The Olmec Toad

Monument 68 at Tak’alik Ab’aj, Retalhuleu, Guatemala, Middle Preclassic

Starting things off slowly here for Guatemala Travelogue Part II… The Olmec Toad, yet another alternate title for this blog. Who knows but someday the Skull will go away and the Toad will take its place.

The Olmec were the original advanced civilization of the Americas, formerly considered semi-mythic, identified with Atlantis, the Easter Island civilization and the like. Many wonderful art works and sacred offerings survive, but no written language, so the question of how this particular toad figures in their mythology is up for debate.

Tak’alik Ab’aj is K’iche for “standing stones”; it’s a sprawling archaeological site occupied continuously from 1000 BCE or so through 1000 AD, first by Olmecs, then Maya, situated on a set of ridges between two rivers on Guatemala’s Pacific slope. It’s only partly excavated; half the ruins have coffee and rubber trees planted on top of them. The site is relatively little-known and hard to get to, the monuments much-worn and less epic in stature than places like Tikal and Palenque, so I guess the land turns more profit more used for farming than trying to lure money from archaeologists and archaeo-nerd-tourists (me). Nobody on staff spoke English, and the day I visited I was the only white guy there.

The cicadas were deafening.


A tzompantli is a rack of sacrificial or ancestor skulls which often appears as a decorative motif in mesoamerican architecture and art. I think it originates with the Zapotecs of southwestern Mexico, and spread to other cultures of the region during the period of Zapotec colonialism in the ninth century. The mossy skull that is the namesake of this blog is part of a tzompantli. A lot of people over the years have misconstrued the tzompantli as evidence of the bloodthirstiness and barbarism of these cultures, and used it as an excuse to blow out of proportion their practice of human sacrifice. For modern celebrants of the Day of the Dead, it signifies the cycle of life.

I went to this the other day: Day of the Dead Tzompantli at Forest Hills Cemetery. It’s a celebration in Central and South American style, Christian and prechristian, cross-cultural, nondenominational, in memory of loved ones long and recently lost. I like the Phoenix site’s wording: “This event occurs in the past.” I didn’t take any pictures because they asked me not to, though it was vivid and gorgeous and has left an intense impression on me. But nobody told me I couldn’t write about it, so.

Across the street from my house, one of the iron fence rails of Forest Hills Cemetery has been bent to one side next to a scraggly bittersweet nightshade vine. If I duck down low and wriggle a bit I can get through easy.

The earliest graves here date from 1840, and the occupiers lean heavily to the upper class Victorian. The monumental symbolism features a lot of serene robed women with anchors at their feet, inverted torches wrapped in vines, headstones carved to look like tree stumps, lambs with heads eroded away, stone veils caught by the sculptor in the act of being pulled on or off. There are many old trees of great variety, imported by Harvard in the 1880s for the nearby Arboretum. They held the tzompantli ceremony in front of a cultivar of European beech whose boughs bend all the way to the ground and lie heavy across it like snakes, and whose yellow-brown leaves made a curtain like a reef of feathers. Before it, a broad ring of candles burned in colored cylinders surrounding a fire made from hundreds of white candles in a heap. There were four wooden altars at the cardinal points surrounded by pyramids of apples, trays of pastries, bread, tortillas, candy, flowers. On each altar sat a tall, long-haired white girl in a period smock and porcelain face paint that prevented her from making any expression but the familiar serene one of the statues. These girls, I believe, represented the Victorian ghosts. People in embroidered robes strolled about blowing on smoking copal and sage incense in heavy wooden censers carved in the shapes of animal heads. It wasn’t dark yet. The sun was in maples on the hill.

I knew an offering of food was required, but I didn’t have much in the house, so I brought a handful of red chiles dried from a couple summers ago in the pocket of my hoodie. Later it occurred to me that in the traditions of Peru, due to their potency, chiles were prohibited from certain ceremonies honoring the ancestors. And I’ve known some practitioners of this sort of religion who can get touchy on behalf of their dead. So the chiles stayed in my pocket, and I kept back from the circle a bit. They were my garlic, my piece of cold iron, holding me in this world.

It was the kind of slightly damp cold that creeps in and makes you have to force yourself not to shiver. Preceded by a slowly building whoosh like wind in leaves, fifty children with rattles tied to their ankles filed out from behind the tree, circled the fire and began to dance to drums and the trumpet of conch horns. A lady with a microphone recited verse in English, Spanish and some Aztec-descended tongue, honoring Xocomil, Pachamama and the dead.

