Ancient Temples, Mercurial Tombs, and Strange History

On April 28, 2001, I stood at the south end of a grand avenue laid with stone. I was thirty miles north of Mexico City, at an ancient site known as Teotihuacan, a word that variously translates to “the place where the gods were born,” or “the place of those who know the road of the gods,” or even “the place where men became gods.” The “road of the gods” is an interesting epithet, as the grand road that traverses the city was known as “The Great Way of the Dead,” or even “Way of the Stars.” Some scholars have suggested that the road was an earthly replica of the Milky Way, and that the entire city itself “reproduced on earth a supposed celestial plan of the sky-world where dwelt the deities and spirits of the dead” (qtd. in Hancock and Faiia, 25).

Picture taken from atop the so called Pyramid of the Moon at the north end of the Avenue of the Dead. Here the entire city layout of Teotihuacan can be seen. To the right the large structure is the Pyramid of the Sun, and just south of it is the Temple of the Plumed Serpent.

Picture taken from atop the so called Pyramid of the Moon at the north end of the Avenue of the Dead. Here the entire city layout of Teotihuacan can be seen. To the left the large structure is the Pyramid of the Sun, and just south of it is the Temple of the Plumed Serpent. Photo by author.

According to Aztec tradition this city was built by the earliest ancestors. The emperor Montezuma would often make pilgrimages here. The largest structure, the Pyramid of the Sun, was not only the supposed birthplace of the gods, but also the primeval mound from which creation was made—the axis-mundi or navel of the world. The city itself appears to have been founded sometime in the 2nd century BCE and grew to an approximate population of over 150,000 people. Such population size makes this settlement a major metropolis in the ancient world.  Truthfully, almost nothing is known about the originators of the city; their ethnicity, language, culture, and religion has been lost behind the veil of forgotten history. The city appears to have been abandoned after apparently several invasions where the city was sacked, sometime around the early 6th century CE.

The third largest pyramid in the world, this structure measures 233.5 feet in height by 733.2 feet in length, with a volume of about 41,842,000 cubit feet of material. Called the Pyramid of the Sun by later peoples, its original name given by its architects is unknown. Photo by author.

The third largest pyramid in the world, this structure measures 233.5 feet in height by 733.2 feet in length, with a volume of about 41,842,000 cubit feet of material. Called the Pyramid of the Sun by later peoples, its original name given by its architects is unknown. Photo by author.

At the south end of the Way of the Dead lies the smallest pyramid-structure named the Temple of the Plumed Serpent. The Aztecs called this deity Quetzalcoatl, a name that means “feathered serpent.” This translation is inexact, as the the term coatl is derived from co, serpent, and atl, water. A more exact translation of his name may therefore be “Plumed Water-Serpent.” Quetzalcoatl is the supreme deity of the Aztec and Mayan pantheons. He was a great being who brought civilization to man. He created the calendar, introduced corn and agriculture, and was the inventor of the arts. Like King Arthur, this mythic hero is lost to history, with some scholars suggesting that there might have been an historical figure from which the later legends were based.

The deity itself appears to be a representation of the cosmic process of becoming through the amalgamation of opposites. He is composed of the base materials of the earth (water-serpent) and has the plumed feathers of the heavens (the quetzal was a bird whose bright green feathers not only represented flight, but also transcendence and the heavenly sphere.) According to the earliest known myths, Quetzalcoatl refused human sacrifice and was kind and benevolent. Yet, during a drunken bout had intercourse with his sister. As penance, the deity immolated himself in fire, and his body was reborn out of the ashes as the planet Venus.

Quetzalcoatl is a sort of phoenix, who represents the process of birth out of the ashes of death. Indeed, his name also has a secondary meaning: “precious twin.” This twin was a deity named Xolotl and was represented by a dog. This dog was a representation of Venus as the evening star, and Quetzacoatl was, among other things, a representation of Venus as the morning star. These twins represented the heavenly cycles of birth and death, and both deities figure large in Mesoamerican underworld mythology. Xolotl is the guide of the dead. He also protects the Sun as it journeys through the underworld. He is a sort of counterpart to the Egyptian Anubis, who was also the dog-headed “Opener of the Ways” through the underworld for the Egyptians. Interestingly, in Hindu mythology, when the Pandavas descend into the underworld they are also accompanied by a dog.

