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The Sacred in a Subway

Descending Aztec Steps

Nya b’a’n tu’n tcub’ neje, ex tu’n tcyija cyi’jxjal, aj toc ten b’etil ku’n b’e’x chi xjetw’elix timi× a mo tjosa.

It is not good to go forward and back while walking because this will cause abnormalities in your breasts or testicles
~Mayan Proverb

It took me 39 steps to reach the top of a Mayan period surrounded by a jungle at the UNESCO heritage site Tikal in Guatemala. 39=3×13.  The first pyramid I encountered at Teotihuacan near Mexico City required me to climb 39 steps, 39 steep steps seemingly too high for a people history claims were diminutive to reach the top. 39÷3=13

That number, 13, is sacred to the Maya. Is it a coincidence that 13, the number assigned to Judas as the final person to be seated at the last supper, is considered unlucky in the West? Or was it a conscious choice by Catholic priests to undercut the religion of the ancients in their quest to Christianize the heathen?

Among it’s meanings to the Maya, 13 represented the 13 heavens of the underworld. Climbing those 39 steps meant traversing the heavens 3 times on the way to the pyramid peak. Similarly, the 13th level of heaven was, for the Aztecs, the level where the gods dwelt.

By climbing to the tops of those pyramids, I dwelt in the same physical space as Maya and Aztec, priests, kings, and deities. Did I feel their presence? I would like to say yes, would like to say we co-existed in space and time, would like to say I communed with ancient spiritual beings who whispered ancient secrets into an eager student. But, that would not be true. I can’t even conjure up an alternative fact that would be plausible.

At Tikal, we were part of a group and were hurried along to keep to the visit within our allotted time window. At Teotihuacan, time was ample but there were too many people whose constant talking spoiled the silence. I need solitude, ample solitude, extended time to slough off the skins of civilization necessary for me to sense the sacred.

Spirits do inhabit the area. Before the Tikal ruins were discovered, our guide of Mayan ancestry, told us the people of the jungle referred to the area as the place where whispers are heard. Whether those whispers were the voices of the ancient gods requesting blood sacrifices or the lingering prayers of the priests seeking to appease the gods or the cries of the people trapped in the Xibalba, the underworld, where they were unable to pass the tests and trials needed to escape the place of fear, becoming forever stuck in torment, I can’t say. It’s knowledge enough for me to know the spirits still tread upon the earth.

Communing with the spirits of the ancients would require me to climb those 39 steps in the dead of night when no other humans are around and sit for 13 days, maybe 13 years, maybe 13 lifetimes and listen intently until I could separate the song of the leaves carried on the winds from the words of the ancients carried round the world by the winds.

While I did not commune with the gods, I did stand in the footsteps of the ancients, looked over the same empire as did venerable kings, stood where revered priests sacrificed humans to appease the gods with blood offerings, a sacrifice, a violent death that ensured the human bypassed Xibalba and ascended straight into heavenly realms.

Every work day, I walk out of the subway, walk up 3 tiers of 13 steps. 3×13=39. As I approach the steps an earworm picked up in Guatemala, fattened in Mexico that whispers reminding me of the pyramids. I am transported back to the Mayan pyramids, the Aztec pyramids. And when I get to the top, there is white haired, white bearded gentleman bronzed by the sun with a broad smile on his face. A man who could be a descendant of the priests.  He opens the gate separating the worlds, unseals the passageway from the underworld and ushers us into to the upper world. At once, I feel a connection with the Mesoamerican gods, with my understanding of God. At that moment, the dark, dank subway system feels sacred.


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