Princess of Yucatan: The Wind-Song Dance
Editor's Note: Here we are going to try something new... a serialized reprinting of a novel that we found on eBay: Princess of Yucatan by Alice Alison Lide, published in 1939 by Longman's, Green and Company out of New York and Toronto. The book was obviously researched heavily, as there are numerous (and interesting) references to Mayan lifestyles, locations and spirituality. We are, however, puzzled by a few things. As far as we know, the Aztecs did not set foot on the Yucatan Peninsula. But there were the Itzaes, who were "from the north" and definitely not Mayan, as the architecture indicates. And they did bring a ball game with them, that was played in Chichen Itza and around the Yucatan. Also, for some reason, the author felt she needed to make the protaganist, the Princess of the Yucatan, a blonde! But let us agree to overlook some of these obvious aberrations, because the rest of it might be fun... a little glimpse into the Mayan world as seen in the 1930's by an English speaking female author from the southern state of Alabama. We'll learn some things, I'm sure. Also, the drawings, which we will include, are charming, and are attributed to Carlos Sanchez M.
So, let's see how it goes! We welcome your comments, even if they are pointing out known fallacies and errors!
Chapter One: The Wind-Song Dance
Along the Yucatan road that led from the slave camp into the conquered city of Chichen Itza, tramped a line of burden bearers, backs bowed beneath great bundles of vine-fiber ropes that were to be used by the stone lifters at work on the new temple to Kulkulcan. Last in line moved Nakah, lithe of figure, and with a glint of gold in the hair, and a fairness of skin most strange in a land of olive cheeks and black locks.Though garbed in masculine attire of coarse tunic and clumsy sandals of deer hide, this Nakah was a girl, one of the Mayan bond-people -- a people that for more than a century had lived and toiled in the slave camp of Chichen Itza.
It was back in the Ix Year of the Mayan Era that the Aztec conquerors of the Yucatan Peninsula laid down the javelin and the deadly maquahuitl and took up the chisel and the hammer. At least, under the lordly Aztec supervision, the conquered Mayan tribe of Itza took up the tools of peace and labored for their masters.
Already a marvelous culture had flourished in Yucatan. A thousand and a thousand years before, the Mayas of Central America had emerged from the age of crude stone implement and chipped flint knife into an elaborate civilization that expressed itself in wrought gold, sculptured stone, paved roads, the finest of weaving, books full of painted word symbols, and even a knowledge of the stars.
Then down out of Mexico had swept the warlike Aztecs, overrunning the land, subduing, conquering. The invaders absorbed the arts of the conquered ones, but kept to their own terrible worship of dread Huitzilopochtli, the war-god of the Aztecs, and Kulkulcan, the deity of the feathered serpent. Even in Chichen Itza, sacred city of the Mayas, Aztec shrines were set up. Here the wild, fierce Aztec priesthood sacrificed Mayan slaves on their bloody altars. The famous cenote, or holy well, into which the priests of the Mayan religion had cast offerings of garlands and jewels, now under the Aztec rule often received into its sacrificial depths a beautiful maiden, taken usually from the slave people.
Yet ground down as they were in poverty and oppression, the Itzan tribe-folk clung to the old faith. In his heart, the Itzan worshipped his own god, Hunal-Ku (note: we're pretty sure this should be Hunab-Ku, but this is how it was written in the book), the One Supreme God, and a host of lesser deities. And a hope of religious freedom had somehow been kept alive in the bond-people's breasts by generations of slave prophets.
Within the walls of Chichen Itza, the sun gilded temple and palace. Breezes played softly through the court of a thousand columns set amid palm and acacia. The Aztec lords here took their ease in gardens blossoming with purple of mimosa and golden allamandas, where were walks of inlaid tile, seats of carved porphyry, the plash (note: nope, not a typo!) of fountains.
Only a few times in her young life had Nakah been within the splendid city that her own ancestors had founded. Now the slave girl shifted her burden and lifted her head so that she might gaze with all her eyes. Before her rose buildings of dazzling white, colossal pyramids of finely chiseled stone with high altar flames burning a-top, temples with sculptured pillars, square towers, and the famous Round Tower of the Winds from which the astronomers were wont to observe the sun and the moon and the stars. These sights were a magnificence in stone.
