We were on the way to Cenote Ik Kil, located in the northern centre of the Yucatán Peninsula and about five minutes (3,2 km) south from Chichén Itzá (“Ik Kil” 2020). Today, it is part of the Ik Kil Archaeological Park and is publicly accessed for swimming and cliff diving (“Ik Kil” 2020; David 2020). Its water level is about 26 metres (85 ft) below ground level; It has got about 60 metres (200 ft) in diameter and is about 48 metres (157 ft) deep (“Ik Kil” 2020).
Swimming in cenotes is always at one’s own risk; there are no lifeguards, and only life vests are available (David 2020). This is why one needs to feel really comfortable swimming out of their depth to enjoy this experience (Ibid.).
Cenote Ik Kil
Around the cenote, there is a well organised tourist infrastructure with two restaurants serving typical Mexican food, changing rooms with lockers and showers, shady areas for relaxing, conveniently placed viewing areas of the cenote, and even cottages for hire to stay overnight (“Ik Kil” 2020; David 2020). To get to a swimming platform with the wooden stairs, there is a carved stone stairway that leads down (“Ik Kil” 2020; David 2020). Still there are three diving platforms beside the pool as well (David 2020). The cenote is open to the sky so visitors are not enclosed, like in cave cenotes, which yet gives another invaluable experience (“Ik Kil” 2020; David 2020). To avoid doing any harm to the cenote ecosystem, the visitors intending to swim must first take a shower to remove all the cream and dirt off of their skin (David 2020). It is not either allowed to touch stones or tree roots around the well (Ibid.).
Luckily, when we got on-site, there were not so many people swimming in the cenote. The water was really fresh, crystal-clear and chilly, which gave a cooling relief from Mexican sunshine (David 2020), even in February. From time to time, I felt tiny fishes nicely nibbling my skin. I swam to the centre of the water circle and I looked up into the open roof section. The view was breathtaking with all those plant strings and tree roots cascading down from the roof edges into the water (Ibid.), and the foliage covering the damp stones of the well just intensified the effect of swimming in the jungle.
Maw of the underworld that holds the underground waters
I dived in to the abyss of the well and I found myself in a completely different world once again. Echoes of people’s voices heard above suddenly fell silent and I felt alone, as if on the threshold to the unknown, underwater realm, existing – as the Maya believed – parallel to the real one (Prager 2013:279).
It was ruled by dangerous deities, such as the rain Mayan god Chaak (Aztec’s Tlaloc), and dwelled by various mythical creatures being the gods’ helpers (Prager 2013:279; Brady 2013:299; Tuszyńska 2007:62-63; “Xibalba” 2020). Some of them personified significant forms of the landscape: mountains, caves and cenotes (Brady 2013:299). In Mayan inscriptions, scholars identify wide-open jaws of Centipede (Sak Baak Chapaata), symbolizing cenotes as the ‘maw of the underworld (or of the Earth Monster) that holds the underground waters’ (Ibid.:299; also see the drawing a: “Maw of the underworld from Pakal’s sarcophagous”. In: Schele and Mathews (1998). Drawing source: Ramos Ponciano M. E., Ball J. W. (2017). Not only cenotes, but also underwater lakes in caves, are the natural models of this mythical place, inhabited by both, animals, such as frogs, lizards, water snakes, scorpions, and more grotesque creatures, like gnomes, souls of the forest and short people, dwarfs (Prager 2013:279).
Divine dwarfs in cenotes
Dwarfs not only performed various administrative functions and entertained the ruler at pre-Columbian royal courts, but also played an important role in the mythology of the Maya, who believed in the classical and post-classical periods that the four dwarfs were tasked with raising the vault of heavens.
The Olmecs also knew of the image of the four dwarfs supporting the sky, where dwarfs were equally pictured, like stone atlases, supporting the structure of the altar, possibly representing the vault of heavens (Prager 2013:278-279). The Maya even saw two dwarfs in the firmament, symbolizing undiscovered constellations (Ibid.:279). Midgets, as much as hunchbacks, cripples and albinos were viewed by the Maya and other pre-Colombian cultures as supernatural beings through their physical infirmities (Ibid.:278). They were all also regarded, like Maya rulers were, as messengers of the divine world and a means of contact with it (Ibid.:278). As such, the dwarfs are often depicted as companions of gods, including the sun and maize deities (Ibid.:279). This explains why in art, the Mayan kings considered divine, were also depicted in the company of midgets; the ruler performing religious rituals imitated the gods and became the center of the real world and the underworld (Ibid.:278).
Mayans thus believed that dwarfs come from outside the real world and actually are divine and supernatural beings (Prager 2013:279). They dwell in the underworld or ‘place of fright’, Xibalbà, which is as much sacred as dangerous (Tuszyńska 2007:34,36; “Xibalba” 2020). In the Maya’s opinion, the boundaries and the portals to this world can be found in overgrown holes in the forest, dark caves, deep ravines, and also in shimmering water mirrors overgrown with dark green water lilies, or just in deep cenotes, like this one I was just swimming in (Tuszyńska 2007:36; Prager 2013:279). Such wells were perceived as symbolical corridors between the earthly land and underworld (Tuszyńska 2007:37).
