DENNIS TEDLOCK — RABINAL ACHI, A MAYAN DRAMA OF WAR AND SACRIFICE — OXFORD UP — 2003
If you want to approach and understand Maya civilization you have to get into what still exists of its literature or literary works, apart from the monuments with all sorts of historical inscriptions, or the various decorations on walls inside buildings, or on everyday life objects. Unluckily Spanish Bishop Diego de Landa in July 1562 decided to burn all the codices. Only four survived out of what we may consider several thousand. The rest of the literature was mainly oral, a lot for performances, mostly with a religious dimension, hence ritualistic in the subject and in treatment. From what we can know — without any archaeological proof — a great number of such plays existed in all the autonomous or associated cities. Another capital text is the mythic mythological Popol Vuh. We have a version of it that was reconstituted from memory mostly between 1554 and 1558, hence after the taking over of Maya territory by the Spaniards, after a smallpox epidemic had first devastated the population, (It might have been the intention of the Spaniards who must have observed such epidemics in other areas since they had been in America for some time then, but they may even have interpreted it as the proof these people were not human since they died when seeing Spaniards, I mean Spanish Christian: some kind of divine punishment.) by Pedro de Alvarado in 1524. The play concerned here is a modern version inherited from older traditions and maintained in existence after the colonization in spite of a lot of resistance from the Spaniards who tried to control all forms of cultural life. They among other things imposed the Latin alphabet and transcribed the various Maya languages accordingly; then Catholicism with no escape possible in spite of some surviving clandestine religious practices in the mountains and away from the main cities. What is surprising is that the story of Jesus Christ sacrificed on a cross may have resonated among the Mayas as fit for them because, as we are going to see in this play, the practice of sacrificing the defeated leaders (mainly) of a close-by community expressing some enmity was extremely common. The higher-ranking the prisoner the better in glory for him and his family and community since the sacrificed person is an intercessor to the gods, and in prestige for the lord who performed the sacrifice. These wars were mostly limited in range because the Mayas had no domesticated animals to transport people or equipment and no carts with wheels. That’s the main difference with the Incas for instance who had domesticated lamas.
But wars between next-door neighbors were common to provide the prisoners needed for the various ritualistic religious sacrifices. These events were controlled and managed by the famous Tzolk’in calendar counting thirteen scores of days, hence 260. It was a tool used by scribes and priests (both being part of the ruling elite) to predict what was going to happen and to plan all celebrations and sacrifices necessary to get a good outcome in any situation. This point should deserve a tremendous discussion but the play here is not really concerned, at least directly, by this calendar. Yet the Lord performing the sacrifice is named Lord Five Thunder, which is probably the date of his birth according to the Tzolk’in calendar, I guess Jo Muluk and Muluk is the ninth day of the Tzolkin calendar. Note this Muluk day is associated with the Etz’nab’ day which is ten days away (both days included) and number 18. Note Lord Five Thunder speaks nine times (Muluk) and his prisoner, Cawek speaks 18 numbered times (Etz’nab’ as well as the 18 months of the Haab calendar of 360 days: 18 times 20 day months) plus a final short unnumbered intervention when sacrificed, which corresponds to the 19th five-day long month of Wayeb that brings the solar calendar to 365 days. These five extra days, this month of Wayeb is seen as very negative and inauspicious, and that corresponds perfectly with the sacrifice of the prisoner. That’s all I will say about the calendars, but this is structurally important. The two other characters who speak, Rabinal and the Slave, speak respectively 12 times and 5 times. Twelve is important in the play as we will see as a number attached to the power of Lord Five Thunder, and five has little value here though it is a basic number in the Maya numbering system whose base is Twenty seen as four groups of five. Four is also important in the play and thus is connected to the numbering system. Note the Tzolk’in and Haab calendars are based on months that have twenty days, the counting base of the Mayas. Five is, of course, the number of days of the Wayeb month and that fits a slave very well.