I couldn’t get the tenor of the crowd at first. Some of the dancing kids were great showmen, doing pantomime bits about death and the spirit arising, the old resisting, the ancestors stepping in to drag them along when the time is right. They were having fun. They donned skull masks and shook canes at each other. During lulls in the choreography they busted out breakdancing moves. I laughed a lot, and the people around me did too–but there was something in their faces that quietly sobered me over the course of an hour, as the sun went down and the cold got stronger.

After the dances, the songs and the dumb-shows, everybody retreated behind the row of percussion instruments, leaving the circle open. The lady with the microphone invited the crowd to come in, stop at the central fire, and hand to the old woman who sat tending it prayers or poems or the names of loved ones written on slips of colored paper, which she would burn. Once you’d made an offering, you got a lighted candle. I stayed back. In the spirit of camaraderie–and of getting a little warmth into my bones–I climbed up over the wooded hill east of the fire ring. I watched the proceedings for awhile from up there among the pines, then circled back around to join in the parade that followed.

Out among the gravestones was a satellite altar, this one with photos of people, jewelry and candy propped against candles and unopened bottles of soda. This I guess was where the mirth backed off to let in grief. Everybody filed silently past it and on into the graveyard through the dusk. The ancestors and the pale-faced girls came with us. People around me talked about what their kids had been for halloween. Kids passed off candles to adults and then came demanding them back again before they burned down. It felt familiar, sad but comforting, like a wake among family, though I didn’t know anybody there.

We walked back to the circle. The kids danced some more with the windstorms on their ankles and sang and blew the conch trumpets, this time, I gathered, to guide the ancestors safely back from their jaunt in this world to the next. When everything was over, the lady with the microphone invited us to step into the circle and take some of the offerings to eat. I had a crunchy suncrisp apple and a piece of pan del muerto, a sweet bread made with anise seed.

She asked us to fill out recommendations saying why we valued the ceremony we’d just partaken in and why we thought it needed to keep happening. Apparently, it’s at risk. That’s why I’m writing this. Even if I’m somewhere else at this time next year, I want it to happen again, and keep happening.

By this time I couldn’t keep from shivering. I walked home alone across the graveyard in the dark, navigating by the light of Jupiter and the reflected glow of the city from the clouds.

Tikal 2: Un Maya con Hambre

A tunnel at Tikal Grupo G. It burrows about 6 meters into the side of a late-Classic palace, turns right 90 degrees and emerges in the courtyard. According to Michael Coe, this wall once wore a stucco relief depicting a giant monster mask, of which the tunnel was its mouth, but I haven’t found any pictures of it. The remains of a stucco serpent’s head are still visible on the lower right, but that’s it.

It was getting near dark. Mist all day had turned to a plopping, chilly rain. We hiked for half an hour in squelching shoes along the treacherously slippery moss and crumbled limestone of the Mendez Causeway, leading out from the central plaza to the Temple of the Inscriptions. The park closes at sunset. The forest was noisy, deep and enormous. There was no one else around.

We discussed half-jokingly the hunting habits of jaguars. A spooked deer crashed off into the forest; the noise made El Nubo nearly jump out of her skin. Then the howler monkeys started up, hooting like straightjacketed nutcases all around, and we started to get downright edgy.

We were chattering nervously about cutting down one of the enormous palm leaves that hang over the causeway to use as an umbrella, lamenting our lack of a machete, when three locals materialized out of the rain ahead. They carried rifles under their arms and didn’t wear any of the usual park rangers’ insignia. This, it seemed to me, was bad. Still nobody else in sight. The rangers and the guidebooks had warned not to enter the park at night without a guide. It used to be you could bribe a ranger to let you sleep overnight on the platform at the top of Temple IV, but those days are long gone.

Nubo has said that walking around Guatemala with me in tow made her noticeably less prone to catcalls and generally more comfortable venturing into areas less well-trodden by turistas. I am a big tall scary white guy, I guess, though in all other ways but appearance I am a mushy pushover. I had, however, formed the habit of carrying my large, L-shaped camera slung conspicuously underneath my shirt. It only occurred to me much later that to ye passerby, it sort of looks like I’m packing a handcannon.

Whether or not that illusory deterrent had anything to do with it, I don’t know. But to our immense relief, the three armed men smiled, said “Good afternoon,” and walked on by.

