The Origins of the Voladores (Flyers) Ritual

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The performance presented by the Papantla Flyers (the Voladores) at Discover Mexico Park is a reenactment of part of a ritual that has been taking place in Mexico, uninterrupted, for over 2,500 years.   The ceremony began in the central part of Mexico with the Olmecs.   Over time, it was incorporated into the central Mexican cultures that followed: the Totonacos, Huastecas, Nauhuas, Otomis, Chichimecas, Cuicatecos, Tepehuas, Toltecs, Mexicas, and Aztecas.   The ceremony was also performed by the Huicholes and Coras in northern Mexico and by the Hopi in Arizona.   The Quiche Maya in Guatemala, the Nicarao people of Nicaragua, and the Pipiles of El Salvador performed the ceremony on a regular basis as well.
Originally, the ritual was part of the observance of the end of a 52-year cycle the Olmecs defined as the synchronization of their 260-day ritual calendar and their 365-day solar calendar.   Many aspects of the dance, such as the number of participants, the number of steps they made as they danced around the pole, and the number of rotations made as they descended related to this observance of the calendar round.   Later, as the rite spread though geographical area and time periods, each culture altered it a little, adding bits of their own to the performance, deleting others, and often dedicating it to a different god.
One of the most common reasons these cultures observed the ceremony was to insure a bountiful harvest.   To that end, a human sacrifice was added to the ceremony, one which has been well-documented in both the indigenous, hand-painted picture books known as codices as well as the writings of early Spanish observers.   The sacrificial victim, sometimes a woman or young girl, but frequently a man, was tied upright, spread-eagle on a ladder-type scaffold (cadalso).   When the spiraling Voladores dancers reached the ground, a priest pierced the victim’s groin with an arrow shot from a bow.   Quickly thereafter, other participants shot more arrows into the victim’s body, eventually resulting death.   The body was allowed to hang so that the blood drained onto the ground, which these early cultures believed would replenish the earth’s fecundity.

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The Birth of the Cruise Ship Industry

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When did the Cruise Ship Industry begin?   If you guessed the 1920s, guess again. 1820s?   Not even close.   The Cruise/Tourism business was well established and functioning in the mid-1300s.   That date is not a typographical error; there were cruise ships plying the Mediterranean in the 14th century!   They were well organized, money-making machines that took the pious European pilgrims to the Holy Land.

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Party like a Mayan!

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The Maya definitely knew how to party, but they didn’t get their kicks by just dancing and singing during the sacrificial ceremonies; they had lots of pharmaceuticals they employed to help them get “elevated.”

Psilocybin mushrooms
The entheogenic mushroom genus Psilocybe includes at least 54 species that are found in Mexico.   The Maya used one of them (called K’aizalaj Okox in Mayan) in their ceremonies for its hallucinogenic properties.   They illustrated this use in many of their anthropomorphic idols, especially the ones commonly associated with the god Quetzalcoatl in his incarnation as Ehecatl, the god of wind, by portraying the hallucinations as mushrooms dangling from the god’s eye sockets.

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Maya Recipe for Pek Stew

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The Maya had two varieties of Canis familiaris, the xoloitzcuintli, otherwise known as a Mexican Hair-less, and the tlalchichi (techichi in Mayan), a smaller, hirsute variety introduced into Maya culture by the Toltecs.   Together, they were both known as pek, or dog. The xolo is medium sized animal (35-45 pounds) with smooth slate or reddish-gray skin that often has white spots or blotches.   Not all of the dogs are born hairless; they are heterozygous, with one recessive gene for a normal coat, and one dominate gene for hairlessness.   A mating of two xolos generally results in a litter consisting of 25% of the puppies with hair, 50% hairless puppies, and 25% stillborn (the fate of the ones with two recessive genes).   These larger xolos were used as hunting and guard dogs by the Maya.   The smaller Techici had another use.

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How Flemish Almost Became the Official Language of Cozumel

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In February, 1517, the Governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez, sent Francisco Hernández de Córdova on an expedition that resulted in the discovery of Peninsula of Yucatan.   During the expedition, Córdova captured two Maya near Cabo Catoche and later brought them back to Cuba with him to learn Spanish so they could act as interpreters on future voyages to the peninsula.   The Maya lived in Cuba for a year and as they learned the language, they began to tell the Spanish about the lands from which they were taken.   One of the things they explained to the Spanish, was that the most important places (in their way of thinking) in the land of the Maya was the Island of Cozumel, which the Spanish had not seen or visited up to that time.

