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Mexicolore contributor George Frey

Balamkanché, Altar of the Jaguar Priest

We are very grateful to George Fery, a freelance writer-photographer of pre-Columbian history and archaeological sites of Mexico and the Americas, for writing and beautifully illustrating this glance into the spectacular, subterranean and sacred cave of Balamkanché.

Pic 1: Inside the cave at Balamkanché: these side tunnels are not open to the public
Pic 1: Inside the cave at Balamkanché: these side tunnels are not open to the public (Click on image to enlarge)

Caves are central to world cultures’ mythologies. They were used by humans as a sacred landscape from the dawn of time, perceived to be the homes of benevolent and malevolent deities. In the Maya world, they were identified as the abode of Cha’ak, god of a thousand faces, believed to dwell in water pools, springs and mountains, master of the powerful forces of nature. Cha’ak is the longest continuously worshipped god of ancient Mesoamerica. He is recorded from the Early Preclassic (3500 BCE) and probably before, and is still worshipped among Maya communities today. So, let us explore the strange world of this important cave on the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico where life-changing rituals took place.

Pic 2: Some of the cave’s corridors - not publicly accessible
Pic 2: Some of the cave’s corridors - not publicly accessible (Click on image to enlarge)

The spectacular cave at Balamkanché, is found 2.5mi/4km southwest of Chichén Itzá’s archaeological site, near the town of Pisté. The cave proximity to this major pre-Columbian city, underlines the fact that it was an integral part of {itaicUuc Yab’nal, Chichén Itzà’s ancient name in Maya-Yucatec, for religious rituals and ceremonies. Balamkanché was used by people from the Maya Preclassic period as a source of water, dedicated to the worship of Cha’ak, for its close association with rain, lighting and thunder. Cha’ak was then, and still is, understood to be the holder of life, especially given the scarcity of surface water in the Yucatán during the dry season. He was however, a no less powerful mythological figure in other parts of Mesoamerica, often called under a local name, such as Tlaloc, a major god of Teotihuacán, Akztin by the Totonacs or Cocijo by the Zapotecs.

Pic 3: Balamkanché composite 3D laser scan by Cyark.org
Pic 3: Balamkanché composite 3D laser scan by Cyark.org (Click on image to enlarge)

Caves provide a different kind of ritual setting than surface architecture. They are associated with the underworld at the liminal zone between life and death that is, between this world and the perceived “other world.” The presence of water in caves made them Cha’ak’s preferred homes, together with cenotes (sink holes) in the Yucatán. But although the cave stands among the most spectacular in the Mesoamerican world, Balamkanché has received less attention than it deserves.
Balamkanché’s significance can fully be understood when set within Chichén Itzá’s monumental architecture above ground. The interaction between the surface elements and the nearby caves, sheds an unusual light on the life of the ancient city.

Pic 4: The pyramid of Kukulcan, Chichén Itzá and the entrance to the Balamkanché cave
Pic 4: The pyramid of Kukulcan, Chichén Itzá and the entrance to the Balamkanché cave (Click on image to enlarge)

The 2018 re-discovery of the cave called Balamkú by archaeologists (its ancient name is unknown), deep below the Kukulcán pyramid, raises still more questions about the life of the great metropolis. The extremely difficult access to this cave, shows that the shrine was dedicated to the Toltec deity Tlaloc, translated as Kukulcán in the Maya-Itzá language, for the large number of ceramic bi-conical censers with Tlaloc effigy. In small cavities were also found Maya ceramics that underline the antiquity of the cave. Future investigations may show that Balamkú preceded Balamkanchè. The identical root name of the caves, balam or jaguar, refers to the black jaguar not the spotted one, since it was believed that only the black jaguar could roam freely in and out of the underworld.

Pic 5: Cha’ak depicted in the Madrid Codex, plate 6
Pic 5: Cha’ak depicted in the Madrid Codex, plate 6 (Click on image to enlarge)

Tlaloc is understood to be the “second tenant” deity at Balamkanché, with similar attributes as Cha’ak. Tlaloc originates from Tula on the central plateau of Mexico. Like its Maya counterpart, it is associated with caves, cenotes and mountain tops, believed to be the guardians and holders of rain and maize in past and present Maya and other Mesoamerican mythologies. Oddly, in the same cave are two ancient gods, one from the highlands and the other from the lowlands, with identical mythological attributes; a question mark that begs for answers.

Pic 6: The Sacred Well
Pic 6: The Sacred Well (Click on image to enlarge)

Cenotes are sink holes common in the peninsula’s limestone of northern Yucatán, where there are no significant bodies of water above ground. They were used as water sources for communities but were also dedicated religious places for rituals and ceremonies, such as Xtoloc (iguana), and the Sacred Well, or Cenote de Sacrificio, at Chichén Itzá reveals.
The thorough eradication of Cha’ak representation in the cave, underline the proscription of the old god by the priests of the new one.