Quetzalcoatl really represents a “scale of being,” with one end being gross matter, and the other end being the heavenly realms. He is mortal and immortal. He is light, and through his twin, also dark. According to one scholar, he is “a kind of ladder with man at the center, but extending downward into animal, water, and mineral; and upward to the planets, and life-giving sun, and the god creators” (Burland, Nicholson, and Osborn 210).

 

The head of the Plumed Serpent at the Temple of the Plumed Serpent. Called by the Aztecs, Quetzalcoatl, and by the Mayan, Kukulkan, this deity apparently represented the twin nature of being: mortality and immortality.

The head of the Plumed Serpent at the Temple of the Plumed Serpent. Called by the Aztecs, Quetzalcoatl, and by the Mayan, Kukulkan, this deity apparently represented the twin nature of being: life and death, mortality and immortality, light and dark. He was central to the Mesoamerican cosmovision, and with his twin, Xolotl, represented all the processes of becoming. Photo by author.

More remarkably, in May of 2011, archaeologists discovered a hidden tunnel buried beneath the entrance to the Temple of the Plumed Serpent that extended to the subterranean heart of the pyramid structure. During excavation, archaeologists discovered large amounts of liquid mercury contained in vessels that had been buried in a side chamber.

In 2011 archaeologists discovered a tunnel beneath the Temple of the Plumed Serpent, running from the entrance to the subterranean center of the pyramid. It is believed that this tunnel system, including side chambers, leads to a royal tomb.

In 2011 archaeologists discovered a tunnel beneath the Temple of the Plumed Serpent, running from the entrance to the subterranean center of the pyramid. It is believed that this tunnel system, including side chambers, leads to a royal tomb.

No one knows what the liquid mercury was used for. The leading theory suggests that it symbolized a lake or body of water in the geography of the netherworld that the dead had to surpass.

Tunnel running underneath the Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent. Several artifacts have been found, including vessels containing liquid mercury.

Tunnel running underneath the Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent. Several artifacts have been found, including vessels containing liquid mercury.

This curious discovery reminds me of the ancient tomb of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. This tomb has not been opened, but archaeologists certainly know of its existence. In 1974 a farmer discovered an underground pit filled with terracotta figures. These were representations of the soldiers who would accompany the emperor into the afterlife. It is estimated that there are 8,000 life size statues of these soldiers, with 130 real-sized chariots and 520 horses.

The Terracotta army of the first emperor of China, buried at his royal tomb.

The Terracotta army of the first emperor of China, buried at his royal tomb.

The emperor’s tomb lies underneath a giant mound. Archaeologists have yet to open it. There is, however, a description of it recorded in a 2nd century BCE history penned by Sima Qian and entitled Records of the Grand Historian. In this account we read:

Craftsmen were ordered to make crossbows and arrows primed to shoot anyone who enters the tomb. Mercury was used to simulate the hundred rivers, the Yangtze and Yellow River, and the great sea, and set to flow mechanically. Above were representation of the heavenly constellations, below, the features of the land. Candles were made from fat of “man-fish,” which is calculated to burn and not extinguish for a long time. (Wikipedia, Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor)

Once again mercury is used to represent waters in a tomb. In this instance, according to the biographer, the waters being represented were the terrestrial waters of China. One wonders if this would be the only symbolism, as in most ancient tombs the symbolic representations on walls and ceilings deal with the landscape, not of this world, but of the netherworld. No one can know for sure until the tomb is opened. Problematically, soil samples taken from the tomb reveal high levels of mercury, a natural poison to the potential archaeologists digging at the site. The Chinese government has prevented any excavation on the tomb itself, and through the foreseeable future, the lost tomb of the first emperor will remain a mystery.

The burial mound of the first emperor of China. Surrounding the mound is the "necropolis," including pits of terracotta warriors. The tomb proper has not been excavated.

The burial mound of the first emperor of China. Surrounding the mound is the “necropolis,” including pits of terracotta warriors. The tomb proper has not been excavated.

