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Palacio Templo with Itzamna Monster Mouth

Tabasqueno, Campeche Mexico

Photo by Jennifer Bjarnason December 2023

Xibalba is the Maya concept for a plane of existence outside of life on Earth. Due to colonial and religious projections by outsiders, Xibalba has long been described as the Christian equivalent of Hell and/or the Greek concept of an Underworld. A place of pain and power. A place of the unknown. A frightful place.

We may never have a true understanding of what Xibalba meant to the ancient Maya, but given their reverence for the Gods and the fact that royal elites self-inflicted brutal injuries to bleed in front of the Gods, it is fair to surmise a possibility that the Maya may have envisioned Xibalba more like Heaven, somewhere between Heaven and Hell (or combined, as the Maya world-view is based on duality), or as an enlightened spirituality. Afterall, there are remaining sects within Catholicism whose members practice self-flagellation as a personal sacrifice to God, much as the Maya royals and aristocracy did for theirs. There also remains practices among some indigenous groups who revere the endurance of painful blood-letting as a sacrifice for the betterment of ones personal growth before the Creator. In all perceptions, God(s) is/are central to why these rituals matter.

As we do not have a full understanding of how the Maya perceived Xibalba, I am choosing to use the term otherworld, rather than underworld or even afterlife, the latter due to some indications that Xibalba is where we come from before birth and go to after we die.

Watery Porthole to Xibalba

Cenote Xlapak, Dzibilchaltun, Yucatan Mexico

Photo by Jennifer Bjarnason May 2007

At first glance, even the smallest archaeological sites of the ancient Maya are profound to behold when one considers their construction without the use of the wheel, beasts of burden or modern tools. The brutal heat and presence of venomous snakes, scorpions, chiggers and fire ants must have been of concern to those enslaved to the hard labour necessary for such a feat. Imagine the dozens of cities in the Puuc Hills of Yucatan and jungles of Campeche that had no accessible water until chultunes (water cisterns) were constructed deep within the ground for water collection during a rather short rainy season. How long did those chultunes take to dig, seal and fill?

Chultunes were shaped like bells, bottles or shoes, then sealed with stucco plaster of limestone, sand and water. Upon being waterproofed, these wells could hold between 5000-500,000 litres of rainwater. Chultunes also served as storage for grains. Archaeologists have found human remains in some chultunes, as well as garbage, which may have been deposited during invasion or evacuation.

The northern Yucatan Peninsula is famed for it´s pristine cenotes, of which held great importance to the ancient Maya for symbolizing the porthole of the sacred otherworld Xibalba, but the region most abundant with intricate, stylized and zoomorphic architecture required the construction of wells due to a lack of underground rivers or cenotes. The word ch'e'en means well in Yucatec Maya - which is how this region of many wells became known as La Ruta de los Chenes.

Example of a small chultune

Chicanna Campeche Mexico

Photo by Jennifer Bjarnason March 2024

The artistic Chenes-style architecture of Yucatan Peninsula provides intriguing representations of animism, which is a central characteristic of the Maya worldview. Cut from stone, placed together like puzzle-pieces on the facades of Late Classic Maya structures and then stucco-plastered to keep the mosaics in place, these three-dimensional veneers are zoomorphic ornamentations that make the Puuc-Hills of Yucatan and the state of Campeche a desirable region to visit. It´s wonderful to imagine the dramatic and imposing presence these temples had when they were smothered with red paint.

The importance of mathematics and the astronomical achievements of the Maya are a profound foundation of every known city they established. Star observatories were constructed, sacred temples representing specific gods or concepts were placed in a direction congruent to the movement of the sun and moon, and Venus held a high rank in the religion and politics of Maya society.

Itzamna Temple (Structure II)

Hochob, Campeche Mexico

Photo by Jennifer Bjarnason December 2023

The small archaeological site of Hochob is located about 90 minutes from the city of Campeche along a desolate road into the jungles of Campeche. Hochob loosely translates as corn cob storage area, a name given to this site because archaeologists found evidence of a large cache of corn here. The ceramic record dates this settlement to 400 BCE, though this centre thrived during the Late Classic Period (600-900 CE). A small site, the administrative core is seated atop a hill with ornate stone structures placed around the central plaza. The hill itself was where the houses were built from natural materials that have long since disappeared.

The ancient city of Hochob is believed to have been a smaller satellite city of a greater power such as nearby Dzibilnocac, Tabasqueno or the exceptional Santa Rosa Xtampak, but with so few sites having the ornate Itzamna facades that symbolize the entrance to Xibalba, Hochob must have been important.