The play in this book is about a very serious story in Maya society and historically based. There was a war between the Maya Quiché alliance and the Maya Rabinal alliance. We could only, have alliances because of the absence of draught animals and carts. The Quiché alliance had been at the time of the events expanding its territory at the expense of the Rabinal alliance. The play starts when the Rabinal alliance is able to reverse this encroaching movement, and they stop it for one and capture Cawek, the main military leader of the Quiché alliance. Then most of the play takes place between this event and the sacrifice, to speak in Maya terms, of the prisoner, the leader of the armed forces. No mention of the other fighters though we cannot even imply whether they were made prisoners, they had all been executed, or they had all been sent back home. The subject then is the treatment of this particular high-ranking prisoner. It is clear — as we know it, and it will be confirmed all along in the play — he will be sacrificed, which means beheaded and dismembered. His head, or rather cranium will be turned into a calabash, that is to say, a drinking vessel that will be adorned with inscriptions on both sides, if not all around the top edge or more. Things inscribed on such calabashes are the name of the prisoner who was beheaded, the name and eventually, date of the Lord who made him his prisoner and some other more or less florid detail about these events and people. But he will also be dismembered because his arm bones and his leg bones will be used, the former to be the handle of a metal rattle and the latter to be used to play the slit drum.
The play casts some light on the Maya society, or at least the elite of this society, both political and military elite. On the military side a high-ranking officer is defined in value by six items:
1- an ax as the symbol of his political position, often associated with the shield, but not used for fighting;
2- a shield and a weapon that is never specified as a symbol or symbols of his military position;
3- a bracelet,
4- an armband,
5- paint specified as white in the play,
6- and a gourd of tobacco, all this latter four as symbols of his social position.
We can note the tobacco is used for various rituals and hence has a religious dimension. We know this elite has slaves at their disposal and there are women, wives, or whatever, in the background. One young one is considered as being the “Mother of Quetzal Feathers” or the “Mother of Glistening Green.” The Quetzal Feathers are sacred in many ways and denote a very high position, and the glistening Green is jade, in fact not green since it is blue-green, both hues covered with one word in Maya “yax.” This woman in the play is maybe the daughter of Lord Five Thunder and she is to be married one day so that Cawek is imagined as a father-in-law, a son-in-law or a brother-in-law according to the solution chosen for this marriage. At the end, Cawek will dance with her but all that remains platonic since he is going to be sacrificed in just a few minutes.
The Lord of a Maya community is in a way defined by a set of attributes.
1. First, “his twelve elder brothers / his twelve younger brothers” who are not twenty-four because Maya does not have a generic word for brother and only has one for “elder brother” and another for “younger brother.” They are defined as “workers of metal” and “workers of jade.”
2. Second, “his twelve golden Eagles / Golden Jaguars.” This time there might be twenty-four because eagles and jaguars are two different words, “kot” and “b’alam.”
3. Third, “the bench adorned with metal / raiment adorned with metal,” defined in the second indirect presentation as “the bench adorned with metal / the seat adorned with metal / the throne adorned with metal.” First, there is a fair chance this metal might be gold or silver. For gold we can only find the compound “k’an tuun” or “k’an tun” which means “yellow stone.” Jade was a lot more valuable in Maya society and it was vastly used for knives and other sacrificial objects, and for jewels.
4. Fourth, “his twelve drinks / his twelve poisons / Quick Hummingbird by name / the mead that burns / bites / sweetens / delights.” The elite practiced extreme alcoholism with simple drinking, till they lost consciousness or started vomiting. They practiced another type of ingestion, through the rectum and in this case, there was no vomiting, and once again the inebriation could be extreme, maybe, lethal. A drink of that type could be proposed to a man about to be sacrificed, though this reduced the consciousness of the sacrificed person, and that meant a loss of value on both sides.
5. Fifth, “the double warp / the tamped weft / the weaving tightly done / the work of my mother / my lady.” This work is performed by either the mother or the wife of Lord Five Thunder. From various decorations on cups, mugs, or on walls (frescoes) we know the fabric produced by this weaving was colorful and light.
6. Sixth, “kept safe / … the Mother of Quetzal Feathers / Mother of Glistening Green / of jade / of precious beads.” I have already said who this young lady is, though I am not sure she is necessarily the daughter of Lord Five Thunder.