There is another connection between the mercurial tombs of Mexico and China: how little anyone really knows about them. As already mentioned, the people who built Teotihuacan are a complete enigma. It has been said that less than 15% of archaeological excavation has been done in Mesoamerica. This estimate is credible. In Santiago Tuxtla, Mexico, I climbed a large mountain called Hill Vigia. From the vantage point of this vista I saw endless miles of rolling hills, mounds, and forests. What is not noticed is that pretty much the entire landscape is overgrowth on top of an ancient civilization.

In Santiago Tuxtla, the surrounding hills and forests grow atop an ancient civilization.

In Santiago Tuxtla, the surrounding hills and forests grow atop an ancient civilization.

Nobody really understands the depth of this truth (pun intended). Everywhere I drove throughout the outback of Mexico I would see large mounds covered in trees and grasses. These mounds were all buildings untouched by the excavator’s hands. It is said that when the Spanish conquistadors entered Teotihuacan, they were utterly unaware that it was a city, for the great pyramids and temples were all covered with forest. So it is that in San Lorenzo, we drove around unsuccessfully looking for the Olmec museum, only to run into an eight year old boy who told us that his barn had more artifacts than the museum. We followed him to his farm where he charged us a couple pesos to look inside his chicken coup. He was right, for there, lined up in rows were some of the most impressive statuary we had ever seen. The boy said his father digs them up all the time while plowing his fields.

A mound in a field is actually an ancient building. Such mounds are found throughout the Mexican outback.

A mound in a field is actually an ancient building. Such mounds are found throughout the Mexican outback. Photo by author.

Boy shows us his barn filled with Olmec statuary. The boy said his father dug up artifacts all the time, while plowing his fields. Photo by Dan Lundwall.

Boy shows us his barn filled with Olmec statuary. The boy said his father dug up artifacts all the time, while plowing his fields. Photo by Dan Lundwall.

In Calakmul, on the border of Guatemala, we explored an ancient Mayan city, where only a half dozen buildings had been partially restored. A mass of tumbling stones spread out for a thousand yards in each direction, indicating a once thriving establishment had entirely succumbed to the equatorial jungles. It was here that I came across a tree literally swallowing an ancient stone stela. No better image could be taken of the literal evaporation of history, eternally ebbing underneath the growth of the incessant and forgetful present.

A stone slab, eight feet tall, is being swallowed by a tree. In equatorial regions, the jungle overgrows everything, breaking down stone, mortar, clay, and wood, and erasing the marks of ancient civilization. Were it up to me, I would put this picture on the cover page of every book dealing with ancient history, as it is a reminder of how little we actually know. Photo by author.

A stone slab, eight feet tall, is being swallowed by a tree. In equatorial regions, the jungle overgrows everything, breaking down stone, mortar, clay, and wood, and erasing the marks of ancient civilization. Were it up to me, I would put this picture on the cover page of every book dealing with ancient history, as it is a reminder of how little we actually know. Photo by author.

From the grand staircases of wondrous pyramids, to the cryptic whispers of heaven-earth correspondences, we are dealing with times, peoples, cultures, and imaginations that are both radically different and radically the same as ours. The curious parallels in pantheons, the dog psycho-pomp of the underworld, and the mercurial tombs across continents suggest a link between cultures and consciousness. The ever stretching of history that fades into a mist on the horizon reminds us that despite all that we know, and think we know, there is more to discover about our past than perhaps will be discovered in our future. Such a sternward journey is worthy of the greatest explorers of our species. What treasures will be found beneath root and hill? Many seek for gold. But the true treasure is the hidden revelation about the eternal self.

History of Mind, History of Self

In 1894 the eminent A. H. Sayce acquiesced, “We are but just beginning to learn how ignorant we have been of the civilized past, and how false our ideas have been regarding it” (Simpson 1). A century later, and with ten-thousand-score additional history books, we find ourselves in about the same position. The ancient past, from several points of view, remains inscrutable.

What makes the observation of Sayce so interesting is its timing. He wrote this statement just a few decades after Darwin published The Descent of Man. Darwin’s ingenious biological theory of evolution was greedily applied to the consciousness and intelligence of the human species. As a result, all of human history was engulfed in the idea of cultural evolution. Suddenly, vast stretches of time were economized not only within the idea of linear time, but also within linear consciousness.