Pic 7: Circular pathway with remains of the ‘tulum’ (defensive wall)
Pic 7: Circular pathway with remains of the ‘tulum’ (defensive wall) (Click on image to enlarge)

In Toltec mythology, Tlaloc was the Lord of the Third Sun, whose roots go back to Teotihuacán and, farther in time, to Olmec cosmology. Migrations from the central plateau of Mexico explain the presence of Toltec ceramics and Xipe Totec carved stone censers at Balamkanché, the only archaeological artifacts found in the cave. The Toltec migrants settled in power centers and towns yet, traditional Maya-Yucatec deities remained unchanged in the countryside as they are to this day.
Balamkanché’s surface remains are seen scattered on the site above ground. The cave entrance, in the center of the complex, was surrounded by a 115 feet circular tulum or defensive wall, 12 feet wide at the base and raised 4 feet above the rocky top, surmounted by a 6-foot high enclosure made of perishable material, now lost to time. The reason for such a strong defensive wall is not known and may pre-date Toltec arrival.

Pic 8: Cave map (redrawn from McKenzie, Riddell and Wiley, 1974)
Pic 8: Cave map (redrawn from McKenzie, Riddell and Wiley, 1974) (Click on image to enlarge)

For over 10 years in the middle of the 20th century, the exploration of the cave had been José Humberto Gómez’s past time. In 1958 he found what seemed to be a false section of the wall in one of the chambers. On examination, it turned out to be crude masonry sealed with mortar that covered a small access to previously undiscovered chambers. Earlier archaeological expeditions had come within feet of the wall, which had been sealed about 940 CE, not realizing what lay beyond.
The entrance today is located at the center of a circular walled area, which may not have been the location of the original entrance, nor was it the only access. From ground level, steps take one down to a depth of 30 feet, then the corridor branches off.

Pic 9: Main corridor
Pic 9: Main corridor (Click on image to enlarge)

The accessible part of the cave is made up of more than a mile of passageways, that vary considerably in shape and size, from broad and flat, as much as 30 feet wide and 15 feet high, to narrow crawling spaces; others are no longer passable. The cave is divided into six groups, known as Group.I to Group.VI. Group.V is closed, and so is Group.VI; the second access to the cave may have been in this last Group. Archaeological data and remains beyond Group.IV were mapped; a few ceramic artifacts, complete or partially broken, have been recovered in that area.

Pic 10: 30 feet down
Pic 10: 30 feet down (Click on image to enlarge)

The corridors and steps for visitors are well built, lit and maintained; they make for an easy walk, but there are limitations to admission in the cave, (age over 65, health circumstances or physical impediment may prohibit entrance). Sections of the main tunnels cannot be visited; some reach 70 feet below the surface in at least four places. The water depth varies with seasonal rains and entrance may be suspended due to sudden downpours. There is another corridor under the main one, half submerged and very difficult of access but for trained deep cave archaeologists.

Pic 11: Group.I – Altar of the Jaguar Priest
Pic 11: Group.I – Altar of the Jaguar Priest (Click on image to enlarge)

The main chamber is Group.I, a huge and impressive circular room with thousands of stalactites covering the ceiling. The floor, naturally raised as a mound, holds massive twin columns made of both stalactites and stalagmites linked at the center, as forming the shape of a massive tree trunk.
The cave is a strikingly beautiful work of nature; the high place of a culture now seen and partly understood through the fog of time, that consigned its myths and beliefs in Cha’ak and other deities to the mineral world.

Pic 12: Group.1b – The Wakah Chan
Pic 12: Group.1b – The Wakah Chan (Click on image to enlarge)

The central column is a reminder of the trunk of the Ceiba tree, the mythological Wakah Chan, or “Tree of Life” set in stone, with branches reaching to the heavens, while its roots sink deep into the underworld. The veneration of the “Altar of the Jaguar Priest” in Group.I, at the foot of the “tree of life” can only be understood in the context of the vision of a dual perception of life, and its close association with the field of opposites. Of note is the fact that the field is independent of any belief in gods or deities, but identifies exclusively with the chain of life, ancestors-to-descendants.

Pic 13: Group.3d – Chak’Chel place as found by archaeologists in 1968
Pic 13: Group.3d – Chak’Chel place as found by archaeologists in 1968 (Click on image to enlarge)

This impressive sanctuary in Group.I, created by nature but conceived by man as an altar for its deities, was walled in about 942 CE, toward the beginning of the Maya Terminal Classic phase (800-950 CE). During his late 1960s field work, archaeologist E. Wyllys Andrews found a large number of ceremonial ceramic and carved stone effigy censers, as well as mini-metates (grinding stones) set into cavities in the complex stalagmitic formation, and simply laid on the floor.

Pic 14: Group.1d – Tlaloc bi-conical ceramic censer
Pic 14: Group.1d – Tlaloc bi-conical ceramic censer (Click on image to enlarge)

The ceramics are representatives of non-Maya deities from the central plateau of Mexico. Twenty nine large Tlaloc ceramic bi-conical effigy censers, and limestone censers dedicated to Xipe Totec, the “flayed one”, were found on the mound of the altar, together with mini-metates and manos, ceramic plates and other offerings, dated from the Florescent (625-800 CE), to the Modified Florescent (800-950 CE) phases.

