Guidebook to the Underworld: Xibalba

Thank you, Friar Ximénez.

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When the Spanish Conquistadors washed up on what we now call South America, they initiated one of the more thorough and widespread acts of cultural obliteration in recorded history.

Mind you, this is hardly unique. The Romans did the same to the Etruscans, and the English who settled/invaded Australia set up a similar program of cultural assimilation for the native inhabitants well into the 20th century, to mention but a few examples – there are countless others, sometimes in the name of religion, sometimes in the name of “progress” or civilization.

No matter what, indigenous cultures are typically victims to the erosion/wholesale eradication of their former ways of life and belief.

For the K’iche’ people of Guatemala, the story was no different. Heirs to the culture of the Maya, they were systematically Westernized. However, in the 1500’s, before the Spandiards arrived, they started to preserve their oral traditions in their native writing; one of the texts that survives is the Popol Vuh, which includes the Mayan creation myth, as well as an account of a descent into the Underworld, called Xibalba.

Upon their arrival, the Spaniards were ill disposed towards these cultural objects, and set about systematically destroying them. In fact, as far as the Popol Vuh is concerned, they all but succeeded.

Enter Dominican Friar Ximénez…

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We know little about the good Friar; he arrived in the New World in 1688, and went on to serve in 2 towns, during which time he learned the native language of Kaqchikel (still in use to this day).

This wasn’t an uncommon practice among Missionaries – after all, how do you transmit the Bible if you can’t speak or write in the native tongue?

Despite the official attempts at suppressing all native beliefs, Ximénez must have been moved by something. Maybe it was sympathy; maybe it was an archival bent; maybe it was to impress on his fellow Spaniards the need to Christianize the poor, sad, heathen  K’iche’.

Perhaps a combination of all three…

Whatever his motives, he didn’t (immediately) destroy the copy of the Popol Vuh he had, but transcribed and translated it into Spanish.

His transmission of the Popol Vuh is the only surviving extant source version currently at our disposal.

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So let’s move onto a description of the Mayan Underworld, transmitted through the K’iche’, and retransmitted by Friar Ximénez: Xibalba

Xibalba is most definitely not a pleasant place – not that most Underworlds are, but Xibalba announces itself loud and clear in its name alone:

The Place of Fear.

Before we descend, let’s consider the inhabitants of the Mayan Underworld:

First and foremost is the Death God Hun-Came. His name means “One Death”. Directly beneath him is Vucub-Came, whose name translates to “Seven Death”.

The rest come in pairs:

Lord Xiquiripat  is the “Flying Scab”, while his partner is Lord Cuchumaquic, the “Gathered Blood”,

Lord Ahalpuh, the “Pus Demon”, and Lord Ahalgana, the “Jaundice Demon”,

Lord Chamiabac, the “Bone Staff”, and Lord Chamiaholom, the “Skull Staff”,

Lord Ahalmez, the “Sweepings Demon”, and Lord Ahaltocob, the “Stabbing Demon”,

and last but definitely not least, Lord Xic, the “Wing”, and Lord Patan, the “Packstrap”

There are more, but they are less relevant. The Death Gods above are the Big 12.

Now, let’s look at some of Xibalba’s key Geographic locations:

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Before getting to the city of Xibalba, there are several obstacles to be surmounted. Here are a few:

Rivers: the rivers that have to be crossed include the River of Scorpions, the River of Blood, and the River of Pus.

Crossroads: crossroads, like rivers, play a part in many Underworld narratives. Here, the crossroads branch unto four different paths, only one of which leads to the city. Good luck choosing the right road.

The City Proper:

Xibalba is described as a great city, with gardens, roads, houses, temples and other structures. Here are a few:

The Houses:

Dark House, as its name implies, plays on the universal fear of the dark. However, this is a deadly dark, and not all survive.

Rattling House is a frozen wasteland, where travelers are pelted by torrents of hail. If you don’t freeze to death, you can move on to…

Jaguar House: I think the name is self explanatory, as is that of the next house.

Bat House, like the previous house, this house is filled with creatures. Not one bat, not two bats; think blinding swarms of bats.

So far, you’ve survived the dark, the cold, and two types of dangerous creatures. Now let’s proceed to:

Razor House. Once again, the not so subtly named Razor House is filled with sharp blades. Blades which, incidentally, move of their own free will…

Finally, if you’ve gone this far, enjoy a little sauna time. Welcome to:

Hot House: I said something about a sauna. If the sauna was designed by Hieronymus Bosch…

You’ve made it! Now, let’s meet the Death Gods themselves.

The Council Room:

In the Council Room, you’ll enjoy the company of the previously mentioned 12 Gods of Death, and several life-like mannequins. You’re expected to seat yourself before them; if you accidentally pick one their replicas, your seat will roast you alive, and the Gods will mock your mortal foolishness.

Okay, that’s been a lot of work. Take a break, and go play some ball…

The Ballcourt:

Playing ball was significant among Meso-American cultures; for instance, the great Mayan site at Chichen Itza has at least thirteen ball courts.

Here, the ball itself is spiked, and deadly.

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This kind of Underworld could easily be used to demonize the Maya and their descendants as brutal, savage heathens.

That line of reasoning reminds me of something ascribed to Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount:

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye…

Or, back to the sauna built by Hieronymus Bosch:

bosh hell
One of Bosch’s several depictions of the Christian Underworld

That being said, thanks again, Friar Ximénez.

 

 

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