World History is written from a sociological point of view. Most of the ancient past has been put together by the theories of the modern present.

World History is written from a sociological point of view. Most of the ancient past has been put together by the theories of the modern present.

And the results have been disastrous. Nothing has done more damage to our own historical consciousness then the misapplication of Darwinian theory to history. Many history books might get many of the facts right, but the organization of those facts are ultimately modern projections onto the material. The resultant picture is a highly skewed and often grotesquely ignorant picture of humanity—past and present.

A few decades ago, the ever controversial Martin Bernal pointed out that the materials with which we have to work with when organizing our ideas of history are so sparse that debates over ancient history “should not be judged on the basis of proof, but merely on competitive plausibility” (Berlinerblau 72). For what is to be called “proof” amongst so little surviving material? Of course Bernal’s own construction of the past has been blasted by numerous scholars, leaving one critic to lament, “Yet the same critique of [Bernal’s competitive plausibility] can be directed at these scholars, a state of affairs which demonstrates how utterly problematic research in ancient history can be” (Berlinerblau 73). This same scholar notes that history is made up of vast amounts of mostly irrecoverable data, “our awesome lack of knowledge about the ancient world imprisons us within a discourse of plausibilities, not probabilities” (Berlinerblau 73). Sturt Manning sums up the situation simply, “It seems a depressing reality unless one simply chooses to ignore it” (qtd. in Berlinerblau 73).

But why ignore vast stretches of nothingness when one can use it to underwrite any idea that serves the present? It was the Nazi application of evolutionary theory on society that created the path to the “final solution.” Millions were burned in the ovens, because, as history explained to them, this was best for the future. What irony. Then again, it was the Aztec application of astrological theory (historical evolution in a different sense) that underwrote the historical consciousness that codified the endless bath of bloody corpses.

Every social movement has an historical construction that supports it. The point is, those historical constructions are very often predicated upon an ignorance that is both vast and surprising. As it must be, for ancient history is just beyond our best attempts to reconstruct it. All those thousands of pottery shards, figurines, bone piles, and archeological debris can tell us a great deal about methods and modalities, but they cannot tell us about the real thoughts and imaginations of their creators.

Constructing history upon these pieces is like understanding a dramatic play only by reading its prop list: “Act 1, Scene 1; a table center stage with a plate of eggs and a dagger nearby.” How do we interpret this? Well, Marx would tell us that the small quantity of egg has produced the dagger; and what we are seeing is the beginning of a revolution. Frazier might see the dagger as a sacrificial implement for a fertility ritual, and that the eggs are really the analogical object of exotic secret rites. Freud would tell us that, … well, … isn’t it obvious.

All the more complicated if not comedic does the interpretation become when reading the next set of data: “Act 1, Scene 2; several pillars marked with geometric forms surrounding a mound. A donkey pulls a casket. Left stage is a barrel of fish.” Hmmm. Marx: “The peasant has been killed by the oppressive state and his body is being dragged to the burial mound by his lowly beast of burden.” Frazier: “Here is the sacred temple of the fish god who reinvigorates the season of spring through the sacrifice of his dead body being pulled by an ass.” Freud: “The casket is the vagina succumbing to the virulent donkey who drags it upon the upright phalluses of the state. Fish are exuberant procreators, and the barrel of fish is the promise of sex, indeed, the absolute necessity of sex, standing by the burial mound which is also the swollen womb of the mother.”

You get the point. History is a sociological construct. And the farther one goes back, the more modern sociology is applied. I am not saying that all history is sheer fabrication. Only parts of it. And sometimes the parts overcome the whole.

When it comes to the ancient past there are generally three overarching views which interpret the prop lists of history. First, there are the Howlers. These are people who believe that everyone in the past was a “howling barbarian,” borrowing a phrase from the prestigious Richard Atkins, who declared that the builders of Stonehenge were intellectual primitives. Despite a great deal of deconstruction on this view in the past few decades, the truth is that this worldview is so steeped into our modern historical consciousness that we no longer notice it in our own thinking. Ancient man was primitive. Modern man is not. We can prove it: pottery-shards versus iphones!

