The referee always smiles
January 16th 378AD
We must be careful with our words, for all of them
Have been in other mouths, and over time well chewed.
The ancient Maya engraved substantial words in stone:
Their abbreviated stories lie in those stones condemned
To modest revelations of their complex lives, yet these glyphs
Tell us much about ourselves, and how we stand-alone
In the shadows of their ancient, compelling myths
Revealing our own story, through history accrued.
While the tall glyph laden Stelae stones abbreviate
They also, in their own unique and agile way, delineate
The history and changes each ruler sometimes brought
To his reign, often showing an increasing cruelty of thought,
A libretto trumpeting the eventual end of temporal things
Thus causing their Stelae to become our own historians.
Maya date: ‘twelve kin, four unials and one tun after the seventeenth katun, b’aktun nine.”(1)
Translation: 16 January 378 AD
On that date Stela 31 in Tikal (pronounced: Tea-ca`l) reads:
“Smoking-Frog demolished and threw down the buildings of Uaxactun
(and) Great-Jaguar-Paw, the high king of Tikal, let blood from his genitals to sanctify the victory of his warriors.”
The death of Great-Jaguar-Paw is not engraved upon that stone
Nor, that next year Curl-Snout, his son, sits upon the Tikal throne.
Smoking-Frog, Curl-Snout’s uncle actually rules both cities,
As perhaps an imported, other stelae are uncertain, chieftain.
In other words, Smoking-Frog may not have been Jaguar-Paw’s brother.
Such mysteries reflect the punctured stories the Stelae sing.
But that is history and here we’re concerned with poetry, and other
Moments that were then and which constitute the mysterious ring
Of these people of Mesoamerica and their city-state
In the year of our Lord, three hundred and seventy eight.
There had been advance warning.
The tun was but a quarter gone when, in lieu of taxes,
Painted faces, chests and arms began to appear.
A tightening of leather straps around the axes.
Strong were the new made flexible shields,
And newly sharpened stone blades bound upon the spear.
Rites of preparation, purification and sacrifices
Started in the evenings and went right through the morning.
Both sides swelled in their xenophobic pride.
None thinking specifically about the historic ride
They would be taking to their battlefields away:
Uaxactun versus Tikal would be the billing were it held today.
On one side Great-Jaguar-Paw
Against him the spirited Uaxactun –
All warriors on both sides poised for action
In anticipation of greater satisfaction, no one yields
None were willing to withdraw
Uaxactun’s Chief had three wives.
His principal wife had two children,
an infant and a four year old. (2)
The second wife just pregnant.
The most recent wife, no children.
The Chief was a brave man, respectful of the customs, strong
But like many brave intelligent men, his name is lost.
History and poetry alike does that to people.
Very few losers, mostly only winners have names.
Even though he played by the rules of the existing games,
And though standing out within the frames of history, like a steeple
We do not know who he was, only that he was crossed by his people.
Perhaps he wouldn’t want us to know his name or what he did wrong.
They stood like troops of chimpanzees, beating chests,
Shouting insults, waving weapons, cursing, screaming.
Two lines of battle, alike in most respects,
Separated by a savannah of waist high saw grass weaving
Tikal came from the south across a marsh and claimed
A battlefield that would be on the firm ground of the plain
To the east there was a matted jungle forest and to the north
Some ten kilometers the stone templed city of Uaxactun
They could read each other’s eyes.
One by one they dashed in – mild excursions – then retreated
Testing, testing increasing tempo, tempo of the gods
Thumping drums of sacrificial skins.
Great thundering war drums of hollowed logs.
Long wooden horns squeal for victory of pierced foreskins.
Conch horns wail. The warriors sucking in their breath
Eventually tensions exceed the ability to withstand immobility.
The Maya engage each other in ritualistic death.
Select your enemy carefully, one you sensed exposed alone
And was weaker and you clubbed him, sliced him, took
Some blood: made him prisoner careful not to sever
Any arteries left him face down, a prisoner for you.
You bind him that he not escape in the heat of battle; then go look
For another enemy in the dusty battle zoo.
In the end, each side exhausted, took their prisoners, and went home.
Over the almost ten b’acktuns, or so,
This regulated and ceremonial warfare had evolved,
There may have been occasional ransoms –
A repatriated noble for four slaves, or so,
To be either sacrificed or used as labor.
Generally the prisoners were brought to the victor’s home city and, Eventually, sacrificed to the gods from whom all blessings,
Even then as now, flow.
Thus the cities of Tikal and Uaxactun bloomed in mutual suspicion and Ever increasingly virulent wars.
On this day in question, January 16 the planets were aligned
With Venus low in the sky and Jupiter ascending*
Both sides knew the time.
The harvest had been collected.
The rains were long since ended.
The weather, the coolest it would be.
It was time to fight.
In the rainy season – a long trip up the coast (it may have taken years)
Into the land of the Olmec and over mountains, searching for a prize
Smoking-Frog goes to Teotihuacán – now Mexico City – and buys
500 spear-throwers and 1,500 obsidian tipped throwing-spears
Bribing assorted chieftains, allaying assorted fears.
How they are shipped, brought down to Tikal no one knows.
It’s possible they came by trading canoe as far as modern Merida
Then overland to Tikal, by burro or slaves of the Maya
But with what currency did he pay, can you suppose?
With slaves? What did Tikal have that Teotihuacán did not?
Henequen, from which you can make both cloth and a Hashish pot?
Shades of the Mexican cartel – 1600 plus years ago. A prologue?
(Is this why he was called Smoking-Frog?)
Quetzal feathers, chocolate and greenstone jadeite might have been the price for the obsidian spear points and atlatls.
In Mexico City abundant obsidian from the volcanic mountains, four hundred workshops in which the arrowheads and atlatl spear heads were made.
No one knows who made the trade. Probably no one ever will.
But throwing-spears, generally used only for hunting, will soon instill
Fear and destruction far greater than the Maya truncheons
Fermented in the mind of Smoking-Frog a dream
Had come without permission from the gods of the underworld.
A nightmare on a sour stomach, for none had thought the thought before
A muddied hatred of the enemy merging with the heat and difficulty of Taking them one by one.
Voiced in the Maya tongue to brother Jaguar-Paw.
The planning of six tuns is done.
This will be a different war.
The battle starts. The two forces move towards each other,
The axes scream. The grass is pounded down and visibility increases.
The space between the two rippling battle lines decreases
Smoking-Frog stands by his brother, directing a planned and slow retreat.
The forces of Uaxactun sense victory, many captives, especially sweet
Sacrifices for their gods. The gods will not bless them for long.
Uaxactun’s gods are the very same gods worshiped by Tikal.
Then as now, all religions, throughout the world, sing the self-same song.
Brother prophets, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha and Luther –
Their worshipped God identical to the other.
Uaxactun’s warriors come prancing in, like the swarm of Ghengis Khan.
They eye the retreating Tikals, sizing up each man.
At the iconic moment known only to Smoking-Frog,
He flashes a mirrored signal to his right where, at the jungle’s edge Surrounding the meadow are gathered in the shadows
Five hundred Tikal warriors.
These march into the fray, like Christian soldiers,
Into the huddled hordes of Uaxactun, set up for the slaughter.
They hurl their obsidian tipped hunting spears.
Their razor sharp lightweight arrowheads shaped like tears
Their jaguar hunting arrows. Their animal hunting arrows.
Were the fight today the order would have been “fire at will.”
And then together, not alone, not each man selecting his opponent,
But in teams with one man grabbing at the headdress attempting to extend The neck pulling hair with another using his jade tipped spear, they kill.
They slash, they butcher, and the blood shines resplendent in the afternoon sun.
It glazes the swale with a marsh like slick of the Uaxactun life force.
It is a pigeon shoot.
It is fish in a barrel.
It is indiscriminate.
It was a massacre.
There is no precedent for slaughtering warriors.
Ritual sacrifice, of course.
Man einfach nicht tun
Ten b’aktuns of ceremony flown
All precedence blown
A poetic moment of fame
Enhanced by screams of pain.
The distance between Tikal and Uaxactun is some twenty kilometers.
The battle takes place half distant.
It does not take Smoking-Frog long to march with his rape prone warriors into Uaxactun
Declare his conquest, bringing with him a few
Bound and bleeding warriors.
The people cannot imagine, in their wildest fears, what has happened, what will happen. Astonishment and grief.
Grief is what separates us from what arrows are made for.
The remaining Uaxactun warriors are either dead or held by the Tikal warriors on the battlefield, then escorted to Tikal where they will be sacrificed.
The following year Uaxactun’s nameless Chief is ritualistically beheaded
At the end of a ritualistic pelota game.
The ceremony is of such importance
He is beheaded on the temple steps rather than on the ball court itself.
The year’s grace gives him plenty of time to think.
So that the Chief’s lineage would be snuffed out, the Tikals build,
In a sacred square in Uaxactun, a funeral temple.
At the dedication, the Chief’s two sons and their mother are thrown into the foundations.
They drop about thirty feet onto stones.
Following them the terrified still pregnant wife.
She, too, is dispatched to the underworld. (2)
The five bodies were uncovered in 1950.
Unusual, most graves of this era are solitary.
An early foretaste of Dachau, or merely a reminder that
Human instinct to kill is of long standing?
It is thought the third wife was taken by Smoking-Frog to be his own Thus binding the dynastic wounds inflicted upon their neighbors
By the Tikal.
The Tikal impose this new poetic vision of war upon their neighbors,
As horrifying to them then as the eventual and inevitable atomic
bombs that will some day descend upon us.
Imagine you’re a professional boxer scheduled to fight
For a world championship.
In the pre-fight ceremony under the stadium you pray, and ceremoniously, After bandaging your hands, your second ties on your boxing gloves.
When you climb into the ring, your opponent comes in without any gloves.
He has in his unencumbered hands, a loaded snub-nosed .38-caliber pistol,
And the referee is smiling.
On May 1, 562 AD “Lord Water,” the rapacious King of Caracol,
Tikal’s rival city from the East
Mastering the same Tlaloc-Venus “ax-war” action that had defeated Uaxactun two centuries earlier, produces another iconic moment:
Another intellectual breakthrough that overrides tradition.
