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. ┬áTruthfully, 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.┬áThe 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.

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