CAVES . In all cultures and in almost all epochs the cave has been the symbol of creation, the place of emergence of celestial bodies, of ethnic groups and individuals. It is the great womb of earth and sky, a symbol of life, but also of death. It is a sacred place that constitutes a break in the homogeneity of space, an opening that is a passage from one cosmic region to another, from heaven to earth or, vice versa, from earth to the underworld (Eliade, 1959, p. 37).
All caves are sacred. Some, like cosmic mountains or important sanctuaries, are considered the center of the universe. Where the sacred manifests itself, the world comes into existence (Eliade, 1959, p. 63). Every religious person places himself at the center of the world, "as close as possible to the opening that ensures him communication with the gods" (ibid., p. 65). Earth gods live in caves, which are often called "the earth's navel." As the world center, the axis mundi, the cave at times blends in religious symbolism with the mountain. Of the elements in Asian geomancy that determine the quality of a place for a settlement, a home, or a tomb, mountains are considered the most important. Their vital energy gives them the name of "dragon." This magical energy flows into a cave, which is not always a real opening but represents an auspicious site. Geomantic caves are those surrounded by mountains, where wind is stored and where water, which maintains the spiritual energy, is close by. The mountains are believed to have been created in order to form geomantic caves (Yoon, 1976, pp. 28–34). This mountain-cave-water-energy tradition is similar to the ancient Mexican belief that water was contained within mountains, the womb of the water goddess Chalchiuhtlicue, whence it flowed in the form of the rivers and lakes necessary to human settlement.
The Cave as Axis Mundi
The cave as a sacred spot that marks the place for a major religious structure and even for a great city, the axis mundi of its time, is well illustrated at Teotihuacán, Mexico. The most impressive monument here (built c. 100 bce, destroyed c. 750 ce) is the Pyramid of the Sun, built shortly before the beginning of the common era over a primitive shrine, which was itself built over a subterranean cave. The cave has the form of a four-petaled flower, one of Teotihuacán's most popular art motifs, possibly symbolizing the four world quarters. The great Sun Pyramid was constructed in such a way that the four-petaled cave lies almost directly beneath its center. Although the cave was ransacked in ancient times, the few remains within suggest that it may have been a cult center for water gods. Or, inasmuch as a sixteenth-century document labels the place in front of the pyramid "Moctezuma's oracle," an oracle may well have dwelt here. Whatever the answer, the sacredness of this cave was such that it had to be preserved by building a shrine over it, then by constructing the immense pyramid over this. Sacred space was thus preserved for all time.
Birth and Creation
Because of its volcanic formation, Mesoamerica is honeycombed with caves. Each is revered, and many are associated with the emergence myth. Chicomoztoc ("seven caves") was the place of creation of many ethnic groups, particularly the Aztec. Its seven caves are represented in ancient pictorial manuscripts and in oral tradition. But before the creation of people, the sun and the moon were made in a grotto. In the myth of the creation of the Fifth Sun (the name given the present era by the Aztec), some chronicles state that after one god threw himself into a fire and became transformed into the sun, another god went into a cave and came out of it as the moon. In a legend of Española (Hispaniola), all men were created in one cave, all women in another (Fray Ramon Pané, in Heyden, 1975). Sustenance, also, originated in caves, according to popular belief. Some caves were called cincalco, "house of maize"; in them corn was kept by the gods. A sixteenth-century Mexican chronicle, Historia de México, relates that Centeotl, a maize god, was born in a cavern; from different parts of his body cotton and many edible plants grew. According to another early chronicler, Fray Geronimo de Mendieta, a flint knife fell from heaven and landed in Chicomoztoc, where it broke into sixteen hundred pieces, from which that number of gods was created. The cave, then, is a symbol of the womb. According to Fray Bernardino de Sahagún's Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España (the so-called Florentine Codex), a saying is ascribed to Aztec women of the sixteenth century: "Within us is a cave, a gorge … whose only function is to receive."
