A Cave of Sacrifice and Blood-letting
“The Cave of the Stone Tomb.” Or, better known as Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM).
On our walk I questioned our guide if the Mayan people were upset that a cave so important to their history is now being used for tourism. His response was simple.
When he was younger he would enter these caves without a guide on his own accord. His mother had expressed displeasure with him doing so but knew she would not be able to stop him. So instead she asked him to always ask permission from the Mayan gods before entering the caves. He needed to respect where he was going and what he was doing. Needless to say, I was already asking permission in my mind before we had even reached the entrance.
In order to enter the cave we had to first swim through the crystal blue water into what looks like a keyhole.
Towers of calcium have formed over millions of years – when the light hit them shadows in shapes of faces, figures and animals were cast. I often wondered to myself if the Mayans had seen the same as what I see at this moment. Were these altered for this reason?
Spaces became tight as we scaled walls of rock. We carefully stepped and waded through the river. My body barely fit through crevices, and only after craning my neck in some awkward positions.
After about an hour the cave seemed to just open up. We were suddenly standing in what was known as the cathedral. A huge vaulted open room in the middle of the cave.
This is where I learned about why the Mayans used the cave. The Mayans wanted to be closer to Chac (the Mayan God of Rain), and the caves were believed to be a portal to the Underworld. The Mayans, when they needed rain during times of drought, would offer sacrifices to their God in this cave.
They would sacrifice men, women and even children to Chac. To be sacrificed was considered a privilege and honour.
Around us were scattered pieces of Mayan pottery, mostly all of them cracked or broken, indicating that they had been used in painful blood-letting. The women would typically let blood run from slicing their tongue and men from slicing their genitals. The pottery would usually hold the blood as an offering.
We were able to climb up a wall and see a spot where this blood-letting would occur as some of the tools to perform such ritual have been preserved.
And then we saw the remains.
The remains of 5 Mayans whom are believed to have been sacrificed to the Mayan God. Most are intact and the most renowned is the Crystal Maiden.
Her bones have been calcified by the water in the caves and now sparkle when light is shone upon them. It is unknown if her body had been left as is after the sacrifice, or if she had been moved to this position. Regardless, I couldn’t help but to stand and stare and think what she gave up for herself and her people.
As we exited the cave there were other groups coming through. I wondered if they would feel the same as me. I wondered if they asked permission to enter. And most of all I hoped they would have the respect for the cave and what it means to the Mayan people.
Note: Entry into the caves without a guide is strictly forbidden and only 21 guides exist in all of Belize. The caves extend for 5.3 kilometers and are very tight to maneuver through. As of May 2012 cameras are strictly forbidden as a careless tourist dropped a camera directly onto a skeleton remain believed to be over 1000 years old and shattered the skull.