Structure II at Hochob is revered as one of the best examples of Chenes style architecture, which is why a facsimile structure was constructed for the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. The facsimile (pictured below) makes the serpent much easier to see than the original, though seeing the ancient Structure II of Hochob in person is an exhilarating experience. When I visited in December, it had been 15 days since anyone had been there. I climbed the short but steep staircase to find myself completely alone, scanning the ground for snakes, carefully pawing through the crumbling rooms of these desolate structures, uneasy at the sound of the wind in the trees, bird wings fluttering, twigs snapping - recalling the story a guide once told me about a group of visitors who took a video recording and heard sounds in the audio that were not heard when they were present. They believed the sounds to be Aluxes - and it is easy to understand that feeling of being watched by ancient spirits when one is in such a remote place alone.

With very little information documented about this spectacular place, there are so many questions left unanswered, such as the location of the stone quarry, where they procured the tools required for shaping these stone pieces, did the same architects move from site to site with their design and skills, how and who discovered the technological assets of limestone and ultimately why do these Serpent-Mouth temples only exist in such a specific region of the grander Maya empire?

Itzamna Temple (Hochob) Facsimile

Museum of Anthropology, CDMX

Photographer unknown

A close study of the image above does not require imagination. The doorway is a metaphor for the mouth of the powerful Maya God Itzamna. Just above the mouth are his fang-like teeth, in the centre his large hooked-nose, with eyes on either side. Not pictured here are large stone teeth on the steps of the temple to indicate this entrance is a porthole to the otherworld. Though the figurines on top have now crumbled and disappeared, provenance from former archaeological expeditions indicate they were life-sized.


This is an entrance to Xibalba.


Through extensive reading, I have yet to uncover any theories about what may have happened inside of these temples, but it is clear they were not homes for royalty. Aristocratic homes of the Maya feature raised stone slabs about the size of a modern Queen bed, which would have been softened with woven mats and fabric woven from plant fibres. As these temples have no such attributes, but feature an important God on the facade, these temples were for religious purposes.

Archaeological site of Chicanna, Campeche Mexico

Video by Jennifer Bjarnason March 2024

At the site of Chicanna in southern Campeche, theories have emerged that the placement of the Itzamna monster-mouth temple (Structure II) faces West in correlation with the setting sun. As the sun fades in the sky, the human spirit dies and enters Xibalba at the end of life. Pairing the setting sun with the end of life and embodying this concept through architecture is credible, given the Maya love-affair with astronomy and mathematical precision, yet the Itzamna Temples at Hochob and Tabasqueno face North, and Structure II at Hormiguerro faces South. With more funding for scientific research and astronomical observation from these sites, it´s possible these temples will be found to have a relationship with Venus or other celestial bodies. Some archaeologists believe the tower at Tabasqueno was an observatory of sorts, used for tracking the position of the stars, sun and moon.

Palacio Templo with Itzamna Monster Mouth

Tabasqueno, Campeche Mexico

Photo by Jennifer Bjarnason December 2023

The question that burns in my mind, is why these temples only exist in such a small region of Mayab. Having studied Mesoamerican archaeology in University, with a focus on the Maya, plus visiting 19 archaeology sites between Honduras, Guatemala, Chiapas and Yucatan Peninsula, I still have so much to learn. Is it possible these sites had no obvious porthole to Xibalba, leaving the Maya with the creative solution for constructing these temples as metaphors? The prestigious city of Chichen Itza features 4 visible cenotes, with at least one revealing artefacts and human remains of sacrificial ceremonies believed to be made to the Rain God, Chac Mul. In 2015, scientists discovered the presence of a fifth cenote located under the sacred and cosmic Temple of Kukulkan. The Chenes style veneers at Chichen Itza are ornate, and feature Chac Mul masks, but no serpent-mouths. Is it possible there was no need, due to their knowledge of 5 cenotes here, along with Balankanche Cave nearby? Cenotes and caves are entrances to Xibalba, according to the Maya worldview.

The ancient city of Coba features Lake Coba and Lake Macanxoc, which emblemize entrances to the otherworld. Investigations of Cenote Xlapak at Dzibilchlatun unearthed human remains and precious artefacts. Uxmal and her satellite cities lie in close proximity to the well utilized Lolutn Caves, as the Cayo District of Belize features Barton Creek caves and the famous Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave. It seems these gateways to Xibalba were important and necessary attributes of Maya cities, leaving me to ponder whether these fantastic and metaphoric temples were constructed in place of natural gateways. Of course I am only an enthusiast, so will continue to study the works and writings of experienced archaeologists who continue to investigate, theorize, hypothesize and document. This is what makes exploring these ancient places addictive and rewarding - as is currently waiting for new findings via LiDAR technology exciting.

Structure II Tower with Itzamna Monster Mouth

Hormiguerro, Campeche Mexico

Photo by Jaime Hernandez August 2023

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