Caves were believed to be portals to Xibalba, the Underworld, in the Mayan culture. In these dark subterranean places, it was believed that powerful and important Underworld death gods capriciously ruled. An ancient sacred book called the Popul Vuh proposed that these Underworld gods were responsible for the creation of the world and held great power over it. Xibalba translates directly to, “place of fear,” and Mayans would enter this Underworld to communicate with these gods and their ancestral spirits, often times to give them offerings to quell their wraths or to request their assistance. These offerings included rituals of burning copal incense, giving blood offerings, and, in more desperate times, human sacrifices.
I entered Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, a cave used by the Mayans from 0 to 800 AD and more heavily used into the Terminal Classic period 800 – 1000 AD, the period when the entire Mayan civilization mysteriously vanished. It is a cave that has been undisturbed for more than 1000 years, containing untouched ancient Mayan artifacts including pottery and tools, beautiful cave formations, and unmoved remains of human sacrifices. One of those human sacrifices is a young girl called The Crystal Maiden. I followed the remnants of her screams from so long ago to find her broken crystallized skeleton at the deepest part of Xibalba.
I first had to get to the cave. Part of a small group of adventurers with a local guide, I took off into the Belize Rainforest, crossed three streams passing through the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, and trekked through the sub-tropical broadleaf forest to reach the grand cave entrance which resembled a Gothic pointed arch. The only way into the cave is to swim through a deep-blue pool of water created by a stream that flows throughout the major part of the cave system.
For the next four hours, I would hike, climb, swim, and spelunk, through a series of chambers, tunnels, and passageways filled with stunning cave formations made with 100,000 year old stalactites and stalagmites. Entire cave walls would glitter in the light of my headlamp. Sometimes I had to crawl, duck, swim, and squeeze to get deeper and deeper into the cave.
Once we were sufficiently away from the entrance, our guide showed us some ancient markings done by the Mayans on the wall. There were different varieties of animals, and he explained the Mayans believed that you had to enter Xibalba in the form of your spirit animal. We killed our lights, sufficiently putting me in the darkest place I had ever been, and thought about our own spirit animals. Unbeknownst, to me, he planned to have us share, and I was the first one to go. Not having enough time to think of a different more badass spirit animal, I said, “My spirit animal is a unicorn, because people don’t think they exist and I like trying to do the impossible because sometimes possible was once thought of as impossible.” So while dragon and Okapi sat in second and third place, I feel like I at least sold my unicorn spirit animal.
Finally we reached the inner chambers, a 985 feet (300 meters) by 165 feet (50 meters) cathedral, where the sacrificial ceremonies took place. Archaeologists, anthropologist, and other types of historians decided not to excavate this area, instead leaving everything where it is creating a living museum. All their research is done around the items and without moving them. Granted, some past flooding has moved the objects from their original whereabouts, but that’s the only thing that has touched them. Mayan pottery, stoneware, ceramics, and tools litter the floor. One artifact named the Monkey Pot, is just one of four of its type ever found in Central America. Many of these are broken now, but they once held food offerings for the gods.
There are also noticeable modifications to the cave to create altars for the sacred offerings, and to create shadowed silhouettes of animals and faces onto the cave walls. It’s these shadows that reinforce the belief of Underworld gods and spirits, because they seem to dance, shift, and grow as your light illuminates them.
Among these artifacts, there are 14 Mayan full or partial skeletal remains from human sacrifices located in the exact place they died on the cave floor with no indication they were ever buried. Of these 14 skeletons, six are infants under the age of three years, one is a child around seven, and the remaining seven are adults of varying age. All the children show trauma to their crania suggesting their deaths were the result of blows to their heads.
And then, in the deepest part in a small alcove only reached by a steep ladder up a vertical sheer rock face, lies the Crystal Maiden, a young woman around 20 years old believed to be clubbed, leaving her paralyzed, and left to die. Time has bound her to the floor and her bones have been calcified and encrusted in crystalline travertine deposits, giving them a mesmerizing sparkling crystallized appearance.
Human sacrifices were actually pretty rare in the Mayan culture. It was a resort used only in times of the utmost desperation. They viewed blood as a means to nourish their gods, and offering a living being was the ultimate of offerings. At its height, the Mayan civilization numbered around two million, and then they all vanished without a trace. Anthropologists and historians have not figured out why, but postulate that the collapse was likely from a combination of causes: warfare, overpopulation, environmental degradation, drought, and food shortages. It must have been desperate times for this cave to house so many sacrifices.
I’m sorry Crystal Maiden and the other 13 sacrifices, I hope you and your Underworld gods have found peace now.
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“The universe, I’d learned, was never, ever kidding. It would take whatever it wanted and it would never give it back.” – Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail