Friday, October 9, 2009

The More You Wish You Didn't Know: How to Become a God

k1892, bowl featuring hero twins

In The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown, Professor Robert Langdon is submerged in water and total darkness for some time in a sensory deprivation chamber.  The baddy bad guy, Mal'akh, says "The secret is how to die," and seems to imply that Langdon will find some sort of enlightenment through the experience, the same way Mal'akh himself did. 

This reminded me of the Maya myth of Xbalanque and Hunahpu.  Known as the Hero Twins, these two get into many adventures in the Popol Vuh, the Maya version of Genesis.  In one story, the Twins descend into the underworld, Xibalba, to challenge the Xibalban lords to a ball game.  Through trickery and the help of animals, the Twins defeat the Xibalban lords and are resurrected back to earth--this time as gods.

Why did being submerged underwater remind me of that?  Hang on for a bit, this is going to be a long walk.... 

For the Maya, the Underworld wasn't just a mythical location; it was a literal one.  The Yucatan Peninsula where the Maya lived consists mainly of limestone.  Because the stone is so porous, rivers drill through the surface of the stone and run underground instead of above.  Sinkholes called cenotes allow acess not only to this water, but also to Xibalba. 

cenote sagrado

Every cenote is different--some are crystal-clear, some go down so far no one has ever found the bottom, and some are filled with plants and animals—waterlilies floating on the surface, trees that reach down with their roots, tiny fish that nibble on human flesh, and alligators lying in wait for thirsty prey.  But only one is as green as the forest, as green at the scales of a snake—the Cenote of Sacrifice at Chichén Itzá.

According to Spanish accounts written by Bishop Diego de Landa in the sixteenth century, the Cenote Sagrado was "the Jerusalem of the Maya," and used for human sacrifice, divination, offerings, and rituals for both Maya and Mexican peoples.  There were other cenotes that were used for these tasks, but the one at Chichén Itzá was the cenote with, apparently, the closest route to Xibalba.

Anyway, de Landa wrote that living people were thrown into the Cenote of Sacrifice, in the belief that they would come out again after three days (although, according to Landa, they never did).  In fact, it is theoretically possible for a person to travel through the networks of cenotes to another cenote, or even to the ocean, without modern diving apparatuses, as the underground passages can collect pockets of air.  Of course, such an endeavor would be incredibly dangerous and nearly impossible because
  1. The entire tunnel system is completely dark and you wouldn't be able to see where you were going.
  2. There would be no way of knowing where the air pockets were.
  3. Even if you somehow managed not to swim in circles, could hold your breath for an incredibly long time, and found air pockets, how would you find your way out of the labyrinth of tunnels and caves?  Even modern divers consider cenote diving dangerous.
So, it would be incredible if it was ever done, and of course there is no way of knowing if anyone ever did.  Hypothetically, however, if a person succeeded at diving through the cenotes and came out alive, he or she would become hero-gods in the styling of Xbalanque and Hunahpu after they defeated the lords of Xibalba.

So, that's why Langdon's extended underwater stay in the darkness of a sensory deprivation chamber reminded me of the myth of Xbalanque and Hunahpu.  And now you're probably wondering, does that mean Langdon is a god now?  Well, he wouldn't be the first professor to be convinced of his own omnipotence... but, not likely. (~_^)

the more you wish you didn't know

Stay tuned for the next TMYWYDK!

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