Comparing ancient pottery with modern microchips is only comparing the evolution of technology. It is not comparing the evolution of the mind or of consciousness. Few people understand the difference.

Comparing ancient pottery with modern microchips is only comparing the evolution of technology. It is not comparing the evolution of the mind or of consciousness. Few people understand the difference.

Few people seem to understand that such a comparison is a false one, and that, in the broad sense, scientific and symbolic thought does not evolve. Rather, it is rooted in the very nature of consciousness, and is attached to the culture and language of society; it is only the latter that evolves. The mathematician Giulio Magli comments that the idea of evolution of a primitive mind to a modern one is a “ridiculous and fundamentally sloppy hypothesis” (4). The historian of science Giorgio de Santillana concurs, “The point is this: that what we observe as ‘primitive’ conditions are, with very few exceptions [. . .] only what is left of the rise and fall of past higher cultures; what appeared to be a universal steady state of superstitions from which thought grows is only the common denominator to which decaying civilizations run in the end” (10).

The second common view of history is the Romantic view. Like the primitive ideology of the Howlers, the Romantics believe that “simple” culture is better culture, and that ancient men and women were more in tune with the landscape, with mother earth, and with their own souls. This is a “Romantic Savage” view of ancient woman, and it has reached such daring heights that it now asserts that ancient matriarchies were peaceful, and in the words of one scholar, as a result, there was no warfare for over three thousand years!

The problem with such thinking is manifold. There is no such thing as “simple” culture. Ancient history was full of violence, and ancient cultures often practiced human sacrifice, ritualized prostitution, and rampant slavery. There were no carbon emissions from factories or automobiles in the ancient past. That’s true. But ancient civilizations deforested entire landscapes, burning stumps as they went. And whatever time the shaman had to meditate upon the earth (which itself is funny, for the shaman’s primary stewardship was to be a guide into the next world, away from all things of the earth) was trumped by the mass of humanity stuck in one perpetual and monotonous state—described in the words of the historian Tacitus, “Toil, toil, toil!” The Romantic view is also “a ridiculous and fundamentally sloppy hypothesis.”

The third historical viewpoint can be called history as written by the Conspirators. With these people, the aliens built the pyramids, and the megalithic rings, and all ancient technology. Why? Because, like the Howlers, the Conspirators believe that ancient man could have done no such thing by themselves. This ideology is nothing more than a neo-mystical Darwinian view of the self and its relationship with cosmos. Not even the “mother-ship” can save us from ourselves.

All three viewpoints: the Howlers, the Romantics, and the Conspirators, are wrong. And being this kind of wrong has modern implications. Each one of these views produces a set of metaphysics by which we live. And that metaphysics creates an image of the self. We are, according to these views, either the apex of civilization, or the victims of civilization, or the cosmic riff-raff who got its best ideas by stealing them from other-worldly civilizations. The dignity of our identity, which has always been individual, infinite potential, is curtailed by the poverty of our historical conceptions, which remains collective and finite projections.

Read more in my upcoming book: Mythos and Cosmos, Mind and Meaning in the Oral Age.

 

Moby Dick and the Navel of the Milky Ocean

Gazing ever up into heaven’s majestic dome one cannot help but to feel a penetrating awe. For some, the Great Deep that is heaven produces reverence, reflection, and humility. One could say that the “[starry sky] and meditation are wedded forever” (MD 13). For others, an infinite curiosity arouses–a wanting to know–about self, other, and cosmos. Such a moment is like a baptism in water where one is initiated into a new life. For what is the sparkling night sky if not a reflection of the glittering ocean deeps? Both are filled with mystery, life, and inexhaustible possibility. One is a reflection of the other, and just so, is not the ocean—heaven brought down to earth?

We live between two eternal deeps: Heaven and Ocean.

We live between two eternal deeps: Heaven and Ocean.

Certainly in Melville’s classic, Moby Dick, the imagery of sea is pronouncedly everywhere. But curiously, so likewise is the imagery of stars; in so many places the two images blend together as a co-mingling of waters: “the firmaments of air and sea were hardly separable in that all pervading azure…” (MD 442). We are also told that Queequeg’s people believed “that the stars are isles, but that far beyond all visible horizons, their own mild, uncontinented seas, interflow with the blue heavens; and so form the white breakers of the milky way…” (MD 396). Likewise and repeatedly, Melville gives the image of oceans cosmic themes, calling them “wide-rolling prairies… [where] millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries; all that we call lives and souls, lie dreaming…” (MD 399).

