They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Voices from the past

Voices from the past

By Edgardo Civallero
Translated by Sara Plaza

The books than we have in our libraries are, on many occasions, voices from the past that sought refuge in writing to continue making ideas and feelings known through the centuries forever and ever. Those voices that tried to be preserved, perpetuated and reproduced, somehow understood –at that moment– that what they had to tell was of a lot of value and could help future generations. For the world is a wheel and even though history does not repeat itself –at least this is what modern historians assert– human being use to have a particular quality for making the same mistake twice.

Preparing a text about Mayan civilization during its post-classical age –I mean, the moment when the flame of such a magnificent culture started slowly to go out– I come across a story that is worth remembering. I found it in the pages of one of the "Books of Chilam Balam". These pages deserve to be commenting on in their fullest extent on other occasion.

After the Spanish conquest of Mayan territories (placed in Mexico and part of Guatemala), Catholic priests taught reading and writing skills to Mayan people in order to facilitate their conversion to Christianity. However, their "pupils" used that power to collect their old knowledge –which, recorded in codices until that moment, had then disappeared thanks to the memoricide carried out by conquers and priests themselves–, as well as the events that were happening at that moment (XVI century). In this way, they rescued their memory from oblivion when it was condemned to obscurity by the official story.

In various regions of the old Mayan territory, a number of books were written in the native language on Spanish paper and using Latin alphabet. Those manuscripts written in northern Yucatán (probably by Mayan ethnics groups Itzá and Yucateco) are called, in general, "Books of Chilam Balam". Some important passages from nine or ten of those books have come to the present moment, identified by the name of the city where they were written. I found the story I am going to speak about in the book of Chilam Balam written in Chumayel, one of the most complete works.

This book mentions an event that happened in Chichén Itzá many years before the Spaniards arrival; an incident that, due to its importance, was transmitted orally, by word of mouth, saving itself from being consigned to oblivion thanks to those writers who remembered it and noted it down. Chichén Itzá was one of the most powerful state-cities during the Mayan post-classical age. Settled in the Yucatán peninsula, the old Itzá land (Mexican, at present), it was –and continues being– famous for its beautiful architecture and, especially, for the so-called "sacrifices well".

This well was a natural opening as many of the holes so abundant in the Yucatec Peninsula, where limestone is easily bored through by rain creating collapses, caves, caverns and large open mouths in the surface filled with water. Named "cenotes" by modern archeologists (from Mayan "tsonoot"), those wells were used sometimes as the place where sacrifices were offered to Chaac, god of the rain, one of the most important gods for a people dependent on agriculture. This was the function of the Chichén Itzá well. This cenote was so important that the city was named after it: Chi Cheen Itzá, "Itzá side of the well".

The greenish waters of that well received propitiatory adornments –copal resin, golden objects, feathers, jade earrings– and human victims that had been previously selected. It was supposed that the well leaded directly to the realms of Chaac: there, the god would welcome the persons killed and, had he anything to communicate to the livings –waiting at the top of the well– one of the sacrificed would be allowed to come back with his message.

Regretfully, as it is to be expected, nobody, ever, came back being the divine messenger. The victims, drugged before being sacrificed, gripped by fear of the impending death, were swallowed by the boggy waters before they were able to think how to float to the surface.

Nevertheless, the "Book of Chilam Balam" tells that a young nobleman –named Hunac Ceel– had a revealing idea after watching those sacrifices. Tired of those events that shaken the political life of that region at that moment, he headed for the platform where offerings were thrown into the waters –votive and humans– and, before people and priests staring at him in astonishment, threw himself into the well. The greenish surface stood still for some minutes and then, beneath the bubbles and foam that had been formed, the man appeared on the surface with difficult breathings. Faced with the amazement of everybody and the incredulity of some, he shouted that the god Chaac had spoken to him and had said that, from that moment on, he, Hunac Ceel, of the House of Cocom, would be the regent of that state-city.

The people acclaimed him immediately. Bounded hand and foot by their own customs and traditions, knowing how clever and cunning the nobleman had been at getting what he wanted, priests and members of the nobility –not being able to contradict their religion– had to put up with that "divine" decision swallowing their rage and pride. What followed was one of the most relentless dictatorships that have ever been supported by Mayan people at that time. Hunac Ceel and those of his House handled the threads of the political intrigues and the wars against their foes.

With his court settled in the city of Mayapán, he led his forces towards Chichén Itzá, and, according to some historians, it was him who destroyed it to the ground, turned it into the ruins –magnificent, but ruins after all– that it is today.

The story has all the ingredients that a novel needs to be written. Although the "Book of Chilam Balam" adds many other legendary events to this account, the detailed study carried out by modern searchers also reveals the historic facts. The story was true, as it was true the serious consequences of what happened, a sort of madness that served the character right for running away with a power that did not belong to him.

Stories of this kind should make us reflect on the present time. Hunac Ceel would not be the first "leader" passing over his people using his society customs. Seeking protection in them, totalitarian fellows rule over the life of their nations abusing their authority. Taking advantage of civil and legislative codes, electoral laws, customs and habits, they abuse their position as principals and forget our rights and needs, using and exploiting us.

Our libraries are a constant reminder of all this, of all that happened and still happens... So many books had to be written with a purpose. We should make an effort to remember as well. Only knowing the past we will be able to understand the present and plan our future. However, human memory is extremely fragile and it seems as if we were not very familiar with the books resting on the shelves of our closer library.