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Monument to Los Niños Heroés

posted in: Mexican History | 0

The monolith in middle of the esplanade on the malecon across from Pama honors Mexico’s six Niños Heroés (child heroes) who, as young cadets, died defending the Chapultepec Castle military college in Mexico City against the American forces during the Mexican-American War in 1847.

The six cadets were part of the group of over 400 defenders (composed of a group of cadets and members of the military college’s faculty totaling 100 and another 300 Mexican Army regulars under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Felipe Xicoténcatl) who General Nicolás Bravo had assigned to hold the castle while General Antonio Lopéz de Santa Anna regrouped and prepared to defend Mexico City.   When the Americans began bombarding the castle in preparation for the attack, General Bravo ordered a retreat, but six cadets refused to abandon their posts. The six were teniente (lieutenant) Juan de la Barrera (age 19) and cadets Agustín Melgar (age between 15 and 19), Juan Escutia (between 15 and 19), Vicente Suárez (14), Francisco Márquez (13) and Fernando Montes de Oca (between 15 and 19).   According to legend, Juan Escutia wrapped himself in the Mexican flag and jumped off the castle wall to prevent the flag from falling into enemy hands.   The date the boy heroes died, September 13, is a Mexican National Holiday.

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Shadow on the stairs; A story of mass delusion

Today, the great pyramid at Chichén Itzá (known as El Castillo), is covered with a smooth and unbroken sheath of limestone blocks.   The stairways are also made up of finely-cut limestone and the balustrades are straight, square-edged, and well defined.   It is due to this sharp-edged veneer of stones and the arrow-straightness of the balustrade that the corner of the pyramid is able to cast its seven triangles of light and shadows on the side of the staircase during the spring and fall equinoxes.

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The Myth of the German Submarine that Sank Full of Mercury on Chinchorro Bank

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Chinchorro’s main feature is the plenty of wrecks on its east side, the windward one.   In fact, the Mexican government has declared the bank a marine archaeological sanctuary.   The amount of wrecks varies according to the source, from 40 to a hundred.   The count would include a German submarine and several sunken treasures.” –ww.maradentrodiving.com

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Geology, Pedology, and Hydrology of Cozumel

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GEOLOGY

The Yucatan peninsula is a karstic terrain (meaning partially-dissolved carbonate bedrock) made up of marine calcareous sediments (limestone) lain down during the Jurassic period between 200 and 145 million years ago.   The peninsula is a tectonically stable platform whose current form was created by plates and faults during the early Cenozoic epoch.

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Nephites and Lamanites, or Maya?

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Have you ever heard of the Nephites or Lamanites?   If you are a Mormon, you have.   If you are not a Mormon, you probably know them by their real name, the Maya.   Here is the story of how the names became linked:

In 1841, an American adventurer named John Lloyd Stephens and a British artist named Frederick Catherwood stayed at the ruins of Tulum for over a week during their tour of Yucatán.   Although the pair found the ruins covered in vines and trees, they also discovered signs of recent rituals and offerings left behind by the Maya in one of the buildings.   Stephens later wrote a book about the trip, Incidents of Travel in Yucatán, and published it in 1843.   Engravings of drawings made by Catherwood at Tulum were included in the book.   It was a run-away best-seller.

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El Grito de Dolores

posted in: Mexican History | 0

Some poorly informed sources may translate El Grito de Dolores as “the scream of pain” (don’t laugh, I saw it written so in the English section of a Cozumel newspaper once!), but it actually means the “The Cry of Dolores” and refers to the cry for independence made by the catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo in the town of Dolores, Mexico in the early morning of September 16, 1810.