The Emergence Place
The cave as the center of the world and place of emergence is found in many traditions. Hopi mythology tells of three worlds under the earth where the Hopi lived with the Ant People before they found their way up to the fourth, or present, world. The Zuni, with the same traditions, call the place of emergence hepatina ("the middle place") and the last world (which they classify as still underground) the "fourth womb." The modern kiva of these and other Pueblo Indian groups is an artificial cave, the ceremonial center of the village, in which there is also a small hole in the ground, symbolic of the place of emergence. Kiva ritual follows a man from life to death. As soon as he is born a boy is symbolically initiated into the ritual life and pledged to his father's kiva. Zuni society has six divisions, associated with the four world directions, the zenith, and the nadir. Each division has its own kiva, around which religion revolves (Leighton and Adair, 1966). The kiva evidently has been basic to ritual for many centuries. During the Pueblo Classic period (1050–1300) the underground kivas were of tremendous size, as can be seen in the ruins of Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. They were caves within caves, partially natural grottoes and partially hacked out of the rocks. A maze design carved on rocks in Arizona—much like the Minoan maze—represents the myth of emergence. It is the Mother Earth symbol, according to the modern Hopi; the maze represents the paths a person will follow on the road of life (Campbell Grant, 1967, p. 65).
Cave Gods and Rites
Since the rites and deities of different parts of the world, many of them associated with caves, are dealt with in numerous articles of this encyclopedia, this brief section is focused on Mesoamerica, which, in general, is less well known than Europe or the Orient.
Tlaloc, the Aztec rain and earth deity, was also called Path under the Earth, or Long Cave, according to the sixteenth-century chronicler Fray Diego Durán. This name refers to the god's character as fertilizer of the earth with gentle rain, and also to rites in caves where water deities were propitiated. Rain, lightning, and thunder were thought to be controlled in caves and on mountain tops. Toribio Motolinía, another colonial chronicler, describes ceremonies to Tlaloc each year during which four children were sacrificed and their bodies placed in a cave; this was then sealed until the following year, when the rite was repeated. Children were considered special messengers to the water gods.
Oztoteotl literally means "god of caves"; this was the name of a god venerated in a sacred cave at Chalma, a site about two days' march from Mexico City that was the scene of important pilgrimages. Oztoteotl has been supplanted by the Christian Lord of Chalma (a representation of Christ), who is no less venerated, both in the cave and in a church erected here. One rite in Chalma is the leaving of umbilical cords in two caves, one at the top of the hill, one at the bottom, in order to ensure the infants of good fortune in life.
Vegetation gods frequently had rites performed in their honor in caves. For example, the skins of flayed victims (symbolizing corn husks or those of other plants) were stored in an artificial cave at the foot of the Yopico pyramid in Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, and bodies of young women sacrificed to Xochiquetzal, the vegetation goddess, were placed in a cave called a "mist house." These instances may constitute a ritual metaphor for seed germination, which takes place in a dark area, comparable to the cave-womb.
Regarding ceremonies, the fabulous grotto of Balankanché, immediately southeast of the ancient Maya city of Chichén Itzá in Yucatán, has revealed a wealth of offerings to the rain god Tlaloc (Chac, among the Maya) and chamber after chamber of ceremonial settings for rites. These date mainly from the ninth century ce, when highland Mexican influence was strong (hence the presence of the god Tlaloc rather than Chac), although the grotto was used for ritual purposes mainly by the Maya, through 3,000 years. Six offertory foci are directly associated with either underground pools or stalagmitic formations, caused by the action of the water (Andrews, 1970, p. 9). These natural formations have the appearance of altars and were used as such. In the major chamber, floor and ceiling are united by a stalactite-stalagmite "tree" that suggests the ceiba (silk-cotton), the sacred Maya tree that unites earth, sky, and underworld. This structure is called by the modern—and undoubtedly by the ancient—Maya the "throne of the balam ", that is, of the Jaguar Priest. When the inner chambers were discovered in 1959, this altar-throne was found to be covered with effigy censers, most of them in the form of Tlaloc, some wearing flayed skins and some suggestive of the Aztec vegetation deity Xipe Totec. Other offerings here and in various chambers include miniature vessels, grinding stones, and spindle whorls, perhaps symbolic offerings for use in the otherworld. Enigmatic handprints in red ocher (as suggested below, perhaps evidence of a rite of passage) are on the central, treelike column and on the ceiling of low tunnels. Other chambers with stalagmitic altars yielded many more Tlaloc effigy censers, quantities of shells, jade beads, fragments of a wooden drum, and charcoal from burnt offerings. Numerous fire pits and the charcoal in the censers seem to be evidence of both illumination and ritual hearth use. Inasmuch as smoke was one of the messengers to the gods, the fires may have been intended solely for communication. That this was a major ritual center is indicated by the insistence of the H-men (the practitioner of native folk religion) from a village near Balankanché that, because of the cave's sacred nature, when the sealed chambers were discovered, it was necessary to propitiate the deities within in order to ward off supernatural retribution for the profanation. Rites were held involving the ritual drinking of honey-based balché, the sacrifice of chickens, and, among other things, the imitation of frogs by two small boys: the entrance to the cave home of the rain god was traditionally guarded by a frog (Andrews, 1970, pp. 70–164).