No less, the water’s chief inhabitant, the great white whale, is also a cosmic image wedded to celestial powers. Thus, we are told that most mortals believed Moby Dick to be “ubiquitous” and “immortal” and that his whiteness could be seen “gliding at high noon through a dark blue sea, leaving a milky-way wake of creamy foam, all spangled with golden gleamings” (MD 158-9). Moby Dick was a creature that had “moved amid this world’s foundations… O head! thou hast seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham” (MD 264). Furthermore, the whole worldview of whaling was intimately bound with heavenly (deified) associations. Thus, when the cook preaches a sermon to the gorging sharks he explains: “You is sharks, sartin; but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is not’ing more dan de shark well goberned” (MD 251). And when Ishmael processes the spermaceti of the whale he reflects: “In visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti” (MD 349).

The White Whale is a symbol of the above and the below; of the without and the within.

The White Whale is a symbol of the above and the below; of the without and the within.

Behind Melville’s epic sea-tale is an underlying (and overarching) cosmogony. The tale is as much about the creation of cosmos and the soul that can abide in the starry depths as it is anything else. The soul’s place is heaven, thus Ishmael not only seeks, but is drawn to the ocean, heaven’s counterpart (MD 12). Ishmael’s most trusted companion is the dark skinned Queequeg, who is his protector and friend (literally his bed mate), and therefore is an image of his own soul. It is no coincidence then that Queequeg’s skin is covered, head to toe, with tattoos, imprinted upon him by one of his people’s seers and prophets; those tattoos were “hieroglyphic marks… a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth” (MD 399). In Queequeg, Ishmael carries the heavens with him.

Queequeg's skin is covered with the cosmic glyphs of eternal truth. He remains a reflection of Ishmael's soul.

Queequeg’s skin is covered with the cosmic glyphs of eternal truth. He remains a reflection of Ishmael’s soul.

This is markedly different than the rest of the souls upon the Pequod. The Pequod itself is an image of earthly exile, lives adrift in the midst of starry cosmos. And nailed to the Pequod’s center mast is its soul, its hieroglyphic mark and treatise of truth, a gold doubloon! This is no idle comparison, for this doubloon is covered with ancient symbols of the “partitioned zodiac” whose “keystone sun” rose in the “equinoctial point at Libra” (MD 359). The doubloon was the ship’s “navel”, or axis-mundi (MD 363). Thus a chief juxtaposition is made between the zodiac and heavenly marks tattooed upon Queequeg and the zodiac and ancient glyphs of the doubloon for which everyone else sought the white whale.

For all souls who seek the  gold doubloon, the white whale is certain terror. The Pequod remains the materialistic soul of the world.

For all souls who seek the gold doubloon, the white whale is certain terror. The Pequod remains the materialistic soul of the world.

If this analysis is correct, then Moby Dick becomes a tale about the creation and tending of the human soul in a cosmic context. For Ishmael, the soul is ennobled and given new life through an infinite bond of love, friendship, work, and duty (as reflected in his relationship with Queequeg). Ishmael is not concerned about killing the white whale (itself an image of the cosmic soul), nor is he interested in the tender and soul of the world–the gold doubloon. Ishmael goes to sea “as a simple sailor”, to be paid an honest wage, and for “exercise and pure air” (MD 14-5). As a result of this simple and honest worldview and living, everywhere Ishmael turns he sees balance and harmony in the cosmos. Even when the Pequod is destroyed by the white whale, it is the tattooed ark of the starry firmament that becomes his own life preserver against the infinite deep. Ishmael again, carries the heavens with him.

Whereas, for all others who made the golden zodiac their sun, moon and stars, their ship failed them. It was broken apart from the energy and laws of the cosmic navel who abhors the self-centered brute. So it is that the white whale cannot harm the person acclimated to the whale’s environment, but for all others, their meeting is certain death.
Works Cited

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1967.