Who goes to war in the hot month of May without the proper alignment of the planets? Who?
Who starts a war when your enemy’s warriors are in their fields planting? Who?
“Lord Water,” that’s who, and he destroys Tikal, (3)
Lord Water, using his brain while the Tikals thought of rain
Laid waste to Tikal as the Tikalese were planting grain
They succumbed to annihilating mayhem,
So, who says the ancient Maya aren’t just like us, replete with guile?
And lest we forget our history, remember the referees always smile.
Yes, remember it is only the referees that smile.
(1) The translation of the date is correct. The facts in this story are assembled from the masterpiece of Mayan history, “A Forest of Kings” by Linda Schele and David Freidel. (1990 William Morrow)
Specifically, Schele describes the battle between Tikal and Uaxactun in chapter 4. (Pages 130-164.) But, Prof. David Stuart, now of the University of Texas in Austin has studied the same Stella and, as sometimes happens in scholarly work, concludes (in a paper delivered at Princeton in 1996 and revised in 1998) the battle never took place “at least not on that date.” He suggests that Smoking Frog actually came from Teotihuacan, becoming a “foreign” king in the Maya lands. He further suggests that because the appropriate stelae are not engraved with the glyph for “war” to denote the battle on January 16, the war did not happen. Far be it from me to intrude upon the professional preserves of the archeologist, but I wonder if the scribes did not use the “war” glyph because “war” was a ritual event with strict rules and, what happened that day was not ritualistic war but something else, for which they had not the vocabulary, nor the glyph to describe it, so devastating was it. But that is history and I am not concerned with the history, only the story. I take poetic license to create my own imaginary vision of what actually happened on that date. Whether Smoking Frog was Jaguar Paw’s brother or his superior from Teotihuacan, something very drastic happened between the Uaxactun and Tikal, and through this story I’m only trying to offer you an insight into the seismic shift in the human understanding of life and death and its meaning that took place in Mesoamerica in or around the year 378 AD and which stays with us today.
As previously stated, the dates are “correct.” In the Mayan calendar – a kin is a day, a unial is a month of twenty days, a tun is a year (of 260 days) and a katun is approximately 20 years. The b’acktun, of 400-year cycles, is often not written; it being assumed one knows within 400 years what one’s writing about. While the Mayan calendar ends on 23 December 2012 and began 13 x 400 years earlier, no current Maya believes the world will end then. The calendar will simply begin repeating itself. The Maya did believe the world has been destroyed and reborn many times – its first birth occurring some 41.3 x 1027 years ago, and the most recent at the start of the current calendar.
*There was no great significance to this particular combination at that time. Later, many of the battles between the city/states of the Maya were scheduled for unique similar astrological combinations, relating to Venus and Jupiter but not, apparently, the Tikal/Uaxactun massacre of 378AD.” Again, as stated in “A Forest of Kings.”
(2) Ibid Footnote #51 page 447
(3) Ibid page 173
After the thunder rumbled away the lighting and Cocijo, God of Rain, Laughing, said he’d see us tomorrow and perhaps leave a deposit then,
It slowly dawned that we were more powerful than He –
Since we could shower whenever we wanted and to hell with the God of
In the pantheon of deities, Cocijo is rather important especially
In the parched high desert valleys in southern Mexico where we live.
To feel superior to Cocijo is tantalizing but rather risky.
Yet, have we not all fantasized the usual stuff?
Handmaidens, the marble halls, the hordes of people worshipping?
Intellectually, we roam the globe persuaded our own godliness extends
And pervades not just the desert, the globe, but the whole universe?
Nevertheless, with the humility of being number one deity,
Let us then allow our perfection and totalization
Might not be relevant in other universes throughout the totoverse.
That is the downfall. Same as Cocijo’s. Not to be absolutely all powerful; a chink
It slowly, insidiously widens, like a cracked windshield.
A slippery slope replaces the chink for soon, you learn, as you sink
Our realm was somewhat smaller than we’d first assumed.
It is not possible to order even a brief shower to quench the parched corn.
We have to wait for Cocijo after all.
SONG OF THE RAIN GOD
After the thunder chases away the lightning, the rolling ceases and in the distance a squeak
Cojio, the rain god laughing he’ll not visit today, but maybe he’ll come by next week.
The dry heaves of the land, languishing – longing for water, even tears will do,
Life created you, Cocijo, and for that you have promises due.
They too nourish the land.
But what heart has not more to offer than any brain
With only four compartments, all of them wet:
The heart holds more than the dry brain
But the heart, not brain, supplies the rain
Remember Paul Verlaine, remember his knife:
The brain in its pain surrenders to the knife
The brain supplies lightning and thunder, yet
Cojio and the heart – they provide life.
So, Coijo, every year we wait for you as trees wait for the spring
Then so soon you’re here then gone like birds upon their wing
Your voice fades as the skies turn grey, but certainty takes hold
It won’t be long before you’re back: at least that’s what we’ve been sold.
We hope before we’re old.