Homeward bound

ISSUE TWO (NOVEMBER 2002)

WELLS IN DEPTH -  Gary Varner

Flow will resume with Issue 3

Cenotés and Other Sacred Waters
of the Americas

by Gary Varner

Introduction 

   While most of the well known sacred wells and waters of the world are found in Europe, the Native Americans also had water sites that they believed to be holy. While not as well known, a few examples of sacred cenotés and other water features in North and South America are discussed here.

 

Yucatan

   One of the most famous of the sacred cenotes is the Chichen-Itza Sacred Cenoté in remote Yucatan. An oval shaped opening in the earth 180 feet across and sixty feet below the lip of the rocky rims, this natural well has been used to connect with the Otherworld for centuries. Located in an open area surrounded by the steaming jungle, the cenoté is of a dark green color with sheer white rock walls. Today the well is still open with no protection for the unfortunate pilgrim who happens to walk too close to the edge. In 1579, Charles V of Spain received a report from the mayor of Valladolid, located near the cenoté:

'The Lords and principal personages of the land has the custom, after sixty days of abstinence and fasting, of arriving by daybreak at the mouth of the Cenoté and throwing into it Indian women belonging to each of these lords and personages, at the same time telling these women to ask for their masters a year favorable to his particular needs and desires. The women being thrown in, unbound, fell into the water with great force and noise. At high noon, those that could, cried out loudly and ropes were let down to them. After the women came up, half dead, fires were built around them and copal was burned before them. When they recovered their senses, they said that below, there were many people of their nation, men and women, and that they had received them…the people responded to their queries concerning the good and bad year that was in store for their masters.'

(Tompkins, 1976, p.179)

   According to Frederick Peterson (1962, p.83), the survival of these sacrificial victims was rare as evidenced by the rewards and honors bestowed upon those lucky few, including being made temporary ruler of certain geographic areas. Most of those chosen for sacrifice, however, were given up to the rain God during periods of drought (Krickenberg 1968, p.35).

   The skeletons of several men, women and children have been recovered from the sacred cenoté at Chichen-Itza. They were all sacrificed during periods of drought to appease the rain God Chac (who is still worshipped by the Maya to this day). It was believed that Chac resided at the bottom of the cenoté, referred to as 'The Well of God' (Chen-ku). Early Meso-Americanist Thomas Joyce wrote, in a somewhat contradictory manner from the report made to Charles V, that 'at Chichen Itza human sacrifice was made to the sacred cenote (natural well), which was supposed to be a place of great sanctity. The victim was cast into the water with other offerings and was believed to emerge alive after three days had elapsed' (Joyce 1920, p.262).

   The Sacred Cenoté at Chichen-Itza was a destination for pilgrims who came to give offerings. Votive offerings of gold, jade, a turquoise 'serpent mask', and other items were recovered from the Sacred Cenoté during the early twentieth century by Edward H. Thompson. Thompson attempted to establish a link between the Mayans and the Lost Continent of Atlantis during his excavations. In addition gold discs have been found which date to the tenth century with etchings depicting warfare and human sacrifice on their surfaces. Over the last hundred years more than 30,000 items of gold, copper, jade, pottery, fabric, human bones and wooden and stone artifacts have been recovered from the Well of God (Baldwin 1998, p.68). Other artifacts found in the Sacred Cenoté originated in central Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama (Krickenberg 1968, p.72).

   This particular cenoté may have been the most important pilgrimage site that existed in pre-conquest Yucatan. It has been suggested, 'the great round surface of water may have been perceived as a giant mirror for divination and auguring' (Miller & Taube 1993, p.58).

   Certain hot springs were also regarded as being sacred to the indigenous peoples of Central and South America. According to Joyce (1920, p.37), 'the valley-dwellers of Michoacan around Pazcuaro revered a goddess of fertility and rain, named Cueravahperi, casting the hearts of her victims into certain hot springs which were supposed to give birth to the rain-clouds'.

   John L. Stephens in his classic work of archaeological discovery, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, described a mysterious cenoté he happened upon in a thick grove at Balankanché ('Hidden Throne'), on his 1841 expedition:

'…it was a great circular cavity or opening in the earth, twenty or thirty feet deep… It was a wild-looking place, and had a fanciful, mysterious, and almost fearful appearance; for while in the grove all was close and sultry, and without a breath of air, and every leaf was still, within this cavity the branches and leaves were violently agitated, as if shaken by an invisible hand. …on our first attempting to enter it the rush of the wind was so strong that it made us fall back gasping for breath. … It was one of the marvels told us of this place, that it was impossible to enter after twelve o’clock.'

(Stephens 1963, p.213)

   Stephens discovered a well-worn pathway around the cenoté leading to a stone block, which according to Stephens (1963, p.213), 'had been a great item in all the accounts, and was described as made by hand and highly polished'. After descending through the passageways for sometime, Stephens and his party finally came upon the well itself. The water, he wrote, 'was in a deep, stony basin, running under a shelf of overhanging rock.' Stephens believed that the well was the main source of water for a nearby ruined city located between Nohcacab and Uxmal. Due to the hand crafted stone altar and the various legends associated with the well, it would appear that the indigenous people had considered it sacred for hundreds of years. The admonishment to not enter the well after twelve o’clock is also one of many legends that are attached to sacred wells. Caves and still, standing water were all viewed as entryways to the Underworld by the Meso-Americans as they were among most other cultures. They were held sacred and were places of veneration, but they were also viewed with fear as they led to the world of the dead.

   The cave shrine at Balankanché has still not been fully explored but many of the stone and wooden offerings, stoneware pots, incense burners and other offerings remain as they have since 860 CE. The most amazing aspect of this shrine is a huge, fused stalagmite-stalactite column, which rises from the caves’ floor reaching the roof in an amazing likeness of a great tree—the representation of the Mayan World Tree (Devereux 2000, pp.95-6).

Contents

Introduction

Yucatan

Arizona

California

What a picture!

What a picture!

What a picture!

What a picture!

The Headwaters of the Sacramento River

What a picture!

Panther Meadows

What a picture!

What a picture!

What a picture!

McCloud Falls

What a picture!

Burney Falls

What a picture!

Castle Crags Mineral Spring

What a picture!

What a picture!

Harbin Hot Springs

Vichy Springs

What a picture!

Castiloga

What a picture!

What a picture!

The Worldmaker's Trail

What a picture!

What a picture!

Concluding Thoughts

References

Notes

 

 

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