This long list of attributes is reinforced by a Presentation phrase: “they are here…” once and then “Also here, of course…” five times, total six. In each case the adverb “Perhaps…” introduces a hypothetical possibility for the prisoner to be in contact with these attributes, as a favor, but he might be able to improve them or make “them reach perfection.” One “perhaps” per item, except the last one that carries three “Perhaps” and we need here a longer quotation: “Perhaps this is the brave / Perhaps this is the man / who will be the first to show / her mouth / her face / who will come to dance her round and round … / Perhaps this is the brave / who will become a father- or son-in-law / a brother-in-law.” Of course, the translation of these kinship terms does not help. There is no reference to the law. Maya society was not a state of law based on a rule of law, but rather, in this case, it was based on traditions and rites, the famous marriage rules envisaged for example by Claude Levi-Strauss in Elementary Structures of Kinship (1969). The book, page 308, tries to clarify what it means, and I must say it is not simple.
A prisoner is supposed to be treated with respect, provided he behaves properly, hence with humility and respect. If he does that, he is entitled to request and get the following items.
1- Food and drink, and he requires the twelve drinks/twelve poisons. He gets one drink, meaning clearly that twelve is not the number of different drinks but it has another meaning, in one calabash which is a human cranium. First, he drinks four long draughts, one in each cardinal direction, to the East first, counterclockwise to the West second, clockwise to the North third, and counterclockwise to the South fourth. And then he discusses the identity of the skull as coming from his grandfather or his father (hence the war between Quiché and Rabinal is nothing new) and he imagines his own skull being used by his descendants and his grandsons (hence the war between Quiché and Rabinal is not finished). But that leads him into imagining what his arm bone will become, the handle of a metal rattle, and what his leg bone will become, the stick of a slit drum.
2- He requests then “the double warp / the tamped weft / the weaving tightly done / the work of [Lord Five Thunder’s] mother / [Lord Five Thunder’s] lady.” And he gets it. He wraps himself in so that it looks like an apron and paces and struts on the stage and finally dances. That gives him the occasion to level gross remarks at the musicians inviting them “to mouth my flute,” and “to mouth my slit drum,” and then to “play my Mexican flute / my Mexican slit drum.”
3- That’s when he requires the “Mother of Quetzal Feathers / Mother Glistening Green / of jade / of precious beads.” And he dances with her, without ever touching her, as the Slave says, “Just dance her on and on, sir / dance her round and round, sir.”
4- That leads him to his next request for “the twelve Golden Eagles / Golden Jaguars / who will be my companions / on the last day / the last night.” Cawek finds them rather harmless. “There are some with nary a tooth / some with nary a claw / But then you, sir, have to see my own / at my mountain / my valley / They are devastating when they stare / they are devastating when they gaze / they are devastating when they scream / when they click / their teeth, their claws.” This should lead me to specify the value of this name Cawek, very close to Kawak, the 19th day of the Tzolk’in calendar. 19 is a reference to the 19th month, Wayeb, as we have seen, but it is also the last but one day of the Tzolk’in calendar, meaning that one more day and the twenty-base will be completed with “Ajaw,” “Lord” and reaching 20, the number k’al, Cawek will jump into the void of the end and he will have nothing else, “min” meaning “zero” since the set of twenty will become one unit at the next higher level. In other words, here, Cawek is oscillating between the end of a set composite unit and non-entity, non-existence except as a calabash, a handle or a stick, in other words, death, but death is another problem.
5- That leads him to his last request which is of course out of reach. “Now give me / thirteen score days / thirteen score nights / I have yet to say farewell / to the face of my mountain / the face of my valley.” He is asking for a leave of 260 days and nights, a full Tzolk’in cycle. That is refused and he has to deliver his last un-numbered speech, his nineteenth speech, “Wayeb,” that leads to his sacrifice, or “Kawak” just before “Ajaw,“ and he becomes the real lord by dying gracefully, and then “k’al–min” (twenty-zero) and starting all over again as everyday artifacts. No soul, no reincarnation. We can see how the numbering system, the Tzolk’in calendar (both based on 20) and the Haab calendar (based on 18 +1) are intricately interwoven into that symbolism.