This type of ceremony is not unique to the cenotes of Yucatán. Marion Oettinger (in a personal communication) records a cave rite in the state of Guerrero dedicated to the water god; in it, stalactites and stalagmites are revered as deities. Corn is believed to come from hollows on the cave floor made by dripping water. Rites dedicated to supernatural beings who control water and vegetation are still held within the cave.
Rites of Passage
Since Paleolithic times caves have been preferred places for many rites of passage. Symbols of passage into another world, of a descent to the underworld, they are the scene of initiation rites for shamans—among the Australian medicine men, among the Araucanian of Chile, among the Inuit (Eskimo), and among peoples of North America, to mention but a few (Eliade, 1964, p. 51). The iruntarinia ("spirits") of central Australia create a medicine man when an Aranda (Arunta) candidate goes to sleep at the mouth of a cave; he is dragged into it by one of the spirits and dismembered, and his internal organs are exchanged for others. For example, a fragment of rock crystal, important to shamanic power (a detail reported in Oceania and the Americas also), is placed in his body, which is then returned to his village (Eliade, 1964, pp. 46, 139). Eliade tells also of the initiatory dream-journey of a Nenets (Yurak Samoyed) in his transition from candidate to shaman. In one important episode, the initiate was led into a cave covered with mirrors; there he received a hair from each of two women, mothers of reindeer, with which to shamanize for the animal (p. 41).
In British Columbia, as each Salish adolescent concluded a puberty rite, he or she imprinted a red hand on a cave wall. Furthermore, these and other images painted in red on rock walls recorded remarkable dreams. A spirit quest by a Salish boy led him into the hills, usually to a cave, where, through praying and fasting, he would dream of a supernatural being who would be his guardian in later life (Grant, 1967, p. 29). Among the Dogon in Africa, circumcision rites are recorded by ritual signs and paintings on the rocks; these are also related to ceremonies for the renewal of the cosmos every sixty years. In Mexico's Malinalco rock temple, carved altarlike felines and eagles stand against the walls; the military orders of the Jaguar and the Eagle must have held ceremonies here, such as the initiation of new members into their select ranks.
A rite of passage from illness to health is performed at the grotto at Lourdes, France. The healing waters of Lourdes's spring and the story of the apparition of the Virgin Mary to Bernadette have made this an important pilgrimage center since 1858.
In Mexico, until early this century, a boy child born in the vicinity of the Teotihuacán pyramids was placed in a cave. An animal, it was said, came out from the dark interior and licked his face; if the baby did not cry, he automatically acquired the right to be a granicero. Graniceros perform curing ceremonies and control rain from within caves. Thus the child experienced two rites of passage, a kind of baptism and initiation into this special group. In a part of Chiapas, as soon as a child moves within his mother's womb, he is said to possess a spirit, and this dwells in caves (Esther Hermitte, cited by Heyden, 1976). At times a cave steals this spirit or that of an adult, whereupon a curandero, a healer, must perform a rite in the cave. In one case he captures the lost spirit in a piece of the spirit-owner's clothing and manages to pull it out of the cave (Guido Münch, personal communication, referring to Oaxaca). In these cases of soul loss and recuperation, the rite of passage is a hazardous one between life and death. People also become ill from cave "winds," and graniceros can cure them by making offerings to the owners of the caves. A rite associated with these ceremonies is that of dying and resuscitating; the usual way to become a granicero is to be struck by lightning, be pronounced dead, and then come to life again. In some regions the healer must "die" twice a year; then his spirit goes to a special cave, where he receives instructions (William Madsen, cited by Heyden, 1976). Exorcism is yet another rite practiced in caves, frequently by saying a mass in the interior, in the presence of the affected person.
Religious Cave Art
Paintings on the walls of ancient caves, or sculptures hewn out of rock within caverns, have been called "invisible art" and likened to "silent music" (Carpenter, 1978, pp. 90–99). That is, such art was created for the initiated few and did not need to be public. Esoteric it is, and it has generally been conceived to possess sympathetic magic. For example, depicting a speared deer would ensure success in the hunt. Undoubtedly this is one meaning, but it is not the only one. Some cave images may be a way of keeping a record of rites. They may also relate to the animal double that each person possesses. Among the North American Indians, a young man, as part of a spirit quest, often gave thanks to his spirit guardian by painting or carving figures on cliff walls or in dark caves. These were addressed to his spirit guardian and were not meant to be seen by living humans; exposure would diminish their powers. Carpenter suggests that many anthropomorphic figures, depicted at times in coitus, in caves or in earth sculpture on mountaintops or desert floors, probably represent the original tribal ancestors and, by extension, the beginning of the world.
