Written by Lydia Jones
It’s tempting to stroll straight to the cliff’s edge at Tulum and enjoy the turquoise Caribbean. By then you may have noticed the extraordinary purpose of the pyramid. It was once a lighthouse, because the important ancient port of Tulum had one major problem: there was only one small opening in the coral reef that lay just offshore. The flame behind the little windows guided mariners through this narrow gap.
But this site deserves more attention. There’s a unique opportunity to peer into the dark heart of the Maya, the secrets of their gods.
There are four reliefs of the Descending God at Tulum, each with his fists together and his legs splayed out above him like a skydiver. Quite a cult for such a small city! Find them on the Temples of the Frescoes and the Descending God, The House of Halach Uinic (the city Governor) and El Castillo pyramid. Then you can make up your own mind about the ideas that follow.
Who is this god? Why such an obsession? We have to get into the conflicting notions that researchers propose.
The god here is sometimes called Ah Muzen Cab, the Bee God, because bees are depicted in this diving position in the Madrid Codex, one of the few Maya books that survived the destruction during the Spanish Conquest. Maya bees are good guys. They're small. They don’t sting. The priests harvested their succulent honey twice a year from their tree nests, and used it as a sweetener, antibiotic, wax, and in balché, a honey drink like mead. Good bees.
However, a quite different explanation can be drawn from the Dresden Codex, another of the few books which survived the Spanish burning. Here the god’s name is Az Tzul Ahaw, and his image is marked with the character for the planet Venus. Venus was of immense importance throughout Middle America, but we don’t know quite why.
This is where the story darkens. The Maya observed Venus with religious intensity and for them, it represented more than Az Tzul Ahaw. It was an avatar for their fearsome and vengeful god Kukulkán, and its passage reflected his embittered tale. First, the facts. Venus appears in the night sky for 263 days as the Morning Star (following dawn). Then it disappears for 50 days. After that, it reappears as the Evening Star (following sunset) for another 263 days. And then disappears for eight days before repeating the cycle.
That may not mean much to us modern city dwellers, with our hazy view of the night sky, and electric lights to keep us safe, but for the Maya, those eight days were scary. When Venus as Evening Star disappeared, their god Kukulkán went into the Underworld for eight days, and do you know how he spent his time? Sharpening arrows to shoot at people he didn’t like.
Down there in the darkness Kukulkán's heart turned into the Morning Star, which the Maya called Xux Ek (pronounced Shoosh Ek). And that’s no productive bee. Xux Ek means Wasp Star. The Maya hid in their houses when the Wasp Star first appeared, and sealed up their doorways. They covered themselves, to hide from the shooting arrows (just as we would from a wasp sting), and waited, ignoring all their daily chores, until the initial vengeance of the Morning Star had passed.
Imagine a civilization that was so sophisticated that its astronomers could predict the passage of Venus, and yet so primitive that its people made ritual sacrifices to keep Venus on its path. Not only Venus. They prayed for rain. They prayed for the Sun to rise tomorrow!
During eclipses, pregnant women donned masks of maguey leaves. Other women were locked in maize granaries to avoid turning into man-eating monsters, like the demons of the sky who they believed devoured the sun. If a comet appeared, children were kept awake all night to prevent the sky demons from turning them into mice while they slept.
Enjoy Tulum. It’s a beautiful peaceful site. But think about the people who built it, and understand their apprehensions. Give a respectful nod to that vengeful Wasp Star. Today that’s enough; there’s no need to make sacrifices or lock up your women. We know better now: Venus doesn’t cause our planet any harm. But you can’t be too careful.