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Wendy Murray Zoba

Maya Mysteries

There's power in the blood in the ruins of Copán

"Picture a square bed sheet," my informant instructed. "The four corners are the four cardinal points. Now picture four heavenly creatures holding each of the corners: The creature on the northern corner is white; the one on the east is red; the one on the south is yellow; the one holding the western corner is black.

"Now picture not one, but 13 sheets, one on top of the other, rising upward. These are the 13 layers of the Maya Upperworld. The sky-bearers, bacabs, are holding the corners of the 13 levels.

"The book of the Apocalypse in the Bible talks about four horsemen in heaven. Their horses are white, red, black, and yellow, like the bacabs. It talks about four angels holding the four corners of the earth. Isn't that interesting?"

How would the ancient Maya come up with that, never having read the Bible? My interest began with an assignment to write a news report for Time magazine on an archaeological dig of Maya ruins and blossomed into a much more ambitious project: a novel set amid those ruins. I was to discover in my research for the book that there were many similarities between Maya and Christian cosmology.

The ancient Maya flourished as a civilization from a.d. 250 to 900 (though, as a people, they survived and number in the millions today). When the Spanish conquistadors appeared in the sixteenth century, with a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other, the Maya were already intimately familiar with many of the religious concepts the Spanish thought they were introducing to this "primitive" people: the religious use of the idea that seeds must fall into the ground to die in order to bring forth life; the need for blood to be spilt in order for there to be a relationship with the gods; and the concept of a sacrifice that does not end in death.

In my novel, a shadowy late-night visitor guides the protagonist through these mysteries. I turned instead to the counsel of William L. Fash, Harvard's Bowditch Professor of Central American and Mexican Archaeology and ...

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