European cave paintings dating from the Upper Paleolithic period (c. 35,000–19,000 years ago), among them those at Altamira in Spain and at Lascaux, Cap Blanc, Les Trois Frères, Cougnac, and Rouffignac in France, portray mainly animals. Although Henri Breuil had interpreted these as belonging to hunting-gathering magic, recent studies propose that such art is part of Paleolithic cosmology. Leroi-Gourhan (1965) sees this worldview as based on a male-female division, with sections of the caves, as well as the animals and symbols, divided according to gender. Alexander Marshack interprets certain forms in cave art as calendrical and incisions on bones and antlers as notational; he also claims that some representations have seasonal and ecological significance, symbolized, for example, by flora and fauna typical of certain seasons and regions (cited by Conkey, 1981, p. 23). Ritual art, then, is often a key to the daily life and economy of a people, as well as to their religion.
At El Castillo in Cantabrian Spain, about fifty negative handprints were painted on a wall by blowing red ocher around a hand held there. Although this symbol has not been clearly interpreted by students of the period, it is reminiscent of red handprints on walls in the Maya region of Mexico, prints that according to popular tradition were placed there by slaves who were to be sacrificed. This interpretation may be fantasy, however, for in Pueblo belief (where Mexican influence is often found) the handprint is a "signature" that attracts supernatural blessings or marks the completion of a rite. Some animal representations, evidently men dressed in skins and antlers, have been thought to depict sorcerers. Clusters of bison on the ceiling at Altamira could symbolize different human groups that went to the cave for various reasons and rites. Thus the cave could have been a seasonal aggregation site for people who were dispersed throughout the region (Conkey, 1981, p. 24). Could Altamira have been an early Magdalenian pilgrimage center?
René Huyghe, in discussing Paleolithic cave art, points out that the facsimile is effective in the beliefs of the people who create these magic images. He further explores the function of the facsimile, citing paintings on the walls of Egyptian tombs, where representations of foodstuffs and furniture sometimes substituted for the actual articles needed for life after death. Huyghe has stated that the accomplished technique with which the cave paintings were executed indicates probable teaching by sorcerer-priests (1962, pp. 16, 18). With the transition to the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, cave art became more realistic and depicted human beings in communal activities. Paintings of this sort are found at the entrance to caves, accessible to the larger group, instead of in dark interiors, where formerly esoteric rites must have been held. This different religio-social art is characteristic of the Iberian coast facing Africa, and its tradition has continued to the present time among the African San. The paintings convey great action, expressed by few, almost abstract lines (running warriors at Teruel, for example), side by side with incipient architecture (the menhir, probably intended as a receptacle for the soul of the deceased). Both reflect more settled activities of Neolithic peoples: flock keeping and agriculture, which spurred new ideas and customs (Huyghe, 1962, pp. 21–24).
America holds a wealth of cave and rock art, from Alaska to South America. Most of it dates from about 1000 ce to the late 1800s. Its subjects are animals, humans, supernatural beings, and abstract designs. Although some scenes are historical or narrative (depicting Spanish horsemen, for example), much of this art is religious. Hunting magic is represented by a heart line drawn within an animal and sometimes pierced by an arrow. The mythical Thunderbird, thought to control thunderstorms but also a clan symbol and sacred ancestor guardian among the Hopi, is often represented. The plumed serpent, known as the god Quetzalcoatl in Mexico, was the guardian of springs and streams in the Southwest, and is seen on kiva wall paintings or in rock carvings. In the San Francisco Mountains of Baja California a sixteen-foot-long plumed serpent is the object of a ceremony involving red and black men and deer. However, Uriarte sees this great figure as a serpent-deer, joining the natural forces of both creatures (1981, p. 151). The men surrounding it wear serpent-deer headdresses and therefore must be members of a cult group. Uriarte suggests also that the two-in-one animal may represent a male-female creation myth. Hundreds of handprints found in Arizona, Utah, and northern California must have had ceremonial significance. The Chumash of California painted supernatural figures, believed to be related to dreams and visions, in remote mountainous areas. A ceremonial liquor used by the Chumash and other groups was made of the hallucinogenic jimsonweed, which could have spurred such ritual art. Rock paintings by the Navajo marked sacred places where mythological events occurred; these paintings often depicted the yei, equivalent to the Pueblo kachina, a divine creature usually associated with maize agriculture. Campbell Grant (1967) suggests an important reason for some of the rock art symbols: they were mnemonic devices for rites, and records of certain events. Among present-day Ojibwa, tobacco, prayer sticks, and cloth are placed on rocks below paintings as offerings to the supernatural beings depicted there. The Ojibwa believe that a shaman can enter the rock and trade tobacco with the spirit there for special medicine (Grant, 1967, pp. 32, 147).