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A Priest with a Cement Overcoat

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A few years after the War of the Castes had gotten underway in Yucatan, a new religious cult sprang up among the rebel ranks; el Culto de la Cruz Parlante (the Cult of the Talking Cross).   The members of this cult were called the Cruzoob, the Spanish word for “cross” pluralized by the Mayan suffix oob.   The origins of the cult can be traced back to the Mayan “talking idols,” one of which had been located on Cozumel when the Spanish arrived in 1517; the temple of Ixchel in San Gervasio, which contained the “talking idol” described by Francisco López de Gómara in 1552.   The interior of the temple had a small room in the back where the statue of the goddess Ixchel stood.   Gómara stated it was a room “…where they kept a very strange idol, very distinct from the others. The body of this great idol was hollow, made of baked clay and fastened to the wall with mortar, in back of which was something like a sacristy, where the priests had a small secret door cut into the side of the idol, into which one of them would enter, and from it speak to and answer those who came to worship and beg favors. With this trickery, simple men were made to believe whatever the god told them.

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Traveling in San Blas back in the 1980s

posted in: Miscellenea, Travel | 0

The Cunas strictly regulated all commercial trade in San Blas. The San Blas Comarca is an autonomous region of the Republic of Panama, very similar to an United States Indian reservation, but with the added right to make trade agreements and treaties with other countries, and is not subjected to any oversight by anything like a Bureau of Indian Affairs, as we have in the states.

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Traveling by dugout Canoe along the coast of Panama

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In the 1980’s and ‘90’s I was engaged in the business of acquiring ethnographic material directly from indigenous Central and South American coastal and riverine cultures and selling that material to museums and collectors in the US and abroad.  One of the cultures that I worked with extensively during that period was that of the Cuna Indians of San Blas, Panamá.

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How Yucatan got its Name

There are several different stories about how Yucatan got its name and each one has its own share of websites and books claiming that it is the one, true version.  Some are clearly apocryphal and are often repeated simply because they make a good story.  Others have their credibility bolstered by the fact they were cited in the early historical accounts that were written shortly after the Spanish first came to Yucatan.  A few have a ring of logic, but have no historical mention.  Some are based on erroneous etymological origins, which sound good at first, but do not stand up to close scrutiny.

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Blowing Smoke

Quit blowing smoke up my ass” (meaning “quit lying”), is a phrase that has its origin in the practice of…no kidding… blowing smoke up asses.

The practice began in pre-Columbian North America, where wild tobacco was harvested by Indians and smoked in clay or stone pipes, as well as to be used to produce smoke for use in a clyster, or enema.  Later, the Indians subjected their horses to these tobacco-smoke enemas as well as each other, as this illustration from the 1700s shows:

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Aluxes and Duendes

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An alux (Mayan: [aˈluʃ], plural: aluxo’ob [aluʃoˀːb]) is the name given to a type of sprite or spirit in the mythological tradition of certain Maya peoples from the Yucatán Peninsula and Guatemala.  Aluxes are conceived of as being small, only about knee-high, and in appearance resembling miniature traditionally dressed Maya people.  Tradition holds that aluxes are generally invisible but are able to assume physical form for purposes of communicating with and frightening humans as well as to congregate together.  They are generally associated with natural features such as forests, caves, stones, and fields but can also be enticed to move somewhere through offerings.  Their description and mythological role are somewhat reminiscent of other sprite-like mythical entities in a number of other cultural traditions (such as the Celtic leprechaun, the Scandinavian Gnome, or the European Troll and Gremlin), as the tricks they play are similar.

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How did the state of Quintana Roo get its name?

Quintana Roo was named after Andrés Eligio Quintana Roo in 1902.

Andrés was born in Mérida in 1787 to José Matías Quintana and doña María Ana Roo de Quintana.  José Matías founded and edited the pro-independence movement newspaper Clamores de la Fielidad Americana during 1813 and 1814.  Considered a rebel-rouser by the Spanish Viceroy, José Matías Quintana was arrested and sent to prison in Fort San Juan de Ulúa.

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El Castillo and the Lighthouse Theory

posted in: Archaeology, Yucatan & Quintana Roo | 0

In 1985, I took part in the “Tulum Lighthouse Project,” a project of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) which was underwritten by the National Geographic Society and the Kempner Fund.  The project was the idea of Michael Creamer, an American who came up with the theory that the twin window/vent holes on the ocean-facing side of the building in Tulum known as “El Castillo” could act as a sort of range light system for Mayan canoes attempting to cross over the reef at night to land on the beach next to the building.

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