Pic 15: Group.1e – The Altar multiple ceramics and limestone censers
Pic 15: Group.1e – The Altar multiple ceramics and limestone censers (Click on image to enlarge)

The presence of Tlaloc censers is understandable given its common mythological attributes with those of Cha’ak, but that is not the case for Xipe Totec, the prominent life-death-rebirth Aztec deity from the Classic period (250-950 CE). Xipe Totec linked agricultural renewal with warfare. The deity got his name for sacrifices during which captives were flayed and stripped from their skins that were then worn in rituals, by the deity’s priests. A ritual dedicated to the vegetal world’s rebirth, the way maize seeds lose their outer leafy layer before germination, and of snakes shedding their skin, in other words, the manifestation of the perpetual renewal of life. The question, however, is what were Xipe Totec items doing at Balamkanché, if not for warfare rituals?

Pic 16: Group.II – Altar of the Pristine Waters
Pic 16: Group.II – Altar of the Pristine Waters (Click on image to enlarge)

Group.II, known as “Altar of the Pristine Waters” holds a special place in rituals. Archaeologists call the altar the “storeroom.” At the foot of the flowstone column wall are ceramic urns, set there to collect virgin water called zuhuy’ha in Yucatec, that drips from the stalactites above. Zuhuy’ha is perceived as the most sacred water in Maya rituals since, to this day, it is collected from stalactites called the “nipples of the earth”. The water is sanctified because it never touches the ground and, being transferred directly from Nature (the rock) to Culture (the manmade urns), acquires the highest ritual value.

Pic 17: The importance of rain: site surface remains; most stones are stolen by looters
Pic 17: The importance of rain: site surface remains; most stones are stolen by looters (Click on image to enlarge)

The importance of the rain god Cha’ak with his mythological multiple aspects in Mesoamerica, like that of his successor Tlaloc at Balamkanché, essentially revolves around a simple word: water, pillar of agrarian societies. That is why the paramount god in these communities was so important; so much so that he has worn a thousand faces up to our days.
Known manifestations of the god among many others, are those that govern the four cardinal directions. As recorded in 16th century Yucatán, they are: Cha’ak Xib Cha’ak the Red Cha’ak of the East; Sak Xib Cha’ak, the White Cha’ak of the North; Ek Xib Cha’ak, the Black Cha’ak of the West and Kan Xib Cha’ak the Yellow Cha’ak of the South. Among rituals still practiced today by peasants in the Maya lowlands, is the Ch’a Cha’ak ceremony. Together with incantations, prayers and gifts of local produce and sometimes fowls in pleas to the god for rain when, during ceremonies, young boys crouch at the four corners of a makeshift altar in the field, and croak like toads calling for rain.

Pic 18: The ‘atlantes’ of Tula (Pyramid B)
Pic 18: The ‘atlantes’ of Tula (Pyramid B) (Click on image to enlarge)

In traditional Maya and other communities of the Americas past and present, one of the most important function of the gods has been that of rain maker. Today, Yucatec Maya farmers differentiate distinct aspects of rain and clouds, represented in ranking-ordered deities. Chichén Itzá lies 20.5 degrees north of the equator. Northern Yucatán and lands further southwest, enjoy only two seasons: dry and wet. In the past, if the rains did not come on time, crops were short or failed entirely. Famine then ensued with its retinue of malevolent deities and social disruptions together with hunger, and the fear of tomorrow.
Of note is the fact that even though Cha’ak and Tlaloc have identical mythological attributes, those did not reflect their respective environment. Tula’s latitude is comparable to Chichén at 20.6 degrees north. However, Tula from where Tlaloc originates, enjoys a benign climate and predictable rains at 6595 feet above sea level, with three major rivers. In the Yucatan however, its dry climate and distinct topography, 30 feet above sea level, is devoid of rivers in its northern half.

Pic 19: Tlaloc, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City
Pic 19: Tlaloc, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

The paradox between the two gods is that their environment, a major factor in shaping ancient societies’ mythologies and religions, is so different as to seem incompatible, but for the fact that they are agrarian communities. Both gods are indeed born from nature at large. But while Tlaloc overcame Cha’ak in urban areas, it did not do so in the countryside where its rituals did not spread. In the Yucatán, at that time, one may qualify Tlaloc as an “urban god.” Political control of the state by the Toltecs therefore, appears to explain the presence of Xipe Totec, god of warfare.

Pic 20: Group.IIIa – Chak’Chel Place
Pic 20: Group.IIIa – Chak’Chel Place (Click on image to enlarge)

On the underground lakeshore at Balamkanché is Group.IIIa with a peculiar arrangement of small ceramic censers, plates and small spindle whorls, as well as stone mini metates (grinding stones), and manos. This collection represents the largest number of offerings in the cave. How and why they were displayed is not known, nor the reason for the assemblage and their respective original number. The display seen today is that of archaeologists. The small size of the objects is particular to Tlaloc offerings, and points to their use by small children. But, could they not have been the toys of aluxes, plural for Maya elves?

Part 2 (conclusion) follows below...

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Apr 17th 2020

Read Part 2...

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