In central Baja California, Uriarte (1981) records 72 caves painted with 488 figures or sets of figures, many with the bodies adorned in body paint of various colors. Similar colors are also typical of cave paintings in northwestern Australia. Among the Kulin there, Bunjil was the supreme mythological being, who with all his people turned into stars and whose son was the rainbow. Bunjil's favorite place was Angel Cave; he created it when he spoke to rocks, which then opened up (Aldo Massola, 1968, pp. 59, 106).
Some of the world's most renowned painted caves are in India. At Ajantā the Gupta style of the fifth and sixth centuries was the peak of a golden age, although the caves themselves existed by the second century bce, and painting continued through the eighth century ce. Portrayed on the walls are scenes from the lives of Gautama Buddha, the bodhisattvas, and other divine beings conceived in the manner of the palace life of the time. The jātaka tales painted here illustrate the Buddha's previous earthly experiences. That some of the people are engaged in religious conversation is apparent from the occasional mudrās (hand positions). But perhaps the most extraordinary thing about these caves, as well as at Ellora and elsewhere, is that they were carved out of sandstone rock. Entire mountains were turned into sanctuaries by devoted and anonymous sculptor-architects to be used as monastic retreats. The thirty Ajantā caves, excavated in the semicircular face of a mountain in the Deccan region near Aurangabad, are either caitya s (chapels) or vihāra s (monasteries). The caitya s consist of an apse, side aisles, and a central nave in the center of which is a stupa, all hewn out of living rock. In the vihāra s there are a congregation hall and monks' cells. In the early caves, the Buddha was represented not in his bodily form but with symbols, such as the bodhi tree or a set of footprints. Sculpture in relief and in the round later filled the caves and covered the doorways with large figures of the Buddha and the bodhisattva s as well as an exuberance of elephants, buffalo, men and women in different positions, lotus medallions, and other floral motifs. The happy marriage at Ajantā of architecture, painting, and sculpture produced an insuperable monument to the Buddhist faith.
Also hewn out of a mountain (sometime between the fourth and ninth centuries ce), the caves at Ellora are a miracle of carving. Unlike the Buddhist caves at Ajantā, these are dedicated to three faiths: the early caves, before 800, are Buddhist; the Hindu caves overlap (600–900), and the Jain caves cover the period from 800 to 1000. At Ellora the great Hindu Kailash temple dedicated to Śiva represents Mount Kailash, where the gods dwell. In the early Buddhist caves, the vast number of Buddhas, bodhisattva s, and śakti s express the Vajrayāna philosophy, wherein Buddhahood was obtained through self-discipline and meditation. The Hindu caves are dedicated to Śiva, who is worshiped symbolically in the phallic symbol called the lingam, found always in the shrine. Sculptures of Śiva also represent him in many of his manifestations, as the personification of death and time, as Creator, Destroyer, Divine Lover, and Lord of the Dance. Śiva's wife Pārvatī, goddess of love and beauty, accompanies him, as does his son Gaṇeśa, the elephant-headed god of wisdom. Śiva is sometimes represented in his half-male, half-female form. Brahmā and Viṣṇu are also portrayed in various forms. The composition of Ajantā paintings is at times reminiscent of the maṇḍala (or cosmic diagram), while Jain sculpture at Ellora borrowed freely from Hinduism and depicts Hindu deities.
Undoubtedly the most spectacular of the many caves carved out of solid rock in China is the complex known as Longmen Grottoes at Luoyang, in Honan Province. Begun in the fifth century ce, the grottoes continued to be carved over a period of four hundred years. Twenty-one hundred caves and niches and more than forty pagodas house more than one hundred thousand sculptures, the largest 17.4 meters, the smallest only 12 centimeters high. Statues in these grottoes mainly portray the Buddha. Also represented are attendant figures, warriors, the Buddha's disciples, bodhisattva s, and a giant lotus—symbol of divine birth, purity, creative force, and Buddha's footsteps—on a ceiling. The walls of one cave, that of the Ten Thousand Buddhas, are covered with a myriad of tiny relief-carved figures of the divinity, which envelop the viewer with an awesome sense of the sacred.