More about dwarfs
The history of the Mayan dwarfs, however, does not end here; I have also read that among the Maya’s offerings found in the caves, there have been also found querns for producing corn flour, which was possibly related to the Mayan belief that the first world was inhabited by dwarfs, saiyam unicoob, who built the first stone cities (Tuszyńska 2007:26; Brady 2013:305). The first world was deprived of the Sun (Tuszyńska 2007:26). When it was finally created and shone for the first time, it turned the dwarfs into stone, and their images can now be seen in many ruins (Ibid.:26). The donors probably wanted to pay tribute to them by similar offerings (Brady 2013:305).
After the Maya, dwarfs took part in “a rite of passage in which [they] assist the soul of the [privileged] deceased into the domain of the dead, [the underworld], from which it would eventually be reborn in the royal lineage, [just as the maize god died in the underworld and resurrected. Similarly,] maize sprouts again in the cycle of nature’s renewal” Art (Institute Chicago 2020). This is possibly why dwarfs are often seen in art while accompanying the maize god (Prager 2013:279; Institute Chicago 2020).
Crunchy nachos and human bones
After one hour of swimming in the underworld, I woke up from a daydream, as if revitalized. I was sitting in one of the on-site restaurants. The waiter has just brought a basket full of crunchy nachos and a saucier of juicy guacamole. It was a pleasant feeling to join archaeology and mythology with a tourist attraction and delicious Mexican food.
‘Why did not you tell me?!’, my friend asked reproachfully, sitting at my table, and pulling a wicker basket with nachos towards her.
‘About what?’, I asked surprised.
‘That THEY pulled people down HERE in the water to sacrifice them!’, she explained. ‘But it is better I have found it out not earlier than I got into the water’, she added without waiting for my explanation.
Indeed, the research of archaeologists confirmed the thesis that the Maya offerings were not only composed of products made of jade, shells, flint and ceramics, but there were also sacrifices of humans (Tuszyńska 2007:37; Brady 2013:305; Dzikowska 2013:201). Diego de Landa also mentions human offerings given by the pilgrims to the Cenote Sagrado in Chichén Itzá (Brady 2013:305). Since the arrival of the Conquistadors, stories have circulated about human sacrifice practiced by the Maya (Tuszyńska 2007:37). Chroniclers of that time mention that children and young women were thrown into the water (Tuszyńska 2007:37; Brady 2013:305). However, according to the researchers, the excavated human remains do not always indicate sacrifices (Tuszyńska 2007:37). In many cases it turned out that in most cases humans were thrown into the water after their death, and this concerned both men and women of a different age (Ibid.:37). It supports a hypothesis that the remains of ancestors and important personalities were thrown into the waters of the cenotes, because they symbolized the primeval ocean in the moment of the creation of the world (Ibid.:37). In this way, the dead were reborn to a new life (Ibid.:37).
Burials or human sacrifice?
There are many other hypotheses about human skeletons found in cenotes (Tuszyńska 2007:37). One of them states that they could be burial places (Ibid.:37). The best example of such a water cemetery is the Cenote Tankah (Quintana Roo), where the walls were marked by the Maya with glyphs of darkness and the planet Venus (Ibid.:37). Both glyphs are associated with night and death, but also with life and rebirth (Ibid.:37). Assuming that the cenotes were symbolic entrances to the world of the dead, Xibalbà, the hypothesis of natural burial chambers in cenotes is justified (Ibid.:37).
According to a related theory, human bodies were placed in cavities that were naturally hollowed in the walls of the well and emerged in periods of drought (Tuszyńska 2007:37; Dzikowska 2013:201). And droughts were actually the main reason for the human sacrifice to appease Chaak, the rain god (“Ik Kil” 2020). Such dry spells were the greatest in the ninth and tenth centuries AD., and when they finally passed away, the water flooded the bodies of the victims thus deposited (Dzikowska 2013:201).
In the Cenote Tankah, scattered bones belonging to one hundred and eighteen human skeletons were found (Tuszyńska 2007:37). Two hundred and fifty skeletons have been uncovered at Cenote Sagrado of Chichén Itzá (Dzikowska 2013:201). ItzáIk Kil cenote was equally sacred to the Mayans who used it for various offerings, including human sacrifice to their rain god, Chaak (“Ik Kil” 2020). Consequently, apart from numerous pieces of jewellery, archaeologists and speleologists have found human bones also in the deep waters of this cenote (Ibid.).
‘Next time, we are going to snorkel in the sea’, decided my friend, devouring the last nachos. ‘And I hope not to find any human bones’.
Touching history by accident
I smiled to myself. It is difficult not to touch the past in such places as Mexico, where the present is continuously being filtered through the ancient heritage, whose remnants are so tangible at each step taken by a modern visitor, even if they are quite unconscious of such significant ancient influences.
Featured image: Entrance to Dos Ojos Cenote, near Tulúm in Mexico. Photo by Dag Lindgren (2007). CC BY-SA 3.0. Image cropped. Photo source: “Sistema Dos Ojos“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.
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