You need Adobe Flash Player to view this content.
Click here to download Adobe Flash Player
General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 24 Jan 2017/4 Eagle
Text Size:

Fragment of an Aztec eagle vessel with the date 2 Reed

Click to see the latest Artefact in the Spotlight!

link of the month button
Watch a short introductory video on the Aztec Sunstone aimed at art history students
Link to page about the Maya Calendar
Today's Maya date is: 13.0.4.2.15 - 1496 days into the new cycle!
Link to page of interest to teachers
Click to find out how we can help you!

John Bierhorst

Why did the Aztecs dance when they fought? asked St Thomas of Canterbury RC Primary School. Read what John Bierhorst had to say.

Search the Site (type in white box):

Article more suitable for mature students

Mexicolore contributor Holley Moyes

Rites in the Underworld: Caves as Sacred Space in Mesoamerica

We are most grateful to Dr. Holley Moyes, Assistant Professor, School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts, University of California, Merced, USA, for this fascinating and perceptive article specially written for us on the importance of caves in ancient Mesoamerica.

Pic 1: In Mexica legend, after leaving Aztlán, the face of Huitizilopochtli appears (right) inside a hummingbird mask, surrounded by spruce tree branches, within a sacred cave at the heart of Colhuacan mountain - ‘place of ancestors’
Pic 1: In Mexica legend, after leaving Aztlán, the face of Huitizilopochtli appears (right) inside a hummingbird mask, surrounded by spruce tree branches, within a sacred cave at the heart of Colhuacan mountain - ‘place of ancestors’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Much of Mesoamerica sits on Cretaceous limestone that was once underwater. Both large and small holes are created in this relatively soft limestone by underground rivers or dissolution cavities that are uncovered as the water table falls revealing literally thousands of caves in this area. When we think of caves, most westerners immediately conjure images of the cave man living in his cozy stone house, but archaeological research shows that ancient people never lived in dark caves, but instead inhabited rock shelters or camped in cave entrances (Moyes 2013). Deep dark caves have always been reserved as sacred precincts for special rites and rituals, or as places to bury the honored dead. Nowhere is this better demonstrated that in the cultures of Mesoamerica where caves play important roles in both religious rites and political ceremonies (Moyes and Brady 2013).

Pic 2: ‘Oztotl’ (cave): ‘Our mothers, our fathers have gone... to rest.. in the cave, the place of the dead’. Florentine Codex Book XI
Pic 2: ‘Oztotl’ (cave): ‘Our mothers, our fathers have gone... to rest.. in the cave, the place of the dead’. Florentine Codex Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

Throughout Mesoamerica caves take on special meaning that may vary between cultures, but share common themes surrounding life, fertility, and abundance juxtaposed with those of danger, evil, and death. In Mesoamerican thought, both in the past and present, caves are ambiguous spaces associated with indwelling good and evil deities that can be coaxed, flattered, or angered by humans. It is for this reason that rituals in caves were used as a place to petition and honor these deities so vital to human well-being.

Pic 3: Illustration from a painted Late Classic vase depicting Chac, the rain god sitting in his cave/house drawn like a building in profile. (After Stone 1995: Fig. 3-1, adapted from Coe 1978:78, no.11)
Pic 3: Illustration from a painted Late Classic vase depicting Chac, the rain god sitting in his cave/house drawn like a building in profile. (After Stone 1995: Fig. 3-1, adapted from Coe 1978:78, no.11) (Click on image to enlarge)

Research over the last 40 years has provided insights as to how ancient people used caves and the role they played in ancient societies. The earliest known depiction of a cave comes from the El Rey monument located at Chalcatzingo, an Olmec-related site north of what is now Mexico City. The monument is a huge bas-relief design carved into a large boulder situated on a mountainside. In the carving, a personage, possibly a religious leader, ruler, or ancestor wearing an elaborate headdress is shown sitting inside of a cave on a throne or bench that has a symbol for a cloud inscribed on it. In his arms is an object resembling a ceremonial bar that is also marked with a cloud symbol. Mist or smoke emanates from the cave, as plants and vegetation spring up around the entrance and clouds rain on the scene (Angulo 1987:133-158; Grove and Gillespie 1984:32-33; Reilly 1994:78-79, 1995) (pic 3). This rich image suggests that important leaders go to caves to create clouds that provide rain necessary for agricultural fertility. In other words, these leaders are rain makers and cave rites are an important part of this enterprise.

