There comes a time in every journey that a person needs to descend into unknown regions. On a pilgrimage, a person needs to plumb the dark depths of the soul and go places where even angels fear to tread. Such was the case for us when we crossed the border from Guatemala into Honduras. The dog at the border appeared to be a Cerberus-type watchdog, guarding the gate that led to the underworld. The inscription above the gate to Hades came to mind: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” A map on the building wall let you know that you were near Copan (ancient kingdom of Xukpi, “corner-bundle”). We were at the outer limits of the far southern and eastern end of Maya territory. Copan Ruinas was the nearby town, the gateway to the ruins of Copan, and as I was to soon find out - the gateway to Xibalba. . . .
Next morning, we headed out for an adventurous excursion of the ruins. It was only one kilometer away, a pleasant ten-minute walk along a raised footpath that runs parallel to the highway. A large sign along Honduras highway CA-11 welcomed us to Parque Arqueologico Copan Ruinas. We paid at the Centro de Visitantes, where we met our guide Marvin.
The visitor's center had a welcoming statue of a young corn god. “That's the Maize God,” said Marvin, who noticed me looking intently at the stone sculpture. “He is called Hun-Nal (Ear of Maize) or Wak-Kan-Ahaw (Raised-up Sky Lord). You can see the maize growing out of the top of his head. There is a story that the Lords of Death killed the Maize God and buried him in the ballcourt, but the hero twins brought him back to life.”
Marvin showed us the model of the archaeological site, pointing out the main features of the ceremonial civic center: (1) plaza principal, (2) campo de pelota, (3) escalinata jeroglifica, (4) plaza occidental, (5) plaza de las jaguars, (6) zona residencial, (7) tunel rosalila, (8) tunel los jaguars.
The entrance to the site was graced with several squabbling scarlet macaws greeting our arrival. “That's the sacred bird of the Maya people,” said Marvin. “It represents the rising and setting sun, and the blue sky. Yellow, red, and blue are sacred colors.”
We walked past a sign that gave some information about the forest as a sanctuary. I noticed that the site was now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
“Have you seen any other Maya sites?” asked Marvin.
“Yes, Tikal, Chichen Itza, Tulum, Coba,” answered Elsa.
“You know what? This is the best,” stated Marvin.
“They all say that,” said Susie.
“It's the Athens of Central America,” stated Marvin.
Our first stop was at a ceiba tree. “This is the tree that connects heaven and earth, and Xibalba, the underworld,” said Marvin. “Xi (she) means skull, and dark, too. “Place of the Skull. Place of the Dead. Place of Darkness.”
“Golgotha, place of the skull,” I whispered to myself.
“It was not the same concept like hell,” continued Marvin. “According to our concept, Xibalba, the place of the dead, actually means life. What a contradiction.”
We rounded a corner and arrived at the west court of the Acropolis.
“This is the Acropolis, which means the high city,” stated Marvin. “The elite used to live here, and the farmers, like me, used to live in the mountains,” explained Marvin. “They used to build huts for themselves. Pizza huts,” he kidded. We laughed at his humorous remarks.
“We will see the great plaza, later,” said Marvin. “That's when I'm going to show you the most wonderful thing ever built in the Maya sites: The hieroglyphic stairway. It's truly amazing, because it's like its own encyclopedia, like a book built out of stone.” . . .
We walked to the middle of the west court. To our left was a temple of nine doors, known as Temple 11 , and the structure to our right was known as Temple 16.
“This is what we were talking about, the ceremonial site,” said Marvin, as he continued walking toward a stone figure on the ground. “The snake-looking head is Kukulcan. He is the feathered serpent. In Mexico, he's called Quetzalcoatl. The quetzal bird is the national bird of Guatemala.”
The stelae labeled Estela P in front of Temple 16 was a revelation to me. I had seen that image in a book. I tried to remember where I had seen it.
“This is a copy of the eleventh king,” began Marvin.
“It's not the original?” asked Elsa.
“We have to protect the original from erosion,” explained Marvin. “From the elements. The original is in the museum. You will not notice the difference if you see the original and the copy side by side. It is the same size, and it is cut like the original one. It is the same color like the original one.”
“So what is the name of this king?” asked Elsa.
“Smoke Serpent,” answered Marvin. “Butz' Chan is his Maya name.”
“Was he a priest?” I asked.
“Actually, he was a sun-god,” answered Marvin.
Paul John Wigowsky is a lifetime student of comparative religions. He earned two masters degrees from San Francisco State University: English, Russian.
He recently retired from teaching after a productive twenty-seven year career at the elementary and middle school levels in Oregon. He wrote a book (Freedom For An Old Believer) about the religion, customs, and traditions of a community of Russians he worked with in the school district.
In 2006, he wrote God in Three Persons: A Spiritual Odyssey, a historico-religious romance (semi-allegorical narrative) about three historical persons who appeared almost simultaneously on the stage of the first century AD to transform the Roman world.
He has taken pilgrimages - since his retirement in 2003 - to Russia, Ukraine, Egypt, Israel, India, and the Maya world.