I would just like to ask a question about this prisoner and how he is treated. To be sacrificed in such conditions is not a simple execution; He can defend his point of view. He is confronted to that of his opponents and he has ample opportunity to recognize that he made a mistake and he says so in one speech three times by repeating: “And truly it is I / who am to blame.” He is presented with a whole set of things he requires and is able to do with them what he wants, within the limits of decency with the Mother of Quetzal Feathers. And these favors are “only to mark the greatness / of your death / your disappearance.” His assuming his full responsibility enables him to valorize his actions and his main mistake, if not the only one, was to fail in his objective and be captured. And now, as Lord Five Thunder puts it: “And now you, sir, will pay for it / here at the navel of the sky / navel of the earth… and truly you are dead, sir / you are lost / here at the navel of the sky / here at the navel of the earth.” His death is like a commercial deal, a good commercial deal. But this leads us to a remark that is important. The phrase “here at the navel of the sky / here at the navel of the earth” is used very repetitively, nearly like a mantra, a religious mantra, and from testimonies that are available in older versions and testimonies of colonizing Spaniards, several centuries ago, the invocation was not to two elements that are perfectly compatible with Christianity, but a set of six items going in pairs: “Center of the Sky, Center of the Earth,” then “Lake, Sea,” then “Ceiba tree, Red House.” A total of six items. The second pair is purely animistic, though the sting-ray comes from the sea and the sting-ray spine, “kohkan” (Andrea Stone & Marc Zender) or “kix” (John Montgomery) is an essential tool for bloodletting, self-sacrifice, something vastly practiced by the nobility, noblemen, particularly penile self-sacrifice, and the third pair is directly religious, but a religion the Spanish Christian could only consider barbaric and “pagan” in their own terms. The Ceiba tree is the tree of the universe uniting the underworld through its roots, the human world with the trunk and the sky with its high canopy of branches and leaves. It is the very symbol or even materialization of the zenith and the nadir that are the fifth and sixth cardinal directions of the Maya. The Red House is the pyramid with the temple at the top, the Chichanchob in Chichen Itza, the Casa Colorado or Red House. Six is, of course, a lot more important and even cardinal for the Maya since they saw the universe as having four “horizontal directions,” the cardinal points, and two more, the vertical axis going down into the underworld, and the vertical axis going up into the sky and the realm of Gods, at least good ones. Christianity fascinated the Maya and many other Native Americans because the concept of the son of God being sacrificed by human beings in order for him to save humanity (either to get some mean vengeance against a trouble-maker, or to inspirationally fulfill the prediction in the Old Testament), and this sacrifice being reenacted every day in the Eucharist, just like human sacrifices, or simple bloodletting, self-sacrifice, were necessary to reenact every so often, thus following the Tzolk’in calendar, the resurrection of the Maize God who had been assassinated by the Lords of the Underworld and was resuscitated, brought back to life, by the Hero Twins, “Juun Ajaw” and “Yax Baluun” (Andrea Stone & Marc Zender) or more commonly “Hunahpu” and “Xbalanque.”
It is here I should develop the question of “death” which mostly is an intransitive verb, and I would have liked to get into the glyphic expression of death. Just to give you a taste on the subject it would be interesting to analyze the two glyphs corresponding to the transliterated “k’ay u sak nik ik’il” given by John Montgomery, page 151 of his Dictionary of Maya Hieroglyphs, as meaning “it terminates, his/her resplendent soul.” And soul in this context is the wrong Christianized concept. I would really have preferred the term “mind” as borrowed from the Buddhist concept of “citta.” It would show how this language, this civilization, these people are constantly working on various layers of thought and thinking merged together, conflated one into the other, or simply brought together in a square unit-figure with one central glyph that can integrate secondary glyphs, as prefix, superfix (on top), subfix (under) and suffix, without forgetting one or more conflated glyphs or symbolic parts of glyphs to build a meaning that is very complex and that any transliterated transcription in Latin alphabet is far from being able to render accurately. But I guess it will be for another occasion. Let’s say it shows how central this death, seen as an intransitive process that terminates itself, is.
The last remark I would like to add is that the whole play has music, traditionally two wooden trumpets and a slit drum, plus a chorus of singers. There is a lot of choreography too, be it only movements on the stage following the very global pattern of a square with four smaller circles on the four corners, or be it real dancing. That makes this play more than nostalgic about a very distant disappeared and even destroyed past but a real identifying form of cultural heritage that grows from the deepest layers of the past of Maya civilization into the modern world. The few plays that have survived are now produced rather regularly but new development will probably soon appear because modern life requires from everyone to sacrifice part of themselves in order to concentrate on the development of what they decide to keep and invest into. Life is a vast question of choices and each choice selects one or a few elements and rejects other elements that could have been promising. And of course the book contains vast and rich extensions and expansions on the history of the Mayas, of their dramatic art and many other fascinating subjects.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU