Halloween Haunts: What if the Creepy Devil Mask at Your Halloween Party is not a Costume, but is Actually the Face of God? by Katherine Kerestman
An excerpt from Creepy Cat’s Macabre Travels: Prowling around Haunted Towers, Crumbling Castles, and Ghoulish Graveyards by Katherine Kerestman (WordCrafts Press, 2020), in which Creepy Cat visits the Yucatan:
The irresistible dark mystery of the pre-Columbian Yucatan peninsula was what beckoned me to Mexico. To this end I booked a hotel in Cancun, which was to be my jumping-off place for an exploration of the eerie secrets of the people who used to live there. The balcony of my Caribbean-facing room afforded a lovely view of melded blue sky and sea, white foaming waves rolling onto the sand. On the beach was a wooden lifeguard hut that was covered by a thatched roof, on top of which was another thatched-roof hut in miniature, seemingly reached by the ladder leaning against its wall. Further from shore the sun was reflected by the water in many bright points of light as by a thousand shards of a broken mirror. I regarded the view from the balcony, the Caribbean breeze whipping my skirt up parachute-like, and then I went inside to change into a bathing suit. For a time I frolicked in the waves, and I purchased silver bracelets from a peddler on the beach. Sunbathing was a doomed experiment for me – there was much too much to do to stay still very long. I shopped and enjoyed real Mexican food, and even made a shaky attempt at snorkeling before the day was out.
The next morning, I boarded a tour bus to leave behind the sunshiny beach resort and to enter the shadowy and dense jungle. The forest road was very narrow and the vegetation lush so that the horizon and the sky were obscured from view by the tall trees growing high on both sides of the road. As the guide maintained a steady stream of information about the Yucatan, I was looking at huts alongside the road, their roofs thatched with banana leaves. From these banana leaf roofs arose television antennae, and in front of these huts were stacked Coca-Cola crates. I asked the driver whether the people with television access were satisfied with their lifestyle, and he said they were “content.”
As the bus emerged from the jungle into a clearing, stone buildings in varying states of disrepair came into view. Barefoot children stood in the dirt road before open doorways above which billboards displayed pictures of the sandy beaches I had left behind. The bus was approaching Chichen Itza. I had come to Mexico to explore the civilization of the Maya by visiting its sepulchral cities.
The Maya have lived in southeastern Mexico and Central America since around 2000 B.C., where they flourished until the conquest by Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries A.D. The ancient Maya were a society of city-states whose relations were characterized by shifting alliances as they competed for control of trade routes and resources. Commerce was conducted throughout Mexico and as far away as Guatemala, over land and by canoe along the rivers and coastline of Mesoamerica. Not possessing the wheel, nor having yet domesticated pack animals, the Maya employed human power to move the commodities they were trading — obsidian, gold, cacao, textiles, and slaves (the slaves were primarily prisoners of war) – and to construct their great cities.
Early Mayan beliefs had been largely based on ancestor worship and shamanism and over time evolved into a cosmology that included a pantheon of gods whose functions and influences were rather labile. Divine mood was dependent upon the positions of the celestial bodies, and the king was the mediator between the gods and the human race. By means of ceremonies based upon astronomical and astrological calculation the king sought to placate the gods. Mayan architecture was designed for the purpose of tracking the course of the sun, Venus and the other planets, and the stars — and the highly accurate Mayan calendar was based upon the regular movement of the heavenly bodies. Based on their foreknowledge of planetary positions and the movements of the stars, the Mayan people could anticipate what the gods would be wanting from them in time to appease them and to forestall their wrath. The Mayan mythology was a complex belief system that included thirteen vertical levels of heavens above and nine below the world, as well as the relative positions of the east, west, north and south, each with its own properties.
El Castillo (The Castle) arose before me in the distance as the bus approached Chichen Itza. The stone-block pyramid is ninety-eight feet high, and on each of its four sides is a flight of stairs leading up to the twenty-foot high rectangular structure on the flat summit of the pyramid: the Temple. Until renamed by the Spanish Conquistadores, El Castillo had been known as the Temple of Kukulkan, the Feathered Serpent. It used to preside over a large and bustling pre-Columbian city. Feathered Serpent deities sit open-mouthed – hungrily awaiting sacrificial offerings – at the bases of the stairs. Carvings cover the walls of the buildings in this ancient city, carvings of gods and kings, warriors and sacrificial victims, which at one time had been painted in vibrant colors that have since eroded away. I scrambled – at first – and then carefully picked my way to the top. The stairs were very steep and the steps shallow, so that I had to place my feet carefully to ensure an adequate foothold. The chac-mool arrested my attention at the top – a reclining stone figure of a man with bent knees and head facing outward from the pyramid, its stomach flat to receive a sacrifice. It was a sacrificial altar.
The Mayan gods are bloodthirsty, and sacrifices were prepared for them by an assortment of rituals and for various occasions: the erection of a new edifice, the crowning of a king, or the start of a military campaign. Decapitation and extraction of the heart from a living person were the most common methods of preparing the sacrifice. Distinguished enemy captives – warriors and kings – were the best food of the gods. Some sacrificial victims were sealed alive in tombs; others were killed by a rite of slowly shooting arrows into them or by disembowelment. Torture usually preceded death, and the greater the occasion the more extreme was the ritual torture.
