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Today began our first deep look into Kaqchikel Maya history and cosmovision. We spent several hours at the Iximche archaeological park learning about this last postclassical Maya capital city prior to European invasion. The ruins reveal a complex ceremonial government, a confederation of the four most powerful ruling families of postclassical Maya. Each family had its own plaza with a temple to the Sun and a temple to the Moon, several open-air altars, palace hall for administration and living quarters. The highest two ranking families also had ballgame courts. The easternmost plaza was a ceremonial area (in Mayan cosmovision, East is the primary direction, being the origin of the sun’s daily journey)—more on this last place below.

The structure that resonated with me most was this altar in the shape of Q’uq’umatz, the feathered serpent deity who, in the Mayan creation story Popol Vuh, was one of the two gods who created human beings. The three-tiered circle represents the coiled body of the serpent with the rectangular block as his head. The serpent is coiled three times, one for each level of the cosmos through which he moves continuously, the underworld, the human plane, and the upper spiritual realm of gods and ancestors.

Mayan religion and spiritual practices have been persecuted with varying degrees of barbaric intensity for 500 years. That any of these traditions have survived to the present day is truly a testament to their strength and endurance as a people and a culture. In 1996 Mayans in Guatemala finally received full rights of freedom of religion, which includes the right to access and use historical places of ceremony, including those in archaeological parks. At the far eastern end of Iximche, where Mayan spiritual leaders long ago held ceremony, several altars have been rebuilt in the last two decades for contemporary use. Out of respect for practitioners, guests remain silent and photography is prohibited, but it gave me great joy and hope to see dozens of Mayan families coming with their children and elders to make offerings and prayers in the free light of day.