Pic 4: A cloud emerges from the entrance of the cave at Las Cuevas on the 2012 summer solstice (photo by author, courtesy of the LCAR)
Pic 4: A cloud emerges from the entrance of the cave at Las Cuevas on the 2012 summer solstice (photo by author, courtesy of the LCAR) (Click on image to enlarge)

The image also suggests that people have long believed that clouds can come out of caves as reported by many modern Maya people (Vogt 1969:387; Vogt and Stuart 2005:164-165). In fact, there is some truth to this. Researchers often find sites by surveying mountain sides after heavy rains because they can see mist coming out of the cave mouth. On the summer solstice of 2012, a beautiful cloud emerged from the cave at Las Cuevas in Belize (pic 4).

Pic 5: El Rey monument is a bas relief illustrating an important person sitting within a cave. Clouds rain on top of the cave and plants are shown growing on the surface (after Reilly 1994:85)
Pic 5: El Rey monument is a bas relief illustrating an important person sitting within a cave. Clouds rain on top of the cave and plants are shown growing on the surface (after Reilly 1994:85) (Click on image to enlarge)

It is therefore not surprising to find that throughout Mesoamerica rain deities such the Zapotec Cocijo, the Central Mexican Tlaloc (Miller and Taube 1997:184), and the Maya rain deity Chac are thought to dwell in caves (Bassie-Sweet 1991, 1996; Brady 1989; Stone 1995). We see this in ancient Maya depictions such as that on a Late Classic period vessel (AD 700-900) that illustrates Chac sitting in his cave house (pic 5).

Pic 6: In the mural of Tepantitla at Teotihuacán the cave appears to represent the uterus of the goddess of fertility and the earth - place of germination, but also of return to the earth womb
Pic 6: In the mural of Tepantitla at Teotihuacán the cave appears to represent the uterus of the goddess of fertility and the earth - place of germination, but also of return to the earth womb (Click on image to enlarge)

Caves are also envisioned as entrances to underworlds (MacLeod and Puleston 1978). Both the Maya and the Aztecs viewed their world as consisting of three levels: the sky, the middle world or earth, and the underworld. Classic period glyphic associations for ancient Maya caves contain elements such as a skull, bone, mandible, or detached eye within a half darkened field, suggesting affiliations with death and the underworld (See Vogt and Stuart 2005:157-159). According to David Stuart these motifs are also associated with bat wings in Maya iconography, further establishing these ideological connections.

Pic 7: (L) The nine underworlds, based on the Codex Vaticanus A and (R) Mictecacíhuatl (Lady of the Underworld) based on the Codex Fejérvary-Mayer: illustrations by Miguel Covarrubias
Pic 7: (L) The nine underworlds, based on the Codex Vaticanus A and (R) Mictecacíhuatl (Lady of the Underworld) based on the Codex Fejérvary-Mayer: illustrations by Miguel Covarrubias (Click on image to enlarge)

The traditional underworld was considered a fearsome and dreaded place named Mictlan by the Aztec, and Xibalba or “place of fright” by the K’iche’ Maya, and was the place through which all souls, save those killed violently (for example victims of warfare), were required to journey after death. At the time of the Spanish conquest, most Central Mexican people conceived of the underworld as consisting of nine levels (Miller and Taube 1997:177). The most detailed pictographic description of the underworld is in the Aztec Codex Vaticanus A in which the first layer is part of the inhabitable earth. Layers continue downward, descending into the passage of waters, followed by the entrance to mountains, hill of obsidian knives, place of frozen winds, place where the flags tremble, place where people are flayed, place where the hearts of people are devoured, and finally to the ninth layer, referred to as Mictlan Opochcalocan, where the dead lie in eternal darkness (Aguilar-Moreno 2007:139; See also Berdan 2005:130) (pic 7). As Miller and Taube noted (1997:177), these layers are reminiscent of the torture “houses” that the Hero Twins must endure in the Maya Popol Vuh story, an ethnohistoric account of the Maya creation myth (See Christenson 2007; Tedlock 1996). In the story, the underworld was inhabited by the Lords of the Underworld, who were denizens of death, disease, and violence that prayed on human frailty. In the story, pairs of Hero Twins traveled deep into the underworld to encounter the evil lords, navigating the rivers and trails that lead to the lowest levels. Journeys to caves likely to have mimicked those of the mythological Hero Twins and were considered transformative rites of passage.

Pic 8: ‘Chantli’ or cave-as-home; Florentine Codex Book XI
Pic 8: ‘Chantli’ or cave-as-home; Florentine Codex Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

Because of mythical associations as well as beliefs about indwelling earth deities, caves were considered to be places where one could attain great power over nature that could be used to bolster political standing. It is therefore not surprising that caves became important ritual spaces for community leaders and elites to propitiate earth and underworld deities. Based on ethnohistoric documentation, Mesoamerican settlement choices focused on the importance of natural features in the establishment of communities (García-Zambrano 1994). Features such as trees, rocks, springs, water holes, and caves not only helped to define geographic boundaries but were also the spiritual manifestations of a sacred and living landscape, thus defining spiritual boundaries as well (Farriss 1984:129, 148). Ideas of land rights were inherent in Mesoamerican religious beliefs in which land was not “owned” by people in the western sense but could only be borrowed by humans from the true owners - the local deities dwelling on or within the earth. Without the cooperation of the earth spirits, human enterprise was doomed to failure. Early charismatic leaders developed ties with the indwelling spirits and were therefore themselves spiritually connected to the land that they governed. This not only enhanced their prestige, but was also integral to the acquisition of power within the prevailing ideological system (Moyes and Prufer 2009).

Pic 9: Broken pottery from Cormorant Cave, Belize (photo by author, courtesy of the Belize Cave Research Project)
Pic 9: Broken pottery from Cormorant Cave, Belize (photo by author, courtesy of the Belize Cave Research Project) (Click on image to enlarge)

Archaeologists find evidence of ancient ritual use in caves throughout Mesoamerica (Brady and Peterson 2005). Cave sites contain pottery, groundstone artifacts such as manos, metates, and celts, marine and freshwater shell, lithics, animal bone, plant remains, copal incense, personal ornaments such as jewelry, and in some cases well-preserved cloth (Schwaben et al. 2004). Most Maya cave artifacts are broken objects that are smashed or “killed” by making a hole or breaking off a piece. Breakage may occur either inside or outside of caves. Studies show that when objects are broken inside of caves, pieces are carried out and possibly employed in other ceremonies or curated (pic 9; Brady 1989:86; Moyes 2006:73-75). Some light may be shed on this practice by turning to the Maya creation myth as told in the Popol Vuh. At the end of the story, the triumphant Hero Twins threaten to kill the people of the underworld, but instead decide to spare their lives and chastise them by limiting the offerings that were able to receive from humans. The punishment was that offerings could only consist of “... scabrous nodules of sap ...; just griddles, just gourds, just brittle things broken to pieces” (Tedlock 1996:138). Bearing these words in mind, it should come as no surprise that offerings left for deities in an underworld setting such as a cave, should be fragmentary.

Pic 10: Map of the Las Cuevas site illustrating entrance to the cave situated directly below the eastern structure of Plaza A. The cave tunnel system runs directly beneath the site (courtesy of the LCAR)
Pic 10: Map of the Las Cuevas site illustrating entrance to the cave situated directly below the eastern structure of Plaza A. The cave tunnel system runs directly beneath the site (courtesy of the LCAR) (Click on image to enlarge)

Not only do caves contain large artifact assemblages, but many caves were architecturally modified. Architectural features may have served to divide public from private space (Brady 1989:402-406), but more importantly constructions established ritual performance space, recreated cosmological ideals, and enhanced the embodied experience of ritual participants. By far the most elaborately constructed cave in Mesoamerica is the cave at Las Cuevas in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve in western Belize (Moyes et al. 2012). Las Cuevas is a medium-sized Maya administrative/ceremonial center. It is accessed via a massive entrance that sits in a sinkhole directly below the eastern structure of Plaza A (pic 10). To understand the importance of the layout of this site, one has to comprehend the ancient Maya cosmology and sacred geography that consists of a mountain/cave/water complex (Brady and Ashmore 1999:126). Architecture often referred to and replicated this idealized landscape in which temples represented sacred mountains and rooms at their summits sacred caves (Vogt and Stuart 2005). A cenote containing a natural spring lies at the center of the cave’s entrance chamber. The entrance is heavily modified with monumental architectural constructions including terraces, retaining walls, stairs and platforms that are topped with layers of thick plaster. Platforms and stairways surround the sinkhole and are stepped upward creating an amphitheater-like space, suggesting that the cave was used for large and well-organized ceremonies that could be viewed by large numbers of participants. The site’s architectural layout and incorporation of natural features creates a cosmologically-charged space that reifies the mountain/cave/water complex at the heart of Maya ideology, and is clearly designed to sanctify the rites and ceremonies that occurred within the space.

