlantic: pala kah wi'nah, "beginning of hunger on the boats." There is a river branch near town that reaches the Rio Coco which goes all the way to the Atlantic Coast.
Several miles downstream is the town of Quibuto, which is ki' but toh or "cut up from the heart sacrifice." But this also has a double meaning from a similar phrase ki' buha' toh, or "cured from the heart sacrifice." Later, very near to the Atlantic Ocean, the town of Iralaya would be ir ahl ha' yah or "the occasion of seeing the swollen water."
It is likely that the new Miskito people settled at Bilwi or Puerto Cabezas. Many other names around Puerto Cabezas are understandable in Ch'orti' - named at the time that the Miskito people had first escaped from Isla Tigre and therefore still spoke the Ch'orti' of that time. Tuara is a village several kilometers north of Puerto Cabezas in a marshy area. Tuara is wa'ar h'a - "standing water." Bismuna Tara is a large lagoon near the Nicaraguan border with Honduras. It is bis mun ha' tara - "arriving to measure the filling up with water."
Laguna Taberis is a lagoon about halfway between Puerto Cabezas and Bismuna Tara. Taberis is tah ber ix - "pulling motion in the forest," describing the tidal motion in the mangrove forest around the lagoon. Karata is a small lagoon south of Puerto Cabeza. It is k'ar aht tah or "retained water forest." A town south of Puerto Cabezas is Huaunta or wa'an tah, "forest at the rising," the rising sun over the Atlantic next to the forest. The Coco River along the Honduran-Nicaragua is also called Wangki, which is wa'an ki' or "rising heart."
The belief system of the Miskito also reflect this early history of the Miskito. The phrase for heaven is Yapti Pura which in Ch'orti' is ya'b ti' pur lah or "mixing in the mouth of the tired up-and-down." The "mouth of the tired up-and-down" would refer, as before, to the Gulf of Fonseca and Isla Tigre. "Mixing" would be the time of all the tribes together before they separated and some, like the Miskito, were repressed. That early time on Isla Tigre was like heaven. Yapti Misri is the Mother Scorpion Guardian in Miskito and in Ch'orti' is ya'b ti' mis ri or "mixing in the mouth beside the cats" which speaks of the later time when the tribes were not so close. Perhaps the mother scorpion guardian helped protect the Miskito from the cats (Maya elite). And maybe scorpion is also an astrological reference.
Liwa, is considered the ruler of the ocean for the Miskito. In Ch'orti' Liwa is li wa' or "beside the beings." Liwa, the ruler of the ocean, is beside the beings, the Miskito refugees at the Nicaraguan Atlantic coast. Wan Aisa is the Miskito creator. In Ch'orti' Wan Aisa is wa'an ah tz'ah or "rising over the wetness." This refers to the triple star of Venus, Jupiter, and Mars which was visible for several mornings in 8208 BCE and for the Miskito would have been over the ocean. It is hard to emphasize how important this sight would have been for the Miskito only a few years from being refugees from the Maya.
The Miskito name implies that they were the victim of heart sacrifice, which makes the Tam or Tamup name in the Popol Vuh fit more for them. That would mean that the Chibcha correspond to Ilocap. The names of the primary language groups of the Chibcha confirm that they, like the Miskito, are refugees of the Maya elite. Wikipedia lists seven languages, along with the macro name, Chibcha. Each one, translated with Ch'orti', tells part of the story of the repression and escape, which means that each one existed as a family or clan at the time of the escape.
Waimi, at contact, found in Costa Rica and Panama
(Ch'orti'): way mis - "sleeping cats" (describing their escape from the sleeping elite)
Boruca, at contact found in Costa Rica
bor uk' kah - "beginning of the increase in sadness"
Talamanca, at contact found in Costa Rica and Panama
tal ha' ma ahn kah - "beginning of the arrival from the bad water current" (Gulf of Fonseca)
Pech, at contact, on Atlantic Coast, Honduras
pech - "orphans" (a lineage made up of children whose parents were killed by the heart sacrifices. Their main town in Honduras is Kulmi, which could mean "cat penis" which seems to indicate that rape was also part of the repression faced by the Chibcha refugees.
Dorasque, present in Panama
tor as quer - "practice dividing open mutilation," referring to what was practiced at Isla Tigre
Voto (Votic), present in Nicaragua and Costa Rica
po' toh - "deep spot sacrifice." This is not completely clear but "deep spot" could refer to the heart. The name of the Rama who are part of this group and who remained in Nicaragua, means lah ma or "tired of the badness," the badness of the Maya elite.
Kuna, present in Panama and Colombia
k'un nam - "disappearance of tenderness"
Chibcha, as a language it is present in Colombia
chip ch'a' - "bit lying down" (reference to the heart sacrifice, bit by a jaguar)
The Chibcha did not seem to go straight to Costa Rica or Panama. There is evidence they stayed in Nicaragua for some time. Most indigenous names in Nicaragau are in Ch'orti'. It is possible that the Miskito named all the locations, but since European contact, western Nicaragua has been outside their domain.
There is also a strong clue of a Nicaraguan point of debarking for the rafts carrying the Chibcha refugees from Isla Tigre: the port city of Corinto. Corinto shares a name with Corinto, El Salvador, which means "first naked sacrifice," from the very first encounter of those called Xibalba. The first syllable of Corinto, El Salvador, was kor, while for Corinto, Nicaragua, it would have been k'or, meaning "first transport sacrifice." This implies that a person died on the passage over from the Gulf of Fonseca to Corinto. The next town Chinandega is chin ahn te' k'a or "satisfied with logs on throbbing current."
It appears that the Chibcha group made its way to present-day Managua. Managua is ma ahn wa' or "having a bad current," referring to the poor egress of Lake Managua. Nicaragua is nihk k'ar ha' wa' or "being shaken at retained water," most likely referring to an earthquake. Then there are the Acahualinca footsteps frozen in time in volcanic ash. The most current dating places the footsteps at 2120 years ago. The name is Ch'orti' so if it wasn't the Chibcha it was some other group of Ch'orti'-speaking visitors or immigrants. But the meaning of the name fits the situation of the Chibcha in 8250 BCE very well. Acahualinca translates as Ak' kah wa'al in k'ah, which is "our happy beginning, skin walking." I assume "skin walking" means to walk barefoot. Perhaps the Rama, aware of what their ancestors had done, repeated the ceremony 2120 years ago.
- Rio San Juan - san wa'an - "swollen and rising"
- Rivas - ri pas - "beside the purging" (Isla Omotepe volcano)
- Carazo - k'a ratz so - "desirable narrow arch" (not clear)
- Jinotepe - hin noh tepe - "pick large hard ones"
- Masaya - max tsa ya - "wet and toxic cavity" (Masaya volcano)
- Estelí - ehtz tel li - "observe the ridge beside"
- Ocotal - ok ot tal - "arrive to shelter on foot"
- Momotombo - mo motz t'om po' - "payment for the constricting and shutting off of deep hole" (ceremony for the end of volcanic eruptions)
- Ometepe - ohom eht tep pek - "challenging hard peaks in the foam"
Then there are several names that indicate that several hundred years later relations with the Maya improved and the Maya taught corn production to the Chibcha.
- Nagarote - na'k' ahr lo' te' - "time of the long kernel plants"
- Chichigalpa - ch'i' chik' ahr pa' - "the time of growing the crushed masa"
Chontales, Matagalpa and Jinotega have also been translated but they will wait for a blog section about agricultural roots. The place names of Nicaragua are a strong indicator that the Chibcha people lived for several thousand years in southwest Nicaragua before most (all but the Rama and Pech perhaps) moved south to Costa Rica and Panama. Corn has been dated to about 5800 BCE in Panama which could be an approximate date of when most of the Chibcha moved south.
The Maya Practice of Blood Letting
The Maya day signs of B'atz (Chuen) and Chichchan (Chikchan) tell us more about the meaning of these events. The original meaning of B'atz seems to be ba'x, which is "curse" or "malice." This indicates that the malice - the heart sacrifice - and the curse - the dividing of the Maya - happened when the Mars retrograde calendar was lined up to 5 B'atz, which was from 8278 BCE to 8246 BCE.
Earlier, from the Popol Vuh translations, we learned that for the elite Maya these events were a curse which caused an "ulcer in chest" and was a "source of ghosts." They haunted the Maya. Surely the spirits of the ancestors visited the Maya incessantly. The way that the elite Maya dealt with this was bloodletting - the Popul Vuh calls it ritzum - the "twisting twine." Perhaps they believed that their spilling of blood would appease the ancestor spirits of those killed and those who sought refuge in Nicaragua. But the bloodletting was also likely a sign, a promise, to their own people that they would never again deploy the heart sacrificing, the sacrificing of their own people.
The Tzolk'in day sign Chichchan (Chikchan) tells us more. While it is generally translated "large serpent," I think that is a secondary meaning. If it were a primary meaning it would be spelled "Chichan." Chichchan would be chich chan or "serpent through hard flesh," and clarifying meaning is provided by ch'ich', which is "blood," and ch'an, which is "twine". The bloodletting is done with a twine where thorns have been attached which pulled up through a pierced tongue - the "serpent through flesh." They tried to think of the most painful thing to do to themselves to make the ghosts of the curse go away. Bloodletting most likely would have begun on 12 Chichchan in the Mars retrograde calendar which was 8120 BCE, about 130 years after the curse. The bloodletting practice persisted for more than 9,000 years and some still do it today.
After this the Maya seem to have given Hakawitz, where they were introduced to tobacco, a double meaning - from "Beginning of Happiness Mountain" to Hak'awitz, meaning "Diminishing of Happiness Mountain."