Water in Maya Consciousness

Chac

By Patricia Macías – EntreMundos Correspondent

“We recognize water as a living system. It means life. In ceremony, water is an everpresent power and so we seek to harmonize human consciousness with the consciousness of the Creature-Universe. Water can’t be reduced to hydrogen and oxygen bonds; it’s intimately linked to vegetable life and astral phemonena. We speak to water, we have conversations with it, we caress it; we trasmit our happiness and our sadness to it. Everyone knows that water thinks, feels, reflects, cries, and can be saddened.” This is how Dr. Daniel Matul, president of the Guatemala Maya League, explains what water is in Maya consciousness. Water is life, a gift that falls from the sky, that nourishes the fields and rivers, gives life to our harvests and to us. Nature is a totality. It is movement and action, it’s the soil, mountains, trees, birds, clouds, fire, water, lakes, and, no more and no less, man, together in a single living system. Each part is sacred and fulfills a role. Water, air, sun, and earth are the elements that make up man himself and so it is so important to show them due respect.

A floral offering on Lake Chicabal in San Martín Sacatepequez, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Patricia Macías

A floral offering on Lake Chicabal in San Martín Sacatepequez, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Patricia Macías.

Some of the nearby sacred water places are: Laguna Chicabal in San Martín Sacatepéquez, in Sololá Lake Atitlán (Atit: Grandmother and Tlan: Water; “Grandmother of Water”), and near Guatemala City Lake Amatitlán (Amat: Abuelo and Titlan: Water; “Grandfather of Water”).

Water is also fundamentally important to the Maya underworld. The movement of underground waters, so evident in a country of volcanos and hot springs, forms part of a sacred system that is invisible and holds invaluable secrets. Caves and tunnels are so significant in Maya symbology because it is through them that this other world of secret movement and life can be explored.

“When the winter and summer solstices arrive, the sun’s reflection on the building creates shadows that mimic the movement of a serpent, symbolizing the descent of water from the sky to the earth.”

There are innumerable written and architectural references that speak to us about the meaning and concept of water in the Maya world. These references speak of the element as creation’s momentum, present in all living beings, and as a dynamic, fertile female form. The graphic that appears below is an example. In the upper half of each image is a serpent, the spirit or nawal of water. The pieces on either side of the central image also represent water, sometimes stylized as the fins of fish, sometimes stylized as fish themselves, as in the central glyph. The temple of Chichen Itzá, in Mexico, is completely dedicated to water, as the serpent on its walls testifies. When the winter and summer solstices arrive, the sun’s reflection on the building creates shadows that mimic the movement of a serpent, symbolizing the descent of water from the sky to the earth.

Carved Maya designs with water symbolism. Courtesy of Daniel Matul.

Carved Maya designs with water symbolism. Courtesy of Dr. Daniel Matul.

Another Maya symbol that represents the unity of living beings with water is the Tzolkin calendar of 260 days. This lunar calendar is used to regulate agricultural cycles and religious and familial ceremonies. It is directly tied to the Moon, like the tides that are guided by her, and explains to us “how the smallest drop of water contains the concentrated mystery of the universe. Moon, water, and man; we are the same. We live in the entrance hall of birth for nine months, almost 260 days, in the water of our mother’s womb. And so birth is related to the phases of the moon, which is also the grandmother of water.”

Figura de serpiente en el templo de Chichen Itza, México.

The shape of a serpent illuminated by the sun on a temple at Chichen Itza, Mexico.

The Maya relationship with water is based in great respect given from man to this essential element of life. This relationship has not changed in thousands of years, but it is confronted by “the imposed European vision of nature as an object of exploitation by man, ruler of creation.” Dr. Matul explains, “In no way has the cosmic relationship with water changed. What have changed are power relations, as the arbitrarily-imposed state has taken possession of the water and uses it for its own benefit and the benefit of powerful international corporations, especially now with the policy of strip mining.”

“It is not possible to found a new way of living that ends the current waste and pollution of water without understanding how the ancient cultures of Guatemala feel, perceive, and think. Surely, a new consciousness in the country, with respect to the universe and life, must make a change that is not just a change of actions, but also a change of paradigm that will mean a new way of organizing thought: To understand man is not to extract him from the universe, but to situate him inside of it.”

As the Maya elders say, “Our concept of water is not some lost secret of the ancestors. It is the living endowment of all Maya men and women of Mesoamerica.”