I figure they might have been poachers.

On the way back, we found Grupo G: a warren of moss-choked rooms, two-storied, forming a three-walled courtyard around the side of a wooded hill, covered with sapodilla and mahogany trees, which, chances are, probably has yet another ruin underneath it. We passed through the tunnel and poked about inside, studying a giant, many-chambered leafcutter anthill we found at the foot of the hill, feeling oddly comforted by the huge, crumbling walls that shielded us from the howls of the forest and the eyes of those dudes with guns.

As we were walking out, knowing we had a long way to go still to reach the entrance before nightfall, we met an indigeno guy pushing a baby in a stroller, with six kids scampering around behind him, teasing each other and laughing. These kids clearly had no fear, and their mood was contagious. One of them, a boy of ten or twelve, ran into the blackness of the dank tunnel behind us until he disappeared from sight. A moment later, his voice emerged from within, raised to a roar:

“ĄSoy un maya con hambre!”

Which means in English: “I am a hungry maya!”

I repeated this over and over, at an interval of every one or two minutes, all the way back to the gate, laughing myself to tears.


The money shot, looking east from the top of Temple IV. The scenes for the rebel base on the forest planet in the first Star Wars movie were shot here. Just imagine a couple of x-wings taking off out of the jungle.

Tikal is the second major Maya site I’ve visited, after Chichén Itzá. It was founded before 300 BC, reached its peak around 600 – 800 AD, and was abandoned by 1100. In between, it was conquered, razed and rebuilt at least three different times. You can tell. The faces of the kings on all these altars and stelae and statues have been chiseled off by the conquerors–like this dude, my Facebook dopplegaanger:

Tikal went down around the same time as the rest of the great lowland Maya city-states, and presumably for the same reasons: conspiracy theories and over-sanguine academic speculations aside, because they overpopulated, overtaxed their resources and consequently starved themselves out of power. In the 900 years since the Maya collapse, Tikal, El Mirador, Uaxactun and the dozens of other Maya sites that occupy the misty lowland region of Northern Guatemala known as El Peten have all been completely covered over with full-on, mature rainforest. As a result, I never really experienced that eerie sense of connectedness and presence I met with among the ruins of Yucatan. Instead, Tikal filled me with an awareness of time. 900 years. The trees–like the colossal ceiba just outside the gate–are as awe-inspiring as the temples: trunks seven feet across with root systems big enough to get lost in, canopies dotted with epiphytes, toucans and spider monkeys hundreds of feet overhead. The mist comes down in constant curtains. The stone steps of the temples are treacherous, slick with rain. Howler monkeys shriek past unseen in the distance at dusk, with all the deliberate, unstoppable pacing, the intensity and elemental inexorability of a thunderstorm. Moss covers everything–skulls included–and it doesn’t restrain itself to making them look all epic and cool. It devours them. Nature, in El Peten, gave humanity its chance. Then it came and took everything back.

The temples are still there, huge and steep and imposing, as are the stelae and the altars, the aqueducts, the limestone causeways running miles through the woods. But the artwork, the stucco reliefs and stone carvings that were so gloriously and spine-tinglingly evident at Chichén Itzá and Tulum–the ones that hadn’t already been defaced by the vicissitudes of war, anyway–have almost all been wiped away by rain, time, and the gods.

Temple V. Back in AD 700, at its construction, all that gray mush of rubble above the doorway was a super-complicated monolithic frieze depicting masks of kings, the gods of sun and rain.

If you zoom in on this photo (click on it), you can see on the far left the top of the rickety-ass, near-vertical, 180-foot wooden scaffolding you have to climb to get to the top (here–the wikipedia photo shows it better). This was fricking terrifying. The steps were all covered with rain and mud, slippery as hell. This dude who was there on his honeymoon climbed up maybe 20 steps before his wife made him give up and come down. Wisely, I left my wife at home. At the top, there’s maybe three feet of crumbling stone to stand on. While I was up there, this one lady made it up, took one step away from the ladder and collapsed into a ball of whimper until her people had to physically help her back down. I, on the other hand, was totally unfazed, and walked all the way around to the right side of the platform, where there was only a foot and a half of space between myself and death by rainforest canopy laceration, to take this:

Yes, I am indeed wicked tough. Thank you for noticing.

As you might guess, I have way more pictures. Maybe I’ll share some more of them a little later on.