Ruins

Saturday and Sunday are not working days on the Copan trip. Sunday is for worship, of course. But Saturday is for play. And, as you would expect in any group of more than one person, there are different ideas of what counts as play.

For five of us, the thing to do on our play day was to go visit the Mayan ruins outside of town. Actually, the ruins have been here far longer than the town: the modern town of Copan really only grew up around supporting the efforts of the archeologists who came here to uncover and restore the ancient Mayan city and, later, the tourists who wanted to see what the archeologists had uncovered. Visitors to the ruins are still one of the chief factors in Copan being as nice and travel-friendly a city as it is.

I’ve been to the ruins on many trips before, but I always like going back. There is something fascinating and a little haunting about visiting a place that was a ceremonial and religious center – even of a religion and ceremonial system far different from my own – for some four centuries, twelve or thirteen centuries ago. The carvings and the stele and the images represent a view of the universe, and of humans’s place in the universe, very different from the view we have now. And it is difficult for us to piece together what that ancient view was, given the difference from our own and the fragmentary surviving evidence. But there is something fascinating and a little haunting about walking through a long-abandoned place still filled with symbols that make a kind of map of reality.

Our tour guide filled in bits of the Mayan mythology, and the way it was represented in stone and pyramid, as we walked through the plazas and temples. Different tour guides tend (in my experience) to have somewhat different versions of the mythology, so I’m never quite sure if we are getting someone’s fanciful interpretation or agreed archeological theory – but it is always fun.

This guide pointed out several times that the Maya universe was divided between an upperworld, the earthly world, and the underworld. The underworld was thought to be a watery place, kind of an underground sea, where the souls of the dead would descend and dissolve. The gods of the underworld were therefore often depicted as aquatic creatures, like the crocodile. Skulls are also common symbols of the underworld as the place of the dead.

There is a plaza on the acropolis of the city that, they say, could be flooded during the rainy season to depict this underword; the temple that fronts it has a sort of symbolic beach, where statues of shells indicate the border between the underworld and the earthly world. Presiding over the earthly world is the wind god, monkey-faced and holding a maraca or rattle that he uses to summon the winds. From the beach rises a stepped pyramid, until at the top is a temple with an image of the sun god, presiding over the upperworld. The whole complex comprises a model of the universe, and the ceremonies and sacrifices that took place there mapped out the proper movements and observances of human beings within the universe. Life works properly when human beings do what is needed to offer and balance and respect the powers that move upper, middle, and underworlds.

I am always drawn in by macrocosm-and-microcosm symbolisms, so this account of the flooded plaza and the adjacent temple being a map of reality really caught my imagination. I started noticing skulls and faces and sun symbols in different connections around the ceremonial city.

Later, when we were walking among the “forest” of statues of King 18 Rabbit (Maya kings had the most interesting names!), our guide pointed out one statue in particular that showed the king in highly ceremonial dress, as he might have been to lead a ritual or perform a sacrifice at a major feast of the year. The guide pointed out that at the top of the king’s headdress was a mask of the sun god. Then I noticed a living face depicted on the king’s breastplate. And lower down, on bands around his knees, there were skulls. It was as if the statue was saying that the king’s legs were the underworld, the torso the earthly world, and above the head the upperworld. Here was not just a plaza laid out as a microcosm of the macrocosm, but the human body itself reflecting the structure of the universe.

Most of us today do not believe in a literal three-story universe, whether it come from Maya mythology or the Book of Genesis or popular (often satirical) depictions of cloudy heaven and cave-like hell. But I think that there is still today a strong intuitive sense that we live our lives in a middle realm, always moving between powers of dissolution and resolution, destruction and creation, that which can lift us up and that which can drag us down. Our lives are never simply one or the other, sunny sky or watery abyss, but always a kind of dance between them. The statues of the dancing jaguars on another plaza are a kind of reminder that we are always dancing between sunrise and sunset, beginnings and endings of powers of life.

And the statue of the king is another kind of reminder: a reminder that the upward and downward pulls are not just from powers outside ourselves, but are at work within us as well. We as individuals are microcosms of that vast macrocosmic creation drama. We are inwardly dancing, and life works properly when we learn the equipoise, the pirouette, to balance and direct those energies.

There is deep wisdom here, in this fascinating and haunting place. And this glimpse of a ceremonial center of a different religion makes me look again at some of the symbols I have given my life to: the Body of Christ and the Body of Creation, the microcosm of the human spirit dancing in the macrocosm of the Holy Spirit, the death and resurrection that resolves all dissolution.

This Saturday in the ruins will leave its mark on tomorrow’s Sunday of prayers.