Rock Temples and Tombs
The hypogea, rock-cut tombs of Egypt, attest to the use of natural materials available for building. Stone, abundant in Egypt, was used for the great monuments. From the Middle Kingdom on, tombs were hollowed out of cliffs alongside the Nile for high officials of Upper Egypt. By the time of New Kingdom, the Valley of the Kings, on the Nile's west side facing Luxor, had become the necropolis of pharaohs, who lay in rock-cut tombs on both sides of the valley. The funerary temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Deir al-Bahri was carved out of the mountain on different levels. Under Ramses II, in the nineteenth dynasty, the spectacular rock temple at Abu Simbel was hewn out of a mountain in Upper Egypt.
In Persia, royal rock tombs at Naksh-i-Rustam, near Persepolis, date from the sixth to the fourth centuries bce. Here the king is represented before a fire altar, above which is the god Ahura Mazdā, whose face is surrounded by a circle, symbol of eternity. At Petra, in modern Jordan, the Nabateans more than two thousand years ago carved their capital city out of rock. Along with temples and civil buildings, some of these artificial caves are tombs for the kings.
In Mexico, shaft tombs—the shaft hollowed out of the earth, ending in a side chamber for the cadaver—were definitely cave representations, the deceased returning to the earth that gave him life. The temazcal, the purifying sweat bath, used for millennia in this region, was "the house of flowers" in pre-Columbian times, the flower symbolizing both the womb and the cave.
An outstanding example of funerary caves, albeit in this case artificial, is that of Rome's catacombs. These were Christian cemeteries begun in the first century ce. They were twice confiscated, during the third century and at the beginning of the fourth; after a bloody persecution by Diocletian, peace was finally granted by Constantine in 313. From then on, catacomb excavations were enlarged and embellished with paintings and inscriptions referring to Christian martyrs; they became the goal of pilgrims.
In the sub-Saharan region of Mali, the Tellem people, who flourished from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries, buried their dead, accompanied by grave furniture and clothing for the otherworld, in special caves. Objects were ritually destroyed, as they are in other parts of the world, in order to release the spirit. One cave contained three thousand skeletons. Among the offerings left in these high cliff caves were skeletal remains of a crowned crane and of a turtle, both figures in the mythology of the Dogon, who came to the region after the Tellem (Bedaux, 1982, pp. 28–34).
In the lowland Maya region of Mexico and Central America, the limestone floor is honeycombed with cenotes. Perhaps because these are the main sources of water in the largely riverless Yucatán Peninsula, they were highly venerated as sacred sites; one of their functions was that of funeral chamber. The great cenote at Chichén Itzá is well known, as are tales of fair maidens thrown into the water at this cave-well. It actually was a place of sacrifice to aquatic deities, but adolescents of both sexes were the victims. A sixteenth-century account by Fray Diego de Landa tells of young boys whose hearts were extracted before their bodies were deposited in the cenote; propitiation of water gods by child sacrifice was a common rite. The victims were accompanied by incense balls, gold jewels, and the even more highly prized jade, symbol of water and of all that is precious. These sacrificial rites were related to maize agriculture, but also had divinatory and prophetic purposes. Before the rainy season, or during times of drought, child sacrifices increased. Some accounts relate that the victims were lowered alive into the cave-well so that they could communicate with the god, then left to drown. A procession went from the main temple to a shrine next to the cenote; there the priests instructed the victim as to the message to be given to the gods; then they consummated the sacrifice. The walls of Guatemala's spectacular Naj Tunich cavern are covered with eighth-century paintings of the ritual ball-game (with celestial and life-death significance), ritual bloodletting, dwarfs (associated with both heavens and the underworld), shells (symbols of birth and of death), and long columns of hieroglyphs, mainly calendrical. George Stuart (1981, pp. 220–235) points out that the Classic Maya considered the numbers and days in their calendar as a procession of gods who marched along an eternal and endless trail. The Maya believed that caves, like the roots of the sacred ceiba tree that held earth and sky together, reached far down into the underworld. Caves were the entrance to this place, called Xibalba, where underworld gods dwelt. Stuart suggests that the great cavern of Naj Tunich was the embodiment of Xibalba, place of death.
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