XIBALBA

Mayan word for Hell, meaning

'THE PLACE OF FRIGHT'

The Underworld

A JOURNEY THROUGH THE UNDERWORLD

       When it came time to depict the Devil in his Hell, I painfully recalled certain hallucinations I had while on the brink of insanity. The Devil himself had appeared to me in a fairly traditional Christian manner: with horns and cloven hooves. But, a lot of the Hellish imagery which also emerged at that time had a distinctively Aztec or Mayan tinge to it. Whenever I looked through books on Mesoamerican art, certain images would strike me with a dark resonance, as if reminding me of things I knew once but had forgotten. That sudden feeling of 'recognition' caused me to reproduce certain Aztec images in the underworld.
       As well, the Devil himself acquired Hindu and Buddhist features. I did all of this intuitively, and I'm still in the process of unravelling the meaning of these images.

two-headed serpents        As The Pearl neared completion, I viewed it under the influences of hashish. The result was an unexpected journey through its underworld imagery. I was led from image to image by my own feelings of fear - each image evoking a greater horror, causing me to shudder in fearful recognition. The journey began with the skull surrounded by knotted two-headed serpents (obscured by smoke in the final version), then descended the stairs to the right. Crossing under those stairs into absolute darkness, I re-ascended using the stairs on the left.
       In such an altered state, each image evokes the experience it portrays. The image of the skull, for example, did not only symbolize death - it was death. The skull appears at the entrance to the underworld because the only way to enter the land of the dead is through death - the (real or imagined) experience of our own departure. Such an experience, naturally, evokes a terrible fear. However, the serpents surrounding the skull remind us that there is no death without rebirth. By repeatedly shedding their skin, serpents manifest the cycle of death and rebirth. (Incidentally, these are actually two entwined serpents, each with a head on either end. For the meaning of the Aztec and Mayan two-headed serpent, read on...)

pulque shaman        The descent begins. The simple act of 'descending the stairs' evokes a whole series of childhood fears in me: fear of falling through the stairs, of what we may encounter below, of what lies beneath the stairs...
       The first image encountered is a Mayan pulque plant with a god, shaman, or saviour figure in its branches. He is holding a jar of hallucinogenic mushrooms, and has clearly lost his head. From within, a kind of vision serpent emerges.
       The Mayans were known to have used hallucinogenic mushrooms and the intoxicating pulque on their vision quests. But, in my case, the ingestion of such substances evokes a fair bit of anxiety. I fear 'losing my head', and becoming lost in the visions that emerge. Still, it is only by mastering these fears that we may descend further into the underworld.

death god        The descent continues. My fear of this figure is particularly intense. It evokes the earliest dream I can clearly remember - a childhood nightmare of descending the stairs to the basement because I heard a sound, like the streaming of water in the pipes after the toilet is flushed. And there, as a five-year old child, I beheld the source of that sound. I witnessed in absolute fear the spectacle of metallic skeletons streaming back and forth, impelled by a strange apparatus at their feet.
       Here, in an Aztec sculpture, I found a figure which accurately reproduces that horrific memory. He has a strange, metallic quality, and a hole where his heart should be. He stands at a turning in the stairs and we cannot see what lies at his feet. Meanwhile, his skeletal form and grinning skull clearly evoke our fear of death. This is the Aztec god of Death.
       Only by mastering our fear of death may we descend further down those stairs, and enter into absolute darkness.

devil        Crossing under the right set of stairs, we behold the principle figure in Hell, blazing with blackened light. I shudder in fear upon recognition of this figure, who I last saw while on the brink of insanity - the horned god with cloven hooves who stepped out from under the stairs...
       This image is the ultimate assemblance of my fears. Everything M. had experienced and taught me about fear, madness and death is here. Never have I been brought so close to death - in the form of taking my own life - as I had been on that evening when the Devil appeared to me in a spontaneous hallucination (not through any drug, but temporary insanity). The madness in M' gaze led me there. Her disappearance from my life had brought it about, and this was her devil.
       The little girl trapped in the devil's grip - was it her, was it me? The Devil upholding in his other two hands the Hindu yoni and lingam - symbols of sexual union. I don't know why Hindu and Buddhist iconography crept into my depiction of the Devil. But it is all there: the fearful cycle of sex and regeneration alternating between death and rebirth. The Devil is not committing this act with malice, but an absolute Buddhist calm. He possesses symmetry, balance, stillness, proportion, harmony, and repose, like a Bodhisattva with his shakti in his lap. It is negative and fear-inspiring, yet remains a symbol of unity.
       Amid all these fear-inspiring figures, the most fearful of all, the most maddening, accepts evil and cruelty with the utmost calm, because it recognizes them as a part of the cycle, part of a higher unity. We must not fear death. Nor must we fear abuse, cruelty, or evil. Here, in the lower world where Satan has rule, all of these fearful things are to be encountered, experienced, accepted, and overcome.

acolyte acolyte        Tragically, there are those who have encountered such images of horror, and yet, have never accepted or overcome them. Their hidden light and unity are never experienced, and so these remain images of fear, evil, and madness. Hence, their beholder remains trapped in the underworld, gazing at these images for all time in fearful fascination.
       The two acolytes before Satan have this quality: burning their incense in adoration of him. One is smiling and the other is frowning. Both are trapped in their gaze upon the greatest of horrors. Below them are two texts in ancient Greek. One text poses the disturbing question: Whence does evil come? And the other offers in response the warning: Do not fear the Devil.

birth goddess        The journey continues up the stairs on the left, where an Aztec Goddess of Birth appears. For those who have accepted these maddening images, the journey towards rebirth is possible. This rebirth, though painful to the extreme, is also a cleansing and purification. A return to the upper world is made possible.
       But the stairs which ascend also have railings with huge serpents - serpents which descend. The whole thing becomes a maddening game of 'snakes and ladders', in which the player may accidentally descend again against his will. (As a child, I was obsessed by the simple boardgame of 'snakes and ladders', but here the imagery from my childhood took on a much darker resonsance).

sex plant        Avoiding the serpents, the ascent continues. This strange 'sex plant' is not Aztec, but conjured forth from the depths of my own imagination. It parallels the pulque plant on the far right which is associated with intoxication. Perhaps its sexual imagery of penetration and impregnation evokes the lost memories of our own conception. In any event, it reminds us of the fearful cycle - of sex and regeneration alternating between death and rebirth.
       If we can but accept all of these images without fascination or fear, then we can fully ascend the stairs, quit the dark underworld, and behold the light of the pearl.

sky monster        Finally re-emerging into the overworld, we recognize the true meaning of the pearl: it is that which remains pure and untouched by evil and abuse. It passes through life, death, and rebirth, surviving each and remaining unchanged. It is the soul or atman, eternal life, the perfect remembrance of Unity.
       And yet, the threat of annihilation remains. Surrounding the pearl is the two-headed serpent or dragon. The head on the right is alive and devouring. The head on the left is a mere skull. The Aztecs and Mayans imagined that this two-headed sky serpent swallowed the sun each night. To complete its journey through the underworld, the sun required the blood and hearts of the sacrificed. In other words, it's movement though the underworld was impelled by human suffering. Only in this manner could the sun re-emerge the next morning: risen, reborn, renewed.
        The endless suffering brought on by the cycling sun's death and rebirth - this is one of the Aztecs' and Mayans' most cruel and maddening truths. And if we accept it, then we recognize that the pearl, like the sun, may be swallowed once more...

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