But right at hand, in the city plaza, was spread a sight of living magnificence -- the trade and barter and commerce and arts of a people. Here were groups of dark merchants who had traveled in from walled cities on the coast, bringing salt-sea delicacies of great pots of devilfish for stews, lobsters, snails, iguanas, tortoises, in huge wickerwork baskets.
Other merchants from the mountain and forest country were calling their wares of sandals made of deer hide and wood and henequen; baskets, ropes, hammocks, painted gourds; green jewels as big as peas, turquoise, fiery opals.
Out on the plaza rim, humbler artists were plying their own particular trades. Here were barbers, carefully snipping off dark locks with sharp obsidian knives, while their assistants with hot steaming cloths were busy at discouraging the growing down on little boys faces. When these little boys happened to be the sons of high and mighty Aztec officials, they usually brought along the family jugglers to do tricks to furnish diversion when the steam cloths grew overly hot.
Then the food sellers! What trays of sweetmeats, guava and candied sweet-roots and chicle gum! On little three-cornered stoves of stone, women were baking fish and bananas and stir-ups of meal wrapped in corn husks. Others went in for fancy fare of little folded cakes of corn, some cunningly stuffed with savory ground seeds, others centered with sweet dabs of wild honey.
"Buy! Buy!" shouted the hucksters. Everywhere money was changing hands, money in such a variety of forms -- shell money, cacao-bean money, quills of gold dust, rare red coins of the copper that was more scarce than gold.
Through all this busy magnificence moved the bowed-back slave band. Nakah, tag-end of the line of burden bearers, lingered a bit, wrinkling her nose in delight at the smells. Oc-na! How good the cakes and honey savories smelled! They made her very insides ache with hunger. If only she had so much as a shell of her own to spend!
But anyway, the music was free, slave ears could listen to that. The pack train was threading the far end of the busy plaza now, and Nakah nodded her head in time to the beat, beat, beat of the wooden drums that stood before a little group of music-makers. Now the blare of horns and rattle of gourd castanets quickened the tempo. Now singers lifted their voices in song:
"Xoc yethaz u hol u,
Xoc ik, ahlo, yecil..."
(note: Want to try your hand at translating this? Try here...)
Words that told of wind-song, bird-song, night-song, rain-song, old, old words, and the music, too, borrowed by these Aztec singers from the conquered Mayan folk.
Nakah knew that song. Her grandfather, old blind Copan, had taught it to her, along with the little ritual of a dance meant to be stepped to its measure.
Thr-um, thr-um. How the drums called! Before she quite knew what she was doing, Nakah had dropped her burden of twisted fiber off her young shoulders, lifted head and hands, and begun to dance, to dance in the old, old ritual -- bow to the east, bow to the west, stamp for the darkness, whirl for the wind.
Faster, faster beat the music. Faster, faster moved the girl, arms posturing, body bending, and now whirling, whirling, whirling, til her strange fair hair escaped its headcloth and flung out like a halo about her head, as golden glinting as the great sacred symbol of the sun itself.
Dance, dance -- then a chill as of something evil shook the girl. A quick turnabout, and she looked straight into the eyes of a black-robed man. Ai! That one's gaze was enough to freeze the blood. A priest from the Aztec temple, one of those cruel ones that served dread gods...
Ducking down to snatch up her bundle of vine-fiber, the slave girl made off through the crowd as fast as she could run. This way, and that, she dodged -- anything to leave behind the cold cruel gaze of the black-robed one. Finally she brought up, panting, resting long enough to bind back her hair out of her hot face. Ehen! But she must get her bearings, quit dashing about like a scared iguana hunting a rock crevice. Ai, now she was going right. On ahead loomed the greatest mass of stone masonry in the whole city, the vast new temple to Kulkulcan that the Aztecs were building, using a thousand Mayas for laborers. Mayas to cut stone, lift stone, lug sand and lime, and wield carving chisels as none else could handle them. Ek, even Mayan women to bring in an endless supply of drag ropes of twisted forest fibers. And as for Nakah, if she didn't hurry and gain her place again in the pack train, Xoclut the Aztec would beat her for a laggard when he did lay hands on her again.
Struggle as she might, though, she now made small headway. Because of some excitement ahead, the crowd jammed back in a mass, wedging her in its midst.
She tiptoed, craned her neck. Ah -- that was it; the attendants of an Aztec lady were clearing a wide passageway through the crowd for their mistress's litter. It must be a very great lady. The score of serving men moved forward, swinging their staves. Behind them came the litter, carved, gilded, with a fringe of plumes around its canopy top. Within reclined her ladyship, her skin as satiny smooth as the inner peel of a nispero fruit, her robes of softest pita cloth. Jade and jewels flashed in the sun, perfume drifted on the breeze.
Even after the litter and its beautiful burden had passed on, Nakah stood still, sniffing delightedly. Then she, herself, moved forward, but at a mere ambling pace. No use to run any more. She'd get that beating anyway. So, right now, she might as well see what she could -- and enjoy it.
As she trod northward along a fine street paved in crushed stone, shout from a sunken court off to the side rose upward, mingled with the shouts of onlookers on the broad stone paving that surrounded the place. Unresisting, she was swept sideways along this street, with a mass of other travelers who seemed determined to see what they could of the excitement going on down below. Now and again, when bodies shifted, she wriggled her small self forward, looked down for all she was worth, and thrilled to what she saw. Ehen! But thhis must be tlaztli, that strange game from Tenochtitlan that the Aztecs brought with them into Yucatan. And what a place they had built to play it in -- a grand paved court a hundred paces long, with walls fifty hand-spans high. Almost at the top of each end-wall, there projected forward over the court a huge ring of carved stone. Across the game ground itself, swarmed two teams of players wearing nothing but their hip-length kilts and headcords. One band wore red head-cords, the other, green. Now the "Greens" had the great rubber ball, now the "Reds". A point in the game seemed to be for a player to catch the ball on his hip and bounce it in the desired direction. Another point was to hurl the ball upward so as to pass through one of the high-set stone rings.
The Green captain had the ball, hurled it upward -- ah, wondrous throw, it was going to center the ring! But no, it grazed an edge, fell to the ground amidst the mingled shouts and groans of the onlookers. Those that groaned evidently had set wagers on the throw and, when it failed, they began to pass over money, jewels, even portions of their clothing to those with whom they had wagered.
Now a red-banded player had the ball, was hurling it, and Nakah found herself shouting with the rest. But what the end was she didn't see. A surging movement in the crowd swept her from her vantage point.
Ek! -- she must be on her way! She went forward at a trot and made no pause till she was at the very foot fo the great stone-faced pyramid upon whose flattened pinnacle the new temple of Kukulcan was being built. This huge new temple was having its walls set so as to entirely enclose the small Mayan temple that had stood here through unnumbered centuries.
The girl halted, looked about her for some proper person to whom she could hand over her load. One portico of the temple had been completed, a beauty spot of tall columns and carved frieze. The rest of the the project was a hive of labor. Itzan bondsmen, bent beneath heavy sacks of sand, toiled to the summit of the pyramid. To shouted orders, yells and grunts, the great white limestone blocks were dragged by ropes up slides of eath and swung into place by hundreds of hands. Chip, chip went chisels of nephrite, carving snake heads and warrior faces on stone blocks. Then came the wine of ropes cutting through other stone blocks, as with vast labor and the plentiful use of sand and water in the grooves, these were divided by friction into various sizes.
But now Nakah turned her eyes from the sight of hard, driven toil, stood watching a colorful procession mount the broad stone stairs that led up the side of the pyramid to the finished portico of columns that crowned the western exposure of the temple. Some shorter statured Mayas marched between the taller Aztecs; here came robed priests bearing banners and torches; musicians stirred the pulse with horns and drums; plumes waved, the sweet smell of burning incense rose from a hundred swinging bowls.
Nakah, burden still on her shoulder, tipped back her head to watch, fascinated by movement, color and sound.
Then, before she could shut her eyes, it happened -- a sacrifice, blood shed before her terror-wide gaze! A Maya out of that procession was thrown across the new temple's stone of sacrifice. Glint of sun on knife as the high priest slashed the victim's bosom, snatched out the bleeding, palpitating heart, and waved it aloft with a loud shrieking chant.
With a choking wail, Nakah turned about, ran, ran. Her pack bundle slid off. She made no pause or search, only ran on the faster, dodging main streets, zigzagging through lane and alleyway, darting through the citygate, plunging into the woodland path that led back, back toward the sprawling ugly camp of the slave people.