Numerous relics bear witness to the blood tribute the Maya paid their cruel heavenly overlords. At Chichen Itza there is a Sacred Cenote, a well, a natural sinkhole. The Yucatan has a number of these above the underground rivers. The Maya linked sinkholes to the rain god, and they made pilgrimages to them. Sacrificial victims were often tossed alive into these near-bottomless pits. Still today skeletons of tortured sacrificial victims, as well as precious objects, can be found in the cenotes.
The Great Ball Court is one of thirteen ball courts at Chichen Itza. Approximately five hundred fifty feet by two hundred thirty, it is a grassy enclosure surrounded by highly sculpted walls. On the east side of the enclosure is the Temple of the Jaguar, and other temples are on the north and south sides. Depictions of decapitated players are sculpted on the interior walls, blood spurting out from their necks in the form of stylized serpents. The balls used in the Ballgame were sometimes the sacrificial victims themselves, trussed up into balls. The sacrificial victims were the finest ballgame players, who were after the game tortured and decapitated.
De Los Craneos (The Platform of the Skulls) features four rows of Death’s Head carvings. It is one of several extant platforms dedicated to the veneration of the bloodthirsty Mesoamerican divinities which have survived the centuries at Chichen Itza. Also among these are the Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars and the Platform of Venus.
Another pyramid still stands at Chichen Itza – El Templode Los Guerreros y Mil Columnas (Temple of the Warriors and the Thousand Columns). Atop the three-step pyramid are two rectangular structures, and a chac-mool sits on the top at the entrance to the temple. Surrounding the pyramid is a mass of columns, and even though the roofs that were once supported by the columns have long since vanished, several small buildings still endure at one end of the complex. The columns are richly carved with depictions of warriors and gods. As Chichen Itza is too extensive to be seen thoroughly in a single day, there were some buildings I did not have the opportunity to visit; these include a smaller castillo-type pyramid, the Osario whose temple-top is in ruins; Le Iglesia, a late-Mayan administrative building; and El Caracol , an observatory. There is a steam bath, too.
Finding myself back in Cancun after a day in the jungle of the chac-mools was a bit bewildering. The music-filled nightlife was in full swing. I had journeyed from the realm of the dead back to the land of the living. Torture and blood sacrifice were not on the minds of the people who filled the restaurant at which I indulged in a late dinner, enjoying the warm evening breeze under the stars.
I returned to the realm of the ancient Maya the next day, taking another excursion bus — this time to Tulum, the ancient walled city on the cliffs of the Yucatan Peninsula. Both fortress and important commercial center, the thick walls of the city protected its landward side; watch towers set along the walls resemble those of the medieval cities of Europe. From the thirteenth through the sixteenth centuries A.D. Tulum had been an important economic hub – trading with Guatemala over four hundred miles away for obsidian and with Mexico for gold – until disease brought by the Spanish decimated the population in under one hundred years from their arrival. Now jungle is grown up around Tulum’s skeletal remains. Lots of foundations and walls linger, as well as columns that no long support ceilings.
Several edificies still stand. The Temple of the Descending God is a one-room structure containing a sculpture of a winged figure that is a recurring motif in Tulum. The Templo Dios Del Viento (God of Winds Temple) is on the edge of a cliff. El Castillo is a temple overlooking the sea. The Templo de los Frescos is a rectangular stone block structure on top of a larger rectangular base with columns. It is aligned with the progress the sun makes daily through the sky. Scrubby grounds with large swaths of sand form the floor of this jungle-cleared dead city. As I climbed on the Templo de los Frescos, I tried to imagine what Tulum was like when it was full of Mayan people who looked at the world in such a different way than I do, unaware of the coming terminal plagues of Spanish weaponry and microbes.
While Mayan carvings are still telling their history through pictures and pictograms, only three coda survive, and a fourth text of dubious authenticity. Little remains to communicate their stories but mute great monuments and archaeological artifacts, for the Spanish burnt thousands of Mayan books. Whatever ancient Mayans’ daily lives were, they must have lived beneath a somber shadow hovering over their world. The lords of the Mayan universe exalted in torture and gore — demanded fealty in human blood. They threatened famine and war, cataclysmic punishment should they not be appeased. In response, the Maya developed a machinery for feeding the gods their fellow men and women. As I contemplated the remains of the once pulsating city, I mused whether some ancient Mayan author had written a book about his Mayan world view, or perhaps whether there were any people who had imagined a different kind of society. Were there free-thinkers or dissenters or dreamers among the ancient Maya, and did they once leave a written record? It is nice to imagine one such text has survived the Spanish fires and is waiting to speak to us about lives lived under the control of man-devouring gods.
Katherine Kerestman is the author of Creepy Cat’s Macabre Travels: Prowling around Haunted Towers, Crumbling Castles, and Ghoulish Graveyards (WordCrafts Press, 2020) — a non-fiction travel memoir to destinations associated with macabre stories in history, literature, and film — as well as numerous horrific short stories and non-fiction articles in anthologies and journals. She has a B.A. from John Carroll University, and an M.A. from Case Western Reserve University; and she is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the Jane Austen Society of North America, Mensa, the Horror Writers Association, the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, and the Dracula Society. She is wild about Dark Shadows and Twin Peaks, and is known to frolic in the graveyards of Salem on Halloween. You can keep up with her at www.creepycatlair.com