Pic 11: Schematic drawing (after Doris Heyden, 1975) illustrates the placement of the cave beneath the Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan, Mexico (Moyes and Brady 2005)
Pic 11: Schematic drawing (after Doris Heyden, 1975) illustrates the placement of the cave beneath the Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan, Mexico (Moyes and Brady 2005) (Click on image to enlarge)

While the Las Cuevas site was built over a natural cave, man-made ones were sometimes constructed in their absence. This is particularly common in highland Guatemala where one of the best examples is at the site of Utatlan, where three constructed caves run beneath the ancient city (Brady and Veni 1992). At the site of Teotihuacan in central Mexico, a cave was constructed beneath the massive Pyramid of the Sun (Heyden 1975) (pic 11). The construction contained lobes that resembled the seven-lobed cave of Chicomostoc, the mythological place of human emergence of the Aztec, who believed that each lobe of the cave gave rise to a different ethnic group.

Pic 12: Chicomoztoc, the Aztec cave of origin, as depicted in the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca, fol. 34
Pic 12: Chicomoztoc, the Aztec cave of origin, as depicted in the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca, fol. 34 (Click on image to enlarge)

This mythic space is well-illustrated in the ethnohistoric document the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca (pic 12). The myth was prevalent in central Mexico and sometimes inspired quite literal constructions. For instance, at the site of Acatzingo Viejo in Puebla, there is a constructed cave complex of seven small caves arranged in a semi-circle set in a karstic ridge (Aguilar et al. 2005). Six of the caves were intact and a road cut through the seventh. This configuration clearly mimicked the spatial arrangement attributed to Chicomostoc.

Pic 13: Watery entrance of Actun Tunichil Muknal (Cave of the Crystal Sepulcher), Cayo District, Belize
Pic 13: Watery entrance of Actun Tunichil Muknal (Cave of the Crystal Sepulcher), Cayo District, Belize (Click on image to enlarge)

In conclusion, research on ancient Mesoamerican caves has demonstrated that they were important sacred spaces that housed powerful deities that could help or hinder human enterprise. Their associations with the sacred earth as well as the underworld made them important places to conduct rituals associated with rainmaking and agricultural fertility. They contained life-giving powers and were considered to be mythological places of origin that gave rise to both humans and their sustenance. Caves were also a vital component of sacred geography consisting of a mountain/cave/water complex. Those containing water were especially favored because cave water was considered pure and untouched. As places of power, it is no surprise that rites conducted within caves were used to sanction place and legitimate the power of elites. Rituals conducted in caves were particularly powerful because they invoked the power of the earth and underworld (pic 13).

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: image based on detail from the Codex Boturini (fol. 1) - illustration from the back cover of hand drawn facsimile edition; private collection
• Pix 2 & 8: images from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pix 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, 13: supplied by and courtesy Holley Moyes
• Pic 6: from Wikipedia (Tepantitla)
• Pic 7: images scanned from our own copy of The Aztecs: People of the Sun by Alfonso Caso, illustrations by Miguel Covarrubias, Lowell Dunham, trans. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958
• Pic 12: public domain.

References Cited:-

• Aguilar-Moreno, Manuel
- 2005 Constructing Mythic Space: The Significance of a Chicomoztoc Complex at Acatzingo Viejo. In In the Maw of the Earth Monster: Mesoamerican Ritual Cave Use, edited by James Brady and Keith Prufer, pp. 69-89, University of Texas Press, Austin
- 2007 Handbook to Life in the Aztec World. Oxford University Press, NY
• Angulo, Jorge V.
1987 The Chalcatzingo Reliefs: an Iconographic Analysis. In Ancient Chalcatzingo, edited by David C. Grove, pp. 133-158, University of Texas Press, Austin
• Bassie-Sweet, Karen
- 1991 From the Mouth of the Dark Cave: Commemorative Sculpture of the Late Classic Maya. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman
- 1996 At the Edge of the World: Caves and Late Classic Maya World View. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman
• Berdan, Frances F.
2005 The Aztecs of Central Mexico: An Imperial Society, 2nd Edition. Thomson Wadsworth, Belmont, CA
• Brady, James E.
1989 Investigation of Maya Ritual Cave Use with Special Reference to Naj Tunich, Peten, Guatemala. Ph.D. Dissertation, Archaeology Program, University of California, Los Angeles
• Brady, James E. and Polly A. Peterson
2008 Re-envisioning Ancient Maya Ritual Assemblages. In Religion, Archaeology, and the Material World, edited by Lars Fogelin, pp. 78-96, Center for Archaeological Investigations, Carbondale, Illinois
• Brady, James E. & George Veni
1992 Man-made and Pseudo-Karst Caves: The Implications of Sub-Surface Geologic Features within Maya Centers. Geoarchaeology 7 (2) 149-:6 7
• Christenson, Allen J.
2007 Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya. [Translation] University of Oklahoma Press, Norman
• Farriss, Nancy M.
1984 Maya Society under Colonial Rule: The Collective Enterprise of Survival. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
• García-Zambrano, Angel J.
1994 Early Colonial Evidence of Pre-Columbian Rituals of Foundation. In Seventh Palenque Round Table, Vol. IX, 1989, edited by Merle G. Robertson and Virginia Field, pp. 217-227, Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, San Francisco, CA
• Grove, David C. and Susan Gillespie
1984 Chalcatzingo’s Portrait Figurines and the Cult of the Ruler. Archaeology 37(4):27-33
• Heyden, Doris.
1975 An Interpretation of the Cave Underneath the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, Mexico. American Antiquity 40:131-47
• MacLeod, Barbara and Dennis Puleston
1978 Pathways Into Darkness: The Search for the Road to Xibalba. In Tercera Mesa Redonda de Palenque, Vol. 4, edited by Merle Greene Robertson and Donnan Call Jeffers, pp. 71-77, Hearld Peters, Monterey
• Miller, Mary and Karl Taube
1997 An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. Thames and Hudson, NY
• Markt Schwaben, Christopher T Morehart, Jaime J. Awe, Michael Mirro, Vanessa Owen, and Christophe G. Helmke
2004 Ancient Textile Remains from Barton Creek Cave, Cayo District, Belize. Mexicon 26(3):50-56
• Moyes, Holley
- 2006 The Sacred Landscape as a Political Resource: A Case Study of Ancient Maya Cave Use At Chechem Ha Cave, Belize, Central America. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University at Buffalo, New York
- 2012 Constructing the Underworld: The Built Environment in Ancient Mesoamerican Caves. In Heart of Earth: Studies in Maya Ritual Cave Use, edited by James E. Brady, pp. 95-110, Association for Mexican Cave Studies, Bulletin Series No. 23, Austin, TX
- 2013 Introduction. Sacred Darkness: A Global Perspective on the Ritual Use of Caves, edited by Holley Moyes, University Press of Colorado, Boulder
• Moyes, Holley and James E. Brady
- 2005, The Heart of Creation, The Heart of Darkness: Ritual Cave Use in Mesoamerica. Expedition 47(3):30-36
- 2013 Caves as Sacred Space in Mesoamerica. In Sacred Darkness: A Global Perspective on the Ritual Use of Caves, edited by Holley Moyes, University Press of Colorado, Boulder
• Moyes, Holley and Keith M. Prufer
2009 Kayuko Naj Tunich: A Foundational Shrine at Uxbenká, Research Reports in Belizean Archaeology, 6: 191-199, Institute of Archaeology, NICH, Belmopan, Belize
• Moyes, Holley, Mark Robinson, Laura Kosakowsky, and Barbara Voorhies
2012 Better Late than Never: Preliminary Investigations at Las Cuevas, Research Reports in Belizean Archaeology, 9, Institute of Archaeology, NICH, Belmopan, Belize
• Reilly III, F. Kent
- 1994 Visions to Another World: Art, Shamanism, and Political Power in Middle Formative Mesoamerica, Department of Art History, University of Texas, Austin
- 1995 Art, Ritual, and Rulership in the Olmec World. In The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership, edited by The Art Museum of Princeton University, pp. 27-46, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York
• Stone, Andrea J.
1995 Images from the Underworld: Naj Tunich and the Tradition of Maya Cave Painting. University of Texas Press, Austin
• Tedlock, Dennis
1996 Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of the Gods and Kings. New York: Simon and Schuster
• Vogt, Evon Z.
1969 Zinacantan: a Maya Community in the Highlands of Chiapas. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
• Vogt, Evon Z., and David Stuart
2005 Some Notes on Ritual Caves Among the Ancient and Modern Maya. In In the Maw of the Earth Monster: Mesoamerican Ritual Cave Use, edited by James E. Brady and Keith M. Prufer, pp. 155-185, University of Texas Press, Austin.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jul 24th 2013

Learn more about cenotes...

Feedback button

Here's what others have said: